Saturday, September 23, 2017

The problem of whiteness

Ta Nahisi Coates had a piece published recently on the role of "whiteness" in American history, The First White President The Atlantic Oct 2017 (accessed 09/07/2017):

It is insufficient to state the obvious of Donald Trump: that he is a white man who would not be president were it not for this fact. With one immediate exception, Trump’s predecessors made their way to high office through the passive power of whiteness — that bloody heirloom which cannot ensure mastery of all events but can conjure a tailwind for most of them. Land theft and human plunder cleared the grounds for Trump’s forefathers and barred others from it. Once upon the field, these men became soldiers, statesmen, and scholars; held court in Paris; presided at Princeton; advanced into the Wilderness and then into the White House. Their individual triumphs made this exclusive party seem above America’s founding sins, and it was forgotten that the former was in fact bound to the latter, that all their victories had transpired on cleared grounds. No such elegant detachment can be attributed to Donald Trump — a president who, more than any other, has made the awful inheritance explicit.

Gerald Horne offers his own version of the history of American whiteness in this interview with Abby Martin, From 1776 to Trump - White Mobs, Racist Heroes & Hidden History Empire Files/TeleSUR English 09/09/2017:

All this talk about the role of white racism and its role in American history and politics is making Bob "the Daily Howler" Somerby irritable. Because in his perpetual liberal-concern-troll mode, he's always unhappy to see the Democrats or anyone associated doing or saying anything that might be annoying to white people who would never consider voting for the Democrats. He grumps about Coates' writing style in
Our team is an embarrassment, faux! Daily Howler 09/12/2017. His post is mainly a polemic accusing Coates of being a publicity hound. He doesn't engage with the substance of Coates' arguments.

Coates gives this good description about how white privilege in the US is manifested in Donald Trump:

To Trump, whiteness is neither notional nor symbolic but is the very core of his power. In this, Trump is not singular. But whereas his forebears carried whiteness like an ancestral talisman, Trump cracked the glowing amulet open, releasing its eldritch energies. The repercussions are striking: Trump is the first president to have served in no public capacity before ascending to his perch. But more telling, Trump is also the first president to have publicly affirmed that his daughter is a “piece of ass.” The mind seizes trying to imagine a black man extolling the virtues of sexual assault on tape (“When you’re a star, they let you do it”), fending off multiple accusations of such assaults, immersed in multiple lawsuits for allegedly fraudulent business dealings, exhorting his followers to violence, and then strolling into the White House. But that is the point of white supremacy - to ensure that that which all others achieve with maximal effort, white people (particularly white men) achieve with minimal qualification. Barack Obama delivered to black people the hoary message that if they work twice as hard as white people, anything is possible. But Trump’s counter is persuasive: Work half as hard as black people, and even more is possible. [my emphasis]
I would have to agree the style is a little confusing at times. Although I do appreciate the Lovecraftian "eldritch energies."

Coates is making an argument about white racism and white privilege in current American politics that is actually pretty straightforward and hard to deny, although defenders of the racial status quo, not to mention those more fond of the racial status quo of 1955, have reason to discredit the argument. But he tries to explain them within a larger theory of American history.

His historical arguments from early and antebellum American history don't hold up so well, though. He looks at aspects of that history that are important in defending a democratic, humane, and scholarly understanding of history against the ideological pseudohistory of the neo-Confederates, which is a major part of the white supremacist worldview of hardcore Trumpists. But he builds them into a outlook that essentially assumes that overwhelming white solidarity against the interests of blacks has always been the decisive factor in American politics. And also effectively assumes that virtually everything in the early-antebellum that rose to the level of becoming policy at the national or state level was and is hopelessly tainted by that fact.

The problem is that it requires a pretty one-dimensional reading of historical events and players. One example from Coates' article:

And so George Fitzhugh, a prominent 19th-century Southern pro-slavery intellectual, could in a single stroke deplore the exploitation of free whites’ labor while defending the exploitation of enslaved blacks’ labor. Fitzhugh attacked white capitalists as “cannibals,” feeding off the labor of their fellow whites. The white workers were “ ‘slaves without masters;’ the little fish, who were food for all the larger.” Fitzhugh inveighed against a “professional man” who’d “amassed a fortune” by exploiting his fellow whites. But whereas Fitzhugh imagined white workers as devoured by capital, he imagined black workers as elevated by enslavement. The slaveholder “provided for them, with almost parental affection” — even when the loafing slave “feigned to be unfit for labor.” Fitzhugh proved too explicit—going so far as to argue that white laborers might be better off if enslaved. (“If white slavery be morally wrong,” he wrote, “the Bible cannot be true.”) Nevertheless, the argument that America’s original sin was not deep-seated white supremacy but rather the exploitation of white labor by white capitalists — “white slavery” — proved durable. Indeed, the panic of white slavery lives on in our politics today. Black workers suffer because it was and is our lot. But when white workers suffer, something in nature has gone awry. And so an opioid epidemic among mostly white people is greeted with calls for compassion and treatment, as all epidemics should be, while a crack epidemic among mostly black people is greeted with scorn and mandatory minimums. Sympathetic op‑ed columns and articles are devoted to the plight of working-class whites when their life expectancy plummets to levels that, for blacks, society has simply accepted as normal. White slavery is sin. Nigger slavery is natural. This dynamic serves a very real purpose: the consistent awarding of grievance and moral high ground to that class of workers which, by the bonds of whiteness, stands closest to America’s aristocratic class.
Several problems are obvious to me in that passage. One is that he seems to be actually taking George Fitzhugh's argument against the exploitation of white workers seriously. But Fitzhugh didn't give a rat's behind for the well-being of white workers North or South. He was a proslavery propagandist, and he was making a polemical argument that the mean Yankees are big ole hypocrites. The polemics on both sides of the slavery issued produced an impressive set of descriptions of the downsides of the competing social models. But taking a polemic like Fitzhugh's as evidence of slaveowners solidarity with white labor is a serious misreading of the historical source. And it's really kind of silly. The fact that he mentions Fitzghugh saying that white workers would be better off enslaved should have been a tip-off.

Second, the highlighted passages about "original sin" and how black workers suffer because "it was and is our lot" may be meant as literary flourishes. But the also serve to define the problem of race in American history as a metaphysical one, which puts it beyond merely human solutions.

Third, that last concept of "the consistent awarding of grievance and moral high ground to that class of workers which, by the bonds of whiteness, stands closest to America’s aristocratic class" is indeed vague. But it's not because of the writing style. It's because it's a muddled idea. Who is he talking about there, the class "closest to America's aristocracy"? All white workers? A segment of the highest paid workers? Lawyers and accountants? His larger argument depends on a general white solidarity with wealthy whites who are hostile to blacks. But if the solidarity is only from a privileged segment of white workers, the larger argument is hard to sustain.

Gerald Horne in the interview above talks about the thesis of his book on the American revolution. The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America (2014). He makes the case that the essential point of the American Revolution was to secure the existence of slavery. So the American Revolution was a reactionary, undesirable even in the world of the late 18th century? And this is different from the conclusions of aristocratic reactionaries of the time, how?

The problem with both approaches is their one-dimensionality. If we look at the advance of freedom and democracy in history, it comes not just in fits and starts. At any given time, some things are getting better and others are getting worse. Historical accounts need to be able to explain how it came to be that opposition to slavery among whites was associated with hatred and hostility to black people by those same whites. And if the American Revolution was all about defending slavery, how to explain that key leaders like the nonslaveholder Benjamin Franklin and the slaveowner Thomas Jefferson were in favor of abolishing slavery? How to explain that Northern states abolished slavery in their borders?

