Archive for the ‘World affairs’ Category

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?

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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.”

Insanity: a global contagion

August 8, 2019

Hong Kong is China’s richest, most advanced, most economically vibrant part. When Britain agreed to return it in 1997, the deal was “one country, two systems.” China pledged to respect Hong Kong’s liberalism, rule of law, and move toward free elections there. The Chinese regime lied. Making clear by now they’ll never allow democracy anywhere.

They’ve shanghaied Hong Kong political targets back to China for intimidation and torture. More recently, they’ve proposed to legalize such extradition. Hong Kong erupted in massive protests. The extradition bill was shelved (for now). But meantime the regime further antagonized the population by meeting the protests with excessive violence. Even deployed gangs of goons to brutalize people. In response, the civil disobedience is ramping up.

A sane Chinese regime would strive to defuse this through dialog with its critics — encompassing most of Hong Kong’s population — making some concessions to mollify them. Instead the regime simply threatens more violence.

This will end badly. Likely China will send its army into Hong Kong, imposing martial law. Another Tienanmen bloodbath. Destroying the jewel of the nation. The regime acts like it was appointed by Heaven to rule in perpetuity, no matter what. That actually was the traditional Chinese theory of rulership. It has no place in the 21st century. It’s insane.

* * *

I’ve written of how India’s Hindu-nationalist Modi regime is trying to make its large Muslim minority into second-class citizens — or even non-citizens. Insanity, given the long bloody history of communal violence.

Kashmir is India’s lone Muslim-majority state. Since 1947, India and Pakistan have quarreled over it; in effect they’ve split it, amid chronic violence. But India’s half has always had its own local government, and elections, like the rest of the country. But now the Modi regime proposes to revoke that and rule Kashmir from the center. To what end? This will surely enrage the population and make Kashmir an even more contentious and violent trouble spot; while poisoning relations with India’s Muslim neighbors (notably Pakistan). Utterly insane.

* * *

Great Britain, in 2016, voted to leave the European Union (“Brexit”), by a narrow 52% margin. That “will of the people” has been sanctified by Brexiteers as holy writ — never mind that it was based on massive lies and disinformation (Russia had a hand). Brexiteers intone “will of the people” yet refuse to consult them further, ruling out a second referendum, even to vote on the actual Brexit deal — or lack thereof.

The deal negotiated with the EU — belying all Brexiteer promises — was clearly worse than continuing membership. But clearly better than leaving with no deal, which would be economic catastrophe. Brexiteers insist that’s a price worth paying. They’re even willing to see the country literally destroyed, as Brexit could well propel Scotland and Northern Ireland out of the union.

So they’ve made Boris Johnson prime minister. An irresponsible goofball windbag at a moment of gravest crisis. He vows Brexit will happen at the new deadline of October 31, deal or no deal, “do or die.” (Trump cheers him on.) Johnson says the odds against a no-deal Brexit are “a million to one,” yet has no clue how to get a deal that can pass his own red lines — and Parliament, which has thrice rejected the only deal possible.

The sticking point is to avoid a “hard border” with customs formalities between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, both of which hate the idea. The EU’s deal solves this by keeping Britain in its customs union. (The EU won’t screw Ireland, a member.) Brexit fanatics refuse to accept this. If Johnson caves on it, they’ll immolate him.

Their Conservative party — like our GOP — has gone off the deep end. So has the opposition Labour party, with 1940s hard left Stalinism.

Parliament (having no Conservative majority) has meantime also voted to rule out a no-deal Brexit. Johnson could get around this by suspending Parliament. Unconstitutional you say? Actually, Britain has no written constitution. This thing is driving the country into very dark waters.

What’s that word again? Insane.

* * *

And what of America? Electing a deranged moral creep, ignoramus, criminal con man, pathological liar, Russian tool, and hate-monger, trashing every ideal America ever stood for. And 40% still support him! While no matter how many mass shootings we have, we still cannot ban military style weapons whose only function is to kill a lot of people fast.

