Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Trump begins his own military escalation in Afghanistan

"Although he campaigned on pulling back U.S. involvement overseas, Trump’s green light to send additional troops to Afghanistan means the president has now increased the military’s role in every combat theater he inherited — Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Somalia, as well as Afghanistan." - Brian Bennett and Noah Bierman, Trump, who once backed withdrawal from Afghanistan, tries to sell the nation on deeper involvement Los Angeles Times 08/21/2017

There has been a lot of speculation among antiwar activists that Trump may have favored a less interventionist foreign policy. And that much of the criticism of his Russian connections was coming from the national security establishment, aka, the Deep State. Although the "deep state" phrase may have been captured by the far right. (See Greg Grandin, What Is the Deep State? The Nation 02/17/2017 on the concept.)

But that speculation has never been convincing. And it may have contributed to a kind of dogmatic skepticism toward any and all aspects of the Trump-Russia scandal on the part of critics of bipartisan hawkishness. To the extent that Trump's foreign policy pronouncements during the campaign were coherent at all, it was pretty obvious that while he may have been uncomfortable with formal allinaces like NATO, his basic perspective was one of reflective militarism.

Bennett and Bierman observe that Trump's announcement Monday of a new military escalation in Afghanistan "marked a shift to a much more traditional Republican foreign policy." But reading it as a return to "normalcy" or Trump finally becoming "Presidential" or whatever is mostly wishful thinking. Bennett and Bierman point out that "during his 2016 presidential campaign [Trump] largely avoided the subject, speaking more often about the need to win wars, while disdaining efforts at nation-building abroad."

And in any case, war in Afghanistan polls is more popular among his base than among the general public:

In a December 2014 poll by ABC and the Washington Post, for example, respondents by 56% to 38% said that “considering all the costs to the United States versus the benefits,” the war had “not been worth fighting.”

Within his own party, however, Trump’s previous skepticism was not so widely shared. Liberals and Democrats were the most likely to doubt the usefulness of American involvement in the war. Among Republicans, opinion was the mirror image of the national view — 56% said the war had been worth fighting and 38% said it had not been.

Despite the skepticism, however, a majority of those surveyed at that time supported keeping 10,000 U.S. service members in Afghanistan to train and assist that country’s security forces. That figure is not far from the approximately 12,400 U.S. troops that will be in the country under Trump’s proposal. [my emphasis]
Democrats were more likely to view the Afghanistan War as the "good war," in contrast to the disastrous Iraq War.

But Democrats any Congress never expressed enough serious criticism of Obama's Afghanistan policy, a largely failed policy which Obama handed off to Trump with thousands of US troops still in Afghanistan. And Trump is now proceeding to make it worse. With a justification that barely constitutes a figleaf:

The troop increase in Afghanistan is supposed to create more time for training Afghan forces and bolstering Afghan government institutions. Yet the administration is ill-equipped for the enhanced mission: The State Department has not filled key senior positions that would be in charge of handling the Afghanistan and Pakistan portfolios. Trump still has no U.S. ambassador in Kabul, the Afghan capital.

“No amount of denial, exaggeration and obfuscation by State and USAID can substitute for a concerted effort to deal with the civil side of the war,” Anthony Cordesman, a former civilian advisor on past Afghanistan strategy reviews, said in a new report for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Put bluntly, half a strategy is not better than none.” [my emphasis]
But it does present a test for the Democrats. Will they push to end the intervention in Afghanistan? Or try to attack Trump for not being hawkish enough?

Monday, August 21, 2017

David Atkins on Elizabeth Warren

David Atkins explains why Elizabeth Warren is awesome in Elizabeth Warren Showed How Democrats Can End Their Civil War Washington Monthly 08/20/2017.

Just read it.

"Fake news" about Russia - a long and venerable tradition

Edward Herman has an informative survey from a left point of view of the history of dodgy reporting on Russia and the Soviet Union since the Russian Revolution of 1917, Fake News on Russia and Other Official Enemies: The New York Times, 1917–2017 Monthly Review 69:3 (July-August 2017):

Fake news on Russia is a Times tradition that can be traced back at least as far as the 1917 revolution. In a classic study of the paper’s coverage of Russia from February 1917 to March 1920, Walter Lippmann and Charles Merz found that “From the point of view of professional journalism the reporting of the Russian Revolution is nothing short of a disaster. On the essential questions the net effect was almost always misleading, and misleading news is worse than none at all. ... They can fairly be charged with boundless credulity, and an untiring readiness to be gulled, and on many occasions with a downright lack of common sense.” Lippmann and Merz found that strong editorial bias clearly fed into news reporting. The editors’ zealous opposition to the communists led the paper to report atrocities that never happened, and to predict the imminent collapse of the Bolshevik regime no fewer than ninety-one times in three years. Journalists uncritically accepted official statements and relied on reports from unidentified “high authority.” This was standard Times practice.

This fake news performance of 1917–20 was repeated often in the years that followed. The Soviet Union was an enemy target up to the Second World War, and through it all, Times coverage was consistently hostile. With the end of the war and the emergence of the Soviet Union as a military rival, and soon a competing nuclear power, the Cold War was on. In the United States, anti-communism became a national religion, and the Soviet Union was portrayed in official discourse and the news media as a global menace in urgent need of containment. With this ideology in place and with U.S. plans for its own global expansion of power established, the Communist threat would help sustain the steady growth of the military-industrial complex and repeated interventions to counter purported Soviet aggressions. [my emphasis]
Herman also lists several notorious cases in which the Times and other major US media were insufficiently critical or outright complicit with misinformation, much of it in the context of the rivalry with the Soviet Union: the overthrow of the elected Guatemalan government in 1954 (Hernan's article is especially interesting on that incident); the Vietnam War; the 1981 attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II; the nonexistent "missile gap" that played such a large role in the 1960 Presidential election; NATO intervention in the Balkan Wars of the 1990s; and, the nature of US the relationship of the US to the Boris Yeltsin regime.

He raises important points of caution about the controversy over Russian hacking int he 2016 election. On this blog, I've tried to focus on Recognizing the seriousness of the Trump-Russia scandal while being careful about the facts (06/02/2017). My own framing of this set of dilemmas differs from Herman's. My outlook would include the following:

  • Russian attempts to interfere with the election results via cyber-meddling are serious, whether they were successful or not.
  • It continues to strike me as disingenuous to complain that there is no concrete proof of the hacking claims. The FBI, the CIA and the NSA have all concluded that it occurred, but they can scarcely be expected to make public every piece of information they used to come to that conclusion, despite the many ways in which those same agencies abuse the excessive secrecy which they apply to themselves.
  • The Wikileaks revelations on Clinton campaign emails played to both the Republicans obsession with her emails and the national press' seemingly endless temptation. But they were mostly routine campaign gossip. And it's hard to imagine they influenced the outcome in as significant a way as, say, James Comey's infamous press conference days before the election.
  • We need a good, professional, thorough investigation of the whole Russian hacking issue by Congress and/or some kind of genuinely independent commission. If the FBI, the CIA and the NSA are making such serious claims on such a major and sensitive issue, the voters need to know about that!
  • We can object to foolish foreign policies and military provocations against Russia without exonerating Russia of all dirty business on the election hacking and on seeking illegitimate influence with Trump and his team.
  • The fact that neoconservative and liberal-interventionist hawks are seizing on the Russian interference issues to promote their dubious and dangerous foreign policy goals does not mean that we should ignore the seriousness of the hacking and influence operation claims.

