Archive for the ‘history’ Category

The Real Story About Inflation

September 16, 2022

Inflation is a bad thing. The whole point of money is as a receptacle of value; fluctuating value defeats the purpose. The $10 you put in the bank a year ago has now lost you a dollar. Things you buy cost more. The poor — who always seem to get the short end of the stick — are especially hurt.

No wonder voters are angry. Republicans are having a field day banging the inflation drum. But how to fix it, they haven’t a clue. (While actually bearing much blame for inflation, as we’ll see.)

Inflation ramped up in the ’70s. Nixon tried wage and price controls. Bzzt, wrong answer, as any good economist would have predicted. Then Paul Volcker of the Federal Reserve succeeded in wringing inflation out of the economy by raising interest rates high enough to induce a recession. A big part of the problem was public expectations of inflation, which became a self-fulfilling prophecy, especially as workers demanded higher wages (with unions often still strong enough to get them). And Volcker also succeeded in whacking those inflation expectations.

Interest rates remain the Fed’s key weapon against inflation. The Fed, and central banks elsewhere, have for decades now generally targeted inflation rates around 2%, considered a benign level — particularly to steer clear of deflation, a different nasty problem. Until lately they were succeeding. But while today the public still does not expect persisting high inflation, mounting worldwide government debt levels cause financial market concerns that they’ll deal with it by printing money — i.e., to inflate the debt away.

Republicans do have a fair point in blaming current inflation on the 2021 stimulus legislation; that probably was over-generous, and a contributing factor. But so was the very similar stimulus passed under Trump in 2020. And his tax cut, way over-generous to the rich and corporations, driving up government debt and borrowing. Republicans remember fiscal virtue only when out of power.

More money sloshing around in the economy spurs inflation because in effect purchasers bid up the prices of things they buy. And businesses paying more for raw materials forces them to raise prices. They also buy labor; and when inflation makes dollars worth less, businesses must offer more to attract and keep employees. And meantime, another big factor is pushing up wage costs — a worker shortage.

We see “Help Wanted” signs all over. In particular, customer service type jobs go begging. Understaffing is ubiquitous. Flights are cancelled for lack of personnel.

Some of this is lingering fallout from the pandemic, which discombobulated our economy in myriad ways. One concerns productivity, which seems to have stalled. The productivity effects of increased remote working are yet unclear. And the “quiet quitting” phenomenon doesn’t help. It all forces labor costs, and thus prices, higher.

Another giant workforce factor is demography. Population growth is slowing or even reversing in the rich world. And with Americans getting more education (delaying work), retiring earlier, and living longer, the working share of the population inexorably shrinks.

That labor gap used to be filled by work-hungry immigrants. But guess what? Thanks to Trump and Republican xenophobes, immigration is way down. Another big reason for the worker shortage, forcing businesses to raise pay, and prices. A cause of inflation which Republicans don’t want to talk about.

We’ve also foolishly been waging war against globalization and trade. Buying cheap stuff from other countries kept prices and inflation down. Trump put the kibosh on that too. His tariffs equate to direct rises in consumer prices. In fact, globalization and trade benefited all participating countries — a “gigantic shock absorber” for the world economy, said Isabel Schnabel of the European Central Bank, by keeping supply and demand in balance through adjustments to production rather than price swings. That factor too is crumbling.

All these inflationary pressures are only minimally amenable to the Federal Reserve’s interest rate tweaks. (Which President Biden, by the way, doesn’t control anyway.) So when you hear Republicans rant about inflation, ask what’s their plan.

Frontline — How MAGA maggots ate the GOP

September 13, 2022

PBS’s recent Frontline documentary, Lies, Politics and Democracy, I thought would just be old hat. Instead it was a compelling and revealing eye-opener.

For six years my hair’s been on fire. But maybe I’ve been too mild.

The film began with clips from every presidential election concession speech, back to 1940. Every loser graciously congratulating the winner and wishing him well. The contrast with 2020 unspoken.

The main theme was the Republican party’s moral collapse as Trump’s accomplice. Its base consumed by extremist true believers, with its politicians recoiling in horror but lacking the intestinal fortitude to resist. Realizing their political futures required posing as Trumpist cheerleaders. Some also saw it as a faustian bargain to get legislation and judicial appointments they wanted. Mitch McConnell explicitly made that deal with Trump.

