Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

The trouble with democracy

May 23, 2017

Democracy has always been central to my political philosophy. For all other modes by which some person or group rules, one must ask: by what right? By what right, for example, does China’s Communist Party reign? “The mandate of Heaven,” China’s ancient concept justifying rulership, is a mystical affront to reason. Citizen acquiescence might be invoked, but what can that mean without real choice? China’s reality — demonstrated in 1989 — is rule at gunpoint.

This is the problem of legitimacy. Another is accountability. Without it, you get the arrogance of power, corruption, oppression. All this undermines societal cohesion. We evolved for social cooperation because that boosted group survival. But communal loyalty is eroded when people are governed without consent.

However, what if voters themselves act to undermine society, by making terrible choices? As they have lately done in Britain, Turkey, Poland, and America of course. Philippine voters elected a murderer president, who has sanctioned thousands of extra-judicial killings. In France’s presidential first round, the one sensible choice (my opinion) managed less than 24% of the vote.

Philippine President Duterte

This wasn’t always such a problem. Sure, demagogues and bad ideas are nothing new. But, especially in advanced countries at least, voters used to take their civic responsibilities somewhat seriously. Extremism was shunned. Fringe parties remained on the fringes. And character counted. America’s first 44 presidents were not all great, but number 45 would, in past times, never even have passed the laugh test.

So has something important changed in modern society? We’ve long heard a lot about “anomie,” modern life divorcing people from the wholeness of harmony with nature — or some such folderol. Rubbish, I used to think. But maybe something of the sort does underlie this voting behavior.

“Social capital” refers to the intangible ways people relate to one another that make society work. Trust is a key element. It’s trusting that the stranger on the street won’t pull a knife and rob you. That when you buy something you’ll get what you pay for. That societal institutions, government most importantly, will function more or less as they’re supposed to. Of course none of this can be infallible. However, these are the default assumptions of underlying trust that shape our participation in society.

But surveys show people’s trust toward others is declining. Note that it’s not people being less trustworthy than in the past. It’s just that many of us think they are. Yet this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy if it makes folks behave in ways that contribute to an overall atmosphere of lesser trust. Meantime, social trust is partly learned. With repeated positive interactions with others, you build up a basic attitude of trustingness. But modern life is reducing face-to-face interactions, with social media, video gaming, and people staring at screens cutting down time spent in the physical company of others.

People also used to be more willing to trust and, frankly, defer to the judgments of those they acknowledged as being their betters, including public officials, experts, business leaders, educators, scientists, and other elites. But that kind of deference has been eroded not only by less trust in general, but also by a reigning ethos of egalitarianism. The idea that every human being has equal dignity and worth is great. Yet it leads many people to imagine their own opinions (no matter how ill-informed) should carry weight equal to anyone else’s. Especially when opportunistic politicians flatter those opinions.

It all comes together. Declining social trust makes people less willing to defer not only toward elites but toward what is seen as the greater communal good. Social solidarity is impaired by an egalitarianism that exalts the individual and validates one’s own needs, desires and, yes, prejudices. Falling trust in institutions extends to sources of information, with society no longer having widely accepted arbiters of truth. Now everybody can have their own truth. No wonder voting behavior has changed.

This includes less voting, too, worldwide — especially by younger people. At fault may be disappearing civics education, and politics turning them off. Polls show declining belief in the value of democracy. Perhaps it’s also growing solipsism. People today expect to be entertained. Voting is not a fun thing, but a communitarian act; you know one vote won’t determine the outcome, but represents participation. Declining participation undermines democratic legitimacy, contributing to a vicious circle of disengagement. Trump’s vote was only 27% of the eligible total. (And he would not have won, nor would Brexit, had younger people voted equally with older ones.)

Churchill famously said democracy is the worst form of government, except for all others that have been tried. This is being tested. But I’m not ready to give up. And Venezuelans today are battling to save their democracy. At least some people still get it. Elected governments, alone, still have a good answer to the “by what right” question.

What is to be done?

May 19, 2017

Around January I wrote about some friends saying, “It’s worse than we expected,” and I said it’s not worse than I expected, because what I expected was very bad.

Well, OK, now it’s worse than even I expected. I thought Trump would better control his irresponsible impulses. Can we endure another 44 months of this?

Forget impeachment. Not gonna happen. Even if the House goes Democratic in 2018 (still unlikely), and he’s impeached, you’d need 67 Senate votes. Dems now have only 48 and can’t increase that much in 2018.

