Archive for the ‘World affairs’ Category

Bolivia, China, and 1984

November 12, 2019

Bolivia’s longest-serving President Evo Morales was first elected in 2006, a left-winger, of indigenous background, former head of the Coca growers union. He held a referendum to change the constitution to allow him to run for a fourth term. Voters said no. He ran again anyway. Typically for such autocrats, he got a packed court to legalize this. But voters said no again. When Morales tried to fiddle the election results, huge protests ensued. On Sunday, the military — Morales had not consolidated his co-opting it — finally said he must go. And Morales actually did step down; as did three others in his line of succession.

So it’s still possible for citizens to get rid of a seemingly entrenched regime. This is very encouraging. Yet the global trend is unfortunately contrary. Such regimes are perfecting the techniques for staying in power, neutralizing opposition. Look at Venezuela. The Maduro gang is literally destroying the country, impoverishing the populace, yet still it seems impregnable. There, unlike in Bolivia, the army is totally in bed with the regime. They’ve got the guns, and aren’t squeamish about using them.

It also helps to have at least some citizen support. In Venezuela, there are actually still a lot of people who actually believe the regime’s propaganda and back it. And they go into the streets and use organized violence against regime opponents.

It is indeed dismaying how so many people, everywhere, can be so misguided in their political allegiances. Look at Brazil. Its last presidential election had a run-off between right-wing and left-wing extremists — because in the first round few people would vote for the sensible, responsible moderate choice. So they wound up with an absolutely terrible person. The Brazilian Trump. Then there’s the Philippine Trump. Not to mention, of course, the American one.

But the godfather of authoritarian regimes, consummating the techniques for holding unchallengeable power, is China’s. PBS recently ran an exploration of Artificial Intelligence; one segment, titled “The Surveillance State,” focused on China’s use of AI to suppress any and all dissension. In its largely Muslim province of Uighuristan, it employs AI to intensively profile every citizen (or, more accurately, subject), and anyone suspect has been put into “re-education camps.” It’s estimated that that’s a million people. Meantime, nationwide, China is perfecting facial recognition technology to keep tabs on everyone, deploying a “social credit” system giving every inhabitant a score for subservience. Those with low scores are being treated accordingly. To make the whole system truly pervasive, China is deploying — wait for it — surveillance cameras — six hundred million of them.

Hong Kong is in revolt against all this. It’s widely feared that this must end with China’s regime violently cracking down, like in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Maybe; but I suspect that will not happen because it’s not necessary for China’s regime. There is simply no way for Hong Kongers to gain the democracy they seek. The Beijing bosses can just sit tight doing nothing. And the vast majority of China’s population is actually already so brainwashed that they support the regime — fervently —against the Hong Kongers.

Nineteen Eighty-Four may have been too optimistic. At the book’s end it was clear it was looking back on a regime that was no more.

Trump and Republicans: how vile can it get?

October 25, 2019

Before Trump took office, I wrote that power doesn’t make bad men better. Since, I’ve kept repeating: it will get worse. And so it goes.

Trump’s every word about the Syria situation perverts reality. He now says he’s lifting sanctions on Turkey because they’ve “agreed” to stop their military action. The action Trump green-lighted, and called a great victory for civilization. Actually, Turkey is ending it because it’s achieved its aims. But Trump boasts Turkey’s “agreement” means the picture in the region is now one shaped by America. Actually, it’s a Turkish agreement with Russia, America removed from the picture.

Trump meantime pats himself on the back for “bringing our troops home.” Actually, they’re redeployed elsewhere in the Middle East.

He says he’s saved thousands of lives. Actually, hundreds have been killed and over 160,000 forced to flee. Trump has oceans of blood on his hands. The atrocities apparently continue despite the supposed cease-fire. It’s a horrific human tragedy. He says it’s a U.S. foreign policy triumph. Actually, it’s a giant foreign policy debacle. Betraying our long time allies*,  rewarding the mass murderer Assad and dictatorial Erdogan. ISIS ranks are replenished. Others in the world will now think twice before trusting America about anything. Trump’s betrayal is explicable, if at all, only as serving the interests of our enemy Russia. It is treason simpliciter, and merits impeachment.

But Trump’s being impeached for a different abuse of power. Though one Trump apologist is quoted saying abuse of power is not a crime.

