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Scarecrow: The art of deception

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“Misdirection, what the eyes see, and the ears hear – the mind believes” – John Travolta from the movie “Swordfish”, quoting Harry Houdini

Scarecrow graphic from the 1963 Disney movie ‘The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh.”

School is in session. The world is being treated to a postgraduate level course in Psychological Operations (PSYOP) and Military Deception (MILDEC) hosted by the Ukrainian Department of Defense.

A few weeks ago, the Russians monitored a Ukrainian buildup in southern Kherson Province. Anticipating a Ukrainian attack in the south, the Russians subsequently thinned out their eastern defenses to reinforce the south. That is precisely what the Ukrainians wanted them to do. It was all part of a carefully crafted ruse.

On 6 September, the Ukrainians attacked, pouring through the weakened defenses east of Kharkiv City in the northeast resulting in a catastrophic setback for Putin’s forces. The vaunted Russian 1st Guard Tank Army (1 GTA) was routed, leaving most of their equipment behind. The Russian troops ran away, leaving their dinners cooking on the stove and over 300 tanks, and fled east.

The attack caught the Russian command completely by surprise. Many soldiers simply threw off their uniforms, donned civilian clothes, and drove off in stolen cars and bicycles to evade capture.

The Ukrainian attack was the main ingredient in a carefully spun ruse carried out for several months by Ukrainian PSYOP teams and influence operators. Throughout the summer, the Ukrainians were signaling their intention to launch a counteroffensive in the south aimed at retaking Kherson. The ruse entailed frequent artillery barrages coupled with advancing troop movements toward Kherson interwoven with an elaborate PSYOP campaign. The Russians bought it.

That opened the door for Ukrainian forces farther north.

Once the Russians shifted the preponderance of their effort to Kherson, the Ukrainians quietly moved their northern forces into position. Once the Intel picture was clear, the Ukrainian brigades raced through Russian camps pushing their tanks and infantry through holes in the Russian lines and crashing into Russian rear areas.

In the 5th Century BCE Sun Tzu wrote: “Military commanders must set up decoys and feign confusion to cause the enemy to miscalculate our intentions. All warfare is based on deception.”

A sample of Ukrainian Influence Operations:
Earlier this summer, the Ukrainians took a page right out of General Eisenhower’s D-Day playbook. Ukrainian forces employed dummy tanks, fake artillery, “Scarecrow soldiers” and fake radio traffic and social media chatter to fool the Russians.

Their use of Scarecrows or mannequins dressed in military fatigues was most impressive. The scarecrows were strapped to trees and armed with fake rifles and rocket launchers to trick Russian aerial reconnaissance. “Scarecrow soldiers” carrying mock portable anti-aircraft missiles routinely fooled Russian pilots wary of being shot out of the sky by Stinger-type missiles. As soon as the pilots spotted the scarecrows with stinger missile platforms, they departed the area hastily. The last thing Russian pilots want is to be shot down over Ukrainian territory.

The use of scarecrows and wooden decoys near Kherson diverted Russian attention away from the true Ukrainian objectives. The confusing ruse also acted to pin down the Russians in the south, ensuring they did not make a push against the Ukrainian staging areas in the north. Meanwhile, Russian forces continued to target wooden replicas they believed to be high-value artillery and rocket. systems. As a result, they expended valuable high-tech missiles against dummy targets, systematically reducing their inventories for use against Ukraine’s actual forces.

 

Ukrainian success with this ruse is remarkable considering Russians traditionally pride themselves as masters of “maskirovka” [military deception]. The Ukrainian forces ironically turned Russia’s PSYOP playbook against them. The extensive use of dummy systems allowed the Ukrainians to protect their High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) for use against high-value Russian targets.

The rocket systems given to them by the United States have recently destroyed rail hubs, large Russian ammunition and fuel dumps in southern Kherson. That made them a priority target for the Russians. That also furthered the ruse that the Ukrainian attack would be in the south. The inexpensive decoys are nearly indistinguishable from the real systems when spotted by Russian drones or helicopters. The drones relay battlefield intelligence to headquarters resulting in Russian warships needlessly expending precision cruise missiles against them. You know your ruse is effective when the Russian news media claims to have hit more HIMARS that the U.S. has sent Ukraine.

Ukrainian PSYOP and the use of social media

When you are outnumbered, you must reach into your asymmetric bag of tricks and find alternatives. Ukrainian telecom specialists have been using hacked telephone databases to track down the personal communications of Russian soldiers on the front line. Many of these exchanges were recorded and posted on social media platforms. The interaction with the Russians fostered the use of leaflet drops on front line Russian positions.