The 25th Amendment allows sidelining a president if the VP and a majority of the cabinet certify his incapacity. But if he resists, then it requires a 2/3 vote in both houses to override him. So forget that too.

Nixon was forced out basically because the whole nation turned against him for what he’d done. It was a different country then. One where Republicans could put country above party. One that was unforgiving toward politicians caught lying or otherwise transgressing — maybe even too unforgiving. But that’s turned upside down. Trump saying he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and lose no votes was (uncharacteristically) truthful.

And, indeed, through the train wreck of his first four months, full of lies, blunders and misdeeds that in past times would have sunk any politician ten times over, Trump’s core supporters have hardly budged. I guess if you can excuse the pussygrabbing, you can excuse anything.

What might shake them? Maybe nothing. They believe Trump that all the bad news is fake, and he’s doing great. Trumpeters have made a psychological commitment not open to reason (like their belief in a benevolent god). And as long as Trump retains that diehard support from a third of the electorate, few Congressional Republicans will have the intestinal fortitude to do anything but go along. They’re circling the wagons. That’s why he won’t be removed.

I used to bemoan political polarization and each side’s demonization of their opponents. And I considered the left more guilty than the right. But that’s different now too. When Democrats and lefties demonize Trump and Republicans today, there’s ample justification. If anything, they don’t come on too strong, but not strong enough.

Trump’s problems aren’t really White House disarray, bad messaging, press unfairness, “fake news,” simple bungling, a “witch hunt,” or any such. Instead it’s all character: a vile creep, who sought the presidency for all the wrong reasons, who is out of his depth and out of his mind.

America is full of wonderful people. It kills me that we elected as president such a stinker.

His supporters bizarrely continue the mantra that Hillary was the biggest liar in politics, while Trump seems incapable of not lying. But it’s not just a matter of one man’s mental sickness. It’s shredding the whole concept of truth, trying to destroy confidence in an independent press as an information source. Without that, the public cannot hold government and its officials to account; and without that, meaningful democracy is impossible.

The seriousness of the situation can hardly be overstated. I’ve closely studied American political life for over half a century, and this is a discontinuity. A change from one paradigm to a very different one. A downward cultural lurch. And I don’t see the toothpaste being put back in the tube.

Macron

Is my optimism dead? France has meantime decisively rejected — by a 66% vote! — a Trumplike candidate, electing instead Emmanuel Macron, a remarkably good man moved by excellent ideas. He now faces a terrific battle against entrenched interests. But who ever imagined I’d look to France for political inspiration?

I renounce my Republicanism

May 14, 2017

I have been a Republican for 53 years. I have served as an elected party official; have run campaigns and run for office as a Republican; was appointed by President Nixon to a federal commission. Republicanism has been part of my personal identity.

I came by it the hard way, not by inheritance. I grew up in a Democratic family, in a Democratic neighborhood, in FDR’s afterglow. The party seemed to represent bland conventional wisdom. Until the 1964 Goldwater campaign gave me something stronger: fierce principles that felt right to me. I became a political activist. And not just a Republican, but a very conservative Republican.

The national and global issues were, of course, important. But Tip O’Neill’s dictum, “all politics is local,” supervened when I came to Albany in 1970. In place of somewhat abstract opposition to distant evils, I imbibed the heady brew of battling evil up close in my new home town, ruled by a corrupt old-time political machine. Here the Republican party was the avatar of civic virtue. This was a moral crusade (more about that here).

My period of intense political involvement ended when that crusade fizzled out. Yet my allegiance to the party’s basic ideals and principles continued.

And then, starting around 1980, the GOP got religion. It’s hard to remember now, but previously religion played very little role in what the party represented. Most Republicans may have been religious, but that was separate from politics. God was rarely mentioned. The Republicanism that originally attracted me was grounded in reason, in the values of the Enlightenment, in a classical philosophical liberalism (a word American “liberals” wrongly co-opted), aimed at making a world in which all people can best thrive.

Religion undermines this. One cannot apply reason to the world’s problems while mistaking the fundamental nature of reality. Religion is magical thinking, and that has infected Republican politics. We see this in their comprehensive scientific denialism. But nothing better epitomizes magical thinking, divorced from reason and reality, than putting in the White House a bad man who is the antithesis of everything godly people supposedly honor.

