Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

The State of the Union: A Republican comeback?

October 20, 2021

Conventional wisdom says a president’s party loses seats in midterm elections. Republicans, needing few gains to control Congress, will benefit from the census shifting seats to red states, gerrymandering, voter suppression, and other cheating. But modern American politics confounds conventional wisdom. No longer conforming to a rational paradigm. Many pundits even think Trump may regain the White House. Could voters be so crazy — after January 6 — and with Republicans still steeped in that Kool-Aid?

The “stolen election” story is a pathetic joke. As if the out-party could have pulled that off. Trump (the biggest liar ever) simply made it up because his deranged ego couldn’t accept losing. Any fool could see that. But not his cultists, so unhitched from reality the lie is now literally an article of faith. It was Trump himself who tried to steal the election, culminating on January 6, and the insanity continues to warp our whole body politic. Might voter revulsion at this negate the usual midterm dynamic? Or will Republican distraction efforts succeed? (Despite being undermined by Trump’s obsessive histrionics.)

We’re also being told that if President Biden can’t get his ambitious multi-program bill passed, Democrats will look hapless. While if it does pass, Republicans will have a field day crying “socialism!” So Democrats can’t win. But Republicans will shriek “socialism” no matter what. Now needing, as we’ve learned, no nexus with factual reality for any of their shtick. Screaming that Democrats will destroy America — which Republicans themselves nearly did on January 6.

Meantime, what’s actually in Biden’s legislation is mostly stuff most voters like and want: subsidized day care, family leave, college, etc. Another thing we’re told endlessly is how Democrats don’t connect with the working class economic anxieties Trumpism exploits (without actually doing anything about).

Well, Biden’s big “Build Back Better” bill does tackle those bread-and-butter concerns. But for many voters, it’s “my mind’s made up, don’t confuse me with facts.” And Republican politics today isn’t about genuine policy issues anyway. Mainly it’s demonizing and hating Democrats. “Owning the libs.”

As a longtime Republican, I have no illusions of Democrat and Biden wonderfulness. I’ve criticized him over Afghanistan, and China policy. His handling of migrants and refugees is disappointing — breaking, I feel, a personal promise. Yet Biden is still a decent, honest, responsible, sane antithesis to Trump who — on top of every other ghastly travesty — tried to overthrow our democracy. And would wreck it forever if, against all reason, returned to power.

I’d like to think it inconceivable. But that’s what I thought in 2016 — before it showed too many U.S. voters gone rogue — against all reason.

Americans are mostly admirable, pragmatic, down-to-earth, salt-of-the-earth people. But even before 2016 I warned that our being, in the global/historical scheme of things, a peaceable oasis of democracy and freedom, was not somehow ordained by God. And would not endure without citizens understanding and internalizing the principles undergirding it. Heedless ignorance, flouting those principles, metastasizes. As on January 6. And millions actually believe Trump was “making America great again.” Another pathetic joke.

I fear the power of the strongman syndrome. Bin Laden said, “if people see a strong horse and a weak horse, they will prefer the strong horse.” Even if, as with Trump, it’s strength of badness. Those still gaga for him are psychologically attracted by the illusion of strength. Imagining only a tough character can solve tough problems. And voters in many other countries have made that same mistake again and again, falling for the primitivist, misconceived macho allure of a “strongman.” Like moths to a flame.

I love America. Trump’s presidency felt like watching her raped. Re-electing him would be like infidelity.

Religion as a source of morality and witch burning

October 16, 2021

[I can hardly believe this piece got published in today’s Albany Times-Union. On the “Faith and Values” page! Especially my final paragraph!]*

Most human societies have believed not just in gods but also devils and demons. A way to explain much evil. Such beliefs were commonplace and powerful in the pre-Enlightenment West. While today witches are Halloween figures of fun, people once were terrified of them, and witch hunts were very real.

That might seem crazy now. But no crazier, really, than some beliefs commonly held today. Polls reveal around 40% of Americans still believe in Satan; we had a Satanic panic as recently as the ’80s. Many people were imprisoned on absurd charges of Devil-worshipping child abuse.

