Archive for May, 2018

Trump’s “spygate” — biggest scandal in political history

May 31, 2018

In a personal conversation, journalist Lesley Stahl asked Trump why he says bad things about the press. He answered candidly: “I do it to discredit you all and demean you all, so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.”

Straight out of the would-be dictator’s playbook. Trump can’t (yet) lock up journalists and shut down newspapers and TV stations, like in Turkey, Russia, or Venezuela. But what he can do is neutralize them by undermining their credibility. If the public stops believing them, they might as well be shut down.

That gets rid of one key check upon his power. Another comes from within the government itself. Indeed, that was a foundational concept of our system (remembering King George) — rule of law rather than by men.

Trump wars against that too — our infrastructure of internal accountability — the Department of Justice, the FBI, and the Mueller investigation which, recall, was started because Trump fired the FBI director to squelch the Russia investigation. An independent probe was considered needed. Trump’s strategy is not to actually refute any eventual charges but to get them disregarded.

His weapons? Lies, lies, and more lies.

Previously it was alleged political bias. Simply a lie (Mueller is a Republican).

“Spygate” is another lie. Trump says the FBI “implanted, for political reasons, into my campaign” a “spy,” and this is one of the “biggest scandals in history.” (As if he knows any history.)

I know a lot of history, actually. And what is in fact our worst scandal ever is a president assaulting the pillars of our democratic system and rule of law with a shameless campaign of lies.

It wasn’t a “spy” and he wasn’t “implanted” and it wasn’t “for political reasons.” He was someone who spoke with some Trump campaign operatives which he reported to the FBI, which was already investigating the Russia links. Simply routine law enforcement practice.

Think. If the FBI was really out to screw Trump, they could have simply made public the fact that his campaign was under investigation for criminal Russian involvement. Far more explosive than anything in the Hillary/email investigation — which the FBI did make public before the election — probably sinking her candidacy. The scandal, if anything, was publicizing the Hillary probe and not the Trump one.

“Spygate” is just a Trump smokescreen to obfuscate the basic fact that Russia, not the FBI, messed with our election, on Trump’s behalf; and to discredit the Mueller investigation. So (just like he told Lesley Stahl about the press) when something damning comes out, people won’t believe it.

At least those people he counts on as suckers for his con game. His Republican base, for whom tribal solidarity now trumps everything. There’s no lie they won’t embrace if necessary.

This includes many Republicans in Congress (like Devin Nunes). And those who do know better are so cowed by their partisan voters, they dare not whisper such heresy. They betray America and (what used to be) its fundamental values.

How bad is it? Click here for a GOP fundraising email I just got, with the “spygate” party line: it’s the DOJ and FBI (not Trump) lying; the FBI’s conduct (not Trump’s) that “cuts to the very heart of democracy!”

Right now, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher Wray stand as a kind of Maginot Line shielding our democracy against this attack. An ominous metaphor.

Trump’s blitzkrieg of lies is winning. Confidence in the press and in the Mueller investigation erodes, while Trump’s support edges up toward 50%. (In almost any other country, and in our own past, a leader behaving like him would be in single digits.) So what will happen when Mueller delivers his final verdict? Probably nothing. Democrats will scream, while Republicans dismiss it as fake news. Our worst scandal ever, and justice will not triumph.

And by November 2020, it will all have faded into the background. Voting is swayed most by events closest to the polling date. Democrats will likely pitch their campaign to Boston and Berkeley with Bernie. Trump will be re-elected. Then he’ll be really unbound.

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Suffer the little children: America’s crime against humanity

May 28, 2018

Remember when “for the children” was a staple of political discourse?

The Trump administration is now implementing a policy of taking children away from undocumented parents caught at the border. We’re told this is to deter them. White House Chief of Staff Kelly said the children are being “put into foster care, or whatever.”

“Foster care” has long been a scandal. Supposedly it’s to remove kids from bad family situations. But many foster parents do it not for the children but for the payments they get. On average, kids are better off with their biological parents, however problematic, than in foster care.

The refugee children are being handled by the Office of Refugee Resettlement — which is understaffed and overwhelmed. It admits that of 7633 children in its custody in 2017, it has lost track of 1475. Has no idea where they are now. Their parents will probably never find them again. Some are infants. Some were apparently given to traffickers.