Particularly profiled was Ted Cruz, who sought the 2016 nomination. Cruz won in Iowa. Trump insisted that result was a fraud — something, Frontline pointed out, he’s claimed regarding every bauble he’s ever failed to win. Trump also viciously smeared Cruz and even his wife, which Cruz deemed unforgivable.

Come the national convention, Cruz had to decide whether his speech would endorse Trump. Depicted as a crisis of conscience (as if Cruz actually has one). His speech described what an ideal leader should be like — a thinly veiled indictment of Trump, who flouts all that. The room roundly booed Cruz, shouting “Get off the stage!” or to have his mike turned off. No longer your father’s Republican party.

Later, Cruz did suck it up and campaigned for Trump.

The film’s every scene noted how many years, months, and days, until January 6, 2021. Giving that event its due salience. Recently I answered a telephone poll, being asked what issue is most important to me. About ten choices were offered — not including January 6 and the ongoing threat to our democracy.

Indeed, voters fix on issues like inflation, immigration, abortion, crime, etc. Not democracy, which ought to be a supervening concern, trumping all those others. If we lose our democracy, you can stick all those others up your butt.

Interestingly, despite claiming fraud, Trump was portrayed, right after the 2020 election, as more or less giving up; and it was Giuliani who pushed the coup plot. What a case study he is, squandering a once heroic reputation. Why? One of so many who, like moths to Trump’s flame, destroyed themselves.

The film highlighted successive hinge points where a responsible core of the GOP might have finally declared, “enough is enough.” One was Charlottesville of course. Many Republican officials did tut-tut, but that was all. Nothing changed.

Then came January 6. And right after, “enough is enough” did seem to take hold at last, even for the likes of Lindsay Graham and Kevin McCarthy. But that swiftly melted away, despite Trump leaving office. McCarthy pilgrimaged to Mar-a-Lago to kiss the ring. Which, says Frontline, brought the monster back from the dead.

And so, few GOP lawmakers voted for the second impeachment. A majority had already voted against certifying the 2020 election, on the night of January 6 itself.

This, Frontline indicates, was not mere political cowardice, it was physical cowardice. Many of them feared for their lives. One of the film’s most powerful takeaways is the frightening depth of vicious extremism among MAGA maggots. Proliferating threats of death (and, for women, rape) directed at anyone seen as a traitor against Trump. They really did try to hang Mike Pence.

As much as sane people decry them, they double the contempt in return. “Basket of deplorables?” We’ll show you, you sons of . . . .

And thus did the stolen election lie become a matter of faith unto death. Of course it was just made up, because Trump’s psychosis couldn’t accept losing. Frontline noted that while practically all Republican office seekers mouth the lie, practically none really believes it. The whole party is one big fraud built atop a fraud.

It’s horribly damaging to our democracy. A core element of a democratic society is acceptance of majority rule. We no longer have that. Too many have lost trust in the election process. Too many Republicans consider it legitimate only if their side wins.

Faulkner on Race

September 10, 2022

I’ve written about William Faulkner (1897-1962) as my favorite novelist. A Mississippian, his books were all set there, between Civil War times and the early 20th century. The characters and their stories ain’t pretty. Yet the books exuded a love for humanity. I chose a Faulkner quote as the epigraph for my Optimism book.

Though the novels did include Black characters, they never really get into the race issue. Indeed, all the nasty stuff was white-on-white. The situation of Southern Blacks was a background fact, but so unremarked there seemingly might have been no such situation. So much a “given” of Faulkner’s milieu that it required no acknowledgement. Or maybe it just wasn’t what he wanted to write about.

I recently read a Modern Library volume titled William Faulkner – Essays, Speeches & Public Letters. One fairly long piece discusses the American dream, where the individual is “free of that mass into which the hierarchies of church and state had compressed and held him.” But in our sleep “it abandoned us . . . what we hear now is a cacophony . . . babbling only the mouthsounds; the loud and empty words which we have emasculated of all meaning whatever — freedom, democracy, patriotism.” A sickness that “goes back to that moment in our history when we decided that the old simple moral verities over which taste and responsibility were the arbiters and controls, were obsolete and to be discarded.” And “Truth — that long clean clear line . . . has now become an angle, a point of view having nothing to do with truth nor even with fact, but depending solely on where you are standing.”