Ukrainian Leaflets: The social media interaction confirmed that the Russian soldiers lacked the will to fight and just wanted to go home. The Ukrainian PSYOP campaign preyed upon that vulnerability. Below is an example of Ukrainian Leaflets disseminated to Russian front-line troops with instructions on how to escape and surrender:

No One Wants This War
We will help you get out safely.
1. Wait until your boss is busy.
2. Quietly walk away, don’t run.
Call 1648 or (044) 287 81 65.
Come up with your arms raised to the Ukrainian checkpoints on the line of contact with this flier.
The Ukrainian side guarantees your safety and good treatment!
We will give you food and the opportunity to get in touch with your relatives

Simultaneous Information Campaign aimed at Belarus:
Putin has continually pressed his Belarus ally in the north to launch a supporting offensive into Ukraine. Obviously, Ukraine doesn’t want that. So far, Minsk remains a non-combatant, but to sustain that thinking, Ukraine PSYOP used a rather ingenious tactic. The Ukrainians routinely send all Russian war dead taken from the battlefield to Belarus for transport back to Russia. These shipments of war dead, known colloquially as “Cargo 200,” travel out of Ukraine and into Belarus daily. We’re talking about hundreds of dead Russians continually streaming into Belarus. You can imagine the effects. The influence campaign is working. Belarus doesn’t want any part of that meat grinder. Consequently, they have remained on the sidelines.

The overall Ukrainian influence campaign is comprised of multiple interwoven functions: spreading disinformation, jamming communications, deception, and creating narratives through selective photos, video clips, and news releases to get inside the mind of the enemy. This dark art blends techniques in both the physical and information domains. The combination of battlefield successes and PSYOP go hand-in-hand. As Ukrainian battlefield successes mount, their influence campaign becomes more believable.

The Impact on Russian morale: The destruction of the 1st Guards Tank Army has forced Vladimir Putin to issue a call for 30,000 new volunteers. Battlefield losses don’t usually aid in recruiting.

Who wants to join a losing team? In the short term, these untrained recruits will be little help on the battlefield anyway. Training a tank crew takes at least 6 months. The 300-plus Russian pieces of hardware abandoned on the battlefield over the past several days won’t be easy to replace either.

Stories of defeat are spreading through the army and to relatives back home. Russia’s propaganda machine will not be able to contain the truth. Intercepted communications from Russian soldiers speak of fuel and food shortages, dead comrades, and logistical nightmares that adversely affect morale. The Ukrainian PSYOP department knows this and are piling on. Russians are losing the will to fight.

The territory Russia captured in Ukraine over seven months, at the cost of tens of thousands of Russian casualties, has been lost in a week. Putin has fired most of his senior military leadership.

The last one was fired after only three weeks in charge. Who wants that job? The troops have little trust in Russia’s senior military leadership.

With 1-GTA and other commands degraded, Russia’s conventional forces are severely weakened. It will likely take years for Russia to rebuild this capability.

All told, Ukraine has retaken around 2,300 square miles of its territory since the start of September. A little ruse can go a long way.

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Commentary: Let’s not whitewash the racism from American history

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Heart Mountain towers at the end of “F” Street, the main thoroughfare of the Heart Mountain Relocation Center.(Tom Parker / National Archives at College Park, public domain)

 

My father grew up on a farm in San Jose that my grandfather had to put in the names of his two oldest sons, because California banned migrants from owning land. The reason behind the state’s Alien Land Law was racism.

It was racism that enabled my Japanese American relatives to immigrate to the United States in the first place: A young nation desperate for workers had banned the immigration of all Chinese in 1882 and looked to Japan as a source of cheap labor.

Finally, it was racism that led the federal government to expel my parents’ families from California in 1942 and incarcerate them in a concentration camp in Wyoming for the duration of World War II.

But if the Virginia Board of Education dominated by appointees of Gov. Glenn Youngkin has its way, the racism at the root of many incidents in American history will fade away.

The recent release of Standards of Learning for history and social science for Virginia does include the Japanese American incarceration during World War II but avoids mentioning the racism that led to it.

It’s true that 125,000 people of Japanese descent, two-thirds of them U.S. citizens, were forced from their homes and businesses on the West Coast in reaction to the imperial Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. But the conditions that enabled that expulsion, which ruined the lives of countless families, had existed for years before then.

Politicians and business leaders had fulminated against immigrants for years, blaming them without evidence for bringing disease and threatening the livelihoods of white Americans. Some Caucasian residents placed signs on their homes that proclaimed that “this is a white man’s neighborhood.” Others resented the success of the Japanese American farmers who coaxed rich harvests out of marginal land.

