Archive for the ‘World affairs’ Category

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.”

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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.

Good news from Kenya

September 2, 2017

Did you hear the big news from Kenya? Its Supreme Court annulled the president’s re-election. And he accepted it.

Africa’s post-colonial history has been mostly a sorry tale of “big men” ruling tyrannically, with massive corruption. Such bad governance has been the key factor keeping most Africans poor. But positive change has been happening in many places.

I wrote recently of The Gambia, whose president lost an election, and was persuaded to go by neighboring countries sending troops to push him. Now Kenya’s story is another unprecedented milestone.

Kenyatta

Kenyan politics is rumbustious and very tribal. The 2007 elections instigated horrible violence. Corruption has been huge. The latest vote was a rematch between President Uhuru Kenyatta (son of Kenya’s first president) and Raila Odinga (son of its first VP). Days before the election, the guy in charge of its computer systems was murdered by torture. Kenyatta had been tipped to win, but his margin exceeded expectations. Odinga cried foul, charging a massive hack of the election system. But, despite some obvious irregularities, a team of international observers gave the election a passing grade.

Odinga. Take your pick

Nevertheless, the Supreme Court upheld Odinga’s challenge and voided the election. Kenyatta blasted the ruling, yet (probably confident of winning the re-vote) said he would accept it. This seems to be a first for Africa.

I hope (but doubt) our own president will be equally accepting when the time comes.

Kenya’s news is especially welcome when democracy is being battered in so many places (including America). Though I realize life is complicated, and good news often sours. I was enthusiastic about Egypt’s 2011 revolution, and even applauded President Morsi’s later ouster. That turned out badly; Egypt is now more repressive than ever. I wrote a blog post titled “Democracy Wins in Thailand;” that proved short-lived too, and Thailand today has a vicious military dictatorship.

But as I keep saying, history never runs in a straight line. And I’ve quoted Martin Luther King that the Universe’s moral arc is long but bends toward justice. That isn’t some inherent cosmic law. Rather, it’s that human beings have intelligence and rationality, whose usage expands as our material circumstances improve, freeing people from desperation, and empowering them with more education and knowledge. This is why, despite setbacks, our future is bright.

The Economist: A love letter

August 31, 2017

On this blog I’ve frequently cited The Economist. It’s a news magazine (though Britishly calling itself a “newspaper”). I’ve subscribed for about thirty years. The Economist is my friend, almost a lover even, integral to my existence.

Maybe because I was a socially awkward youth, wordly clueless, I’ve always had an ache for understanding. To know what’s going on, and why. This The Economist provides. It keeps me informed about every corner of the globe (and in today’s interconnected globalized world, it all matters). And much of it is deeply fascinating, like a great global “Game of Thrones” with hundreds of characters and story lines. Take Venezuela’s for example, a dramatic tale (indeed, a morality tale), unfolding for a quarter century. The Economist provides a ring-side seat. Much of this stuff never makes it into newspapers or other sources.

The Economist doesn’t merely report events, it analyzes them. And furthermore it has a definite point of view, not only expressed in its editorials (called “leaders”) but also infusing its news coverage. It is the stance of classical liberalism, the philosophy of thinkers like John Stuart Mill, aiming to maximize human liberty and flourishing, through limited, democratic, accountable government, and openness to ideas, enterprise, commerce, and human variety. Indeed, it was specifically to oppose Britain’s “corn laws” (restricting free trade) that the publication was launched in 1843.

Did I fall in love with The Economist because its philosophy matched my own, or did the magazine shape my outlook? Probably some of both. Anyhow it’s rare for me to disagree with it. (There were some baffling past presidential election endorsements which seemed at odds with the magazine’s editorial stance.)

So far I may have made it sound dry. It is not. The writing is often a pleasure to read and is full of droll wit. I recall one report, quoting Cuba’s Raul Castro saying Honduras should be sanctioned because its president (arguably) wasn’t seated democratically. “Castro said this,” The Economist wrote, “with a straight face.”

So The Economist has no time for cant or hypocrisy. The magazine tells it like it is – often with delicious zingers.

And not just with words. Its covers too can be a hoot. One gem depicted the European nations, when confronted with a threatening Russia, collectively as a quivering jelly mold, with their cringing faces.

