Archive for the ‘World affairs’ Category

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.

Advertisements

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.

The Great Deal-Maker tackles North Korea

March 14, 2018

The Great Deal-Maker, Making America Great Again. First day in office, he hands China — for nothing in return — a gigantic geopolitical boost. The TPP deal we’d painstakingly negotiated with key Asian nations, to set the regional terms of trade to our advantage and stymie China, Trump cancels. China’s rulers high-five each other and chortle.

Then on to the Middle East. Actually bragging that he’s removed an obstacle to peace by taking Jerusalem off the table. What The Great Deal-Maker took off the table was one of our own biggest bargaining chips. Making a peace deal virtually impossible.

All leaders face the problem of residing in a bubble insulated from reality. Trump’s never had much grip on it, and now everyone — his flunkeys, GOP politicians, foreign leaders — see this fool can be played by means of fawning flattery, the more cringeworthy the better. Feeding his delusion that he and all his doings are the greatest. Don’t need no stinkin’ policy briefings, etc. Gets all he needs from his instincts. And Fox Fake News.

So on to North Korea.

I’ll say this much: negotiating is better than a military strike that could well bring about the very thing we should ultimately be aiming to prevent. Not North Korea having nukes, but using them.

Normally, a summit meeting between leaders is preceded by substantive negotiations, adumbrating a deal, to ensure a successful outcome. Then the leader is thoroughly briefed with a clear grasp of all the ramifications and well thought-out responses to whatever the adversary might say. But this isn’t Trump’s style. Don’t need no stinkin’ policy briefings. The Great Deal-Maker will just trust his great instincts and wing it. Greatly.*

Meantime, The Great Deal-Maker has (yet again) already given away — for nothing — one of our biggest bargaining chips. A sit-down with the president of the United States is a huge coup for Kim Jong-un, legitimizing and exalting his status. That might have been dangled to Kim as an inducement to make a deal. Instead, he’ll come to the table having already gained a key objective.

The idea of Trump, unprepared, comprehensively ignorant of world affairs and realities, with his unmediated rat’s-nest of wrong instincts, negotiating directly with Kim Jong-un, is frightening. What else will he give away (removing sanctions — and our troops from South Korea?) in order to brag again about a supposed great triumph? The fool will be played, and rolled.

Trump will come out saying he and Kim got along great. And why not? Birds of a feather. North Korea will be our new friend.

Sure, Kim will agree to give up his nukes. Praise The Great Deal-Maker! Raise the champagne glasses! Kim will pocket all concessions and agree to ditch his nukes — but won’t do it. We’ve seen exactly that movie before with duplicitous North Korea. And Trump won’t nail down the nitty-gritty verification safeguards any North Korea deal should require. Rolled.

The sensible policy toward North Korea would have been to ignore it. It was insane to draw a line in the sand, declaring we won’t allow it having nukes, when it does have them and we have no plausible way to alter that. And the saber-rattling was pointlessly juvenile. Kim surely knows we have the capability to obliterate him. Deterrence was always our implicit policy and nothing more was needed.

Teddy Roosevelt had it right: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Trump speaks loudly and gives away our sticks.

*Crudely firing Secretary of State Tillerson, ostensibly over North Korea policy, was always on the cards since Tillerson called Trump a “moron” (actually “fucking moron”). Everybody sucked into Trump’s orbit gets chewed up and spit out.

China’s culture of corruption

January 25, 2018

We keep hearing how corrupt the U.S. political system is; this fueled the Sanders and Trump revolts. And the problem is real. It’s mainly that political campaigns are costly, and to get the money politicians sell themselves to special interests. (Yet it’s not true that money buys elections. Many well-funded candidates lose.)

China’s system is corrupt on a much deeper level. I say this not to dismiss our problem, nor out of anti-Chinese prejudice. But China looms increasingly large on the world stage – so we’d better understand it.

The Economist recently had an incisive review of Minxin Pei’s book, China’s Crony Capitalism: The Dynamics of Regime Decay. China’s government still owns around half the economy. And while government and party officials generally cannot actually steal these assets, they exploit control over them to enrich themselves. This is exacerbated by decentralization, giving local powers wide-ranging authority.

Government in America at all levels, while not owning assets, nevertheless does impact private financial interests – hence the “pay to play” culture mentioned earlier. But not only does China’s government ownership of commercial assets offer greater scope for chicanery by officials, it’s compounded by China’s very different culture.