And if we are looking for a "usable history" that might throw light on current problems, to consign the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence and every other political development and government action taken by white-dominated political community known as the United States is hopelessly tainted by a sinful metaphysical condition, it seems to me that it cedes the history and symbolism of that period to the right. Who will be happy to claim it and present themselves as the defenders of the Real American heritage.

George Packer makes some criticisms of Coates' article in George Packer Responds to Ta-Nehisi Coates The Atlantic 09/15/2017. Any article or book can be criticized for not including other things that might be relevant. And sometimes it a very valid criticism. The entire neo-Confederate narrative, for example, is built around minimizing or denying altogether the realities of slavery in the politics of secession. Packer argues with considerable justification that Coates' approach results in a much truncated view of current American politics:

When you construct an entire teleology on one cause —even a cause as powerful and abiding as white racism — you face the temptation to leave out anything that complicates the thesis. So Coates minimizes sexism — Trump’s disgusting language and the visceral hatred of many of his supporters for Hillary Clinton—background noise. He downplays xenophobia, even though foreigners were far more often the objects of Trump’s divisive rhetoric and policy proposals than black Americans. (Of all his insults, the only one Trump felt obliged to withdraw was his original foray into birtherism.) Coates doesn’t try to explain why, at one point in the campaign, a plurality of Republicans supported Ben Carson over the other nine candidates, all white. He omits the weird statistic that slightly more black and Latino voters and slightly fewer whites went for Trump than for Mitt Romney. He doesn’t even mention the estimated eight and a half million Americans who voted for President Obama and then for Trump — even though they made the difference. No need to track the descending nihilism of the Republican Party. The urban-rural divide is a sham [in Coates' approach].
Given that this is 2017, it's also worth noting that Coates' argument agrees with the current corporate Democratic polemic that tries to treat a prolabor position as simultaneously somehow opposing civil rights issues for blacks and women. Although, as Packer writes, Coates' article also also tends to make consideration of the role of sexism in American society yet another distraction of the problem of white racism.

As a final note, I think that the concept of "whiteness" is a useful analytical tool. Race itself is a social construct. But the notion of whiteness allows for a dynamic historical view of how the boundaries of the American political community expanded to include groups like the Irish immigrants who weren't originally consider "white" enough. But as a master narrative of American history, it has its limits.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Stanley Greenberg on Hillary's messaging in 2016

Star pollster Stanley Greenberg gives his take on the Hillary Clinton 2016 campaign in How She Lost The American Prospect 09/21/2017. The narrowness of the margins in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania that put Trump over the top in the Electoral College makes the effort to identify any one of them as decisive a nearly hopeless cause.

Greenberg focuses on what he sees as technical failings of the campaign itself:

The Trump presidency concentrates the mind on the malpractice that helped put him in office. For me, the most glaring examples include the Clinton campaign’s over-dependence on technical analytics; its failure to run campaigns to win the battleground states; the decision to focus on the rainbow base and identity politics at the expense of the working class; and the failure to address the candidate’s growing “trust problem” or to learn from events and reposition.

Greenberg's account seems to rely on the conventional understanding of "white working class" that has started to drive me up the wall, i.e., white people without a four-year college degree. Even carving out "white working class" as distinct target group is problematic. The academic word "intersectionality" has been creeping into the general political vocabulary recently, a concept which looks at the effects of the overlapping of socially significant identities. "White" and "working class" would be an example of the intersection of particular race and class identities. I just wish that such intersections were discussed in a more nuanced way in political analysis and commentary. In that example, a more meaningful treatment would need to come up with a more sociologically significant understanding of working class, e.g., people who are (or should be) eligible to join a union.

The current polemical posture of corporate Democratic moderates in intra-party disputes with progressives is to treat any kind of emphasis on focusing on class issues and emphasizing advocacy of working-class issues as being opposed to civil rights and feminist goals. That keeps the waters on such discussions muddled. Not least because of a real history of American left groups playing off one such set of issues by pandering to the conservative side on others. For instance, advocates for female suffrage sometimes argued that it would provide a more reliable block of votes to preserve white dominance or protection against immigrants. Labor unions have often not treated racial and gender discrimination seriously enough, or even taken conservative positions on them. Such examples are not hard to find in American history.

But I'm particularly impressed with Greenberg's evaluation of the complacency aspect of Hillary's campaign. One big part of it was relying on a kind of demographic determinism:

Clinton and the campaign acted as if “demographics is destiny” and a “rainbow coalition” was bound to govern. Yes, there is a growing “Rising American Electorate,” but as Page Gardner and I wrote at the outset of this election, you must give people a compelling reason to vote. I have demonstrated for my entire career that a candidate must target white working-class voters, too.

Not surprisingly, Clinton took her biggest hit in Michigan, where she failed to campaign in Macomb County, the archetypal white working-class county. That was the opposite of her husband’s approach. Bill Clinton visibly campaigned in Macomb, the black community in Detroit, and elsewhere.

The fatal conclusion the Clinton team made after the Michigan primary debacle was that she could not win white working-class voters, and that the “rising electorate” would make up the difference.

He describes how Hillary's message was complicated in a big way by the Obama Administration's insistence on presenting their accomplishments in the best light. Instead of, say, emphasizing how many important things had been blocked by obstructionist Republican majorities:

Obama’s America was not a country in pain, but one where those left behind were looking for a seasoned leader to make progress. Obama and Clinton lived in a cosmopolitan and professional America that wasn’t very angry about the state of the country, even if many of the groups in the Clinton coalition were struggling and angry. Clinton decided only reluctantly to qualify that narrative in favor of one more sensitive to those who were left behind.

Obama’s refrain was severely out of touch with what was happening to most Americans and the working class more broadly. In our research, “ladders of opportunity” fell far short of what real people were looking for. Incomes sagged after the financial crisis, pensions lost value, and many lost their housing wealth, while people faced dramatically rising costs for things that mattered—health care, education, housing, and child care. People faced vanishing geographic, economic, and social mobility, as Edward Luce writes so forcefully. At the same time, billionaires spent massively to influence politicians and parked their money in the big cities whose dynamism drew in the best talent from the smaller towns and rural areas.

Clinton’s default position was Obama’s refrain about America ... [my emphasis]
Greenberg draws on contemporary polling data to argue that when Hillary did strike a Sanders-like position on economic issues, it drew a positive response from voters.

Greenberg focuses on the horse race rather than the policy substance. So he doesn't really address how that complacent approach on the economy is also consistent with the corporate Democratic instinct that what is good for bank CEO's is good for America.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Liberal cynicism about the power of conservative propaganda media

"At the heart of the problem is that when it came to what conservatives were willing to believe and act on, 2016 was simply an exaggerated version of what had come before."

Paul Waldman has that and other valuable observations in a nevertheless overly cynical column, Democrats' Unsolvable Media Problem The American Prospect 09/17/2017:

There's a doctrinal basis to conservative media that makes it fundamentally different from liberal media, that makes Rush Limbaugh most definitely not the mirror image of a liberal radio host and Sean Hannity not the mirror image of Rachel Maddow. It's not merely about the conservatives' and liberals' respective adherence to truth or penchant for ugly demonization of their opponents, though they differ in that too. It's that an argument about the larger media world is the foundation of conservative media. Conservative hosts and writers tell their audiences over and over again that nothing they read in the mainstream media can be accepted, that it's all twisted by a liberal agenda, and therefore they can only believe what conservatives tell them. It's the driving backbeat to every episode, every story, and every rant.