What’s that word again?

Who’s really a citizen?

July 17, 2019

Trick question: what’s the world’s second biggest Muslim country?

If you said America, shame on you. Everyone (who’s reasonably informed) knows Indonesia has the biggest Muslim population; and coming second is India — even though Hindus are a large majority there.

Trump insists we should find out who, living in America, is really a citizen. Seem reasonable? And what’s India got to do with it?

Keep reading.

In India’s 2014 election, I endorsed Narendra Modi, despite blood on his hands from Gujarat’s anti-Muslim pogrom and his BJP party’s Hindu nationalism. He seemed to understand how India’s still very anti-business economic structures kept people poor. And he has done some good in that regard, though not nearly enough.* Meantime, though it may be too soon to quite give Modi the “authoritarian” label, he’s working on it.

Meantime too the Hindu nationalism has become increasingly central. This is bad. Recall some history: Pakistan was traditionally part of India, but was hived off at independence in 1947 to create a Muslim state. Many millions caught on the “wrong” side of the new border migrated — amid appalling bloodshed. But most Muslims stayed put, and their population in India exceeds Pakistan’s.

Given this background, you might think any Indian government would strive for intercommunal emollience, so Hindus and Muslims can live together equably. You would be rational. But religion never is, and India’s BJP government, under Modi, is doing the opposite. Trying to make Muslims second class citizens — if that.

Assam, an Indian state bordering (Muslim) Bangladesh, has a concentration of Muslims. Unsurprisingly, few Muslims vote for the BJP. Which would rather they didn’t vote at all. So now there’s a big push to find out how many are really proper Indian citizens.

Is this beginning to ring a bell?

They’ve created a “National Register of Citizens” (NRC). If your name’s not there, you’re summoned to a bureaucratic tribunal, with the burden of proving your citizenship. It’s mainly Muslims, of course, targeted for this. Realize it’s a region of endemic illiteracy and poverty, with public records something of a shambles. The Economist’s report headlined with the word “Madness” and invoked the ghost of Kafka. And get this: anyone can file an official objection to a name on the NRC. In Assam, 220,000 such poison letters were filed — all ostensibly by a very small group of objectors.

Failure to “prove” citizenship (to the government’s satisfaction) can put you in jail or in one of the archipelago of detention camps they’re building, for “foreigners.” Their fate is uncertain; they cannot be deported to Bangladesh, which won’t take them. But they will be stripped of citizenship rights — including the vote. Which seems to be the real point.

Now this Assam model is being extended to the whole country.

Back to Trump: insisting we must find out who’s really a citizen. If that may have sounded reasonable to you before, think about India, and what the long range Republican game plan is. They already have a despicable record of winning elections by denying the ballot to targeted groups through discriminatory voter ID laws. This citizenship gambit is the logical, and frightening, next step.

And Trump has now said some U.S.-born Congress members should “go back” to some other countries. Is the next step actually to declare them non-citizens (as India is doing)?

Can you prove you’re a U.S. citizen?

* And he did one economically terrible thing, demonetizing the bulk of India’s circulating currency.

 

Making Burundi great again

July 1, 2019

Burundi is a very fortunate country. True, they had a 12-year tribal civil war killing 300,000, but that ended in 2005. Fewer die these days. As for the economy, many Burundians are spared from having to toil at a job, while a quarter don’t live in extreme poverty!

Burundi’s president, Pierre Nkurunziza, was appointed by God; he’s the nation’s “Eternal Supreme Guide.” If only all lands had one!

He garnered a well-deserved third term in 2015. Some nitpickers cited the Constitution’s two-term limit, but they were taught a salutary lesson, many hundreds sent to an even better place by the Eternal Supreme Guide’s valiant defenders. What part of “eternal” did they not understand?