Corruption, deceit, and bribery are endemic in every sphere of Chinese life. Getting anywhere is based not on what you know, but who you know – and who you pay off. Combining that culture with a decentralized system wherein officials control commercial assets is a toxic recipe for misfeasance on a grand scale. And worse yet, such exercise of power is not subject to liberal democracy’s checks and balances.

Thus, for example, public contracts in China don’t tend to get awarded without kickbacks. America awards lots of public contracts, but normally through transparent bidding, so Chinese-style bribery seems quite the rarity here. That reflects the profound differences in culture and checks-and-balances. We’ve recently seen just this kind of contracting scandal in New York State. What surprised me was that the culprits imagined they could get away with it. They were nailed by a federal prosecutor (Preet Bharara) who could not be bought off or politically manipulated. Nothing like that exists in China to deter similar misfeasance. And so, as Pei’s book documents, it flourishes there on a monumental scale.

It’s true that President Xi Jinping has mounted an anti-corruption drive, and some big fish have been caught, along with vast schools of smaller fry. Xi seems to realize that public resentment at the depth of corruption threatens regime and party survival. Yet his effort has actually targeted only a small proportion of officials, and its true thrust seems to be more a purge of ones not under his thumb, thus aggrandizing his personal power.*

Xi Jinping

The Economist says Xi’s crusade cannot reach the problem’s roots, which lie in the system itself. China needs democratic checks and balances, such as an independent judiciary, a free press, and political competition. (One should add rule of law.) Xi is going in the opposite direction.

Author Pei is pessimistic. Even a revolutionary overthrow of the regime won’t likely usher a dawn of liberal democracy, he says. Those who acquired inordinate power and illicit wealth will find ways to continue that. Russia and Ukraine are case studies.

America’s better system and culture should not be taken for granted. It’s worrying that ever fewer Americans understand it.

* In China’s system, the leader is supposed to have two five-year terms, then go. It now appears that Xi will ignore that limitation.

Of babies and bathwater

January 15, 2018

Libertarians tend to be skeptical toward government because it too often uses sledgehammers to kill ants, throws babies out with bathwater, and punishes the many for the sins of a few. (Like TSA, incapable of smart targeting, punishes all air travelers; confiscating, because of some past liquid bomb plot, the coffee bottle my wife forgot was in her bag.)

Advocates of free market economics do not actually call for “unfettered” capitalism. Just like we’re all subject to laws against jaywalking and murder, etc., the same principle applies to businesses, to protect us from harm. But there can be too much of a good thing.

India is a clear lesson, having suffered, since independence, from its founders’ infatuation with the idea of socialism, producing an excess of government and regulation. It’s been called the “Licence Raj.” Whatever notional harm this thicket of rules supposedly protected the public against, that was far outweighed by suffocating the economy and thereby keeping Indians a lot poorer than they need have been. (Another sardonic Indian expression for this was “the Hindu rate of growth.”) Thankfully, India started undoing all this after a 1991 financial crisis, and Narendra Modi’s government, elected in 2014, promised to do more to let business do business.

But two recent episodes show that India hasn’t unlearned its bad habits.

Government’s main economic role should not be constraining businesses, but facilitating them, by creating the conditions for commerce to thrive. For example, a sound judicial system wherein legal disputes can be fairly and efficiently resolved. Another critical role is providing a money supply, the lubricant of commerce.

Modi’s government thought it had a problem with tax-evading business people hiding cash. Maybe it did. Its answer was an attempt to catch them out by invalidating, on short notice, the highest value banknotes — 86% of the money in circulation! Economic chaos ensued with citizens queuing for hours outside banks trying to exchange their old notes — with strict limits — for new ones that were in short supply — prompting a mad scramble to find other ways to buy, sell, and get paid. While many poor people lost savings.

Punishing the many for the sins of a few; a sledgehammer to kill an ant; a baby thrown out with bathwater. (Meantime, it doesn’t even seem that black marketeers were inconvenienced much. Unsurprisingly, they found ways around the restrictions.)

Now a second Indian tale. Another problem is rampant car crashes, often caused by drunk driving. India’s latest brilliant answer: a Supreme Court ruling barring alcohol sales within 500 meters (about 1500 feet) of a state or national highway. Location near a highway used to be advantageous for such businesses. No longer. Indeed, the ruling could potentially close 100,000 bars, costing a million jobs.