Pearl Harbor provided them the pretext to eliminate the Asian immigrants they had resented for years.

My father’s family had to sell their 14.25-acre farm in San Jose for just pennies on the dollar. My oldest uncle, who was a doctor in the U.S. Army, had to leave his base in Arkansas to sign the papers at a notary public in a nearby town.

My mother’s father lost his store in Oakland, and they lost their home in San Francisco. It took them years to recoup what they had lost.

The government never presented any evidence that Japanese Americans posed a security threat on the West Coast. In Hawaii, where the Pearl Harbor attack actually happened and where Japanese Americans were a large plurality of the population, there was no large-scale incarceration.

On the mainland, where there were large populations of German and Italian nationals, there was no mass incarceration of those two Caucasian communities.

After the war, my parents’ families rebuilt their lives and finances. My parents assimilated into white-dominated society. As a child in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I knew very few Asian Americans. I captained the cheerleading squad, led the forensics team and eventually became a lawyer. I was the first Asian American president of the DC Bar.

It was only after my mother’s death in 2005 that I learned of her commitment to build a museum on the site of where she, my father and their families were incarcerated in Heart Mountain, Wyoming. Now, I chair the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, which operates a museum on the site.

We remain committed to making sure what happened there never happens again. We often host school groups at our museum to tell them about our history. For three years running, we have received National Endowment for the Humanities grants to bring 72 teachers a year from around the country to Heart Mountain so they can teach their students about what really happened.

Some of those teachers have been from Virginia, which has its own tragic history with race. We teach them and others that racism was a huge part of what led to the Japanese American incarceration.

That will not change, regardless of what Virginia’s board concludes, because history doesn’t bend for a politician’s agenda. I urge board members to reconsider how they examine this and other critical parts of our great nation’s long and often-troubled past.

 

By Shirley Ann Higuchi
Guest Column, Virginia Mercury

Shirley Ann Higuchi is a Washington, D.C., attorney and past president of the District of Columbia Bar. She chairs the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation (www.heartmountain.org), which runs an interpretive center at the site of the camp where her parents were imprisoned. She is the author of “Setsuko’s Secret: Heart Mountain and the Legacy of the Japanese American Incarceration,” released in 2020 by the University of Wisconsin Press. 


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Commentary: If times are so good and Virginia’s flush with tax money, why do we feel so poor?

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Gov. Glenn Youngkin ceremonially signed Virginia’s latest two-year spending plan at an event in Short Pump in June 2022. (Kate Masters / Virginia Mercury)

 

Sometimes it just hurts to watch the constant yammering about the economy, particularly on those dry-as-dust cable networks like CNBC and Bloomberg, with anchors and analysts conversing in Wall Street jargon and wringing their hands over inflation and every stumble and leap in the markets.

It takes a toll. The economy – specifically inflation – was the top concern of 31% of those who voted in the midterm elections last month, just ahead of abortion at 27%, according to national exit polling.

Faith in the economy tanked from March through May of 2020 with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. And it was warranted. The deadly new virus to which humans had no acquired immunity and for which we lacked vaccines set off a wave of panic with an apocalyptic feel.

Hospitals were overrun. Unemployment hit levels unseen since the Great Depression. Supply chains disintegrated. Businesses, large and small, failed, in many cases wiping out families’ livelihoods and savings. Governments imposed moratoria on foreclosures and evictions during the depth of the crisis in hopes of forestalling, if not preventing, massive homelessness.

Many of those hit hardest, people on the margins financially, have yet to recover. Federal infusions of cash into the economy provided a safety net of sorts, but those are over, and legal protections against evictions are expiring.

But as a whole, the economy hasn’t done badly, at least as it is reflected in the taxes people pay to Virginia’s treasury.

I became a state budget nerd more than two decades ago when I started tracking monthly revenue summaries by keying them into a spreadsheet to augment my reporting on Virginia’s finances in the early years of the 21st century. I never intended it to go on and on and on, but it did, and I’ve cataloged that data for every major category of general fund tax collections every month since.

Over time – 276 months, counting October’s results – those numbers tell some interesting and important stories about Virginia’s booms, busts, and everything in between.

First, a little background for people who lead interesting lives. Virginia’s whole fiscal kit and caboodle for budgeting purposes consist of two primary buckets of revenue: the general fund and the non-general fund.

The non-general fund is the larger of the two, but that money is largely a pass-through, derived from specific sources such as fees, federal grants, fuel taxes, tuition at state-supported colleges, business licenses, and profits from the state monopoly on liquor sales, to name just a few. Non-general fund money is already spoken for, earmarked by law for specific uses.