And of course even now millions worship an actual living devil. Trump support does have many faith-like aspects. As does the apocalyptic QAnon cult, full of language and imagery emulating religion. Indeed, a witch hunt, accusing political targets of being Satanic baby eaters (prompting one true believer to shoot up a pizza parlor). The January 6 attack on the Capitol too resembled religious fanaticism. As does the anti-vax, anti-mask hysteria — actually responsible for many thousands of deaths.

The age of literal witch hunting began in 1484 when Pope Innocent VIII promulgated a bull declaring “evil angels” a big problem, doing vast harm, especially connected with procreation. He commissioned a report, titled Malleus Malificarum, the “Hammer of Witches.” A how-to manual for the inquisitions and burnings that now duly exploded.

Under its system of show trials, devoid of due process rights, any accusation of witchery was effectively conclusive, with torture prescribed to confirm it. An open invitation for accusers to manipulate religious rhetoric for typically bad motives: envy, or personal or political vendettas, or getting hold of victims’ property. Or just one’s own power projection.

Inquisitors were incentivized to profit from their prosecutions. “An expense account scam,” Carl Sagan called it. All costs of the proceedings billed to victims’ families, including banquets for her judges, the costs of bringing in a professional torturer, and of course the straw and other supplies needed for the burning. Any remaining property was confiscated for the inquisitors’ benefit. And as if that weren’t enough, they earned a bonus for every witch incinerated.

Not surprisingly, witch burnings spread like, well, wild fire.

Some people, at least, must have realized this was deranged and horrific. But you’d better not voice such thoughts — lest you be grabbed yourself in the jaws of this death machine. Safer to cheer it on, or even participate.

Misogyny and repressed sexuality were big factors. While men and women were believed equally vulnerable to Satan, those burned were predominantly female. Prosecuted mostly by clergymen — notionally celibate, but we’ve come to know the prevalence of misdirected sexuality. The witchery charges often had sexual aspects, requiring careful inspection of private parts, and tortures tailored accordingly.

How many victims were there in all? Hundreds of thousands at least. Maybe millions. [Alas in the published piece this was edited to merely “Thousands at least.”]

This begs comparison with the Holocaust. Given Europe’s much smaller population then, the death toll was comparable, though spread over centuries. In both cases, the perpetrators saw themselves on a kind of purification mission.

Some religionists claim there’s no morality without God. In the witch hunts, clearly the evildoers were the God-besotted burners, not the burned. Did it never occur to them it was they themselves doing the Devil’s work? With all the extravagant belief in Satan’s power to deviously subvert humans to his purposes — the prosecutors didn’t pause to wonder if he was doing it to them? With the mild teachings of Jesus forgotten, did they not realize torturing and burning innocents, even often children, blackening the church with iniquity, was exactly what the Devil would have wanted?

But that might almost have been rational, and reason and religion don’t go together. No morality without God? The witch burnings prove there’s no morality without reason.

* Though their title is not mine.

Analyzing the religious right

October 12, 2021

Katherine Stewart is an investigative reporter and author of the book, The Power Worshippers. I attended her talk titled “The dangerous rise of the religious right.”

“Christian nationalism” she said, would be a better descriptor. Central to the ideology is the (historically false) idea of America founded as a Christian nation. But this is actually more about politics than religion. And it’s a vast powerful force, a defining feature of our political landscape; threatening our democracy. January 6 showed that.

This did not originate as some spontaneous movement from the heartland, a reaction to the social changes starting in the ’60s. Instead it was organized from the top down, by people whose real agenda is gaining power for themselves and their ilk. They constructed a huge national advocacy and messaging infrastructure, seeking government support for their movement, through measures that privilege it over other societal actors.

Stewart quoted Supreme Court Justice Scalia (an outspoken Christian), ruling against a religious exemption for peyote use, saying we can’t let everyone decide what laws to obey based on their religious beliefs. Yet, she said, that is actually exactly what the religious right is seeking.

The movement is, again, politically driven. The “culture war” stuff is really secondary; indeed, weaponized tools to serve the political agenda. In particular, the abortion issue did not create the religious right; rather, the issue was created to serve the political aims. When Roe v. Wade was decided, most Christians actually supported abortion law liberalization. But new right leaders nevertheless latched onto abortion as an issue that could be exploited to manipulate a sizable voter base and ignite a hyper-conservative counterrevolution. Stewart argued that these leaders do not actually want to minimize abortions; what they really want is to keep the issue boiling.