But some of the claims Herman makes in recommending caution about facts not clearly established in the public record strike me as a bit over the top. Like this one:

The political point of the DNI [Director of National Intelligence] report [of January 2017] thus seems to have been, at minimum, to tie the Trump administration’s hands in its dealings with Russia. Some analysts outside the mainstream have argued that we may have been witnessing an incipient spy or palace coup that fell short, but still had the desired effect of weakening the new administration. The Times has not offered a word of criticism of this politicization and intervention in the election process by intelligence agencies, and in fact the editors have been working with them and the Democratic Party as a loose-knit team in a distinctly un- and anti-democratic program designed to undermine or reverse the results of the 2016 election, on the pretext of alleged foreign electoral interference. [my emphasis]
But he's right in talking about the ways that the mainstream press has been careless about the facts and willing to treat insufficiently documented claims as settled fact, e.g., the claim that it was Russia that provide the hacked DNC emails to Wikileaks. He doesn't even mention the "17 intelligence agencies" trope that I've discussed here before.

Hernan's article suffers a bit from a common left temptation, to treat outcomes as the successful result of some carefully executed plan by the powerful, e.g., the way he describes Trump's bombing of Syria near the end. The role of blundering and just plain incompetence is often underestimated in important matters of state. This current Administration is especially well-endowed with the latter. And the Democrats haven't exactly been brilliant in their political combat against the Republicans in recent years.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Trying to use PunditSpeak to critique uncritical thinking

Kurt Andersen has a new book coming out scheduled for a September release, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History. An excerpt appears in the September 2017 Atlantic Monthly, under the title "How America Went Haywire."

I'm very much appreciative of the kind of debunking of pseudoscience and general hokum presented in accessible language that we find in publications like Skeptical Inquirer and Skeptic. A big part of the impetus behind journals like those and similar efforts is the recognition that pseudoscientific beliefs have a great deal of influence among the general public. Including among the well educated.

Andersen's article is very much in that vein. And it does provide a good summary of some of the most significant factors among the propagation of anti-science beliefs in the United States in the last half century or so. Mystical fad philosophies in the 1960s. Fundamentalist religion. Academic analysis and critiques of the social bases of science. Faith healing. UFOs and alien abduction stories. The John Birch Society. JFK assassination conspiracy theories. Near death experiences. Extreme individualism. The Internet. The Esalen Institute. Fringe theories of mental illness. Hippies. Ivy League professors. Government deception over Vietnam and various other important issues.

Even with 24 pages in the print edition, that's obviously too much ground to cover in any great detail. But that's okay. It's not bad, as far as it goes.

But it also left me wondering just what he's describing. His arguments are very accessible, because they use language that we hear from TV and print pundits all the time. And that's part of the problem.

American pundits are often stunningly lazy. They rely heavily on familiar narratives. Most of which are framed to cause minimum discomfort to the comfortable. A two-word summary of the problem: David Brooks. Reflective analysis is not required. And, if it might derail the comfortable narratives, even detrimental.

Andersen's Atlantic article suffers from some of the common problems of mainstream punditry. Here's an example:

How widespread is this promiscuous devotion to the untrue? How many Americans now inhabit alternate realities? Any given survey of beliefs is only a sketch of what people in general really think. But reams of survey research from the past 20 years reveal a rough, useful census of American credulity and delusion. By my reckoning, the solidly reality-based are a minority, maybe a third of us but almost certainly fewer than half. Only a third of us, for instance, don’t believe that the tale of creation in Genesis is the word of God. Only a third strongly disbelieve in telepathy and ghosts. Two-thirds of Americans believe that “angels and demons are active in the world.” More than half say they’re absolutely certain heaven exists, and just as many are sure of the existence of a personal God — not a vague force or universal spirit or higher power, but some guy.
He goes on to give other examples of seemingly nonscientific and uncritical thinking. But the one just quoted takes it for granted that the assent of survey participants to vague Christian religious ideas is evidence of not being "reality-based." But that isn't at all obvious from that quotation. For a Christian to agree that Genesis is the word of God doesn't mean that they accept Genesis as a scientific text or a literal description of history. I wondered in reading this if he was applying some sort of dogmatic atheist argument - "village atheist" would be a better description - that being a Christian means that a person has to be a fundamentalist Christian.

Something similar would apply to his comment about the belief that “angels and demons are active in the world.” This is one that I liberal Protestants would be unlikely to agree to. Conservative Protestants would be more likely to. Although they also tend to regard angels active in the world as "idolatrous" Catholic notions. Pentecostals tend to accept the reality of demon activity and faith healing, as well as the ritual of exorcism.

The Catholic case is more complicated, not least because it's a nearly 2000-year-old organization by the Church's traditional count, in which Jesus' disciple Peter was the first Pope. And in theory, the Church never changes its doctrines. It only develops fuller and more accurate interpretations and elaborations of them. So various positions can be rejected in practice while leaving them "on the books" in theory. So exorcism, for instance, is still officially sanctioned by the Church, but under far more restrictive rules than the wilder version the Pentecostals practice.

So it's likely that a significant number of respondents could agree to the angels-and-demons question out of a general recognition that their church believes in them in some way without taking it seriously that there could be disembodied spirits flying through the air meddling in the material world. And some may take angels and demons as some kind of metaphor without assuming that an angel will catch someone falling out of a window or that demons cause the common cold.

I would certainly agree that religious beliefs are a significant contributor to antiscientific outlooks. But survey results do not analyze themselves. Drawing conclusions like Andersen does in that passage requires more analysis than the passage above indicates.

He draws similarly sweeping conclusions in this passage:

The term useful idiot was originally deployed to accuse liberals of serving the interests of true believers further on the left. In this instance, however, postmodern intellectuals — postpositivists, poststructuralists, social constructivists, post-empiricists, epistemic relativists, cognitive relativists, descriptive relativists — turned out to be useful idiots most consequentially for the American right. “Reality has a well-known liberal bias,” Stephen Colbert once said, in character, mocking the beliefs-trump-facts impulse of today’s right. Neither side has noticed, but large factions of the elite left and the populist right have been on the same team.
A analysis worth of Bobo Brooks himself. Both Sides Do It! But that passage is actually mostly stock conservative rhetoric. And since nobody but academics or specialized geeks could describe the difference between "epistemic relativists" and "descriptive relativists," he's basically just saying that all these here college perfessers and their high-highfalutin ideas are jest gittin' ever'body confused. What cain't we look at thangs in the good ole common-sense way Granpa did? Somebody should write a country song about it:

By the way, if you are actually curious about that catalog of wooly-minded academic theories, here is what I found with a quick search of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

It would be an interesting exercise, at least for academics or philosophy geeks, to trace how any one of these academic philosophies contributed to, say, belief in UFOs or susceptibility to Rush Limbaugh's hate rants against "feminazis." That's not to say that academic theories don't wind up having wider affects in society. But it seems that the lack of familiarity of any kind of theory of cognition or how to evaluate sources would be more likely culprits.

Again, not everything that would be treated as Deep Thought by TV pundits actually has substance.

As a final example here, he makes statements about the unique qualities of Americanism of the sort that our Pod Pundits love:

Why are we like this?

The short answer is because we’re Americans—because being American means we can believe anything we want; that our beliefs are equal or superior to anyone else’s, experts be damned. Once people commit to that approach, the world turns inside out, and no cause-and-effect connection is fixed. The credible becomes incredible and the incredible credible.
Yes, it is a short answer. And one that leaves the readers scratching their heads if they stop to think about it. What, belief in UFOs and conspiracy theories are special afflictions of Americans? Well, we are Exceptional, you know!

Colombia, Venezuela and US policy

"Venezuela is Latin America's biggest exporter of crude oil and has the world's largest petroleum reserves." - Brian Ellsworth and Andrew Cawthorne, Venezuela death toll rises to 13 as protests flare Reuters 02/24/2014

"Venezuela claims the world’s largest proven reserves of petroleum, an estimated 298 billion barrels of oil." - Michael Klare, The Desperate Plight of Petro-States TomDispatch 05/26/2016

This edition of Empire Files provides a useful reminder that US policy toward Venezuela is closely related to US policy toward Colombia, Human Rights Hypocrisy - Colombia vs. Venezuela TeleSUR English 08/19/2017:

The title is not as descriptive as it might have been about the content of the program, which features Empire Files host Abby Martin interviewing Dan Kovalik, a labor and human rights attorney and professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. They talk about the background of Colombian rightwing paramilitary groups, the origins of the recently-disbanded FARC rebel army, the extent of current US involvement in Colombia, the large number of Colombian immigrants in Venezuela and Venezuelan elections.