The general fund underwrites state government operations, which include law enforcement, state employee salaries, state support for local public schools, and mental health services. More than two-thirds of it comes from state income taxes. Since the money is discretionary — that is, its specific use isn’t prescribed by law — it causes the General Assembly’s most protracted disputes. This year’s standoff lasted until June 1, just four weeks before the previous budget expired at the stroke of midnight on June 30, a record surplus notwithstanding.

Because it’s overwhelmingly drawn from personal income, the general fund is an excellent statistical reflection of the commonwealth’s economic health. The past two fiscal years, which start each July 1 and end the next June 30, have been off the charts after the tepid fiscal year of 2020.

In fiscal years 2021 and 2022, total general fund revenues climbed year over year by 14% and 16%, respectively, after a mere 2% increase for fiscal 2020. The only comparable fiscal year since 2000 was a 15% spike in fiscal 2005, the apex of a white-hot economy fueled by a lusty run-up in the real estate market that collapsed three years later, hurtling the nation into the Great Recession.

Hard dollar numbers, however, tell a more convincing story than percentages.

Through fiscal 2020, year-over-year general revenue had increased by $1 billion or more just six times this century, the largest being just under $1.8 billion in fiscal 2005. In fiscal 2021, however, revenue was $3.1 billion greater than the year before, and in the fiscal year that ended this June, it exceeded fiscal 2021’s total by $4 billion. In both of those years, actual collections obliterated official revenue estimates on which budgeted spending was based.

The first quarter of the current fiscal year picked up where fiscal 2022 left off. General tax collections from July through September totaled about $5.6 billion, down slightly from $5.9 billion in the same period the previous year but eclipsing $5 billion for the same quarter three years in a row.

So what does this wonky number soup mean?

Terry Rephann, a regional economist with the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, suggests that it’s the result of wage inflation. He points to data presented to the legislature’s budget-writing committees at their annual retreat last month to back him up.

The presentation said that wages grew by 9.3% in Virginia in the fiscal year that ended June 30 as businesses large and small struggled to rehire staff lost during the pandemic. Wage growth in the previous two fiscal years was 3% and 4.7%, respectively.

Those collections are known as “withholding” revenues, and wage earners recognize them from their pay stubs as the bite already sent off to state and federal governments.

The wild card is the so-called “non-withholding” income taxes paid on capital gains and by the self-employed on their estimated earnings. A stratospheric stock market drove freakish year-over-year non-withholding increases of 31% for each of the past two fiscal years. Over the previous 21 fiscal years, year-over-year average growth was 6%. The trajectory of the past two years of non-withholding collections is unsustainable, a presentation by the House Appropriations Committee staff warned.

So while Virginians make – and tax collectors take – more than ever, how come we feel poorer?

According to Forbes Advisor, the price of meat, fish, and poultry has been up 8% over the past 12 months. Electricity is up 14%, natural gas is up 20%, rent is up 7.5%, and fruits and veggies are up 9.3%. And if you just want to get away, gasoline is 50 cents a gallon higher than it was in mid-2021, though down from this summer’s high of around $5 a gallon. Airline tickets cost 43% more.

It wears people down, and it can make an electorate surly. You can earn enough political science degrees to paper a wall and never hear truer, more actionable wisdom than this: “People vote their pocketbooks.” You don’t need exit polls to know that, either.

 

by Bob Lewis, Virginia Mercury

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at blewis@virginiamercury.com.


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Commentary: The parable of the Bambino

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Virginia Board of Education President Daniel Gecker, a former Gov. Terry McAuliffe appointee, listened to a presentation by Jillian Balow, superintendent of public instruction, at the November 17 Board of Education business meeting. (Nathaniel Cline/Virginia Mercury)

Babe Ruth’s home run record was sure to fall sooner or later. Roger Maris broke Ruth’s 60-homer single-season record with his 61st home run of the 1961 season. Hank Aaron broke Ruth’s career homer record of 714 in 1974 with his 715th career dinger. Now, those broken records have been surpassed.

Somehow, though, Ruth remains distinct and immortal. Here’s one reason why.

It was the fifth inning of game three in the 1932 World Series at Wrigley Field, with the Yankees and Cubs tied 4-4. Ruth had taken two strikes, and the Chicago crowd roared as the Cubs dugout taunted him. The Babe pointed to the flagpole beyond centerfield. On the next pitch, a curveball, he hit it exactly where he had pointed – an estimated 50 feet beyond the centerfield fence 440 feet away.

Ruth made good on his gesture. The Yankees swept the series in four games.