It’s a glaring irony that however rabid these people are about protecting human life before birth, they lose all interest in children once they’re born. The states where “right-to-life” is strongest are the states where actual living children are treated worst by public policies.

This movement has always been anti-democratic and authoritarian. Not just another set of voices debating in the public square. Its leaders don’t really imagine they can persuade a voting majority to their point of view. Instead they aim to prevail by flouting democratic processes, having contempt for the idea of the common good. This again was exemplified on January 6. Stewart noted that other authoritarian leaders, like Putin and Erdogan, have similarly exploited religion as a vehicle for political power without democracy.

She also saw the movement as inseparable from racism, though the connection is complex. The voter suppression that is part of its tool-kit for holding power undemocratically targets ethnic minorities. There are notions of “purity” versus impurity, and an emphasis on concepts of identity and appeals to a heritage culture (read: white).

Stewart said that the religious right is far more organized and focused than its opponents. We need a range of voting reforms to stymie undemocratic techniques like gerrymandering and voter suppression. But while the movement fully understands the importance of voting, others are more casual about it. Failing to realize how much is really at stake.

At the end of the day, Stewart opined, the narrow-minded Christian nationalist vision embodies what would be a weak society, not a strong one. I would add that this movement clearly has its head up its butt, all pretense of morality made absurd by their supplanting the worship of Jesus for a cult-like devotion to Trump, the most morally depraved personage in our political history.

The Stolen Election of 2024

September 24, 2021

The 2020 election was not stolen. The 2024 election may be.

We’re learning more about January 6 and what led up to it. One aspect was Trump’s mental illness. Narcissism so deranged he couldn’t psychologically accept defeat. Needing to somehow convince himself it didn’t happen. Thus the “stolen election” lie.

Trumpsters long salivated over the Arizona election “audit,” by “Cyber Ninja” clowns. Now it’s actually wound up finding more Biden votes! Will that stop the “stolen election” nonsense? Of course not. Defying reality twice over: first, no evidence, and second, blindness to all the reasons a majority did vote against Trump.

Meantime, there was an attempt to steal the election. By Trump. Details have emerged about how far this went. Vice President Pence was lauded for refusing Trump’s demand to somehow derail electoral vote counting. Actually Pence was fool enough to seriously consider it. He’s still in the lap of the man who sent a mob that nearly killed him on January 6. That was Trump’s last-ditch ploy to overthrow the election (and our democracy).

The Electoral Count Act was enacted to clarify procedures after the 1876 disputed election. But the ECA itself is clear as mud, open to the sort of January 6 shenanigans Trump promoted — with Republican support. Remember that a majority of GOP legislators, even after the mob attack, voted to overturn the election results.

Maybe it’s an excuse that they knew they’d be outvoted. Maybe. And what if they’re not in the minority next time? Will they desist from a repetition?

Republicans no longer believe in democracy (or reality). Rather than trying to convince opposing voters, Republicans make it harder for them to vote. Deeming somehow illegitimate any votes not going their way. We used to have “the divine right of kings” — anointed by God to rule. Many Republicans similarly believe they’re on a holy mission, so little obstacles, like citizens’ votes, can’t be countenanced to thwart them. So unhinged with terror of the other side, they’ll do anything — anything — to prevail. Ends justifying means.

Many Republicans (even Kevin McCarthy) initially denounced the January 6 insurrection, and even Trump’s culpability. But they quickly changed their tune in the cold sober light of morning, instead lashing themselves, like Captain Ahab, to their white whale.

Falsely crying fraud is now a key page of the Republican playbook — nihilistic bomb throwing into the heart of democracy. While they themselves gear up to steal the 2024 election. Not just by blocking Democrats from voting, but also shifting responsibility for vote counting from non-partisan to partisan hands. In 2020, Georgia’s secretary of state refused Trump’s demand to “find” 11,780 more votes. In 2024 that official won’t have that authority. Instead it will be political operatives, empowered to report whatever vote counts they see fit. Regardless of actual votes. Elsewhere, Republican-controlled state legislatures talk about certifying Trump electoral votes even if he loses. Simply falsifying election results is how many autocrat regimes hold power.