While foreigners don’t have a general right to come here, under international law among civilized nations, pursuant to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, people escaping persecution or endangered in their home countries do have a right to apply for asylum. Many of the migrants in question qualify. Asylum seekers don’t break the law by crossing our border. Aiming to “deter” them is wrong. Punishing them by taking away their children constitutes a crime against humanity.

Trump himself actually calls it “horrible” — but compounds the crime by blaming it, somehow, on Democrats — yet another of his constant lies. (Fact: as Kelly and Attorney General Sessions have stated, it’s the Trump administration that has chosen to newly interpret the law in this inhumanly harsh way.)

Abby Martin: Burned alive in Venezuela

May 25, 2018

I have strong beliefs. I know many people with different strong beliefs. I don’t lean left, but most who do are good people, sincere in wanting human progress. The “hard left” is another story. These are hard people, of burning passion, burning their souls to cinders.

When I googled “hard left,” Corbyn’s picture was all over the results

These are the ones who spout about “social justice” for downtrodden people whose rights are abused — yet are slavish apologists for some of the world’s worst regimes, that trod people down and abuse their rights — as long as they call themselves “socialist.” Or “anti-imperialist.” Or they’re just hostile toward America. One such character is British Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. One such regime is Venezuela’s.

When Venezuela’s opposition won Congress, the Maduro regime simply ignored that body and supplanted it with an assembly of hand-picked loyalists. Then Maduro “won” a fraudulent re-election. The opposition was not allowed to organize or campaign, its leaders were jailed, and the count was faked anyway. No free press survives there.

Maduro

Maduro gets away with this because the courts are packed and the army co-opted. The regime is a criminal gang, which includes the army brass, using guns to crush dissent while looting the country to enrich themselves.

“Socialist” Venezuela went, in less than two decades, from the top of Latin America’s income scale to the bottom. The state oil outfit is stuffed with political operatives; its infrastructure and output have collapsed. A thicket of insane rules makes productive enterprise virtually impossible. Its lack has plunged most of the population into poverty, exacerbated by hyperinflation running thousands of percent monthly, wiping out people’s savings. For most, life has become a daily struggle just to eat. Medicines are largely unobtainable. Widespread protests have been violently suppressed, with hundreds killed, and large numbers jailed and tortured.

A recent PBS on-the-scene report showed a river where previously a few guys had eked out subsistence by sifting the silt for occasional coins or other “treasures.” Now the site is crowded by around a hundred doing it for ever slimmer pickings. But the country’s hottest ticket was seen at the bus depot — a ticket out — with hordes queueing in hopes of snagging one. Many forced to leave loved ones behind.

I have closely followed the Venezuela situation, informed by reports like that one on PBS, NPR, and authoritative news sources like The Economist magazine; my wife monitors Univision in Spanish.

Abby Martin

NPR’s program “Alternative Radio” — far left or hard left radio, really — provides a different perspective. The other night they had journalist Abby Martin. She started talking about her reporting trip to Venezuela, emphasizing telling her editor she would report just exactly what she saw. I wondered what she was expecting to see, that would prompt such a warning.

What she saw, Martin said, totally contradicted the familiar picture painted by mainstream sources (which I’ve summarized). This, she repeatedly stressed, was what she actually observed.

The Maduro government, Martin said, is in reality very popular, among the poor and blacks. Its opponents are really just the former elites, knocked off their cozy perches. It’s not true that store shelves are bare. Some are, but she reported seeing well-stocked ones. Toilet paper is in short supply, but other paper and hygiene products are plentiful. Martin concluded that (as the Maduro regime claims), Venezuela’s economic troubles are caused by a sabotage campaign mounted by outside forces, mainly America.

As to the violence, Martin said in fact it’s all being perpetrated by protesters themselves. Who are fascists. If anything, Venezuela’s police are too lax in not stopping them. People have been lynched — burned alive. Martin repeated “lynched” and “burned alive” several times. She said she truly feared for her own life, was chased by a lynch mob, and was lucky to get out alive.

While I was still trying to process what I was hearing, Martin switched subjects. Now (as my followers know), I am no Trump fan. But Martin’s anti-Trump rant came out of left field — hard left field. Weirdly echoing Trump’s own claim that some deep-state conspiracy is trying to do him down, Martin said the plutocrats who control the world want to get rid of Trump because he makes their enterprise look bad. Or something like that.