But the Babe didn’t crawl out of the cradle, knocking baseballs out of the park. He had the physical gifts, yes, but he took the time to learn the fine points of the game and perfected his ability to terrorize pitchers on the mound 60 feet, six inches away. Maybe there’s a lesson in this for the governor, even though he’s a basketball guy.

Youngkin, a Republican, won the 2021 governor’s race by positioning himself as a solutions-oriented pragmatist, apart from the snarling nationalism that became his party’s brand during former President Donald Trump’s White House years.

He picked the perfect wedge issue, too: public education. Specifically, Youngkin promised to prioritize parents’ concerns and prerogatives among those who set public school policy and curriculum. After the profound pandemic disruptions in 2020-21 and the 2020 summer of racial tumult following George Floyd’s videotaped curbside murder by a white policeman, Youngkin’s message found resonance not only in Republican rural Virginia but also with households in the centrist suburbs that for years had decisively favored Democrats.

He accused schools of indoctrinating students with “critical race theory,” a college-level academic concept that every Virginia school division denied teaching. He sided with parents who objected to accommodations that schools were making for transgender students and books with mature themes that were in school libraries or made assigned reading for students. He criticized school district requirements that students wear masks to slow the coronavirus spread when they returned to classrooms from months of remote learning.

The afternoon he took office, Youngkin opened fire on those issues in several of the 11 executive actions he signed. He proclaimed that “woke” instruction was doomed and that teaching “inherently divisive concepts” would end once his appointees took over the State Board of Education and could promulgate new curriculum standards.

All of which His Excellency had an absolute right to do. Elections have consequences, and to the victor go the spoils. But a little humility and even more listening and learning go a long way for a layman about to swagger into a minefield as important and complex as statewide education policy.

Over the past two weeks, as the Mercury and other outlets have reported, the governor’s education team has barged into the public school policy arena with hastily drawn revisions to the state’s history/social sciences guidelines and all the grace of an agitated moose in an antique glassware boutique. It hasn’t gone well.

The backstory goes like this. Every seven years, the State Board of Education is required to update the minimum expectations for what K-12 public students should learn in documents known as the Standards of Learning. The ponderous, drawn-out process for updating the history standards, begun during the term of Democratic former Gov. Ralph Northam, yielded a 402-page tome that the board, once Youngkin’s appointees took charge, returned to state Superintendent Jillian Balow in August for additional work. That revision, guided by an outside education consultant, was just 53 pages.

All hell broke loose when it was presented to the board last week. In a long public input session during the nearly eight-hour meeting, the new Cliff’s Notes draft was pilloried by teachers, parents, community groups, and historians as a “whitewash” of history that glosses over the nation’s fraught racial past and minimizes the contributions and perspectives of marginalized and Indigenous people (euphemized as “America’s first immigrants”) and communities of color.

Conservatives and parents’ rights advocates warmed to the brief version for its promotion of free market precepts and limited government. But not even the Youngkin-friendly new board was on board.

According to the Washington Post, Youngkin appointee Andy Rotherham moved to postpone reviewing the new standards, noting apparent lapses on some historical topics, including the anti-slavery abolition movement. Two-term Democratic appointee Anne Holton, a daughter of a Republican governor and wife to a Democratic one, called the November rewrite “a disaster.” She also noted that President Ronald Reagan is referenced six times in the new draft, yet the nation’s first Black president, Barack Obama, is not mentioned.

“Where we sit today, we are so far away from an established process that I am concerned that we’ve lost our way — quite candidly as a board — in terms of directing what’s supposed to be going on,” Daniel Gecker, the board president, said during the meeting.

So now, the board has tasked Balow, and the Department of Education with re-revising the latest revision, restoring some content dropped from the voluminous August draft, correcting typos, omissions, and inaccuracies, and assembling a “crosswalk” document that compares and correlates competing drafts. (The Post already published such a comparison.)

Since then, the contretemps has escalated. An author of books about education who had been a College of William & Mary instructor objected so deeply to being characterized as an expert who had been consulted on the latest standards draft that she took to Twitter to warn of litigation if the claim wasn’t retracted and her very limited role clarified.

There’s a serious need for comprehensive, accurate, quality instruction in history, for thoroughgoing studies into the society we share and for baseline training in American civics – how our democratic republic works. The latest SOL scores show how far our students’ knowledge of those essential American disciplines has slid.

The number of students in the past school year who passed history and social studies SOL exams declined 14% overall from pre-pandemic levels, with steeper drops for marginalized and economically disadvantaged groups. In a nation founded on the premise of an informed, self-governing electorate, there is clear urgency behind the task of restoring comprehensive, first-rate instruction for new generations.

Governor, gaining at least a baseline awareness of what you don’t know before you go to bat can spare you a lot of embarrassment.