All cogent about today’s Republicans, I thought. Though written in 1955. And what got Faulkner’s bile boiling? Some magazine had the temerity to run an article about this Nobel laureate against his wishes!

But some of these pieces do address race matters Faulkner sidestepped in his novels. For a Mississippian of his era, he was on the enlightened end of the spectrum. But that’s not saying much.

Faulkner truly loved the place, and not just the scenery. He expressed love for its people, culture, and traditions. Now, I believe most people are mostly good. But unfortunately susceptible to shaping by the culture embedding them. I’m sure Faulkner could have expatiated on the virtues in Mississippi’s culture and traditions. But that would omit key realities.

He actually had nothing to say about slavery. Yet did imbibe the South’s “Lost Cause” mythology, that there was something noble in their fight, though what, exactly, is never very clear. He definitely considered the Northerners the bad guys, unjustified invaders. That too elides much historical reality.

Faulkner actually endorsed racial equality. But not right away. Urging the civil rights movement — then just starting — to go slow. He was “strongly against compulsory integration.” Seemingly, he didn’t want Southern racists to gain the sympathy that underdogs accrue. Saying they’d come around eventually. (But after a century . . . )

In 1931, a Memphis newspaper published a Black man’s letter endorsing a Mississippi anti-lynching organization. Noting that there’d never been a lynching before Reconstruction. Faulkner found it needful to reply.

He explained, “there was no need for lynching until after reconstruction days.” (He suggests the influx of Northerners then was responsible for lynchings.) And asserted that “Blacks who get lynched are not representative of the black race, just as the people who lynch them are not representative of the white race.” Indeed, he believed anyone lynched must have done something wrong, to provoke it.

Faulkner did state, “I hold no brief for lynching.” But (my paraphrase) — it’s just one of those things. He said a lynching “requires a certain amount of sentimentality, an escaping from the monotonous facts of day by day.” And if a few Blacks suffer thusly from “white folks’ sentimentality,” he adduced a convoluted scenario of such sentimentality indulging a Black debt cheat. Also mentioning a Black man supposedly living for fifteen years on public charity, impossible in any other country — which he said is why they have no lynchings. Then he made fun of foreign press accounts of U.S. lynchings.

His final paragraph conceded “that mob violence serves nothing.” Yet ended saying, “Some [people] will die rich, and some will die on cross-ties soaked with gasoline, to make a holiday. But there is one curious thing about mobs. Like our juries, they have a way of being right.”

Now, I had to consider the possibility that this ostensibly execrable piece was actually a wicked satire of people who excuse lynchings, to expose their bad thinking.* But no, this was 1931 Mississippi. With its distinctive people, culture, and traditions to which Faulkner was so attached.

What the post-Civil War Reconstruction period introduced was the idea of Black people having rights. Lynchings were one way whites fought that. The point was not to punish Black crimes, but to terrorize any Blacks trying to assert any rights. To keep them “in their place.” Accusations were mere pretexts. A high proportion of lynching victims were completely innocent. There were thousands; more in Mississippi than in any other state.

Yes, lynchings did become festive “holidays.” Revealing they had nothing to do with justice, they were celebrations of white supremacy. And — mostly accompanied by hideous torture — revealing the inhuman cruelty of the perpetrators’ “culture and traditions.”

Mobs “have a way of being right?” How about the one that lynched Mary Turner, eight months pregnant, in Georgia on May 19, 1918. Her husband had been lynched the day before — one of seven innocent Blacks lynched for supposed complicity in the death of a white farm owner who had abused them. Mary Turner’s transgression was to protest against her husband’s murder. For that — to teach a lesson — a mob bound Mary’s feet, hanged her upside down from a tree, threw gasoline on her, and burned her clothes off. Then took a butcher knife to cut her baby from her body; one man crushed the crying baby’s head with his foot. Finally Mary was killed by a fusillade of bullets. No one was ever charged with a crime.

“Sentimentality?” Culture and tradition, Mr. Faulkner?

I can’t say I’ll never read Faulkner again. But it will be with lessened pleasure.

* To be sure here, I did some googling, and turned up a master’s thesis discussing Faulkner’s 1931 letter in depth. There’s no basis for thinking it wasn’t straightforward.

The Metaphysical Club: Religion and Democracy

September 6, 2022

When single, I jumped on a personal ad saying “interested in ideas.” But on our date, the gal seemed no intellectual. I asked what she’d meant by “interested in ideas.” She replied, “Oh, like new ways to cook spaghetti.”