Anyhow, now I had Martin’s number, and could better evaluate her Venezuela reportage. I have pondered it deeply.

The government’s popularity? Even the vilest regimes have their core supporters — those bought off, or who swallow the propaganda. The best available sources put that at around 17% in Venezuela. (It’s over 40% in America.)

Outside forces causing Venezuela’s economic woes? Cuba has been embargoed openly, for far longer, and far more comprehensively, yet Cuba’s economy (wretched though it is), doesn’t compare with Venezuela’s collapse. Its cause in the regime’s own behavior is indisputable.

Regime opponents are fascists? What, were they wearing “Viva Fascismo!” T-shirts? Fascist is the epithet of choice the hard left always hurls at those it doesn’t like. Russian propaganda tried to justify its Ukraine aggression by labeling Ukraine’s government, and the pro-democracy Maidan demonstrators, as fascists, even Nazis. Abby Martin calling “fascist” those Venezuelans protesting destruction of their democracy, and living standard, says more about Martin than the protesters. (I have since learned that Martin previously hosted a show on RT America. “RT” stands for Russia Today, a Putin regime propaganda vehicle.)

And the violence? “Lynching” is another of those favorite leftist words (evoking the true horror of Jim Crow lynchings). “Burning alive” is better yet. But for all her claims to be reporting what she saw, she stopped short of saying she witnessed any burnings.

If Maduro regime opponents burned anyone alive, wouldn’t the regime shout it from the rooftops? It has not.

Reliable reports do confirm that journalists in Venezuela have been victims of mob violence — killing at least one — perpetrated by pro-regime gangs. (In researching this piece, I did see a reference to one person lynched, but the report didn’t say who did it.)

Abby Martin

So — was Abby Martin just simply lying? (As noted, she’s a veteran of Russian propaganda TV.) She was telling the story she went down there to find — that she wanted to be true, and felt ought to have been true. Better for the cause if it were true. But the cause trumps the truth; ends justify means. Perhaps she even believed that her lies embodied, somehow, a deeper truth than the reality which, so perversely, wouldn’t cooperate.

Abby Martin’s fiery hard left ideology has burned her soul to a cinder. She’s been burned alive, you might say.

The Leaker-in-chief condemns leakers

May 21, 2018

The uncanny pattern continues: every insult, accusation or smear Trump flings at others applies more to him than to them.

Now he’s fuming against leaks and leakers, calling them “traitors.” Remember how he himself leaked sensitive classified intelligence information to the Russians? Right in the oval office?! I guess he doesn’t. He also has a documented history of telephoning journalists, pretending to be someone else, bragging about him(self) and disseminating lies, to puff up his (self) image. Not only does he leak, but he leaks lies.

And lies about leaking. Calling other people leakers is a favorite Trump sleaze ploy. (He’s used it on Comey and McCabe.) Recently he called it disgraceful that a list of potential interview questions from the Mueller investigation was leaked. Turns out there’s strong evidence the leaker was Donald J. Trump.

The latest Trump leaker fit concerns White House aide Kelly Sadler’s remark about John McCain, apparently leaked by an insider who heard it. (The story’s truth is (perhaps strangely) not denied. But White House policy is no apologies, about anything, ever.)

Now let’s be clear. Of course Trump’s own leak to the Russians was treasonish. But the leak about Sadler? No. It may have betrayed Trump and his odious administration, but it did not betray America or the public. To the contrary, leaks like that serve the public good. Remember, the government, and everyone in it, works for the public. The public has a right to know what they do and say. Governments — especially this one — are often secretive, not wanting the public to know about their dirty laundry. But particularly where there is dirty laundry, it’s important for citizens to know, so government can be held to account.

When someone like Sadler, working at the highest level of government, is so stupid and depraved as to say what she said, the public has a right to know it. Whoever leaked it, allowing the public to know, deserves praise.

But the issue concerns more important matters than mere offensive remarks. Major misfeasance, and even policy blunders, which government has sought to cover up, have been the subject of leaks. Such whistle-blowers, who act at great personal risk, are heroes.*

Meantime, Trump and his Republican creep squad ratchet up their campaign to discredit with lies the Mueller investigation and our whole justice apparatus. The latest lie is that the FBI planted a spy in the Trump campaign; he’s demanding an investigation of this “scandal.” The truth seems to be that someone in the campaign with a shred of integrity (improbable though that seems) saw something wrong there and blew the whistle with the FBI. Trump wants that “traitor” outed so he or she can be tormented.