Nkurunziza plans another re-election in 2020; to pacify even the most annoying nitpickers, there will be voting. However, he wisely foresaw difficulty paying for it, since miserly international donors now snootily stiff Burundi (due to fake news of brutality and corruption). So Nkurunziza prudently introduced an annual “Election Tax,” a mere dollar or so per household. Surely a small price to pay for democracy’s blessings!

Photo from The Economist

The tax is collected by his party’s “youth wing,” appropriately titled “Those Who See Far,” the “Imbonerakure.” (You can’t spell it without “boner.”) Groups of them come to homes bearing sticks. The Economist’s report did not mention carrots, but one can assume their use too. (One should also assume the money collected duly reaches government coffers.)

The Imbonerakure are admirably assiduous, visiting homes repeatedly, and even manning roadside checkpoints, to make sure the tax is paid. Many deadbeats claim they’d already paid; they would, wouldn’t they? But can they show a receipt for their supposed payment? Of course not!

Unresponsive to sticks or carrots, around 350,000 unpatriotic Burundians have slunk away to neighboring Congo. You’d think they’d know of Congo’s awfulness, but some people are oblivious. One woman there was quoted saying the Imbonerakure would come thrice monthly; claiming (or feigning) inability to pay, her whole family, including small children, was beaten up, her husband dragged away, never seen again. Shame on The (failing) Economist for printing such fake news!

Proving again that the press is the enemy of the people. But happily, Burundi itself, thanks to its Eternal Supreme Guide, is free of that curse!

ALARM! Russia attacking America

June 21, 2019

On 9/11 we were attacked. America united fiercely, in outrage and resolve, to confront the enemy and prevent a repeat.

In 2016, a different enemy attacked us, with actually far greater damage. But this time we collectively shrugged, with many heads in the sand.

Russian Roulette, a 2018 book by journalists Michael Isikoff and David Korn, details Russia’s war on American democracy and how Trump’s election fit into it. Not news to anyone whose head’s above ground. But the book is an eye-opener about how deep and serious this is.

The 9/11 death toll was terrible, yet Islamic terrorism has never been an existential threat to our way of life. Russia is far more dangerous; has already harmed us more. The Obama administration never got it, the book shows. Obama fell into the trap of fixating on the over-hyped threat from the Middle East, and imagined Russia as a potential partner there. Thus the “re-set” effort to improve relations. But our worst enemy is not terrorism, it’s Russia.

Remember when Romney said this — and Obama mocked him as living back in the cold war? The cold war did end but this is a new and different one. If we fail to see Russia as our deadly enemy, Putin and the Russians certainly see us as theirs. And while during the cold war, the Soviets never imagined destabilizing America itself, that’s exactly what Putin is doing. It wasn’t only screwing with the election, but more generally working to aggravate our societal divisions. They’re doing it elsewhere too; Russia had a hand in the Brexit vote, which is tearing apart Britain’s body politic.

The book shows that the Kremlin had been cultivating Trump for years, playing him, dangling the lure of a big real estate deal (that never jelled). Drooling for it, Trump kept kissing Putin’s posterior. He naively fantasized that his idolizing Putin was mutual, and they could get along beautifully.

In fact, Putin hated Hillary because she (unlike Trump) had his number; and come 2016, Trump was a tailor-made guided missile for Putin to fire at America’s heart. A president who’d weaken the country with self-destructive policies, weaken its alliances and international prestige, exacerbate our internal divisions, and undermine our democracy. Personal vulgarity, lying, and corruption were added bonuses. Putin didn’t expect his election shenanigans would be enough to make Americans drink this Kool-Aid. But just 77,000 votes in three key states did it. A hole-in-one.

The book details just how extensive and sophisticated that election subversion was, clearly orchestrated at the highest levels, deploying state resources. Taking Hillary down with a tsunami of lies. I was NO Hillary fan, but the Russian-orchestrated demonization that took hold was just nuts. (Especially when compared against Trump’s flaws.) A particularly virulent item was the “uranium deal” which Hillary haters still keep bringing up. The book disposes of this in a few sentences, showing there’s nothing there.

