Electric guillotines

Just reading The Vanquished, Robert Gerwarth’s history of the violence that followed the ostensible end of the First World War. He has this to say about the atrocity rumours that circulated about the Bolsheviks:

Although the reality of the civil war was so terrible that it hardly needed any embellishment, fantastical stories about Lenin’s regime flourished and drifted westwards: of a social order turned upside down, of a never-ending cycle of atrocities and retribution amid moral collapse in what had previously been one of the Great Powers of Europe. Several American newspapers reported that the Bolsheviks had introduced an electrically operated guillotine in Petrograd designed to decapitate 500 prisoners an hour… The Bolsheviks, or so it was suggested [in the British press], had ‘nationalized middle- and upper-class women, who might now be raped at will by any member of the proletariat. Orthodox churches had been turned into brothels in which aristocratic women were forced to offer sexual services to ordinary workers. Chinese executioners had been recruited by the Bolsheviks for their knowledge of ancient oriental torture techniques, while inmates in the infamous Cheka prisons had their heads stuck into cages filled with hungry rats in order to extort information.

It seems that there are three things that escalate the ordinary horror of despotic violence into extraordinary horror, all of which are touched upon here:

  1. Violation of the natural order, particularly of a sexual nature.
  2. Upwelling of arcane, precivilised, non-European presumptively diabolic culture.
  3. Abuse of modern technological means toward barbaric ends.

I’m particularly fascinated by the last, represented by the “electrically operated guillotines”, which prefigure the genuine industrialised slaughter of the Holocaust. More than the scale of the killing — which could be achieved by other means — it is the industrial precision that unsettles people, and makes the Holocaust unique. Or, perhaps better said, makes us want to see it as unique.

It’s hard to disentangle these feelings about the Holocaust, which is what makes the electric guillotines so useful: It’s not that this would have been all that exceptional, to kill 500 prisoners in an hour, and you wouldn’t need anything as unusual as an electrically operated guillotine. (It’s not even clear to me how electricity would accelerate a guillotine significantly.) But the combination of electricity, then the prime symbol of modernisation, with mass execution, was shocking.

Defending the fraud

From the perspective of normal human psychology, everything about the Trump-Putin interaction seems off. As I remarked before, if Trump were really a Russian agent, you would expect Putin to advise him to be less conspicuous in advocating Russian interests, simply to preserve his usefulness.

On the other hand, imagine Trump as a naive businessman with generally russophile leanings. (I don’t know, maybe he read The Gambler at an impressionable age, and modeled his life on it.) He’s had no significant contact with the Russian leadership, but he once met Vladimir Putin at a beauty pageant, thinks he praised him (mistakenly), and thinks he could do some good for the world by relaxing tensions with the world’s second-largest nuclear power. He is convinced that he deserves to be president, but privately unsure the world will acknowledge his greatness. Now he receives intelligence briefings giving strong evidence that the Russians are attempting to interfere with the election in his favour. What would he do? Before the election maybe he keeps quiet and tries to suppress or discredit the claims. But you would expect him to be seething with fury, that the Russians threaten to taint his election. The help they’re giving is marginal, but the blowback is potentially enormous. It’s like a referee intentionally calling an unwarranted penalty in a football match. It probably won’t change the result, but it makes the favoured side look terrible. To do that without consent is an act of aggression against those you’re ostensibly helping. Continue reading “Defending the fraud”

Papers, please!, ctd.

Apparently Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the US has been conducting raids targetted enforcement in major US cities.

A DHS official confirmed that while immigration agents were targeting criminals, given the broader range defined by Trump’s executive order, they also were sweeping up noncriminals in the vicinity who were found to be lacking documentation.

For me, this raises again a question that has genuinely puzzled me for a long time: How many Americans typically carry with them documentation that would show their citizenship, or otherwise prove their right to be in the US? A birth certificate would do (unlike in the UK, where the government has been at pains to show that it won’t even recognise the right to citizenship of people of tainted foreign blood, even if they were born in the UK at a time when everyone thought the law automatically granted them citizenship), or a passport, but most people don’t carry these things around every day. Many Americans don’t have passports, and birth certificates may be hard to lay your hands on at short notice. (Besides which, what good does it really do to show a birth certificate if your name is John Smith — or, let us say, José Garcia?)

The random correspondence theory of truth

Republicans may not believe in scientific reasoning, but Republican administrations seem to be the best for generating innovations in epistemology. The Bush administration brought us the taxonomy of “known unknowns”, etc.

Now presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway continues to press forward her creative truth-value confections. After coining the term “alternative facts” for what were formerly called “lies”, she is now attacking what might be called the curatorial conception of truth.

“You can talk about somebody almost making a mistake and not doing it,” Tapper said. “I’m talking about the President of the United States saying things that are not true, demonstrably not true. That is important.”

“Are they more important than the many things that he says that are true that are making a difference in people’s lives?” Conway replied.

It is not important, in her conception, for true statements to be statistically more common than false, or, presumably, even more common than background randomness. Only that they are there, and that they “make a difference”. The lies presumably make a difference as well.