The magazine also covers business, finance, science, and the arts, including excellent book reviews. And the final page always provides a parting treat: an obituary. Yes, its obits too are flavorful reading, often about less famous personages, but always interesting ones. Or at least The Economist seems able to make them so.

Depicting France’s Macron; the feet sticking up are Theresa May’s

I’m pleased to have gotten into its pages a few times myself, with letters-to-the-editor. (The latest responded to an article about violence in Baltimore, pointing to the drug war as a major cause.)

I wish more people read it. Many of the world’s movers and shakers certainly do, but not enough of them. It’s dismaying when folks aspiring to (or exercising) leadership are so ignorant about the world. An Economist reader would never have said, “What’s Aleppo?”

North Korea: fear the madman

August 9, 2017

We keep hearing about the “madman” in Pyongyang. Is Kim Jong Un bad? Yes. Mad? Probably not. It’s the guy in D.C. who’s both.

Kim doesn’t have to be told that attacking America would be suicide. Trump’s “fire and fury” declaration was brainless bluster serving no purpose except foolhardy provocation. He warned Kim against any further threats. Kim promptly responded with a new threat. Where will this schoolyard standoff end?

As long as it’s just a war of words, okay. But this is recklessly dangerous because North Korea in the past has shown a penchant for military provocation too, as with its 2010 bombardment of a South Korean island. In today’s belligerent climate, the moment one side or the other does the least thing military, the risk of tit-for-tat escalation will be severe. Neither will back down readily.

The Economist recently ran a detailed scenario for how it could well unfold, ending in nuclear warfare with mass casualties. Either side could all too easily miscalculate. And Trump is no paragon of finesse.*

So what should we do about North Korea? I’ve wrestled with this problem before. Right now, the answer is: just shut up. Trump’s chest thumping achieves nothing except to make things worse.

We don’t have to do anything. Kim will not commit suicide by attacking us unless we force him to.

It’s the madman in the White House I fear.

* He might even calculate (insofar as he’s capable of such) that war with North Korea would produce a “rally ’round the flag” effect, just the thing to bury his Russia troubles on page 8.

Venezuela’s tragedy: be careful how you vote

August 8, 2017

Chavez & his mentor

It began in 1992 when paratrooper Hugo Chavez tried a military coup. He failed and was jailed, but vowed he wasn’t done. Released, in 1999 he won a democratic election as president.

Be careful how you vote.

Chavez strutted as an adversary of “U.S. imperialism” and avatar of “21st century socialism,” earning adoration from a Hollywood claque and the usual left-wing moral morons, bedazzled by the word “socialism” into excusing all manner of anti-democratic repression.

Chavez did enjoy much genuine support among poorer Venezuelans, whom he basically bought off by distributing the country’s oil wealth — while he crippled that very industry by nationalizing it and stuffing its ranks with political types, and wrecking the rest of Venezuela’s once-rich economy with an insane farrago of anti-market, statist policies.

Dwindling oil revenues could not sustain the game, the rich got poorer, and so, ultimately, did the poor too. Chavez died of cancer at 58 in 2013 before the mierda fully hit the fan. His chosen successor, former bus driver Nicolas Maduro, narrowly won a 2013 presidential election.

Maduro

Be careful how you vote. Though Maduro’s win was almost surely fraudulent, he couldn’t have pulled that off without votes from nearly half the electorate.

Then Venezuela really went off the rails, the economy collapsing in structural disarray, producing nothing, inflation exploding, people unable to get food or medicine. Instead of reversing the economic idiocies causing this, Maduro doubled down, and blamed the troubles on supposed U.S.-inspired sabotage. But few fell for this nonsense, his political support also collapsed, and the opposition won big in 2015 congressional elections. Only more fraud and manipulation denied them a decisive two-thirds majority. Maduro’s policy was now to intimidate, emasculate, and simply disregard the congress.

Meantime, the opposition also gathered more than enough signatures to force a presidential recall vote, pursuant to the Chavez-promulgated constitution. That too the regime quite simply disregarded, refusing to hold the vote.

