Archive for the ‘World affairs’ Category

King Zog

July 15, 2018

Knowing nothing about the story, except vaguely its strangeness, out of simple curiosity I picked up this biography, King Zog, by Jason Tomes.

Albania was an outlying part of the Ottoman Empire. A most backward, primitive, impoverished land (which it still is). A century ago it had no railroads, hardly even any roads, and three automobiles. Scant literacy or intelligentsia. No law, apart from a tribal vengeance code.

The tale begins with the outbreak of the First Balkan War in 1912, a confusion of would-be states scrambling in a war of all against all.

Enter Ahmed Zogolli. Just turning seventeen.

His early life is murky. The bio is full of “might haves” and “perhapses.” He apparently had some schooling in Constantinople (Istanbul). But in 1912 he didn’t come out of nowhere — not quite exactly. He’d inherited the chiefdom of a small Albanian backwoods clan, the Mati, with a ragtag army of maybe a few hundred men.

Albania was actually full of petty chiefs like him. But Zogolli, despite his extreme youth, excelled them all in intelligence, self-possession, self-discipline, guile — and in his vision for nation-building. Already he was a player when a statelet of Albania emerged out of the war in 1912. The European powers put a minor German prince on the throne; Zogolli backed him; he didn’t last. When WWI soon erupted, the Austrians came in, and he aligned with them too.

They gave Zogolli, now 21, a rank of Colonel, and even brought him to Vienna to receive a medal and an audience with the new Emperor Karl. All very nice. But then he was told it would be best to just remain in Vienna.

So he sat out the rest of the war, nightclubbing — and studying history. At war’s end he finally returned to Albania where, Austrian rule having disintegrated, a provisional government emerged. Within months Zogolli was minister of the interior, and soon thereafter calling all the shots. By 1922 (now all of 27), he was also prime minister.

The next year Zogolli organized elections — the only free election Albania ever had until the 1990s. His own party didn’t do too well. In 1924, on his way to Parliament, he took three bullets from a would-be assassin but persevered to deliver his speech. Nevertheless, things were falling apart, and Zogolli was soon ousted and exiled. However, his successor was such a crackpot that by year’s end Zogolli managed to return again, raise a new army, and seize control. He rode at the head of his tribal warriors wearing a pressed business suit.

Now, he made himself president, restyled as Ahmed Zogu; and in 1928 as King Zog I.

It was not a cushy billet. Albanian politics (if it could be called such) was a morass of tribal blood feuds; and in consolidating power, Zog had stepped on many toes. He managed to hold things together, just, but foresaw an almost inevitable violent end.

A certain fearlessness had vaulted him to power, yet he lived in constant fear now, and it kept him virtually imprisoned in the palaces he built.

In these circumstances, a benevolent monarchy was not in the cards. Some repression was required. Some inconvenient characters did die violently. At least the word “torture” does not appear in the book.

However, it was not solely self-aggrandizement. As mentioned, Zog did see himself on a nation-building mission, little though he had to work with. Albania was still a collection of feuding clans with no national consciousness. Zog did do some things of a liberal, progressive nature, trying to drag the country out of the Dark Ages. But a key hindrance was simple lack of money. Obviously, these grizzled tribesmen would not submit to taxation. Indeed, what funds Zog did manage to scrape together went largely to buying off warlords.

He did not get a queen until 1938: Geraldine. He couldn’t marry any Albanian gal because of the clan rivalry factor, and mainline European royalty shunned him as an upstart adventurer. Geraldine was of minor Hungarian nobility and half American. It actually seems to have been something of a love match.

Zog’s challenge was not just to play off rival warlords but (to keep Albania in existence) also Italy, Yugoslavia, and Greece. He made Albania virtually an Italian client state. Though accused of selling the country out to Mussolini, the riposte was that he’d never actually delivered it. But finally, in April 1939 — Mussolini, to keep up with the Joneses — that is, the Germans, who rolled up Czechoslovakia — invaded Albania, after an ultimatum that Zog refused.

Albania would have been totally outclassed militarily, even had anyone been willing to fight. But no one was. Zog fled into exile, yet again.

For the next 22 years he and his court flitted among various countries, financed by quite a bit of loot he’d managed to accumulate and abscond with. Unsurprisingly, Zog intrigued relentlessly for a return. During WWII, various partisan armies — none supporting him — fought over Albania. The eventual victor was Enver Hoxha’s Communists, who installed a brutal Stalinist regime, that lasted until 1991.

Zog had meantime ruined his health in numerous ways, including smoking more cigarettes than was humanly possible. He was 65 when he died in 1961.

He did not come back again.