Trump has never retracted his related lie that Obama wiretapped him.

Republicans have even mounted an effort to impeach Rod Rosenstein, the Justice Department’s #2, overseeing the Mueller investigation, who refuses to abet their anti-Mueller lie-athon.

Trump and these Republicans call Mueller’s probe a witch hunt. Consistent again with all their accusations, they themselves are the real witch hunters, wanting Mueller burned at the stake.

Do you realize how horrible this whole story is for our democracy? Are you sickened yet?

I guess not. Trump’s approval rating has risen to 50%.

Make America great again!

* Snowden and Manning? Some of what they leaked does fall in that category. But more of it was in fact treasonous, harming America’s legitimate national security and interests; in fact, putting at risk the lives of others who helped America.

Adventures with technology

May 19, 2018

Turning on the TV, we’d see a gal from cable company Spectrum talking about the all-digital story. I’d click past her, thinking we were all set with a big modern flat-screen, and anyway wasn’t the digital thing old news?

Then I remembered the other, old little TV in my upstairs home office where I like to hear the PBS Newshour while working. So I finally listened to the gal, and it seemed I’d soon need a new gizmo, which they’d supply free. So I called the number and was told, yes, free . . . for a year, then there’d be a monthly charge. Screw that, I said (to myself). I asked if there was another option. The guy said Roku.

I knew nothing of Roku. Mentioning it to my wife, she said she had a Roku! A recent freebie, from her Great Courses program; didn’t know what to do with it.

She meanwhile suggested I could simply tune in to PBS on my desktop computer. But I’m a stubborn old cuss, and this is 2018, can’t I have a TV in my office if I want?

So I happily took the Roku device up there, turned around my little ancient TV to look for the port to connect it, and of course there wasn’t one.

So I needed a newer TV; no taller than 15 inches to fit on my shelf. Called various stores — no dice. I was finally told they just don’t make TVs that small any more.

Not long before, I’d wanted to replace my office lamp — simple thing with two spotlights adjustable on a pole. Went to three stores; no dice. Then I called a giant lighting specialty place. “They just don’t make lamps like that anymore.” Okay, so I’ll go to eBay, where you can find any old thing (like the obsolete walkmans I’ve thusly replaced several times). But no such lamps on eBay either.

But I did find a TV there — 19″ flat screen, brand new, 75 bucks, shipping included, which arrived in two days. (TV screens are measured diagonally to make them sound bigger; this fit on my shelf with room to spare.)

So I managed to get it set up and working, except of course no cable signal, needing instead the Roku, which did connect to it. Following the instructions in the Roku booklet, I got some screens with more instructions; had to dig up my wireless router password; go to a website on my computer to enter a code to get some software sent to the TV; then similarly to PBS’s website to enable the Roku to have intercourse with PBS.

So finally I had PBS on my TV screen. I was so proud of myself! I could bring up any number of past PBS shows. But simply watch PBS real-time? Uh-uh. Nothing I tried would allow that.

So I went back to the Roku booklet, hoping for a tech support number. Nope. Then to their website, clicking through a bunch of screens and FAQ answers. After much searching around, it sounded like watching PBS would actually require another piece of equipment, an antenna. Oy!

So I thought I’d try my luck calling Spectrum, expecting to hear, “Sorry, we don’t service Roku.” But to my surprise, the tech guy (sounded like in the Philippines) said sure, he’d walk me through it. This involved downloading onto the TV yet another software package, from Spectrum (which entailed laboriously picking out the letters S-P-E-C-T-R-U-M on one of those patience-shredding onscreen keypad thingies), and many further steps. Unfortunately, while trying to juggle the remotes for both the TV and Roku plus my phone, I accidentally disconnected the call. When I redialed, their system insisted on running an automated recording following up to the previous call simultaneously with one for the new call. Eventually I reached another tech guy and completed the process.

And lo, some PBS kids’ cartoon started playing on my little TV! O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! He chortled in his joy.

