Archive for the ‘World affairs’ Category

China crushes Hong Kong

July 10, 2020

I could not write this blog in China or Hong Kong. It would be erased from the web — and me along with it, thrown in jail.

When Britain agreed to hand Hong Kong back in 1997, China’s regime pledged Hong Kong would keep its culture of rule-of-law and civil liberties at least until 2047. The catchphrase was “one country, two systems.” (Admitting the other system didn’t entail rule of law or civil liberties.) China even promised to move Hong Kong toward freely electing its leader.

But then, inexorably, “one country, two systems” translated into “Ha ha, we lied.”

Thus the massive pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong last year. Many feared the Beijing regime would ultimately respond as it did at Tiananmen Square in 1989, with a bloodbath. I never thought so; it wasn’t necessary. They could just do nothing and wear the protesters down with intransigence. (They were never going to dialogue with Hong Kongers to reach some reasonable modus vivendi.)

Meantime, one might have imagined the protesters had some safety in numbers. The authorities couldn’t jail a million people, could they? Actually, they could — they did in Xinjiang.

Then Covid-19 seemed to resolve the situation. Fear of the virus, not violence, pretty much ended the protests. But that was not enough for the rulers in Beijing. In the spirit of Carthago delenda est, they now sprang on Hong Kong a draconian law criminalizing any and all political activism or criticism. This went way beyond what Hong Kongers had been protesting to forestall in the first place. Not even the territory’s toady local government was consulted. Now mainland authorities can reach into Hong Kong to enforce their law, in courts they create, operating in secret, with penalties up to life imprisonment. Indeed, victims can be whisked to China for trial where execution would be on the menu. And don’t imagine these would remotely resemble fair trials.

Xi Jinping is saying: One country, two systems, my ass.

Some leading democracy advocates were arrested right away. Just to drive the point home, it was some of the most moderate and respected of them. The rest got the message. Silence descended. One youthful elected pro-democracy legislator, Nathan Law, fled the country.

The new law even applies to foreigners. Good thing I’ve visited China and  Hong Kong before. I can’t now, I could be imprisoned for this blog post. I wouldn’t bet on the regime, pervasively riding herd on the internet, overlooking it.

The Beijing gang can act this way because there’s no constraint. That’s down to the mentality of the Chinese people. Those in Hong Kong have (had) a very different, Westernized mentality, but they’re just a tiny part of China. The rest, pumped up with xenophobic nationalist swagger, mostly side with the regime against the Hong Kongers, condemned as traitorous enemies. The Chinese accept a government treating them like children, where the basis for any rule is, “Because I said so.”

Some of us had imagined that, as China became a richer, more cosmopolitan, educated, advanced modern society, that mentality would change. There’s no sign of that happening. Maybe the Beijing regime is right after all when it derides “Western values” of democracy and human rights as alien to Chinese culture. Maybe the Chinese really are that different from us. Maybe in a century that can change. I hope so. Our way is better.

Is there anything we can do? In the short term, not really. But that shouldn’t mean we just shrug and let Beijing believe there is no price at all for its conduct. Even if we can’t make it pay a tangible price, the Chinese regime actually cares a lot about international legitimacy and respect; and that can be stripped away. There should have been strong coordinated condemnation of China from the world’s democracies led by America. But unfortunately America no longer leads the world’s democracies. Trump has openly expressed idolization of Xi Jinping, particularly for his authoritarianism. He told Xi that putting a million Uighurs in concentration camps was “exactly the right thing to do.” His posturing as “tough on China” is, like all things Trump, bullshit. The Economist has just run a devastating deconstruction of Trump’s fecklessness toward China, and his trade war’s stupidity. It is well worth reading: https://www.economist.com/united-states/2020/06/27/is-donald-trump-tough-on-china

We do need to deal strongly with China, but that requires a sane, honest, responsible president, who reads briefing papers and actually knows what he’s doing.

Tales of Bermania

July 8, 2020

Once traveling with my family through Philadelphia Airport, I encountered an acquaintance, and introduced my little daughter to him as the King of Bermania. I guess it made an impression on her young mind.

Fast forward a dozen years or so. She showed me a draft of her college application essay. About travel broadening one’s horizons or something. Mentioning how, in an airport, she’d once met a king. “Ahem, Elizabeth,” I said. “You see, that was actually . . . ”

Allen Berman. A fellow coin dealer. He also goes by Alanus I, King of Bermania. But that’s all in fun. Though it’s very elaborate fun. He’s held Bermanian fests at coin shows. (Remember those BC [before covid] times when we had coin shows?) Now he’s written a book about Bermania, Please Ignore Our Time Machine. He finagled me into buying a copy. At least it was cheaper than on Amazon.