Geraldine lived until 2002.

Advertisements

China’s Xinjiang: “1984” meets the Gulag

July 12, 2018

Xinjiang is China’s northwest province, home of the Muslim ethnic Uighurs (“wee-gurs”). Also home to a vast gulag of “re-education” camps — hundreds or possibly thousands, with more being built. And one local security chief said these camps are so full that their officials are begging police to stop bringing people.

However, the numbers of policemen rival those of camp inmates. In at least one city (Hotan), every shop and restaurant must have a cop on duty, so thousands of their workers have been enrolled as part time police officers, fully equipped and made to undergo training.

The camp population has been estimated between half and one million; around a sixth to a third of young and middle aged Uighur men have been detained. The government does not acknowledge the camps’ existence, and little information about them has seeped out. One released prisoner said he was not allowed to eat until he’d thanked President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party. There have been (unsurprisingly) reports of torture.

In Xinjiang, there’s one police station for every 500 or so people, to keep tabs on them. Roads are clogged with checkpoints, up to four or five per kilometer. Hi-tech security cameras are everywhere, and facial recognition technology is aggressively in use. Uighurs are required to carry identity cards (constantly checked) recording everything about them. To submit their phones and passwords to police for scrutiny. To install a “spyware” app enabling the government to track all activity. Even to provide blood samples for biometric data.

Because of a past knife attack, knives and scissors are almost impossible to buy. In restaurants, kitchen knives are registered, and chained to walls to prevent use as weapons.

Police go in teams of half a dozen from house to house compiling dossiers of personal information, used to rate citizens for “trustworthiness.” Flunking gets you sent to a camp. What are they looking for? Basically any signs of Muslim religion — praying, eschewing alcohol, Ramadan fasting, long beards, and of course Koran possession. Going to mosque is a huge red flag, so mosques are empty. (China’s constitution purports to guarantee freedom of religion.)

Being sent to a camp does not require any judicial process; just an order from the police or a party functionary, for any reason, or none. An undertaker was sent for washing bodies according to Muslim custom. Thirty in one town for suspicion of wanting to travel abroad. Others for asking where their relatives are, and failing to recite the national anthem in Chinese.

Sound extreme? There’s more. The government also has a program called “becoming kin,” wherein a local family (usually Uighur) “adopts” an official (usually Han Chinese), who visits regularly, verifying dossier details, and even living with the family for short spells, “teaching” them. A 2018 report states that 1.1 million of these indoctrinator/snoops have been paired with 1.6 million families — roughly half the Uighur population.

And what is the government’s rationale for this ultra-totalitarian police state? To tamp down Uighur Muslim restiveness. It began when ethnic Han Chinese were encouraged to settle in Xinjiang to dilute the Uighur population dominance. With that came discrimination against Uighurs. This provoked Uighur protests, resistance, separatism, and eventually, as the government responded with escalating ferocity, some terrorism (that knife attack). China’s regime aims to crush all that. For now, the sheer extremism of its effort seems to be effective, leaving no option for Uighurs but to knuckle under.

Will Trump phone Xi Jinping to congratulate him on his “great security success” in Xinjiang?

This story raises the most fundamental question about the relationship between citizen and state. China’s regime is acting as a Hobbesian leviathan par excellence. But with what legitimacy, and to what ultimate purpose? Hobbes’s leviathan was conceived as being empowered by a social contract to protect people’s safety. What Uighur would willingly sign on to this social contract? Who benefits from it?

And this is pure speculation on my part — I could be wrong — but is it just possible that China’s policy in Xinjiang exacerbates the very thing it’s supposedly combating — creating an entire population of deeply embittered enemies?

(This report is based on one in The Economist, June 2, 2018, and contains no exaggerations; in fact it’s mild in comparison.)

The Grotesque Odious Party (Part I)

July 1, 2018

Recently on the NewsHour it was noted that Trump’s approval percentage among Republicans has reached record highs. “Yeah,” I said to myself, “because people like me have left the party.” Then pollster Stuart Rothenberg came on, making the same point. And when an arch-conservative pundit like George Will declares we must now vote for Democrats — any and all Democrats — you know how out-of-kilter politics has become.

Not just in America. Britain voted for national suicide with Brexit; its Conservative party embraces it totally while being flummoxed over how to limit the damage; and the opposition Labour Party, having failed with a very leftist platform, has gone extreme left/Marxist. Italian voters deserted the center and put in power two parties of crazies at odds with each other. Large votes for German fringe parties made it hell for Angela Merkel to assemble a governing coalition, and now it’s cracking apart over immigration. Mexico is about to elect as president a populist rabble-rouser contemptuous of rule of law. A retrograde populist creep leads the polls in Brazil. I could go on.