Trump and his enablers pound the lie that the whole Russia story is a “witch hunt,” a “deep state” FBI plot to take him down, an attempted coup. That they “spied” on his campaign. The nonsensicality is obvious because while the FBI tarred Hillary publicly during 2016, they kept a lid on the explosive fact that they were investigating Trump-Russia links. And they had ample reason to investigate, plenty of evidence of Russia’s intervening to help him. The FBI knew the Russians had hacked the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign, and were spilling what they’d gotten. The FBI was also already looking at Trump advisor Carter Page, playing footsie with Russian operatives in Moscow. And George Papadopoulos. And of course campaign chief Manafort, long involved with pro-Russian interests.

So it was far more than the notorious “Steele Dossier.” Christopher Steele was a former officer with Britain’s intelligence service who’d previously given ours much useful material. He was instrumental in our busting FIFA corruption, and also worked with the State Department. So his 2016 work having initially been paid for by Democrats didn’t taint it. When he gave it to the FBI, it fit with what they were already seeing. Though the allegations of Trump hotel sex hijinks couldn’t be documented, Steele’s detailing how the Russians had long been working Trump certainly merited investigation. It would have been scandalous had the FBI not pursued all this.

Meantime the FBI and intelligence services were oblivious to another huge part of Russia’s scheme: its devastating exploitation of social media. And the Obama administration seemed asleep at the switch about the whole thing. But the book chronicles the administration’s terrible quandary. Obama held back out of fear of looking partisan, and strong action could have backfired. He did hold a meeting with GOP Congressional leaders, trying to get them on board for a bipartisan outing of, and response to, the Russian subversion. Mitch McConnell refused.

Russia also tried to hack local election systems. This actually hasn’t been much investigated, but it appears Russia did succeed in some spots, like North Carolina. It’s not just vote counting, serious a concern though that is; in North Carolina they seem to have messed with voter records (concentrating on Democrats). Imagine millions coming to vote and finding they can’t; sowing chaos on Election Day. Russia wants to damage the idea of democracy itself, making it seem a sham, undermining public confidence in the integrity of elections. This is a huge vulnerability.

Much in the book is also documented in the Mueller report. Mueller tried to sound the alarm in his public statement, imploring us to take this seriously. We need presidential leadership to mobilize against the next Russian attack, but obviously we don’t have it. Trump takes the whole idea of Kremlin election meddling as a personal insult — while probably realizing it did help him win —leaving the door wide open for a repeat.*

Basically, the Russians got away with it, paying no real price. Obama had belatedly imposed slap-on-the-wrist sanctions but Trump sought to undo them. When Congress put them into law, Trump said he’d disregard that legislation. He’s been at war not with Russia but with America’s own FBI and intelligence services. It culminated in firing Comey as an attempt to squelch the continuing investigation (which is what led to Mueller’s appointment). Then in Helsinki he acted as Putin’s lap dog, endorsing his lies. Not only did Putin get his man in the White House, but the hoped-for benefits were amply forthcoming.

* Meantime, he recently said that if a foreign government offers dirt on a political opponent, he’d see no reason not to take it. In fact, doing so would be committing a crime.

Is China our enemy?

June 15, 2019

In 1989, China’s regime followed Mao’s dictum, “power comes from the barrel of a gun,” shooting many hundreds of democracy proponents in Tiananmen Square. (Trump has called this a “strong, powerful government” quelling a “riot.”) Since then, even as China has modernized in many ways, its regime has become increasingly repressive, tolerating not the slightest chink in its absolute power. Its police state in Xinjiang is an Orwellian nightmare. Xi Jinping has made himself president-for-life. China bullies its neighbors, tightening its unlawful grip on a wide swath of the Pacific. It abuses world trade rules, its advance fueled by theft and dishonesty.*

So is China our enemy? Not exactly.