Except that when I switch on the TV, PBS still doesn’t simply come on, I have to click through several screens. I timed it, 37 seconds. An eternity by modern tech standards. But I’m an old dinosaur, I guess I can live with that.

What occurs to me is this. I’m pretty smart. How do all the idiots out there (without a ten-year-old helping them) manage with this stuff?

Stories we tell ourselves

May 14, 2018

Why do people accept little pieces of paper in exchange for goods and services? The paper has no intrinsic value. U.S. currency used to carry a government promise of redemption in gold or silver, but no longer. Yet we still accept it because we know everyone else does. It’s that shared belief that creates its value — from nothing, as it were.

It’s just a human mental construct. If people stop believing a currency has value, it will have none. That’s happened in various times and places.

A lot about human civilization works this way, as historian Yuval Noah Harari argues. Money’s value is a story we tell ourselves; it has no independent reality apart from that storytelling. The same applies, Harari says, to things like the European Union, or Apple Corporation, which exist only as mental constructs — stories.

That may be going too far. I’m writing this on a device produced by Apple which seems pretty solid. Though bought not even with pieces of paper but with electronic pulses representing them — meta-storytelling!

Nevertheless, Harari is right that storytelling has always played a key role in how people understand, relate to, and function in the world. It’s how we organize information, and respond appropriately to it. In fact, the meaning of our lives, our very sense of self, really are stories we tell ourselves.

World War II involved a story we told ourselves (and still continue retelling). Meanwhile the Germans were telling themselves the story with a slightly different take. In both cases the storytelling gave people a way to understand their world and their role in it — having great impact on how they lived their lives (or lost them).

The foregoing points up that insofar as storytelling aims at understanding, it helps for it to be reality-based. But beliefs — stories we cherish — can produce a powerful reality-distortion effect. As in the case of WWII Germans (at least from the victors’ perspective). I have written of what I call my own “ideology of reality.” The stories we tell ourselves should be shaped by reality, as best we can perceive it — rather than the realities we imagine we perceive being shaped by the stories we tell ourselves.

When someone is alone in telling themselves a story at odds with reality, we call that madness. When a lot of people do, we call it culture (or religion).

Harari (in his book Homo Deus) talks of the 12th century’s Third Crusade, to retake Jerusalem from the “infidel” Muslims, and “John,” a hypothetical young English nobleman who joins it. John believes he’s going for the glory of God, killing infidels will be heroic, and if he falls in battle, he will be met by angels’ trumpets escorting him through golden gates into an eternal paradise. John actually, truly, literally believes this. It is the story he tells himself — because it’s the story he’s been told, throughout his life, by everyone around him (as Harari details at length). The result is that for John the story’s falsity is inconceivable. (Even though the Muslims believe essentially the same story).

Of course there’s much more to Christianity’s story. Adam disobeyed God by eating from the tree of knowledge, and that “original sin” tainted all of Adam’s descendants, barring them from Heaven until Jesus came and accepted his own death to redeem humanity. Though Jesus actually cheated death and got resurrected. I think that’s more or less the story. It sure is a good one. A real whopper.

Politics too is all about telling ourselves stories. Communism, for example, was obviously grounded in an elaborate story believers told themselves, about capitalism’s development, how the economy and society work, relationships between workers and owners, and how the future might unfold for good or ill. A story gotten from the pages of Marx. It may actually have had some explanatory power when Marx wrote in the 1800s, but communism as practiced by his disciples is quite another story.

Harari’s book gave me added insight into Trump supporters. The tale of Crusader John seems very pertinent. Trumpism entails a potent witch’s brew of stories, which of course he himself assiduously stirs.

Combining religious and political stories

Those stories dictate the reality his supporters perceive. That America needs making great again. That we’ve been schnooks victimized by other countries. That immigrants are mostly bad people, bad for America. Maybe most non-white people are. Like Obama who was born in Africa and was very bad. That Hillary was a monstrous criminal too. That mainstream press lies, while Trump tells it like it is. That he’s a sort of crusader himself, working hard to drain the swamp, a white knight battling against all those nefarious forces and a deep-state political conspiracy of evil liberals and infidels intent on bringing him down with phony allegations.

It’s not only Trump himself, and his voters, telling themselves this story. It’s his government officials, spokespeople, and most Republican politicians too, convincing themselves of it (or most of it). Just listen to them. Like Crusader John, they’ve so brainwashed themselves that they actually, truly, literally believe it.