Liberals complain about media coverage of one story or another all the time. What they don't do is tell their audiences that any news source that is not explicitly and exclusively devoted to their ideological agenda cannot be trusted. But conservatives do.
Where I think Waldman goes wrong is that he effectively concludes that this gives conservatives a decisive advantage that liberals can never overcome.

And yet, somehow Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate dearly hated by the right, won a clear majority in the 2016 Presidential election.

I don't say that to minimize the magnitude of the Democratic political disaster in 2016. It was genuinely historic.

But it shouldn't be used to justify cynicism, no matter how sophisticated the packaging. Cynicism in politics for most people is virtually the same as conservatism.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

An example of Fake News: Berkeley anti-antifa version

Lisa Amin Gulezian in Berkeley protest victim speaks after police say stabbing allegations are false ABC7 News tells the story of a false claim of a stabbing by an antifa protester:

Right-wing activist Kyle Chapman, known as the "Based Stick Man," started the rumor Saturday morning by tweeting, "A Ben Shapiro supporter was stabbed in the neck by Antifa terrorists last night in Berkeley CA."

Chapman, a 41-year-old Daly City man who's charged with felony possession of a leaded cane for allegedly brandishing a leaded stick at a rally in Berkeley in March, described the woman's attacker as a "demon scum leftist" and asked people to "please pray 4her."
The Berkeley Police Department flatly denied that such a stabbing took place:

In our current media environment, a claim like this can get posted and magnified by rightwing media and a potentiall fast number of retweets.

Stories are more persuasive than statistics. So statistics showing that the vast number of incidents of political terrorist violence in the US has come from rightwingers in recent decades don't have the same kind of emotional appeal as "leftwing anarchist in Berkeley stabs peaceful protester in the neck."

There's no magic solution to disinformation campaigns based on claims like this. But people who don't want to get suckered by disinformation will need to pay attention to the factual basis, or lack thereof, in such claims. Especially ones that start taking off as mass memes. That's why fact-checking sites like Snopes, TruthorFiction, and Politifact provide such important journalistic service in today's media landscape.

A September 13 item at TruthorFiction features another claim from a guy named Joshua Witt claimed that someone had stabbed him for looking like a neo-Nazi. Tom McGee reports on the case in He claimed he was stabbed for looking like a “neo-Nazi.” Now police say he bought the knife himself. Denver Post 08/28/2017:

Witt’s report followed blanket news coverage of a white supremacy rally in Charlottesville, Va., that turned violent. One woman who was protesting the Unite the Right demonstration was killed when a white supremacist drove into the crowd.

Police became skeptical of Witt’s story when they reviewed surveillance video and saw no one running from the scene. They also found a transient who lives in the area who matched the description Witt gave, but cleared him as a suspect.

Video from a nearby sporting goods store showed Witt purchasing a small knife.

When police confronted Witt with that information on Aug. 24, he admitted accidentally cutting himself with the knife while in his car parked in front of the store.
Maybe claiming they've been stabbed by Mean Libruls is some kind of alt-right fad right now!

The wrath of Hillary?

Sophia McClennen of Pennsylvania State University has a thoughtful piece about The great Hillary Clinton paradox Salon 09/16/2017. McClennen sees the paradox as, on the one hand, Hillary claims that her prominent position as a woman in politics is a great strength and a reason to vote for her. And, on the other, she and her followers often seem to be trying to minimize or divert criticism by treating it as just a manifestation of sexism:

Unlike her run for the nomination in 2008, in 2016 the Clinton campaign specifically emphasized her role as a female candidate. She also had to contend with the aggressively hostile ways that Donald Trump and his supporters hurled sexist and misogynist epithets her way. From chants of “lock her up” to “nasty woman” to the various other ways that Trump displayed his disdain for women, the “woman card” was constantly in play.

But at times Clinton cast her role as a female candidate as a way to displace legitimate concerns that she was a Washington insider. Recall that in the first debate she responded to the question of being an insider by saying, “Well, I can’t think of anything more of an outsider than electing the first woman president, but I’m not just running because I would be the first woman president.”

And therein lies one key feature of the paradox: she both was and wasn’t running as a woman. That feature of the paradox was indisputable. Whether she highlighted her gender or not, it was certainly true that she had to contend with gender as a framing issue of her candidacy.
Rebecca Traister argues the case that Hillary suffered from a widespread prejudice against angry women in Hillary Clinton Is Finally Expressing Some Righteous Anger. Why Does That Make Everyone Else So Mad? The Cut 09/15/2017:

The question of whether Clinton could or should have found her own mad voice during the campaign hangs over What Happened. Should she have turned on Donald Trump as he paced behind her at the second debate, she wonders. Could she have found a way to communicate the anger many Americans were feeling? “I couldn’t — and wouldn’t — compete to stoke people’s rage and resentment. I think that’s dangerous ... Besides, it’s just not how I’m wired,” she writes, describing the mental diagnostics she was performing as she listened to Trump’s wrathful inauguration, wondering if “maybe that’s why Trump was now delivering the inaugural address.”

But if her failure to win the Electoral College hinged on Clinton’s inability to traffic in rhetorical fury, then the question she raises goes beyond her own wiring. Because she never could have turned around and screamed at Trump, never could have slashed her finger through the air and called for revolution in the style of Bernie Sanders, at least not if she had any hope of winning the presidency. Hillary Clinton is a woman, and there is almost nothing that Americans view as more repellent in women than anger.

Recall that every time Clinton spoke too loudly into a microphone while debating her screamy opponents, Americans seemed to rear back; consider that the one deprecatory remark she threw out — calling those who responded enthusiastically to Trump’s open racism “deplorables” — is still regarded by many pundits as her fatal error. Never mind that she said it while running against a candidate who called Mexicans rapists. Censorious anger from women is a liability; from men, it is often, simply, speech. [my emphasis]
There's a long time piece of cynical wisdom that says that when a man shows anger, he's called forceful. But when a woman shows anger, she's called a bitch. This is often used in the context of how women have to avoid pitfalls in rising professionally in the hierarchy of corporations and other large organizations.

But this now standard piece of conventional wisdom was always flawed in that inappropriate or uncontrolled anger is usually seen as very much an undesirable trait in male corporate managers, as well. Flying off the handle is generally seen as risky, and the more risky the more responsibility and public exposure a manager has. CEO's may sometimes act like medieval tyrants in private. But showing a lack of control and focus in public - the way Donald Trump does - would make a corporate board worry whether their CEO was still up to the job.

It's true that a woman's competitors in an organization, maybe especially male competitors, are often willing to appeal to prejudice against women in unethical ways. It's also the case that women in work settings may try to portray annoyance coming from a male colleague as intimidating or bullying. And since there are many ways in which interactions between members of a corporate workforce interact with, compete with and cooperate with one another, it's exceptionally hard to claim that one factor stands out in a distinctive way.

Olga Kazan provides an important perspective on this in Why Do Women Bully Each Other at Work? The Atlantic Sept 2017. She discusses findings that women in organization contexts often express an preference not to work for other women because of a perception that ambitious women will be especially likely to use aggressive tactics against them. This doesn't have to do with expressions of anger per se. But some of her examples show that successful women do express anger in office contexts and that it may benefit their careers.

In other words, it's important to avoid careless generalizations on this subject.

And I have to wonder what the basis is of Traister's claim, "Recall that every time Clinton spoke too loudly into a microphone while debating her screamy opponents, Americans seemed to rear back." Is there some basis for this other than Traister's own assertion?