Only Canada and France seem redoubts of sanity.

During the 2016 campaign I kept telling my wife, “He’s got the asshole vote but that’s not enough to elect him.” I was wrong. Enough others threw civic responsibility to the winds.

Of course some voters have always been pretty clueless, motivated by base instincts, simultaneously both cynical and credulous, thus manipulable by demagogues. But demagoguery doesn’t begin to describe this; America has plunged into a moral cesspool, of cruel policies saturated in hate and lies.

I have been struggling to understand this tragedy. I’ve written much about tribalism. The “us versus them” factor looms very large and has long been building. But what caused it to become so extreme (mainly on the GOP side)?

Tribalism is part of human nature. This actually helped our early ancestors’ survival. It also provides a sense of belonging, of security, and identity. But in the big sweep of history, casting other tribes as enemies has been diminishing, reducing conflict and violence, as Pinker documented with facts and figures in The Better Angels of Our Nature.

However, is something about modern life making such tribalism recrudesce? The word “alienation” has long been a staple of sociology discourse. Robert Putnam wrote of Bowling Alone. Many aspects of technology fray social ties. Surveys report people saying they have fewer friends nowadays. Many have hundreds of Facebook “friends” but that’s not the same thing, maybe actually undermining genuine friendship.

I have written too about Tom Friedman’s latest book, arguing that technological and societal change is now so fast that people have a hard time keeping up with it, and making sense of the world.

Maybe all these factors drive people to cling more tightly to tribal identity. And that it’s happening more on the right is understandable. Those with traditionalist mindsets see themselves and their social verities under assault — from ethnic minorities, women’s empowerment, irreligion, and what they see as sexual sin. In this whirlwind, tribal identity is a kind of anchor and security blanket.

What’s particularly startling is how this political tribalism even trumps religion. You might have thought religious faith would be the stronger. Yet most fundamentalist Christians back Trump, a man steeped in sin, with policies the very antithesis of “love thy neighbor.” Their political loyalties seem impervious to their supposed religious scruples.

Well, I suppose if you can believe fairy tales like God, Heaven, and Hell, it’s not so hard to believe the liar in the White House. And that you’re somehow still, despite all the hateful cruelty, on the side of the angels.

(To be continued)

Abby Martin: Burned alive in Venezuela

May 25, 2018

I have strong beliefs. I know many people with different strong beliefs. I don’t lean left, but most who do are good people, sincere in wanting human progress. The “hard left” is another story. These are hard people, of burning passion, burning their souls to cinders.

When I googled “hard left,” Corbyn’s picture was all over the results

These are the ones who spout about “social justice” for downtrodden people whose rights are abused — yet are slavish apologists for some of the world’s worst regimes, that trod people down and abuse their rights — as long as they call themselves “socialist.” Or “anti-imperialist.” Or they’re just hostile toward America. One such character is British Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. One such regime is Venezuela’s.

When Venezuela’s opposition won Congress, the Maduro regime simply ignored that body and supplanted it with an assembly of hand-picked loyalists. Then Maduro “won” a fraudulent re-election. The opposition was not allowed to organize or campaign, its leaders were jailed, and the count was faked anyway. No free press survives there.

Maduro

Maduro gets away with this because the courts are packed and the army co-opted. The regime is a criminal gang, which includes the army brass, using guns to crush dissent while looting the country to enrich themselves.

“Socialist” Venezuela went, in less than two decades, from the top of Latin America’s income scale to the bottom. The state oil outfit is stuffed with political operatives; its infrastructure and output have collapsed. A thicket of insane rules makes productive enterprise virtually impossible. Its lack has plunged most of the population into poverty, exacerbated by hyperinflation running thousands of percent monthly, wiping out people’s savings. For most, life has become a daily struggle just to eat. Medicines are largely unobtainable. Widespread protests have been violently suppressed, with hundreds killed, and large numbers jailed and tortured.

A recent PBS on-the-scene report showed a river where previously a few guys had eked out subsistence by sifting the silt for occasional coins or other “treasures.” Now the site is crowded by around a hundred doing it for ever slimmer pickings. But the country’s hottest ticket was seen at the bus depot — a ticket out — with hordes queueing in hopes of snagging one. Many forced to leave loved ones behind.

I have closely followed the Venezuela situation, informed by reports like that one on PBS, NPR, and authoritative news sources like The Economist magazine; my wife monitors Univision in Spanish.