Then married Therese. At a used book sale, she pointed out one I’d ignored: Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club. About American philosophy from before the Civil War to about a century later. She proposed we read it together.

We’d started with Proust’s seven-volume opus; took us over two decades, though in the early years our readings were intermittent. Then we moved on to The Brothers Karamazov, Huckleberry Finn, Adam Grant’s Think Again, and others. Mostly it’s me reading aloud to her. I enjoy the challenge of putting the emphasis on the right words, without necessarily knowing where a sentence is going. It’s an immersive exercise empowering comprehension.

And I love Therese’s astute listenership, engaging with the ideas. If a line is nonsense, Therese is right on it. How delicious having such a partner (who can also cook spaghetti).

William James

The Metaphysical Club’s title nods to a group of intellectuals who’d meet to discuss philosophy in mid-1800s Cambridge, MA. It focuses particularly on William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Dewey, and Charles Peirce. The last name less famous, though I’d known it did loom large in American philosophy, without actually knowing anything about Peirce or his thought. The book left me baffled that he’s remembered at all. His life was a mess; didn’t publish much. But William James championed Peirce’s importance, making it so.

Menand devotes much time to pragmatism, a philosophical stance associated most prominently with James and Dewey. Pragmatism valorizes an idea less on its correspondence to factual reality than on how well it works for the believer. This was mainly an effort to justify religious faith.

Which indeed was a dominating factor in 19th century American thought. James in particular, though a penetrating analyst in so many respects, was hung up on his profound yearning to validate the unseen. A similar case, also prominent in the book, was the naturalist Louis Agassiz, whose scientific work was deeply compromised by his insistence on centralizing God.

Agassiz

Of course people like Agassiz and James also desperately wanted to believe death is not final. But the book makes plain how such supernaturalism pervasively mucked up American thought all the way to modern times.

We’ve hosted a Muslim student from Somaliland. She was bugged by the evident irrationalities of her faith, and eager to discuss them.

Our bull sessions on this finally led her to realize that once she stopped trying to hammer the square peg of religion into the round hole of reality, all her conundrums dissolved, and everything made a lot more sense.

Another thread in the book concerned the nature of American society, especially its pluralism and democracy. Like with religion, pragmatism emphasized outcomes — whether or not something is good for the society as a whole — de-emphasizing what’s good for its individual members. But as Margaret Thatcher said, “There is no such thing as society.” That was widely decried; however, what she really meant (I think) was that society is made up of individuals, and at the end of the day, it’s how those individuals fare that really matters.

It’s the difference between viewing humans as akin to members of an ant colony or beehive, where only the society matters, not individuals — and honoring each person’s human dignity as worthy in itself. Recognizing that what’s “good” for society cannot be purchased at the expense of what’s good for the individuals comprising it. A mistake made by various collectivist ideologies.

This doesn’t mean people living (like anti-maskers) in disregard of the societies in which they’re embedded. That embedment gives life much of its meaning. We do have duties to others (mainly avoiding harm). We honor them because that enables individuals, all of us, to thrive best.

John Dewey’s “pragmatism,” in particular, held that democracy is the best system because it optimizes the society’s contours. A classic case of putting the cart before the horse. China’s regime today is battling Dewey, arguing that its regimented top-down dictatorship (which it yet insists is somehow truly democratic!) is best for society’s flourishing.

Both are wrong. Democracy’s virtue is its serving the universal human thirst to matter individually. Not as another faceless ant in the ant-hill. Thus “Democratic participation isn’t the means to an end,” as Menand says on his final page, “it is the end.”

He also quotes Holmes that there’s no point in reading anything over twenty years old. And acknowledges that the thinkers he discusses were operating in a landscape very different from what came later; and while their ideas nevertheless “can seem familiar to us in rather uncanny ways,” they and their world also seem “almost unimaginably strange.”

Therese and I noted that the book was published in 2001 — it’s over twenty years old. And today’s America is a very different country again from the one Menand was writing in. One wonders what it will be like in another two decades.

One of the sad things about finite lives is that I don’t get to know how history comes out.

Goodbye Gorby

September 3, 2022

Mikhail Gorbachev was the most consequential personage of the 20th century’s latter half. And in a good way.