It's also worth noting that Elizabeth Warren expresses various forms of outrage, annoyance and even anger in public. Maybe "Americans" also "rear back" whenever they hear that. And I'm sure that Republicans and corporate Democrats would like them to.

Hillary is a useful template for people to use to discuss issues of sexism and how men and women are often perceived. But when we're talking about whether any other one factor tipped the election, we are confronted with the same problem as with all the other factors. She won the popular vote by a clear margin. So only a minority of the voting population "reared back' from voting for her. And the Electoral College win was decided by less than 100,000 votes in three states, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. That's a tiny margin, and it's exceptionally hard to attribute that to any one factor. The chronic media prejudice against both Bill and Hillary is a more likely choice. So is James Comey's infamous pre-election statements on the emails, the latest in a long string of Clinton pseudoscandals irresponsibly hyped by the mainstream press.

Also, there were cases in which Hillary expressed anger publicly. Here is one of them, from Greenpeace USA, in which Hillary chides a Greenpeace activist pressing her on her energy industry donations, Hillary Clinton Loses Patience with Greenpeace Activist Over Fossil Fuel Donations 03/31/2016:

I remember seeing it during the primary campaign, in which my own perspective was that of a Sanders partisan, and I thought it came off as churlish. From the post-election perspective of a year and a half later, it still sounds churlish to me. But it also stands as a minor irritation in a primary campaign with much more substantial points of conflict. But did Democratic primary voters "rear back" form that incident? I would guess that Hillary voters were happy to hear it, Bernie voters took it a confirmation of what they thought anyway, and most everyone else never saw it.

In conclusion, I'd note that Trainer quotes Hillary herself in a statement that is telling not only for her personal style but her ideological perspective: “I couldn’t — and wouldn’t — compete to stoke people’s rage and resentment. I think that’s dangerous ... Besides, it’s just not how I’m wired.”

I think it's fine for politicians to "stoke people’s rage and resentment" if there's a legitimate target on which to focus. Crooked bank CEO's come to mind, for example. But Hillary was running on a theme that embodied a certain kind of complacency, exemplified by her theme of "Stronger Together." Hillary didn't want to campaign on opposition and resentment against the power elite, the One Percent, the oligarchs, the super-rich - whatever term one prefers to describe the ruling stratum of the very wealthy in the United States. So we got lines from her like, "America is already great" in opposition to Trump's (pseudo-)populist theme of "Make America Great Again."

Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Big Three in the Austrian Chancellor's race

On Friday, I had the chance to attend the "Big Three" debate between the three leading candidates for Austrian Chancellor in the election of October 15 in the Design Center in Linz. It was sponsored by the leading state/provincial newspapers, including Die Presse (Vienna) and the Oberösterreichische Nachrichten (Upper Austria). The video of the debate in German is available online at the Kleine Zeitung and at Bei Steuerplänen schieden sich die Geister, Lucian Mayringer et al, Oberösterreichische Nachrichten 15.09.2017. (The sound on both is low for the first few minutes.)

Austria has a parliamentary system, with the President elected as head of state in a separate election from the Parliament. The head of government is the Chancellor, whose function is called Prime Minister in some other countries, and is typically elected by a majority in Parliament, which often requires a formal agreement between two or more political parties. Since 1987, the government has mostly been composed of some combination of the center-left Socialdemokratisched Partei (SPÖ) and the center-right Christian-Democratic Volkspartei (ÖVP). The third-largest party is the Freiheitliche Partei (FPÖ), which we could (generously) describe as far right.

The Big Three (l to r): Sebastian Kurz, Christian Kern, HC Strache

In this campaign, the current Chancellor Christian Kern is candidate for the SPÖ, Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz for the ÖVP, and Heinz-Christian Strache for the FPÖ. Technically, Kurz is running on the Sebastian Kurz List, but that's basically just a marketing ploy. Kurz is currently the leading candidate in the polls, and is trying to maximize the potential advantage of looking as he does 16 years old and to emphasize that he's a new and fresh leader. Actually, at 31, he's almost twice as old as he looks.

It was a relatively civilized debate, which the press commentary reflected. Here is one way in which an American has to remember that Austria is different from the US. In Austria, it's not considered normal for a candidate to, for instance, demand that their opponent be locked up. Or to complain that female reporters menstruate. But politics is inevitably about conflicts, so not everything was harmonious at the debate.

The topics included education, taxes, digitalization and employment, the budget, pensions, and immigration. But immigration and the status of non-citizens in Austria - a topic on which I don't pretend to be a disinterred party - was the main theme, thanks in particular to Kurz. Prior to 2015, xenophobia was mainly pushed by the FPÖ. For instance, in 1993 the FPÖ used an anti-foreigner referendum campaign to exploit nationalist and xenophobic sentiment. They called their campaign "Austria First." And in a fashion now all-too-familiar to Americans in our own politics, the FPÖ has consistently encouraged and maintained visible links to hardcore anti-democratic rightwing groups, some of which constantly flirt with neo-Nazi propaganda, the latter being illegal in Austria under the terms of the Independence Treaty of 1955 with the US, the then-USSR, Britain and France.

But Kurz has made the anti-immigrant theme his own. In Friday's debate, Kurz introduced an anti-Islam meme into a discussion of education ("Islamic kindergartens"). And he and Strache competed in beating the anti-foreign drums. Problems in the education system? According to Kurz and Strache, the only real problem there is that there are too many g*******d foreign children in Austria. Budget problems? Also because there are too many g*******d foreign children in Austria. Since current American levels of crassness aren't yet respectable in Austrian politics, they didn't actually use the cuss word.

Kurz claimed the low point for the day when he complained that there are too many Africans in Africa and they are still breeding more. Seriously! Maybe he was thinking that white South Africans have too high a birth rate. But I'm guessing not. It's a notable accomplishment for the leader of the ÖVP to come out of a face-to-face confrontation with Strache sounding like the more xenophobic of the two.

I was surprised that the word "terrorism" never came up in the debate, because Kurz and Strache have typically linked their hostility to foreigners with security questions. It was especially surprising because of the current report on Friday of what could have been an attempted terrorist attack in London.

But for me it was grim to hear with what a complete lack of compassion and realism the three candidate discussed the issue of refugees. All the three parties including the SPÖ have stressed the need to keep refugees out. Kern did introduce a bit of realism into Friday's discussion by talking about the real problems of war, climate change and economic crisis in the Middle East and North Africa. But it was discussed all but exclusively in terms of keeping the foreigners out of Austria.

I wouldn't want to minimize the seriousness of the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe, which is far from over. On the contrary, it's a chronic problem that the EU is currently handling with the "extend-and-pretend" approach which has been the dominant characteristic of Angela Merkel's approach to both the euro crisis and the refugee crisis. The current perception of the crisis in Austria has been heavily influenced by the refugee surge in 2015, with chaotic scenes in the city of Salzburg and the town of Traiskirchen. Ferry Maier and Julia Ortner present some of the substantive issues on the handling of refugees in Austria, including the state of the national and state emergency services, in Willkommen in Österreich? (2017).

A not-especially-diverse pundit panel discuss the discussion afterwards

But the Big Three couldn't find much time to address those substantive issues on Friday. Instead what was mainly on display were the polemical techniques the xenophobes have used to transform the image of desperate people fleeing war and severe persecution into one of coddled foreigners getting special benefits that Austrians don't get. And specifically into an image of Austrians being threatened by the presence of foreign children. It's ugly stuff.

On the bright side, there wasn't much use of favorite Islamophobe buzzwords, except for "Islamic kindergartens." (There were no similar complaints in the debate about Catholic kindergartens, of which Austria has plenty.)