Abby Martin

NPR’s program “Alternative Radio” — far left or hard left radio, really — provides a different perspective. The other night they had journalist Abby Martin. She started talking about her reporting trip to Venezuela, emphasizing telling her editor she would report just exactly what she saw. I wondered what she was expecting to see, that would prompt such a warning.

What she saw, Martin said, totally contradicted the familiar picture painted by mainstream sources (which I’ve summarized). This, she repeatedly stressed, was what she actually observed.

The Maduro government, Martin said, is in reality very popular, among the poor and blacks. Its opponents are really just the former elites, knocked off their cozy perches. It’s not true that store shelves are bare. Some are, but she reported seeing well-stocked ones. Toilet paper is in short supply, but other paper and hygiene products are plentiful. Martin concluded that (as the Maduro regime claims), Venezuela’s economic troubles are caused by a sabotage campaign mounted by outside forces, mainly America.

As to the violence, Martin said in fact it’s all being perpetrated by protesters themselves. Who are fascists. If anything, Venezuela’s police are too lax in not stopping them. People have been lynched — burned alive. Martin repeated “lynched” and “burned alive” several times. She said she truly feared for her own life, was chased by a lynch mob, and was lucky to get out alive.

While I was still trying to process what I was hearing, Martin switched subjects. Now (as my followers know), I am no Trump fan. But Martin’s anti-Trump rant came out of left field — hard left field. Weirdly echoing Trump’s own claim that some deep-state conspiracy is trying to do him down, Martin said the plutocrats who control the world want to get rid of Trump because he makes their enterprise look bad. Or something like that.

Anyhow, now I had Martin’s number, and could better evaluate her Venezuela reportage. I have pondered it deeply.

The government’s popularity? Even the vilest regimes have their core supporters — those bought off, or who swallow the propaganda. The best available sources put that at around 17% in Venezuela. (It’s over 40% in America.)

Outside forces causing Venezuela’s economic woes? Cuba has been embargoed openly, for far longer, and far more comprehensively, yet Cuba’s economy (wretched though it is), doesn’t compare with Venezuela’s collapse. Its cause in the regime’s own behavior is indisputable.

Regime opponents are fascists? What, were they wearing “Viva Fascismo!” T-shirts? Fascist is the epithet of choice the hard left always hurls at those it doesn’t like. Russian propaganda tried to justify its Ukraine aggression by labeling Ukraine’s government, and the pro-democracy Maidan demonstrators, as fascists, even Nazis. Abby Martin calling “fascist” those Venezuelans protesting destruction of their democracy, and living standard, says more about Martin than the protesters. (I have since learned that Martin previously hosted a show on RT America. “RT” stands for Russia Today, a Putin regime propaganda vehicle.)

And the violence? “Lynching” is another of those favorite leftist words (evoking the true horror of Jim Crow lynchings). “Burning alive” is better yet. But for all her claims to be reporting what she saw, she stopped short of saying she witnessed any burnings.

If Maduro regime opponents burned anyone alive, wouldn’t the regime shout it from the rooftops? It has not.

Reliable reports do confirm that journalists in Venezuela have been victims of mob violence — killing at least one — perpetrated by pro-regime gangs. (In researching this piece, I did see a reference to one person lynched, but the report didn’t say who did it.)

Abby Martin

So — was Abby Martin just simply lying? (As noted, she’s a veteran of Russian propaganda TV.) She was telling the story she went down there to find — that she wanted to be true, and felt ought to have been true. Better for the cause if it were true. But the cause trumps the truth; ends justify means. Perhaps she even believed that her lies embodied, somehow, a deeper truth than the reality which, so perversely, wouldn’t cooperate.

Abby Martin’s fiery hard left ideology has burned her soul to a cinder. She’s been burned alive, you might say.

Iraq revisited — rising from the ashes?

May 12, 2018

Iraq holds parliamentary elections today.

Conventional wisdom calls the Iraq War an unmitigated disaster rooted in lies about weapons of mass destruction.

I had supported the war. Saddam was no garden variety dictator; his regime ascended heights of monstrousness; it seriously threatened the whole region; severe sanctions were failing, even while further torturing the population.

About the “lies” — all the major intelligence services (even France’s) concluded Iraq had WMDs. Saddam had already used chemical weapons. And was trying to make it look like he had more. But casting that as a certainty was Bush’s mistake. He should have said, “We can’t be sure whether or not Iraq has WMDs, and can’t take the risk that it does.” (But maybe that would have sounded too ambiguous.)

The invasion was badly botched. It spawned much conflict, destruction, and ultimately the horror of ISIS, overrunning half the country including a leading city, Mosul.