Kovalik discusses the situation in the Colombian city of Buenaventura, which he also reported on in Peaceful Protest In Buenaventura, Colombia Met With Terror HuffPost 06/08/2017.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Lawrence Wilkerson,on the folly of a military intervention in Venezuela

From The Real News, Wilkerson: Trump Has No Business Threatening Venezuela 08/14/2017:

Wilkerson thinks that US policy toward Latin American generally is aimed at reducing US-Latin American relations to relationships between US businesses and Latin American oligarchs.

An oligarch-to-oligarch kind of arrangement, in other words.

"Charlottesville" as a reminder that the left and center-left need to contest historical interpretations

The transcript of Trump's instantly-infamous press conference on Tuesday is available from several sources, including Read the complete transcript of President Trump's remarks at Trump Tower on Charlottesville Los Angeles Times 08/15/2017. The press conference was physically located in Trump Tower in New York City.

But "Charlottesville" is now the name for an event. Like "Jackson State" or "Kent State" became symbols in 1970s as well as physical locations.

I've been trying this year to incorporate "synecdoche" and "metonymy." I think using "Charlottesville" to review to the confluence of events from the torch demonstration Friday night to (at least) Trump's both-sides press conference yesterday counts as a synecdoche, in which one element of something is used to represent the whole. (People more literate in linguistics than I am are welcome to correct me.) I would also say that "Charlottesville" qualifies as a "vacant signifier" in the sense in which Ernesto Laclau uses it in his political theory, a place name in this case, that had no particular national or international political significance has suddenly become a word signifying white supremacist terrorism and the defense of it and of white supremacists, the KKK and Nazis by the President of the United States.

Here is a Wednesday take from the Morning Joe crew, Joe: None Of Us Have Seen Anything Like Yesterday MSNCBC 08/16/2017:

There are a few groaners in that one, such as Jon Meachem wondering in good Pod Pundit fashion how the Republican Party got this way. A few hints Jon: Barry Goldwater, the Southern Strategy, "Build That Wall."

The head of the Our Revolution organization that emerged from Bernie Sanders' campaign discusses "Charlottesville" in this segment, Nina Turner Denounces the Enablers of Nazis The Real News 08/15/2017:

I'll mention a few good takes on the situation prior to Tuesday:

Charlie Pierce calls attention to an important feature of Trump's Tuesday press conference in Maybe Next Time Stick to the Notes Esquire Politics Blog 08/15/2017, focusing on this aspect of Trump's rant, from the LA Times transcript:

Those people -- all of those people -- excuse me. I've condemned neo-Nazis. I've condemned many different groups. But not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists, by any stretch. Those people were also there because they wanted to protest the taking down of a statue, Robert E. Lee. So -- excuse me. And you take a look at some of the groups and you see -- and you'd know it if you were honest reporters, which in many cases you're not, but many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. So this week it's Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson's coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you all -- you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop? But they were there to protest -- excuse me. You take a look, the night before, they were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. ...

QUESTION: George Washington and Robert E. Lee are not the same (inaudible)…


TRUMP: George Washington was a slave owner. Was George Washington a slave owner? So, will George Washington now lose his status? Are we going to take down -- excuse me -- are we going to take down -- are we going to take down statues to George Washington?


TRUMP: How about Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? You like him?


TRUMP: OK. Good. Are we going to take down the statue? Because he was a major slave owner. Now, are we going to take down his statue? So you know what? It's fine. You're changing history. You're changing culture. And you had people, and I'm not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally. But you had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists. OK? And the press has treated them absolutely unfairly. Now, in the other group also, you had some fine people, but you also had troublemakers and you see them come with the black outfits and with the helmets and with the baseball bats. You've got -- you had a lot of bad -- you had a lot of bad people in the other group. [my emphasis]
Pierce writes:

There's actually an interesting question buried in all that malarkey as to where to place the slaveholding of Washington, Jefferson and many of the rest of the Founders in our historical memory now that we're correcting the memory of the Civil War, monument by monument. (At Montpelier, the home of James Madison, the people in charge have been working hard for several years to honor the stories of the slaves that lived and worked there.) But that's not what the president* was getting at. He was bigot-signaling to his vaunted base that he would have been out there with a tiki torch himself. That's why we got all that talk about the very fine Nazis who were patrolling the park on Saturday night along with the Citronella SS, and who were treated so unfairly by the fake news media when they decided to go for throats.

And that's what takes Tuesday's explosion beyond the realm of simple mockery. There's an audience out there for every lunatic assertion the president* made. We saw it in full flower last Saturday. And he knows it's there, too. He knows that it's the one segment of the American population still guaranteed to give his fragile-if-monumental ego the constant boost that it needs. So he needed to salve all the fee-fees he wounded the other day when somebody dragged him out so he could say right out loud that being a Nazi is a bad thing. This was an angry, heartfelt appeal to his white nationalist base to stick with him, probably because that base is all he has left.
One of my longtime concerns is that the left and center-left do not contest American history thoroughly enough, given the ways in which the rightwingers invoke figures like Washington and Jefferson that have a mythical status for most Americans as Founders and pioneers of democracy.

I've expressed here more than once my frustration at the inability of the left and center-left to contest the democratic and, yes, revolutionary heritage of early and antebellum American history. I hope the left generally gets better at it.

Here is a recent post of mind on the Andrew Jackson part of that heritage, Trump puts Andrew Jackson back in the news 05/03/2017. Jackson, BTW, legitimately counts as a Founder; he fought in the Revolutionary War.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Trump defends his alt-right/KKK/Nazi peeps on Tuesday

One of things about the President of the United States is that he is head of state (like kings and queens and the presidents in several countries of Europe) and head of government (like Chancellors and Prime Ministers in Europe).

A head of government and a head of state should be able to straightforwardly condemn a murderous white supremacist terrorist attack without mealy-mouthing about "both sides" being to blame.

Noah Bierman reports on How the current American President handles it in 'Alt-left' charged at 'alt-right,' Trump says, again placing blame for Charlottesville violence 'on both sides' Los Angeles Times 08/15/2017.

Joe Biden, who supports democracy, tweeted this after Saturday's terrorist attack:

No Both Sides Do It on white racist terrorism from Joe Biden.

Sarah Posner also has some thoughts on the alt-right:

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Netroots Nation 2017 and protesting against Charlottesville rightwing terrorism

I'm just winding up an interesting and enjoyable long weekend at the annual Netroots Nation convention in Atlanta. The pressure from the grassroots on the Democratic Party to be more forceful in standing up for its own claimed programs and principles was very evident and encouraging to see and experience. And the murderous white supremacist rally in Charlottesville added a extra sense of immediacy to resisting Trumpism and pressing the Democratic Party to become a more progressive presence in US politics. After Al Gore's closing plenary presentation, organizers had arranged for a march from the downtown conference hotel to the Statehouse in protest of white supremacy and in solidarity with the victims of the rightwing white terrorist attack there.

The local paper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, gave particular attention to the ways in which Georgia state politics made its presence felt at the conference in a front-page article today by Greg Bluestein that doesn't seem to be online at this writing, "Liberal activists display divide among Democrats") 08/13/2017) but also highlighted the reform vibe of the event:
The nation's leading liberal activists came to Atlanta for the Netroots Nation conference spoiling to sharpen their fight with President Donald Trump. But they proved just as willing to poke, prod and pummel their fellow Democrats.
He obviously means that mainly metaphorically, though he does mention that "a minor scuffle broke out in the audience" when some attendees were loudly protesting Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Evans. The two main candidates in the Democratic gubernatorial contest are both named Stacey, the other being Stacey Abrams, who spoke at the opening plenary on Thursday. Evans is white, Abrams is black, which is some kind of factor in the contest. But part of the rap on Stacey Evans, in particular, is that she has supported some school privatization efforts.