When the Bambino stood at the plate 90 years ago in Chicago, stared down the Cubs’ pitcher, and brazenly pointed to the centerfield flagpole, he’d been there before and knew exactly what to do. The rest is baseball lore.

But perhaps some wisdom from basketball and arguably its greatest practitioner, Bill Russell, would best serve the governor: “We overreached our decision power. Sometimes our decisions have to fit the reality of the outside world.”

 

by Bob Lewis, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Blind Squirrel Finds Nut

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Great news to read in the Royal Examiner that the Council voted to fill the Town Manager and Town Attorney positions with Joe Waltz and George Sonnett, respectively.

Over the last several years, it appears we have seen the members of the Town Council make poor decisions that may have leaned toward self-interest that did not necessarily benefit the community. There has been little focus on the real issues, such as future water supply and infrastructure, or a real plan on how to attract both industrial and commercial businesses to pay living wages.

Even a blind squirrel can find a nut sometimes, which is what happened with our Council in selecting Mr. Walsh as Town manager and George Sonnett as Town Attorney. It does indicate that this lame-duck Council can make a decision that has a good long-term effect on the stability and growth of our community. Great strategic move.

Joe did an outstanding job during his first run as Town Manager and left for a better opportunity during the past three years. The town’s decision to bring him back on board is a wise decision because of Joe’s experience. As a result of his previous tenure, his selection offers very little downtime to get to know our community. Over the last several years, taxpayers have footed significant costs for the fees paid to consultants who bring qualified candidates to the table and the time required to go through the screening process.

This common-sense solution solved the challenge of sourcing candidates who would want to move to our unique rural community. Mr. Waltz brings his past Front Royal expertise along with his recently acquired experience to help us move away from the revolving door of town managers.

This will give the new incoming Council a great jump-start to focus on the real issues facing our community. And we will now have someone in the Town Manager’s office who has existing institutional knowledge of the town.

With the new Council coming on board in January and the addition of both Waltz and Sonnett in place, this should begin the process of change that we know needs to happen for the future success of our community. I’m excited about the potential; we need our citizens to support their efforts moving forward.

Michael Graham
Front Royal, Virginia

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An example of an Egyptian feminist for Iran today

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historically speaking

With all that is going on in our nation, it is understandable if you have not been paying attention to what is going on in Iran. However, it is something worth our attention. Suffice to say that back in September, a 22-year-old women named Mahsa Amini died in custody of the morality police for improperly wearing her hijab or head scarf. Her death has led to protests across Iran and a brutal crack-down from the government that has led to at least 300 deaths.

Historically speaking, this is not the first time women have protested the wearing of the hijab. Ironically, one of the most famous protests happened in Egypt in the 1920s. That protest was successful. Yet, one hundred years later, women are being forced again to make the same protests and this time with even greater risks to their lives.

Since Amini’s death, other women have been arrested. Most notably, Elnaz Rekabi, an elite Iranian competitive climber, was arrested after she returned from a climbing competition in Seoul where she did not wear her hijab as required of Iranian women competing abroad. After not being seen for about two weeks, she emerged only to report that it was an accident that she did not wear her hijab, stating it got tangled during her climb, so she took it off. Then there are women like Oscar-winning actress Taraheh Alidoosti, who posted a picture of herself unveiled to show support for the movement. What all these women are doing is brave, considering the cruelty of the regime. They are gaining more support for their cause, and even more are standing on the shoulders of giants who have come before them.

Next year will be the 100-year anniversary of arguably the most famous feminist event in the Middle East. Huda Sharawi was born in Egypt in 1879 to a prominent family. Though she was married at age 13 against her will, her husband, Ali Sharawi , was a nationalist who helped lead the fight against England for independence, a cause that was important to Huda as well. When Ali, who was several years her senior, died, Huda turned her attention to women’s equality. The early years of the twentieth century brought a great deal of change for women. Egypt, wanting to fit into the West, was attempting to modernize and so was opening the door for women’s rights. Egypt was suddenly open to women’s education and allowed them to not only attend schools at all levels but also form intellectual societies which published dozens of new journals dedicated to the advancement of women. Two of the most important groups were the Intellectual Association of Egyptian Women and the Egyptian Feminist Union, both founded by Sharawi.

In the beginning Sharawi’s principal fight was against England. Her husband was a founding member of the Waft Party, which was fighting for independence. Wanting to get involved in the fight and being inspired by international women, Sharawi organized the “March of Veiled Women” through the streets of Cairo, one of the largest anti-colonization marches in Egypt. She then organized the Wafdist Women’s Central Committee, which she served as president. In 1922, England folded to pressure and granted Egypt its independence, even though not full control. The Waft Party then took power of the government. Although women were instrumental in the success of the Waft Party, the women found there was no room for them at the seat of power. Discouraged by the lack of freedom for women that came from liberation, Sharawi organized the Egyptian Feminist Union in 1923 and turned her efforts towards women’s suffrage.