Punishing drunk driving makes sense. Punishing an entire legitimate industry– indeed, the entire country — does not. More sledgehammers and ants; babies and bathwater. The victims of this insanity also include state and local governments, which stand to lose billions in alcohol taxes. But many are taking evasive action, by hastily reclassifying state highways into district or municipal roads. Some wags say the true reading of the new rule is “No road shall be classified as a highway within 500 meters of a bar.”

Maybe India will next literally require throwing out babies with bathwater. As a population control measure, of course.

The Soul of the First Amendment

November 27, 2017

How far should free speech go?

Floyd Abrams is the country’s leading First Amendment lawyer. I bought his book, The Soul of the First Amendment, at the recent symposium on the post-truth culture (mainly for the opportunity to shake his hand).

The book’s introduction discusses my favorite painting: Norman Rockwell’s Freedom of Speech (in his “Four Freedoms” series). If not an artistic masterpiece, it’s a gem of conveying an idea that’s very dear to me. Abrams explains that it illustrates an actual event Rockwell witnessed, at a Vermont town meeting. The speaker was a lone dissenter against a popular proposal. He’s an ordinary working class Joe. A telling detail is the paper protruding from his pocket. It suggests he’s not talking through his hat, but has gathered some information — a point of particular resonance today. And even more so is the painting’s other key feature — the respectful listening by the man’s fellow citizens. For me this painting captures America — and civilization — at its best.

Freedom of speech in America is enshrined by the First Amendment — “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech or of the press . . . .” (The Fourteenth Amendment made it applicable against state governments too.) A key point of the book is how unique this actually is, not only in history, but in today’s world. In fact, no other country so exalts the inviolability of free speech. All others subject it to varying restrictions. And mostly they involve what are basically political concerns — the very sphere wherein freedom of expression is actually the most consequential.

People have been jailed in Europe for the crime of Holocaust denial. That is, advocating a certain interpretation of history. Europe also has many laws against “hate speech,” quite broadly (if vaguely) defined. Abrams cites a Belgian member of parliament prosecuted for distributing leaflets calling for a “Belgians and European First” policy, sending asylum seekers home, and opposing “Islamification.” His sentence included a ten year disqualification from holding office. It was upheld by the European Court of Human Rights! And such a case is not unusual in Europe. Actress Brigitte Bardot was fined 15,000 Euros for writing a letter objecting to how French Muslims ritually slaughter sheep.

America is a free speech paradise in comparison not only to such other places, but to our own past. The First Amendment actually played almost no role in our law and culture until around the mid-20th century. Abrams cites a 1907 Colorado episode. A lame-duck governor, defeated for re-election, exploited a newly passed law to pack the state supreme court with judges who thereupon ruled that he’d actually won the election. A newspaper published an editorial criticizing this ruling. The Colorado court held the editor in contempt. And that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, in an opinion written by the famed Oliver Wendell Holmes.

The idea underlying all these cases is that rights are never absolute, being always subject to a balancing against the public interest. I myself have written that the Second Amendment’s “right to keep and bear arms” does not mean you can possess howitzers or nuclear weapons. And freedom of religion doesn’t cover human sacrifice. So it’s similarly argued that freedom of speech and press must be balanced against other public goods, and may sometimes be required to give way.

Abrams argues, however, that the First Amendment’s language, absolute on its face, reflects its authors having already performed such a balancing. The benefits to society, to the kind of polity they aspired to create, of unfettered freedom of expression were balanced against what public good might otherwise be promoted. And in that balancing, freedom of expression won out, being found the weightier. It’s more important to have a society with such freedom than, for example, one where religious sensibilities are protected from insult — or where judges are shielded from editorial criticism. That’s why we have the First Amendment, and why it actually does not permit the kind of balancing underlying that 1907 Colorado case. Justice Holmes himself came to repent his decision there, dissenting in similar future cases, and eventually the Court overturned its Colorado ruling.*

As Abrams stresses, the issues raised by the Belgian and Colorado cases go to the heart of the matter: free expression with regard to issues of public concern. This is crucial for meaningful democracy, which requires open debate and dissemination of information, with contesting advocates each subjecting the other’s views to critical scrutiny. Without that, voting itself is meaningless.

The exact same considerations were central to a case Abrams argued before the Supreme Court, which he discusses. He there contended that the government, because of the First Amendment, may not criminalize distribution of a film critical of a presidential candidate. (I quoted Abrams about it on this blog.) He won the case. And given our common understanding of free speech in America, that might seem a no-brainer.