There’s an old lawyer line: if the facts support you, pound the facts. If the law supports you, pound the law. If neither, pound the table.

With facts and law increasingly leaving Trumpsters with no place to hide, they’re pounding the table, frantically, attacking the legitimacy of the impeachment process. Trump says it’s a lynching. Lynching entailed a mob hanging a usually innocent black person, normally with hideous torture, including cutting off genitals and forcing the victim to eat them.

But speaking of mobs, a mob of Republican congressmen literally stormed a secure room to disrupt for hours a committee hearing therein. The hearing was being conducted behind closed doors in a secure facility to protect sensitive national security information under discussion. That’s standard congressional practice. The Republican mob used actual violence and breached security by bringing in forbidden electronic devices. Their pretext was bogus, as if Republicans were being somehow shut out of the hearing; in fact, of course, Republican members of the committee were always in the room, with full rights to question witnesses and otherwise participate. And open public hearings on everything are scheduled to follow.

The more undeniable Trump’s monstrousness becomes, the more unhinged do Republicans become in their denial. Their mob violence was intended to distract attention from the testimony of Ambassador William Taylor, which was devastating and shocking. Taylor was a professional brought out of retirement by Pompeo to man the Ukraine embassy after our ambassador, Marie Jovanovich, was improperly removed at Trump’s order. Taylor’s testimony detailed how Trump improperly outsourced U.S. Ukraine policy to a rogue actor, Giuliani, because nobody in the proper chain of command would do the slimy stuff Trump wanted. Namely, extorting Ukraine’s complicity in smearing Biden and Democrats as a quid pro quo for releasing $391 million in Congressionally-mandated military aid that Trump was improperly withholding. (Aid to help Ukraine fight  Russia!)

Another effort to distract from Ukraine is Attorney General Barr’s now opening a “criminal investigation” of the Mueller probe’s origin. Trump always called it a hoax and a witch-hunt, based on various absurd conspiracy theories. Now his stooge Barr is resurrecting all that nonsense, launching an investigation of his own Justice Department. This  is a hoax and a witch-hunt. “History repeats, first as tragedy, then as farce.”

If Trump’s actions concerning Ukraine weren’t wrong, then the word has no meaning. No president before ever did anything remotely so malign. The impeachment inquiry is being lawfully conducted by the lawfully elected House of Representatives, pursuant to express constitutional provisions. There are no violations of due process or anyone’s rights. What is being revealed, rather, is destruction by Trump and Republicans of every principle this country used to stand for.

I was a Republican for 53 years. What has become of the party is tragic. It must be defeated.

* Correction: I wrote previously that the Kurds had lost 11,000 men fighting ISIS on our behalf. Should have said “men and women.” Sorry.

 

Impeachment and the party of rule-breaking

October 17, 2019

Trump’s Northern Syria retreat is shredding U.S. national interests. Our longtime Kurdish allies, thrown to the wolves, are now aligning with the Syrian regime and its Russian backers, empowered together with Iran. Likewise ISIS, with thousands of its fighters, formerly imprisoned by Kurds, back in action. After first greenlighting Turkey’s attack, now Trump seeks to punish it; Europeans too denounce it. This endangers their deal for Turkey’s harboring millions of Syrian refugees. If they’re expelled into Europe, the political fallout there will be ugly. While the newly exploding Syrian humanitarian nightmare is making yet more refugees — 160,000 fleeing at last count. What a stupid unnecessary disaster.*

But Trump is being impeached for a different foreign policy travesty. Unjustifiably withholding vital military aid, voted by Congress, to extort Ukraine’s leader to help Trump’s re-election by concocting smears against an opponent. There’s no question of fact or even interpretation; Trump’s own account of the key phone call amounts to a confession. And that call, we now know, was part of a broader plot to suborn Ukraine. Giuliani played a key role; our Ukraine ambassador was fired for not playing ball.

Not only is seeking foreign help in a U.S. election flatly illegal, the Constitution furthermore specifies bribery as one impeachable offense. Trump clearly solicited a bribe — in the form of election help — in exchange for releasing the aid. Compounded by attempted cover-up, and defiance of Congressional authority. The House of Representatives has no choice about impeaching, it’s a duty. And it’s not a “coup” or attempt to undo the last election. The Constitution prescribes elections; it also prescribes impeachment for serious misconduct.