Reversing the 2020 outcome would have required flipping at least three states. Never conceivable. And still, look what tumult we went through — the nonsense lies still plaguing us — over that election result. Just an appetizer for 2024. Especially if it’s at all close. Can our democracy survive even worse election-related conflict than in 2020?

Trump versus Biden versus China

September 21, 2021

His first day in office, Trump handed China a giant victory by nixing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal we’d expressly created to blunt China’s clout. Yet Republicans call President Biden “soft on China.” The truth is the opposite.

We have two main global antagonists. Russia has been called a Third World country with missiles (which it cannot use). It’s a mischief maker, including its election subversion, but is no existential threat.

China is far more powerful and, in ways, more threatening. China does want to take us down a notch, to swagger as the world’s kingpin. That doesn’t require destroying America; and unlike in the Cold War, it’s not an ideological triumph China seeks. While Biden is right to see a contest between authoritarianism and democracy, it’s more like a popularity contest. Our aim being to showcase a better model. Shouldn’t be hard — while a collectivist mentality makes most Chinese accept a repressive surveillance society, that’s not real attractive elsewhere.

China’s real challenge is not ideological but economic competition. But all nations compete with one another. Just as all businesses, globally and within a nation, compete. And because competition drives prices down to the costs of production, the lion’s share of the wealth that’s created benefits not businesses but consumers. This is not merely theoretical, it’s why average living standards worldwide rose dramatically in recent decades and poverty (contrary to what many imagine) plummeted.

Of course this requires true, fair, unfettered competition, hard to attain because so many interests vie against it. But we’ve succeeded to a degree perhaps surprising. And that battle must be waged with China.

Trump’s tariffs, instead of promoting fair open competition, impeded it, making it harder and costlier for goods to get to market. This may have “protected” some U.S. businesses and jobs from Chinese competition, but damaged the U.S. economy as a whole — the costs borne by American consumers, who pay more for their purchases. Reducing their ability to buy other things, which would have stimulated our economy and created jobs, offsetting those lost to foreign competition. And while both sides suffer thusly from the tariff war, most economists reckon America’s damage exceeds China’s.

Exemplified by his assault on Huawei, Trump also sought to decouple from China, severing the global economy into two ghettoes, ours and theirs. China is doing likewise. Unwinding the globalized supply chains that integrate commerce and maximize efficiency by enabling businesses to obtain the best and least costly inputs. That economic vandalism can only hurt everyone.

Sadly, instead of casting us as the champion of an open global economy, Biden too is trying to wall off ours from theirs. And he’s sticking with Trump’s tariffs. Biden does understand Trump’s stupidity in picking fights with allies, rather than building a common front vis-a-vis China. But that’s undermined by a narrow fixation on American jobs — signaling our friends that they’re actually on their own. Yet seemingly giving them a “with us or against us” choice. Though joining our decoupling from China is self-harming.

Biden seems to frame this as a battle only one side can win. But we cannot “defeat” China. We should instead aim for win-win. That wouldn’t mean not fighting China on intellectual property, human rights, territorial aggression, cyber-hacking, and so forth. We can have those arguments while still expanding mutually beneficial trade and without actually being enemies. You have fights with your spouse but still have intercourse.

Brimfield’s Great Flea Market, and China’s Great Cultural Revolution

September 18, 2021

Brimfield MA’s antiques flea market, several times yearly, is gigantic. My wife and I hadn’t gone in years, but decided to visit on September 10. About two hours from Albany.

Every kind of collectable imaginable is on offer, and many you wouldn’t imagine. Like one dealer’s display of old band-aid boxes. We were entranced by the varieties of early typewriters. The whole show is a visual feast, full of bon-bons to tickle the eye and mind. You register an object in a nanosecond, then move on to the next. But quite often you stop and think “WTF?” Struck by sheer strangeness. What were they thinking when producing this item? When buying it originally? And who would buy it now?