As its opening explains, Bermania is a (very) small old kingdom somewhere in Eastern Europe; whose name does not actually derive from his own. It seems the land’s early inhabitants had a thing for lawn ornaments. One fellow displayed a large wooden bear. He became known as the “Bear man.” The rest, as they say, is history (explicated rather more verbosely in the book). And since Renaissance times, hawking “relics” of “the true bear” has been a Bermanian cottage industry.

But Bermania is a very small country indeed. Even smaller than Grand Fenwick. As the author notes, the kingdom avoided Napoleon’s armies by hiding behind a tree.

The book is basically a history of Bermania and its quasi-yiddische people. Interwoven with the history of Europe and indeed the rest of the world. For example, few people know that General Tso’s chicken is actually more a Bermanian dish than a Chinese one.

The stories are amusing. Perhaps not S.J. Perelman hilarious — but amusing. There’s mention of “[w]hen the famous flying saucer arrived in 654 A.D.” Note this was the famous one.

Numismatics is never far from the author’s mind. One of the stories concerns what are called royal touch-pieces. This was an actual thing, in pre-modern Britain, whose people believed a certain nasty illness (scrofula) was curable by the King’s touch. In connection with these touch ceremonies they minted coin-like “touch-pieces,” often holed and worn on a ribbon around the neck. In the case of Bermania, the malady to be cured was glumness, the monarch administering the remedy of jokes and ticklings. So the Bermanian equivalent of the touch-piece was the tickle-token. Allen had restrikes made; some years ago he gave me one with the request that I carry it in my pocket so eventually he could see what it would look like with natural circulation wear. This was pure Allen. Actually, I didn’t know why he couldn’t do it himself; but flattered by this royal trust, I have performed it faithfully till the present day.

The picture shows the worn one from my pocket. Note the angel is not spearing the dragon but tickling it with a feather. As always, I try to thoroughly research my blog posts, so I went to Google Translate to get the technical meaning of the Latin word “placebo.” Google helpfully translated it as “placebo.”

After WWII, like several countries in its neighborhood, Bermania suffered Communist occupation. Then there was the “fig revolt” in the ’70s, resulting in a delegation of Bermanian dignitaries dispatched to Bridgeport, Connecticut, their archaic costumes causing them to be initially mistaken for trick-or-treaters confused about the calendar. They may also have been confused about Bermanian royal genealogy. The book unfortunately omits detailing the Bridgeport connection. In any case, these Bermanian emissaries were under the impression that a 14-year-old kid there was the rightful heir to the throne. This was Allen, later Alanus I. (Earlier Bermanian monarchs had much sillier names.)

Alanus, like all Bermanian kings, has ruled with a light touch. So light in fact that when Bermanian meshuginauts landed on the moon, in 2013, nobody told him. He learned of it later from Edward Snowden.

Still and all, humanity has outgrown monarchical government. Bermania should become a democratic republic.

Ethics of humanitarian and development efforts: problems versus symptoms

July 1, 2020

My daughter Elizabeth, 27, has worked for five years in the Mid-East for humanitarian organizations, currently for a consultancy much involved in Afghanistan. Wonderful, you might say. She herself is less sure — always engaging in critical self-scrutiny.

There’s much literature criticizing the whole foreign aid and development landscape, the road to Hell being paved with good intentions. Much aid has wound up serving to strengthen dictators. Other downsides may be less obvious. Send aid directly to schools and you relieve government of that expense so it can spend more on, say, weapons. Send used clothing and you undermine a nation’s own garment industry. And so forth.

Elizabeth and I have discussed such issues as relating to my own support for a Somaliland education project. Her thing is trying to find what actually works best in the context of a local culture and its idiosyncrasies. She’s troubled that the project was started by a rich white guy who went there with good intentions but scant local knowledge. She pointed me to a sardonic short story in the voice of an African employed by some sappy do-gooder Americans who created a program actually accomplishing nothing. But I was moved by the proven success of the one in Somaliland.

The words “white savior” come up. We’re told to worry instead about problems closer to home. But Africans are no less my fellow humans than those across the street. And their problems tend to be much the greater, with resources to tackle them far smaller. I don’t see myself as a white savior; hopefully, a human contributor.