The case was Citizens United, where the movie in question had corporate funding. Abrams is unrepentant and defends the Court’s decision, which has been ferociously assailed for affirming that businesses have the same rights to free speech and public advocacy that individual citizens have, and for allowing them to spend money in such endeavors. Abrams rejects the effort to make a distinction between money and speech, arguing that no right can be meaningful without the concomitant right to spend your money in its exercise. And he insists that businesses, being part of society, must have the right to participate in public debate.

Abrams cites here a case in which Nike was accused of corporate misdeeds and sought to rebut the charges with press releases and publications. For that, the company was sued in California state court under a consumer protection law barring false advertising and the like. The real issue was whether the First Amendment protects Nike’s freedom of speech. When the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, the New York Times submitted a brief which Abrams quotes: “businesses and their representatives have just as much a right to speak out on any public issue as do interest groups and politicians . . . .” And because issues concerning businesses “are increasingly fundamental to the world’s social and political landscape, the withdrawal of corporate voices on those issues from the media would deprive the public of vital information.” Abrams deems the newspaper’s stance there starkly at odds with the position it later took on Citizens United, where the issue was really the same. Issue advocacy, and backing candidates for office, stand on identical ground as far as the First Amendment is concerned.

For me personally, all this is not abstract, but essential to my being. Abrams discusses the landmark case of Times v. Sullivan, which particularly protects criticism of public officials. That saved my butt in 1973 when I was sued for millions by guys whose misconduct I mentioned in a book on local politics. I love the freedom to express myself like that, and in this blog. I’ve been called fearless but the fact is, in America, there’s nothing to fear. In most other places blogging like mine requires a courage I probably don’t have. People literally risk their lives, and some have been killed.

Abrams notes Europe’s “right to be forgotten,” with search engines being required to erase true information about people when requested, such as reports on criminal convictions. I blogged about this in 2009 (again quoting Abrams), when two convicted German murderers, Wolfgang Werle and Manfred Lauber, sued to erase their names from Wikipedia. In defiance of that affront to freedom of information, I made a point of putting their names in my blog post, and do so again here. God bless America and the First Amendment!

* Yet even this right isn’t actually absolute. The First Amendment doesn’t protect libel or slander, child pornography, or shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater (as the same Justice Holmes famously explained).

The indictments

October 31, 2017

Paul Manafort, who was chairman of Trump’s campaign, made millions from some of the world’s worst villains (like the murderer Putin), advising them how to crush opposition. Why they’d hire this creep is beyond me. Manafort did such a great job advising Ukraine’s Yanukovich that Yanukovich wound up having to flee the country. (The revolt against him was what triggered the Russian invasion.)

Manafort’s dirty work might actually have been legal — had he done it on the up-and-up. But he is charged with failing to file the disclosures and reporting required for such work, with money laundering of his fees, and dodging income tax on them. Also for conspiracy against the United States — undermining America’s national interests.

This is who Trump chose to run his campaign, and continued to praise as a wonderful fellow.

Now the White House claims the charges against Manafort are ancient history, predating the campaign. In fact Manafort’s sleazy work continued long after. Anyway, the line also goes, the indictments have nothing to do with the campaign itself, or its collusion with Russia. That too is a lie. In fact, George Papadopoulos* was indicted for lying to the feds about his campaign-related contacts with Russians. He has pled guilty.

The White House falsely says Papadopoulos was merely a low level “volunteer.” (Press Secretary Sanders used the word 14 times.) Papadopoulos’s guilty plea states that he served the Trump campaign as a foreign policy adviser. (The evidence corroborates this.)

Watch for a ferocious smear campaign against Special Counsel Mueller.

The other line, of course, is Hillary! Hillary! Witch! That she’s the real culprit. This would be risible if so many fools didn’t fall for it. Hillary (I was no fan) did some wrong things, but on the whole served the nation honorably and with distinction, upholding its fundamental values. Trump’s whole life story is nothing but wrong things, he serves nobody but himself, he dishonors the nation, and trashes its values.

Will Trump pardon these creeps? I doubt it. He pardoned Arpaio just to score political points with his most retrograde fans. There’s no political gain in pardoning Manafort & company. He’ll throw them under the bus.

* Greece had a military dictator with that name. Coincidence?

The Iran Deal — more Trump destructivism

October 13, 2017

Must I address every Trump atrocity? (Actually I don’t, it’s impossible; I haven’t discussed the NFL nonsense.) But I feel a civic duty to call out truly bad stuff.