So will Republican senators vote to convict Trump? No. Over 80% of Republican voters still love him, despite everything. The Economist’s “Lexington” columnist, on U.S. politics, nods to the idea that Republican officeholders actually hate much of what Trump is about, but political cowardice keeps them in line. However, based on his conversations with these folks, it seems they actually don’t object to Trump’s behavior all that much.

Republican senators would actually be smart to unite and take the opportunity of impeachment to rid themselves of this Trump affliction. But they won’t because they’ve drunk his Kool-Aid. Lexington quotes social psychologist Jonathan Haidt that Republicans “have now dug themselves into a position that they can’t leave without admitting that they sold out morally.” A Devil’s bargain.

I used to blame our political divisiveness more on lefty Democrats demonizing Republicans. But now Republicans have proven them right after all, living up to their worst stereotypes, and repaying the demonization with a vengeance. It’s a relatively new and scary feature of America’s political landscape. The idea of politics as blood sport, and anything — anything — is justified for your side to win. Rules shmules. Laws shmaws. Truth shmooth.

This goes with the idea that the other side does the same — no, worse. An idea now implacably embedded in, particularly, Republican heads. Thus every objection to Trump administration misconduct is met with “what about Hillary? What about Bill?” or the like. There’s even a name for this: whataboutism. This kind of thinking defines today’s Republicanism.

Were the Clintons angels? Certainly not; as a Republican myself I criticized them plenty. And one might point out that two wrongs don’t make a right. Yet only a mind pathologically blinded by partisanship could equate Clinton transgressions with Trump’s monstrously greater ones. (Let alone deny the latter altogether.) The Clintons skirted rules — Trump drives a Mack Truck through them.

He’s found he can flout not only our unwritten societal norms of civic conduct, but even actual laws, with impunity. He’s done it throughout his life, and contempt for rules and standards is an organizing principle of his presidency. This does not make him some sort of admirable free spirit like a ’60s counterculture character. It’s deeply corrosive of the glue that holds society together and keeps us from barbarism. No democracy can endure this way.

It’s true that while Republicans imagine Democrats are worse, Democrats see Republicans as worse. Yet in fact there’s no symmetry between the parties here. Because Democrats do not, in their minds, justify any rule-breaking on the basis that Republicans are worse. They don’t justify it at all. But Republicans do justify it, based on that deranged notion of equivalence. They actually do believe two wrongs somehow make a right.

Lexington also cites a poll, shortly after the 2016 vote, wherein two out of three Republicans agreed that America needed a leader “willing to break some rules if that’s what it takes.” An even greater percentage today, he thinks, would say that, based on their total support for the rule breaker in chief.

Lexington furthermore suggests that Republicans, deep down, realize that with their shrinking base of older, whiter, less urban and more religious voters, they cannot maintain power through playing fair. Thus their despicable voter suppression tactics. While Democrats, in contrast, believe that in fair elections with broad voter participation, they’ll prevail.

The column concludes that how Republican senators vote on impeachment “will decide more than the president’s fate. It will decide whether theirs is now the party of rule-breaking.”

* Erdogan would not have invaded without Trump’s assent. As usual with foreign dictators, the Great Dealmaker got nothing in exchange.

 

 

Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed: good news story

October 12, 2019

Ethiopia’s leader Abiy Ahmed has received the Nobel Peace Prize. Those prize choices sometimes seem strange, but not this one, it’s a bull’s eye. I’d been meaning to write about Abiy, as a rare good news story among national leaders; but attention gets monopolized by our own vile one.

Ethiopia’s longtime Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown in 1974 by a brutal Communist gang (“The Derg”). They were overthrown in 1991, by less brutal rebels. Meantime, after a long insurgency, Eritrea broke away; though the Eritreans had fought together with the new Ethiopian leaders against the Communists, they soon feel out. Eritrea’s boss, Isaias Afwerki, instituted one of the world’s worst tyrannies and fought a pointlessly bloody border war with Ethiopia. Whose own regime then faced enormous protests, and responded with much repression.

Enter Abiy Ahmed, becoming Ethiopia’s prime minister in April 2018. He swiftly made peace with Eritrea, even went to meet with Isaias; this is what he got the Nobel for. But Abiy’s done far more, transforming the Ethiopian regime’s ugly repressive character, making it more open and democratic, freeing the press, and thousands of political prisoners, some of these former dissidents now even brought into government.