The Communist bloc, during the cold war, was our enemy. Its aim was world domination, ideologically, seeing the U.S. as a bete noir and wanting our failure or destruction. Putin’s Russia today, while non-ideological, has a similar outlook.

This again is not exactly true of China. While some regime elements do see us as conspiring to keep China down, that’s not exactly true of America. Wise heads in both countries understand there’s room in the world for both to prosper; indeed they’re in it together. Not a zero-sum game where one nation’s gain is the other’s loss. China becoming more prosperous and powerful doesn’t necessarily require America becoming less so. To the contrary, trade with a prosperous America is good for China. Thus a win-win mentality.

It’s not Trump’s mentality. This is why he’s a bull in the China shop. A lot of voices say he’s right to confront China on trade, and I actually agree, up to a point. However, Trump sees every thing we buy from China as China raping us; he wants it to stop. That’s idiotic.

The win-win logic is a key concept of economics, called comparative advantage. We buy from China what China is better at producing; China buys from us what we make best. Both countries benefit — even if one buys more than the other.

Do we lose some jobs to China? Sure. But the money U.S. consumers save buying cheaper Chinese goods enables more spending on local products and services, creating jobs. More than are lost. By messing with that dynamic, Tariff Man loses us jobs.

Nations are enemies when their interests clash, in a zero-sum sense. That’s not our situation with China. Again, we have a mutual interest in our bilateral trade. That doesn’t mean we don’t fight China on intellectual property theft, human rights, or territorial aggression. We can have those arguments while still expanding mutually beneficial trade and without being enemies. You have fights with your spouse but you still have intercourse.

The tragic stupidity of Trump’s China stance is that it’s the opposite. He wants no fights with his “great friend” Xi over things like Xinjiang or silencing dissent. Nor is he even really confronting China over intellectual property theft, which is the trade fight we should be having. Instead, it’s the intercourse he wants to curtail.

“Intercourse” doesn’t even begin to cover it, as elucidated in a recent Thomas Friedman column (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/04/opinion/us-china-trade.html). Our two economies are totally intertwined. We have huge investments in each other. Both economies rely heavily on vast, interlinked supply chains, each supplying to the other things necessary for their productivity. For example, Apple has products assembled in China; Chinese technology firms need U.S.-made chips. If we rip all that apart, Friedman says, “we’ll all end up living in a less secure, less prosperous and less stable world.”

But he fears that’s happening; stumbling into a new cold-war-enemy relationship with China that’s totally unnecessary. “The erecting of an equivalent of the Berlin Wall down the middle of the global technology market,” dividing it into separate and mutually hostile spheres.

Instead we should be working to coax China into full partnership with the rules-based globalist economic order. Which is really in China’s own long-term best interests. In this, a united front with all our allies would help. But Trump has antagonized them, picking trade fights with them too. (Britain, for one, now sees its trade relationship with China as economically central.) So we’re on our own.

Bad enough that Russia is a big enemy. China would be far bigger. Its economy is already as large as America’s and will soon outstrip it. Its population is more than thrice ours. China’s increasing global importance is an inevitability we must live with; making the best of it. And we can. If instead we opt for all-out battle, we will lose.

* Counterfeiting is a big industry — a major problem in my own business field, rare coins. Maybe bigger than we even know.

Somaliland — “The country that was left for dead” — “A country doing everything right”

June 11, 2019

Those are quotes (From Edna Adan and Michael Rubin) from a June 8 conference we attended, at Marist College, on Somaliland development.

Someone might call it a “shit hole country” — seceded from Somalia, not internationally recognized, devastated by war, and beset by major problems. Yet Somaliland is pulling itself from the ashes.

Most attendees were Somali, a reunion among the many studying in the U.S., graduates of Jonathan Starr’s incredible Abaarso School which I’ve written about— a big part of the country’s rise.