On the other issues, the most substantive point was made by Chancellor Kern on tax policy, when he stressed that tax cuts, which all three are advocating, should be targeted to lower and medium income earners, not to corporations or the wealthy. And he stressed - accurately - that the Kurz and Strache proposals would most benefit the latter. None of the three wanted to be very specific about what program cuts would accompany their tax cuts. No one even mentioned the issues a large tax cut might cause for Austria under the terms of the eurozone Fiscal Suicide Pact, officially the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union, better known as the Stability Pact.

Kern and Strache were agreed in opposing the increase of the retirement age, which Kurz supports.

But on other entries, all three generally took seemingly safe, stock, anodyne positions on most issues. All three are in favor of good education. They all favor increasing government efficiency. All three are committed to the TINA (There Is No Alternative) Angela Merkel/Herbert Hoover economic policies that are currently dominant in the EU. A symptom of the latter is that all three used "education" as a magic conjuring word that would solve all economic problems. And, if it doesn't, well, it's your own fault for making those infamous Bad Choices. Along with the usual fantasies about unemployed workers in their mid-50s retraining for new and better jobs.

The discussion was moderated by Wolfgang Braun of the Oberösterreichische Nachrichten and Claudia Gigler of the Kleine Zeitung. Gigler was the only female journalist with a role in the discussion. Afterwards, there was a half hour discussion of the event by six commentators, all of them white guys. There was some diversity there, though. At least one of the six on the pundit panel was probably younger than 50.

Like their American counterparts, the journalist panel was particularly interested in the horse race speculation. Who will get the biggest vote? And what kind of party coalition could then be built? On that score, it was pretty obvious that Kurz and Strache were campaigning for an ÖVP/FPÖ coalition. That probably contributed to Strache's relatively restrained conduct in the appearance, which is not always his approach.

It struck me early on that Strache was the most experienced politician of the three. He was quicker on his comebacks and easily employed humor. Kern sounds like a Chancellor, which he is. But a glad-handing politician, not so much. I would agree, though, with the commentators who noted that Kern's performance could enhance his credibility at governance. That is, for the voters for whom that's important. Kurz comes off like a well-spoken teenaged conservative twit who thinks there are too many Africans in Africa.

For an American used to the tiresome rituals of our own TV Pod Pundits, it's refreshing to see journalists actually act like journalists and pressing politicians to respond to their questions and not just letting them repeat their preferred talking points. Braun and Gigler did a good job of that during the main event. What was missing, though, was some much needed fact-checking. Strache, for instance, ranted at one point about hundreds of millions of euros being paid to support non-existent children. Which would be a suspect claim even it weren't coming from someone like Strache, who lies like breathing on topics like this. Kern then ridiculed Strache's claim with a more credible-sounding number about the entire cost of the program in question. But neither Braun nor Gigler offered any kind of fact-checking on the topic, which would have really been helpful. Especially since Strache's claim is a popular xenophobic talking point right now. In his mini-rant about there too many Africans in Africa, Kurz also used population growth rate predictions that were fantasy nonsense, which also could have used a real time fact-check from the reporters. (Not that his point had anything to do with mastering demographic forecasts.)

A final cross-cultural observation: The Chancellor's debate included no discussion about whether Austria should nuke North Korea. Or start a war with Iran. Or send more troops to ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Comparatively speaking, from an American viewpoint Austria has a much preferable set of problems to wrestle with.

Press reports:

Sunday, September 10, 2017

What Happened? To pick such a title?

I'm sure I'm not the only one who made this connection:

A Mighty Wind (3/10) Movie CLIP - Wha' Happened? (2003):

Veränderung mit Verantwortung: Neoliberalism and the center-left, Austrian edition

Austrian parliamentary elections are coming up in October. Among the three most important parties are the social-democratic/center-left SPÖ (Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs), the Christian Democratic/conservative ÖVP (Österreichische Volkspartei), and the rightwing/populist FPÖ (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs).

The SPÖ and ÖVP have been coalition partners in the national government for so long it's a wonder anyone can tell the difference between them anyway. But why let that stop the SPÖ from blurring that difference even more?

The SPÖ had earlier in the campaign adopted the slogan, "Holen Sie sich, was Ihnen zusteht" ("Take what you deserve"), as we see in this poster featuring Kern as a kinda-sorta man of the people. As a slogan, it has a little bite, vaguely promising to the a defender of the unfairly deprived. The opposition parties criticized it. An opposition party criticizing your slogan, imagine that! Who could have known? They said it sounded like the SPÖ was encouraging street thieves.

And Heaven forbid that one of the legendary parties of the European left would use a slogan that might mildly irritate people who would never consider voting for them anyway. So, of course, they changed it to "Veränderung mit Verantwortung" ("Responsible change").

It just doesn't get more boring than this.

Responsible Change is right up there with Stronger Together and A Better Deal. As forgettable as they are uninspiring. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that the SPÖ hired establishment Democratic consultants from America that told them that of course the smartest approach for a center-left party that has held the Chancellorship for years was to use a slogan as bland and inoffensive as possible.

This is why the social democratic parties in Europe are in real danger of shrinking to minor centrist parties. Since the basic social and economic assumptions of the neoliberal ideology are conservative ones, the conservative parties have generally been less damaged by militant centrism than the center-left parties.

Maybe Bernie or Elizabeth Warren can swipe the Take What You Deserve slogan, since the SPÖ decided they don't want it any more.

But Responsible Change? Good grief! And consultants get paid good money to come up with loser slogans like that.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Why the Republicans don't want to know about Russian intervention in the 2016 elections

Will Bunch reminds us that not only do the Republicans want to spare themselves the partisan embarrassment of what a thorough investigation of alleged Russian intervention in the 2016 election because it would remind everyone of how the Russians preferred Donald "Make American Great Again" Trump. Looking at election system vulnerabilities would inevitably bring suggestions for election system security that would make the Republicans' efforts to suppress black and Latino voting much more difficult than they are finding it to be right now. From Can America handle the truth of the tarnished 2016 election? Philadelphia Inquirer 09/03/2017:

American elections are easy to mess with because America’s election system is terrible — Russian hacking or no Russian hacking. Voters went to the polls in 2016 after years of efforts by mostly GOP-led state governments to make it hard for citizens — but especially non-white citizens, college students or the elderly — to cast ballots. Consider Wisconsin, the state where Trump pulled arguably his biggest upset, winning by only 22,748 votes. Critics have said Wisconsin’s turnout fell sharply because of its voter ID law (although maybe not by 200,000, as one study claimed.) Voters in the Badger State were also badgered with “fake news” — some of it undoubtedly from Russia. It’s hard to tell an array of innocent computer glitches and malfunctions from criminal hacking.

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist or political scientist to figure out what needs to be done. In the long run, we need massive election reform — including a new and improved Voting Rights Act that would pinpoint the most pernicious voter ID laws, an Election Day federal holiday, and same-day voter registration. We need a voting system that leaves a real paper trail that can be routinely audited and easily investigated when there are allegations of vote tampering. And, as the Times article makes clear, we need a more thorough investigation of computer hacking and other problems that occurred in 2016 — regardless of the possibility that we might learn the unthinkable.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

North Korea, nuclear proliferation and regime change

Robert Parry makes an important point about a huge problem with US nuclear nonproliferation right now (How ‘Regime Change’ Wars Led to Korea Crisis Consortium News 09/04/2017):

... the current North Korea crisis, which could end up killing millions of people, can be viewed as a follow-on disaster to President George W. Bush’s Iraq War and President Barack Obama’s Libyan intervention. Those wars came after the leaders of Iraq and Libya had dismantled their dangerous weapons programs, leaving their countries virtually powerless when the U.S. government chose to invade.