Even though, like John’s story, it’s all false. And, like John, they worship a false god.

Iraq revisited — rising from the ashes?

May 12, 2018

Iraq holds parliamentary elections today.

Conventional wisdom calls the Iraq War an unmitigated disaster rooted in lies about weapons of mass destruction.

I had supported the war. Saddam was no garden variety dictator; his regime ascended heights of monstrousness; it seriously threatened the whole region; severe sanctions were failing, even while further torturing the population.

About the “lies” — all the major intelligence services (even France’s) concluded Iraq had WMDs. Saddam had already used chemical weapons. And was trying to make it look like he had more. But casting that as a certainty was Bush’s mistake. He should have said, “We can’t be sure whether or not Iraq has WMDs, and can’t take the risk that it does.” (But maybe that would have sounded too ambiguous.)

The invasion was badly botched. It spawned much conflict, destruction, and ultimately the horror of ISIS, overrunning half the country including a leading city, Mosul.

A depressing story. But The Economist’s March 31 issue had a fascinating report on today’s Iraq — “Moving forward” — saying the country is now “righting itself.”

Abadi

ISIS had made monkeys of Iraq’s army under egregious former Prime Minister Maliki. But his successor, Abadi, is far better, and ISIS’s territorial incarnation has been destroyed by Iraq’s soldiers.

The Economist now calls them the region’s “winniest.”

In Mosul

The battle for Mosul seemingly evoked the sardonic Vietnam War line about destroying the city in order to save it. Yet Mosul is recovering with remarkable speed. Shops, hotels, and restaurants bloom; and “[t]there’s not a niqab, or face-veil, in sight.”

The UN says it takes, on average, five years after a conflict for half its displaced people to return. But Iraq’s conditions are so positive it’s taken only three months. They’re rebuilding.

Meantime, Iraq’s Kurdistan had long been a separate country in all but name. Then in September Kurdish President Barzani (no beloved figure) overreached by insisting on an independence vote. The backlash included Iraq’s army retaking some territories the Kurds had occupied, including Kirkuk, a key city. Now Kurdish separatism seems dead, and Iraq is a more united nation than in a long time.

In 2003, Bush had talked of planting a seed of democracy in the Middle East. Cynics loudly laughed. Yet even while the subsequent “Arab Spring” (partly inspired by Iraq) largely turned to fiasco, the fact is that Iraq did become a functioning democracy — and remains one. Indeed, The Economist’s report is quite upbeat on this score too.

Iraqi democracy had appeared to fall prey to sectarian enmities. Saddam’s minority Sunni regime had oppressed the Shiite majority. After his fall, Shiites sought revenge while Sunnis refused to accept disempowerment. But, in The Economist’s telling, this conflict is finally abating; Iraqis have learned its lessons; having peered into the abyss, they’re drawing back from it.

So secularism is on the rise, with a “striking backlash against organized Islam.” In Fallujah, once the “mother of mosques,” people are rebuilding homes but ignoring wrecked religious sites. “Only old men go to pray,” a 22-year-old says. ISIS’s religion-warped cruelty spoiled the brand. And whereas Iraq’s political parties used to be loudly sectarian, a recent opinion poll showed only 5% of Iraqis would now vote for anyone with a sectarian or religious agenda.

Iraq still has plenty of severe challenges. Governance is still largely shambolic and pervasively corrupt. But the country rebuts cynics who believe people never learn and never change. Progress does happen.

How ironic that while Iraq rises above tribalistic politics, America sinks into it.

Footnote: That photo is of an Iraqi woman after voting in their first post-2003 election. (Fingers are dyed purple to prevent re-voting.) I well remembered seeing the picture at the time; her look of pride and determination moved me deeply. For this blog post I googled “Iraqi woman voting” and happily it came right up. It still thrills me.

Malaysia’s election shocker: good defeats evil

May 10, 2018

In today’s world, with democracy eroding in so many countries, it’s great to see one go the other way. To see some voters, at least, stand up for democratic values, defying extreme efforts to manipulate them otherwise.

Malaysia’s election was expected to follow the trend toward rising authoritarianism, with the ruling party having cynically used every trick to make its ouster a virtual impossibility. Yet it’s been ousted.