In 1923 Sharawi’s husband died, granting her a certain amount of freedom. That year she attended a women’s conference in Rome, and on her return, she decided on an act of defiance that became symbolic for Islamic women everywhere. When she and her companions disembarked from the train, they stood on the station platform and removed their veils. They could not claim to be free anywhere if they were not free at home. She started a movement of women wearing the hijab only if they wanted out of religious devotion, not because of law or custom. Sharawi would go on to bring about many reforms in Egypt for women. In fact, from the 1930s to the 1960s, it became unfashionable to wear a hijab in public in many Middle Eastern nations. Fashion for both men and women became much closer to American styles than what we tend to associate with the Middle East. It was not until the 1970s that hijabs were seen in public again, after Islamic movements began to sweep through the Middle East. leading to calls to return to Islam and reject western culture. Of course, the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran changed everything in that nation, as government-sanctioned modesty became law and hijabs were required.

Women like Sharawi, did not face the same penalties as women do in Iran today for removing their veils. They faced family shame and cultural pressure whereas these modern women face possible death. Yet women like Sharawi were still incredibly brave and faced enormous odds. It was their fight for women’s rights that created a precedent and a good example for women today. It is a shame to see the regression in places like Iran after the work of Sharawi, yet the movement in Iran does not seem to be dying down. Inspired by women like Mahsa Amini and led by women motivated by Sharawi’s example, maybe things can change in Iran. Maybe all Iranians can someday be free to make their own choices.

As we move into this holiday season, I hope everyone enjoys their Thanksgiving. I for one am thankful that with all our problems we still live in the greatest nation in the world.


Dr. James Finck is a Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. To receive daily historical posts, follow Historically Speaking at Historicallyspeaking.blog or on Facebook.

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Opinion

Commentary: Governor Glenn Youngkin, YIMBY-in-chief?

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Gov. Glenn Youngkin answers questions from the press at the Governor’s Housing Conference Nov. 18, 2022. (Wyatt Gordon / For the Virginia Mercury)

 

Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin and California Democrats could hardly be further apart politically; however, their diagnoses of what is wrong with America’s housing market sound uncannily similar: Excessive regulation has hindered new housing construction, driving up home prices to the point of hurting the broader economy.

After a string of big legislative wins in Sacramento this year, could the Yes In My Backyard (YIMBY) movement’s next policy champion prove to be Virginia’s ambitious governor?

‘There aren’t enough homes’

In a Friday speech at the Virginia Governor’s Housing Conference, Youngkin promised to introduce a legislative package before the upcoming General Assembly session to reduce regulations and promote housing production. Although further details won’t be debuted until December, the fact that both progressive Democrats and right-wing Republicans view the housing affordability crisis in a similar light is proof that pro-development politics do not follow neat ideological lines.

It’s also a sign of how painful high housing costs are for voters of all parties.

The results of a state study published this summer show just how broken the housing market has become across the commonwealth. In 2004, Virginia issued 63,215 new residential building permits. In recent years the state has barely built half as many homes per year despite adding over 1.1 million residents during that same period.

“There aren’t enough homes,” said Youngkin. “There aren’t enough units today. Full stop.”

Over the last decade, more than two-thirds of building permits have been issued for single-family homes. With the average price for such a structure in Virginia at $355,000 as of last year (an increase of 30% over 2016), this most expensive form of housing is increasingly out of reach for many middle-class households.

Renters face similar, if not more severe, struggles. Four in five renters in Virginia earn under 50% of their region’s area median income. The Department of Housing and Community Development and Virginia Housing, the state’s housing authority, estimates there’s a shortage of 200,000 affordable rental units across the commonwealth, meaning low earners have few options when rents rise rapidly.

In the Richmond region, the average rent is 21% higher than it was in 2021. In Hampton Roads, rents have risen on average 11.2% over the last year, with an additional 12% rise predicted for the coming year. In the first quarter of this year alone, rents increased 13% in Northern Virginia.  Even areas outside of the Urban Crescent, like the city of Roanoke, have faced a 15% jump in the average rent over 2021 as people flock to cities for better job opportunities.

If housing can’t be made more affordable, the governor fears fewer folks will choose to live and locate their businesses in the Commonwealth.

“We must align housing development with economic growth,” he said. “If you want a workforce, we have to have some place for them to live. We need to unleash housing development plans just like we are unleashing economic development plans.”