And of course the policies the Republican party now stands for are unrecognizable to this veteran of ’64. It sure isn’t conservatism. (Which, among other things, was strongly anti-communist. Now we’re a veritable Russian satellite.) But actually the old categories of conservative versus liberal, right versus left, have become a muddle. Today’s real political divide is between open and closed orientations. It’s openness to trade, to markets, to immigrants, to human diversity, to change, to ideas, to facts. With an outward-looking America building a world of open societies. Republicans flunk on all counts.

But my disaffection from Republicanism is more a matter of culture and values than policies or ideology. Those are trumped by the principles of rationalism, responsibility, just plain decency, and, in a word, humanism. Republicans and their regime trash all of it. Their xenophobia, ethnic nationalism, fondness for dictators, callousness and moralistic hypocrisy are repellent. They’re drenched in lies. They shred basic American values. They’re a freak show, disgracing the country.

Remember, this is not a Democrat talking, but a lifelong Republican — one not blinded (like most) by partisanship.

I have plenty of ideological problems with today’s Democrats and the Left (as expressed on this blog). But they are more humanistic. Their ideas about economics and social justice are often barmy, but at least they are genuinely concerned with human values, and at least their feet are planted, more or less, on this Earth. At least they mostly respect truth and reason (though freedom of expression not so much). They are serious and responsible. I like them better as people. Republicans’ behavior has become thoroughly hateful to me.

Are they irredeemable? For a long while now, it’s been asked when sane, public-minded Republicans would finally get it together and stand against Trump. Well, forget it, there just aren’t enough John McCains in the GOP. (And even McCain, whose heroism was smeared by Trump, nevertheless endorsed him.) No, Republicans, almost unanimously, have drunk the Kool-Aid.

(And, in their eyes, have been rewarded. The party has more power now than at any time since the 1920s. Even though Democrats actually have more voter support; Republican control is due to the Senate and electoral college math disproportionately empowering smaller and less urban states, and to gerrymandered House districts. But this doesn’t temper Republican triumphalist hubris.)

And so, after much agonizing, in recognition of today’s reality, I can no longer call myself a Republican. It’s not the party I joined. I must cut out that part of my selfhood. But I cannot join the Democrats’ own misguided leftward march.* I am cast out into the political wilderness.

I am not alone there. But most of the country remains stuck in the two hostile partisan camps. It’s a very destructive syndrome, with no cure I can see.

* “Socialism” has been pronounced dead even in France!

Trump – Comey – Russia

May 10, 2017

“Russia” was the first thing I thought of when hearing that Trump had fired FBI Director Comey. (On the PBS Newshour, devoting its first half to the story, Russia wasn’t mentioned till the 28th minute.)

Trump didn’t like Comey’s refuting his lie that Obama wiretapped him. But the fake-news reason given for the firing is the supposed inappropriateness of Comey’s announcement last summer that Hillary Clinton would not be prosecuted. Not that she should have been; it’s Comey’s explaining that was supposedly improper. Really?

This is especially bizarre considering it was Comey’s late October announcement, that the Clinton investigation was being reopened, that really did seem improper. It almost certainly changed the election outcome. Which notion Comey now says makes him “mildly nauseous.” Only mildly?

Piling on more bizarrity is Trump’s assertion, in his letter firing Comey, that Comey had told him he’s not under investigation. Which may well be untrue, but in any case should be irrelevant to Comey’s firing. But of course Trump is mentally ill.

However, the main point is that this is surely all about the FBI’s investigation of connections between the Trump campaign and Russia’s election meddling. That the meddling happened is incontrovertible (and an extremely serious matter). Putin hated Hillary and wanted Trump to win mainly because he (unlike Trump voters) understood how much a Trump presidency would damage America. But the real FBI question is whether Trump operatives criminally conspired with the Russians. Fear of that answer led Trump to fire Comey.

Trump claims to have acted to restore public confidence in the FBI. What utter bullshit. Now he can appoint a toady FBI Director who will stifle the Russia investigation. A great way to restore public confidence.

Arguably, in fact, this constitutes obstruction of justice, a criminal offense (and grounds for impeachment).

Michael Flynn — Lock him up

May 1, 2017

Are we trapped in a very bad movie — or grotesque reality show?

Michael Flynn — whom President Pussygrabber said was treated very unfairly — after he himself fired him — had joined in chants of “Lock her up!” at the GOP convention.

Flynn was not fired for incompetence (like the previous time he was fired), nor for his insane Islamophobic rantings, but for lying. To Mike Pence. (Lying to the public, in this administration, is perfectly okay. Especially calling journalists liars when they report the truth.)