What a vast human effort to create all these millions of things, every one conceived to somehow be a boon or a source of pleasure. And it is startling to see what people today will buy. At one point, passing a display of what looked like, well, junk, I remarked to my wife, “Don’t people have a concept of throwing away?” While we keep producing new stuff, much old stuff sticks around; so our ratio of stuff to people rises. Imagine how glutted flea markets will be in a century or two.

Ones like this are always windows to my childhood, objects from which are now certifiably antique (as I am). So many things we played with. Lincoln logs, army men, Monopoly, Etch-a-sketch. I noticed a “Colorforms” set. That rang a bell, but I didn’t stop to remind myself what Colorforms were, exactly. I did thumb through a copy of Fun With Dick and Jane, the very book that larned me readin’.

We’re not normally buyers, just lookers — except for my coins. And my wife did acquire several choice jewelry items. A discerning connoisseur; they were all carefully selected from $1 pick trays.

Most coins you see are overpriced junk. From a guy’s binder full, I took out one unpriced item and asked. He said $10. I said $5, and he agreed. An 1852 Canada Penny token, not the common horseman type; quite high grade; once badly cleaned but I can fix that. Another gal had many pages of coins. I pulled out an Italian 1926 Two Lire marked $7. She was tough, wouldn’t budge below $6. But it’s a rare date and EF, very unusual thus (worth more than ten times the price). Then from a tray of miscellany, I held up a lovely EF 1855-B French Ten Centimes. The dealer said a buck. Thank you! Another guy’s tray had a small bronze pinback medal with busts of LaFollette and Wheeler — the 1924 Progressive Party national ticket. After much negotiation, three bucks. I enjoyed this because I have a nice personal letter from Wheeler, who survived into my youth.

My wife was terrific in helping to scout out coins. When she uttered the word at one dealer’s stall, he pointed to huge stacks of modern U.S. coins in “slabs” (plastic encapsulations certifying authenticity and grade). Ordinarily of zero interest to me. Then he said, “$100 for the whole deal.”

Seriously?

I whipped out my wallet. The 519 slabs filled a carton I could just barely lift.

Meantime: during lunch, my wife (typically) asked me the most memorable thing I’d seen. “The Chinese statuette,” I said, having pointed it out to her. “I actually thought of buying it.” The tag price of $65 had seemed awfully reasonable. “Would it be completely crazy?” She encouraged me; we searched and managed to relocate it. My $45 offer was accepted. The guy mentioned it was apparently dated 1966 in Chinese.

So this was no antiquity. However, 1966 was actually perfect, as this was clearly an artifact of Mao’s “Great Cultural Revolution” launched that year. A trio of harsh-faced figures, one brandishing Mao’s “little red book,” abusing a bent-over fourth, with a denunciation placard hanging from his neck. The makers evidently deemed this thing heroic and inspirational. In fact it’s bone-chilling. Many thousands were killed this way.

Multihued porcelain, over a foot high, it’s in perfect condition, and a truly remarkable piece of history. A graphic caution about the dangers of political extremism, and how madness can engulf multitudes. Especially relevant to today’s America. Some googling reveals that such Cultural Revolution propaganda porcelains were a genre, but I couldn’t find a match for mine. I’m thrilled to have gotten it.

Topping off the day, we went looking for a dinner venue and found a Chinese buffet — our first such in at least 18 months. For a while there, I’d feared buffets would be a permanent casualty of Covid. Civilization is a great thing. While eating, I couldn’t help being mindful of the dangers to it, so vividly illustrated by what I’d just bought.

Did 9/11 Change America?

September 14, 2021

September 11 fundamentally changed America — or so we’re told, in a flood of 20th anniversary commentaries. I’m not so sure.

Much is made of 9/11’s moment of extraordinary national unity. And how transient it proved. But that shows 9/11 did not, indeed, fundamentally change the country. It was a blip.

I’m reminded of the insight from psychology that individuals have a personality baseline, governing things like happiness levels. A dramatic event can knock you off your baseline, for a while. But eventually that wears off and the baseline reasserts itself.

Of course no historical events are immaterial. To the contrary, everything impacts everything, and there’s the apocryphal butterfly effect; small causes reverberating into big results. September 11 was a big thing. It did cause wars, and give us TSA security theater. It’s impossible to know how different America might look today absent 9/11. Trump’s presidency might well not have happened, and that too was a very big thing.

