Archive for the ‘World affairs’ Category

Idlib: the coming holocaust

September 17, 2018

Idlib is the last part of Syria still holding out against the Assad regime. Which, together with its Russian, Iranian, and Hezbollah allies, is readying a final gotterdammerung bloodbath, against what will likely be equally ferocious resistance. This will not be good for the two to three million civilians there, who will be blasted, incinerated, poison-gassed, starved, and sucked into Assad’s vast torture-industrial complex. Survivors will be made homeless refugees. Where they can go is unclear.

The words “never again” ring ever more hollow.

It was President Obama’s worst mistake to fail to act at a time when there were actually still good options in Syria; compounding it by failing to act even when Assad crossed Obama’s own declared chemical weapons red line. Instead Obama let himself be snookered by a phony Putin-engineered deal. That itself crossed a red line that gave Assad and Putin a green light to act with impunity.

But after hundreds of thousands of deaths, and millions of refugees, even now it is actually not too late to do something right.

Trump, who conceives himself the total anti-Obama, did ding Assad with airstrikes for a chemical weapons attack. But it was just a pinprick and in reality Trump is actually following Obama’s policy — or non-policy. Indeed, only more so, because his Putin ensorcelment stops his pushing back on anything Russia does.

And Trump’s “policy” makes even less sense than Obama’s because at least Obama was pursuing an arguably desirable strategic objective of engagement with Iran. Trump trashed that, but doesn’t see how his anti-Iran efforts are at odds with his Syria behavior. His only aim in Syria is to defeat ISIS. But ISIS is fighting Iran, and Iran’s client Assad. If Trump really wanted to torpedo Iran, he’d act to stop the victory of the Iran-Assad axis.

And we could. We have the military capability. Some serious bombing could annihilate Assad’s air force and military command-and-control infrastructure. Also what Iran has deployed in Syria.

Trump did apparently, at one point, order Assad’s assassination. Defense Secretary Mattis ignored the order; it was in fact an illegal order (in a normal world, by itself grounds for impeachment). Nevertheless, bombing a presidential palace would be a nice thing to do. If Assad happened to be home, boo-hoo.

NEWS FLASH: Just as I was about to post this, I heard a news report of some kind of deal by Russia and Turkey to establish an Idlib “buffer zone” and put the offensive on hold. Both are bad actors who cannot be trusted.


The Trump Tax on cars

September 6, 2018

NAFTA was a bad deal, the worst deal ever, sending jobs to Mexico. Our imports exceed exports, a bad thing. Trump’s tough talk of tariffs against Mexico made them give us a better deal. A big win. So much winning!

That’s the Trump story. Every word is a lie, including “the” and “to.”

NAFTA reduced trade barriers among Canada, Mexico, and America. This enabled Mexico and Canada to produce and export more — thereby becoming richer, and hence a bigger market for stuff we produce. (After NAFTA we export more to Canada and Mexico than we import from them.) Low production costs in Mexico enable Americans to buy stuff cheaper, and thus to buy more. Which creates more jobs — more than the ones lost to Mexico. That’s how free trade makes everybody better off.

That’s Economics 101. Which Trump flunked. (He got rich as a con artist.)

But isn’t Trump’s new deal with Mexico better for America? No, it’s worse — and worse for Mexico as well. Mexico agreed to it because the Trumpian alternative of full punitive tariffs was worse still (and Mexico’s incoming and outgoing presidents both wanted this issue resolved before the handover).

Cars are the main target. Trump’s deal will make Mexican car production costlier, so more production will occur in America. Good, no? No, because North American car makers don’t compete just against each other, but against the whole rest of the world. Making North American car production more expensive makes it less competitive against cars from all those other countries. And Trump’s idiotic trade policy raises the costs of not only Mexico’s car production, but our own. Cars use a lot of metal, and tariffs on metal, like aluminum, raise prices for it. Surely a plan for killing both U.S. and Mexican jobs and making us all poorer.

We don’t know yet how things will wind up with Canada. But meantime it’s estimated that Trump’s “great deal” with Mexico will add over $2000 to the cost of your next car purchase. Call it the Trump MAGA tax. (But don’t forget the big tax cut he gave millionaires.)