In both cases, the U.S. government also exploited its power over global information to spread lies about the targeted regimes as justification for the invasions — and the world community failed to do anything to block the U.S. aggressions.

And, on a grim personal note, the two leaders, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, were then brutally murdered, Hussein by hanging and Gaddafi by a mob that first sodomized him with a knife.
Paul Jay and Larry Wilkerson discuss that point among others related to North Korea in Larry Wilkerson: North Korea is Not an Existential Threat - But Many People Benefit by Saying It Is The Real News 09/05/2017:

This report includes a recent clip of Vladimir Putin making that same point about the effect of the Iraq and Libya wars on nuclear proliferation. I suppose these days we need to specify that surely Putin has some possibly nefarious agenda in saying so. But that makes it no less true.

Wilkerson also wrote about North Korea three weeks ago, before the supposed thermonuclear test now in the news, The American Conservative 08/18/2017. And he references the regime change problem there, too:

[W]hat makes North Korean leaders so desperate about their capacity to fulfill that goal [of maintaining the current dynasty in power]? That too is not hard to answer: the military power of the United States, power that has been used to unseat Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi and in the attempt to unseat Bashar al-Assad. Recently, President Trump even threatened Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro with a possible U.S. military intervention in that country.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Digby on Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III and DACA

Digby on the Trump Family Business Administration's DACA policy as announced by Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III (Another step toward Making America White Again Hullabaloo 09/05/2017):

Trump and Sessions and the people who back them are dangerous racist fascists. And the only people who can stop them at this point [i.e., the Republican in Congress] are just as bad. They had their chance to fix this for the last five years and didn't do it. DACA wouldn't have been necessary if they'd passed Comprehensive Immigration Reform or the DREAM Act.

Maybe they'll do it now. But I wouldn't be too sanguine. So far they have not been able to show they can get anything done, much less something that their base hates with a passion. Does anyone believe that after the failure of Obamacare Repeal these people will legalize a bunch of Latinos?

Maybe they'll surprise us. I certainly hope so. This is a nightmare.

Trump and DACA: hideous xenophobia

Trump just announced that he is discontinuing the DACA ("Dreamer") program effective in March 2020: Sabrina Siddiqui, Trump ends 'Dreamers' program, leaving fate of 800,000 uncertain Guardian 09/05/2017; Gobierno de Trump termina con DACA La Opinión 05.09.2017

This shows a complete lack of compassion on his part and on the part of his segregationist Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III.


The majority of Daca recipients are from Mexico, comprising roughly 78% of the program, according to the to US Citizenship and Immigration Services. California is home to more than 22,000 [sic; 200,000 was likely meant] initial Daca recipients, the highest in the country, followed by Texas, which has more than 124,000 recipients, and Illinois, with more than 40,000 recipients.

Recently, a bipartisan pair of pro-immigration reform senators, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Dick Durbin of Illinois, revived the Dream Act while urging Trump to address the young pool of immigrants with sympathy.
Among other parts of this atrocity, the March deadline could mean that college students in the DACA program would not get to finish the school year.

Saturday, September 02, 2017

Middle Eastern complications for the US

As the confused foreign policy of the Trump Family Business Administration lurches forward, there are a number of places where things could go really badly. The Middle East being obviously one of them. Or even several of them.

Alastair Crooke writes about the shifting options at Israel's disposal in The Reasons for Netanyahu’s Panic Consortium News 09/01/2017:

Belatedly, Israel has understood that it backed the wrong side in Syria – and it has lost. It is not really in a position to demand anything. It will not get an American enforced buffer zone beyond the Golan armistice line, nor will the Iraqi-Syrian border be closed, or somehow “supervised” on Israel’s behalf.

Of course, the Syrian aspect is important, but to focus only on that, would be to “miss the forest for the trees.” The 2006 war by Israel to destroy Hizbullah (egged on by the U.S., Saudi Arabia – and even a few Lebanese) was a failure. Symbolically, for the first time in the Middle East, a technologically sophisticated, and lavishly armed, Western nation-state simply failed. What made the failure all the more striking (and painful) was that a Western state was not just bested militarily, it had lost also the electronic and human intelligence war, too — both spheres in which the West thought their primacy unassailable.
And he discusses Israel's current high-risk collaboration with Saudi Arabia:

The “new” corrective strategy from Tel Aviv, it appears, is to focus on winning Iraq away from Iran, and embedding it into the Israel-U.S.-Saudi alliance.

If so, Israel and Saudi Arabia are probably too late into the game, and are likely underestimating the visceral hatred engendered among so many Iraqis of all segments of society for the murderous actions of ISIS. Not many believe the improbable (Western) narrative that ISIS suddenly emerged armed, and fully financed, as a result of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s alleged “sectarianism”: No, as rule-of-thumb, behind each such well-breached movement – stands a state.
But that last phrase is also a bit of a red flag for me. One of the biggest strategic failures in the neoconservative theory of terrorism after 9/11 was the idea that terrorism was always a function of state sponsorship. And that can lead to some serious misreadings of the phenomenon.

Juan Cole reminds us how tangled the alliances in Syria have been in Turkey-Backed fundamentalist Militias attack US Troops in Syria Informed Consent 08/31/2017:

The US has tried to persuade rebel groups to concentrate their firepower on ISIL (IS, ISIS, Daesh) rather than on the Syrian regime of president Bashar al-Assad. It hasn’t been particularly successful. The Arab fighters, many of them linked to the old Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, still desperately want the regime to fall, and they’ve expended far more energy attacking it that they ever did in attacking Daesh.

The US troops are closely allied with the Syrian Kurdish YPG or People’s Protection Units, a leftist paramilitary that favors women’s rights and cooperatives. As leftists, these Kurds are relatively secular-minded, though they are nominally for the most part Sunni Muslims (some are Yazidis).

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Hurricane Harvey and neoliberal policies, a toxic mix

These two articles give a good glimpse of how the disaster that hurricane/tropical storm Harvey represents is in critical ways a result of the dominance of neoliberal economics and politics in the last four decades. And that's neoliberal in the Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel, IFM, Washington Consensus kind of ideology.

Charlie Pierce writes about how We're Nowhere Near Prepared for the Ecological Disaster That Harvey Is Becoming Esquire Politics Blog 08/30/2017:

Once, long ago, the conservative activist Grover Norquist famously said that he wanted to shrink "government" to a size at which it could be drowned in the bathtub. Well, people actually are drowning in Houston now, and so is the political philosophy that reached its height when Ronald Reagan said in his first inaugural that government wasn't the solution, but the problem itself. We all moved onto a political flood plain then, and we're being swept away.

Naomi Klein describes how Harvey Didn't Come Out of the Blue. Now Is the Time To Talk About Climate Change. The Intercept 08/28/2017. And about the kind of "disaster capitalism" policies we can expect from the Trump-Pence Administration in the wake of Harvey:

We live in a world in which the governing powers have shown themselves all too willing to exploit the diversion of a large-scale crisis, and the very fact that so many are focused on life-and-death emergencies, to ram through their most regressive policies, policies that push us further along a road that is rightly understood as a form of “climate apartheid.” We saw it after Hurricane Katrina, when Republicans wasted no time pushing for a fully privatized school system, weakening labor and tax law, increasing oil and gas drilling and refining, and flinging the door open to mercenary companies like Blackwater. Mike Pence was a key architect of that highly cynical project — and we should expect nothing less in Harvey’s wake, now that he and Trump are at the wheel.