Why do this — unlike so many African leaders? Most humans act, one way or another, to serve their own well-being. Dictators dictate because they can; power and wealth and all it can buy, a fleet of Rolls-Royces (and women), people licking your boots, provide undoubted satisfactions. But, for a different sort of person, there can be different and actually greater satisfactions. Like actually doing good. This can serve one’s psychological needs better than power, wealth, and sycophancy. An Abiy can enjoy a more rewarding life than a Mobutu or a Mugabe. Maybe it’s surprising more leaders don’t see this.

I am realist enough to know how often good news goes bad. A former Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, was a hero of mine, until she wasn’t. But I’ll take good news where I can and root for Abiy to keep up the good work.

Not everything in Ethiopia is now perfect, nothing ever can be. And with Abiy doing so much so fast, inevitably there’s pushback; a lot of people who had power are losing it. There’s a lot of ethnic tension and violence. Recently there was an episode of armed revolt. But Abiy seems to be riding the storm, continuing to make Ethiopia a better place.

Can America follow its example?

Trump ends U.S. protection of Kurds, inviting slaughter by Turks

October 9, 2019

A Kurdish army (originating from Iraqi Kurdistan) has occupied an enclave in Northern Syria, as key allies of the U.S. in the battle against ISIS, in which they’ve lost 11,000 men. We’ve been backing them up with U.S. troops.

Kurds are also a big ethnic group in Turkey, persecuted by its dictator-president Erdogan, who labels all critics “terrorists.” The situation in Turkey is ugly. Erdogan sees the Kurds in Syria as potential allies of their Turkish brethren, so wants them crushed.

Trump tweeted that Turkey better behave itself in Syria or he’ll destroy their economy — while at the same time ordering our troops out of Syria and thereby actually giving Erdogan a green light for his military invasion, now underway, to slaughter our own Kurdish allies.

This Trump action was preceded by a phone call with Erdogan, but no consultation with national security officials, or other allies, nor even prior notice to the Pentagon. Also no thought about the thousands of ISIS fighters held prisoner by the Kurds in Syria.

It suits not only Turkey’s dictator, but also Russia’s and Syria’s, helping Putin and Assad in their effort to destroy all Assad’s foes and consolidate his regime. Turkey will be doing their dirty work; further destabilizing the area, and bringing on a new bloodbath. There will be many civilian victims, and not only Kurds — including Christians. Trump now says he doesn’t endorse the Turks’ assault and again cautions them to be nice; but everyone knows by now his words mean nothing.

There is no plausible story for how Trump’s action could serve America’s interests. It certainly undermines them, and our national security. A monstrous betrayal of our allies that shreds our international credibility, and makes us complicit in atrocities.

This shocking travesty corroborates the fact that the president is literally insane. And while he shamefully spews the word “treason,” he’s proven he himself is the treasonous tool of foreign dictators. It’s exactly why one of them, Putin, subverted our 2016 election to get Trump in office.

Republicans love calling themselves “patriots.” History will judge harshly.

Greta Thunberg is wrong

October 1, 2019

Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate warrior, berates the world (“How dare you?”) for pursuing a “fairy tale” of continued economic growth — putting money ahead of combating global warming. A previous local newspaper commentary hit every phrase of the litany: “species decimation, rainforest destruction . . . ocean acidification . . . fossil-fuel-guzzling, consumer-driven . . . wreaked havoc . . . blind to [the] long-term implication . . . driven by those who would profit . . . our mad, profligate  . . . warmongering . . . plasticization and chemical fertilization . . . failed to heed the wise admonition of our indigenous elders . . . .”

The litany of misanthropes hating their own species and especially their civilization.

Lookit. There’s no free lunch. Call it “raping the planet” if you like, but we could never have risen from the stone age without utilizing as fully as possible the natural resources available. And if you romanticize our pre-modern existence (“harmony with nature” and all), well, you’d probably be dead now, because most earlier people didn’t make thirty. And those short lives were nasty and brutish. There was no ibuprofen.

This grimness pretty much persisted until the Industrial Revolution. Only now, by putting resource utilization in high gear, could ordinary folks begin to live decently. People like that commentator fantasize giving it up. Or, more fantastical, our somehow still living decently without consuming the resources making it possible.