That makes me feel good. Is my Somaliland involvement really an attempt to buy myself those feelings? We’re actually programmed by evolution to feel good when doing good, it’s a mechanism to promote such behavior, thereby aiding group survival. So is there any such thing as true selfless altruism? But I’d maintain we are what we do. The doer of a good deed doesn’t delude himself believing he’s altruistic — he is in fact behaving altruistically. And his motivation is immaterial to the other beneficiaries of his action.

Elizabeth recently wrote a blog essay concerning the Oscar-winning film Learning to Skateboard in a Warzoneabout an NGO project for Afghan girls — and an Al Jazeera article, Skateboarding Won’t Save Afghan girls. The latter contends the program just covers up the country’s problems, which it blames on “centuries of ruthless Western military and political intervention.” The skateboarding is likened to “palliative care” that makes dying patients feel better without curing them. The article invokes the “white savior” trope, and says the program and film “decontextualize” the girls’ lives, presenting them as “ideal victims for pity.” While making “Westerners feel good about” the Afghan war “which ‘liberated’ girls and women and gave them opportunities their own society would never have afforded them.”

Why put “liberated” in snide quote marks? America’s intervention did liberate them, did give them opportunities the article actually correctly characterizes. Though obviously Afghanistan’s problems were not all solved. Is that really the bar for judging any project’s worth?

Elizabeth says the real question is whether a program like the skateboarding —which does have real benefits — comes at the cost of other initiatives, which might have larger impacts. “Should we address the problems, or the symptoms of the problems — or both?”

She cites a book, Winners Take All, by Anand Giridharadas, arguing that the business world is too focused on symptoms rather than underlying problems — and indeed those so focused are the very people benefiting from the system that perpetuates the problems. Giridharadas cites the example of a phone app to help people with “unpredictable employment” to even out their incomes. Which he characterizes as a symptom of the real problem, an economic system making unpredictable employment so common — a system he says the app’s developers themselves helped create and benefit from.

Seriously? As if they somehow calculatingly orchestrated the whole global economic structure just so they could profit from the app? And does Giridharadas have a workable solution to the underlying problem he sees? No, he just wants other people to simply forgo their self-interest. Thanks a lot.

Casting the problem as the fault of villains is a kind of scapegoating all too prevalent (particularly in the left-wing economic perspective). But those who profit by hiring people for temporary work enable those employees to earn money by creating goods and services whose buyers value them above what they pay. Seems win-win-win to me. Not rendered villainous because Giridharadas imagines some fantasy world in which people’s earnings are divorced from the economic value their work creates. (I suggest the result would actually be a nightmare world.)

Elizabeth too largely disagrees with Al Jazeera and Giridharadas. She sees nothing wrong with addressing “symptoms” — while also working on “problems” — which may take decades if not centuries. These are not mutually exclusive. No reasonable person could view the skateboard film and think all Afghanistan’s problems are solved. Indeed, she considers it important to spotlight such successes. Whereas moralistic symptoms-versus-problems dichotomizing can make doing what’s merely feasible seem pointless.

Elizabeth’s main concern is with the impact one’s actions can achieve, and thus whether to target “problems” or “symptoms” — the “policy level” versus the “personal level.” But as for what any individual can do, she interestingly invokes the concept of “comparative advantage.” That’s an economics doctrine saying a nation gains from trading whatever it’s best at producing, even if other nations can produce that thing better. Applying it here would mean doing what one is best equipped or positioned to do. Better to have a modest success than an over-ambitious failure. But she also suggests a third option: start small and strive to scale up.

I think Al Jazeera’s analogy to palliative care is also fatuous moralizing. One is not usually able to achieve big-picture solutions. But regardless of what level you’re looking at, what matters is quality of life — for the many, or a few, as may be. Every one counts. Every improvement counts. Inability to go big doesn’t negate the value of the small. A cancer patient may not be cured but meantime palliating the pain is worth doing. Likewise for the Afghan skateboarding girls.

No individual can “solve” the kinds of big problems at issue. All one can do is what helps as much as one can. A lot of people doing that helps a lot.

Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

How Trump sinks U.S. global standing

June 28, 2020

One of Trumpdom’s most ludicrous lies is that’s he’s raising America’s world standing. In the Fox News alternate reality maybe. In the real world it’s the opposite.