A depressing story. But The Economist’s March 31 issue had a fascinating report on today’s Iraq — “Moving forward” — saying the country is now “righting itself.”

Abadi

ISIS had made monkeys of Iraq’s army under egregious former Prime Minister Maliki. But his successor, Abadi, is far better, and ISIS’s territorial incarnation has been destroyed by Iraq’s soldiers.

The Economist now calls them the region’s “winniest.”

In Mosul

The battle for Mosul seemingly evoked the sardonic Vietnam War line about destroying the city in order to save it. Yet Mosul is recovering with remarkable speed. Shops, hotels, and restaurants bloom; and “[t]there’s not a niqab, or face-veil, in sight.”

The UN says it takes, on average, five years after a conflict for half its displaced people to return. But Iraq’s conditions are so positive it’s taken only three months. They’re rebuilding.

Meantime, Iraq’s Kurdistan had long been a separate country in all but name. Then in September Kurdish President Barzani (no beloved figure) overreached by insisting on an independence vote. The backlash included Iraq’s army retaking some territories the Kurds had occupied, including Kirkuk, a key city. Now Kurdish separatism seems dead, and Iraq is a more united nation than in a long time.

In 2003, Bush had talked of planting a seed of democracy in the Middle East. Cynics loudly laughed. Yet even while the subsequent “Arab Spring” (partly inspired by Iraq) largely turned to fiasco, the fact is that Iraq did become a functioning democracy — and remains one. Indeed, The Economist’s report is quite upbeat on this score too.

Iraqi democracy had appeared to fall prey to sectarian enmities. Saddam’s minority Sunni regime had oppressed the Shiite majority. After his fall, Shiites sought revenge while Sunnis refused to accept disempowerment. But, in The Economist’s telling, this conflict is finally abating; Iraqis have learned its lessons; having peered into the abyss, they’re drawing back from it.

So secularism is on the rise, with a “striking backlash against organized Islam.” In Fallujah, once the “mother of mosques,” people are rebuilding homes but ignoring wrecked religious sites. “Only old men go to pray,” a 22-year-old says. ISIS’s religion-warped cruelty spoiled the brand. And whereas Iraq’s political parties used to be loudly sectarian, a recent opinion poll showed only 5% of Iraqis would now vote for anyone with a sectarian or religious agenda.

Iraq still has plenty of severe challenges. Governance is still largely shambolic and pervasively corrupt. But the country rebuts cynics who believe people never learn and never change. Progress does happen.

How ironic that while Iraq rises above tribalistic politics, America sinks into it.

Footnote: That photo is of an Iraqi woman after voting in their first post-2003 election. (Fingers are dyed purple to prevent re-voting.) I well remembered seeing the picture at the time; her look of pride and determination moved me deeply. For this blog post I googled “Iraqi woman voting” and happily it came right up. It still thrills me.

Malaysia’s election shocker: good defeats evil

May 10, 2018

In today’s world, with democracy eroding in so many countries, it’s great to see one go the other way. To see some voters, at least, stand up for democratic values, defying extreme efforts to manipulate them otherwise.

Malaysia’s election was expected to follow the trend toward rising authoritarianism, with the ruling party having cynically used every trick to make its ouster a virtual impossibility. Yet it’s been ousted.

I know that happy developments like this can turn sour (like Egypt’s 2011 revolution). Indeed, the Malaysia winner is no knight in shining armor. But still, voters behaved wisely, and this is a good day for believers in “the better angels of our nature.”

Mahathir Mohamad

Here’s the backstory (another of those long-running soap operas playing out on the world stage). Malaysia was ruled since independence (in 1963) by the UMNO party (“United Malays”), its success owing much to racialist coddling of the ethnic Malay majority (as against other ethnicities like Chinese). From 1981 till his 2003 retirement, the Prime Minister was Mahathir Mohamad, who grew increasingly authoritarian.

Anwar Ibrahim

Groomed as Mahathir’s successor was Anwar Ibrahim, until in 1998 Anwar became disenchanted and left the government to found an opposition party. The regime tried to neutralize Anwar by jailing him on what were apparently false charges of “sodomy.” Twice. He’s still in prison.

Nevertheless, Anwar’s opposition coalition remained strong at the polls. In fact, in the previous election, it got more votes than UMNO. But UMNO retained its parliamentary majority by grace of extreme gerrymandering. Malaysia doesn’t have “one man one vote,” and parliamentary districts can vary in population. The regime packed opposition voters into a few huge districts while its own Malay stalwarts are advantageously spread among many small ones.