We have since learned that Flynn also concealed tens of thousands of dollars paid him for “work” for RT, the Russian TV station that’s Putin’s lie-spewing propaganda vehicle, and for a company linked to Turkey’s democracy-crushing regime. Why they’d hire such a creep is a mystery. It’s disgraceful that any American would sell himself to such nasty foreign thugs. Even more disgraceful that our president would associate with such a man, let alone appoint him national security advisor. But — as with Bill O’Reilly — maybe Pussygrabber actually thinks Flynn did nothing wrong. After all, Pussygrabber congratulated Turkey’s President Erdogan on having himself made dictator! (Erdogan, and a parade of other authoritarian rulers, like the Philippines’ literal murderer Duterte, have been invited to the White House.)

Manafort and crony

Meantime Flynn was not even the only Trump henchman literally on the Kremlin payroll. So was Paul Manafort, who was Trump’s campaign chief for a time. Manafort also worked for Viktor Yanukovich, the pro-Russian Ukraine president, so corrupt and vile that Ukrainians threw him out.

And speaking of creeps, Trump has gushed his admiration for radio’s Alex Jones, who has to be just about the biggest all-around creep in today’s America. He called the Newtown shootings a hoax. And speaking of “just about,” Trump has called his first 100 days “just about the most successful” in U.S. history. He crowed that getting a Supreme Court justice confirmed in the first 100 days hadn’t been achieved since 1881. Didn’t mention this “achievement” was due to Republicans’ refusal to act for the past year.

But getting back to Flynn: now it’s further revealed that those payments he took apparently violated federal law. When retiring from the military in 2014, Flynn was explicitly warned against taking foreign government money without advance Pentagon approval. There’s no evidence he sought that waiver.

Lock him up.

Telling tough truths: J. D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy”

April 27, 2017

J. D. Vance is a young Yale law graduate, who rose from what he calls Kentucky hillbilly culture. Hillbilly Elegy is memoir-cum-sociology, aptly titled; an elegy expresses sorrow for human loss.

We’re not supposed to blame the poor for their poverty. Yet that’s just what Vance does, more or less. Though sometimes lyrical in his love for his people, he’s scathing in critiquing their social pathology.

That social pathology is often attributed to the rustbelt’s hollowing out of old time manufacturing jobs. Vance doesn’t buy it. True, the jobs picture is a big problem, but he sees it as greatly worsened by how his people have responded to it.

Some studies say less educated men work more than the educated classes. This too is rubbish, according to Vance. Such data is often based on asking people how much they work — but they lie. Too many of “his people” don’t do much work, Vance says, even if they do have jobs.

The introduction discusses an early job Vance had in a tile warehouse. A fellow employee was “Bob,” nineteen, with a pregnant girlfriend, who was also hired, as a clerical worker. These were good jobs, with excellent health benefits. But the two were chronically late or absent, and Bob spent much of the workday in lengthy “bathroom breaks.” Both were eventually fired. Bob was pissed.

So was Vance. For him, this tale exemplifies the fecklessness of such losers, always blaming others for predicaments really of their own making.

I’ve previously reviewed Robert Putnam’s book, Our Kids, exploring the socioeconomic divide between better educated and less educated Americans, and the difficulties of moving from one milieu to the other. Vance’s memoir illustrates what Putnam was talking about.

A key factor is the decline of stable two-parent families. In past eras, poverty was much worse (like in the Depression, with far less government help), yet even poor people mostly married and stayed married. No longer. Family life among less educated people has become frequently shambolic, with women cycling through parades of often useless men. Vance’s mom did that. He couldn’t even figure out whom to count as siblings. She abused drugs too.

“This was my world,” he writes, “a world of truly irrational behavior. We spend our way into the poor house . . . . [using] high-interest credit cards and payday loans . . . . Thrift is inimical to our being . . . . no investment to grow our wealth, no rainy-day fund . . . . Our homes are a chaotic mess. We scream and yell at each other . . . . At least one member of the family uses drugs . . . . we’ll hit and punch each other . . . . We don’t study as children, and we don’t make our kids study when we’re parents. Our kids perform poorly in school. We might get angry with them, but we never give them the tools — like peace and quiet at home — to succeed . . . . We choose not to work when we should be looking for jobs. Sometimes we’ll get a job but it won’t last. We’ll get fired for tardiness or for stealing . . . . or the smell of alcohol on our breath, or for taking five thirty-minute bathroom breaks per shift. We talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness: Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese. These are the lies we tell ourselves . . . . ”

Vance explains how family dysfunction is handed down from generation to generation. It’s more than just people mirroring their parents’ example. There are adverse developmental effects, impairing kids’ later ability to negotiate all aspects of living, particularly in maintaining healthy interpersonal relationships. Violent episodes in childhood trigger classic “fight or flight” responses which, when repeated enough, actually rewire one’s brain, making that stance a default mode — a chronically stressed and prickly mental state with, again, baleful effects on one’s future human relationships.