Now that is really saying something. The 21st century’s biggest personages (so far) are big not in good ways at all.

Just look at this verbiage from one report of Gorbachev’s death* — “vision of humane communism liberated millions, bridled the global arms race and knocked down walls dividing East and West . . . systematically dismantle[d] the machinery of repression . . . freed political prisoners, lifted the Iron Curtain, liberated the arts and pulled Red Army troops out of foreign conflicts . . . forged disarmament treaties . . . removed the shackles from a society deeply scarred by dictatorships.”

And on the seventh day he rested.

But he was thrown out of power, and when he ran again for president in 1996, he got one percent of the vote. Gosh that tells us something.

What made Gorbachev’s story so extraordinary is that it went completely against the grain of the society and system that had produced him. It’s in the nature of human life to travel along the tracks on which you find yourself. Gorbachev had the insight to see where those tracks were leading, and he rerouted the entire railroad.

He was made leader following a succession of wretched characters, because by then the system had so run out of steam that it couldn’t see how to do anything else. With a dead ideology no one any longer believed in. Gorbachev was the one who said the emperor had no clothes. When Ronald Reagan, in Berlin, intoned, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” he did (in effect). He went to the UN and said the Cold War was over — and that the West had won.

What a vast blessing for humanity. And it was not inevitable. Nothing ever really is, my own study of history suggests. Individuals and their choices and actions make history, and Gorbachev was a singular exemplar. Absent Gorbachev, a far uglier story would have likely ensued.

But he was a giant among Lilliputians, evidenced by that 1% presidential vote, and his vision was eclipsed with him — a vast tragedy for humanity. What ultimately did follow was a reversion to form; indeed, with a vengeance. His successor Putin restoring, doubling down, the evil Gorbachev tried to end. As though there is some malevolent force operating that not even so protean a figure as he could truly defeat. Yet Russia getting a Putin was not inevitable either. It was a choice.

* By Carol J. Williams in the los Angeles Times.

“Riots in the Streets”

August 31, 2022

Senator Lindsay Graham, the on-again-off-again toady, foresees “riots in the streets” if Trump is prosecuted for stealing classified documents. Graham reflects a Republican party increasingly legitimizing, even romanticizing, political violence. Evoking South Africa 2021 — when corrupt ex-President Zuma was ordered jailed for defying court orders, and resulting riots killed at least 72, with massive property destruction.

We’ve been learning more about the importance of the documents Trump improperly took, how much that endangered national security, and hence the seriousness of his crime. If searching an ex-president’s home was “unprecedented,” so was the reason for it.

Why did he do it? Why not, as soon as an issue was raised, simply hand over everything? In fact he resisted and lied to government officials. It makes no sense. But the explanation has long been evident. Trump is insane. Literally, clinically, insane.

Judging from the crazed outcry at the mere search, Graham may be shamefully right about violence if Trump is actually prosecuted. Making a decision to do so epically fraught. But this criminal case against him would seem open-and-shut; the crimes are very serious; and if he isn’t held accountable, that would be a scandal. Showing Trump is indeed “above the law,” become a Death Star exerting a dark gravity that warps our whole civic justice system.

The Trumpian smear of the FBI includes alleging a “double standard” because Hillary Clinton was not prosecuted for her email issues.* That’s absurd whataboutism. In fact Hillary was thoroughly investigated, and no criminal offenses were found. Her exoneration doesn’t mean a different person, in a different case, should not be charged.

Yet his cultists (calling themselves patriots) will (like South Africa’s Zuma fans) defend him even unto violence. This is the us-against-them tribal war gone berserk. The eternal narrative is Trump as the (heroic) tribune of the people beset by evil elites determined to bring him down, by any means necessary. Graham said, “Most Republicans, including me, believe that when it comes to Trump, there is no law . . . It’s all about getting him.”

How many times have we gone through this? It might indeed seem “there is no law,” given Trump’s consistent history of evading it. How many criminal travesties must he commit before his followers will entertain the thought that maybe — just maybe — he might have actually done something rotten?

But no. That will never happen. Facts and realities and irrelevant. The deranged war must be fought to the bitter end. God help us.

* Double standard? The FBI publicized its investigation of Hillary, hurting her campaign, while keeping mum its investigation of Trump’s for Russia collusion.