This hour-long segment from TYT Network features three of the anti-Evans protesters, Jordan [Chariton] From Netroots Nation: Protests vs. Establishment 08/12/2017. I believe at least one of the three people interviewed here and maybe all three also spoke at the mini-rally at the Statehouse on Saturday:

More from Bluestein's print report:

Primary challenger to long-serving Democrats were treated like stars. Panels instructed the 3,000 or so activists how to wrest control of their local parties.

Others encouraged them to challenge establishment Democrats, whether they be on local school boards or in Congress, if they aren't liberal enough.

If anything was clear, the internal Democratic fissures sharpened by Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign have solidified, if not deepened, since Trump's election. In panels and in side conversations, organizers talked about forcing Democrats toward more liberal policies, such as single-payer health care and free college tuition.
I didn't attend the last two years' Netroots Nation conventions. But comparing my impressions this year to those from 2014 and earlier, my impression was similar.

Jordan Chariton in the video above gives a different perspective, arguing that Netroots Nation attendees are a more Establishment group than those at the People's Summit earlier this year. But he also explains that there are plenty of progressive people here, it's just they tend to be part of more organized groups that normally support the Democratic Party. And I think that's a fair assessment. Netroots Nation tends to attract people who are comfortable with working within the Democratic Party. But not the Blue Dog variety. Not a lot of Joe Manchin fans at NN gatherings. Whereas the People's Summit drew more people who were new to politics and/or attracted to left groups who keep their distance from the Democrats, and tended to attract younger participants on the average. (I haven't attended the People's Summit.)

I selected panels to attend that addressed foreign policy issues - there weren't many of those! - and panels that addressed Islamophobia, which is a key ideology for the radical right in the US and in Europe. Just after the news of the car attack in Charlottesville broke, I attended the panel organized by Dave Neiwert, who is himself an authority on the far right in the US, titled "The White Face of Domestic Terrorism: How Islamophobia Distorts the Reality of Terrorist Violence in America." It also featured anti-terrorism expert Daryl Johnson and Rabiah Ahmed of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC).

That was immediately followed by the closing plenary session, where Al Gore did a presentation in interview format, mostly dealing with the climate crisis. At the end, he addressed the Charlottesville disgrace, repeatedly referring to the white supremacists as alt-right, KKK and Nazis. Political junkies gravitate toward quibbles over labels. But as Dave Neiwert and his panel explained, actual Nazis, i.e., Hitler-worshipers and those who explicitly admire the Third Reich, are a distinctive segment of the far right which form part of the "alt-right" spectrum. But the latter also includes other currents, including the "Men's Rights Movement."

Bluestein also covered Gore's speech (In Atlanta, Gore urges Trump to ‘try again’ with response to Charlottesville attacks AJC Online 08/2/2017):

Trump condemned the protests that resulted in at least three deaths and prompted the governor to declare a state of emergency, but he didn’t criticize the white nationalist rally, which featured anti-Semitic chants and neo-Nazi slogans. Instead, he called for unity among “all races, creeds and colors.”

Gore said Trump should “give more thought to what it means to have a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and Nazi movement marching and creating this kind of hatred.”

“The country would be better served if the president would come back before the people,” he said, “and think of a more thoughtful and appropriate statement about how we can understand what’s going on in America – and how we can go forward.”
The quickly-organized march after the plenary session was impressive. Apparently there were about 500 people, pretty much all from the NN conference. Delores Huerta, the famous farmworkers' leader who worked closely with Cesar Chavez who had also spoken at the convention, led the procession to the Statehouse. Whoever the people were directly involved in organizing the march, they did an impressively good job of setting up the march, getting official permissions quickly, and keeping the marchers focused and walking in orderly groups. Huerta also spoke at the small rally at the Capitol. But that part of the event was not so well planned. The organizers never noticed, it seemed, that the loudspeaker connected to her mike wasn't working, so that most people couldn't hear what she said. That was followed by several other speakers, apparently from the same group that had organized the protest against Stacey Evans. There wasn't a clear theme to the presentations.

But that's a quibble. It was an impressive march. They used some chants familiar to me. But there were ones new to me, too, my own favorite being, "No Trump! No KKK! No fascist USA!" In a different context, I might have thought that was too sectarian sounding and maybe obscure for such an event. But unfortunately, on Friday it clearly addressing a white terrorist attack very much in the national news at that very moment.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Franklin Foer on why the Democrats need to tweak themselves, but just a little bit (according to him)

"The presidency was everything," is how Franklin Foer describes the practical attitude of the Democratic Party in the years prior to the 2016 election. (What’s Wrong With the Democrats? The Atlantic July/Aug 2017)

I'm cautious about the rest of his argument in that piece. But it that comment does get at the problem of the Democrats having seriously neglected building the state and local parties for years. And he's also right in judging that approach, "Anyone who examined the strategy that the Democratic Party has embraced ever more tightly in recent years could see its essential precariousness." And he also describes the results this way, "On Inauguration Day, the party’s power ebbed to its lowest level since the 1920s."

Foer describes Bernie Sanders with the Yiddish word "luftmensch," which Mirriam-Webster defines as "an impractical contemplative person having no definite business or income."

Foer describes the Bernie-Hillary primary contest in a corporate-Dem-friendly way:

To win the Democratic presidential nomination, it helps to secure the African American vote. But another path to victory involves rallying white voters with a populist bent. This can create an uncomfortable dynamic in presidential primaries, where race vies with class to become the defining concern of the party. Politicians rarely vocalize the tension. But the socialism of Bernie Sanders—which hindered his efforts to explain the centrality of race to American life—made this split less subterranean than usual.

Of course, Hillary Clinton would have preferred to avoid an argument about the primacy of race versus class. But African American voters provided her the surest path to primary victory. They gravitated to her, in no small measure out of loyalty to Obama. Where Clinton posed as the president’s anointed successor, Sanders questioned Obama’s legacy and called for revolutionary change. He never dedicated himself to making meaningful inroads with African American or Latino voters, and so Clinton doubled down. After she lost New Hampshire in February, she began traveling with the grieving mothers of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and other African American casualties of violence. Criminal-justice issues became an elevated feature of her standard pitch.
The corporate Democrats understandably want to frame the New Deal Democrats as more-or-less white racists, who don't prioritize the needs of African-Americans. For those with longer memories and/or history buffs, that general position tries to picture progressives as George Meany laborites. Although we always need to be careful with historical analogies. Although Meany's enthusiastic support of Cold War 1.0 would set well with Democratic advocates for the New Cold War.

Foer also takes the corporate Dem position that Sanders' "campaign did real damage to [Clinton's] chances in November."

And, in a sadly common failing of mainstream reporting and commentary, Foer talks a lot about the "white working class" without any clear definition, much less any explanation about what might be distinct about the white part of the working class. In practice, this usage of "white working class" seems to imply that white workers are the real working class. At best, it's a lazy habit.

In line with this, he speaks admiringly of Obama's Mugwump no-red-America-no-blue-America bipartisanship because in his view it served "to reassure whites, particularly those past middle age and with an acute sense of cultural and economic anomie." It also meant we had a President for eight years who accepted Republican framing of economic issues.

Foer also describes Clinton's support as "a coalition of the cosmopolitan." Here I'll refer to Charlie Pierce's The Historical Significance of 'Cosmopolitan' as an Insult Esquire Politics Blog 08/02/2017.

Foer sets up a framework in which he calls the corporate Dems the "cultural left" and the progressives as the "economic left." At least he doesn't used the term "Cultural Marxism," which has its own obnoxious status as a concept on the right. (See my post "Cultural Marxism": a far-right conspiracy theory involving the Frankfurt School 07/30/2011)

Foer also provides a reminder that Hillary's 2016 primary strategy against Bernie "was an inversion of the 2008 primary campaign. Desperately attempting to forestall Barack Obama by collecting wins in Appalachia, Clinton posed then as the tribune of 'hardworking Americans, white Americans.'” That phrase was one of her bloopers in 2008. Or deliberate dogwhistle, depending on your perspective.