I know that happy developments like this can turn sour (like Egypt’s 2011 revolution). Indeed, the Malaysia winner is no knight in shining armor. But still, voters behaved wisely, and this is a good day for believers in “the better angels of our nature.”

Mahathir Mohamad

Here’s the backstory (another of those long-running soap operas playing out on the world stage). Malaysia was ruled since independence (in 1963) by the UMNO party (“United Malays”), its success owing much to racialist coddling of the ethnic Malay majority (as against other ethnicities like Chinese). From 1981 till his 2003 retirement, the Prime Minister was Mahathir Mohamad, who grew increasingly authoritarian.

Anwar Ibrahim

Groomed as Mahathir’s successor was Anwar Ibrahim, until in 1998 Anwar became disenchanted and left the government to found an opposition party. The regime tried to neutralize Anwar by jailing him on what were apparently false charges of “sodomy.” Twice. He’s still in prison.

Nevertheless, Anwar’s opposition coalition remained strong at the polls. In fact, in the previous election, it got more votes than UMNO. But UMNO retained its parliamentary majority by grace of extreme gerrymandering. Malaysia doesn’t have “one man one vote,” and parliamentary districts can vary in population. The regime packed opposition voters into a few huge districts while its own Malay stalwarts are advantageously spread among many small ones.

Najib Razak

UMNO’s latest prime minister was Najib Razak. His regime was noteworthy for billions of dollars going missing from a government development fund, 1MDB. A big chunk of the money showed up in Rajak’s personal bank account. He explained it, straight-faced, as a gift from an unnamed Saudi royal.

So great was the stench that ex-leader Mohamad, now 92, came out of retirement to join, and lead, the opposition in this May’s election. But the government pulled out all the stops to thwart them. Such as a “fake news” law enabling it to jail anyone for saying anything it doesn’t agree with (including, especially, anything about 1MDB; Mohamad was among the first to be prosecuted). And the gerrymandering was made even more outrageously rigged in UMNO’s favor.

Still, for that to work would require some voters to vote UMNO. You can normally count on some voters, at least, taking the party line and doing what they’re told. But in Malaysia, this time, too few did. Despite everything, almost unbelievably, the opposition won a parliamentary majority. Malaysians are celebrating this as a national renewal.

So Mahathir Mohamad has been sworn in as prime minister, again (oldest in the world). He promises that, having little time left, he will use it to clean things up; and that within two years he’ll hand the reins to Anwar Ibrahim. (Well, we’ll see.)

But maybe there’s hope for America too.

The War Between the Scouts

May 9, 2018

Poor Boy Scouts. First they struggled over whether to allow gays in. Now they’re allowing girls too, and changing their name, from Boy Scouts of America to Scouting BSA. (And what, pray tell, does “BSA” stand for?)

Predictably, this has provoked howls of outrage, at what’s seen as yet another too-politically-correct feminist liberal assault upon America’s hallowed traditions. Fox’s Tucker Carlson called it “the criminalization of masculinity!” But commentator Aisha Sultan writes that that anger is misdirected. “Rather than jumping on this as a chance to bash women, girls and political opponents,” Sultan concludes, “‘those so outraged should turn their anger to the men in charge” of the Boy Scouts.

Huh?? Really? What crime, exactly, have those men committed?

As Sultan’s piece explains, no outsiders were pressuring the Boy Scouts to change. What drove them was falling membership — unsurprising in the age of smartphones. How many boys today are into woodsmanship? They want to earn not merit badges but Instagram “likes” and high scores on Castle Crashers. So no longer could the Scouts afford to exclude half the potential membership pool (i.e, girls).

The (former) Boy Scouts plan to still keep genders pretty much separate. But allowing girls to participate seems a no-brainer in this enlightened 21st century. And who is hurt by it?

The Girl Scouts.

Those champions of girls are not applauding the Boy Scouts’ pro-girl initiative. Because, already faced with their own similar existential challenges, the Girl Scouts see the Boy Scouts’ move as a mortal threat, poaching some likely recruits. So the Girl Scouts have declared war, “gearing up an aggressive campaign” to defend their turf, Sultan writes. She quotes Girl Scouts CEO Bonnie Barczynkowski: “No matter how the Boy Scouts may try to restructure their programming to include girls,” the Girl Scouts don’t merely include girls, they’re specifically geared “to meet the unique needs, learning styles and interests of girls.”