Vance would have fallen into the syndrome himself, but for “Mamaw” — his grandmother, who pretty much rescued him from life with his mother (her daughter). Mamaw was no paragon of virtue or refinement either, being a foul-mouthed product of the same culture — but of its earlier incarnation. A crucial difference: “I knew even as a child that there were two separate sets of mores and social pressures. My grandparents embodied one type: old-fashioned, quietly faithful, self-reliant, hardworking. My mother and, increasingly, the entire neighborhood, embodied another.” Mamaw gave Vance a stable, peaceful home, and helped him to see clearly a better path. He was able to shun all the kinds of dysfunction he writes about mainly because, with Mamaw, he was happy.

At least partially explaining all the social pathology is what Vance refers to as “learned helplessness.” (A concept developed by psychologist Martin Seligman.) People like “Bob” (of the tile job) act as they do because they don’t really see themselves as making choices. Instead it’s as though what happens to them is fate, beyond their control, so there is no point in making any kind of effort or resisting any inclination. Again, it’s blaming others, or the cosmos, for what befalls them. Overcoming this psychology, and developing a sense of personal agency, was a key element in Vance’s own rise to a better life.

Here’s another factor Vance discusses. Love of country — seriously — loomed large in his people’s lives. But that tie that bound them together as a community, akin to a religion, has been fraying too, succumbing to a deep distrust toward the nation’s institutions. Vance wrote before the 2016 election but these passages have great resonance for understanding today’s political picture. President Obama was seen as an alien; quintessentially the product of a social system that’s not working for Vance’s people. Indeed, Obama’s personal success was a mirror to their own failure. Conspiracy theories about him (like birtherism), and other such nonsense, gain credence when the mainstream media is one more societal institution no longer trusted. Politicians too, of course, are distrusted; while many of them promote the idea that the economy is rigged as well and, on the right, the idea that it’s all the government’s fault. A toxic contrapuntal. “You can’t believe these things,” Vance says, “and participate meaningfully in society. Social psychologists have shown that group belief is a powerful motivator in performance.” Vance’s people have lost their sense of belonging and loyalty to the American project.

We can yearn for some magic bullet to fix this; some government initiative perhaps. But Vance rejects that fantasy. Indeed, he sees past government efforts as part of the problem, talking about how hard-working people watch their tax dollars go to support, in these communities, an awful lot of others who don’t work, even buying things with food stamps those working folks can’t afford. This too undermines communitarian social solidarity; and Vance cites it as a key factor in his region’s political shift away from Democrats.

It all feeds into a basic attitude of existential pessimism. Most blacks and Hispanics, Vance notes, report optimism about their future; working class whites, not so much. And he sees that as something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So this is a tale not of progress but of its opposite, regress. The humanist and optimist in me, looking at the broad global picture, over the centuries, sees a great human capability to progress, and great progress actually achieved. But it’s never locked in. We also have ample capability for squandering it and regressing.

So we come back to the question we started with.  How much, in the end, is people’s own fault? It’s the old question of luck versus pluck. I did a lot right in my own life, and could say it was brains and character, yet realize that having those characteristics was just luck. Vance confronts the issue with particular regard to his mother. He recognizes all the demons to which his mother was exposed. “But at some point . . . you have to stop making excuses and take responsibility.” That’s what he did with his own life. His book is powerful testimony to how hard it can be. Yet it also makes clear that Vance is not unique. Not seeing ourselves as hapless victims is the best of being human. We do not succumb; we surmount. 

Turkey’s tragedy. France next?

April 17, 2017

Yet another bad day for optimists and believers in progress. It really feels like the lights are going out.

Turkey matters, a lot. This key nation has been a NATO bulwark, and poster boy for the idea that democracy and Islam can be compatible. That idea just took a huge hit with Turkey’s referendum vote approving President Erdogan’s proposed new constitution, basically abolishing checks on his power and making him a dictator.