The polygamy problem

August 17, 2018

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Or several, in many places in the world.

We don’t realize how common this is — men using wealth to get multiple wives (and more sex). But why buy cows if you can just buy the milk? Buying sex, in many places, is neither easy nor socially acceptable, whereas polygamy can be. It’s indeed widespread in Africa, the Arab world, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere.

Some men attract multiple partners through charisma. And it’s endemic among religious gurus. Joseph Smith may have concocted Mormonism just so he could one day announce God’s polygamy plan (for him). But mainly, it’s simply wife-buying. There’s typically a “bride price” (the converse of a dowry), paid to the girl’s family.

Where that’s practiced, it militates toward older husbands and younger wives. Men may need time to accumulate the required sum; and then will want to invest it in the youngest possible (most nubile and fertile) girl. And most families need to sell their daughters before they can afford wives for their sons.

Love and romance? Since when did that figure in marriage? Only since modern times, actually, and mainly in advanced societies.

Polygamy is a factor keeping societies from becoming advanced. It plays havoc with societal stability. There are only so many women to go around (especially in male-obsessed cultures that practice selective abortion and female infanticide). But even without that, for every man with three wives, two others will have none.

Did you ever wonder, regarding those Mormon sects with multiple wives, what happens with all the men necessarily left in the lurch? The answer is simple — they’re kicked out. The elders who call the shots use various pretexts to banish young men who don’t suck up enough, so they can monopolize the girls and build their harems.

But most polygamous societies can’t just make their excess males disappear — and that’s explosive. Young men barred from sex will do almost anything for it. This makes such societies hotbeds of violence and turbulence. They’re actually the ones most likely to spark wars. On one NGO’s list of the world’s 20 least stable countries, polygamy is practiced in every one.

Take South Sudan, embroiled in a horrific civil war. Ethnic antagonisms, weak institutions, and oil wealth for greedy politicians to grab, are all factors. But rampant polygamy is a big one too, with the rich and powerful able to hog much of the bride pool, leaving legions of poor young men decidedly uncheerful. Give them guns, and what happens?

South Sudan is cattle country. The bride price ranges between 30 and 300 cows — nearly impossible for most young galoots. Unless they steal cows. And consequently that too is rampant in South Sudan, with thousands killed annually in cattle raids.

A similar pathology explains the success of Boko Haram and Islamic State in recruiting. Not just in the next life are jihadists promised virgins. These organizations capture women and parcel them out to their fighters. Many are fighting for sex, not God.

But if for many men polygamy is bad, it isn’t good for women either. Though it’s easier to get husbands, being treated as a commodity is not conducive to a rewarding marital bond. A wife must compete with other wives for a husband’s good graces. Men who can just buy wives have little impetus to treat them well. And women get trapped in bad marriages because divorce requires refunding the bride price.

Further, having multiple sex partners detracts from a man’s parental devotion. A study of 240,000 children in 29 African countries found that those in polygamous families are far likelier to die prematurely.

Some people argued that allowing gay marriage is a slippery slope to polygamy as well. Libertarianism does say let people do what they want if no one is harmed. And maybe Western democracies with advanced legal protections can avoid polygamy’s harms. Bigamy is banned because it’s usually a kind of fraud, with a victim, but what about consensual polygamy, with women of course being allowed multiple spouses too (minimizing the surplus male problem)? However, consent in this sphere can be a very dicey proposition; and polygamy opens such a can of worms, societally and culturally, that prudence suggests great caution.

Or perhaps multiple marriage should be allowed only for gays — as a kind of affirmative action, compensating for all the time they couldn’t marry at all.

(This essay owes much (including, I confess, the opening) to an excellent feature article in The Economist.)

Bye Bye Britain

August 11, 2018

A parent’s decline and demise is a sad thing. Britain was our mother country.

The Brits turned a bad corner in voting for Brexit — that is, to leave the European Union. Voters bought a false bill of goods about its supposed benefits, including a much-ballyhooed and wholly bogus claim of gaining hundreds of millions of pounds weekly for the National Health Service. (In fact, Britain will have to pay the EU tens of extra billions.) Russia had a hand in this disinformation campaign (and was cheered on by its tool fool Trump); the aim was to weaken both Britain and Europe.

