An opportunistic political infection

Donald Trump is likely to lose the US presidential election. But maybe not. And we need to recognise that a healthy body politic would not have a dangerous figure like him in striking distance of the most powerful office in the land — and in the world.

Trump is almost comically incompetent, and still has more than 40% of the public willing to vote for him. (According to the most recent estimates of he has nearly a 40% chance of winning the election.) Even if he doesn’t win, it is purely coincidental that his frightening demagoguy, autocratic impulses, and willingness to trample on democratic traditions and norms was not coupled with even an average competence in running a campaign, or even ability to let professionals take over managing the thing for long enough to get him elected.

A more competent demagogue will almost surely follow where he has led.

Not half bad

Lauren Fox at TPM reports on Republican efforts to reassure voters that there’s no need to worry about President Trump’s authoritarian impulses, because he will be constrained by Congress and the courts. One of these comments includes an odd rhetorical slip. There is a family of expressions in English constructed in the form “If A is only half as X as they say, then Y.” The Y is some extreme outcome, the intended effect being to suggest that the reports are so uniformly extreme, that even if we discount half of it the result is still pretty strong — either positive or negative. If she’s only half as good as they say, she’ll beat everyone on our team. If the storm is only half as strong as the predictions suggest, this shack isn’t going to survive.

But Republican strategist John Feehery is quoted as saying

I am not of the opinion that the Republic would fail if the voters select somebody like Trump and if Trump turns out to be half as bad as some conservative pundits would have you believe, there are plenty of legal mechanisms to either contain his worse impulses (the Congress and the Supreme Court, for example) or remove him from office should his transgressions become too toxic.

It’s good to know that the Republic will survive if Trump turns out to be half as bad as some conservative pundits suggest. He’s not making any guarantees if Trump turns out to be three-quarters or even fully as bad as some conservative pundits suggest. And if he’s anything like what liberals expect, we’re doomed.

On a related matter, when I hear the Senate majority leader justifies his endorsement of a wannabe strongman by promising “No matter how unusual a personality may be who gets elected to office, there are constraints in this country”, I can’t help but be reminded of the famous comment of Franz von Papen, leader of the Centre Party in the Weimar Republic,

Wir haben ihn uns engagiert. … Was wollen sie denn? Ich habe das Vertrauen Hindenburgs. In zwei Monaten haben wir Hitler in die Ecke gedrückt, dass es quietscht…

We hired him to work for us. … What’s the problem? I’m the one who has [President] Hindenburg’s confidence. In these two months we have completely backed Hitler into a corner.

Revolution as entertainment

I was just reading this article about how the UK farming minister told the Guardian that British withdrawal from the EU, would be a godsend to the environment:

If we had more flexibility, we could focus our scientists’ energies on coming up with new, interesting ways to protect the environment…

“New and interesting” sounds good, but these hardly seem like essential criteria for environmental protection laws. “Safe” and “effective” seem more appropriate. I’m happy to leave it to Hollywood to entertain me, if EU environmental policy will just, you know, protect the environment.

An even more extreme example of the craving for politics to fill the boring spaces in an empty existence is this Bernie Sanders supporter who was quoted in a recent NY Times article:

Victor Vizcarra, 48, of Los Angeles, said he would much prefer Mr. Trump to Mrs. Clinton. Though he said he disagreed with some of Mr. Trump’s policies, he added that he had watched “The Apprentice” and expected that a Trump presidency would be more exciting than a “boring” Clinton administration.
“A dark side of me wants to see what happens if Trump is in,” said Mr. Vizcarra, who works in information technology. “There is going to be some kind of change, and even if it’s like a Nazi-type change, people are so drama-filled. They want to see stuff like that happen. It’s like reality TV. You don’t want to just see everybody be happy with each other. You want to see someone fighting somebody.”

You can’t say he’s not going into it with his eyes open.

As usual, I blame Abbie Hoffman.Revolution for the Hell of It


Surfin’ NSDAP

I think we can all agree that the entire 20th century has conspired to make this sentence from the April 11 1933 NY Times the most bizarre political analogy since the New Jerusalem:

Screenshot 2016-05-12 09.28.28

Cleverly mixing his sports metaphors, Rev. Clinchy went on to say

Germany has been down for the count of nine and now she is arising to her feet and beginning to assert herself, and Hitler knows how to capitalize on that.

Hitler and Germany conducting a boxing match on a surfboard. The cartoon practically draws itself.

A quiet man

I was just reading this interview with former US Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, about Donald Trump. You could see the cutting edge of Trump apologetics, on the way to determining that the Republican establishment has always been allied with Trump. The trick is to reinterpret Trump’s crude thinking as simply crude (or bold, down-to-earth) formulation of very clever, even sophisticated thinking. And then there’s this:

Isaac Chotiner: You were at a meeting on Monday with other Washington figures and Trump. What did you make of him?