Foer's description of the "economic left" sounds like damning with faint praise: "While the cultural left champions a coalition of the ascendant, the economic left imagines a coalition of the despondent. It seeks to roll back the dominance of finance, to bust monopolies, to curb the predations of the market. It wants to ply back the white working-class voters—clustered in the upper Midwest ..." A coalition of the despondent?

And he presents Cory Booker as a exemplar of the establishment Dems ("cultural left") and Elizabeth Warren as that of the New Deal wing ("economic left"). Foer's admiring treatment of Booker gives a hint of Foer's own preferences, if any more were needed at that point in the article. Even his favorable commentary on Warren seems calculated as much to raise questions about her left credentials and emphasizing her supposed differences with Sanders than at arguing for the value of her economic positions.

The following sounds like a sneer of the "even-the-liberal" type:

A turn toward populism will never be enough to win back a state like West Virginia, which is now deep-red. And there are legitimate questions about whether a strident former Harvard professor, no matter her Oklahoma roots, can effectively purvey that message to a sufficiently broad audience. But Warren’s brand of populism could help cool white-working-class hostility toward the Democrats ... Empathy with economic disappointment, and even anger over the status quo, might reduce the sense that Democrats are perpetrators of the status quo. And liberal populism would take the party beyond ineffectual arguments about Trump’s temperament. A populist critique of Trump would point to his fraudulence as an enemy of the system, a fraudulence that perfectly illustrates everything wrong with plutocracy.
And the article gives a strong hint of trying to define a "liberal populism" that could be serviceable as a corporate Democratic marketing position that need not disturb Wall Street. His example of this kind of approach? Chuck Schumer, Mr. "Bettter Deal," a slogan that makes "Stronger Together" sound edgy.

Foer obviously thinks that the Democratic Party's real problem is that they need to tinker with the advertising a bit: "The makings of a Democratic majority are real. Demographic advantages will continue to accrue to the left. The party needs only to add to its coalition on the margins and in the right patches on the map." And he observes hopefully, "does not require the abandonment of any moral principles," i.e., does not require much discomforting the most comfortable. One could be forgiven for failing to see how that's any different than the standard corporate Democratic approach.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Discussion of Sunday's Venezuelan election

This report from The Real News discusses this past Sunday's Venezuelan Constituent Assembly election, Controversy Over Venezuelan Vote Count 08/02/2017:

The information on Venezuela's voting procedures and audit procedures is important.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Another superficial take on the "white working class" Republican voters

Joan Williams of Hastings Law School last November made an entry into the currently fashionable anthropological speculations about the mysterious white working class. Which she gives the abbreviation WWC. It's What So Many People Don’t Get About the U.S. Working Class Harvard Business Review 11/10/2016.

Her effort has the same basic problem so much of this type of analysis share, a vague definition of what the working class is:

The terminology here can be confusing. When progressives talk about the working class, typically they mean the poor. But the poor, in the bottom 30% of American families, are very different from Americans who are literally in the middle: the middle 50% of families whose median income was $64,000 in 2008. That is the true “middle class,” and they call themselves either “middle class” or “working class.”

“The thing that really gets me is that Democrats try to offer policies (paid sick leave! minimum wage!) that would help the working class,” a friend just wrote me. A few days’ paid leave ain’t gonna support a family. Neither is minimum wage. WWC men aren’t interested in working at McDonald’s for $15 per hour instead of $9.50. What they want is what my father-in-law had: steady, stable, full-time jobs that deliver a solid middle-class life to the 75% of Americans who don’t have a college degree. Trump promises that. I doubt he’ll deliver, but at least he understands what they need.
The favorite journalistic definition of working class is "people without a four-year college education."

A more meaningful sociological definition would start with something like "people eligible to join a union" and define it more closely from there. That would locate the definition as dealing with people's process in the production process, and not by income level or educational attainment. I would think the big difficulty in establishing such a definition would be on issues like how to treat "indepedent contractors," some of which would count as entrepreneurs or small business people, others as working class.

Williams' approach seems to be more impressionistic. And, by intention or not, her version isn't a lot different than the lazy establishment pundit version, which in turn is largely that preferred by Republicans. I'll skip over her repetition of the usual about Mean Libruls being elitist, etc. This observation is worth a bit more attention:

One little-known element of that ["class culture"] gap is that the white working class (WWC) resents professionals but admires the rich. Class migrants (white-collar professionals born to blue-collar families) report that “professional people were generally suspect” and that managers are college kids “who don’t know shit about how to do anything but are full of ideas about how I have to do my job,” said Alfred Lubrano in Limbo. Barbara Ehrenreich recalled in 1990 that her blue-collar dad “could not say the word doctor without the virtual prefix quack. Lawyers were shysters ... and professors were without exception phonies.” Annette Lareau found tremendous resentment against teachers, who were perceived as condescending and unhelpful.

Michèle Lamont, in The Dignity of Working Men, also found resentment of professionals — but not of the rich. “[I] can’t knock anyone for succeeding,” a laborer told her. “There’s a lot of people out there who are wealthy and I’m sure they worked darned hard for every cent they have,” chimed in a receiving clerk. Why the difference? For one thing, most blue-collar workers have little direct contact with the rich outside of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. But professionals order them around every day. The dream is not to become upper-middle-class, with its different food, family, and friendship patterns; the dream is to live in your own class milieu, where you feel comfortable — just with more money. “The main thing is to be independent and give your own orders and not have to take them from anybody else,” a machine operator told Lamont. Owning one’s own business — that’s the goal. That’s another part of Trump’s appeal.
This is part of the problem with using a hazy definition of working class. Most kindergarten, elementary and secondary teachers are working class by almost any reasonable definition. And maybe not doctors but a large number of healthcare providers, notably nurses, also are in that position.

There are some big assumptions being made there, and I'm not sure how much polling or sociological data backing them. I don't recall seeing any political polling looking at voting patterns correlating with the particular attitude Williams describes here. The claim, "the dream is to live in your own class milieu, where you feel comfortable — just with more money," strikes me a broad, dubious generalization.

I'm also not so sure about the idea that working class people (at least if the term is reasonably defined) have very little contact with the wealthiest people but more with professionals. It has been a long-standing assumption, which I believe are based on studies over a long period of time, showing that in the case of "keeping up with the Joneses" competitiveness, people tend to compare themselves more with people in similar situations than with people in drastically different income levels. But that is a different thing that what Williams is arguing. Normally people looking to increase their income are obviously likely to look for the next steps on that goal. So a 25-year-old technician at a large corporation may have no aspiration to replace the CEO next year. But that person is likely to be keenly aware of whether they will get an open senior technician position or whether it goes to one of their current technician colleagues.

But that doesn't mean that the technicians are indifferent to what the CEO does or that they are unaware of the disproportionate power and wealth held by CEO's compared to most everyone else. The comment of the "laborer" she quotes saying, "[I] can’t knock anyone for succeeding" and clerk who "chimed in" with, "There’s a lot of people out there who are wealthy and I’m sure they worked darned hard for every cent they have,” should be seen in that light. Those are the kind of anecdotal comment we often see columnists or commentators using to illustrate a point in a relative small space or a brief period on television. But they don't mean much outside of context. Those two comments are both pretty mundane. And therefore "safe." They are things that you might hear from a free-market libertarian, a flaming socialist and various people in between on the political spectrum.