Nothing is ever inevitable. History is not some implacable force driving toward pre-ordained ends. Instead it’s highly contingent. Everything depends on what individuals do, the choices made. Like James Comey’s in 2016. And imagine if Oswald’s aim had been off by an inch.

As for 9/11 changing the country, I think the real story is that it fed into trends already shaping an America different from its 20th Century incarnation. The moment of unity was a blip, and in the bigger picture 9/11 wound up not ameliorating but aggravating the politico-cultural divisions that had been building up, even giving us yet more things to be divided over. Like the Iraq War.

And it’s not just a matter of issues to argue about. What has taken hold is an ethos of division. The issues themselves being more symptoms than causes. That’s not to say opinions are not deeply felt; people are passionate about, say, the abortion issue. But that’s actually an instructive example, because it originated with religious right leaders casting about for some issue to fire up a flagging movement, and jumping on abortion as the perfect vehicle. The point being, if it weren’t that, it would have been something else. Having the fight mattering more than what the fight is about.

What explains this? There’s a cat’s-cradle of complex factors. Humans evolved in a world where change was slow or nonexistent. Modernity has put it into hyperdrive, discombobulating minds. Triggering a primordial impulse for tribalism as something to cling onto on the roller coaster ride that life has in some ways become. What your tribe stands for is secondary to its being your tribe — standing against enemy tribes.

Propelled by the notion that you’re entitled to believe whatever you want — mainly, what your tribe believes. So if the tribe decides, for example, that the 2020 election was stolen, then that’s what you too believe. The whole traditional information ecosystem, that used to provide a common understanding of reality, has crumbled. Part of an even broader loss of faith in and connection to societal institutions generally, with more people feeling they’re on their own. The old information system has been largely supplanted by an internet free-for-all — an information echo-system.

Nine-eleven exacerbated this. People felt threatened now by another tribe, beyond their understanding. Confidence in institutions fell even more. The world suddenly looked darker.

The pathology afflicts the right far more than the left. The right’s messaging makes clear that what gets them boiling is not issues per se but how they provide reasons to hate the other side. Having people to hate and fear is the core of today’s Republicanism. If Democrats reciprocate it, it’s a reaction to Republicans becoming truly scary. As January 6 showed.

It also manifests in what has become a Republican culture of fundamental dishonesty and bad faith. Here again the parties differ greatly. Say what you will about policies espoused by Democrats, at least they actually believe in them as good for the country (or world). Not so with Republicans. Look at their “ballot integrity” crusade. Exploiting the big lie of a stolen election, their true aim is not, as they claim, to make voting more secure (a non-problem), but harder for their opponents. They’re just dishonest about it.

This is what you get with tribal war when one side feels existentially threatened. No holds barred. We may have reached peak tribalism with the vaccine issue. Republicans’ reasons for vaccine resistance are bogus — their “freedom” cries nonsensical — but they need no reasons other than associating vaccination with Democrats. That’s how bad it is, when tribalism even infects what ought to be a straightforward public health matter. Partisanship so crazed that people literally risk their lives. Refusing vaccines that are proven life savers, while instead taking animal de-worming pills. And they’re dying like flies.

Nine-eleven did change America. But it was not the cause of such insanity. The terrorists could never have harmed the country so much. Our biggest threat is not Russia or China. It’s Republicans.

Afghanistan disaster

August 17, 2021

President Biden decided that 20 years of commitment to Afghanistan was enough, so he’d pull out our few thousand troops. Never mind that we’ve had tens of thousands in Germany, in South Korea, in Japan, for over 70 years — with far less compelling rationales.

We had invested vastly in Afghanistan. But at this point the mission’s cost there — in manpower, money, and casualties — was comparatively small. Yet had a big payoff. While we weren’t winning the war, we were managing to sustain a status quo with the Taliban contained, thus enabling millions of Afghans to live decently. Pulling out gained very little, with huge risks of the horrible outcome now unfolding.

Even politically it made no sense. American voters were not clamoring for an Afghan pullout. But the result is egg all over Biden’s face. Deservedly.