Newt Gingrich: Well, Callista and I were both very impressed. In that kind of a setting he talks in a relatively low tone. He is very much somebody who has been good at business. And he listens well. He outlined the campaign as he saw it. I think he did a good job listening. He occasionally asked clarifying questions. He was very open to critical advice. I am not going to get into details, but I will say my overall impression was that in that setting he was totally under control…

Does none of Trump’s rhetoric about Mexicans or Muslims worry you or upset you?

I think he was too strong in talking about illegal immigrants in general, although if you look at the number of people who have been killed by people who aren’t supposed to be here, there is a fair argument on the other side too.

It makes him seem like a reasonable guy who occasionally gets carried away when speaking with the common folk.

Hitler comparisons are almost never useful, whether for insight or political rhetoric. Trump is not Hitler. Even among 1930s fascist dictators, Hitler is not the one Trump most resembles. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but be reminded of something Albert Speer wrote, explaining why as a young academic he found himself drawn to Hitler:

What was decisive for me was a speech Hitler made to students, and which my students finally persuaded me to attend. From what I had read in the opposition press, I expected to find a screaming, gesticulating fanatic in uniform, instead of which we were confronted with a quiet man in a dark suit who addressed us in the measured tones of an academic. I’m determined one day to look up newspapers of that time to see just what it was he said that so impressed me. But I don’t think he attacked the Jews….

How to rid the world of genocide

One of my favourite Monty Python sketches is “How to do it“. It parodies a children’s show, teaching children how to do interesting and cool new things — in this case, “How to be a gynecologist… how to construct a box-girder bridge, … how to irrigate the Sahara Desert and make vast new areas of land cultivatable, and… how to rid the world of all known diseases.” The method described for the last is

First of all, become a doctor, and discover a marvelous cure for something. And then, when the medical profession starts to take notice of you, you can jolly well tell them what to do and make sure they get everything right, so there will never be any diseases ever again.

I think of this sketch often, when I hear a certain kind of blustering politician, most commonly (but not exclusively) of the US Republican variety. The classic sort of “How to do it” (HTDI) solution is the completely generic “I’d get the both sides into the room and tell them, c’mon guys, let’s roll up our sleeves and just get it done. We’re not leaving here until we’ve come up with a solution.” (That’s for a conflict; if it’s a technical challenge, like cancer, or drought, replace “both sides” with “all the experts”. Depending on the politician’s demeanor and gender this may also include “knocking heads together”.) The point is, they see solving complicated problems the way they might appear in a montage in a Hollywood film: Lots of furrowed brows, sleeves being rolled up, maybe a fist pounds on a table. It’s a manager’s perspective. Not a very intelligent manager. Of course, it sounds ridiculous to anyone who has ever been involved in the details solving real problems, whether political, technical, or scientific, but it sounds good to other people who have only seen the same films that the politician has seen. Continue reading “How to rid the world of genocide”

Why are the one percent only 1%?

Have the years of unremitting oppression cut short their lifespans and suppressed their fertility? Is it because they’ve been hunted nearly to extinction?

These are questions that naturally come to mind in reading the novel genre, pioneered by the Wall Street Journal editorial page, of billionaire lamentations, the most recent of which is this cri de coeur of trust fund Croesus and libertarian political manipulator Charles Koch, with the title “I’m Fighting to Restore a Free Society”. He accuses his opponents, the nameless beasts called “Collectivists”, of acting like “20th century despots” by engaging in “character assassination”, which, as we all know, is exactly the sort of thing that 20th century despots were famous for, except for the “character” part. But character assassination is almost exactly the same as assassination, except without the bombs and stuff, and except for the fact that it’s sometimes hard to distinguish from “criticism”, which people might think a natural part of a “Free Society”. But, in case you’re not sure of how perfidious are these Collectivists who “discredit and intimidate”, Koch informs us that this approach is one that “Arthur Schopenhauer described in the 19th century”, which pretty much settles the issue, as far as I’m concerned.

Sure, it seems natural to look at the increasing concentration of wealth in the US (and not just in the US) and see a tiny oligarchy enriching itself at the expense of the rest of us. But you could look at the same numbers and see an oppressed and shrinking minority of wealth producers, slowly evaporating like a brackish pool in the sun, with its salt (wealth) concentration rising as it shrinks.

Where some of us see an opulent gated community, the reality (Charles Koch tells us) is just a gilded concentration camp. Where his character gets assassinated EVERY DAY. (True story.)