Jamie Galbraith in Inequality and Instability (2012) has an analysis that is based on real in-depth studies that adds a geographical dimension to this issue of how closely the non-rich observe the rich in the United States. He finds that the increase in national inequality in recent decades has been remarkably geographically concentrated, with a very large part of it identifying with five counties: Santa Clara, San Francisco and San Mateo in California; New York; and King in Washington. All of which benefitted greatly from the technology and financial industries. He writes:

lt is well known that technology firms are not distributed uniformly; they are concentrated in centers such as San Francisco and SanJose, Seattle, Raleigh-Durham, Austin, and Boston. Th.eir :financiers are concentrated in New York County, New York-otherwise known as Manhattan. Income growth in the counties surrounding these areas accounted for the bulk of the inequality increase in the late i990s, and when the information technology bubble burst in 2000, falling relative incomes in these same areas reduced aggregate between-county inequality. In particular, the same four counties that contributed most to the increase in between-county income inequality from 1994 to 2000 contributed most to the inequality decline from 2000 to 2003: New York, Santa Clara, San Mateo, and San Francisco.
California, New York and Washington are all known as liberal states.

Galbraith devotes a separate chapter to the effects of inequality on voting in the US. His concluding summary:

Our analysis suggests that high inequality levels are weakly associated with a larger Democratic vote and also with diminished turnout. These results are strengthened when fixed effects are introduced; rising inequality correlates to deepening Democratic preference and reduced turnout. When the spatial location of voting groups is considered, our results suggest that it is not so much the raw inequality of incomes that is decisive, but the existence of inequalities across populations that do not confront each other aggressively in daily and political life. [my emphasis]
In other words, Galbraith's in-depth analysis shows that a situation where the wealthiest people and the rest "do not confront each other aggressively in daily and political life" has exactly the opposite effect suggested by Williams.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Venezuela and the US after Sunday

"Venezuela is Latin America's biggest exporter of crude oil and has the world's largest petroleum reserves." - Brian Ellsworth and Andrew Cawthorne, Venezuela death toll rises to 13 as protests flare Reuters 02/24/2014

"Venezuela claims the world’s largest proven reserves of petroleum, an estimated 298 billion barrels of oil." - Michael Klare, The Desperate Plight of Petro-States TomDispatch 05/26/2016

The Trump Family Business Administration is now calling the Venezuelan government a dictatorship and elected President Nicolás Maduro a dictator. And his CIA is all but explicitly declaring that they are actively supporting a regime change effort there. A State Department spokesperson today called the election for a Constituent Assembly in Venezuela on Sunday was "illegitimate." (State Department news briefing PBS Newshour 08/01/2017)

She mentioned that Vice President Pence has spoken directly to one of the main opposition leaders in Venezuela, Leopoldo López, and communicated to him that the US is concerned about what she called "grave human rights" abuses. She quoted Pence as saying, "The United States stands with the Venezuelan people and we call for the full and unconditional release of all political prisoners in Venezuela, free and fair elections, restoration of the National Assembly, and respect for human rights in Venezuela." She says "the United States urges the re-establishment of democracy in Venezuela."

At the same press conference, ExxonMobil Secretary of State Rex Tillerson addressed Venezuela starting at 35:00, saying that US policy is to work with like-minded governments in the Organization of American States (OAS) "as well as others who share our view of Venezuela's future." He articulated the current official US position representing Sunday's vote as abolishing democracy in Venezuela. Whether Secretary ExxonMobil cares about human rights and democracy in Venezuela or is thinking mainly of the oil, you can make your own guess. López and another major opposition leader who had been under house arrest were returned to prison after Sunday's election, charged with violating the terms of their house arrest. Tillerson presented that as a "re-arrest." And in what could easily been heard as a threat - to me it obviously is a threat - he said that "this could lead to an outbreak of further violence in the country." He followed it up by saying, "We are evaluating all of our policy options as to what can we do to create a change of conditions where either Maduro decides he doesn't have a future and wants to leave of his own accord, or we can return the government processes back to their constitution."

The US at this point isn't even calling for Bashar al-Assad's removal of head of government in Syria. We Americans are shocked, shocked that Russia would try to fiddle around in our elections last year. But Latin America, we can openly declare we're ousting an elected President there and it's just routine business, because we're Exceptional. None of this looks good to me. I wish I could expect to hear an outcry in Congress over something like this. But I'm not holding my breath.

Without belaboring it, I'll point out here that the current Venezuelan government, both President and National Assembly (Congress), were elected in competitive elections. A Constituent Assembly to write a new Constitution was not so long ago a demand of the anti-Maduro opposition. But the opposition boycotted Sunday's election. It's clear that there have been police and military abuses in Venezuela, which the anti-Maduro opposition has made sure are are presented to the American public via an all-too-uncritical media. The organized and spontaneous violent actions by the opposition have not received similar publicity in the US.

I'm not going to recount the past 18 years of Venezuelan politics in every post on Venezuela. And I'm not going to repeat every time I quote or share something from TeleSUR that it is primarily funded by Venezuela with contributions from several other South American countries and takes a sympathetic position toward the current Venezuelan government of Nicolás Maduro. I assume that readers can apply reasonably critical thinking to what they read and hear. Not everyone does, I know. But that's the operative assumption at this blog.

I also try to avoid facile comparisons between how the US approaches foreign affairs and how we object to similar practices on the part of other countries. That's partly because hypocrisy of that sort is part of the common currency of diplomacy. But the fact that the US feels so little embarrassment about regime change operations is one reason that we can't reasonably expect Latin Americans to be shocked, shocked by the accusations the US intelligence agencies and the media have been making about Russian interference in the 2016 American elections. And do you remember the last time we let somebody out of prison because a hostile foreign government demanded it? Me neither. But we're American and we're Exceptional.

Also, it's a useful exercise to imagine that the Russian Foreign Minister just gave a press conference declaring, "We are evaluating all of our policy options as to what can we do to create a change of conditions where either Trump decides he doesn't have a future and wants to leave of his own accord, or we can return the government processes back to their constitution."

TeleSUR carried this clip of Maduro responding to the escalation of the rhetoric from the US government against Venezuela

Abby Martin in this edition of her Empire Files program on TeleSUR interviews the head of the Venezuelan National Guard. And she elecits his responses to some of the serious accusations being made against him. Head of Venezuela National Guard on Insurgency & US Threats 07/31/2017:

The rhetorical - and almost certainly not only rhetorical - escalation that Venezuela now faces from the US certainly give Maduro the ability to frame the internal political struggle in Venezuela as an anti-imperialist stand for democracy and against US imperialism. In this clip (Maduro: Trump arremete contra el pueblo de México y nadie alza la voz TeleSUR 07/31/2017), he asks at the start (in Spanish), "Are you with Trump or are you with Venezuela? Are you with Trump or are you with democracy? Are you with Trump or are you with the destiny of the free peoples of the world? ... Are you with Trump or are you with the Free World?"

Rumors, lies and hate-mongering

"Ausländer, Sex, Gewalt - das ist ein toxischer Mix, der den Leuten den Verstand benebelt. Wen kümmert da noch, was Wahrheit ist, was Lüge?" (Foreigners, sex, violence - that is a toxic mix that fogs people's understand. Then who worries bothers about what is true and what is a lie?") - Jakob Augstein, Die Schaumschlägerei von Schorndorf Spiegel Online 24.07.2017

"The intent of the tale that Trump told his rabid fans in Ohio was simple: foment hatred for immigrants." - Rex Huppke, Donald Trump's behavior is abnormal Chicago Tribune 07/26/2017

Augstein was referring to an incident in Germany during a Volksfest in a southern German town. The Volkfests are basically roudy outdoor beer parties that particular attract teenagers and young adults. Reported violence there picked up on an ambiguous local police report that could be read as a thousand people having rioted. Actually, it was pretty clear in the police report that they meant there were 1000 people in attendance and there were some violent incidents, which apparently happen at this event every year. But the rumor mill online and elsewhere took it as a thousand people rioting and treated it up into a model sinister case of criminal foreigners attacking good innocent Germans. The buzzwords became things like "sex crimes," "Migrant" and "attack on police." (Alexander Schulz, Chronik einer Eskalation Spiegel Online 20.07.2017)

Although it's worth noting that erroneous version was first promoted not by skinheads or Russian bots, but by the respectable DPA news agency.