How could anyone vote for that? But Erdogan already had a strong core of voters who back him no matter what (sound familiar?), who feel forgotten by the country’s elites (sound familiar?), and religious fundamentalists (ditto). And then he exploited last year’s coup attempt to whip up a nationalist hysteria against legions of imagined enemies, domestic and foreign. The constitutional change was presented as a way to smack down those bad guys once and for all. Indeed, anyone questioning this was demonized as an enemy of the people.

Erdogan

This was accompanied by a vast repression. With the coup attempt as pretext, Erdogan has jailed tens of thousands, and around a hundred thousand others have been sacked. This includes huge numbers of not only military personnel, but lawyers, judges, journalists, politicians, civil servants, teachers; a gigantic witch-hunt persecuting anyone whose fealty to the regime is questioned. And of course no criticism of the proposed constitution was tolerated. Opponents were cowed into silence. Erodgan had already destroyed independent press and media in Turkey.

Evet means yes

Considering all this, it may seem remarkable that half the country still had the intestinal fortitude to vote “no.” Yet given the ugly climate of repression and fear Erdogan has created, it’s sobering that half the country would vote to endorse and even worsen it.

An optimistic hope is that having finally achieved his long-sought aim, Erdogan will ease up. But giving bad men more power does not make them better. Erdogan actually started out in 2003 as a good guy, doing a lot right. But then power corrupted him, making him a monster of megalomania. He’s already shown what extremes he’s capable of, even under the old system with some constitutional brakes. Removing those brakes is insane.

Suffering particularly is Turkey’s persecuted Kurdish minority. In his earlier, better incarnation, Erdogan was moving toward resolving those ethnic tensions. But then he switched back to violence, as part of his program to foment nationalist hysteria. Now the repression of Kurds is utterly vicious. This too is insanity for Turkey’s future.

The next light flickering is France’s. I wrote recently about its presidential election, whose first round is April 23. Conventional wisdom says Marine Le Pen, the Trumplike populist, will place first, but surely lose the subsequent run-off. Conventional wisdom had said Trump could not win either.

Pray with Macron

When I wrote last, it seemed the likeliest second round would be Le Pen against Emmanuel Macron, whose economics are rational. But I have no confidence in the French voting uncharacteristically for such a candidate. And indeed the one now surging in the polls is Jean-Luc Melenchon, a far left firebrand, backed by the Communist party, who appeals to France’s inveterate romanticist hostility to globalism, trade, and markets. A run-off between Le Pen and Melenchon — Skylla and Charybdis — could well be curtains for the European Union.

Putin and the Kremlin have been messing with France’s election too, trying to undermine Macron and boost Le Pen — for the same reason they backed Trump — to cripple an adversary nation. This should, in a rational world, put French voters off Le Pen in droves. But every day it seems the world grows less rational.

The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen

April 2, 2017

What is more precious than freedom and independence?

The answer: nothing.

But this has a sardonic double meaning; and that’s key to The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel of the Vietnam War and its aftermath.

Nguyen is a Vietnam-born American. The book’s narrator (never named) is the bastard child of an American priest and a Vietnamese girl. Toward war’s end he is a close aide to a South Vietnamese general in charge of the police. But the narrator is the “sympathizer” of the title; i.e., a Communist sympathizer. More, he is actually working for the other side, as a mole.

Nguyen is a wonderful writer. Not just a good story-teller; the prose itself scintillates. Sentences are not given flatly, but usually with a wry kick. At one point he refers to beer tasting like baby’s piss. A lesser writer would just say piss; but that’s banal; comparing beer to baby’s piss is not. (Though even if one knows the taste of piss, would the particular flavor of a baby’s be recognizable?)

There is a delicious sex scene between the narrator in youth and a squid (destined for dinner). It recalled the episode in Portnoy’s Complaint with a piece of liver. I’ve always liked liver; I’ve never liked squid. But Thanh’s writing was so erotically charged it made me want to give squid another try.

And how about this passage:

“The Chinese might have invented gunpowder and the noodle, but the West had invented cleavage, with profound if underappreciated implications. A man gazing on semi-exposed breasts was not only engaging in lasciviousness, he was also meditating, even if unawares, on the visual embodiment of the verb ‘to cleave,’ which meant both to cut apart and to put together. A woman’s cleavage perfectly illustrated this double and contradictory meaning, the breasts two separate entities with one identity. The double meaning was also present in how cleavage separated a woman from a man and yet drew him to her with the irresistible force of sliding down a slippery slope. Man had no equivalent, except, perhaps, for the only kind of male cleavage most women truly cared for, the open and closing of a well stuffed billfold.”