These are often the same voices bemoaning world poverty. Oblivious to how much poverty has actually declined — thanks to all the resource utilization they condemn. And to how their program would deny decent lives to the billion or so still in extreme poverty. Hating the idea of pursuing economic growth may be fine for those living in affluent comfort. Less so for the world’s poorest.

Note, as an example, the mention of “chemical fertilization.” This refers to what’s called the “green revolution” — revolutionizing agriculture to improve yields and combat hunger, especially in poorer nations. It’s been estimated this has saved a couple billion lives. And of course made a big dent in global poverty.

But isn’t “chemical fertilization,” and economic development more generally, bad for the environment? Certainly! Again, no free lunch. In particular, the climate change we’re hastening will, as Thunberg says, likely have awful future impacts. Yet bad as that is, it’s not actually humanity’s biggest challenge. The greater factors affecting human well-being will remain the age-old prosaic problems of poverty, disease, malnutrition, conflict, and ignorance. Economic growth helps us battle all those. We should not cut it back for the sake of climate. In fact, growing economic resources will help us deal with climate change too. It’s when countries are poor that they most abuse the environment; affluence improves environmental stewardship. And it’s poor countries who will suffer most from climate change, and will most need the resources provided by economic growth to cope with it.

Of course we must do everything reasonably possible to minimize resource extraction, environmental impacts, and the industrial carbon emissions that accelerate global warming. But “reasonably possible” means not at the expense of lower global living standards. Bear in mind that worldwide temperatures will continue to rise even if we eliminate carbon emissions totally (totally unrealistic, of course). Emission reductions can moderate warming only slightly. That tells us to focus less on emissions and more on preparing to adapt to higher temperatures. And more on studying geo-engineering possibilities for removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and otherwise re-cooling the planet. Yet most climate warriors actually oppose such efforts, instead obsessing exclusively on carbon reduction, in a misguided jihad against economic growth, as though to punish humanity for “raping the planet.”

Most greens are also dead set against nuclear power, imagining that renewables like solar and wind energy can fulfill all our needs. Talk about fairy tales. Modern nuclear power plants are very safe and emit no greenhouse gases. We cannot hope to bend down the curve of emissions without greatly expanded use of nuclear power. Radioactive waste is an issue. But do you think handling that presents a bigger challenge than to replace the bulk of existing power generation with renewables?

I don’t believe we’re a race of planet rapists. Our resource utilization and economic development has improved quality of life — the only thing that can ultimately matter. The great thing about our species, enabling us to be so spectacularly successful, is our ability to adapt and cope with what nature throws at us. Climate change and environmental degradation are huge challenges. But we can surmount them. Without self-flagellation.

Impeachment and its aftermath

September 28, 2019

The whistleblower’s complaint is devastating. Read it. A thoroughly researched, detailed report,* showing Trump abused his office, broke the law, and harmed national security by extorting a foreign leader to get dirt on a political opponent. The White House immediately realized the problem, with a cover-up to “lock down” normal records pertaining to the Zelenskiy phone call (not the only call covered up). Only the whistleblower report forced disclosure.

The phone call was preceded by Trump’s order to suspend hundreds of millions in aid to Ukraine. For that, he has since given two successive and inconsistent explanations. Both shown to be lies. The State Department judges that interfering with this vital aid harmed national security, by impairing Ukraine’s defense against Russia, and compromising our relationship with an ally.

The aid suspension was not explicitly mentioned in the phone call. But surely such a consequential matter loomed over it when Trump told Zelenskiy “do us a favor.” This was clearly extortion. When Zelenskiy denied he’d been pressured, he was sitting beside Trump in a hostage video, visibly still under pressure.

It was more than just the one phone call. The story also includes, for example, the firing of America’s ambassador to Ukraine, a professional foreign service officer, for phony reasons, when the real aim was to advance Trump’s effort at enlisting Ukraine in smearing a political opponent. Trump, in the call, continued to trash, and even threaten consequences for, our own ambassador.

His calling the whistleblower a biased political hack, “almost a spy,” and traitor, is also ridiculous and disgraceful. He actually even openly threatened the person, implying a death penalty. This apparently violates the federal law protecting whistleblowers. The report makes clear this is a conscientious public servant deeply disturbed by what was happening. That it was a CIA officer detailed to the White House adds credibility. Trump’s own (acting) Intelligence Director, in his Congressional testimony, vouched for the complaint’s propriety. Considering the risks he/she faced, the whistleblower is a courageous hero.