As a longtime conservative Republican, no “isolationist,” I always supported constructive global engagement.* It’s not merely about national pride, but what’s good for people here and abroad. Following WWII, the U.S. undertook leadership to painstakingly build a rules-based world order grounded in a web of alliances and international institutions. (Not just the UN and NATO but many others like the global financial infrastructure, the World Health Organization, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, etc.) All crafted to promote planetary prosperity and peace. A more peaceful world is better for America. A richer world is better for America.

Trump hates all this and tries to wreck it — his warped idea of “America First.”** Totally ignorant of how the system actually works and how greatly it has served U.S. national interests. That’s why we built it in the first place. Trump thinks all those Americans who did so were stupid, and his uninformed instincts are superior. It’s that kind of attitude that’s tragically stupid.

So he’s pulled us out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the World Health Organization, the Paris Climate accords, the Iran nuclear deal, arms control agreements, and on and on. Did you know he’s paralyzed the World Trade Organization just by refusing to fill the U.S.-designated seats on its court?

At one time America would have led (as we did with Ebola) a global pandemic response. Trump wound up not even leading among America’s own states. His self-congratulatory lies about our “tremendous” efforts fool only Fox fans. Other nations see the scandalous reality, a huge blow to our international stature. In fact, several European countries are banning travelers from America, because covid-19 is out of control in many states.

Indeed, most of the world views Trump as a boorish monster and Americans as nuts for electing him. That’s why Russia connived to elect him — knowing it would weaken America. Other national leaders quickly learned to play him like a fiddle, by flattering his deranged vanity with empty pageantry. Laughing behind his back.

U.S. global standing never rested mainly on our economic or military might. Instead the world looked to us chiefly for leadership as a force for good. America alone among nations was founded not on blood and soil but values and ideals. That’s not to say we’ve been perfect in living up to them. Of course not. Yet more than any other country America had striven to be guided by such principles.

And much of the world had seen us as representing a vision of democracy, openness, generosity, justice, and human progress toward all those ideals. Both at home and in our relations with others. That’s what’s called our “soft power,” but it doesn’t mean weak. Defense Secretary Mattis said soft power is stronger than the other kind. Trump is shredding it.

For him everything is just transactional. Natural to a man with no moral core. As if morality is just for dummies. But nothing could be dumber than throwing away America’s most valuable international asset — being seen as standing for what’s right. Lord knows not everyone has seen us that way. Now Trump is forcing those who did to revise their opinion. A recent global poll actually showed more people today look to China than to America for global leadership.

We’re certainly no longer seen as a haven. Taking in refugees, and even legal immigration, have been virtually stopped.

Our president used to be called “leader of the free world.” Under Trump we’re not the leader of anything. He has done nothing but undermine our relationships with those nations still committed to an idealistic vision of global progress — while shamelessly getting in bed with the world’s vilest regimes.

In Helsinki he stood up for Putin’s lies against the findings of our own intelligence agencies. When the Saudi ruler was implicated in a ghastly murder, Trump stood up for him too. Trump congratulated the Philippine president’s “drug program” of simply murdering thousands. When Turkey’s authoritarian ruler wanted to attack the Kurds in Syria — faithful U.S. allies — Trump stabbed them in the back and green-lighted Turkey’s invasion.

And while he postures as “tough on China,” we now learn that when China put a million Uighurs in concentration camps for trying to practice their religion, Trump told Xi Jinping he approved of it as a good idea. Unsurprising given Trump’s own policy of ripping children from parents and putting them in concentration camps. Another villainy that will long blacken America’s name in the eyes of humanity.

“Leader of the free world?” Trump has switched us to the other side.

* Thus I was very critical of Obama’s foreign policy squeamishness.

** Bolton says his foreign policy is really entirely “Trump First.” But much of it makes no sense from either standpoint. He just thrashes around blindly.

The anti-democratic pandemic

May 8, 2020

The 1980s and ’90s saw a global democratic surge. Strongman rule ended in practically all of Latin America, much of Africa, and elsewhere. Communism collapsed. China, while still a dictatorship, at least became economically free. It all culminated in publication of my 2009 book,The Case for Rational Optimism.

Then tyranny made a comeback. What really happened was its practitioners raising their game, perfecting techniques for neutering democratic accountability and suppressing opposition. With sufficient pushback this could not succeed. But they also perfected techniques to dupe enough people to support them.

Turkey, Hungary, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Thailand, Tanzania, Russia, Poland, Philippines, Egypt. India’s masses cheer on Modi’s increasing authoritarianism. Sri Lanka brings back the Rajapaksas. Chinese love Xi as he inexorably tightens the screws.