“Evil Geniuses – The Unmaking of America – A Recent History”

August 24, 2022

Kurt Andersen’s 2020 book is about “political economy.” He argues that ours went from being basically fair to unfair, the turning point around 1980. Achieved by his title’s “evil geniuses,” the rich and corporations working with right-wing political forces.

I previously reviewed Andersen’s excellent 2017 book, Fantasyland,* chronicling America’s descent out of reality-based epistemology. His new book is a polemic, history with attitude. For most of the time in question, I was politically on the side he castigates. Yet I actually agree with much in this book — today’s “conservatism” having betrayed the principles I’d embraced. However, I think Andersen’s argument goes way overboard. And the book is maddeningly tendentious and bloated. I got tired of shameless brazen repetition of words like “shameless brazen greed.”

Andersen’s tale really starts in the 1960s, with the counterculture abhorred and producing a backlash, which right-wing politicians and ideologues, in cahoots with business interests and the rich, exploited to get their hands on levers of power, which they utilized to pick apart the old New Deal political economy. The details of the culture clash have metamorphosed over time, but the basic story continues — if it’s not anti-war hippie drugheads demonized, it’s welfare moochers, or sexual deviants, or non-whites, or immigrants, and so on.

The “evil geniuses” pursued their agenda in three key ways: gutting labor union power; reducing regulation; and cutting taxes on corporations and the wealthiest. Andersen sees this as wrecking our past social contract with a rising tide lifting all boats — now most boats are stuck in the mud while the yachts of the rich speed ahead. Inequality widens. Andersen thinks we’ve actually turned the clock back, beyond the New Deal, to the “Gilded Age” of “robber barons.”

A key villain of his is economist Milton Friedman, who posited that a corporation’s sole obligation is to seek profits for its shareholder owners, which Anderson says green-lighted that “shameless brazen greed.” I understand Friedman to have been arguing that society is actually best served when businesses stick to their knitting, producing what people want to buy, while leaving other concerns more properly to the political sphere.

More generally I’m dubious of Andersen’s notion that there were villains and villainies behind everything that happened. Some of it, yes, but far from all. It’s an ancient human proclivity to see all phenomena as caused by conscious agents — that’s how we got cosmologies populated by gods. Yet much of the time, it’s instead that “stuff happens,” for reasons other than intentional calculated action. For example, a big part of Andersen’s story concerns globalization and the “hollowing out” of America’s industrial job picture. As if his “evil geniuses” contrived that just to enrich themselves. Instead it happened inexorably due to fundamental tectonic economic and geopolitical forces, as well as technological developments.

Which Andersen worries will continue gathering force, with AI and robots eliminating more and more jobs for humans. That actually makes us collectively richer. Our key challenge, as Keynes foresaw back in 1930, is how to enable the mass of people to enjoy the fruits of that wealth. And for all Andersen’s lamentations, the fact is — as he acknowledges, sort of — we haven’t done badly on that score. While the rich have gotten a lot richer, the poor have not gotten poorer (globally they’ve advanced tremendously). And if the middle class has been shrinking, it’s a case of more people rising into the ranks of the reasonably affluent than falling into penury.

I was reminded of Thomas Frank’s 2004 book, What’s the Matter With Kansas — which I read while on a cruise filled with very average Americans — and reviewed critically in 2010.** Frank was suffering from the frustration of liberals baffled by what they saw as so many people voting against their economic interests (that is, for Republicans). I saw it as people understandably voting their values rather than their mercenary interests. (Ironically, it’s Democrats who decry “money being everything.”)

But then the “values” actually represented by the GOP went haywire. Andersen’s book details much polling data suggesting that when it comes to specific questions, both the values and economic concerns of strong U.S. voting majorities now align more with Democrats. We saw this vividly when 60% voted this year to safeguard abortion rights — in Kansas, of all places.

Yet Kansans also keep voting for Republican politicians who oppose abortion rights and a lot of other things those voters actually favor. Why? The ensorcelment Republicans managed to put across in past decades, with cultural tribalism and demonizing Democrats, is still working. So those voters have their heads up their behinds.

Andersen professes some hope those heads can be extricated. Well, it wouldn’t do to have a completely dark book. Whereas he thinks Democrats have played patsy to his “evil geniuses,” he does consider it possible they’ll get their act together to capitalize on all the ways Republicans are actually screwing most voters and what those voters truly want. Especially as older ones die off.