The phone call also shows Trump still continues his deranged obsession with Hillary’s e-mails, which he brought up.

By the way, that Ukrainian prosecutor, whose firing Biden (among many others) urged, was himself part of the problem, actually obstructing Ukraine’s anti-corruption efforts. The whistleblower report details this too. It’s now confirmed by Ukraine’s former foreign minister, directly contradicting Trump’s false statements. (There’s still not a shred of evidence of Biden wrongdoing.)

Trump’s lashing out, calling the entire news media liars, saying Representative Adam Schiff “lies, lies, lies,” and on and on, is disgusting. He will say anything — absolutely anything. His own credibility is below zero.

Notice that for all the Republicans crying “witch hunt!” — none actually defends what Trump did.

The House will impeach him. Will it just be Ukraine, or the entire vast rap sheet? The latter is tempting, but it’s probably best to focus on the one crime that’s so clear and horrible, giving Republicans less space to muddy the issue.

What generally constrained politicians’ conduct in the past was not so much the law per se as a basic cultural standard. Trump either never got the memo, or else saw it as no barrier, and drove a truck through it. The lesson this teaches is dire for our society’s future. Impeachment at least tries to send a corrective message.

McConnell now says (there was doubt) the Senate would in fact hold a trial. Why not, when he’s got the votes for acquittal? While Republicans have only a slim Senate majority, it takes two-thirds to remove a president. They won’t deny Trump the chance to crow “exoneration.”

A rational McConnell might tell his caucus: “Rather than go down with a sinking ship, let’s all be together in voting the fucker out. Our own damning verdict should break the spell he has over our voters. We can take our chances with Pence. At least we’ll be able to look our grandkids in the eye.”

But Republicans are too far gone for such sanity.

So impeachment will fail, making the move politically hazardous for Democrats. But political calculation isn’t everything — there’s such a thing as civic duty. Faced with presidential crimes of this magnitude, House Democrats will be doing the right thing.** If Republicans refuse to do likewise, refusing to put the country above loyalty to (or fear of) a very bad man, it’s on them. But it will disgrace America.

And if you think we’ve had vicious political polarization, just wait. The coming year was already going to be a Big Ugly, with Trump devoid of scruples doing and saying anything to win (assisted by Russian disinformation). Of course an impeachment drama will escalate the partisan frenzy.

I have supported Biden, believing him the best positioned to defeat Trump, but also because his moderate, sensible viewpoint would make him a good president. The latter remains true even if the former is impaired; the Ukraine smoke probably hurts Biden even with no fire. (Republicans are already running anti-Biden ads with this smear.) This boosts Warren’s chances, which were already rising.

Misogyny will work against Warren in the general election, of course, as will her left-wing positioning. Her plan to abolish the private health insurance of 160 million Americans may thrill lefties but scare most Americans. Republicans will scream themselves hoarse crying “socialist!” But with doubtful effect, as the real issue is Trump; the naive may buy the notion of a good president hampered by evil enemies conspiring against him, but far more will just be fed up with the ugliness Trump himself so clearly incites. A solid majority of Americans now judges him intolerable. Biden, or even Warren, will be seen as far more palatable, and will win by a comfortable margin.

Large enough, hopefully, to overcome Russian hacking, inevitable Republican cries of foul (when almost all the chicanery will again have been their own), and even Trump’s efforts to defy the result and somehow cling to office.

But Trump and Republicans will not slink away. One reason I prefer Biden over Warren is that he’d be more emollient vis-a-vis Republicans, giving them less cause for ugliness. Though Heaven knows they’ll need little cause. The vicious partisan guerrilla war that’s deepened over the past quarter century will continue.

You might think Republicans would be chastened by defeat and introspective about how they went off the rails with Trump. But by now their psychological pathology is too deeply embedded to change. If anything, defeat will only embitter them more. A Warren presidency in particular will further nutsify them.