For autocrats always seeking pretexts to grow their power, Covid-19 is a golden opportunity. Everyone recognizes that governments do need extra tools to combat the virus. People scared by it are less fastidious about such power grabs, and distracted from opposing them as might normally occur.* And while such measures might be called temporary, good luck with that once the crisis ends. Authoritarians are not known for relinquishing powers.

At least eighty-four countries have enacted such “emergency” laws. Notable is Hungary, where Viktor Orban was already a textbook exemplar for the mentioned autocrat’s playbook, parlaying the support of a minority of voters to irremovably entrench his regime. Now the parliament has handed him power to “rule by decree.” Temporarily of course. Don’t hold your breath.

Contagion concerns have scotched large gatherings everywhere. Nice for autocrats who hate mass protests — like Hong Kong’s in 2019. When in 1997 Britain returned the territory to China, the deal supposedly guaranteed, for 50 years at least, continuation of Hong Kong’s free institutions. The protesters saw Beijing as reneging on that deal. Now a bunch of leading figures in the democracy movement have been jailed. Meantime, Article 22 of Hong Kong’s “Basic Law” bars China from interfering with its internal affairs. But now China’s “Liaison Office” in Hong Kong asserts it’s not bound by Article 22. Beijing is betting that a world focused on the pandemic will shrug.

Lockdown rules are made in Heaven for dictators, a perfect excuse to lock up opponents. Fighting the virus also entails what would ordinarily be seen as privacy violations — giving countries like Russia and especially China yet more pretexts to ramp up their Orwellian surveillance states.

Free flow of information is vital to democracy and inimical to tyranny. Here again the bad guys are taking advantage of coronavirus, to clamp down. Some countries now outlaw “fake news,” with harsh penalties. What’s “fake” is decided by the governments. It really means news they don’t want their people to hear.

Free flow of cash is vital to dictators’ hold on power, to keep their enablers sweet. The unprecedented amounts being dispensed to fight the virus and its economic damage offer unprecedented opportunities for corruption. Hardly was the ink dry on America’s $2 trillion coronavirus package when Trump fired the inspector general tasked with watching where the money went.

And of course the pandemic offers an ideal excuse to fiddle with elections in the name of protecting public health and safety. This has already become a contentious issue in America, with fights over mail voting. Many are properly worried that a Trump facing defeat might pull something egregious.

A final point. Populist movements, rebelling against “establishments” — Germany’s AFD, Italy’s League and M5S, Brazil’s Bolsonaro, Trump of course — are at odds with democratic values. Their supporters feel ill-served by traditional democracy. But in years ahead, the massive costs associated with Covid-19, together with reduced tax revenues — while the economic pain of high unemployment persists — will confront governments at all levels with nasty choices. There will be anger, apt to intensify the populist hostility toward conventional politics, and the allure of demagogic would-be strongmen promising to bust up the system.

The virus will in due course subside. Recovery from its economic damage will take longer. And the damage to democracy could last longer still.

* This is not an endorsement of America’s anti-lockdown protests. We’re still a democracy (for now), and government’s most basic remit is protecting people from harm by others. That includes protection against fools who disobey directives to contain the spread of disease. No one ever has the “freedom” to harm others.

Trump and China

April 28, 2020

It’s now clear that in November Trump will be running against — China.

Republicans are in a panic that Trump’s ghastly Covid-19 performance means he won’t be re-elected. (Not seeing it means he shouldn’t be re-elected.) So now, his last-ditch campaign plan is targeting China as the enemy, and Biden as “soft on China.” Recycling some ancient anodyne Biden quotes welcoming China’s integration into the global community.

Reality has never figured much in Trump’s shtick. But painting himself as our avenger against China is particularly preposterous. As for quotes, plenty of his own kiss the feet of China’s ruler. His idiotic trade war hurt America’s economy and consumers more than China. Covid-19 began in China, but Trump’s incompetence was what made it catastrophic here.

Soft on China? His first day, Trump torpedoed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal among 11 nations the Obama Administration painstakingly negotiated, to combat China’s regional dominance. Trump’s action handed China a giant geopolitical triumph. Its newly empowered rulers couldn’t believe their luck.

Though I doubt Biden will highlight this, the words “trade deal” having alas become myopically toxic for many Democrats as well as Republicans.

Even if you favor toughness toward China, it’s a complex problem, and Trump just lashes out erratically and ignorantly. The proverbial bull in a China shop.