Abstractly, statements can be generated by a machine, or a Magic 8 Ball, and there are approximately equal numbers of potential statements that are true as false. (Think Library of Babel.) We count on humans having a preference for truth, even an abhorrence of falsehoods. From Conway’s point of view, though, Trump has no obligation to make overwhelmingly true statements, as long as the truths that do crop up “make a difference”.

“The blood of our youth”

So, here’s racist US president Donald Trump, presenting his notorious racist new attorney general Jeff Sessions, with infamous genocidal racist president Andrew Jackson glowering in the background.


And Trump announced that he was directing the departments of Justice and Homeland Security to

break the back of the criminal cartels that have spread across our nation and are destroying the blood of our youth and other people.

This rhetoric doesn’t sound like usual presidential terminology, but it does sound familiar. What could it be? Maybe it reminds me of this:

Gift der Jüdischen Presse […] das ungehindert in den Blutlauf seines Volkes eindringen und wirken konnte

The poison of the Jewish press that penetrates without resistance and attacks the blood of the people

Or this

Er vergiftet das Blut des anderen, wahrt aber sein eigenes.

He [the Jew] poisons the blood of the others, but preserves his own.

From Mein Kampf.

No laughing matter

Trump today:

A lot of people say, oh, oh, Trump was only kidding with the wall. I wasn’t kidding. I don’t kid. I don’t kid. I watched this and they say I was kidding. No, I don’t kid. I don’t kid about things like that, I can tell you.

So what does he kid about?

Invading Mexico: “President Trump’s comments that he was ready to send US troops to Mexico to stop the “bad hombres down there” were “lighthearted” and not meant to be threatening, the White House said Thursday.”

Accusing President Obama of treason: “After repeatedly suggesting Thursday that President Barack Obama was the literal founder of ISIS, the terrorist group the U.S. is currently waging war against, Donald Trump called it “sarcasm” in a tweet Friday morning. The bizarre turn followed Trump’s assertion to a conservative radio host in an interview Thursday morning that he did not mean that Obama’s policies created the space for ISIS to flourish, rather that he was its actual founder.”

Destroying people who disagree with his policies: “President Donald Trump threatened to “destroy” the career of a Texas state senator after a Texas sheriff accused the lawmaker of getting in his way by promoting asset forfeiture reform.

“Want to give his name? We’ll destroy his career,” Trump told Sheriff Harold Eavenson of Rockwall County, Texas.

https://twitter.com/Acosta/status/829075389184081920

The sins of the fathers

I was just reading Kevin Drum’s article on the fallout from the hapless US military raid in Yemen last week. He lists the costs:

Our adventure in Yemen last week failed to kill its target; caused the death of numerous Yemeni civilians; resulted in one dead American sailor; and ended with the loss of a $70 million helicopter.

This is not unusual of the commentary, and I find it weird that it fails to mention that a US civilian was among those killed: the eight-year-old daughter of American renegade Anwar Al-Awlaki, given that the sanctity of American life is the bedrock of American antiterror policies. I suspect this reflects the atavistic sense that the child of an evildoer is tainted, and somehow deserves to be punished for his crimes. Of course, the new president famously vowed to “take out their families”.

Who’s on first?

I love Der Spiegel, I consider it one of the best sources for international news, in addition to (of course) news about Germany, and it has to some extent maintained the idiosyncratic playful and sophisticated language style of its founder. I’m not usually wild about its graphics, though, and find it dull and obvious, as well as straining to find a reason to associate an image of naked breasts with any article. 

That said, I find this cover amazing. Obviously I’d feel differently about the image if I felt differently about Donald Trump, but it’s not simply a feeling of gratification at an enemy being publicly insulted. Like the best graphics — like the best scientific plots — this image combines familiar iconography and space to give substance to the horror that so many of us feel, crystalising an idea that was elusive. The Statue of Liberty and the iconography of terrorist self-promotion decapitation videos. Yes. It’s a good thing Germany just eliminated its lèse majesté law…

The association with Daesh puts the “America First” slogan in a different light as well. It’s a slogan that the murderers of the self-proclaimed caliphate could share, in the same spirit as the terrorist narrator of Leonard Cohen’s song, First we take Manhattan, Then we take Berlin.

It’s not even inappropriate, given that Stephen Bannon and his cronies have been fairly open about their intention to use Trump as the point of the spear to destroy liberal democracy in Europe, in favour of white ethnonationalism.

They really mean it (a continuing series)

Once again, I am forced to revise my impression of the Trump White House. I assumed that their failure to mention Jews in their statement for International Holocaust Remembrance Day was an oversight, sloppy drafting, which they then had to justify and insist was intentional because Trump. But no:

The State Department drafted its own statement last month marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day that explicitly included a mention of Jewish victims, according to people familiar with the matter, but President Donald Trump’s White House blocked its release.

Together with the Trump administration’s decision that they really don’t like Israeli settlements, I wonder if the right-wing orthodox Jews and Israelis who thought they had the measure of the man are beginning to feel like building contractors on a Trump hotel project.