Najib Razak

UMNO’s latest prime minister was Najib Razak. His regime was noteworthy for billions of dollars going missing from a government development fund, 1MDB. A big chunk of the money showed up in Rajak’s personal bank account. He explained it, straight-faced, as a gift from an unnamed Saudi royal.

So great was the stench that ex-leader Mohamad, now 92, came out of retirement to join, and lead, the opposition in this May’s election. But the government pulled out all the stops to thwart them. Such as a “fake news” law enabling it to jail anyone for saying anything it doesn’t agree with (including, especially, anything about 1MDB; Mohamad was among the first to be prosecuted). And the gerrymandering was made even more outrageously rigged in UMNO’s favor.

Still, for that to work would require some voters to vote UMNO. You can normally count on some voters, at least, taking the party line and doing what they’re told. But in Malaysia, this time, too few did. Despite everything, almost unbelievably, the opposition won a parliamentary majority. Malaysians are celebrating this as a national renewal.

So Mahathir Mohamad has been sworn in as prime minister, again (oldest in the world). He promises that, having little time left, he will use it to clean things up; and that within two years he’ll hand the reins to Anwar Ibrahim. (Well, we’ll see.)

But maybe there’s hope for America too.

A Nobel for Trump?

May 3, 2018

Some credit Trump’s bluster with getting Kim Jong Un to negotiate (hence the Nobel Prize chatter). Or did Kim, instead, see Trump’s behavior as creating an opportunity, to be exploited?

He is not crazy. He sees how hungry Trump is to claim some supposed triumph. Kim is canny enough to do what will achieve his own aims without actually paying a price.

So far, he isn’t paying any. Smiles and hugs are nice but don’t cost anything and don’t really mean anything. He’s decommissioned (he says) a testing facility that was no longer functional, or needed. He’s already got working nuclear weapons and missiles.

And won’t give them up. Qadafy gave up his, and Kim saw Qadafy’s fate — killed by a mob.

Trump says he won’t be played. But he’s already been played. A photogenic meeting with America’s president is a huge propaganda coup, boosting Kim’s status and legitimacy. Price paid: zero.

The two will emerge from their meeting all smiles and hugs. North Korea will be our new BFF — just the kind of country and leader (a cold-blooded murderer) the dotard dotes on.

Kim will agree to disarm. But agreeing, and disarming, are different things. North Korea had previously agreed to disarm, in exchange for goodies and concessions, which they pocketed, and then reneged on their promises. (Our negotiating stance should be to insist on the disarmament they already owe us.) What else will Trump give Kim in exchange for more worthless promises?

A deal worth having cannot come from one meeting. It would require a complex web of safeguards to ensure that disarmament commitments are honored. Will Trump have the preparation, patience, depth of knowledge and understanding, and deference to expert assistance, to negotiate such nitty-gritty? Don’t make me laugh.

In fact, that very kind of nuke deal was what we had with Iran — painstakingly negotiated over years — which Trump is now set to blow up.

He calls it a bad deal. Throwing around such words is his shtick. He’s said the same about NAFTA, the TPP, and Paris Accords. Those too were painstakingly negotiated by people knowing what they were doing — not with irresponsible rhetoric like Trump’s. NAFTA did hurt some Americans — as the TPP would have — but the benefits vastly dwarf the harm. But in Trumpland such facts and realities don’t matter. Just repeat “bad deal, bad deal, bad deal,” everybody but Trump was stupid. And his fans lap up these lies. (While his North Korea deal will be a bad one. Because he is stupid.)

Of course, the Iran deal mainly suffers from having Obama’s fingerprints. A guiding animus of Trump’s presidency is shitting on Obama’s.

Killing the Iran deal will be one of the stupidest things ever. “Bad deal,” Trump says, but can he replace it with a better one? No chance (just like “repeal and replace” re Obamacare). The problem with the Iran deal is that it still enables Iran to get nuclear weapons — eventually. But absent the deal, Iran can get them sooner.* Hastening the very thing Trump says he won’t allow.

If the Iranians were really smart they’d play Trump like Kim Jong Un is doing — renegotiate something Trump can claim is better, even if it’s actually not. But Iran’s leadership (unlike North Korea’s) is too disorganized for that.

And if we cannot get a better deal, what is the alternative? Bombing? It would literally blow up the region, in massive conflict, without damaging Iran’s nuclear program much (but maybe the real aim would be to distract from the Mueller investigation).

Meantime, shredding the Iran deal will also shred America’s credibility as a negotiating partner whose commitments can be relied upon, and our relationships with our chief allies, who are heavily invested in the deal. Further reducing America’s international standing and ability to shape the global landscape, making a more dangerous world.

Sorry, Donald, no Nobel Peace Prize for you. Maybe they can create a Nobel Booby Prize.