And for him to run a China-bashing campaign will be especially bizarre since China will likely work with Russia to help him win. Because they know how bad he is for America, undermining the U.S. as an adversary.

Trump’s Covid-19 disaster vindicates their judgment. Initially the virus gave China a black eye, but America’s is worse. Now China crows that it’s proven how great their system is and how America’s is weak and dysfunctional. Trump’s vileness had already battered our global standing. Covid-19 makes people everywhere lose yet more confidence in, and admiration for, America. A recent global poll showed China is now preferred over the U.S. as a world leader.

That is truly chilling.

Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes recently authored The Light that Failed. Referring to the idea (epitomized by Fukuyama’s The End of History) of liberal democracy as a blueprint for the flourishing of human values. Now being beaten back, the new book argues, by populist onslaughts fueled by a nationalism that actually sees liberal democracy (often demonized with the term “neoliberalism”) as some kind of alien implant.

Nowhere is this more true than in China. Optimists had once envisioned a richer China, more globally integrated, becoming a better and more benign China. But its regime, through fierce propaganda and mind control, has succeeded in turning the population’s psychology against “Western” liberal humanistic values, and toward truculent nationalistic chest-pounding.

A recent column in The Economist tells of “Fang Fang,” whose candid blogging about being quarantined in Wuhan gained a huge adoring following. Fang Fang criticized the government for its cover-ups and missteps. Then her writings were translated and published in the West. China’s netizens turned on a dime, now vilifying her en masse as a traitor, assailing her right to be heard at all. Dissension within the family might be okay — but not giving China’s foreign critics ammunition.

So saturated with nationalism have Chinese minds become that, far from coveting human rights, they enthusiastically embrace a regime that crushes them. The Chinese, the columnist drily concludes, actually “are demanding less freedom of speech . . . an autocrat’s dream.”

Trump wants to posture as tough on China. Yet never whispers a word against the Orwellian tyranny his great friend Xi Jinping is building.

And this is why it’s chilling that world opinion now prefers Chinese over American leadership. This is the kind of pathology that is prevailing nowadays over ideals of liberal democracy. I am hoping that Trump’s November defeat can break the spell and be a catalyst toward restoring sanity. Outside China at least.

You can help Afghanistan fight Covid-19

April 27, 2020

Intense as the Covid-19 coverage is, I have the sense that most of us can only dimly grasp, yet, the human tragedy’s true depth. More the economic devastation than the sickness and death. Both hit our poorer citizens hardest; they’re less able to protect against infection; and, in precarious financial straits to begin with, they’re suffering the brunt of the economic collapse. The recent legislation actually gives more money to people who need it less than to those needing it most. (Some voices blame the poor themselves for their poverty. No such idea could apply here.)

The suffering is even greater in poorer countries, many with shambolic health systems and no real social safety nets. Their disaster is only starting. Here’s one chilling aspect. Much of the income in these countries is “remittances,” money sent by people working abroad, to their families. They’re losing their jobs in droves. Moreover, the systems used for remittances are becoming problematic, many of the little stores and kiosks being closed or locked down. Some estimates put the plunge in remittances at 80% or more.

Afghanistan is struggling to cope with Covid-19 on top of its other big challenges (like the Taliban). My daughter has been working on projects there to improve quality of life. Her consulting company, Magenta, has a fund-raiser to directly provide soap and personal protective equipment. Here’s the link for donations: https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/afghanistanfightscovid-19 *

It’s sometimes said, “Charity begins at home.” I see the whole world as my home. Bad as things are here, they’re worse in many other places, that need more help.

* Note, donations are in British pounds (= about $1.30); they get converted to dollars if you complete the process.

“Total authority” and Robinson’s Law

April 16, 2020

Trump has claimed “total authority.” Robinson’s Law: Any democracy is one bad man away from dictatorship.

Germany was a democracy until January 30, 1933. Then President Hindenburg named yet another new Chancellor (prime minister). The chancellorship had been a revolving door. Now it was the turn of National Socialist party; though never winning an electoral majority, they did have a large parliamentary bloc. Hindenburg was unaware of Robinson’s law. (I hadn’t been born yet — in fact Hindenburg’s action led to my birth.)

We’ve seen this movie enough times, we know the script. Put in power the wrong kind of bad man and there’s no turning back. Erdogan in Turkey. Putin in Russia. Maduro in Venezuela. Ortega in Nicaragua. Orban in Hungary. Sisi in Egypt. Modi in India seems to be trying.