Regulatory reduction

In his closing remarks, Youngkin attributed the dearth of housing units to three factors: regulatory burdens that restrict the supply of buildable land, permitting complications that delay and prevent development, and restrictive land use controls that limit property owners’ rights to build.

To get out of Virginia’s housing hole, the governor offered three solutions he plans to put before the General Assembly in January. First, he wants to set deadlines for localities to approve land use and zoning reviews. Second, he wants the state to perform a review of land use and zoning laws with an eye toward increasing efficiency and transparency. Third, he wants to create a searchable database of residential-zoned, government-owned land on which developers could potentially build.

 

Homes under construction in Richmond, Va. (Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury)

 

What would happen if a locality doesn’t approve or deny a project by the deadline? In California, municipalities that don’t comply with state housing policy are subjected to a “builder’s remedy” whereby local zoning power is removed. Such a situation in Santa Monica this year may allow that city’s housing supply to jump 7%. Youngkin’s policy shop plans to present its own proposal next month.

Where the governor’s pro-development push could run off the rails is on wetland and stream credits. In his speech, he promised to streamline permitting, “operationalize” Virginia’s existing wetland and stream replacement fund, and release additional credits — all without lowering the quality of Virginia’s wetland and stream mitigation efforts.

Previous waves of growth have gobbled up farms, forests, and wetlands across the commonwealth in favor of far-flung, car-dependent suburbs.  A 2020 American Farmland Trust study calculated that “more than 31 million acres of U.S. agricultural land have been irrevocably lost to urban expansion since 1982, and an additional 175 acres of farm and ranchland are lost every hour to make way for housing and other industries.”

If the administration’s pro-housing proposals end up looking like a mandate for more sprawl, environmental advocates may try to tank Youngkin’s plans in the General Assembly.

YIMBY versus NIMBY

The governor’s pro-development legislative package may face a rocky road in the General Assembly. After Youngkin lambasted “overburdensome and inefficient local governments, restrictive zoning policies and an ideology of fighting tooth and nail against any new development” in a speech before the state’s joint money committee in August, senior members of his own party fired back.

“That is not how I would characterize it,” remarked Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City. “The people on city councils and boards of supervisors have the closest connection to the people they represent and the citizens they serve.”

Such intra-party tension comes as no surprise to Addison del Mastro, an Arlington-based contributor to the conservative publication The Bulwark.

“There are two ways conservatives think about development,” he said. “Pro-business and property rights is a natural fit for conservatives, but some of them view zoning as a property right to ensure that neighborhoods don’t change and can keep out apartments housing ‘those people.’ I hear both arguments even from the same people. One actually aligns with traditional conservative thinking on markets, and the other is an attitude you learn by osmosis if you’re an affluent suburbanite.”

Guardrails on government

With more than two decades of working on land use law under her belt, Del. Carrie Coyner, R-Chesterfield, understands the costs of development delays and broadly supports the governor’s desire to reduce regulation.

“It’s important we still have zoning at the local level because we don’t know everything at the state level,” she said. “But the state can come in, set guardrails and reframe what local governments are using as the tools in their toolbox to make local land use decisions.”

When contemplating how the commonwealth could end exclusionary zoning, Coyner points to how lawmakers dealt with proffers — the fees localities are allowed to charge homebuilders to offset the costs of their developments.

“We created this state system where localities could broadly define proffers and raise the cost of housing to keep certain people out,” she said. “When the state clawed back proffers discretion from the localities, it was an effort to align the intent of proffers to the original legislation more closely.”

According to Coyner, the other issue at play is a lack of communication.

“We have really failed to educate the average citizen and business owner,” she said. “Grocery stores don’t just show up because you want them. They draw a circle and look and see if that area meets their demographics. If we start letting people do their own analysis, they’ll realize local leaders are not just putting more houses in to irritate me, but they’re building houses here so we can have more services.”

Despite the initial support of lawmakers like Del. Coyner, the governor’s proposals to increase housing production will likely face an uphill battle. Beyond seeking the simultaneous support of a Democratic Senate and a Republican House, Youngkin will have to contend with the political power of Virginia’s cities and counties, which are always loath to lose any ounce of land use authority.

In his signature optimistic fashion, the governor believes he can find the right balance and get his bills passed: “We, in fact, have to respect landowners’ rights, and we have to make sure the zoning and permitting processes are set up to be pro-development,” he said. “We can do both. This is not an ‘or.’ It’s an ‘and.’ Oftentimes we find ourselves arguing and forgetting that we can do both.”

 

by Wyatt Gordon, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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