Even The Great Liar can’t say Iran actually violated the nuclear deal, to justify trashing it. Instead his fig leaf is to claim it somehow harms U.S. security interests. But that too is a great lie. What does harm our security interests is trashing the deal.

Iran is a bad actor in many ways, yes. But the deal at issue is limited to just the nuclear program. Will undoing it make Iran a better global citizen? Certainly not; to the contrary, it will remove any leverage we have over Iran, and thus any constraints on its behavior. Is that in our national security interest?

It’s argued the deal was a bad one because it won’t stop Iran’s nuclear program. But the whole point was instead to slow the program, subject it to international inspection, and buy time. That was the best we could achieve; Iran would never agree to give up its nuclear ambitions entirely. Those who criticize the deal offer no plausible path to a better one. While undoing the deal will free Iran to go full speed ahead to a bomb, with no international inspections or other restraints. Is that in our national security interest?

But it gets worse. The Iran deal represented the kind of American leadership Trump refuses to understand. We led the international coalition of nations joining in this effort. Those others strongly support the deal. What will they think if we wreck it, reneging on the deal we had committed to? Will they look to us for leadership in the future? Will anyone make any deals with a nation that can’t be trusted to fulfill them? Or was that not covered in The Art of the Deal?

Remember the term “rogue nation?” I used to bristle when anti-Americans turned it against us. It was untrue before; but now, alas, it is true.

Abdicating America’s global leadership role leaves a void that Russia and China are all too eager to fill.

Is that in our national security interest?

Trump’s action quite simply makes no sense (except, of course, pandering to his know-nothing base). However, in typical Trump fashion, there’s less here than meets the eye — yet another in the unending saga of Trump flim-flams. It doesn’t actually tear up the Iran deal. Instead it bucks the issue over to Congress, to restore sanctions. But even if Congress does nothing, that won’t repair the grave damage to America’s international credibility and standing.

101 Stumbles in the March of History

September 19, 2017

This 2016 book, by Bill Fawcett, is a compendium of historical might-have-beens. Decisions and choices the author deems mistakes, along with speculation about how differently subsequent history might have unfolded. He’s fond of saying, “It would have been a hundred times better if . . . .”

One could read this and conclude that people — even great personages — are screw-ups. But two things must be kept in mind. First, history encompasses zillions of decisions and choices people made. Finding among them 101 mistakes is all too easy. Especially if (second point) you use 20-20 hindsight. I recall how Gibbon, in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, loved applying the word “rash” to actions that turned out badly. Fawcett, in contrast, especially in military situations, often castigates undue timidity. Dumb rashness versus admirable boldness may be discernible after the fact, when we know how things turned out. It may not have been so clear at the time when the decision had to be made, often on the fly, without a crystal ball. And all too often the outcome hinged not so much on how smart the decider was, how rash or prudent, but how lucky.

For each “mistake,” Fawcett spins a counter-factual history, typically seeing a modern world surprisingly different, and usually better. These stories I found pretty laughable in their details; too facile and pat. History is messy. If one thing comes through from this book, it’s how contingent history is. Change any detail about the past, even a small one (“for want of a horseshoe nail . . .”), and the difference may well cascade through time, an historical “butterfly effect.” (The idea that a butterfly flapping its wings in, say, Brazil, can cause a storm in Canada.) And the law of unintended consequences is powerful. The results from changing something about the past might have confounded our expectations, good or bad, however logical those expectations might seem.

So one can never know what the final outcome of any action will be. Supposedly, Chinese Foreign Minister Chou En-lai, when asked about the impact of the French Revolution, replied “Too soon to tell.”

I’ve always been highly cognizant of contingency in life. I’ve written about this — how different, for example, my own subsequent life would have been, if I hadn’t happened to walk on a particular street at a particular minute on April 1, 1975. Several other people’s lives would be dramatically different too! (I can think of at least five offhand, two of whom wouldn’t even exist.) And that walk was only one link in a complex chain of consequential contingencies.

It’s customary in book reviews to cite at least one fact (usually minor) the author flubbed, to show off the reviewer’s erudition. This book is actually shot through with sloppy mistakes, often dates. Andrew Johnson was sworn in as vice president in 1865, of course, not 1864. Et cetera.

But here is one fascinating historical might-have-been, in the book. Why didn’t the Confederacy make military use of slaves? They had millions! In fact, it was proposed to offer freedom for serving in the army. It could have doubled Southern forces. And it was done, but only at war’s end, too little and too late. The fact was that the rebs were just too racist and contemptuous of blacks to stomach the idea of fighting alongside them. Even if it might have won the war. (Probably not; but you never know, history is messy.)