This meditation (prompted of course by the narrator’s experiencing “the gravitational pull” of a woman’s display) continues further. And its cynicism is wholly characteristic. The book is mainly about politics, not sex, and reads very cynically indeed.

That was me (1973 photo by Jack Henke)

In April of 1975 the Communists suddenly win the war. Despite actually working for them, the narrator stays with the General and his entourage escaping Saigon, for America, by air. That chaotic evacuation is evocatively described. On that day I happened to be typing away on a fantasy novel, coincidentally with a comparable episode. The radio was on. And a sentence I heard on a newscast slid, perfect and unaltered, directly into my manuscript, as though I was taking dictation. One of life’s weird moments. (The novel, Children of the Dragon, was published by Avon in 1978.)

Nguyen’s narrator, after coming to America, gets involved as a consultant on Vietnamese authenticity for an unnamed “auteur” making a movie, shot in the Philippines, scathingly satirizing Francis Ford Coppola and Apocalypse Now. Meantime, he also continues doing dirty work (including killings) for the General, as the latter organizes an expatriate army to reinvade Vietnam (this really happened); while the narrator continues as a spy, reporting everything to his Communist superiors. Eventually (against their wishes), he joins the General’s ragtag force on its doomed mission, is promptly captured, and despite his mole role he’s sent to a “re-education” camp.

And so we get the obligatory “enhanced interrogation” scenes. He isn’t exactly tortured. Not exactly. But this section of the book is not for the squeamish.

I’ve mentioned cynicism. That certainly pervades the Apocalypse Now sequence. But unsurprisingly the main canvas for cynicism is America’s war role itself. Yes, that history is not entirely glorious. War is hell, and a lot of bad things happen in war. But I remain a rare unrepentant defender of our Vietnam involvement. We sought to help an independent nation, with at least some degree of freedom, against aggression aiming to impose a Communist tyranny. The justness of that cause was borne out by the aftermath, in which two million Vietnamese “boat people” risked their lives, and many lost them, trying to escape what we fought to prevent.

So I found it grating to read the narrator’s words, so full of corrosive cynicism toward America. “After all,” he says, “nothing was more American than wielding a gun and committing oneself to die for freedom and independence, unless it was wielding that gun to take away someone else’s freedom and independence.” Those words again. And your standard empty anti-capitalist blather. Set against misplaced romanticism about the Communist cause. It was easy to infer that the author was using the narrator as a vehicle to express his own viewpoint.

But not so fast. The narrator is not the author, but a character, and ironically enough, he does get re-educated in that re-education camp. The reality behind the slogans peeps through for him (and the reader). At long last, he grasps the subversive alternate meaning to the catch-phrase formula: nothing is more precious than freedom and independence — communist style. He realizes that’s what the war was fought for — for nothing.

He becomes a boat-person himself, rating his chances of survival at fifty-fifty. But those, he decides, “are excellent odds, as the chances of one ultimately dying are one hundred percent.” (Something we should always remember.)

And finally, he declares, “We remain that most hopeful of creatures, a revolutionary in search of a revolution.”

The health care debacle

March 26, 2017

Have you finally had it yet — with the incompetence and dysfunction; the war on truth; the conflicts of interest; the irresponsibility; the ties to Russia’s criminal regime; the just plain craziness?

It would be a joke if it weren’t sickening. The one signature Republican campaign promise — indeed, a downright hysterical vow — to repeal Obamacare — they’ve fluffed. Over seven years, they voted around 50 times to repeal it, just phony posturing without control of the White House. Now they do control it, plus the Senate and House, and they can’t even manage to get to a vote.*

And blame the Democrats! Trump’s fulminating afterwards was simply deranged, saying “explosion” of the health insurance system (a wild exaggeration) will be their problem (“now they own it”), and they’re bound to come running to the White House to make a deal to fix it. As if the Great Deal Maker could consummate a deal with Democrats when he couldn’t even do it among his own Republicans. And as if Democrats control Congress. And as if it’s not actually the Republicans’ problem because they’re the ones in charge now.

Indeed, Trump even says failure of his very bad health care bill may be a good thing, not because it was a bad bill, but because now we can (somehow, later) get that beautiful, tremendous, wonderful program he’s still bizarrely fantasizing about. As if he actually had any idea what such a program might actually be, never mind how to get it passed.