*Israel’s intelligence “coup” proving Iran lied in denying nuclear ambitions changes nothing. We knew Iran was going for a bomb. Why else the agreement?

China: the dragon breathes fire

April 26, 2018

Diocletian reformed the coinage too

The Roman Empire had a chaotic patch in the Third Century; most reigns were brief and ended violently. Then came Diocletian, introducing an orderly system with responsibility divided among four rulers, two senior and two junior; the latter would duly move up and appoint new juniors. This “tetrarchy” worked for a short while, until some guys were too power-hungry to accept its constraints.

Deng Xiaoping

China had a chaotic patch between 1966 and 1976, when Mao Zedong’s power unleashed great violence. After his death, Deng Xiaoping, who had twice been purged, emerged as leader. Seeking to prevent a repeat of the Mao disaster, Deng, like Diocletian, established an orderly system of divided authority, including term limits. And like Diocletian’s, this system worked for a while, until one guy was too power-hungry to respect its constraints.

Xi Jinping

That would be Xi Jinping. He has consolidated far more power in his own hands than anyone since Mao; today no one in China but Xi really has much power. And it had become increasingly clear that he wasn’t going to bow out gracefully after 10 years as the Deng system would have required. Now, with little fanfare — and all internet discussion ruthlessly scrubbed — the 10-year limit has been formally abolished. Xi is now ruler for life.

It’s so much easier to amend China’s constitution than ours. Theirs being a charade of a constitution. Another advantage of China’s system. None of the messy public debate or legislative bickering that plague democracies.

The other big thing Deng Xiaoping did was to get China off Maoist-Communist economic madness, opening up to free enterprise. The result has been phenomenal economic advancement, raising hundreds of millions out of poverty. We Westerners had long believed that, as the Chinese gained economic security and affluence, they’d surely demand more say in governance.

That actually seemed to be happening in 1989 — until the regime responded with a bloodbath, showing its adherence to Mao’s dictum that “power comes from the barrel of a gun.” Yet still we continued to reason that such a political model was simply incompatible with a modern, educated, wealthy population.

Xi Jinping is determined to prove otherwise. China’s previous baby steps toward democratization, loosening up, and rule of law are being relentlessly rolled back. All green shoots of civil society not under the regime’s thumb are being crushed. Sperm donors are now screened for political loyalty. Lawyers are no longer even allowed to defend regime targets. Xi is building a Big Brother 1984 surveillance state. As The Economist recently noted, technologists used to scoff that controlling the internet would require hiring hundreds of thousands of secret policemen. “Then China did more or less precisely that.”

China is also deploying a pervasive system of social control, a monster Santa Claus naughty-and-nice list, utilizing “Big Data” to assign citizens points for good behavior and black marks for things the regime doesn’t like. High scorers get favored with privileges; low scorers had better watch out. And the government will indeed be watching for them. It is outfitting policemen with facial recognition software to scan crowds seeking targeted individuals.

And not only within China. Thousands in other countries have been grabbed and whisked back for punishment.

There seems to be remarkably little resistance inside China; nothing resembling the dissident movement that harried the USSR’s regime. Of course, with such strong internet and other social controls, there’s very little opportunity for dissidence to surface. China’s Communist Party is actually more fiercely repressive than its Russian counterpart was (at least post-Stalin), and it’s working. But even so, the populace seems weirdly acquiescent to its massive civic emasculation. Were we wrong after all to consider Enlightenment values human universals? Are the Chinese really that different from us?

Another of our hopes was that a more prosperous China would grow to be a more mature and responsible world citizen, playing nice with others in the global sandbox. That’s not happening either; here too China is going the other way, with Xi flexing his muscles not just at home but abroad. A regular bully China has become, brooking no restraints upon its aggressive aims. Even a previously unthinkable seizure of Taiwan by force begins to seem frighteningly thinkable. Wouldn’t that be just the thing to feed Xi’s strutting vainglory. If Putin could get away with it in Crimea, why not Taiwan?

Xi seems intent on proving us Enlightenment suckers wrong not only for China but for the whole world. How much more comfortable the rulers will be in their Beijing palace if the rest of the world looks more like China than its American antithesis. Xi’s touted “Belt and Road Initiative” is an infrastructure development plan aiming to almost literally bind a big part of the world to China. “Confucius Institutes” proliferate around the globe to promote, in reality, not China’s ancient wisdom but its modern outlook. All over, China is buying up media outlets and pliant political stooges, bullying publications, and making its overseas students into an army of nationalistic propagandists.