This assumes evil genius Republicans don’t succeed in their effort to overthrow democracy.

* https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2019/07/03/fantasyland-how-america-went-haywire/

** https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2010/08/19/what’s-the-matter-with-kansas/

Liz Cheney at the Alamo

August 19, 2022

Liz Cheney’s politics are orthodox conservative. She believes in the Constitution, democracy, rule of law, and truth. But unlike almost every other Republican today, she really believes in those things, and understands their meaning. She’s courageously put herself on the line for them. Liz Cheney is one of the best people, perhaps the very best, still in the GOP.

Losing her primary for renomination to her Wyoming congressional seat —by a landslide — though shocking was predictable. She’d previously been purged from the House GOP’s third ranking post, and censured by the state party. Trump wanted her scalp. Because she’d voted for his impeachment after January 6, and has exercised incisive leadership on the committee investigating that plot and bringing out the facts.

History will record this primary as a seminal signifying milestone on America’s road to perdition. Wyoming voters chose the liar over the truth teller. The monster over the hero. Grendel over Beowulf.

“She may have been fighting for principles,” said Trump adviser Taylor Budowich. “But they are not the principles of the Republican party.”

Indeed. There’s a meme now metastasizing among Republicans that democracy is a menace, and voting should not be allowed to give power to people they don’t like.

That’s why they’re fine with it’s having been Trump, not Democrats, who actually tried to steal the last election. The lie that Democrats stole it is just a cover story. Cheney is hated for calling that out too. And for all the Republican “election integrity” claptrap, they themselves are the ones who’ve committed most vote fraud. In New York, Republicans submitted 11,000 fake signatures trying to get another ballot line for their gubernatorial candidate — Lee Zeldin, who in Congress voted against certifying the 2020 presidential election.

Some anti-Trumpers, like Senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, and Rep. Adam Kinzinger (the January 6 committee’s other Republican), did not seek re-election, considering it hopeless. That’s understandable, though they might have stood and fought for their beliefs. If you lose, that’s an honorable loss. One going down that road was Michigan’s Rep. Peter Meijer, who lost his primary to a Trump election denier — thanks in part to ads run by Democrats to boost Meijer’s rival — who they thought would be easier to beat in November.

A wild card Democrats have disgracefully played elsewhere. If they believe Trumpers endanger America, there’s no excuse, however Machiavellian, for helping such candidates get nominated. Be careful what you wish for.

Liz Cheney too did not flinch from running for re-election. She had the balls to make her stand, to go down fighting for what’s right, rather than surrender to the madness.

She’s a special kind of American hero. Think of the Alamo.

Trumpers’ Heroic Persecution Fantasy

August 16, 2022

Trump cultists’ rabid reaction to the FBI search warrant is revealing. They don’t just see him under threat; they see themselves under threat. Columnist Paul Waldman quotes a tweet by House Judiciary Committee Republicans:


“The IRS is coming for you. The DOJ is coming for you. The FBI is coming for you. No one is safe from political punishment in Joe Biden’s America.”

But if this scares them,”They glory in it,” writes Waldman. Fancying themselves “sympathetic victims, the encircled defenders of justice, oppressed but unbowed. This fantasy of persecution is so powerful because it turns [their Trump fixation] into something dramatic, even heroic . . . You’re a freedom fighter waging war against forces of darkness to secure liberty’s future.” And every rotten thing Trump did, he did for you.

How did we get here? Waldman details how, for example, Trump promised relief for coal country’s economic collapse, but never delivered (natch). Yet still the victims latched onto him as speaking for them like no one ever had. And mainly against those Americans viewed as disdaining them, and despised by them. These feelings of cultural alienation and grievance propelled Trumpism into becoming essential to their sense of identity — to the point where he’s a Jesus-like personal savior.

They fetishize the word “freedom.” The right to own guns become a central totem of this religion. And the nonsense that Biden and Democrats are installing a Marxist tyranny, “destroying America and its liberty.”* Of course what’s really central to American freedom is democracy — which it’s Magadom that truly threatens. Yet they hallucinate that an attempted coup based on lies and fraud (like fake electors), to overthrow a legitimate election, with a violent assault on the Capitol, was somehow a defense of liberty.