In the American case, it was the President himself promoting the foreigner-sex-violence hate slogans in front of a crowd of New York police, some of whom were applauding his nastiest and most violence-encouraging comments. Huppke's take on it was to focus on the demagoguery of Trump's torture porn:

That's a story the president of the United States told at a rally in Ohio on Tuesday night. It's a creepy story, one that mixes unnecessarily detailed savagery with the image of "a young, beautiful girl."

There's no mention of the anecdote's origin, no specifics on when or where a "beautiful, beautiful, innocent" young person was sliced and diced and put through "excruciating pain." There is just the violent imagery, and the repeated reference to "animals."

That's weird. It's intentionally dehumanizing an entire group of people, which I'll get to in a moment, but it's also just weird. Weird in a way that if someone at a bar told you that story you'd excuse yourself and walk away as quickly as possible.

It's sadistic.
And Huppke actually fact-checked a bit:

Did his story of slicing and dicing stem from an actual event? I don't know.

The closest story I could find was the murder of two teen girls on Long Island last year. They were attacked by members of the brutal MS-13 street gang and beaten to death with bats and a machete. Several of the gang members arrested were in the country illegally.

Without question, there are crimes committed by people who are here illegally. But as a group, immigrants — both documented and undocumented — commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans.
Fact-checking and explaining reality will normally not directly counteract the effect of such hate-mongering on those who want to hear it.

But fact matter, too.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Kamala Harris and internal Democratic Party politics

A Facebook friend called my attention to this article from last April on California Sen. Kamala Harris: Evan Halper, Sen. Kamala Harris sees a path out of the wilderness for Democrats — but can she sell it to them? Los Angeles Times 04/06/2017.

Harris is currently a new hope for corporate Democrats. Although it's not really clear at this point that she's going in that direction. Halper's article gives some indication of that. But mostly it's confusing.

“We can’t afford to be purists,” Harris said. “You have to ask that question of yourself: Are we going to be purists to this resistance to the point that you let these guys go? Or can you understand that you may not agree with 50% of their policy positions, but I can guarantee you will disagree with 100% of their replacements’ policy positions. So that is part of the question. What do we have to do in this movement to be pragmatic?”
This sounds like a corporate Dem lecturing New Deal Dems about why we should all cheer for conservative Dems who vote for the Republicans. But the main current version of the corporate Dem position, as illustrated by Hillary Clinton, is to emphasize a libertarian position on equal rights for women, blacks, Latinos, immigrants and the LGBTQ community, while sticking to neoliberal economic positions with an emphasis on the desires of the finance sector and pursuing a more-or-less hawkish position on foreign policy that continue the Cold War triumphalism shared by Presidential Administration since Bill Clinton's and Old Man Bush's.

But Halper says of Kamala Harris, "California’s freshman senator, a civil rights crusader whose India-born mother and Jamaica-raised father met during political protests in the Bay Area, is so associated with the identity politics of the left that her Twitter feed was a punchline in a recent “Saturday Night Live” skit. But as she finds her way in Washington, Harris is embracing an approach somewhat at odds with that image."

And in the interview, she positions herself this way:

“There is this conversation that we’ve got to go back and get him,” she said, referring to the prototypical white, male Trump voter. “The inference there is that to do that we need to walk away from that Latina or black mom. That is a mistake.”

But she suggested the party has too often seized on wedge, identity politics issues that divide voters. “What I do know about those two ladies and that guy is when we wake up at 3 in the morning or something is troubling us, it is never through the lens of, ‘am I Democrat or Republican,’ or on our identity based on what other people have decided is our identity.”

Instead, she said, it is economic issues that weigh on people: their bills, their job troubles, their difficulty getting health insurance.
This sounds like a mishmash of the Clinton approach (emphasis on "identity" politics, corporate-friendly economics), the New Deal Dem stance (an aggressive approach to civil rights with distinctly prolabor economics) and the old DLC stance (try to sound more conservative across the board).

I was struck by her abstract example, "Or can you understand that you may not agree with 50% of their policy positions, but I can guarantee you will disagree with 100% of their replacements’ policy positions." So does this mean that Democrats should be satisfied with candidates who are only half-Democrats? That would be the literal meaning of the statement.

But beyond that, where does that percentage become too small a fraction of a Democrat for Harris not to support them? And for members of Congress and state legislators, the voting percentage is less important than what the Democratic position they vote for and when. It's typical for legislators on both sides to vote with the other party on some issue in which the other side's position is more favored or more vocally favored in their district. But on big votes - a major health care plan, a Supreme Court Justice, a major infrastruture program, public financing for political campaigns - if Democrats are casting deciding votes on those issues against the Democratic position, then those Dems are probably not Democratic enough, regardless of the percentage of overall votes they cast with their own party.

There's also a big difference between party primaries and general elections. No incumbent really wants to have a party challenger. (Or one from the other party, for that matter!) But if the Democratic left wants to move the party in a more progressive direction, they have to give attention to party primaries. And win a lot of them. Because even if there is a Democratic majority in both Houses of Congress, if only half the Democrats vote for Democratic positions ... The math on that is brutal.

Another head-scratcher in the Harris interview is this:

She pointed to the incident at a bar outside of Kansas City, Kan., in February in which an attacker shot and killed an Indian immigrant he mistakenly believed to be a Muslim. Patrons in the bar risked their lives trying to protect the victim, she said.

“I bet you that patrons in that bar voted for Trump,” Harris said. “But when presented with that situation, at that moment, without reflection, they did the right thing…. We can’t afford to put people in boxes.”
This would be more meaningful if she could say, for instance, that the Kansas Republican Party took the opportunity to start a publicity campaign against racial violence. Or, for instance, used it to talk up the need for better gun control. Ha! As if!

But what is her point there? That some Republicans would be willing to come to the assistance of someone who had just been gunned down? And she had to speculate to make that point in this particular case she brought up.

And it's a misleading example anyway. An election is a collective political event, not an individual moment of someone being in danger of their life. Maybe Harris knows of some poll that surveyed the partisan inclinations of people who spontaneously came to the aid of shooting victims. But that didn't make it into the interview.

Halper also seems to read a lot into the following, which sounds like boilerplate to me. Even Bernie Sanders says in general that he would support a real infrastructure program if Trump proposed it. Which he won't.

But despite pressure from activists on the left, Harris refuses to rule out working with the White House.

“Political capital is something that does not gain interest,” she said, when asked how she thought Democrats should respond if the White House offers to collaborate on joint priorities, such as federal money to rebuild outdated roads, bridges and airports. “When you’ve got it, you’ve got to spend it.... If the Trump administration puts in place a real, significant and genuine plan for infrastructure, I'll be down with it.” [my emphasis]
That ain't gonna happen.

For some less ambiguous takes on Democratic patisanship and winning elections, here is Michael Moore, Democrats Aren't Running The Right People 07/31/2017:

Also: Dean Baker, A Better Deal Than What? Truthout 07/31/2017.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Competence and confusion in US foreign policy

Danielle Ryan has a sensible take on Bundespräsident Von Trump's approach to foreign policy to date, Trump’s foreign policy: Bizarre and inconsistent, or more strategic than we think? Salon 07/30/2017: "Maybe the haphazardness and mixed messages that characterize Trumpian foreign policy are part of a grander strategy we cannot yet perceive — or maybe they are indicative of an administration that can’t even manage itself, never mind complex international conflicts."

She observes that such inconsistency isn't entirely surprising, "He has been on both sides of most issues at one point or another."