Dr. Samatar

The opening speaker, Dr. Ahmed Samatar, spoke of philanthropy giving meaning to one’s life. This certainly resonated with me; our Somaliland involvement really excites me and my wife.

Samatar called the country’s development a Sisyphean battle against entropy. Citing four dimensions — the environment, economy, culture, and politics — he said all “bite quite hard” for Somalilanders. He quoted Marx that people make their own history, but do not make it as they please, constrained by the weight of the inherited past.

Harry Lee

One conference session was led by Harry Lee, heading up the expansion of the Abaarso project into an archipelago of K-12 schools, to be staffed mainly by home-grown teachers.* (This is our own focus.) The first is nearing completion. Lee said Somaliland’s literacy rate is under 30%. A majority of kids do go to school, but teachers are ill-paid and hence expend little effort if they show up at all (a common third world problem). Students basically can do sports or academics but not both. The new Kaabe schools target such problems, aiming to give kids real support and encouragement for achievement.

Anne Dix

The project is being partly funded by USAID; Anne Dix heads that program (American Schools and Hospitals Abroad). She gave a talk emphasizing the use of aid to enable local people to build institutions, with the aim of ending the need for such assistance.

Michael Rubin is a former Defense Department official currently at the American Enterprise Institute. He said that too often the U.S. focuses resources on “squeaky wheels” (like Somalia proper) while a country like Somaliland that’s “doing everything right” gets short shrift.

Michael Rubin

Rubin also feels there’s too much emphasis on governmental action, whereas real progress is bottom-up. And foreign aid often actually undermines democracy and good governance, substituting for local forces and absolving them of responsibility. But he was upbeat about Somaliland, calling its self-development efforts groundbreaking.

Jonathan Starr

Jonathan Starr led a workshop on economic investment. Opportunities seem ample because the country lacks so much; there should be many “no brainers.” One participant suggested wind turbines. But this actually proved illustrative of the problems. Starr said his own wind turbine project was a fiasco because there was no infrastructure for repairing breakdowns. Well trained, educated people are scarce on the ground. So is investment capital. There’s no good banking system. No good court system or rule of law. All things we take for granted, but these are the challenges in building a nation from the ground up.

Edna Adan

I could hardly believe I was chatting with a hero who’s done what Edna Adan has. Certainly my first encounter with a recipient of France’s Legion d’honneur! Adan built a hospital in Somaliland. Not a ramshackle affair; a big university teaching hospital that could fit in any U.S. city. On the side, she’s served in cabinet posts, including foreign minister.

Now 81, she was a dynamo at the conference. One workshop was on public health. Somaliland has the world’s highest maternal mortality rate; highest TB death rate. A big problem is people exploited because education and literacy levels are so low; thus the blight of counterfeit medicines and other fake treatments. Mental illness is commonly ascribed to demonic possession.

Edna Adan Hospital

A big factor in mental illness is qat. It’s a narcotic leaf, chewed; qat addiction is endemic in the region. Health effects are dire, and it ruins men as useful members of families and society.

Adan’s chief focus was on female genital mutilation (FGM). The idea is to keep girls virginally “pure” and marriageable, preventing promiscuity by making sex difficult and non-pleasurable. It’s a cultural practice, not a religious one; most Muslim societies don’t do it. FGM is particularly rife in the Somali region.

There are three basic versions. One is a mere “nick;” another cuts off the clitoris and labia; the third (“infibulation”) seals off the whole area. Adan reported Somaliland’s FGM rate at little short of 100%, with most victims getting infibulation. It’s not generally done under sterile surgical protocols. The damage often includes lifelong problems with intercourse, menstruation, childbirth, infections, and incontinence, not to mention the mental trauma. (FGM actually also makes sex less fun for men.)

Adan said her own childhood FGM was inflicted by her mother and grandmother while her father was away — very typical. When he returned he was furious, which told her that what had happened was wrong.