The age of victimhood

I recently read Timothy Snyder’s book Bloodlands, a synoptic account of the Nazi and Soviet terror in Eastern Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. Overall, the book disappointed me somewhat. I was expecting something more profoundly original than it actually was. Most of what he had to say would be familiar to anyone who has read the separate histories of the Nazi terror and the Soviet terror. Where comparisons were made, they ofter reminded me of the dadaist antijoke that exists in many forms — all of them fairly arbitrary — going something like “How is the Pope like an orange? Answer: They’re both round, except for the Pope.”

Again and again I felt like Snyder was trying to say, “Look at how similar the Stalinist and Hitler genocides were… They were both racially motivated, except for Stalin. They were both devoted to extracting economic value from the bodies of enemies of the state, except for Hitler.” And so on. At other points he seems committed to pointing out how completely different the two were… except that then he has to admit that they weren’t all that different, and in many respects you can’t even separate them in time and space, or in motivation, as they clearly learned from each other, and in some cases intentionally or unintentionally collaborated.

But one remark impressed me: He pointed out that both Stalin and Hitler obsessively portrayed themselves as victims of their victims. Claiming the mantle of victimhood has become so pervasive as a political strategy — both in domestic affairs within western democracies and in international relations — that it’s hard to remember that it was once considered disgraceful, the last refuge of the pusillanimous. At least, that’s my impression. It would be interesting to see an academic treatise on the history of the victimhood stance.

Hitler famously accused the Jews of dragging an unwilling Germany into war. Stalin accused the starving Ukrainians of anti-Soviet propaganda by blatantly starving. The Germans dressed up prisoners as Polish soldiers (and shot them) to show that the obvious German aggression was really a response to an attack. Of course, the need to play at “just war” has been with us since the advent of Christendom. It’s hard to imagine Alexander the Great caring much about showing that Thracian soldiers had crossed the border first and hurled the first spear. But it’s also hard to imagine Bismarck feeling the need to dress up corpses in French uniforms.

And it wasn’t just the great tyrants. One of the most chilling passages that Snyder quotes comes from a German officer writing to his wife about the difficulties he had slaughtering Jewish children, who “flew in great arcs, and we shot them to pieces in the air”. But then he thought of his own children, and that perversely steeled his nerves: “I kept in mind that I have two infants at home, whom these hordes would treat just the same, if not ten times worse.”

If there is any application of this principle to contemporary events in any lands that formerly rhymed with Calamine, I can’t imagine what it might be. I remember, when we were living in Canada, reading an article in the newspaper about a recommendation by a panel of Quebec historians that the teaching of Quebec history in schools should be rethought to be more positive, less emphasis on the quebecois as perennial losers. I thought that was a great move, and would bode well for Quebec and for Canada as a whole if it were adopted. In the long term. There’s power in being a victim, until there isn’t, until the moment when it suddenly tips over into being pathetic.

Kristallnacht 75th anniversary edition anti-Israel smackdown

I want to follow up my critique of Eric Alterman’s critique of Max Blumenthal’s Goliath by posing the question: What would a useful critique of the book look like? 

One thing that really goads Alterman is when Blumenthal draws analogies between present-day Israel and Germany in the 1930s. I understand his vexation. The Nazis did lots of things: They ran food drives for hungry citizens in the winter. They built highways. They promoted groundbreaking research proving the link between smoking and cancer. They banned interracial marriage. They invaded neighbouring (and not-so-neighbouring) countries. They set up a vast industry devoted to systematically murder of the Jews of Europe. The first were acts of responsible government. Those in the middle are serious offences against common morality and international order, but in no way unique to that regime. The last is sui generis, and among the most heinous crimes ever committed.  While “acting like Nazis” could, logically, refer to food relief or cancer research, people who apply the term to their political enemies are generally referring to the middle crimes — sadly commonplace as they are — but hoping to imply guilt by association to the uniquely heinous crimes of the Nazis. As applied to Israel, it started as a tool for German leftists in the 1960s to process their inherited sense of guilt without actually having to abandon old habits of antisemitism. If the Jews are the real Nazis, that solves all the problems at one stroke: They could hate their fascist parents and the Jews. The overtones are slightly different in other countries, but it is generally noxious.

Blumenthal titles one of his chapters “The Night of Broken Glass”, in reference to the night 75 years ago today, when a nationwide wave of anti-Jewish pogroms was partly instigated and partly tolerated by the German state. He is quoting one of the victims, an African asylum-seeker, who uses this analogy not out of some anti-Jewish animus, but because he learned about Kristallnacht in the Israeli school that he attended.