Ryan uses the example of Trump bombing Syria and then later ending support to the fabled Syrian Moderates, seemingly conflicting positions. She also notes that despite his apparent desire to improve relations with Russia, Trump's administration also announced what could be a significant anti-Russian escalation with Ukraine:

Why then, just a week later, did the new U.S. special envoy on Ukraine, Kurt Volker, announce during an interview in Paris that the U.S. was now considering sending weapons to the Kiev government, which could be used against pro-Russian rebels in the breakaway eastern regions of the country — a move that would undoubtedly undo any Moscow goodwill resulting from the decision to stop arming rebels in Syria?
And she describes:

... a creeping advance on the town of [Russian separatist area] Avdiivka by Kiev’s forces — and a subsequent effort to lay the blame solely on the separatists, while maintaining the government’s innocence.

Ukraine’s deputy defense minister blew the lid off that narrative when he told Ukrainian media: “As of today, despite everything, meter by meter, step by step, whenever possible, our boys have been advancing.”

It is unrealistic to think that support and weapons from the Trump administration would not increase tensions in Ukraine and irritate an already complicated situation. Throwing new weapons at the problem is no solution.
It would be a mistake to discount the role of plain incompetence in the Trump Family Business Administration's policies, foreign and otherwise.

Some progressives have expressed the hope that Trump is rejecting the "War Party" in favor of a less interventionist foreign policy. The problem is that Old Right isolationist views can sound superficially like pacifist ones. But that outlook, which seems to be Trump's basic reference point in foreign policy, is actually highly nationalistic and leans toward unilateral military solutions. This administration's dramatic de-emphasis on even basic staffing for the State Department and US embassies abroad is consistent with the rightwing isolationist approach.

Ryan opens the piece describing how cutting off the aid to the legendary Syrian Moderates can be taken as a pro-Russian policy, an anti-interventionist policy and/or a realistic, pragmatic move:

When Trump administration officials announced an end to the covert CIA program to arm and train Syrian rebels in their fight against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, many framed it as a win for Russia — and while it was indeed something Russia had been seeking for years, it also, more importantly, made sense.

For years, this “secret” effort to aid rebels against Assad had been openly reported. The program enjoyed a budget of up to $1 billion per year — yet it had achieved absolutely nothing. It only helped prolong the war and actually aided groups like al-Nusra (al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate) and ISIS by allowing arms meant for “moderate” groups to enter into their hands instead.

Despite the effort ending in abject failure, much of the media reporting painted the decision to end this scheme as a catastrophe — simply because it also happened to benefit Russia (which supports Assad against the rebel forces). [my emphasis]
But even a strongly antiwar foreign policy would require competent diplomacy. And so far, that doesn't seem to be a prominent characteristic of this administration.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Realtiy-based references on MS-13

Hearing about reality won't in itself convince anyone who has a favorite hatred, against black or Jews or Latinos or whoever.

But reality matters. "Sharia" is a slogan for Islamophobes (or Muslim-haters, if you prefer). But Sharia law is a real thing, whose reality has little resemblance to the fear fantasies about it in the US and Western Europe. (See my Varieties of Islāmic law post of 08/24/2010.) I would like to see a TV moderator ask someone ranting about Sharia if they are referring to the Maliki, Hanafi, Shafii, Hanbalite, Twelver Shi'a or Ibādite variety.

Trump's white supremacist hate slogan against Latinos, "MS-13" is a similar story. The gutter white right adopted it as a fear-and-hate word. There is a reality behind it, one that has nothing to do with most Latinos, immigrants to the US or otherwise.

The US Army's Military Review journal carried an analysis in 2006 (Steven C. Boraz and Thomas C. Bruneau, Are the Maras Overwhelming Governments in Central America? Nov-Dec 2006) about Central American gangs (maras Nov-Dec 2006). Boraz and Bruneau give this historical overview:

The maras emerged from conflicts in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua during the 1980s. Thousands of people fled north, including a large number of young men who had fought on the governments’ side or with the insurgents. Many of these young men went to Los Angeles, but because they were poorly educated, few were able to find work. In a city already structured in terms of gangs, their familiarity with guns and armed combat was their one advantage. Some were incorporated into such neighborhood gangs as the African–American Crips and Bloods; the Mexican-American, illegal-immigrant gang EME; and the Mexican Mafia. Some of the men, especially those from El Salvador, joined the multi-ethnic 18th Street Gang. Other Salvadorans founded the Mara Salvatrucha (Group of Smart, or savvy, Salvadorans) 13, or MS-13, to compete with the 18th Street Gang because they believed the Salvadorans in that gang were traitors. (The new gang gave itself the number 13, as in 13th Street, where many Salvadorans had settled.) As most of what the maras were (and are) involved in was criminal activity, they were arrested and put into prison, where they further defined their gang identities and honed their criminal skills. [my emphasis in bold]
This is another example of a familiar cycle of violence. Civil wars in Central American countries, actively encouraged and armed by the Reagan Administration. Reagan turned over Central American policy to neocons, who made the area their violent playground. Refugees came to the US, where for some of them it was difficult for them to integrate into society via legal channels. Some of them later return home to Central America and exacerbate criminal violence there.

Weston Phippin also describes that cycle in What Trump Doesn't Understand About MS-13 The Atlantic 06/26/2017.

Boraz and Bruneau describe MS-13 initiation rituals that were picked up in the plot of the Telemundo novela Bajo el mismo cielo (2015-6).

They describe the maras generally (not MS-13 alone) as a significant security problem in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. Not that they refrain from some hair-raising descriptions: "Whole sections of cities, such as Guatemala City and Tegucigalpa, are under the control of maras, which, of course, fight each other for control of turf. When international organized crime employs maras, entire sections of countries, such as the Peten in Guatemala, slip from the state’s sovereign control."

But they distinguish those described threat level from the situation of Central American gangs in the US, speaking not just of MS-13:

To our knowledge, there is no credible evidence linking the maras to terrorism. This is clearly good news for the United States considering the ease with which gang members cross the borders into this country. Further, while the maras are a crime problem in cities across the United States, the situation in most of Central America is much more serious because of a lower level of economic development and the fragility of the new democracies and their institutions.
The following year, Military Review carried another article on the maras, this one by Federico Brevé, who served as the Honduran Minister of Defense 2002 to 2006, The Maras - A Menace to the Americas (July-Aug 2007). It mentions MS-13, as well, but its subject is the larger gang environment, and focuses on Central American issues.

This is a one-minute clip on MS-13 from CNN, MS-13: America's most dangerous street gang? 03/02/2017:

Here are some other news and commentary pieces on the real existing MS-13:

Friday, July 28, 2017

Trump makes "MS-13" a slogan of fear and hatred against Latinos and immigrants

Bundespräsident Von Trump spoke before a crowd of uniformed police in New York today, smearing Latinos as sadistic criminals and encouraging brutality and criminal behavior by the police. He used the longtime nativist bogeyman of MS-13 as his excuse. Trump discusses immigration and crime in New York PBS Newshour 07/28/2017:

His speech was basically white supremacist torture porn.

Hearing Trump as President in full Duterte mode today made me feel ill. Part of why his white supremacist fans love him is that he says things that upset Mean Libruls. And I assume that a majority of his white voters approve of seeing nonviolent immigrants brutalized and terrorized by ICE agents.

And why police sworn to uphold the law were applauding this is another reminder of how badly corrupted and lawless too many of our police forces have become.

The use of MS-13 at a symbol of and incitement to fear and hatred against Latinos was a popular theme among white supremacists since at least the early 2000s. Like various other themes, this one migrated from the white supremacist gutter to the position of the Republicans President.

MS-13 is a real gang, or a "brand" of gangs. But I won't stop to cite any reality-based sources here. In this speech, Trump uses "MS-13" as a ritual buzzword. I've focused lately on Islamophia in Austria. And one thing I took fromr a couple of extended TV panels featuring Muslim-hating participants was the way they made a point of tossing in a set of buzzwords: "jihad," "headscarves," "sharia," "salafi," "Saudi Arabia," "political Islam."

Tossing out "MS-13" along with torture-porn accessories functions in the same way: to promote fear and hatred rather than thought or understanding. And Trump is using it in this speech as a symbol against Latinos and immigrants.

Charlie Pierce tweeted a series of comments on Trump's speech: