Saturday, October 21, 2017

The state of American mourning and militarism, Trump-Kelly version

Our alt-right President gives us literally daily reasons for outrage. Everyone wonders whether we're being played by a flood of distractions. On the other hand, when the President is talking crazy and inciting war and civil violence, people can't just ignore that, either.

Masha Gessen wrote an important piece on one of the outrages of this past week, John Kelly and the Language of the Military Coup New Yorker 10/20/2017. She was responding to White House Chief of Staff John Kelly's defense of Trump's heartless phone call to the family of Sgt. David. Johnson, one of four soldiers recently killed during a mystery mission in Niger. (Barbara Starr and Zachary Cohen, Missing soldier found nearly a mile from Niger ambush, officials say CNN 10/21/2017)

Johnson's mother described Trump's callous comments in an interview with the Washington Post (Anne Gearan and Kristine Phillips, Fallen soldier’s mother: ‘Trump did disrespect my son’ 10/18/2017)

Sgt. La David T. Johnson’s mother, Cowanda Jones-Johnson, told The Washington Post that she was present during the call from the White House on Tuesday to Johnson’s widow, Myeshia Johnson. She also stood by an account of the call from Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.) that Trump told Myeshia Johnson that her husband “must have known what he signed up for.”

“President Trump did disrespect my son and my daughter and also me and my husband,” Jones-Johnson said. ...

Wilson went on to say Trump “was almost like joking. He said, ‘Well, I guess you knew’ — something to the effect that ‘he knew what he was getting into when he signed up, but I guess it hurts anyway.’ You know, just matter-of-factly, that this is what happens, anyone who is signing up for military duty is signing up to die. That’s the way we interpreted it. It was horrible. It was insensitive. It was absolutely crazy, unnecessary. I was livid.”

“She was in tears. She was in tears. And she said, ‘He didn’t even remember his name.’ ”
Here is a video of Kelly's press conference, following by adoring words from the Morning Zoo crew, who want to consider Kelly one of the proverbial grownups-in-the-room who will supposedly restrain Trump's excesses. Though public evidence for such a function of their part is rather scarce. General John Kelly's Powerful Speech Hit At Wilson And President Donald Trump Morning Joe MSNBC 10/20/2017:

As I mentioned on a Facebook thread of one of my friends, since the President and his Chief of Staff think everyone enlisting in the military "knows what they're signing up for," maybe the Pentagon should use a cigarettes-style warning on all their recruitment ads, along the lines of: "In signing up for military service, you should know you are signing up to die, possibly in a useless war started for the most venal purposes by politicians who don't give a s*** whether you live or die anyway. Also, you made die as a direct consequence of some stupid-ass move by military contractors who feel no obligation to defend your life as long as they're making a buck."

I only recall encountering in real life two meanings of "he knew what he was signing up for." One is to remind someone of their obligations if they seem reluctant to fulfill them. The other is to say, "I don't care whether somebody is suffering, to hell with them." I can't see how either would be an appropriate message from the President to the spouse of a soldier killed in the line of duty.

Nuance and situational awareness matter in this things. I'm no grief-counseling expert. And everyone handles grief in their own way. Something like, "we all know that was a risk but it's horrible to lose him" is a whole different thing from "well, we all know it can happen, too bad for him." And of course soldiers in the middle of a combat assignment have less immediate latitude to process grief than when people die under more ordinary circumstances. So "we all know it can happen to us" would have a different meaning in that context, with a kind of solidarity or empathy totally missing from what Trump and Kelly said this week.

I personally wouldn't recommend saying that to friends or family members in any case. I've never seen anyone get offended by someone saying of the loss of one of their loved ones, "at least he's not suffering anymore." But I avoid saying it myself, because even in cases of someone suffering a very painful condition, the person passing away may or may not have seen it that way.

On the practical administrative side, official procedures and grief-management rituals are an extremely important function for the military. In blunt terms, those practices try to say "our grief is genuine and your wife/husband/son/daughter died for a great cause," without coming off as saying "it may have been a pointless death but we're going to pretend it isn't." And that's pretty deeply rooted in anthropology. If you want your tribe to rally around when the war drums sound in the jungle, you have to communicate to the warriors that if they die it's not entirely in vain. And also just common humanity.

It seems to me that what Trump and Kelly did was actually to step on that elaborate official mourning structure pretty hard by having senior officials send a message that to most people will come off more like, "it's no big deal, some people live, some people die, suck it up, I've got a golf game to get to."

Masha Gessen highlights the concern that John Kelley's statement included a perspective that was not only morbidly maudlin, but anti-democratic. Here is the mordibly maudlin:

Fallen soldiers, Kelly said, join “the best one per cent this country produces.” Here, the chief of staff again reminded his audience of its ignorance: “Most of you, as Americans, don’t know them. Many of you don’t know anyone who knows any of them. But they are the very best this country produces.”

The one-per-cent figure is puzzling. The number of people currently serving in the military, both on active duty and in the reserves, is not even one per cent of all Americans. The number of veterans in the population is far higher: more than seven per cent. But, later in the speech, when Kelly described his own distress after hearing the criticism of Trump’s phone call, the general said that he had gone to “walk among the finest men and women on this earth. And you can always find them because they’re in Arlington National Cemetery.” So, by “the best” Americans, Kelly had meant dead Americans — specifically, fallen soldiers. ...

The number of Americans killed in all the wars this nation has ever fought is indeed equal to roughly one per cent of all Americans alive today. This makes for questionable math and disturbing logic.
This kind of talk belongs more in a Jim Jones-style death cult than in public statements by senior political and military officials in a democratic country.

It goes beyond grateful hyperbole for those who serve in the armed forces. And beyond respect and gratitude for those who wound up giving their lives in military service. But the course of events that made them casualties of war did not convey sainthood on them. Nor did it make their shades, which in Kelly's version seemingly wander among the graves of Arlington, into superior beings to the living. Among various problem with that occultist outlook, it perpetuates the dangers fantasy that American soldiers aren't normal human beings, and that it's a good thing that they die in war, something to be envied by the living rather than mourned.

Gessen makes the helpful point that such a perspective is radically different than "the kind of statement that’s attributed to General George S. Patton: 'The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his.'” [my emphasis]

But I have reservations about the specific context in which she puts that reference. Recalling his own growing up in the Soviet Union, she writes, "It is in totalitarian societies, which demand complete mobilization, that dying for one’s country becomes the ultimate badge of honor." But calling dying in war "the ultimate badge of honor" is something that people in Western democratic societies would have little problem doing. Viewing their ghosts wandering the military cemetery as "very best this country produces" is whole different level of maudlin.

Gessen concludes with an example of what I would call an expression of outright militarism in Kelly's statement:

Kelly’s last argument was his most striking. At the end of the briefing, he said that he would take questions only from those members of the press who had a personal connection to a fallen soldier, followed by those who knew a Gold Star family. Considering that, a few minutes earlier, Kelly had said most Americans didn’t even know anyone who knew anyone who belonged to the “one per cent,” he was now explicitly denying a majority of Americans — or the journalists representing them - the right to ask questions. This was a new twist on the Trump Administration’s technique of shunning and shaming unfriendly members of the news media, except this time, it was framed explicitly in terms of national loyalty. As if on cue, the first reporter allowed to speak inserted the phrase “Semper Fi” — a literal loyalty oath—into his question.

Before walking off the stage, Kelly told Americans who haven’t served in the military that he pities them. “We don’t look down upon those of you who haven’t served,” he said. “In fact, in a way we are a little bit sorry because you’ll have never have experienced the wonderful joy you get in your heart when you do the kinds of things our servicemen and women do—not for any other reason than that they love this country.”

(2) October Revolution: the world war and the revolution

John Kenneth Galbraith does a good job of placing the October Revolution in the context of the First World War in this episode of his 1977 ducumentary, The Age of Uncertainty, Episode 5 Lenin and The Great Ungluing:

The First World War was a massive, shattering event that left a very different world in its wake. And, of course, it didn't create a stable peace.

Galbraith's segment explains the prewar Social Democratic determination to resist an "imperialist" war and how that determination gave way depressingly quickly to patriotic support of the war. And so the workers of the world united in slaughtering each other for the benefit of the ruling classes. Although the latter were deeply shaken in many places. Especially in Russia.

How critical Russian opposition to continued Russian participation in the Great War was for the October Revolution is explained this way by Rex Wade in The Russian Revolution (1917):

One of the first acts of the new regime had been the Decree on Peace, which included a call for an immediate armistice. With one stroke the new leaders bought for themselves broad popular support, especially among soldiers, and moved decisively on the issue that more than any other had undermined their predecessors. Vivid descriptions come down to us of the reactions in the hall at the Second Congress of Soviets as Lenin read the peace decree. The American journalist, Albert Rhys Williams, was there and recalled that “a burly soldier stood, tears in his eyes as he embraced a worker who had risen and was clapping furiously ... A Viborg man [Vyborg district worker], his eyes hollow from lack of sleep, his face gaunt beneath his beard, looked around the hall, dazed, and, crossing himself, muttered: ‘Pust budet konets voine!’ (‘May it be the end of the war!’).” Still, popular support would quickly wither unless peace could promptly be made a reality. [my emphasis in bold]
Galbraith notes that the Bolsheviks' initial seizure of power involved "much excitement but little bloodshed." The bloodshed would come during the civil war that would soon commence, with massive encouragement from Britain and the US. The initial takeover was the "kicking in of the rotten door."

Galbraith in the 1977 companion volume to the documentary series of the same name framed the historical significance of the First World War this way:

People of the World War II generation, my generation, will always think of their conflict as the great modern watershed of change. Hitler was defeated, fascism destroyed. For the great colonial empires just discussed, it was either the end or the beginning of the end. The nuclear age arrived. The two superpowers emerged. Soviet influence and power advanced into Eastern Europe, American into Western Europe. The Chinese Revolution came. What greater change could there be than this?

We should be allowed our vanity, our personal rendezvous with history. But we should know that, in social terms, a far more decisive change came with World War I. It was then that political and social systems, centuries in the building, came apart - sometimes in a matter of weeks. And others were permanently transformed. It was in World War I that the age-old certainties were lost. Until then aristocrats and capitalists felt secure in their position, and even socialists felt certain in their faith. It was never to be so again. The Age of Uncertainty began. World War II continued, enlarged and affirmed this change. In social terms World War II was the last battle of World War I. [my emphasis]
There is a line of historical argument that the First World War was effectively the only reason for the Russian Revolution. This is not a convincing argument, though it turns out to be convenient for some ideological positions. But there is no question that the real events of 1917 in Russia very intimately connected with the effects and the politics of the war.

Friday, October 20, 2017

(1) October Revolution: Russia and the Great War

For the next several days into November, I'm going to highlight a number of articles on the Russian Revolution of 1917.

There are already a variety of general pieces recalling the event on its 100th anniversary. I'm trying to highlight some useful left perspectives on that history. The leadership of the Bolshevik Party in Russia, later renamed the Communist Party, generally understood their revolutionary project in Marxist terms. That was certainly true of their main leader Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924), whose birth name was Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov. And understanding the basic outlines of the Russian Revolution includes having some grasp of their viewpoint and some awareness of the context of the revolution in the First World War, the then-unprecedented carnage that put an end to the German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian imperial houses.

The then-unprecedented carnage of the First World War is represented here in a contemporary Hungarian antiwar poster

One thing that articles describing the Bolsheviks' political viewpoint reminds me that some of the most commonly used words used in doing so have a jargon-y ring to many people today. Like the French-derived words "bourgeoisie" and "proletariat." "Capitalists" and "working class" are functionally similar terms. A term familiar in 2017 like "the One Percent" might better capture the sense of what "bourgeoisie" meant to socialists in 1917. But that's more a polemical than a sociological signifier. And anyone who has followed some of the flood of commentary the last 10 months on the "white working class" voter in the United States will have some sense that it, too, is generally missing any clear and commonly understood meaning. It's often used to mean something like "factory workers." Pollsters use "people without a four-year college education" as a stand-in for a more substantial sociological meaning. Understanding "working class" to include anyone eligible to be a union member would be a better functional understanding, albeit more of a formalist than a sociological one.

Alexander Kerensky

For all the decades of discussions, analysis and polemics over the Russian Revolution and infinite nuances of Communist theory and strategy, it's may be difficult to remember that the "land, peace and bread" were the most immediate popular issues leading up to the October Revolution. This is, land reform for the peasants, an end to Russian participation in the world war, and food. Basic demands for a largely rural people exhausted and deprived by years of a devastating war.

As it turned out, the United States and Britain intervened militarily to try to bring Russia back into the war and oppose the new Soviet government. But the main opposition came from the White armies from Russia and other parts of the Russian Empire, and a bloody civil war ensued. How much that affected the future development of the Soviet government is still a central topic of discussion.

By the time the Soviet Union faced the massive invasion in 1941 by Germany and its allies, the USSR had become a major military power. Despite its massive losses of blood and treasure in the Second World War, it ended the war in a greatly enhanced political and military position in the world. Relations with the Soviet Union became a key political challenge for most of the world, and especially for the US, its NATO allies, China, Vietnam, North Korea and, of course, Cuba.

Vladimir Lenin underground-August 1917

The general approach of the Western capitalist powers toward the USSR can be usefully understood as a counter-revolutionary one, aimed at containing Soviet influence across the board. But that obviously wasn't an unbroken policy of complete hostility. In the Second World War, the USSR was an essential ally to the US and Britain and was considered part of the Free World in that coalition, which was also called the United Nations before the current world organization was established. Even during the Cold War, there were periods of greater and lesser tension. The Cuban Missile Crisis was a low point. The SALT 1 Treaty and Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik were more hopeful moments, though neoconservatives are prone to remember any concession to the USSR by the West as evil "appeasement." It was even common in the late 1970s to talk about an end to the Cold War, although now that period has been folded into the conventional dating of that protracted political-military standoff. A major part of the commentary this year on the October Revolution deals with explaining its long reverberations in world politics.

One caution in reading about this period in Russia. In 1917, Russia was using the Julian or Old Style calendar that was 13 days behind the Gregorian (New Style) calendar we use now and which Russia adopted soon after. So, the anniversary of the "October Revolution" would have been October 24-25 in the Old Style but falls on November 6-7 New Style. The switch to the New Style calendar took place at the start of February 1918 (New Style). The Eastern Orthodox Church continues to use some form of the Julian calendar in scheduling liturgical feast days.

This is a timeline for the Russian Revolution:

  • Feb 1917 (Old Style): The February Revolution
  • Mar 1917 (Old Style): The Czar abdicates, Aleksandr Kerensky's Provisional Government takes power ("Provisional Government" is used for the form of government headed by Kerensky until the Bolsheviks took power. Kerenksy had four different Cabinets during that time, representing different political coalitions, and so histories will also refer to the Kenernsky's first, second, third and fourth "governments.")
  • Mar-Oct 1917 (Old Style): Period of "dual power" between the Kerensky government and the soviets (workers' councils)
  • July 1917 (Old Style): Popular uprising against the Kerensky regime; the Bolsheviks do not take this as a opportune juncture to try to seize of power at that moment
  • ; franchise extended to women
  • Aug 1917 (Old Style): Restorationist "Kornilov revolt," named for its leader, Gen. Lavr Georgiyevich Kornilov.
  • Sept 1917: Bolsheviks attain majority in the Petrograd Soviet
  • Oct 24-25 (New Style Nov 6-7): The Bolsheviks take power based on their support among the soviets
  • Dec 7, 1917 (Old Style): Founding of the revolution's secret police, the Cheka, the predecessor of what became the KGB, headed by Feliks Dzerzhinsky
  • Nov 1917 (Old Style): Constituent Assembly elections in which the Socialist Revolutionary Party, with strong support among the peasants, outpolls the Bolsheviks
  • Jan 1918 (Old Style): Constituent Assembly meets once and the Boshevik government abolishes it
  • Feb 1918: Red Army founded by Foreign Commissar Leon Trotsky, who switched to the post of People’s Commissar for War in March
  • Mar 1918: Treaties of Brest-Litovsk concluded, removing several large areas from Russian control: The Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), Finland, Poland, and Ukraine.
  • Mar 1918: The ruling party renamed to "Communist Party"
  • Feb 1920: Russian control re-established in Ukraine
  • 1918: Civil war begins; the Soviet government conflict at the end of May with the Czechoslovak Legion being evacuated from Russia is one useful historical guidepost for its beginning
  • 1918-1921: The period of "war communism" in economic policy
  • Mar 1919: Establishment of the Communist International (Third International) to be a worldwide organization of Communist parties
  • Nov 1920: End of the civil war, conventionally dated by the Soviet defeat of White forces in Crimea under the command of Gen. Pyotr Wrangel
  • Mar 1921: Kronstadt revolt lead by anarchists against the Communist government
  • Mar 1921: Adoption of the New Economic Policy (NEP)
  • 1922: Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) proclaimed
  • Jan 1924: Lenin's death, followed by a years-long secession struggle with Josef Stalin and Trotsky as the two main protagonists

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Trying to grasp Trump's foreign policy

Any attempt to define a coherent plan behind the Trump Administration's foreign policy is bound to run up against the arbitrary, the petty, and the just plain goofy.

But Asli Bâli and Aziz Rana take a stab at it in America's Imperial Unraveling Boston Review 10/16/2017. They call attention to a key paradox of US unilateral tendencies in international relations:

... the reliance on a politics of unilateral force has produced an interesting disconnect. While during the Cold War the United States faced serious adversaries, it was nonetheless largely able to avoid any real experience of existential threat. Today, faced with far more limited foes, the country has adopted a politics that presents the real possibility of existential violence and nuclear confrontation.
They identify two important tendencies in Trump's foreign policy:

If there is something like a “Trump Doctrine,” it lies in two developments: the boldness with which a declared reliance on coercion and conquest now sits uncomfortably beside America’s professed moral authority; and the implications of Trump’s ethno-nationalism for how global allies and enemies are conceived. For starters, whereas earlier administrations emphasized the need for diplomacy even as they consistently preferred unilateral uses of military force, Trump eschews such niceties. Instead his administration is at pains to dismantle the infrastructure of the State Department, with the president declaring that the United States intends to “take Iraq’s oil” and plunder “Afghanistan’s minerals.” Trump’s bald reliance on strongman tactics is difficult for elites to reconcile with their persistent belief in American exceptionalism. Yet, this is simply the culmination of the last quarter-century’s cleaving of U.S. power from its classic justifications.

The other development is that by giving a seat at the foreign policy table to proponents of a virulent ethno-nationalism, Trump’s presidency marks a shift in U.S. self-presentation. Such ethno-nationalists contest the universalist and inclusive premises of Cold War rhetoric. They defend a harsh anti-immigrant position and proclaim the link between Americanism and European racial and cultural identity. These racialized premises are central to the fixation with Iran - rather than say Russia for example - and to the insistence that a country with which the United States was, until recently, able to conduct complex diplomacy now presents a paramount national threat. [my emphasis]
But they aren't making the suggestion that because Trump's foreign policy continues some major trends in US policy that we shouldn't consider it as especially radical.

They also suggest, without putting in exactly these terms, that Trump policy in the Greater Middle East may be the kind of laboratory for brutal mischief in something like the way Central America was for the Reagan Administration. "Trump’s posture on Syria is to treat the country as a sandbox where he can try out various regional alliances, without any actual plan for - or regard to - how lasting peace might be generated there."

They provide a useful description of the contradictory nature of the position the US established for itself in the world in the postwar period under the assumption that America had a legitimate mission to shape the world in our own image:

In practice, this justified restructuring foreign societies on U.S. terms by spreading abroad both market-based capitalism and the institutions of liberal democracy. It also called for the creation of an international framework marked by these same principles, especially through multilateral and consensus-based legal structures, to address the problems of global governance. The United States was at the forefront of establishing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations Charter, the Bretton Woods institutions, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and a plethora of other interlocking institutions aimed at shaping everything from international monetary policy and global trade to health, education, and scientific cooperation. The overall aim was a U.S.-led world driven by collective security and capitalist economic principles, with U.S. military power and wealth as the ultimate backstop. [my emphasis]
They remind us of some of the mistakes and bad acts of US foreign policy in that process. But as long as the Soviet Union existed as a competing superpower, US policy also had a major stabilizing effect on international politics, as well. But, "While the end of the Cold War meant the end of the perceived Soviet threat, it also decreased the pressures that had led U.S. leaders to value international institutions as conducive to national self-interest."

The Clinton Administration embraced that process tending toward more unilateralism. The Cheney-Bush Administration embraced unilateralism with enthusiasm. "The George W. Bush administration repudiated the Geneva Conventions when justifying its use of force against al Qaeda, withdrew from arms control agreements, and promulgated a national security strategy premised on preemption." Yes, he did.

And then there was the Libya War, in which President Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton willingly intervened:

If anything, the 2011 intervention in Libya, which recalled the chaos and violence of the Iraq invasion a decade earlier, raised doubts about whether the United States was legitimate - or even competent—in its uses of force. Whatever the stated aim—whether fighting terrorism, countering arms proliferation, or serving humanitarianism - U.S. military force seemed ill-suited for the task.
Yet, "For all the ways that the Obama years continued the basic orientation of U.S. foreign policy - highlighted specifically by the intervention in Libya and the arming of factions in Syria - the one break was his focus on using diplomacy with Iran to deescalate any nuclear confrontation."

This is a very useful piece in trying to understand the current direction - such as there is - of US foreign policy under Trump.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Venezuelan elections

"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

We know the Trump Administration wants free elections in Venezuela, right? Right?

Well, they actually had governors' election all over the country on Sunday. And, well: Venezuela elections neither 'free nor fair', says US 10/16/2017.

The coverage of that event didn't seem that prominent in the American press from my impression. But there was some.

Kirk Semple and Ana Vanessa Herrer, Nicolás Maduro’s Party Defies Polls in Venezuela Election New York Times 10/15/2017:

... late Sunday night, Venezuela election officials announced that it was President Maduro’s governing party that had scored a lopsided victory, taking 17 governorships, while the opposition won only five, with the results of one state still hanging in the balance.

“Today the truth of Venezuela has won,” Mr. Maduro said in a speech at the presidential palace. “Today the homeland has gotten stronger.”

But opposition leaders vowed to contest the results, demanding an audit and calling on the opposition candidates to plan “diverse street activities” to support their protest. [my emphasis]
Venezuela's elections have generally had a good record, with better safeguards against fraud than US elections have. With the US committed to regime change in Venezuela, it becomes especially difficult to sort valid claims from propaganda falsifications. And the Trump Administration has very low credibility, to put it very generously. The opposition has for years made it a habit to declare fraud after every election. They have yet to demonstrate it in any convincing way for international observers.

It may be worth mentioning that elections alone don't guarantee democracy or free choice. But I'm not going to assume that the Trump Administration's declarations about fraudulent elections mean anything without some resonable independent confirmation.

Aljazeera has a page, Venezuela crisis: All the latest updates 10/16/2017. Their bullet-point report for 10/16/2017, the day after the election:

  • Venezuela's opposition coalition refused to recognise the results of Sunday's gubernatorial elections.
  • The Democratic Unity's (MUD) election campaign chief, Gerardo Blyde, demanded a complete audit of the 23 governor races and called on its candidates to lead "street activities" on Monday.
  • President Nicolas Maduro approved an audit of the ballots, and said his government had scored an "emphatic victory" over its rivals.
  • Maduro also criticised international media coverage of the election: "I've been tuning into the BBC, CNN and others, and today's elections were completely ignored".
  • "This is one of the best electoral processes, audited several times by all parties and political actors," said Alfredo Arevalo, the Ecuadorian representative of the Council of Electoral Experts of Latin America

Additional reports:

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Remembering Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

Andrew Bacevich reviews the new biography of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. by Richard Aldous in Schlesinger and the Decline of Liberalism Boston Review 10/10/2017.

Schlesinger is particularly known for his biographical works on Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt, and of John and Bobby Kennedy. I was expecting him to focus on Schlesinger's advocacy for a hawkish Cold War foreign policy. He does note that in the 1960s, "With the Vietnam War now in full swing, he dashed off a blistering critique of Lyndon Johnson’s policy, titled The Bitter Heritage (1967), insisting that had [John] Kennedy lived he would have avoided war."

Instead, Bacevich focuses on the vision of domestic politics that Schlesinger advocated, promoted and celebrated, a view New Left critics in the 1960s called "Cold War liberalism," a term I still use myself, actually. Schlesinger was a relatively early opponent of the Vietnam War and supported Bobby Kennedy's antiwar efforts. He was not entirely hostile to more nuanced views of the early Cold War when he wrote in 1967 (Origins of the Cold War Foreign Affairs 46:1 [Oct]):

As the Cold War has begun to lose its purity of definition, as the moral absolutes of the fifties become the moralistic clichés of the sixties, some have be gun to ask whether the appalling risks which humanity ran during the Cold War were, after all, necessary and inevitable; whether more restrained and rational policies might not have guided the energies of man from the perils of conflict into the potentialities of collaboration. The fact that such questions are in their nature unanswerable does not mean that it is not right and useful to raise them. Nor does it mean that our sons and daughters are not entitled to an accounting from the generation of Russians and Americans who produced the Cold War.
This was more a barbed but polite expression of condescension to left historians' critiques of American Cold War policies prior to the mid-sixties. In the same spirit, in a footnote referring to D.F. Fleming, David Horowitz, William Appleman Williams and Gar Alperowitz, he says rather caustically, "The fact that in some aspects the revisionist thesis parallels the official Soviet argument must not, of course, prevent consideration of the case on its merits, nor raise questions about the motives of the writers, all of whom, so far as I know, are independent-minded scholars." Which was 1967 academic-speak for, "Yeah, they sound like Commies but we need to take what they're saying at least a little seriously."

And, yes, he was referring to that David Horowitz, who had a few years of a career as a leftie writer significant enough to be cited by Arthur Schlesinger but later pursued a career in the far-right ditch. His current online Frontpage Mag (which my gag reflex won't allow me to link) features one of his tweets saying, "Inside every progressive is a totalitarian screaming to get out." I don't know whether he means that as a slur on Mean Libruls or as an autobiographical comment. Let me say that the fact that in some aspects of his current polemics thesis parallel Putinist Russian propaganda of the kind we've heard so much about lately, must not, of course, prevent consideration of the case on its merits, nor raise questions about the motives of the writer, who is, so far as I know, an independent-minded flaming rightwinger.

Yet even though Schlesinger wasn't much impressed by leading New left "revisionist" history, a term he uses as mostly pejorative, his 1967 sketch of the origins of the Cold War are notably different from the Cold War triumphalism with came with the "end of history" circa 1990.

He stresses that leaders on both Russia and the Western Allies were doing a lot of improvising. He talks about how the two major competing establishment views, "realists" and "universalists," evaluated the options in light of different assumption about why nations behave the way they do. And he states a chastened-sounding view that common among both Democratic and Republican advocates of nuclear arms control and efforts to dial back the two superpower tensions, as the US and the Soviet Union were called for decades: "The Cold War ... was the product not of a decision but of a dilemma. Each side felt compelled to adopt policies which the other could not but regard as a threat to the principles of the peace. Each then felt compelled to undertake defensive measures."

That approach does tend to minimize any cynical or malicious motive on the part of the US military-industrial complex. Which is still alive and well, by the way: William D. Hartung, The Scandal of Pentagon Spending TomDispatch 10/10/2017.

Bacevich writes of Schlesinger's outlook and influence:

The cause to which he devoted his professional life was the promotion of U.S. liberalism, in his view “the vital center” of U.S. politics.

As a prodigiously gifted historian, Schlesinger celebrated the achievements of those he deemed liberalism’s greatest champions, notably Andrew Jackson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the martyred Kennedy brothers. As a skillful polemicist, he inveighed against those he saw as enemies of liberalism, whether on the communist left or the Republican right. As a Democratic operative, he worked behind the scenes, counseling office seekers of a liberal persuasion and drafting speeches for candidates he deemed likely to advance the cause (and perhaps his own fortunes).
Bacevich also notes without being nasty about it that Schlesinger acted as the "court historian" of the Kennedy Administration. Which is true. Hey, every court needs its own historian, including the Court of Camelot.

Schlesinger passed away in 2007. He was very much an opponent of the Iraq War. In this polemical article in the very early days of the Iraq War, Good Foreign Policy a Casualty of War Los Angeles Times 03/23/2003, he still couldn't resist taking a poke at those annoying lefties:

How have we gotten into this tragic fix without searching debate? No war has been more extensively previewed than this one. Despite pro forma disclaimers, President Bush's determination to go to war has been apparent from the start. Why then this absence of dialogue? Why the collapse of the Democratic Party? Why let the opposition movement fall into the hands of infantile leftists? [my emphasis]
He knew that the phrase "infantile leftists" had been made famous by Lenin. But given the intensity of his opposition to the Cheney-Bush war in Iraq, it's not unreasonable to imagine he was thinking those immature lefties wouldn't be nearly effective enough in articulating what a spectacularly bad idea it was:

The choice reflects a fatal turn in U.S. foreign policy, in which the strategic doctrine of containment and deterrence that led us to peaceful victory during the Cold War has been replaced by the Bush Doctrine of preventive war. The president has adopted a policy of "anticipatory self-defense" that is alarmingly similar to the policy that imperial Japan employed at Pearl Harbor on a date which, as an
earlier American president said it would, lives in infamy.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was right, but today it is we Americans who live in infamy. The global wave of sympathy that engulfed the United States after 9/11 has given way to a global wave of hatred of American arrogance and militarism. Public opinion polls in friendly countries regard George W. Bush as a greater threat to peace than Saddam Hussein. Demonstrations around the planet, instead of denouncing the vicious rule of the Iraqi president, assail the United States on a daily basis.
Yo! I agreed with him on that in 2003 and if any thing even more so in 2017. He closed that polemic this way:

[Saddam] Hussein is unquestionably a monster. But does that mean we should forcibly remove him from power? "Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled," Adams said in the same July 4 speech, "there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy." We are now going abroad to destroy a monster. The aftermath -- how America conducts itself in Iraq and the world -- will provide the crucial test as to whether the war can be justified.

America as the world's self-appointed judge, jury and executioner? "We must face the fact," President John F. Kennedy once said, "that the United States is neither omnipotent nor omniscient -- that we are only 6% of the world's population -- that we cannot impose our will upon the other 94% of mankind -- that we cannot right every wrong or reverse each adversity -- and that therefore there cannot be an American solution to every world problem."
Yeah, that's a man and a historian worth remembering.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Can America get any greater?

"I don't understand people who trash talk about America, who talk about us as being in decline, who act as though we are not yet the greatest country that has ever been created on the face of the earth for all of history." Hillary Clinton to the VFW 07/25/2016 (Hillary Clinton addresses military veterans at the Democratic National Convention Telegraph)

I thought I had blogged about this before. But I don't find it in a search.

So let's just say this is the kind of thing that American politicians should stop saying. Not only does it sound arrogant. It invites, maybe demands, really bad foreign policy decisions.

Ironically, this came as part of her not very impressive attempt to counter Trump's "Make America Great Again" slogan with something along the lines of, hey, whaddya mean, America's already great, how could anyone thing everything's not just fine? ("I don't understand people who trash talk about America ...")

So while her words out-jingoed Trump's, she was still tone-deaf to how her Stronger Together campaign theme conveyed an attitude of complancy when she needed a convey a sense of urgency to the Democratic base and a sense of empathy to the millions of potential swing voters who weren't feeling that conditions weren't so great for them. The Clinton Era had its strong points. But it belongs to the past.

Also, if the United States really is the greatest imaginable country ever created in the entire history of every universe that might possibly exist in any dimension ... it would be a bit more seemly for American leaders and officials should let people from other countries be the ones to say it. Or from other universes or dimensions or whatever.

"Twin Peaks" meets Archie Comics

Great description by Ella Kemp: The Riverdale TV series based on the Archie Comics characters is what Twin Peaks would be "if passionate fan-fiction-writing teenagers reigned in the boardroom." (Riverdale season 2 episode 1 review: If Twin Peaks was written by teenagers Independent 10/14/2017)

Yes, that's a compliment!

It helps with that effect that actors from both Twin Peaks and Beverly Hills are included. Mädchen Amick's character "Alice Cooper" (?!) is kind of nasty but not nearly as much of a mess as Shelly Briggs in "Twin Peaks Season 3." Luke Perry (Dylan the hunk in "90210") gets to be Archie' Andrews father. (Who knew that the Archie crew had parents?)

Robin Givins (Cheryl Harwood in the 2013 "90210") is the shady town mayor.

The Archie Comics company used to have some kind of purity clause that nothing steamier than very light G-rated stuff could be done with the characters, or something to that effect. Fortunately, they seem to have gotten beyond that. So now they can do making out in the shower scenes, murderous psychopathic villains, and David Lynch-ish lines like, "The man, his goal was something else, darker. It was like the Angel of Death had come to Riverdale."

This series is another reminder why decades-old comic book characters can still make money on live-action programming today. Generations of people got to know the characters through comic books. And when you have characters that have been around as long as Superman (1939), Batman (1939), or Archie (1941), there are thousands of ready-made plots, story lines, and supporting characters that can be mined for film versions.

Riverdale Season 2 Comic-Con Trailer 07/22/2017:

Friday, October 13, 2017

Tea Party whites, Trumpism and neo-Confederate pseudohistory

In yesterday's post on Arlie Russell Hochschild and her study on Louisiana Tea Party supporters, I mentioned an article of hers that appears in the current (10:1917) Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik, Weiß und stolz und abgehängt.Donald Trump und der Südstaaten-Rassismus (behind subscription at this writing).

Part of her point in this article is that Southern Tea Party adherents - it would be redundant to say "white" adherents - focus on the government as the image and main instrument of the groups they see as the enemy: Yankees, coastal elites, Hollywood, black people, professional women, the mainstream media. In part, this is because of the eternal complaint against alleged freeloaders: "Und zudem gab der Staat Leuten Geld, die nicht arbeiteten, und untergrub damit die mit der Arbeit verknüpfte Anerkennung und Ehre." ("On top of it all, the government gave money to people who don't work and thereby undermined the recognition and honor tied up with work.")

The article notes that it is a translation into German from English, so I'm reverse-translating here without having the English original available.

But Tea Partiers do not view the government as a whole as their enemy. On the contrary, they worship the military and the police, worship in the Christian theological sense of idolatry even. The FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, ICE agents terrorizing Latino parents picking up their children and school - those actual coercive agents of the state, they ones that are charged with using physical violence on behalf of law-and-order, they are big fans of those!

No, it's the civilian government that raises their hatred. And particularly those aspects of civilian government that they imagine to benefit people less fortunate and/or less white than they are.

Hochschild describes a related aspect of Tea Partiers' admiration for Donald Trump's demagoguery and his rejection of "political correctness":

Daher hörten viele mit freudiger Erleichterung einen Donald Trump reden, der offenbar hemmungslos, omnipotent und wunderbar frei von jeglichen Einschränkungen durch politische Korrektheit war. Er äußerte sich verallgemeinernd über alle Muslime, alle Mexikaner, alle Frauen – unter anderem auch darüber, dass Frauen menstruierten, was er „ekelhaft” fand. (So sagte er über Megyn Kelly, die Nachrichtenmoderatorin von „Fox News“, sie „blute aus was auch immer”). Munter imitierte er einen behinderten Journalisten, indem er seine Arme schüttelte und so eine Zerebralparese nachahmte – in den Augen seiner Gegner alles zutiefst abfällige Äußerungen, die jedoch befreiend auf all jene wirkten, die sich durch die Mitleidsverpflichtung geknebelt fühlten. Trump ermöglichte es ihnen, sich als gute, moralische Amerikaner zu empfinden und zugleich überlegen gegenüber Menschen zu fühlen, die sie für „anders” oder unter ihnen stehend hielten.

[From that viewpoint, many listen to Donald Trump speak with happy relief, he being clearly unrestrained, omnipotent and miraculously free from any limitations from political correctness. He made sweeping declarations sweepingly about all Muslims, all Mexicans, all women - including even about women menstruating, which he finds "disgusting." (So he said about Megyn Kelly, the news moderator for Fox News, that she "had blood coming out of her wherever.") He jauntily imitated a disabled journalist by shaking his arms in order mimic cerebral palsy - in the eyes of his opponents, all the most deeply derogatory expressions, which nevertheless had a liberating effect on all those who felt themselves gagged by the obligation to feel pity. Trump made it possible for them to experience themselves as good, moral Americans and at the same time to feel superior to people that they regarded as "other" or beneath them.]
Or, to put it more succinctly, they got a thrill by identifying with Trump's meanness. This is a typical characteristic of authoritarian followers. Trying to understand this in terms of their "deep story," a Hochschild term that is otherwise useful, complicatres rather than clarifies understanding of how this attitude translates into the politics of Trumpism.

We could say that a normative issue imposes itself here. At what point does explaining this kind of collective joy in meanness cross over from understanding it to justifying it?

And this is not jsut a matter of show business. We see in Trump's callous and irresponsible response to Puerto Rico's hurricane disaster right now that this kind of meanness has ugly, real-world consequences. No matter how "liberating" Trump-adoring white people in Louisiana might feel it is to see Puerto Ricans suffer and die due to the kind of meanness Trump practices as President or how much "happy relief" it may give the Louisiana Tea Partiers.

Not to defend Donald Trump, but I couldn't find a report in which Trump used the word "disgusting" specifically in relation to his own genuinely disgusting comment about Kelly; he did use it about Hillary Clinton going to the bathroom during a break in one of the debates. (See: Kayla Epstein, Trump responds to Megyn Kelly's questions on misogyny – with more misogyny The Guardian 08/06/2015; Jacob Sugarman, Donald Trump’s disgusting new attack on Megyn Kelly: She had “blood coming out of her wherever” Salon 08/08/2015

If the reference above to white conservatives' complaints about welfare loafers seems like a throwback to the 1960s, Hochschild is also aware that the throwback goes even further.

In explaining the historical and sociological background of Southern whites, Hochschild relies heavily on the classic by W.J. Cash, The Mind of the South (1941). Cash's book is a standard work and often quoted. But it was published in 1941. It has historical value. But it doesn't directly address the political of white Republicans in the Deep South in 2017. And even her historical accounts rely on confusingly wide descriptions. It likely wouldn't be clear to readers who weren't history with the history of sharecropping, for example, that this system was a post-Civil war institution, not an antebellum one.

But her historical account in this article recounts the neo-Confederate pseudohistory:

Dann brach der Bürgerkrieg aus, und der Norden schlug den Süden vernichtend. Städte wurden niedergebrannt, Felder verwüstet – teils von konföderierten Truppen auf dem Rückzug. Nach dem Bürgerkrieg ersetzte der Norden die Regierungen der Südstaaten durch eigene, handverlesene Gouverneure. Profitgierige Glücksritter kamen als Agenten des dominierenden Nordens. Ausbeuter aus dem Norden, eine wütende, traumatisierte schwarze Bevölkerung zu Hause und von allen Seiten moralische Verurteilung – das war das Bild, das mir die wütenden Südstaatler zeichneten.

[Then the Civil War broke out, and the North pulverized the South. Cities were burned down, fields wasted - partially by retreating Confederate troops. After the war, the North replaced the governments of the Southern state with its own hand-picked Governors. Profit-seeking adventurers came as agents of the domineering North. Exploiters from the North, an angry, traumatized black population at home and moral judgments from all sides - that was the picture that the furious Southerners drew.]
That's my translation from the German. And this is my supplemental translation out of Neo-Confederate-Speak:

Then the Civil War broke out when Southern slaveowners insisted on seceeding to defend slavery when they rejected the democratic results of the Presidential election of 1860. The North pulverized the South in four years of bloody warfare initiated by the white southern planters to defend their "right" to own other human beings as property. Cities were burned down, fields wasted - partially by retreating Confederate troops. And when the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves in the Confederate states, mass abandonment of the plantations by black ex-slaves, most of them native Southerners by birth, played a massive part in the "pulverizing" of the traitor Rebel government. After the war, the North replaced the governments of the Southern state with its own hand-picked Governors. (That one is too much of a fiction to even qualify.) Profit-hungry adventurers came as agents of the domineering North, according to the WATB grumbling of many former Confederates, even though massive capital investment from the hated North was desperately needed. Many Northern whites also came to act in such roles as schoolteachers, motivated by a patriotic and Christian desire to create a better future for the South that had been wrecked due to the treason of the slaveholding planter class. Exploiters from the North, as Southern white supremacists were wont to call any of their fellow Americans from the North, an angry, traumatized black population eager to become responsible free citizens, voters and full participants in civil life, and moral judgments from all sides - except from that of white supremacists who still hated democracy and Constitutional government, judgments that came because even Northerners who had previously been indifferent to slavery had been confronted with the true horror and destructiveness of the slave system - that was the picture that the furious white Southerners who rejected the American form of government and the American way of life drew, even though a significant number of Southern whites also supported the new democratic governments established during Reconstruction.
A very similar passage appears in her book Strangers in Their Own Land (2016), although she includes a couple of phrases there to slightly distance herself from the narrative, indicating that she's describing the version her Tea Party subjects gave her.

As a native-born white Mississippian, I'm tempted to say that only a Yankee would swallow that white Southerners actually believe that Lost Cause, neo-Confederate version of history. Yankees in my experience tend to be generous-minded in that way.

But for the most part, for any adult white Southerners that present the view of the Civil War and its aftermath that she describes there, one of three things is going on: (1) they are shooting off their mouths without putting their brains in gear; or, (2) they've made no effort to fact-check even the most superficial aspects of that story, even though the information is readily available; or, (3) they know it's hogwash and they are just repeating it because they see it as the White Man's tribal narrative and they identify with it and doing give a flying flip if it's actually true.

All of this points to a basic problem in trying to understand and explain a political phenomenon like the Tea Party or Trumpism in terms of a "deep story" that is heavily based on long-established ideological constructs. And deeply dishonest ones, at that.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Arlie Russell Hochschild, the "Tea Party" and the problem of empathy

I attended a lecture yesterday at UC-Berkeley by Arlie Russell Hochschild, author of the much-discussed Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (2016). Her book has been widely reviewed and a number of her articles and interviews derived from it published, including:

In the lecture, she recounted the basics of her project, which as the event announcement summarizes it involved "five years of research in Louisiana’s oil and petrochemical belt where she interviewed Tea Party enthusiasts." This is the area around Lake Charles, Louisiana.

Her findings are interesting and underwhelming at the same time. She did in-depth interviews with self-identified Tea Party supporters in which she deliberately selected as a particularly conservative, pro-Tea Party, pro-Trump area. After five years of research, she determined that a lot of white people there don't like black people very much. And lots of them are dubious about equal rights for women. And those people tend to vote Republican and conservative and love Trump.

These are hardly surprising discoveries.

That's not to say her work and her observations are without value. She's a leading sociologist. She describes her conclusions in terms of a "red state paradox" and a "Deep Story" around which Tea Party supporters coalesce. The red state paradox has to do with the fact that many areas like Louisiana compared to other US states are poorer, with lower life expectancy, with lower quality schools and hospitals, have more serious pollution problems, and receive more funds from the federal government than they contribute. And yet they also tend to vote for Republicans who favor cutting back the income support and most other federal programs on which they are so dependent, oppose national health insurance programs and want to let polluting industries left free to poison the air and water in the name of "freedom."

Hochschild describes thge Deep Story that she formulated to describe the Tea Party view of the world this way in the Mother Jones article linked above (italics in original):

You are patiently standing in the middle of a long line stretching toward the horizon, where the American Dream awaits. But as you wait, you see people cutting in line ahead of you. Many of these line-cutters are black—beneficiaries of affirmative action or welfare. Some are career-driven women pushing into jobs they never had before. Then you see immigrants, Mexicans, Somalis, the Syrian refugees yet to come. As you wait in this unmoving line, you’re being asked to feel sorry for them all. You have a good heart. But who is deciding who you should feel compassion for? Then you see President Barack Hussein Obama waving the line-cutters forward. He’s on their side. In fact, isn’t he a line-cutter too? How did this fatherless black guy pay for Harvard? As you wait your turn, Obama is using the money in your pocket to help the line-cutters. He and his liberal backers have removed the shame from taking. The government has become an instrument for redistributing your money to the undeserving. It’s not your government anymore; it’s theirs.

The problem I see with her approach is that she is addressing a political question - why do poor and middle-income whites vote for politicians who favor policies that can rationally be described as further disadvantaging them - by developing a description of the ideological way the most hardcore white conservatives formulate their worldview. Her Deep Story is a narrative. And narratives are extremely important in politics as in other areas of life. But whether those narrative are true in an empirical sense also matters. And as politicians since forever have been aware, there are overt aspects to political appeals and their are symbolic appeals that speak to emotional attachments that may not be overt in the dominant narrative.

In her lecture yesterday, she stressed the importance of what she calls climbing the barrier wall. And she specifically addressed how people on the left and center-left of the political spectrum can learn to have empathy for people like her Louisiana subjects. Or, to put it another way, for white people for whom racial hatreds and repressive notions of "traditional values" are more urgent political priorities than than their own physical and economic well-being.

She talked about three pillars of what she sees as valuable approaches to developing such empathy in the current context. One is talk about values with broad appeal, like the importance of the President operating within the laws. Another is to advocate for the kind of programs that the left to advocate and explain the kind of programs and priorities they favor. Both of those, she noted, don't require any direct engagement with Tea Party types. Her third pillar was to think through the kind of engagement with the right with whom people want to have a dialogue.

In her advice to those broadly on the left for climbing the empathy barrier wall, in yesterday's lecture and in other contexts, she gives special emphasis to those on the left/center-left making an effort to empathize with Tea Partiers. But, as in other aspects, her descriptions of groups is other frustratingly fuzzy. If the context is politics, then empathy becomes a matter of perceiving what kind of issues and what sort of political framing will appeal the Other Sides votes. Which puts us in the special territory of another UC-Berkeley prof, George Lakoff.

In her lecture, she elaborated on the ways to think about direct engagement. She suggested that attempts direct engagement or empathetic dialogue are probably not very promising. But she talked about how people on the left might be interested in such a dialogue with former Obama voters who switched to Trump in 2016. Or to people who voted for Trump who also expressed some sympathy or admiration for Bernie Sanders.

But those groups are not typical of the kind of people who identify with the Tea Party outlook, and those are the people on whom her Louisiana study centered. Also, I'm dubious about how firm the data are in those polls that show significant numbers of Trump 2016 voters would have voted for Bernie Sanders. I'm sure they were some of them. But those would also tend to be people who didn't feel particularly identified with the Tea Party.

Also, after decades of "bipartisan" Democrats in Congress trying to make nice with Republicans who had no intention of compromising with them - think Merrick Garland - is good reason to wonder to what extent sympathetic empathy on the part of the left to hardcore Tea Partiers can have any significant political effect. After all, with every national disaster Donald Trump illustrates that his own capacity for normal human empathy is severely lacking. So it's more than doubtful that genuine empathy for white workers in poor states played any significant role in his appeal. Empathy can be feigned, of course. But this strikes me as another case where "authenticity" or "sincerity" tend to be highly overrated in politics.

On the level of sociological analysis, I also think its problematic to take the overt narratives provided by people at face value, even in the sense of assuming they truly believe them or emotionally identify with them, without some meaningful fact-checking. In her Tea Party "Deep Story," for instance, is there some kind of objective evidence that black people or women are getting some kind of artificial or unfair advantage over white men in hiring in the area she studied? Facts do matter.

And there is the fact that in America generally, and in the Deep South in particular, that white people define themselves collectively in significant part by ideological images of minorities, and of black people especially. I don't see that Hochschild gave that fact the weight in needed in analyzing the self-descriptions of her white Louisiana subjects.

In her lecture yesterday, Hochschild mentioned a couple of critics on the left, Katha Pollitt and Frank Rich, saying of both that their criticism was respectful, though she disagrees with them.

Pollitt asks these questions critical of Hochschild's approach in Lack of Empathy Is Not the Problem The Nation 06/09/2017:

But here’s my question: Who is telling the Tea Partiers and Trump voters to empathize with the rest of us? Why is it all one way? Hochschild’s subjects have plenty of demeaning preconceptions about liberals and blue-staters—that distant land of hippies, feminazis, and freeloaders of all kinds. Nor do they seem to have much interest in climbing the empathy wall, given that they voted for a racist misogynist who wants to throw 11 million people out of the country and ban people from our shores on the basis of religion (as he keeps admitting on Twitter, even as his administration argues in court that Islam has nothing to do with it). Furthermore, they are the ones who won, despite having almost 3 million fewer votes. Thanks to the founding fathers, red-staters have outsize power in both the Senate and the Electoral College, and with great power comes great responsibility. So shouldn’t they be trying to figure out the strange polyglot population they now dominate from their strongholds in the South and Midwest? What about their stereotypes? How respectful or empathetic is the belief of millions of Trump voters, as established in polls and surveys, that women are more privileged than men, that increasing racial diversity in America is bad for the country, that the travel ban is necessary for national security?
Frank Rich (No Sympathy for the Hillbilly New York 03/19/2017) warns against the empathy-for-the-white-Tea-Partiers approach as a political strategy for the Democrats:

But it’s one thing for the Democratic Party to drain its own swamp of special interests and another for it to waste time and energy chasing unreachable voters in the base of Trump’s electorate. ...

In a presidential election, a revamped economic program and a new generation of un-Clinton leaders may well win back the genuine swing voters who voted for Trump, whether Democratic defectors in the Rust Belt or upscale suburbanites who just couldn’t abide Hillary. But that’s a small minority of Trump’s electorate. Otherwise, the Trump vote is overwhelmingly synonymous with the Republican Party as a whole.

That makes it all the more a fool’s errand for Democrats to fudge or abandon their own values to cater to the white-identity politics of the hard-core, often self-sabotaging Trump voters who helped drive the country into a ditch on Election Day. They will stick with him even though the numbers say that they will take a bigger financial hit than Clinton voters under the Republican health-care plan. As Trump himself has said, in a rare instance of accuracy, they won’t waver even if he stands in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoots somebody. While you can’t blame our new president for loving “the poorly educated” who gave him that blank check, the rest of us are entitled to abstain. If we are free to loathe Trump, we are free to loathe his most loyal voters, who have put the rest of us at risk.
Obviously, politicians are going to be careful about who they claim to loathe.

But that's part of the problem of trying to address the "red state paradox" in terms of reconciliation between the left/center-left, on the one hand, and the hard right on the other. Politics is about fighting out differences, not erasing them. Yes, that requires compromise. But compromise isn't a principle in itself. The notion that we should all get beyond substantive differences in politics is one of the stranger ideas identified with end-of-history neoliberalism.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Hillary, Barack and the Harvey Weinstein scandal (Updated!)

Update: I guess Hillary read my blog post this morning! (Yeah, right) In any case (Eli Watkins, Hillary Clinton condemns longtime Democratic donor Harvey Weinstein CNN 10/10/2017):

"I was shocked and appalled by the revelations about Harvey Weinstein," Clinton said in a statement through her spokesman Nick Merrill. "The behavior described by women coming forward cannot be tolerated. Their courage and the support of others is critical in helping to stop this kind of behavior."

Weinstein is a longtime associate of the Clintons and a major Democratic Party donor who bundled funds for the party's political campaigns, including supporting both of Clinton's presidential bids.
Pretty straightforward. She condemned the kind of behavior "described by women coming forward" without claiming any special capacity to judge the particulars. Works for me.


There are some serious shortcomings to our US mainstream media. One of the worst, and most pathological, is their susceptibility to Clinton pseudoscandals.

Another is their willingness to follow the lead of the Republican Party and their media universe (FOX News, Wall Street Journal but also Breitbart News and Drudge) in their selection of reporting and punditry priorities.

So the media squawking about how Democrats and "Hollywood" are not condemning Harvey Weinstein widely and severely enough is largely a continuation of those same bad habits. "Hollywood" having been a rightwing codeword for "Jews" since at least the 1930s and also common Republican code for "decadent liberal elites."

With all those qualifications, I still consider it legitimate for the media and political activists to ask about Hillary Clinton's and Barack Obama's positions on the apparently well-founded accusations against Weinstein.

Chris Cillizza in The deafening silence of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on Harvey Weinstein CNN 10/10/2017 gripes, "Five days after the New York Times broke the news that Weinstein, the head of Miramax and a major Democratic donor, faced a series of allegations of inappropriate behavior toward women over a several-decade span, neither Bill or Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama has said a single word about the incidents."

The Weinstein allegations aren't some frivolous pseudoscandal. The Times story reported:

During [the last 30 years], after being confronted with allegations including sexual harassment and unwanted physical contact, Mr. Weinstein has reached at least eight settlements with women, according to two company officials speaking on the condition of anonymity. Among the recipients, The Times found, were a young assistant in New York in 1990, an actress in 1997, an assistant in London in 1998, an Italian model in 2015 and Ms. O’Connor shortly after, according to records and those familiar with the agreements.

In a statement to The Times on Thursday afternoon, Mr. Weinstein said: “I appreciate the way I’ve behaved with colleagues in the past has caused a lot of pain, and I sincerely apologize for it. Though I’m trying to do better, I know I have a long way to go.”

He added that he was working with therapists and planning to take a leave of absence to “deal with this issue head on.” [my emphasis]
His company has also fired him from its board.

Ronan Farrow reports (From Aggressive Overtures to Sexual Assault: Harvey Weinstein’s Accusers Tell Their Stories New Yorker 10/10/2017), "Beyond Hollywood, he has exercised his influence as a prolific fund-raiser for Democratic Party candidates, including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton."

So it's legitimate for them to be asked to address the matter.

I can appreciate that for reasons of general prudence, and even for legal caution, that even a major public figure like Obama or the Clintons would be cautious about speaking with certainty about possible criminal acts of which they themselves don't have direct personal knowledge.

But they are politicians! They know how to mealy-mouth. Which means they know how to condemn the acts that are being publicly alleged and apparently at least in part acknowledged by Weinstein and his company without passing inappropriate judgments about accusations of which they previously didn't have direct knowledge. As long as the donations their campaigns received from him were legal and they didn't play any specific role in helping him duck personal or legal responsibility for his actions, there's no reason his support should tarnish their reputations.

Adam Schiff does it here:

Also, there's this:

And this, which is a bit of a sour commentary on Hillary Clinton's status as a feminist icon:

But the corporate Democrats are currently promoting themselves as the defenders of civil rights for women and minorities while trying to smear the New Deal wing of the Party as sexist "BernieBros" who denigrate women. So it's perfectly fair for people to wonder what their current leading feminist icon has to say about the Weinstein scandal. Corporate media pathologies nothwithstanding.

While I'm on the topic, I think Jessica Valenti is an excellent political writer and analyst of women's issues. But this vague comment, coming in the midst of a group of tweets about the Weinstein scandal, doesn't strike me as constructive:

Obviously, questionable assertions and outright lies are told regularly by both men and women about public officials and prominent business and political figures. And even the most serious accusations have to be proven in legal cases like lawsuits or sexual assault charges.

And in the Weinstein case, not only are actresses like Ashley Judd and Rose McGowan going on the record publicly, but there are a wide range of accusations and even some kind of recognition of their legitimacy on the part of Weinstein himself. This is not a case whether there is a single accusation that just has to be believed or rejected. It's not a matter of believing women in the abstract. It's a matter of substantial evidence being presented over a long period of time about some very serious kinds of misconduct.

More on "digitalization" as a political buzzword

Jens Berger takes down a piece of horse-race journalism in Die Schulz-Story im SPIEGEL – postpolitischer Journalismus Nachdenkseiten 10.10.2017. The topic is a cover story on the disastrous candidacy of Martin Schultz as the Chancellor candidate of the Social Democratic party (SPD) in last month's German parliamentary elections. Berger brings in the "digitialization" concept in describing:

"... die Parallelwelt des SPIEGEL, in der es die wichtigste Aufgabe der Sozialdemokratie ist, „Antworten auf das Zeitalter der Digitalisierung“ zu finden und die Union unter Merkel zu einer sozialdemokratischen Partei geworden ist. In der Filterblase des Hauptstadtjournalismus werden solche Dinge wirklich geglaubt."

[... the parallel world of Der Spiegel, in which the most important task of the Social Democracy [the SPD] is to find "answers to the age of digitalization" and {in which} the Union [CDU] under Merkel has become a social democratic party. In the filter bubble of capital city [Berlin] journalism, such things are really believed."]
Berger complains that only one paragraph in the 17-page Spiegel cover story is devoted to policy matters. And that the controversial Hartz IV neoliber "reform" implemented during the red-green coalition government headed by SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, isn't even mentioned.

Berger's judgment:

Das ist Journalismus aus einer postfaktischen Zeit – einer Zeit, in der Fakten und Inhalte gar keine Rolle mehr spielen und die Erzählung selbst im Mittelpunkt steht. Nicht der Star ist der Star, sondern die Story. So kann man dann auch über Politik schreiben, ohne über Politik zu schreiben. Nennen wir es postpolitischen Journalismus.

[That is journalism of a post-fact time - a time in which facts and content don't play any role at all and the telling of the story itself stands in the middle point. The star isn't the star, but rather the story. In the same way, one can write about politics without also writing about policy. Let's call it post-political journalism.]
There's a wordplay in the German that's hard to duplicate in Enlgish: "Politik" in German means both "politics" and "policy."

I wonder if "post-democracy" journalism is also a concept whose time has arrived.

Monday, October 09, 2017

France, the European left and European austerity policies

Eva Roth writes in the Left Party paper Neues Deutschland (Europa: Hauptsache Sparen? 10.10.2017):

In der politischen Debatte war und ist selten davon die Rede, dass die Sparpolitik ein Problem für Millionen Europäer ist. Stattdessen werden Bürger gegeneinander in Stellung gebracht: Deutsche dürfen nicht für Griechen zahlen! Sozialleistungen werden zu Problemen umdefiniert: In Griechenland sind die Renten zu hoch! Frankreich droht an seinem Sozialstaat zu ersticken!

In Deutschland haben Politiker, denen soziale Fragen nicht wurscht sind, die Macron-Regierung zu Recht für die Arbeitsmarktreformen kritisiert. Dumm wäre es, wenn sie den Versuch der französischen Regierung, die europäische Sparpolitik zu beenden, deshalb nicht unterstützen würden.

[In the poilitical debate, there has been and is seldom said that austerity policy is a problem for millions of Europeans. Instead, citizens are set against each other: German shouldn't have to pay for the Greeks! Social services are redefined into a problem: In Greece, the pensions are too high! France is about to be smothered by its social state!

In Germany, politicians who are not indifferent to social questions rightly criticize the Macron government for its [austerian] labor market reforms. It would be dumb for that to become a reason not to support the French government's attempt to put an end to the Euorpean austerity policy.]
Sounds right to me. Or left, as the case may be.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

"Digitalization" and the neoliberal gospel

The word "digitalization" - as distinct to "digitization" or "digitizing" - is a word that I noticed playing a role I had never remarked before in the German and Austrian parliamentary elections this year.

The current entry for Digitization in Wikipedia reads, "Digitization, less commonly digitalization, is the process of converting information into a digital (i.e. computer-readable) format, in which the information is organized into bits." This meaning is the one with which I've been previously familiar, converting analog information to digital form.

But the usage of "digitalization" that I've recently noticed has more of the meaning of the economic, social and political effects of digital technology, a much broader usage than that of converting analog information into digital. Ditigilize" also is used for administering the drug digitalis.

Manuel Arias Maldonado in The internet against democracy/Internet contra la democracia Eurozine 05.10.2017 uses the term to talk about the increased use of digital media and its effects on politics, in particular. He uses it to discuss the now-popular concern of "fake news."

If this following article is a measure, "digitalization" has entered the vocabulary of ConsultantSpeak, 7 prescriptions for a digital Germany Politico EU (n/d; accessed 10/08/2017)

“One part of the solution is to be much more aggressive in making Germany more attractive for people from the outside who are young and bring knowledge in the digital space,” said Andreas Behrendt, a partner at consultancy McKinsey & Co. specialized in industrial digitalization. ...

German universities have been slow to adapt to the changing digital landscape in engineering and need to catch up by offering more majors directly linked to Industrie 4.0. Too many students are studying subjects that won’t prepare them for digitalization. “Universities shouldn’t just administer digitalization, they need to also shape it,” Cornelia Quennet-Thielen, Germany’s deputy education minister, said recently. [my emphasis]
And this business case at the Harvard Business School also uses the term, Digitalization at Siemens Feb 2017: "The increasing impact of digital technologies on all of its business units had prompted CEO Joe Kaeser and his team to put digitalization at the core of the new corporate strategy, alongside electrification and automation." (my emphasis)

Matthew Karnitschnig writes in 5 questions for Germany’s digital future Politico EU 09/11/217:

Europe’s largest economy has been firing on all cylinders in recent years, but the coming digital revolution will test the resilience of its industrial core like never before.

To thrive in this new world (or maybe even to simply survive), industrial companies will have to fundamentally change the way they approach their business, from the drawing board to the factory floor to the repair shop. For Germany, where industry accounts for nearly one-third of the economy, the stakes in successfully managing digitalization are acute. [my emphasis]
Karnigschnig's article also hints at "digitalization" becoming yet another neoliberal buzzword for damaging economic trends that the One Percent would prefer the public to regard as something like a natural law at work, the way "globalization" has been used for decades:

Digital advances — from artificial intelligence to robotics to 3D printing — will transform manufacturing. And yet, in a recent ranking measuring the digital preparedness of 35 industrialized countries, Germany finished 17th, lagging behind even France. The country’s blue-chip industrial companies have been quick to embrace digitalization, but its vaunted Mittelstand — the small- and medium-sized businesses that employ most Germans and account for more than half of GDP — have been slow to embrace the digital revolution. ...

Digitalization promises to turn the nature of work as we know it on its head, demanding more flexibility from both workers and their employers. The rules governing employment will need to adapt. [my emphasis]
In the neoliberal vocabulary, the "need to adapt" rules on employment to provide "more flexibility from both workers and their employers" means weakening unions and labor laws.

Watch for "digitalization" to pop up in discussions of "the changing economy" and the need for "retraining" to address the "skills mismatch."

This kind of argument has been part of the neoliberal economic ideological pitch for a while ( Lila Shapiro, ‘Skills Mismatch’ Causing High Unemployment? Not Quite Huffpost 02/21/2012):

But some labor and manufacturing experts say the real story is far more complex than a “skills mismatch.” And some say that the basic premise — 600,000 unfilled jobs — paints a deeply misleading picture.

“I do not find any credible evidence of anything approaching a shortage in manufacturing workers anywhere in the country,” said Andrew Sum, a professor of economics at Northeastern University who specializes in education and the labor market. ...

Since the beginning of the century, manufacturing wages for production workers have barely increased, Sum said. And in the last two years, as employers have said they’ve been having difficulty filling spots, wages have declined slightly.

“If there was a big shortage of workers, than we should find wages rising. But this just isn’t the case,” Sum said. “That doesn’t mean that specific companies won’t ever have trouble finding a machinist, but when you add it all up, it doesn’t amount to very much.”

Some academics and labor advocates say a problem with the skills mismatch argument is that it shifts the blame for the jobs crisis onto workers who lack skills, and away from cash-rich companies declining to hire. The supposed mismatch also relaxes debate on the need for fiscal stimulus policies to increase payrolls.
"Digitalization" already seems to be becoming another buzzword in that vocabulary.

Austria's social-democratic Chancellor Christian Kern gives a version of it in this interview, An interview with Christian Kern The Economist 06/02/2017:

More generally, what needs to happen to the “Austrian model” to make it work in the future?

I think it is important to proceed with it. Of course the challenge is to modernise and adapt it, and that will take some time. But particularly given the coming digitalisation it is important to seek a social balance because this will be a time of great social fragmentation between winners and losers. We see it as our job to make sure there is a fair distribution of prosperity. Part of the Austrian model has always been making sure that no-one is left behind. Scandinavia aside, we are one of the world’s more egalitarian countries and we should preserve that business model. [my emphasis in bold]

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Post-Presidential Obama in Latin America

Obama has been on a Latin American trip, stops including Brazil and Argentina. In both places, he was echoing his conservative policies during his administration. The emphasis was particularly clear in Argentina, where he dropped by for a highly visible golf game with Argentine President Mauricio Macri, a corrupt oligarch on the Trump model, whose conservative party is facing midterm Congressional elections in two weeks. Página/12 reports (Con el "amigo" Barack 07.10.20174)

En la jerga de los golfistas podría decirse que lo de Mauricio Macri fue un hoyo en uno. A dos semanas de las elecciones consiguió una foto en la Casa Rosada piensan utilizar para instalar la idea de su liderazgo internacional y se la sacó jugando el partido de golf que no pudo jugarle cuando el entonces presidente de Estados Unidos visitó el año pasado la Argentina. ...

A la foto de esta mañana le antecedieron los elogios de Obama le dedicó ayer a Macri. “Inició esfuerzos para reconectar al país con la comunidad mundial. Me impresiona mucho el trabajo que se ha hecho en la Argentina”, dijo el ex presidente de Estados Unidos en Córdoba, adonde fue a disertar a cambio de una suma cercana a los 450 mil dólares.

[In golf jargon, one could say that what Mauricio Macri had was a hole-in-one. Two weeks before the elections, he managed to get a photo in the Casa Rosada [Presidential building] thinking to use it to create the idea of international leadership, and he got to play the round of golf that he couldn't play when the then-President of the United States visited Argentina last year. ...

This afternoon's photo was proceeded by Obama's praises that he dedicated to Macri yesterday. "He initiated measures to reconnect the country with the international community. I'm very impressed at the work that he's done in Argentina" {my translation from the Spanish}, said the ex-President of the United States in Córdoba, where he went to deliver a speech for an amount around $450,000 dollars.]
Also similar to the Trump model, the golf game was at the Gold Club Buenos Aires, managed by the President's brother, Gianfranco Macri. (Obama plays golf with Argentina's Macri after energy summit AFP/Yahoo! News 10/06/2017)

Obama was speaking at a Green Energy conference. (Denis Barnett, Obama makes impassioned plea for clean energy in Argentina AFP/Yahoo! News 10/06/2017)

Emir Sader (¿Qué viene a hacer Obama a América latina? Página/12 05.10.2017) reports:

En el último mes, Obama ha tenido conversaciones con el Banco Northern Trust, con el banco Cantor Fitzgerald y con el grupo de compra en la privatizacion de empresas, Carlyle Group. Su Fundacion está financiada especialmente por donaciones de Microsoft y del gigante del sector eléctrico, Exelon, ambas con contribuciones de más de un millón de dólares. Obama ya ha hecho reiteradas presentaciones en Wall Street, por las que cobra alrededor de 400 mil dólares por cada una.

En San Pablo [São Paulo, Brazil], Obama partipará del evento organizado en el periódico económico Valor, del grupo O Globo, patrocinado por el banco español Santander. Cínicamente dice que viene a “oír a los líderes jóvenes”. No va a encontrar a ningun líder joven ahí. Para ello, tendría que llegar sin el patrocinio de bancos y tendría que ir a la periferia de San Pablo y de Buenos Aires. Pero con los patrocinios de las empresas que financian su Fundación, viene más bien a buscar nuevas oportunidades de negocios para esas empresas, en especial en los procesos de privatización que los gobiernos de Macri y de Temer ponen en práctica.

En Argentina, Obama tendrá reuniones con empresarios y se anuncia un encuentro con Mauricio Macri. En Brasil, al parecer, no se atreverá a un encuentro con Temer, que tiene el 3 por ciento de apoyo entre los brasileños. Tiene programado un encuentro en Córdoba sobre “economía verde”, organizado por la Fundación Advanced Leadership, organización que tiene su sede en Washington, con el apoyo del BID, de la OEA, de la Fundacion Mediterránea y la Boston Seguros.

In the last month, Obama has had conversations with Northern Trust Bank, with the Cantor Fitzgerald bank, the group that buys into the privatization of business [i.e., merchant bank] Carlyle Group. His Foundation is financed especially by donations from Microsoft and the giant of the energy sector, Exelon, both with contributions of more than a million dollars. Obama has made repeated presentations on Wall Street, for which he earns about $400,000 for each one.

In San Pablo, Obama will participate in an event organized by the economic newspaper Valor of the O Globo group, sponsored by the Spanish bank Santander. He cynically says he's coming to "listen to young leaders." He won't encounter any young leader there. For that, he would have to come without the sponsorship of banks and would have to go to the peripheries of San Pablo and of Buenos Aires.

In Argentina, Obama will have meetings with businesspeople and has an announced meeting with [President] Mauricio Macri. In Brazil, it seems, he didn't dare meeting with [President] Temer, who has 3% support among Brazilians. He has schedule a meetings in Córdoba [Argentina] on the "green economy," organized by the Fundación Advanced Leadership, an organization who has its headquarter in Washington, with the support of the BID, of the OAS, of the Fundacion Mediterránea and of Boston Seguros.]
The Brazialian leg of Obama's trip, presented as being on behlf of the Obama Foundation, is reported in:

The Portuguese text of the San Pablo (São Paulo) is available at Leia a íntegra da palestra de Barack Obama no Fórum Cidadão Global Valor 05.10.2017. Obama offered some platitudes about the Internet and globalization. And some pious and presumably sincere warnings against racism and xenophobia. He even made a passing reference to the concentration of wealth to the One Percent. And praise of free trade, of course.

The Obama Foundation is supposedly training young leaders for the future.

The New York Times reports (Shasta Darlington and Ernesto Lodoño, Obama, in Brazil, Offers Familiar Slogan to Corporate Audience 10/05/2017) that Obama told his audience, "My biggest regret is not being able to bridge the differences that were emerging in our politics as much as I wanted."

Not failing to overturn Citizens United. Not being unable to stop small arms proliferation. Not screwing up the future prospects for nuclear arms control by invading Libya and turning it into a playground for Sunni jihadists. Not neglcting to build the party organization so that the Dems didn't have historic losses in November. He most regrets not having tried harder during his Presidency to make nice with Republicans. Wow!