All this plays out against a background of increasing repression (opponents jailed; forget a free press) and rising violence as protests by an increasingly desperate citizenry escalate, and the regime responds brutally. Its intransigence made negotiation efforts useless. President Maduro, who cannot win a fair vote, has now moved to seal Venezuela into a Cuban-style dictatorship by convening an all-powerful “constituent assembly” of handpicked stooges to supplant the congress and rewrite the constitution. That assembly’s “election” was — of course — another farcical fraud. (Even the company that ran it said so.)

Ortega

One of the assembly’s first acts was to fire Attorney General Luisa Ortega, a former regime stalwart, with at least a vestige of integrity that couldn’t stomach Maduro’s extreme illegal power grab, which she condemned.

And where, in all this, you might wonder, is the army? Why doesn’t it step in to protect the constitution, congress, and democracy? Because the army is part of the regime, long since packed with loyalists. Its guns are what really keep Maduro in power. It’s the army brass, not the people, he needs to keep happy. And this is not about ideology. The “socialist” and “anti-imperialist” rhetoric continues, but that’s just a fig-leaf cover for the reality. The regime, and its army, are a gang of thugs ruling Venezuela exactly as Al Capone ruled Chicago, and for the same purpose — their own criminal enrichment.

As ordinary Venezuelans sink into an abyss of deprivation, the regime and its army feed off their flesh and suck their blood. Having destroyed the normal economy, so that not even food can be purchased normally, the army has been tasked with bringing in and selling food — profiting hugely. It’s grubby fingers are in many other businesses too. Further, while the currency has become virtually worthless, they maintain an inflated official exchange rate, at around 1,000 times the Bolivar’s actual value. Why? Only insiders can exchange Bolivars for Dollars at that phony rate, plundering the state to enrich themselves. That’s why they won’t give up power. And because if they do, they’d expect punishment for their crimes.

Here is your “21st century socialism.”

What is the sad lesson of Venezuela? Be careful how you vote.

Trump and Russia

July 15, 2017

This is a big deal. A very, very big deal.

Thing 1 and Thing 2

When Creepo Junior was offered campaign help from a representative of a hostile foreign government, the correct response was to call the FBI. Not, “I love it.”

Whether the law was violated is murky (depends on whether an offer of assertedly useful information amounts to a campaign donation). But the violation of fundamental precepts is crystal clear. You do not collude with a hostile foreign government for its help in a U.S. election campaign. An absolute no-no. Even the most brain-dead Trump asskisser should be able to grasp this.

That is why, for months, Creepo Senior repeatedly denied any such collusion. Of course he was lying. Surprise? If Donald Trump says the sun is shining, better grab your umbrella.

And even in their pretence of phony transparency, supposedly coming clean about that meeting with a Kremlin-connected Russian operative, the Trumps still did not in fact come clean — failing to mention the attendance of someone else — a former Russian spy!!

Rinat Akhmetshin, ex Russian spy

Let me repeat that. The Trump campaign’s highest honchos met not only with a Kremlin fixer, but also a former Russian spy, and covered it up.

This isn’t “fake news” or a “witch hunt,” or a mere “distraction.” It proves — as if it still needed proving — that Putin’s regime did try to mess with our election. To subvert our democracy. To elect its preferred candidate, Trump. And if the Trumps, in colluding with them, did not technically commit treason, it sure smells pretty close.

Even after being caught with his pants down so flagrantly on this, Trump still could not restrain his deranged compulsion to spin what is, to any non-brain-dead observer, blatant bullshit, arguing publicly that the Russians actually must have preferred Hillary. This insult to intelligence shows his contempt for the poor creeps who still worship him.

And what does all this do to America’s standing in the world? When it’s obvious, to every foreign leader, that our president is a total piece of garbage whose every word is worthless?

“Make America great again.” Look upon this greatness, and despair.

“The Fix” — What is real leadership?

July 9, 2017

Jonathan Tepperman’s book The Fix is prefaced with a quote: “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it, misdiagnosing it, and then misapplying the wrong remedies.” It’s from Marx. (Not Karl but Groucho.)

My daughter gave me this book for Christmas. The Fix is great.

Its subtitle is How Nations Survive and Thrive in a World in Decline. Tepperman begins, like my own Rational Optimism book, with “The Litany” — the familiar catalog of everything wrong with the world. Admittedly that list has grown since I wrote in 2008. Yet I still don’t see, in the big picture, “a world in decline.”