He blew off the consensus of military and intelligence experts who warned of dire consequences. Which came even faster than foreseen.

Thanks also to the bungled execution. This was no well-planned withdrawal. While only weeks ago Biden swore we’d never see people airlifted from the embassy roof like in Saigon in 1975, that’s exactly what happened in Kabul. Ghastly airport scenes of people frantically trying to get out, some killed in the chaos.

The Afghan army melted away, after all the billions we’d invested in it. Notably in their air force, a key factor against the Taliban. But with us gone, those planes could no longer be maintained and kept flying. Afghan soldiers had already made tremendous sacrifices battling the Taliban, taking huge casualties. With very little in pay and back-up. Then we completely abandon our partnership. Yet Biden cravenly slams them for not throwing away their lives to continue a fight we’d now made futile.

Our rush to the exit is supremely callous toward the whole Afghan people, left to a grim fate. Especially women. The Taliban has long mounted a campaign of targeted assassinations of the intelligentsia — government officials, judges, journalists, etc. Especially women, who had ascended to such roles. Now they won’t even be allowed in school. Nor, apparently, will unmarried females be allowed. Holdouts to be forcibly married to Taliban fighters.

What perverted humanity. I can never fathom vast numbers of people lining up behind such evil. Fighting it was a noble endeavor.

For another perspective on our responsibility to Afghanistan, I highly recommend an essay (https://lizrobinson.squarespace.com/blog/) by my daughter Elizabeth, who has lived there, working in the international engagement.

The Biden administration is trying to blame this disaster on Trump. Who’d negotiated a deal with the Taliban, for a cease-fire and anti-terrorism promise, in exchange for our withdrawal. (They also got 5,000 prisoners released.) Those Taliban pledges were always worthless and immediately violated. Biden had no reason to stick with our side of that phony Trump deal. It’s no excuse for his actions.

This is one more damning signal to the world that today’s America is a weak feckless country that cannot be relied upon. China is laughing at us. After Trump’s brainless shredding of our international credibility, I expected better from Biden. But in every aspect of this Afghan fiasco, he bears an unnerving resemblance to Trump at his worst. Even down to falsely blaming his predecessor.

* * *

After long observing the world I’ve learned to expect disillusionment. I’d hugely supported Biden’s campaign. But what I’ve also come to understand is the world’s complexity. A vast machine with myriads of moving parts, and no master control. Thus bad stuff is inevitable. Yet I remain an optimist because in the (very) big picture, far more is going right than wrong. I supported Biden, most fundamentally, because he is a good person. Far from perfect, but good. I think that’s still true. Whereas Trump was wicked through and through. Good people don’t always do what’s good. But better than bad people.

* * *

Hakainde Hichilema, a businessman, lost five Zambian presidential elections; surely cheated out of victory, and persecuted and imprisoned, by the ruling party. In this sixth try, against President Edgar Lungu, The Economist said Hichilema would win a free and fair election — but saw no chance of that. Lungu, whose corrupt misrule has been wrecking Zambia, did everything possible to rig the poll. When Hichilema nevertheless clearly won, Lungu tried to pull a Trump, claiming the election was not free and fair (!). We’ve seen this movie too often, especially in Africa. But now — surprisingly — Lungu has relented and conceded defeat.

Some optimist sugar for me on the bitter pill of Afghanistan.

When Politics Gets Bloody

August 15, 2021

Isabel Allende’s Long Petal of the Sea is a meaty, old-style novel, centered around historical events. It begins with Spain’s 1936-39 civil war. Shortly before, they’d seen off their monarchy and gotten a democratic government, dominated by the left. Francisco Franco was an opportunistic general who led his troops to overthrow the Republic. Hitler and Mussolini backed him militarily. Stalin supported the Republicans, many being Communists, joined by a lot of American volunteers. When Franco’s fascists won the war, thousands of opponents fled for their lives, into France, and squalid concentration camps. Chilean poet and diplomat Pablo Neruda arranged for a ship, the Winnipeg, to carry some of the refugees to new lives in Chile.

Among them Victor and Roser. He’d spent the war as a medic; she had a baby fathered by Victor’s brother before his battle death. They marry just to qualify for the ship. They spend 34 good years in Chile and their relationship evolves into love.