I would like to think the Trump stench will ruin the Republican brand and condemn the party to permanent minority status, especially as its base of older, whiter, less educated, xenophobic, rural and hypocritical bible-thumping voters inexorably dies off. However, voters tend to have short memories, and don’t generally vote with eyes fixed on the past. But Republicans may actually remind them of it with their 2024 candidate — Donald Trump — Senior or Junior. Who or what will stop either from getting the nomination? That should destroy the Republican party once and for all.

Good riddance, says this former 53 year Republican.

* Its clarity everything Mueller’s report should have been.

** They should move it along as swiftly as possible, to close the book on it before the election season gets fully underway.

Trump, Biden, and Ukraine

September 24, 2019

We always knew he’d do this — concoct some phony lie to smear Biden. Reprising his “crooked Hillary” shtick, while Trump himself was the crookedest ever.

Worse yet, his Biden smear is actually of a piece with his own abuse of power. Trying to get a foreign leader to help mess up his political opponent. While $250 million in aid was under suspension — on Trump’s own order, right before his phone call with Ukraine’s president. Even if the aid wasn’t explicitly a quid pro quo for smearing Biden, bringing up the latter (reportedly eight times) in that phone call was still totally improper. Abusing foreign policy like this is arguably treasonous. Compounded by refusing to give Congress the whistleblower’s complaint about it, as the law expressly requires. And of course, while insisting the phone conversation was perfectly fine, Trump refuses to release a transcript.

For the record, there’s not a shred of evidence suggesting Biden or his son did anything corrupt with respect to Ukraine. And notice Trump never actually specifies the supposed misdeed. But that doesn’t stop the Great Liar from spewing out against Biden his usual hyperbolic imprecations — “disgusting,” “disgraceful,” and so forth. While accusing the whistleblower of political bias, and of course the press too, when it won’t swallow his bilge, instead starting another “witch hunt” against him. Trump even said that in a fair system, Biden would get the electric chair. He actually said this.

Enough. I have opposed impeachment because it would politically backfire, allowing Trump to crow vindication when the craven Republican Senate refuses to convict him. But if Trump’s manifest malfeasances don’t incur the Constitution’s impeachment remedy, then that’s a dead letter; our democratic system wrecked by extreme partisanship. Let it be on Republicans’ heads.

Is it possible there are still Americans so blinded by partisan tribalism they cannot distinguish between a thoroughly decent, honest, public-spirited human being like Biden, and the scum of the earth that is Trump?

Reading Tony Judt on people telling themselves stories

August 28, 2019

Tony Judt was a lefty intellectual historian who died at 62 of ALS in 2010. When I was writing The Case for Rational Optimism,  he wrote Ill Fares the Land, his title a seeming rebuttal. Indeed, it was a lament that his leftist politics was losing. Still considering myself a “conservative,” I didn’t read it, put off by the tendentious title.

That was then.

Recently I stumbled upon Thinking the Twentieth Century, by Judt with Timothy Snyder, published in 2012; transcribing conversations the two had while Judt neared death. Much is rather abstruse intellectualizing about the interplay among the century’s big “isms” — Communism, Marxism, Socialism, Fascism, Nazism. In that landscape, classical liberalism may be likened those little proto-mammals eking out existence amidst dinosaurs.

That past world might seem remote to us now. But the world of 2010-12, when the book was compiled, already feels similarly remote. In hindsight an interlude of comparative calm and sanity. The 20th century turmoil analyzed in the book has many current parallels. It’s a pity the authors didn’t get to discuss them.

Many other writers and thinkers are mentioned, including some clear-sighted ones, like Orwell, able to penetrate the fog of the sturm und drang around them. But mostly one is driven to scream, “Was everyone nuts?” One line, mid-book, jumped out at me: ” . . . the biggest story of the twentieth century: how so many smart people could have told themselves such stories with all the terrible consequences that ensued.”

How that resonates in our current moment! Britain is literally destroying itself in a manic Brexit seizure. Italy and Brazil elect clowns and knaves. Others throw democracy away. And in America a big population segment tells itself a story grotesquely at odds with truth.* Whose terrible consequences I’m still hoping can be stanched.

Part of the explanation is fingered by Judt the historian. People fall for false stories because they don’t know true ones, ignorant about facts shaping their cultures.**

It’s an odd feeling reading this book’s discussion of a past time with so many disturbing echos to my own. Today any sane person knows Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin were monsters.*** But back then an awful lot of people were telling themselves different stories. Just like today with Trump.