The Brexit vote did in Prime Minister David Cameron, who was then replaced by Theresa May — a hapless mediocrity devoid of Thatcherite intellectual strength.

Theresa May

She opposed Brexit during the referendum, but upon becoming prime minister decided it was her job to fulfill voters’ wishes. Indeed, her mantra became “Brexit means Brexit.”

This refers to the debate over “hard” versus “soft” Brexit — basically whether Britain remains in the European free trade system. Now, the raw truth is that Brexit voters were really mainly voting their hostility toward foreigners and immigrants. They were encouraged to imagine they could have their cake and eat it too — close the doors to migrants but not to trade.

May’s “Brexit means Brexit” catered to this fantasy that Britain could, outside the EU, gain trade terms just as advantageous as inside it. But it’s being punctured in actual negotiations with the EU; they insist that if Britain wants favorable access to the European market, it must accept the free movement of people, and other parts of the EU system.*

So May has been forced to backtrack, and her latest iteration of a negotiating plan looks much more like a soft than a hard Brexit. But hardline Brexiteers in her own Conservative party see this as “betraying the Brexit dream;” two top cabinet members have resigned over it. While the Europeans still don’t think it goes far enough.

Meanwhile the clock is ticking down to the March 29, 2019 deadline for Britain’s departure. It was another big mistake for May to have triggered the 2-year countdown in March 2017 before having clarity about the terms. Now there’s a growing possibility of Britain crashing out of the EU without a deal.

Another of May’s mantras has been “no deal is better than a bad deal.” Indeed, this slogan has been a rare success for her, with polls showing British voters agree by a two-to-one margin. Unfortunately, that actually makes things worse, because it’s really stupid and restricts May’s bargaining room.

It might sound like a tough negotiating stance, but the Europeans consider it an empty bluff because “no deal” would be disastrous for Britain. This is becoming very clear to people thinking seriously about it. There’s now much chatter about “stockpiling” goods against the prospect of big trade disruptions with a no-deal Brexit. But there’s no way Britain could really get prepared for such a dire eventuality.

So May has painted herself into a corner. Either she does slash Britain’s wrists with a no-deal Brexit, or else swallows a soft Brexit deal that’s bound to be pilloried as betraying both of her own key slogans. One that retains so much of the status quo ante that Britons must wonder what the point of Brexit is.

In June 2017, having insisted she wouldn’t call an early election, May reversed herself, aiming to strengthen her parliamentary majority and thus her Brexit negotiating hand. Instead, running an insipid campaign, she lost her majority and now runs a crippled government. It’s becoming hard to see how any Brexit deal, that May manages to negotiate, could pass parliament (especially if, as is likely, the Labour opposition wants to distance itself from her deal and sabotage May’s government).

Now there’s also talk of a second referendum, either to reverse the 2016 Brexit vote, or else between hard and soft Brexit plans. But there’s no sign that Brexit buyer’s remorse has really set in yet, especially with May still suborning the fantasy; nor that voters will now be equipped to make a responsible choice among options. And approving and organizing another referendum now is probably a non-starter.

Comrade Corbyn

Waiting in the wings is the Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn. His winning the next election is taken as almost a foregone conclusion. Young voters in particular seem gaga for him as something new, daring, and fresh. In fact he represents something very old and putrid — Stalinism. Literally; no hyperbole. Corbyn is the quintessential old-time morally blind extreme left hypocrite who’s always prating about the rights of downtrodden people while applauding regimes everywhere most guilty of trodding them down. And he wants to undo everything Thatcher achieved in the ’80s that set Britain on a path to prosperity. Coming on top of Brexit’s economic hit, a Corbyn government would be the coup de grace.

Brexit voters imagined they’d “Make Britain Great Again.” That’s working out as great as on the other side of the pond. It’s a sad decline into senescence for a nation that once indeed ruled the greatest empire in the world, and led it in intellectual and industrial advancement. The classically liberal principles that have guided humanity onward and upward originated in Britain. Now the Brits are losing the thread of all that.