China was no democracy, but did have term limits and no one man wielding total power. Until Xi Jinping got it and made himself president for life. Sri Lanka appeared stuck with the Rajapaksa brothers until its voters defied the script and did see them off. But then idiotically brought them back.

It doesn’t actually have to be a man. Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh appears to be on this script.

How is it done? You still hold elections, but with varying degrees of rigging. Demonizing, delegitimizing, silencing opposition. Some regimes stuff ballot boxes, or don’t even bother, simply faking results. In Congo’s presidential election, Fayulu got at least three times as many votes as Tsishekedi; Tsishekedi was decreed the winner. America’s Republicans use voter suppression: enacting all sorts of rules hampering opponents (students, the poor, minorities) from casting ballots, voiding their registrations, requiring particular IDs most don’t have, while polling stations in their neighborhoods are few and far between. With resulting hours-long waits.

Usually, the bad apple has to actually win an election at least once. And too many voters are suckers for them, like Brazil’s creep Bolsonaro. It’s the perennial appeal of the strong man, the tough guy, who will put all to rights. “I alone can fix it.” Even badness itself exerts a strange allure. “Grab them by the pussy.” Duterte in the Philippines, whose anti-drugs program entailed simply murdering thousands, still enjoys robust approval ratings.

You also chip away at checks-and-balances. Co-opt or discredit bodies like the FBI or Justice Department. Stuff the courts with your tools. Stonewall Congress by just disregarding it. All power to the leader. Gradually it becomes the reality.

Then there’s propaganda. You flood the zone with lies, aided by a state propaganda broadcaster (Faux News), while undermining the credibility of real news reporting — “the enemy of the people.” That phrase literally straight out of Nineteen Eighty-Four, chillingly echoed by dictatorships everywhere. Trump candidly told reporter Lesley Stahl he smears the press so when they report the truth about him, people won’t believe it.

And it works. You might think citizens in a country like Russia would understand it’s a regime of lies and refuse to swallow it. Some do keep their independent minds. But too many just swallow the propaganda. It can be very slick, like Faux News. And of course it fits with what they want to believe.

Total authority.” Today it’s just another grotesque lie. But it could be prophetic. In November, American voters have one last chance to reverse the ghastly mistake made in 2016.

I am hopeful. The vote is sacred. Wisconsin has been ground zero for Republican voter suppression efforts, where they forced an election last week to grab another state high court seat. But enough voters, God bless them, literally risked their lives to go to the polls, and the Republicans lost.

Trump’s Afghan surrender

March 6, 2020

The story begins 40 years ago with a Communist coup. The Soviets invaded to protect the new regime, while Muslims rose in revolt. We supported and armed them. (One recipient was Bin Laden. A lot of thanks we got.)

The Russians finally pulled out after Gorbachev acknowledged defeat in Afghanistan and in the Cold War more generally. The Afghan Communist government fell, but then civil war ensued among various Muslim forces. Eventually it was won by the Taliban, who imposed their extremist, repressive version of Islam. They gave sanctuary to Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda which perpetrated 9/11. Which prompted America to invade to take down the Taliban. Which we swiftly did. But we eased up before wiping them out. Big fumble by G. W. Bush.

However, under our aegis, Afghans finally got some democracy. They first elected President Karzai, kind of a disaster, but then Ashraf Ghani, far better. Meantime our military involvement against the resurgent Taliban waxed and waned. Obama called this the right war and ramped it up, but then ramped it down, foolishly signaling the Taliban need merely wait us out. Then Trump, for all his spite toward Obama, reprised Obama’s trajectory.

He sent Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-American former Ambassador, to negotiate with the Taliban for our extrication. The negotiations excluded the Afghan government, which the Taliban refuses to recognize. Nevertheless, we now have a “peace” deal. If you can call it that.

We started the negotiations laying out three conditions for a U.S. troop withdrawal: a cease-fire; Taliban recognition for the Ghani government; and forswearing aid to terrorism. That was already halfway a surrender. And as the talks progressed, amid ongoing Taliban atrocities, the first two conditions fell away.

The cease-fire has been watered down into a vague pledge of “violence reduction.” The Taliban still won’t recognize the Ghani government, even though the deal calls for a supposed next phase of talks between them. (Indeed, no Afghans apart from the Taliban have yet been involved; the government rejects the deal’s Taliban prisoner release.) And, finally, as for the no-terrorism pledge  — how much is that worth, once U.S. troops are gone? (Indeed, integrated with the Taliban is the Haqqani Network, which the U.S. designates as a terrorist organization.)