The last item in the book is something I myself, at the time, did see as a stupendous blunder: disbanding Iraq’s army in 2003. But at least two other recent biggies are inexplicably omitted (mistakes by Fawcett himself):

For 2000, he gives us Blockbuster’s refusal to partner with Netflix. Yet a vastly more consequential error that year was Yasser Arafat’s rejection of a very generous peace deal. It was all too foreseeable that immense evil would flow from this.

In a similar category was Obama’s 2013 decision to punt to Congress on punishing Syria for crossing his chemical weapons red line. Hearing his announcement, I could scarcely believe its stupidity.

Perhaps coming too late for inclusion were two epochal 2016 blunders. One was Britain’s Brexit vote. The resulting mess seems to grow daily. So deeply has Britain’s politics been poisoned that The Economist now sees the unthinkable as almost inevitable: Red Jeremy Corbyn becoming prime minister. Goodbye, mother country.

The other of course was our own 2016 vote — which America’s future Gibbon will surely label “rash.”

Moving pictures, Myanmar, and Rohingyas

September 12, 2017

My masthead declares me an optimist but a rationalist. Humanity is on an upward path, but nothing is ever simple, it’s strewn with pitfalls. Seeming triumphs often sour.

I keep an imaginary “rogues gallery” — pictures of the world’s worst villains. Whenever I can draw a big black “X” across one of those faces, it gives me great satisfaction. But unfortunately those seem outnumbered by newly added faces.

And alas my gallery of heroes* is much the smaller one. Villainy is far easier than heroism. The latter, of course, requires courage, a willingness to do right at personal risk or cost. That’s rare. (I don’t know how courageous I’d be if really tested.)

But especially rare — and sad — is moving a picture from that gallery to the other.

Aung San Suu Kyi has certainly been heroic. Read my 2012 blog post about her. Myanmar’s (Burma’s) vile military regime long kept her under house arrest. When finally allowing free elections, the generals first stipulated, in the constitution, that no one married to a foreigner could be president. Suu Kyi’s late husband was British. But after her party swept the elections, she installed a placeholder president and created for herself a new position from which to run things.

So nominally at least Aung San Suu Kyi is now, at long last, Myanmar’s leader. O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! He chortled in his joy.

But I say “nominally” because Myanmar’s military was unwilling to cede all power. A familiar story: not only do those in power enrich themselves by it, they dare not relinquish it and expose themselves to comeuppance for their crimes. So Myanmar’s military-written constitution leaves the army with great power, outside civilian control.

The Rohingyas are a despised Muslim minority in mostly Buddhist Myanmar, concentrated in remote Rakhine state. Most Burmese see them as illegal immigrants, despite living there for generations. They’ve been persecuted since the ’80s. Now it’s become a genocidal progrom, the army using insurgent attacks as a pretext for a mass rampage of rape, burning, and killings, apparently aiming to eliminate the Rohingyas from Myanmar. Local Rakhine Buddhists have joined in the violence (and you thought Buddhists were peaceful). At least a couple hundred thousand Rohingyas have fled, under appalling conditions, to nearby Bangladesh.

And where is Suu Kyi in all this? Nowhere.

Before the election, her silence was understandable, even defensible, so the explosive Rohingya issue would not derail the transition to democracy. And even now, she doesn’t really call the shots, governing only on the army’s sufferance. She does not command it. It’s perhaps even conceivable that a clash with the army over its Rohingya atrocities could provoke a coup, ending Myanmar’s new hard-won (quasi) democracy. One can’t be heroic all the time. Maybe she’s acting prudently; “discretion is the better part of valor.”

But “[t]the time for such delicacy is past,” The Economist writes. “Democracy is of little worth if it entails mass displacement and slaughter.”

That’s happened too many times. We say “never again,” but somehow always let it happen again. When the 1994 Rwanda genocide erupted, Bill Clinton worked mightily at the UN — to block any response. It would have been just too hard, messy, and politically hazardous. So is it always.

So it may be for Suu Kyi. But this is her greatest test. The Economist notes that even if lacking legal authority, she “retains immense moral authority.” If her life has true meaning, she must act now. Come what may.

I hate to move pictures. This one would be especially painful.

*When I was a teenager, besotted with politics, that gallery was literal, with framed signed photos of my idols. I cringe recalling some of them now. One, in more mature perspective, certainly belonged in the other gallery . . . . We grow up.