Not so long ago, it might have been said that Britain had passed the torch to America. But America itself today is falling into its own similar political cul-de-sac. It seems the flame is flickering out.

* One vexing problem is that Britain has a land border with the E.U. — between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Everyone agrees that a hard customs border there would be highly undesirable. But no one seems able to figure out how to avoid that, if Britain exits the EU’s customs union.

Fact of the day

August 10, 2018

According to a June 28 article in The Economist, the number of people employed in China censoring internet content is estimated to exceed two million. (Nearly as many are believed to work for the Chinese government “injecting propaganda and misinformation into the social-media flow.”)

Would and wouldn’t

July 19, 2018

Back in my PSC days, a telephone company witness filed prepared testimony containing a huge blunder. On the stand, he said to delete the entire paragraph. Cross-examining, I asked why.

“It was a typo,” he answered, with a straight face.

I was reminded of this by Trump’s Tuesday claim that he’d merely mis-spoken Monday. Faced with a firestorm of condemnation, he did what he always does: he lied.

His Helsinki performance was a disgrace from beginning to end. What he meant was perfectly clear. And he imagines changing one word fixes everything? (Meantime, on Wednesday, he was unable to stick to the Tuesday script; and we still don’t know what he told Putin in private.)

Even before Tuesday’s “typo correction,” Hannity said those who criticize Trump regarding Helsinki are traitors to conservatism. Is this what “conservatism” now has come to? Getting in bed with a murdering Russian dictator who subverted our democracy? To think I once called myself a conservative.

Yes, good relations with Russia are desirable. But not at the cost of trashing everything America used to represent.

My daughter pointed me to a July 8 article by Jonathan Chait about Trump-and-Russia. I started reading, thinking, “yada yada yada;” however, this proved to be a devastating exposition (pulling together information already public) of just how thoroughly dirty Trump is. Read it.

Yet if Putin does “have something” on Trump, it seems a moot point. After “grab them by the pussy,” Stormy Daniels, Trump University, the constant lying, and so much else. Shoot someone on Fifth Avenue. Trump’s mind-slaves have sealed their deal with the Devil.

And whether Putin has him by the balls, or it’s Trump’s own psychopolitical pathology, doesn’t much matter because the result is the same. He is selling out America’s fundamental values and ideals, and tearing down the structure of alliances and the rules-based global order we so painstakingly built, that for seven decades served us and the free world so well, a bulwark of prosperity and peace.

It’s not simply “America First” or even “America Alone;” not merely a cynical transactional view of the world, nor even just a might-makes-right view. All of them myopically self-destructive. It’s worse yet: it’s realigning America, from the free world and the Enlightenment, to the dark side.

A monumental historical tragedy.

Trump’s treason

July 16, 2018

Recently at the G7 meeting in Canada, Trump played skunk at the picnic, refused to sign the agreed communique, and called Canada’s prime minister a backstabbing liar. He’s launched trade wars against our allies.

Then the Brussels NATO summit: cussing them out for not meeting a 2%-of-GDP defense spending target. He says they “owe us money,” which is false, it doesn’t work that way. Then he says the target should be 4%, which not even America spends. Then he turns around and congratulates himself for getting the others to agree to spend more. To which they say, “Wait — what?” They in fact agreed to nothing beyond existing targets.

And who would they be spending more to defend against? Trump never says. (It’s Russia.)

But the 2% thing is just a pretext for picking another fight with our allies and undermining NATO — exactly what Russia craves.

Meantime he accuses Germany’s Angela Merkel of being “totally controlled” by Russia, because of a gas pipeline. In fact Merkel has led the fight to keep sanctions against Russia for its Ukraine aggression. While Trump refused to enforce sanctions voted by Congress (and read below about his Helsinki summit). Who’s controlled by Russia?