Neither does Tepperman, really. He deploys exactly what I meant by rational optimism — not Pollyanna’s rose-colored glasses, but a belief that problems can be solved through reasoned effort. He discusses ten in particular (“the terrible ten”) and, for each, how one nation at least did solve it. Mostly how leaders solved them, because leadership is key.

Lula

The first issue is inequality; the country Brazil; the leader Lula. Of course Brazil hasn’t completely eradicated inequality, but it was previously one of the most unequal nations, and has made great strides. Lula came to the presidency in 2003 (on his fourth try) seen as a Marxist radical. But he defied expectations by acting instead as the most orthodox steward of the economy. That gave him the credibility to implement his Bolsa Familia program.

Government programs for the poor typically entail “doing things for them” — which is complicated, inefficient (much bureaucracy), costly, and prone to corruption. Bolsa Familia instead just hands out cash. But to get it, your kids must go to school and get immunizations and medical check-ups. This helps them escape the poverty trap, with better future prospects. Also smart is giving the money to the mothers, sidestepping feckless dads and empowering women. And its simplicity makes the program actually quite cheap, costing less than half a percent of GDP; moreover, by turning the poor into consumers, it boosted the economy, arguably more than paying for itself. All this helped sell the program to skeptics.

Next is immigration, and Canada — one of the world’s most welcoming nations. In fact, Canada seeks out people to come — most of them nonwhite. It uses a point system encompassing factors like education and skills (in contrast to America’s relationship-based system — “extremely irrational” says Tepperman).

Canada’s system developed to kill two birds with one stone. The vast nation was underpopulated. And it was experiencing ethnic tension between English and French speakers. The solution, spearheaded by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, was to subsume those differences into a broader ethos of multiculturalism.

The point system makes most Canadians see immigration as a plus, without the kind of xenophobic feelings so prevalent elsewhere. In fact, most actually consider multiculturalism important to their national identity.

On December 10, 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Pierre’s son) stood in an airport arrivals hall handing out winter coats to the first of the 25,000 Syrian refugees Canada was welcoming. “You’re safe at home now,” he told them. While Trumpmerica currently bars all Syrian refugees.

But America is not the book’s villain. Indeed, one of its chapters is a good news story about the USA (imagine that). It concerns our recent energy revolution. (What, you didn’t notice?) It’s the fracking explosion (poor choice of words) to extract natural gas from shale, turning America into one of the world’s biggest energy producers.

No other country has tapped into shale gas to such an extent. Tepperman explains why. American property owners (unlike elsewhere) own everything under their land. That creates a huge incentive to exploit those resources; which has led to a proliferation of small energy companies; and competition among them has triggered a wave of technological innovation.

Remember how we pined for “energy independence?” Seemed hopeless — until the frackers got busy and started producing. Likewise all the Cassandra warnings about “peak oil.” Don’t hear that phrase much anymore either.

But I know what you’re thinking. At one time our local paper was filled with almost daily commentaries and reader letters expressing fear of fracking — a widespread movement which led some jurisdictions, including New York State and much of Europe, to ban it. But Tepperman dismisses all that fearmongering in barely a paragraph. The fact is that while fracking does (like every technology) entail risks, it has advanced sufficiently to deal with them quite well. So fracking has gone on for years now, producing bazillions of granfaloons of energy, and all the horror stories have proved to be basically chimaeras.

Peña Nieto

Another tale concerns Mexico, but has great relevance for the U.S. Mexico’s President Peña Nieto came to office upon a background of bitter partisan gridlock, among three main parties, no less. But he initiated a dialog among key leaders, that wound up committing all three parties to a big package of important reforms.

How was this remarkable breakthrough achieved? Tepperman: “quiet negotiations, painful compromise, political leaders willing to take risks and keep their word, and above all a recognition that zero-sum politics accomplishes nothing.” He also stresses the virtues of pragmatism as opposed to wearing ideological blinders. I was surprised Tepperman didn’t quote Deng Xiaoping: “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.” Deng was defending policies that shredded Communist orthodoxy. Of course, ideologies are not arbitrary irrelevancies: we have reasons for what we believe, and those beliefs guide what one thinks is the right answer to a problem. But the trouble is that other people may think differently. Tepperman argues for satisficing — making the kinds of compromises among competing viewpoints and interests such that everyone gets something, though nobody achieves their maximum goals. As ever: don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Returning to Mexico’s reform pact, Tepperman sees no reason, in principle, why it couldn’t be repeated in America. I’m skeptical. While Mexico’s deal did encounter cries of “Treason!” such compromises here would meet a firestorm from enflamed partisans. And as Tepperman highlights, Mexico’s political parties were losing popularity because of the prior stalemate. America’s geographic political segregation and gerrymandering create a different set of incentives; despite abysmal approval ratings for Congress, its members almost all get re-elected.