The FBI’s own past was not unblemished; but it (and the DOJ) surely knew what intense blowback the search would trigger, and would not have proceeded absent very firm grounds. Trump has lied that he declassified the documents at issue; that Obama committed the same crime; and even that the FBI planted evidence. The fury-fit unleashed against the FBI feeds right-wing paranoia seeing our basic societal institutions as one big nefarious conspiracy. Trump, who’s corrupted everything he’s ever touched, has systematically blown up trust in those institutions: the news media, the intelligence services, the Supreme Court, our election systems. And now law enforcement. All just terrible for America.

Any whiff of criminality would be terrible for a candidate, in normal sane politics. Yet David Brooks thinks the FBI search may boost Trump’s 2024 chances. Whereas there’d been signs of GOP readiness to move on, now the party’s rallied around him. He is, The Economist’s “Lexington” columnist writes, “the black hole at the center of [our] politics” — indeed, his “power to warp reality is so great that enforcing the law against him may actually help wreck the republic.”

Given the firestorm at the mere evidence search, imagine if Trump, while running for president or already nominated, is actually charged with crimes and put on trial. Even without that element, his losing in 2024 would send millions of his backers into deranged fury. Can American democracy, and rule of law, survive it?

* Remember, I’m an old Goldwater conservative saying it’s nonsense.

The Last Rose of Shanghai

August 13, 2022

Shanghai, 1940. The Japanese have ravaged through much of China; they’re in Shanghai, but don’t (yet) control its international settlement. Wherein a top nightclub is owned and operated by Aiyi — a 20-year-old girl — of course impossibly beautiful too.

Really??

This is Weina Dai Randel’s 2021 novel, The Last Rose of Shanghai.

Aiyi, we learn, is a daughter of one of China’s richest and most powerful families. They were, at least, until the Japs arrived, confiscating most of their assets. (We’re not supposed to say “Japs,” but in this context that’s being if anything gentle.)

Somehow Aiyi scraped together the financing to buy the club. For a teenaged girl doing that, I suspended disbelief. Not for the first time in this tumultuous melodrama.

Comes now Ernest Reismann, a 19-year-old Jewish refugee from Berlin. (Should be “Ernst?” But never mind.) Also impossibly handsome; arriving in Shanghai penniless. Desperately seeking a job, any job, without success; Shanghai is awash with refugees. But a sequence of chance encounters finally lands him a gig playing piano in Aiyi’s club. Turns out he’s fantastic — soon famous. Why hadn’t he looked for a pianist job in the first place? Well, never mind.

Of course Ernest and Aiyi fall in love. But she’s engaged to her cousin Cheng, a long-arranged family match. She doesn’t exactly hate Cheng, who isn’t exactly hateful — but never mind.

Meantime, the Japs are an increasingly looming menace. Shanghai’s elites party on regardless. I’m saying to myself: Aiyi, blow off your stifling insufferable family, blow off Cheng, sell the club for what you can still get (a goodly sum, apparently) and skedaddle with Ernest.

Happily ever after? Would have been a different (less interesting) book. We do know Aiyi will survive and prosper; we actually first meet her in 1980 as a billionaire, in Shanghai. Albeit missing a foot.

But back to 1940 . . . now 1941 . . . things get darker. A monster Jap officer (wrongly) thinks Ernest shot a soldier and threatens to seize Aiyi’s club if she doesn’t turn him in. He’s now tinkling the keys in a different club (as if the Japs couldn’t find him there).

At last he asks her to flee with him to Hong Kong three days hence. And she agrees! But meantime the Japs return to her club and shoot it up. She barely escapes unhurt. The club is closed by Jap order. Get the frick outta there NOW, I’m saying.

But Aiyi tells herself her involvement with “the foreigner” is the source of all her troubles. She changes her mind about leaving with him.

Aiiiyiiii . . . .

This is not even halfway through the novel. I’m shaking my head trying to imagine the next half. Well, I’ve written enough spoilers already.

But the book does conform to Robinson’s Iron Law of Capital Punishment in fiction and other arts. Writers and artistes may hold right-thinking enlightened views opposing the death penalty. Yet something deep in the human psyche insists that sometimes justice demands the ultimate punishment. And when fictional villains cross a certain line of heinousness, capital punishment becomes mandatory. So too here, with that nasty Jap officer. Once he’d wantonly killed a second major character, I knew he wouldn’t get out of the novel alive.

Alas, his comeuppance was not especially gruesome — just shooting. Though the novel does note his face blown off.