Then he travels to Britain, whose people, he says, love him, while thousands protest his visit (he didn’t dare enter London). Prime Minister May had gone out on a limb for Trump, flattering him on her early Washington visit, and taking a lot of heat for inviting him to Britain. Her payback? Once in Britain he attacks and undermines her, saying he could do her job better on Brexit. (As if he understands the least thing about the Brexit complexities she is struggling with.) He threatens to refuse a trade deal, and practically endorses her rival Boris Johnson. But then he denies saying any of this, calling it “fake news,” despite his voice on the tape. And then he nonsensically attacks London’s mayor. And gives a racist rant about immigrants ruining European culture. And has people counting all the ways he dissed the Queen. This was a “diplomatic visit.

Then Trump was quoted Sunday saying that America’s biggest foe is the European Union.

Next, having thoroughly pummeled our European “foes,” it was time for a love-fest with our pal Putin.

Former Ambassador Nicholas Burns, interviewed beforehand, stressed that Trump’s job is to protect America, and he must confront Putin forcefully about election subversion. Calling this a “witch hunt” (now it’s “rigged witch hunt”) becomes increasingly absurd. Thirty-two people have so far been indicted by the Mueller investigation, with full details about exactly what they did and how, the majority for attempting (probably successfully) to subvert our election. An attack on America more damaging than anything by the Soviets during the cold war. American intelligence is absolutely clear and unanimous about this. It was also the bipartisan conclusion of the Senate Intelligence Committee. The latest indictments name Russian military and intelligence officials, proving that this was an operation by Putin’s regime.

So Trump promised he’d ask Putin the question. We’re told that in their private meeting they discussed it at length. Well, here’s the complete transcript:

Trump: Did you mess with our election?

Putin: Nyet.

Trump: OK.

But Trump welcomed Putin’s offer to have our people go to Russia to work with his people to investigate what he denies happened. Ha ha.

Bizarrely, while denying that Russia’s cyber-attack affected our election, or that it even happened, Trump continues to berate Obama for a weak response to it. But is Trump responding forcefully now? And while his endlessly repeated mantra is “no collusion” during the campaign, his stance ever since — denying the attack, minimizing it, smearing the investigation of it*, refusing to confront Russia about it, or to act to thwart a repeat — is collusion. (The legal term: “accessory after the fact.”)

In the news conference following the meeting, Trump said, “I don’t see any reason why it would be” Russia having done the election stuff. Thus indeed crediting Putin’s lies, against our own intelligence and law enforcement institutions. More: Trump even blamed our bad relations with Russia on America. Our relations were poisoned not by anything Russia has done, but by our “foolish” investigation!

Putin is also guilty of trying destabilize other European democracies (including having a hand in the Brexit vote); a devastating cyber attack on Estonia; military aggression in Georgia and Ukraine, including the seizure of Crimea; military intervention to prop up the blood-soaked Syrian dictator; crushing dissent within Russia by brutal means including outright murders of opposition politicians (like Boris Nemtsov), whistlebowers (like Sergei Magnitski) and crusading journalists (like Anna Politkovskaya); and even extending the murder spree to Britain with poison nerve gas.

Yet Trump calls out Putin on none of this, instead totally kisses his ass with lavish praise, and endorses his lies. “Trump sides with Russia” is the headline. John McCain said no American president has ever abased himself so abjectly before a foreign tyrant, and this is a low point in the history of the presidency. (Read McCain’s full extraordinarily harsh statement.)

And what did the great dealmaker get for America in return for this gift to Putin? Zilch. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said the meeting’s outcome was “better than super.” Trump’s shredding relationships with our (former) allies, in particular, is a huge triumph for Russia. Exactly what Russia aimed to achieve in subverting our election. Putin brazenly said yes, he did want Trump elected. And sandbagging America with this president is exactly why the Russian election subversion was in fact such a big deal.

Our president used to be called “the leader of the free world.” Trump is trying to switch us to the other side.

“Treason” is a very strong word. May sound like exaggerated hyperbole. I have never before used it in discussing politics. I use it now with judicious care (and not metaphorically). Treason is the only crime defined in the Constitution: “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them aid and comfort.”

Adhering to our enemies, giving them aid and comfort. Putin and Russia are still our enemies.

Trump is a traitor.

* Trump trotted out a new thoroughly phony attack on the investigation: “where’s the server?” Watch for Fox Fake News and congressional Republicans go to town beating this hollow drum.

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.

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)