Still, one of the book’s key points holds true: leadership matters. America has suffered from a notable lack of the kind of leadership Tepperman depicts. Obama certainly did not have it. He created the Simpson-Bowles commission to produce a big compromise plan like Mexico’s, then walked away from it. Unlike Peña Nieto, Obama was content to let the partisan dynamics just play themselves out, with predictable results. And as for our current president: oy.

Our Gal in Amman (a continuing series)

June 28, 2017

Our daughter Elizabeth soon starts (another) new job, in Amman, Jordan, as project development officer with Right to Play, a Canada-based organization. She’s 24 and this will be her fourth gig already. Kids today — can’t they stick with anything?

She’ll now have worked in three different countries, for organizations headquartered in four other different countries.

She was in Jordan before, then Afghanistan, then Iraq; working for refugee-oriented outfits. Right to Play is different, focusing on giving disadvantaged kids educational opportunities emphasizing play and fun.

That might sound sappy in today’s troubled world. Not so. A lot of our pathologies, particularly terrorism and conflict, are rooted in people who are troubled. Maladjusted for productive societal life. And a couple of books I’ve happened to read lately* drive home how much that’s a product of adverse childhood experience. Children in difficult, dysfunctional, stressful circumstances are often doomed to grow into troubled adults; the kind who strap on suicide vests. Countering that syndrome by exposing kids to positive, life-affirming experiences is a very good idea indeed.

You save the world one person at a time.

* J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, showing how dysfunction is transmitted from generation to generation, by altering brain structure in childhood; and Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream (a gift from Elizabeth) about the drug war, explaining how addiction correlates with childhood trauma.

America’s degradation

June 14, 2017

It always made me sick when anti-Americans (like Noam Chomsky) would smear the U.S. on human rights. Perfect we’ve never been. But compared to all other nations throughout history, none more nobly upheld fundamental human values. And our light grew ever brighter.

But now it’s dimming. This, today, is what makes me sick.

Marco Coello was a high schooler who joined a 2014 demonstration protesting Venezuela’s vile regime. Its President Maduro strives to crush democratic opposition while his insane policies make life a cruel misery for most Venezuelans. This is what Marco protested. Regime thugs seized him, jailed him, put a gun to his head, doused him with gasoline, beat him with various implements including a fire extinguisher, and tortured him with electric shocks.

After several months he was released pending trial, and with his father, somehow managed to flee to America. He got a job and started studying English. And he scheduled an appointment with Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) to begin the process of applying for political asylum.

The U.S. is obligated to recognize valid claims for asylum under a 1951 international protocol, as codified and expanded by the 1980 Refugee Act passed by Congress, which established procedures and set up what is now the CIS to administer them.

Asylum is to be granted when someone legitimately fears persecution in their home country, for race, religion, nationality, political opinion or social group, and its government won’t protect them. In such circumstances the 1951 protocol obliges a nation to not return them to the place where they’d face persecution.

But never mind legal requirements. The U.S. being a haven for oppressed people is, well, who we are.

Correction: were.

Marco’s case, his lawyer thought, would be a slam-dunk. After all, his story was extensively documented in a Human Rights Watch report, and in one by the U.S. State Department itself, on Venezuela’s human rights violations.

Yet when he and his lawyer showed up for the scheduled CIS asylum interview, instead of being told “It’s an honor to meet you,” this torture victim was unceremoniously handed over to the ICE gestapo, who arrested him, handcuffed him, and threw him into a detention facility awaiting deportation.

This is Trump’s unspeakable degradation of our country. Hearing “Make America great again” makes me want to vomit.

(ICE’s pretext in Marco’s case was a misdemeanor on his record for parking on private property — seriously. He’s been released from detention after intercession by Senator Rubio, but still faces deportation. The story is detailed in the New York Times.)