So, what would have been a useful critique of Blumenthal? Rather than simply announcing his outrage, Alterman might have provided some evidence that, whereas the German pogroms were a step toward direct state-sponsorship of violence against Jews, the anti-African riots were just riots, just race riots like those that happen in many different countries at different times. Blumenthal quotes a member of the ruling Likud party egging on the mob by declaring “The Sudanese are a cancer in our body.” That sounds pretty bad, as does the result of a poll finding that 52% of Jewish Israelis agree with the sentiment, and the small number of members of the Israeli parliament who were willing to criticise the violence. So, what’s the context? Maybe the small number was really a large number. Or maybe the real official crackdown on racist violence occurred in a different forum, something that outsiders don’t quite understand. At a pinch, maybe Alterman could find some establishment Israelis not identified with the extreme left who publicly oppose violence against non-Jews.

For example, he might have come up with the incident where the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel Yona Metzger, not one of the usual “bleeding hearts”, who visited a Palestinian village where a mosque had been burned down by Jewish militants. “I came here to expression my revulsion at this wretched act of burning a place holy to the Muslim people,” he said. But this might have been uncomfortable for Ackerman to cite, because the Rabbi goes on to compare the arson to… Kristallnacht: “This is how the Holocaust began, the tragedy of the Jewish people of Europe.” So it turns out, he’s just another one of those crazy leftists making outrageous comparisons between Jews and Nazis.

I think Alterman’s core of his criticism of Blumenthal is contained in this statement:

 He is, apparently, unfamiliar with the concept of “context.” It might be technically accurate, for instance, to say that an individual who fatally shoots a crazed killer while said killer is mowing down schoolchildren with an assault-weapon is a “murderer.” But it would also be profoundly misleading, given the context.

I agree! I’d even be willing to wager that Blumenthal agrees. He then wants to apply this homily to the case at hand: “And this is the problem with Blumenthal’s facts. He tells us only the facts he wishes us to know and withholds crucial ones that undermine his relentlessly anti-Israel narrative.”

So now’s where we get the context, the real proof of what Blumenthal has been deceiving us with, and it is… something about the unreliability of the guy who said Mossad agents sometimes pose as El Al employees. With all the racist incitement, police-statism, political abuse, and wanton violence that runs through this book, this is the incident that Alterman thinks really cries out for context? It almost makes you think… maybe Blumenthal isn’t so off-the-wall after all. If Alterman spends thousands of words, but can’t “contextualise” any of the really grave accusations, maybe Goliath is essentially accurate.

Or maybe Alterman is a sleeper agent for the Fatah propaganda ministry. Certainly I’d say Alterman’s essay itself belongs right at the front of the “I Hate Israel” handbook he raves about — at least, the postmodern edition. By throwing himself into the fray as Israel’s supposed defender, and then offering a nearly content-free rant — lots of material about how no one is reading Goliath, so really it’s an act of charity that he even deigns to spit on it, no explanation of what the significant errors or deceptions are — he conveys the impression that Israel really has no rational defence.

Outsourcing espionage

In the light of recent developments, including the vast trove of NSA documents downloaded by Booz Allen employee Edward Snowden, and the revelation from those documents that the US has been systematically violating its treaty obligations by spying on the SWIFT international financial transactions system, some comments by Janine Wedel in her book Shadow Elite take on new significance:

Through SWIFT the US Treasury Department sought and gained access to large numbers of financial and communications records. Treasury then established the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program, run out of the CIA, to analyze the SWIFT data and later shared it with the CIA and FBI. It also hired Booz Allen as an “independent” auditor, which, along with SWIFT, reviewed Treasury’s logs of information searches… As Barry Steinhardt, Director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Project, put it: “It is bad enough that the administration is trying to hold out a private company as a substitute for genuine checks and balances on its surveillance activities. But of all companies to perform audits on a secret surveillance program, it would be difficult to find one less objective and more intertwined with the US government security establishment.”

To sum up that interaction: A private company, given “government” access to sensitive and private data about citizens of the United States and other countries, not only worked alongside government to analyze the data, but then also (supposedly) oversaw the process.

Is there any surprise, then, that the self-watching watcher had no safeguards in place to prevent a newly hired employee from walking off with all these super-secret data?

There have always been those who have claimed that capitalism is inimical to tyranny. Usually some ideological affinity between capitalism and democracy, or in a practical sense that tyranny is bad for business, which depends on the initiative of many well-informed independent actors (rather in the same way that European economic integration in the early 20th century made war self-defeating for the economic elites, hence impossible; or, so it was argued). But maybe there is some truth to this claim in the Leninist sense: When we come to hang the capitalists, they will bid on the contract for the rope. Given opportunity to accumulate vast secret power through spying, or to make vast profits by outsourcing the espionage, at the risk of exposing the secret government, American elites couldn’t resist the lure of the cash. Stalin would never have made that mistake.

I suspect that Stalin would have done very well on the marshmallow test, for what it’s worth.