And never mind about health care anyway now. After seven years of obsessing about it, why, we’ll just forget about it and move on. To tax reform, perhaps. That should be easy enough to solve, right?

Before his health bill collapsed, Trump had lamented, “It’s all politics.” Well, duh. The problem is that this asinine blowhard came in with zero understanding of the political system, his ego too inflated to imagine he needed to learn anything, believing he knows everything, and all our problems are because everybody else is just stupid.

We’ve elected an insane creep as president. Doing so was insane. How does this end? How much damage will it first do to America, and the world?

* I was actually hoping they’d at least ditch the tax penalty, which would have helped me and my wife. But not even that could they accomplish.

The health care travesty

March 21, 2017

For seven years, Republicans pursued Obamacare with the obsessiveness of Captain Ahab pursuing the white whale. Now they resemble a dog chasing a car, and catching it. Or Captain Ahab tangled up on the whale’s back and going down with it.

What they hated so much about Obamacare was never quite clear, except perhaps for the “Obama” part. It was based, after all, on what was originally a Republican concept, put forward as a market-based alternative to “socialized medicine.” Indeed, to get something done about all the Americans without proper health care, Obama had to give up the politically difficult government option, and to buy off the insurance industry by giving it what seemed a very sweet deal (selling more insurance).

Anyhow, for all their obsessing, Republicans never did have an alternative plan. Now their bluff is called. And, as a genius recently said, “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.” Yet, whereas Obamacare was hammered out through an agonizing months-long process of give-and-take with input by numerous interested parties, Republicans have skipped all that, and whipped up a bill in the dead of night. Do you suppose they’ve really thought through all its consequences?

Trump had been saying his beautiful, tremendous, but unspecified, imaginary health care plan would cover everybody; with better care too, and at lower prices. Ha ha. Don’t we know by now that Trump just says stuff, with no thinking, or regard for truth, reality, or decency? Of course the now-unveiled GOP plan doesn’t cover everybody. In fact it would kick many millions out of the health care system. It replaces direct subsidies with tax credits — mainly so they can call it different from Obamacare. But it will give low income people much less help. While furthermore, removing healthier ones from the insurance pool will inevitably force premiums up. Most Americans will pay more for less coverage and less care. Older citizens will be particularly screwed. While the richest get tax cuts. When will foolish Trump lovers wake up that they’ve been conned?

Obamacare, at its heart, was based on making younger and healthier folks subsidize the old and sick by requiring everyone (on pain of tax penalties) to buy insurance . This is often defended on the basis that that’s how insurance works – like with car insurance, where safe drivers pay into the system, to cover accidents by others, while if you do have an accident, it’s there for you too.

Wellll . . . not so fast. Actually the concept of insurance is to spread a risk that the buyer wouldn’t want to shoulder alone. A house fire has low probability but unacceptable financial consequences, so you insure against it, spreading that risk among many others doing the same. But that’s voluntary, based on your own evaluation of the risk versus the cost of insurance.* You don’t buy fire insurance to help others, but because it’s worth it to you.

This original insurance concept has gotten perverted in the health care sphere. Like fire insurance, health insurance should cover only major episodes one couldn’t otherwise afford, not every routine little outlay. Doing the latter has meant that health care doesn’t act like a market, with consumers shopping among competing providers; a basic reason why prices have gotten so out of line. And it’s not surprising that Obamacare’s forcing people to buy such insurance, that they don’t judge to be a good deal for themselves, meets so much resistance.

But look. We are a very rich society. The basic idea that we, as a society, should take care of the less fortunate, and make sure nobody suffers unnecessarily, is a fundamental moral concept that most Americans would accept. That’s why even so amoral a creature as Trump would blurt it out (however disingenuously).

We have to come up with a way for every American to have at least minimally decent basic health care. The Republicans are not doing this; they are going in the other direction entirely. While the Trump-Putin administration’s proposed budget gives the Pentagon more billions to waste, and billions for the wall boondoggle, paid for by eviscerating everything else, including all kinds of government help for the less fortunate.

2012 Democratic campaign ad

For years, some Democrat partisans caricatured Republicans as heartless toward those less fortunate, as actually desiring to destroy programs like Medicare and Social Security, to keep poor people poor, and even to make middle class people poor, all just to (somehow) benefit the rich. It was a false caricature before. But Trump and today’s Republicans are making it true.

* Though the bank may require it, to give you a mortgage, because otherwise, if the house burns, you wouldn’t be able to meet your obligations.