We are already seeing Trump using the cover of Hurricane Harvey to push through the hugely controversial pardoning of Joe Arpaio, as well as the further militarization of U.S. police forces. These are particularly ominous moves in the context of news that immigration checkpoints are continuing to operate wherever highways are not flooded (a serious disincentive for migrants to evacuate), as well as in the context of municipal officials tough-talking about maximum penalties for any “looters” (it’s well worth remembering that after Katrina, several African-American residents of New Orleans were shot by police amid this kind of rhetoric.)
Another reminder that, while Mike Pence less erratic and emotionally deranged as Trump, he's also committed to a series of disastrous policies.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Bay Area weekend protests

Two weeks ago today, Trump had his public decompensation in which he blamed the pro-democracy protesters in Charlottesville for the violence by the white supremacist/KKK/Nazi demonstrators on the previous weekend.

It took two weeks before good respectable liberals were jumping on the bandwagon to blame "antifa," which they are happy to define as Trump did in Phoenix as some vague evil Mean Librul thing. Scott Greenfield goes the liberal-troll route in this tweet:

Finally! A good excuse for nice liberals to blast people who actually protest against white racism as the Real Villains. And strike a smug liberal posture while doing it. Plus, it's a good way to be quoted in stories as "even-the-liberal so-and-so agrees ..."

Surprisingly, even-the-Green Chris Hedges, happily echoes Trump's Both Sides Do It position in How ‘Antifa’ Mirrors the ‘Alt-Right’ Truthdig 08/27/2017. Right down to using the "alt-left" trope:

Behind the rhetoric of the “alt-right” about white nativism and protecting American traditions, history and Christian values is the lust for violence. Behind the rhetoric of antifa, the Black Bloc and the so-called “alt-left” about capitalism, racism, state repression and corporate power is the same lust for violence.

The two opposing groups, largely made up of people who have been cast aside by the cruelty of corporate capitalism, have embraced holy war.
This 08/19/2017 piece by Kevin Drum doesn't fall into the both-sides-do-it trap, Nonviolence Is the Perfect Answer to Neo-Nazis Mother Jones.

Robert Reich posted this on his Facebook page 08/27/2017, responding to the specific occurences in Berkeley that day:

From where the text in the embed ends:

Some antifa protesters also threatened to break the cameras of anyone who filmed them, including journalists. One reporter tweeted that he had been pepper sprayed in one scuffle.

According to the Washington Post, black-clad anarchists attacked at least five people. More than 100 hooded protesters, with shields emblazoned with the words “no hate” and waving a flag identifying themselves as anarchists, busted through police lines.

If these reports are correct, the antifa and black bloc anarchists have given Trump supporters exactly what they wanted in coming to Berkeley: footage of violence perpetrated against them. [my emphasis]
I don't see that comment of Bob Reich's as indulging in both-sides-do-it. He's making a very legitimate political point, that the far-right protesters were seeking to portray themselves as victims.

Josh Marshall has a broader and nuanced take on Should We Be Punching Nazis? TPM 08/28/52017:

Now, hearing this argument you might think I’m arguing for a bloodless “I may disagree with what you say but I’ll fight for your right to say it” argument. It’s not. I actually like seeing Nazis get punched. Nor do I think all views deserve a right of equal hearing in a democratic society. Philosophies that seek to destroy democracy and the rule of law don’t merit equal validation by a democracy. We grant them certain rights because doing so is consistent with a larger system of laws and rights that guarantees a civil society that is the antithesis of what they believe in. Put another way, Nazis deserve to get punched. A few sucker punches here and there probably send a salutary message. But it’s not always wise to give people what they deserve.

I also think that in cases where the police either refuse to protect or are unable to protect the victims of fascist intimidation and violence that there should be defense groups that do so. That is defensive violence in specific situations. And more generally that only presupposes the breakdown of the state and its basic responsibilities which it should be our main goal to avoid.

The entirety of this seems still a largely marginal issue – a few street brawls in different parts of the country in which Nazis come out to march and intimidate and left-wing groups go out to meet them also looking for a fight. This is a tiny, tiny percentage of those counter-protesting these people. And I don’t include here people who simply defend themselves when attacked. But it’s still worth thinking this question through – even at a distance – since we live in troubled times.

Pushing civil society from talk and voting to violence and paramilitaries is what the fascists are trying to accomplish – moving from the rule of law to the rule of force. By every historical standard and also by almost every philosophical one, this is a victory for, if not fascism, then certainly authoritarianism. The answer to Nazis and white supremacists isn’t flowery talk or left-wing paramilitaries. It’s a stronger rule of law and an empowered state behind it. We have our work cut out for us.
It is the responsibility of the police to protect the right of peaceful demonstrators and to respond to obvious threat to the lives and safety of people in public confrontations. Like, for instance, if demonstrators show up with automatic weapons, like some of the rightwingers in Charlottesville did. And it's highly questionable, to put it mildly, whether the Charlottesville police responded in an optimal way to protect lives or the right of peaceful protest. (Aaron Davis et al, How Charlottesville lost control amid deadly protest Washington Post 08/26/2017)

Here are some of the news reports on the Berkeley protests Sunday:

We've been down this road before

And we'll be living with the consequences for a long time. From the previous one, I mean, i.e., the invasion of Iraq 2003.

Julian Borger, White House 'pressuring' intelligence officials to find Iran in violation of nuclear deal The Guardian 08/28/2017.

Yes, we've been down this road before.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Biden on the President and the Radical Right

Joe Biden's essay on opposing the far right is a good one ('We Are Living Through a Battle for the Soul of This Nation' The Atlantic 08/27/2017):

Did we think the charlatans and the con-men and the false prophets who have long dotted our history wouldn’t revisit us, once again prop up the immigrant as the source of all our troubles, and look to prey on the hopelessness and despair that has grown up in the hollowed-out cities and towns of Ohio and Michigan and Pennsylvania and the long-forgotten rural stretches of West Virginia and Kentucky?

We have fought this battle before—but today we have a special challenge.

Today we have an American president who has publicly proclaimed a moral equivalency between neo-Nazis and Klansmen and those who would oppose their venom and hate.

Comparing two Argentine presidencies, Carlos Menem and Mauricio Macri's

Atilio Boron has a longish article on Argentine President Mauricio Macri's politics, which includes five points of comparison he makes between the government of Carlos Menem (1989-1999) and Macri's (2015-present)
El macrismo y sus límites Página/12 26.08.2017

Carlos Menem
(1) Menem came to power as the head of the Peronist Partido Justicialista (PJ), an established party with a previous history of being a left party, and Menem came to power campaigning in that vein. His embrace of neoliberal/Washington Consensus economic policies took years to generate significant opposition within the Peronist movement, while the main opposition party, the Radical Civic Union (UCR), was fine with that approach.

Macri came to power with a motley political coalition called Cambiemos, which doesn't provide him anything like the solid, well-established institutional support that Menem had with the PJ.

Mauricio Macri
(2) The major media are far more concentrated than during Menem's Presidency, and are very partisan in favor of Macri and his government. Boron sees this as a major compensating factor for the weaknesses of his coalition's structure. But he also notes that this makes him vulnerable to possible turns in the media's approach in a way that Menem was not.

(3) Menem acted within the outlines of a neoliberal consensus that was not only dominant at the time in Latin America but was also more widely regarded as desirable. Boron mentions in particular Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Peru. While neoliberalism is still a dominant pardigm, Boron notes that "ese paradigma de política económica hoy ha caído en desgracia con el ascenso de Donald Trump a la Casa Blanca y el neoliberalismo que permea todo el 'equipo' de Macri da la sensación de ser anacrónico en más de un sentido" (this paradigm of political economy has fallen into disgrace today with the ascension of Donald Trump and the neoliberalism that permeates Macri's whole "team" gives the feeling of being anachronistic in more that one sense).