And then it happens again — Victor in a horrible concentration camp, after Chile’s 1973 coup, overthrowing left-wing President Salvador Allende (Victor’s friend), accompanied by ghastly brutality. History records that Allende committed suicide. That always seemed fishy to me. The novel says the military killed him.

Its author was his cousin and became a refugee herself after the coup, winding up a U.S. citizen.

Victor manages to get out alive, and he and Roser flee to Venezuela — then an oasis of democracy, prosperity, and the good life. Later, its voters would throw all that away, seduced by “socialism.”

Back to Spain’s civil war, the novel shows just how vicious it was, with gross brutality on both sides (but worse by the fascists). Reading the account, what struck me was that many wars entail nationalistic jingoism — bad enough — but this was somewhat different, a war over political ideology. That seems to be what made so many so willing to go so far, losing all human moral restraint. That’s what can happen when political differences get out of hand.

The story repeated with Chile’s coup, preceded by escalating political extremism, each side developing an apocalyptic hostility toward the other. But again more so on the right, viewing the left as threatening everything good and holy. And in its crusade to stamp that out, the right shredded everything good and holy. Thus the inhuman atrocities.

Reading about both the Spanish and Chilean stories was chilling because it could happen here. In fact America has already gone quite far down that road. We no longer have just normal type political disagreements. One side has fallen into a very dark place of lies and conspiracism. January 6 was a fire bell in the night, showing how such political craziness can become violent, justified in the eyes of people willing to do literally anything to crush opponents. They hate what they see as America becoming, want its institutions burned down, and fetishize guns. Clear echoes of 1930s Spain and 1973 Chile. We’ve avoided wider actual bloodshed — so far. But it’s all too easy to envision.

Studying history shows there are always men just itching for the chance to unleash their inner swaggering storm trooper. Like cockroaches they come out of the woodwork when the occasion arises. We must ensure it does not.

Particularly heart-rending was Allende’s depiction of the Spanish refugees, desperate to escape Franco’s cruel extermination, fleeing under horrendous conditions. I could see myself, someday, in their shoes. If lucky enough to have shoes.

At least the Canadian border is not too far.

Meeting the Second Gentleman

August 12, 2021

Doug Emhoff is America’s first second gentleman — spouse of our first female vice president. I recently attended a reception with him in New York.

I walked the couple of miles to and from the bus station — I love soaking up New York’s vibrant ambience. Hadn’t been there in 18 months. This time the soaking was literal, in the rain, but I enjoyed it.

Before, one of the organizers phoned me, requesting removal of a somewhat risque photo in a past blog post. I complied; but at the reception told her I was flabbergasted to have been vetted with such thoroughness. She said it was the Secret Service. (Their presence at the event was low-key.)

I’m the short one

Emhoff is a lawyer, who married Kamala Harris in 2014. He seems to be a lovely human being, sweet, warm, funny, with no grandiosity. Somewhat flabbergasted himself at the role suddenly thrust upon him. Going around the country, to events like this, and many others. He said he’d led an insular sort of life before, and his eyes have been opened to an American panorama he’d never known.

I asked a question in the Q&A. “That’s a great question,” Emhoff said. (I’d recently heard a radio commentary about how ubiquitous that’s become in answering questions; since then I’ve noticed it myself.) I asked how, in his travels, as a non-politician, he communicates with Republicans, not political people either, but everyday folks. He answered that listening is very important — to understand where people are coming from — meeting them where they are at.

I knew nobody at the event, said little to anyone, enjoyed the food, and mostly felt like Oliver Sacks’s Anthropologist on Mars. All attendees (except for one gentleman of Indian heritage) were white. And upper echelon white* (big donors). I was treated very graciously.

On the bus trip (in contrast, the lone white passenger), I’d been reading Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, relating how in her early life, she experienced the other side of that coin. Such disparities in how people are seen and treated persist. But Michelle Obama did wind up living in the White House, and Doug Emhoff’s non-white wife is vice president. Social progress is too slow and fitful for many of us, but it’s happening.

*One other seeming exception was a scruffy looking long-bearded fellow in shorts and sneakers. He asked an interesting question. Just shows you can’t judge people by appearances.