It’s clear this “agreement” is a fig leaf for our just bugging out of Afghanistan, flushing away two decades of costly commitment. Mainly so Trump can claim some accomplishment. As always with him, it’s bullshit. The great negotiator will brag that he got our troops home, as though it’s a victory, having gotten bupkis in return. This “great achievement” comes conveniently before the 2020 election — and also conveniently before the inevitable blow-up, with Afghanistan collapsing in violence, and the extremist Taliban likely winning in the end.

True, Afghanistan has long been a graveyard of other-country aspirations. A benighted country with a squalid history. A playground for cynicism. And yet, our involvement there, for all our undoubted missteps, has been a very good thing for the Afghan people.* For half of them especially — the female half. As far as women’s education, empowerment, and role in society is concerned, we helped pull Afghanistan into the Twentieth Century. Well, maybe just the start of that century, but at least an advance upon the Twelfth.

All of that will go down the drain when we pull out and the Taliban triumphs. Returning women to the Twelfth Century.

*My daughter, who has lived in Afghanistan and travels there frequently, reports, “A lot of Afghans — whom I’ve spoken with — actually are very thankful and give the US a lot of credit. They don’t want US forces to leave”

Religion destroying India

January 24, 2020

India is heralded as the world’s largest democracy. Proving that democracy is not just a luxury for rich nations. Some claim messy democracy is bad for economic development — citing China’s high growth rates under authoritarianism. Yet is dictatorship really good for prosperity in the long term? After all, the richest countries are the most democratic. But anyhow, man does not live on bread alone, economics is not everything, and people value democratic rights for their own sake.

That was true of Indians — until lately. Now they’re sacrificing democracy, not for economics but for religion.

India was founded as a state both democratic and secular. This made huge sense given its diverse religions, mainly Hindu and Muslim. And its experience of vast intercommunal bloodshed accompanying Pakistan’s being made a separate Muslim state.

Some nevertheless wanted India to be a Hindu state. One was Nathuram Godse, who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi in 1948. Hindu supremacists like Godse hated Gandhi for promoting accommodation with the nation’s Muslims. They’ve instead advocated “Hindutva,” an ideology of “India for Hindus.”

India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has its roots in the RSS, a pervasive nationwide Hindutva organization. The BJP’s leader Narendra Modi rose out of the RSS, and in 2014 scored a big election victory, becoming prime minister, on a platform stressing economic reform. He won even bigger in 2019. But Modi seems focused less on the economy than on Hindutva — and on his own power. He’s increasingly authoritarian, and intolerant of criticism or opposition, using every possible means to suppress it. The RSS acts as a parallel government. That’s Modi’s power base. He openly rejects the founding concept of a secular state.

Kashmir is India’s most Muslim region. India and Pakistan have perennially contested sovereignty over Kashmir; effectively they’ve split it. India’s portion had a special status with much home rule. But in 2019 Modi’s government revoked that, putting Kashmir under military rule, while locking up legions of politically active Kashmiris, imposing a curfew, and cutting off communication with the outside world.

Another Indian state with a lot of Muslims is Assam. Hindutva activists claim many have “infiltrated” from next-door Muslim Bangladesh. The government has now created a register of citizens; if your name’s not on it, you’re put through bureaucratic hell to document ancestral Indian citizenship. Almost impossible if you’re poor and illiterate. Over a million Muslims are being thusly made stateless, with nowhere else to go; India is building detention camps.

Meantime, nationwide protests have greeted legislation to fast-track citizenship for refugees — provided they’re not Muslim. This is seen as violating India’s religiously color-blind constitution. And, more importantly, as presaging extension of the Assam initiative to the whole country. To make millions of Muslims not just second class citizens but non-citizens, stripped of rights. Including, of course, the vote. (Muslims mostly vote against the BJP.)

Defenders of religion call it a force for good. But too often it hijacks people’s rational brains. For many Indian Hindus, it’s not enough being freely able to practice their religion. They want it to reign supreme, crushing others. Rather than having a nation of equal rights, and peace among faiths.

Persecuting some small religious minority, though nasty and unjust, might be no big deal really. Not roiling the nation too much. But India’s Muslims number around two hundred million! With already a history of much sickening religion-inspired violence, mostly against Muslims, including lynchings. To deliberately stoke that religious conflict is national insanity.

Godse, the Hindu fanatic assassin of Gandhi, is now being rehabilitated as a hero. While Trump has staged a Texas rally with Modi lionizing him as a great pal.