If Xi wants to Chinify the rest of the world, Trump seems to wish it too. Thus he mused that maybe America should follow China’s lead and abolish presidential term limits.

America’s war on refugees

April 5, 2018

Way back in 2015 (a different epoch), when I wrote here comparing America unfavorably with Germany regarding refugees, my daughter (working in the Middle East for a refugee aid organization) chided me that we’ve actually taken in more refugees than any other Western nation.

That was then.

My lawn sign

Our annual refugee quota had averaged 95,000. Now it’s been slashed to 45,000, and actual admissions will likely be far lower. Our infrastructure of charities helping refugees is crumbling because the pipeline is running dry. Partly it’s because Trump has put additional restrictions on intake from 11 countries on a secret list, said to include South Sudan, Syria, and Iraq. In other words, many of the people most desperately in need of refuge.

This panders to Trump’s most rabid nativist fans, and reflects his own personal vileness.

He’s also trying to build a wall, impose a Muslim travel ban, kick out dreamers and millions of other undocumented residents, and even to cut traditional legal immigration almost in half. He’s already ordered out tens of thousands of Haitian, Salvadoran, Liberian, and other refugees, many of whom have lived here legally for decades under a special program.

A lot of them are now heading north to Canada: refugees FROM America!

All these policies are not only cruel, but harm our own country. We should welcome immigrants and refugees not just because it’s the right thing to do, the humane thing, but because they’re good for America, making it stronger and better. (As it does for Canada.)

Trump’s saying other countries “send” us their worst people is a moronic lie. Migrants are not sent, they’re self-selected, and those with the courage and grit to leave behind everything familiar and start fresh in a new country are the best people. Certainly better than those creeps who revile them.

It’s a lie that migrants cost us money. To the contrary, their productive efforts and talents add to our national prosperity. In fact, with an aging population (collecting ever more benefits) and declining workforce participation rates, we desperately need the new blood of immigrants to refresh our employment pool. It’s a major reason why America’s economy is fizzier than in other countries even less receptive to immigration.

And it’s a lie that immigrants and refugees cause crime or threaten terrorism. In fact their crime rate is lower than for the native-born. None of the three million refugees we accepted since 1980 has ever been involved in a fatal terrorist attack.

All these lying arguments against immigrants and refugees are fig leaves to cover up the naked truth. This is racism. The people being kept out and kicked out mainly have brown skins. That, plain and simple, is the animus behind Trump’s actions.

He also lies in blaming Democrats for lack of a DACA solution. He himself was responsible for creating the problem in the first place; he lied when he said he wanted a legislative fix; he did his utmost to torpedo every effort. And he blames Democrats. What a sicko.

From The Economist

The Economist’s Lexington columnist (who covers America) wrote recently about a South Sudanese teenager he’d met in an African refugee camp in 2000. Read his great article. That refugee now lives in Michigan in a four bedroom house with two cars; he’s so far contributed over $100,000 in taxes. Lexington tells this success story not because it’s exceptional but because it’s typical. And the goodness doesn’t shine just in America. Most migrants doing well here send money back to home-country relatives, uplifting those people and places too.*

Finally, immigrants and refugees understand and uphold, far better than most natives, what America is all about, the ideals and values it stands for (or used to). Everything Trump turns his back on. He’s un-American.

America was great because it was good. Now it’s breaking my heart.

* I wrote here a poem in 2016 inspired by a Somali refugee. I sent him a check; he told me he sent the money to his mother in Africa.

America Trumped (my “Trolley” article)

March 21, 2018

The wonderful New York State Writers Institute (founded by William Kennedy; headed by Paul Grondahl) has published a very interesting online magazine, The Trolley. (Click here.) I was asked to contribute an article, a follow-up to my blog review of their October symposium on post-truth politics.* The magazine’s inaugural issue focuses mainly on the same general topic.

Since the last election, I’ve been grappling with the really dramatic lurch our civic life has taken into uncharted territory. It has a lot of aspects, and I’ve written a lot trying to unravel them. For this Trolley article, I aimed to draw all these strands together into one big picture, titled America Trumped.

I consider myself a student of history. And we are at an historical hinge point, with huge implications for the future of this country and, indeed, the world. I am not one of those fatalists who believes human beings are at the mercy of forces beyond our control; it’s why I continue to call myself a rational optimist. It is by using our rationality that we can master our situation. That’s how we’ve progressed so enormously since the Stone Age. And in order to master our situation, we must first understand what it is. Such understanding is a key quest in my own life; after half a century at it, I feel I’ve made progress. That’s what I’m trying to share on this blog, and in my Trolley article.

* Find it here; scroll down past a few later posts.