Many nations have banned FGM, but it’s hard to enforce — you can’t jail every mother and granny. Adan said this battle must be fought by men and communities.

So, yes, Somaliland has deep problems. But human beings are all about surmounting challenges. It was great to see so many Somalilanders, such wonderful people. We shall overcome.

* Harry also produced a wonderful film, Somaliland, about Abaarso.

Plan-free fact-free anal sphincter foreign policy

May 16, 2019

Everyone before was stupid. He knows everything. Intelligence briefings, consulting experts, careful planning — loser stuff. The great deal-maker’s own great instincts alone would make America great again.

Are we there yet?

I’ve written about big-picture foreign policy — how since 1945 America’s painstaking construction of a cooperative global order has served our interests while also making a better world. And how Trump is nihilistically smashing it.

Bob Woodward’s book Fear explains that Trump likes to “fly by the seat of his pants . . . did not want to be derailed by forethought. As if a plan would take away his power, his sixth sense.” It portrays a man ruled by anger and ego, impervious to facts, incapable of focusing. For a time, adults around him struggled to forestall disaster. Now they’re all gone.

Let’s see how plan-free foreign policy is working out:

NORTH KOREA. The great deal-maker imagined just schmoozing his way to triumph. Returned from his first summit with Kim Jong Un declaring victory, problem solved, no more nuke threat. Nobel prize! Turns out (surprise) the “deal” was bullshit. North Korea agreed to nothing and continues testing missiles. Kim harvested valuable prestige at no cost. The great deal-maker has no plan.

IRAN. It took years for the U.S. and five other leading powers to negotiate a deal that would significantly slow Iran’s nuclear weapons development. Trump tore it up to replace it with . . . nothing. He had no plan. Now Iran will get a bomb sooner. While the regime hardliners, who hated the deal, are strengthened. Our allies are antagonized. And now too, with our modus vivendi with Iran shredded, there’s looming military conflict. Not a war we could “win;” almost certain to be a horrible mess and disastrous for American strategic interests.

VENEZUELA. Trump loves dictators. (Just hosted Viktor Orban who’s destroyed Hungary’s democracy.) So why not Maduro? Simple: his regime made the mistake of calling itself “socialist.”

Trump imagined pressure would cause Venezuela’s military to flip and oust Maduro. Didn’t understand the military is the regime, its leaders profiting, and terrorizing lower ranks against defections. And what about our threat of military intervention? Also sure to be a horrible bloody mess and disastrous for our larger interests.

So while loudly proclaiming Maduro must go, Trump has no plan.

SYRIA. What is the plan?

CHINA. Trade wars are easy to win? Tell that to the 1930s. What’s especially stupid is a democracy picking a trade war with a dictatorship that’s much more able to endure economic pain. Trump blundered into this battle with no plan for winning it.

He insists his tariffs on Chinese imports will be paid by China. Just like Mexico would pay for his wall. In fact American consumers will pay, through higher prices at the cash register. Estimates range up into the thousands per family. This will also mean U.S. job losses — estimated up to a million or more.

And this doesn’t count our economic damage from the retaliatory tariffs China is slapping on us.

True, our economy is doing great. No thanks to Trump’s trade war, but in spite of it. Without it we’d be doing even better. (And our prosperity actually owes far more to Obama than to Trump.) A 600 point fall in the Dow shows the market realizes how bad for us the trade war is.

Meantime, we might fare better against China if our allies presented a united front. The TPP deal would have been just that, but Trump ditched it, while further kicking our friends in the teeth, even picking trade fights with some of them too. So we’re now on our own battling China.