(4) The flip side of Macri's weakness on party organization compared to Menem is that didn't face anything like the popular resistance that Macri has since the beginning of his Presidency to his economic and political policies. Menem's neoliberalism, which eventually resulted in the crisis of 2001 after Menem had left office, also benefitted from the fact that he took office at a time of serious economic problems including an actual hyperinflation and major economic setbacks to small businesses and large portions of the population. So people were willing to cut him more slack for a longer time. While Macri took over at a time when the economy was stagnating in some ways and significant inflation (but not hyperinflation).

(5) Menem became President in 1989 in the period where the Communist government in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union were falling, which resulted in the much-discussed unipolar moment of US predominance in the world. This gave the US the clout to more effectively act as a political and economic protector of friendly Latin American governments. But as Boron observes:

Macri se enfrenta a un mundo mucho más complejo y amenazante que el de los noventas y en donde la redistribución del poder mundial y la emergencia de nuevos centros de poder (Rusia, China, India) y el debilitamiento de Europa hace que aún con el ferviente apoyo de Washington la viabilidad de sus políticas esté marcada por la incertidumbre.

[Macri encountered a world that is much more complex and threatening than that of the nineties and in which the distribution of global power and the emergence of new centers of power (Russia, China, India) and the debility of Europe makes the viability of his policies is marked by uncertainty despite the fervent support of Washington.]
Boron expresses considerable doubt that Macri will be able to define the Argentine right over a longer period because his economic policies as well as his broader ideological position are garbled. Boron also thinks that Macri is conveying a strong image of governing for the benefit of large corporations.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Free Speech at UC-Berkeley

Anyone who has spent much time around the UC-Berkeley campus the last ten years will likely find it hard to believe that there is massive suppression of dissent, which is what conservatives have been trying to claim for years now. And gullible liberal commentators like Conor Fridersdorf have beaten the same drum, largely accepting the conservative provocateurs' version with little critical insight, e.g., UC Berkeley Declares Itself Unsafe for Ann Coulter The Atlantic 04/20/2017.

In the real world, the issues at Berkeley have largely revolved around legitimate safety concerns around speeches by particularly controversial characters, like Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos. Yiannopoulos was a hot star on the far right, despite being openly gay, until he slipped up and suggested in a podcast interview that he might approve of adults having sex with underage boys. (Mary Emily O'Hara, Yiannopoulos Quits Breitbart, Apologizes for Uproar Over Year-Old Comments NBC News 02/21/2017) Since that became public, his free speech hasn't been nearly as much in demand from his former fans, nor do they seem so eager to have him as a symbol for the alt-right movement. The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) cancelled a scheduled appearance by him at their conference earlier this year. A brief search didn't turn up any condemnations of CPAC from Friedersdorf over that cancellation.

Let's give him credit, though. After thinking about it long and hard, Fridersdorf did realize that, golly, an increasing number of conservatives have been wildly intolerant and insufferably nasty for, well, a long time. (What Critiques of 'Smug Liberals' Miss The Atlantic 05/03/2017)

University administrator public and private are highly attuned to publicity embarrassments. Those can damage "development" efforts (fundraising).

So it's no surprise to see current UC-Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ putting out a statement on free speech that shows every sign of having been tortured into existence via innumerable reviews by committees and lawyers. And probably committees of lawyers, Chancellor Christ: Free speech is who we are UC-Berkeley website 08/23/2017:
The law is very clear: Public institutions like UC Berkeley must permit speakers invited in accordance with campus policies to speak, without discrimination in regard to point of view. ...

But the most powerful argument for free speech is not one of legal constraint — that we’re required to allow it — but of value. The public expression of many sharply divergent points of view is fundamental both to our democracy and to our mission as a university. The philosophical justification underlying free speech, most powerfully articulated by John Stuart Mill in his book On Liberty, rests on two basic assumptions. The first is that truth is of such power that it will always ultimately prevail; any abridgement of argument therefore compromises the opportunity of exchanging error for truth. The second is an extreme skepticism about the right of any authority to determine which opinions are noxious or abhorrent. Once you embark on the path to censorship, you make your own speech vulnerable to it.
I'm trying to picture the conjured spirit of John Stuart Mill sitting at a conference table with University lawyers who would probably ban Abraham Lincoln from speaking on campus if they thought it might cause some legal inconvenience.

If they asked the spectral Mill if he thought it was wrong to postpone a speech when hooligans showed up throwing Molotov cocktails, which is why the first speech was cancelled, he might have pointed them to this passage in On Liberty: "Nevertheless, if a public authority, or even a private person, sees any one evidently preparing to commit a crime, they are not bound to look on inactive until the crime is committed, but may interfere to prevent it. If poisons were never bought or used for any purpose except the commission of murder, it would be right to prohibit their manufacture and sale."

Or this one: "If either a public officer or any one else saw a person attempting to cross a bridge which had been ascertained to be unsafe, and there were no time to warn him of his danger, they might seize him and turn him back, without any real infringement of his liberty; for liberty consists in doing what one desires, and he does not desire to fall into the river." University authorities postponing a speech due to imminent danger of violence due to, you know, violence already happening, probably fits into that condition. It may not speak well of the "black-box" protesters that were, after all, violating the law. But Mills would likely have held back on the finger-wagging at the University officials.

Mill would probably agree with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes' opinion in Schenck v. United States (1919), "The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic." Whether Mill would agree to its application in Schenck is another question. Mill's version:

... men should be free to act upon their opinions—to carry these out in their lives, without hindrance, either physical or moral, from their fellow-men, so long as it is at their own risk and peril. This last proviso is of course indispensable. No one pretends that actions should be as free as opinions. On the contrary, even opinions lose their immunity, when the circumstances in which they are expressed are such as to constitute their expression a positive instigation to some mischievous act. An opinion that corn-dealers are starvers of the poor, or that private property is robbery, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn-dealer, or when handed about among the same mob in the form of a placard.
Chancellor Carol Christ statement continues:

This September, Ben Shapiro and Milo Yiannopoulos have both been invited by student groups to speak at Berkeley. The university has the responsibility to provide safety and security for its community and guests, and we will invest the necessary resources to achieve that goal. If you choose to protest, do so peacefully. That is your right, and we will defend it with vigor. We will not tolerate violence, and we will hold anyone accountable who engages in it.

We will have many opportunities this year to come together as a Berkeley community over the issue of free speech; it will be a free speech year. We have already planned a student panel, a faculty panel and several book talks. Bridge USA and the Center for New Media will hold a day-long conference on Oct. 5; PEN, the international writers’ organization, will hold a free speech convening in Berkeley on Oct. 23. We are planning a series in which people with sharply divergent points of view will meet for a moderated discussion. Free speech is our legacy, and we have the power once more to shape this narrative.
We'll see if those September events with Shapiro and Yiannopoulos turn into another shitshow.

I will note that the phrase "That is your right" has taken on the connotation of "That is your right, you contemptible motherf*****s." But let's give the Chancellor the benefit of the doubt here.

But now that Yiannopoulos has fallen from alt-right grace, I won't be in the least surprised if his next appearance at Berkeley brings condemnations from the alt-right that UC-Berkeley is promoting pedophilia and child rape. That's just how they roll. And Conor Fridersdorf will probably find a way to say that it all proves that universities are full of hypocritical Mean Libruls.