Here we see the primordial feminist schizophrenia: arguing that females are no different from males and must be treated the same — and that they’re different and the differences must be honored. (Thus feminists hounded Lawrence Summers out of Harvard’s presidency for suggesting women might be underrepresented in the sciences because their brains work differently, while a group of Harvard feminists published Women’s Ways of Knowing, maintaining that female brains do work differently, hailed as a feminist manifesto.)

Are they really made from Girl Scouts?

Anyway, how far will the war between the scouts go? Will the Boy Scouts carry the battle into enemy territory (like Lee attacking Gettysburg) by inaugurating Boy Scout cookies? And the obvious logical counterpunch for the Girl Scouts would be to admit boys, and change their name too. Then the two organizations can fight it out on equal terms, scrapping over a shrinking pool of potential recruits of whatever gender.

Or . . . why not simply merge?

In any case, let’s hope the cookies do not become casualties of the war.

Good and evil — Khizr Khan’s book

May 6, 2018

Good and evil. Such black-and-white Manichaeanism is so unfashionable. Isn’t everything shades of grey — the color of sophisticated thinking?

Not always.

This is prompted by reading Khizr Khan’s book, An American Family. Previously I’d written of a radio interview I’d found deeply moving. Then one of my book groups chose Khan’s book.

Khan was the Muslim-American who spoke at the 2016 Democratic convention. His soldier son Humayun had been killed in Iraq. He spoke of the American values his son had died for — values being trashed by Trump’s campaign. Khan doubted Trump had ever even read the U.S. Constitution — and offered to lend him his own well-thumbed pocket copy, holding it up.

In response, true to form, Trump slimed Khan and his family.

Khan’s book tells his life story. Born in Pakistan (not the best of countries), he was inspired by reading in school America’s Declaration of Independence and Constitution. “I was like a lonesome islander,” he writes, “who’d found a bottle washed up on the beach, a secret script tucked inside that told of a wonderland, a fantastical place that existed, improbably and perhaps impossibly, far across the ocean.” Yet he actually never dreamed of coming here. A succession of serendipitous jobs (Khan trained as a lawyer) landed him in America. He long imagined he’d return to Pakistan, where he’d be a big man; but finally decided he’d rather be a free man here. By then, he felt he and his family belonged here — a place “more compassionate, more welcoming, more tolerant than the places we had left. Than anywhere else we’d ever been.”

Remember?

Khan does love the Constitution, that he held up in his speech. Especially the Fourteenth Amendment (my favorite part too, as I’ve written) with its guarantee of equal protection of the law. Khan recognizes we still have far to go to fully realize this ideal. But to him the ideal means everything — coming as he did from a society where such ideals really meant nothing. And having come to America with nothing (except his talents), he really does feel the country lived up to its ideals in his own case, opening its arms in welcome, raising him up in human dignity, at every stage of his life here.

Khan quotes President Reagan’s farewell address, to which he’d listened raptly. Reagan once more invoked the “shining city upon a hill” metaphor, from Pilgrim leader John Winthrop. “I’ve spoken,” Reagan said, “of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw . . . in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than the oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and heart to get here.”

Khan remarks: “Such a beautiful vision.” And what a contrast against the blighted vision of Reagan’s current unworthy successor. “Trump’s city,” Khan writes, is “a frightened isolated fortress, walled off from Mexicans and Muslims, from all the others . . . . crumbling and weak, a dreary landscape implicit in his slogan: to make America great again, one had to assume that it was not in fact great now.”

One expects a father to write glowingly of his lost son. But the Humanyun who comes through in these pages was surely a great credit to his adopted homeland. One day in Iraq a cab drove into Humayun’s compound. Likely a suicide bomber; best to assume so and open fire. But Humayun insisted on making sure it wasn’t just innocent people who’d gotten lost. He took ten steps toward the cab. It blew up and killed him.

Those ten steps, Khizr Khan writes, were where all the American values, which had been instilled in Humayun, came together. “Not religious values — human values.”

Have we forgotten them? How could we have elected a vile creep who, Khan writes, is “loosing a wildness upon the land, stirring the worst of human nature.” Eviscerating America’s fundamental values, that Khan so eloquently writes about.

It’s good versus evil. No grey.