We do have real trade issues with China, but tariffs are not the remedy. Trump literally doesn’t understand global economics. He imagines if we buy more from China than we sell them, they’re ripping us off. No economist (except liar Peter Navarro) thinks that. If China can sell us widgets cheaper than we can make them ourselves, it’s to our advantage to buy theirs and make other things. What consumers save on widgets enables them to spend more elsewhere — creating jobs.*

ISRAEL & PALESTINIANS.  For half a century, very smart knowledgeable people couldn’t solve this. So Trump tapped son-in-law Jared Kushner, with zero relevant knowledge and experience, to create a plan. Soon to be unveiled as the greatest thing ever. Apparently it will avoid the issue of a Palestinian state. Why did no one think of that before? But meantime Trump’s pro-Israel actions have already scotched America being seen as an honest broker, so there’s no way Palestinians will buy into whatever fabulous plan Kushner concocts.

I didn’t vote for Obama and heavily criticized his foreign policy. But Obama was a foreign policy genius compared to this anal sphincter.

* Woodward’s book details how economic advisor Gary Cohn failed to make Trump see he’s screwing the 84% of our economy that’s services to benefit (a little of) the 16% that’s manufacturing. Cohn finally resigned. The book shows Trump believes trade is bad, full stop. So willfully stupid it’s insane.

Faking democracy

May 13, 2019

Kings used to rule everywhere by “divine right.” It was unquestioned. “Democracy” wasn’t even a thing. But in modern times it has acquired such universal moral force that even the most tyrannical regimes feel they must give it lip service. As in “The Democratic People’s Republic of [North] Korea.” It takes no fewer than three liberal-sounding words to lipstick that pig. They even pretend to “vote” in “elections.”

Is this progress of a sort? Well, at least “divine right” rulers were honest about it. Now, dictators are perfecting the art of faking democracy.

I’ve written recently how Venezuela’s regime practices democratic theater to create a potemkin fiction of popular sovereignty.

Then there’s Turkey. I’d warned that by electing Erdogan president, and then voting him untrammeled powers, they’d politically disembowel themselves. They did it anyway (probably helped by regime ballot rigging).

Yet in March elections, an opposition candidate somehow managed to narrowly win Istanbul’s mayoralty. Erdogan cried foul, claiming vote fraud — with a straight face. Then the regime-controlled electoral authority simply annulled the result, scheduling a revote (whose outcome, observers say, Erdogan will not leave to chance). The legal pretext for this usurpation was transparently phony. Meantime, in numerous other cities, elected opposition mayors have simply been kicked out, and the runners-up installed.

All this Erdogan — still with a straight face — calls a triumph of democracy.

Then there’s Thailand. In 2011, I wrote a post titled “Democracy wins in Thailand.” It was a resounding vote against anti-democratic pro-royalty, pro-military forces. But in 2014 the army stomped in and seized power. Then came the obligatory charade of a “transition” back to “democracy,” with a new constitution blatantly stacked to keep the military chief in power. The army would even appoint the entire upper house of parliament.

The Thai king since 1946, Bhumibol, was revered to excess, supposedly above politics but giving free reign to anti-democratic palace and military intriguers, including 2014’s putschists. But he was literally uncriticizable by grace of a draconian “lese majeste” law, useful for jailing anyone, for any words construable as unflattering toward the monarchy. Bhumibol died in 2018, succeeded by Vajiralongkorn, a vile arrogant self-indulgent creep even more in bed with the military rulers.*

They’ve finally held an “election” under the new constitution, and despite every possible trick to hamstring opponents and rig the result, the military still failed to gin up a parliamentary majority. Or so it seemed — until the electoral authority simply changed the opaque formula for allocating seats, and hence the outcome. For good measure, the leader of one of the biggest opposition parties has been thrown in jail on ludicrous charges.

Then there’s America. Trump has shown his contempt for democracy. In 2016 he said he’d accept the election result only if he won. Now he thinks Congress’s subpoenas for documents and for testimony by administration officials can be simply ignored. If this is rewarded with his re-election, that will be a big step down the road toward joining Venezuela, Turkey, and Thailand, in their sham of “democracy.”

* My setting foot in Thailand would risk imprisonment for those words. Seriously. An Australian writer made that mistake. (His book had reportedly sold one copy.)