I believe future generations will look back on ours with restored clarity. They too will wonder “how so many smart people could have told themselves such stories.” Unless Trump and his ilk succeed where those earlier monsters failed, and finally do create the world Orwell warned about.

* Watch for their snarky comments on this blog post! But it’s not just the political right. Judt was sympathetic to socialism, but the book shows how that faith failed. Yet now America’s left is telling itself a false story about it. Or trying to sell one. (No, socialism is not merely government building schools and roads.)

** Unfortunately when they move on to more current affairs, the authors go down a rabbit hole. Smugly dismissing the thinking of almost everyone else (like “the egregious Thomas Friedman”) not conforming to their rarefied ideas. Actually a distorting left-wing lens, full of notions I found cockeyed and just plain wrong.

*** Notably, the authors avoid any mention of Mao. Is that monster (unlike Stalin) still an icon a true-blue left-winger refuses to criticize?

Refugees: When the doors flew open

August 15, 2019

My friend Olga arrived here as a Soviet Jewish refugee in 1979; I’ve written about her. She got out just before the door slammed shut. The USSR was one big prison, especially for Jews, victims of severe discrimination.

My humanist group recently viewed a wonderful film about them, Stateless, mostly interview footage with refugees now in America, relating their stories. Seeing it was an emotional experience.

The plight of Soviet Jews became a big issue in the ’80s. When Gorbachev met with Reagan in Washington, large demonstrations demanded that Soviet Jews be let go. Reagan pressed Gorbachev on the issue (this was back when U.S. presidents still stood for what was right).

And the doors flew open.

But the Soviets made the exit a humiliating ordeal. Emigrants were milked for bribes at every step. Luggage was a particular problem; basically they were allowed to take only what they could carry, and getting the heavy bags from checkpoint to checkpoint was tough. At Sheremetyevo Airport, customs officers would roughly rifle through the suitcases, refusing to permit certain items, again extracting bribes.*

Meantime, the local police would know who was scheduled to leave; they’d break into apartments to steal the packed bags.

One woman said that when she’d handed over the final bribe, with almost her last rouble, she actually felt elated: a price worth paying to escape that prison.

The refugees traveled to Vienna, then to Italy, to await final transit to either Israel or America. Actually having a choice was an intoxicating novelty. That was one shock upon reaching the West. One guy spoke of his amazement to find, in airport bathrooms, free toilet paper! Wouldn’t people steal it? In fact some arrivees, still having that Soviet mentality, did just that. And then the abundance in stores was mind blowing. Some thought at first these must be Potemkin displays, plastic simulacra, not real goods.

People from government and aid agencies met them to help. But they viewed these offers with suspicion; the idea of such assistance seemed alien and implausible. Especially with no bribes even demanded! But on the streets, smiling cheerful people were another surprise. How unlike Moscow. So this was what freedom looked like.

Those opting for America needed refugee visas from consular officials who interviewed them to document their histories of persecution. This was hard; what they’d endured had been so internalized, so integral to seemingly normal life, they didn’t realize there was anything to report. While some, on the other hand, flagrantly embellished. (Lying was also the Soviet normal.)

With the sudden flood of visa applications, a large proportion were denied. This put the migrants in a terrible fix. They didn’t understand the system, had no idea what to do.

The issue came to the attention of Congress (this was back when it could still actually legislate to solve a problem). Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) introduced a bill relieving Soviet Jewish refugees from having to individually prove persecution. The bill swiftly passed.

And the doors flew open.

Hearing these people’s stories made me love it that they’re now my fellow Americans. Anyone with the grit to go through what they did to get here, I want here. This is what America means. This is what made it great.

* I remembered my own Sheremetyevo experience. “Numismatic tours” of Russia in 1993 and 1995, led by Erastus Corning Jr., were a fantastic buying opportunity — on the second trip I bought 92 pounds of coins. Erastus hired a local guy, Misha, to help us at customs. The customs officer was grim faced; examining my stash, he kept repeating, “it’s impossible.” Lengthy discussions in Russian ensued with Misha. Finally Misha left, and then the customs guy waved me through.

I met up with the others. Erastus said, “Give Misha $100.” I instantly understood, and handed over the money, saying “Wasn’t Misha taking a big risk?”

“Misha knows what he’s doing,” Erastus replied. “He was with the KGB.”