Archive for the ‘World affairs’ Category

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.

Teaching kindergarten in Somaliland

December 23, 2019

When we set out for a humanist event in Syracuse, I didn’t imagine the road would take us to Somaliland.

But at the dinner, sitting beside us was one Jonathan Starr, which led to our involvement in his Somaliland education project. I’ve written about it,* and about the country.** Broken free of Somalia, it’s not internationally recognized. My wife and I traveled there with Jonathan, joined by daughter Elizabeth (resident in Amman).

Took 36 hours to get there; 42 getting home.

The capital, Hargeisa, is a dusty desert town (and I do mean dusty). In 1988, in the civil war, Hargeisa was bombed and 90% destroyed by Somalia’s dictator Siad Barre. It’s risen from the ashes, but the words “ramshackle” and “hardscrabble” come to mind. Most structures are single-storey and wretched, though there are some incongruous first-world-like pockets.

Thomas Friedman writes about “the world of order” versus one of disorder. Somaliland is mostly in the latter category, epitomized by a great trash blight. There’s no public sanitation nor any ethic against littering. We sat in on a student brainstorming session about the issue.

Typical dwelling

But Somaliland is not the heart of darkness; it’s poor, but thriving. Its people have positive attitudes. Women in particular are almost all well dressed (fully covered in this Muslim country). And there are lots of cars. Steering wheels on the right, yet they challengingly drive on the right. Many roads are paved, though often it’s hard to tell. No street signs; indeed, no street names. Terrible traffic. So, unsurprisingly, wrecked cars abound. No way to remove them. Another traffic hazard is zillions of goats wandering everywhere. I asked Jonathan how owners keep tabs on them. “Good question,” he replied.

Restaurant, with goats, we visited

There are myriads of tiny businesses, especially hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and — no surprise — numerous car parts sellers. Hargeisa is one giant bazaar. It was great to see so much enterprise. Government regulation being largely nonexistent, Somaliland might be a model of that bugaboo, “unfettered laissez faire capitalism.” Except that government’s absence also means scant rule-of-law protections, so any ambitious business is vulnerable to predation, greatly inhibiting economic development. An important point often lost in arguments over “unfettered capitalism.” Nevertheless, Somaliland’s enterprise culture begs comparison against countries like Cuba or Venezuela whose socialist fetish suppresses businesses. Result: impoverishment.

Me with our team

Was it safe? It’s actually a very peaceable place, with little crime or violence. Nevertheless, as apparently required by law, all our excursions were accompanied by two soldiers carrying AK-47s.

In one respect at least, Somaliland is actually more advanced than America. Most payments are made through a user-friendly system of instant smartphone transfers.

There is no tourism and white faces are novelties. I enjoyed waving to people, especially kids, out of our vehicle window, and getting waves and smiles back. Though once, walking in the street, a passing man said, “Fuck your mother.”

Yes, English is widely spoken. Education is highly valued here, and many little enterprises are schools. Though quality may be doubtful. I saw one sign for a “secendary” school offering English language instruction!

Partial view of Kaabe construction

Which brings me to Jonathan’s schools, with contrastingly high standards. Our first stop was the Kaabe School, which we helped finance, nearing completion as the prototype for an eventual national chain of primary schools. It’s an expansive complex, far better built than Somaliland’s norm, ultimately to educate around 700 students. Project leader Harry Lee does a fantastic job.

Next day we proceeded to the original flagship Abaarso School of Science and Technology, a high school, nearly an hour’s drive outside Hargeisa. (Why that location? Jonathan explained that when he’d started in Somaliland, naive, he’d been tricked.) Abaarso too is quite an extensive campus. Its new head is Trudy Hall, formerly leading Troy’s elite Emma Willard School. I was extremely impressed by what she’s doing here. We stayed in a little guest house; a plaque said it was funded by the generosity of the American people through USAID.

Saturday was “project day.” Wife Therese led an intensive poetry workshop. I delivered a powerpoint lecture on the Enlightenment (view it at www.fsrcoin.com/3.html). Trudy was great in stimulating discussion in the Q&A. A topic arose that’s central to daughter Elizabeth’s current work — using communication to change mindsets.

Elizabeth leading discussion

She had a relevant powerpoint on her laptop, so later gave an impromptu presentation and led a discussion. It was wonderful seeing her masterful performance.

Sunday we visited a sanctuary for cheetahs, rescued from poachers; then Hargeisa’s art and cultural center, modest but quite nice.

Photo by Harry Lee

On Monday we could now see Kaabe’s first classes, of kindergartners, in session. I didn’t really teach, but did help out, assisting one boy making English words with plastic letters, and some girls with block puzzles. The children seemed to have progressed amazingly in just a few months. This school is clearly a great thing, and to have helped bring it about was extremely gratifying.

On Tuesday I set out alone — well, with a driver and the obligatory soldiers — back to Hargeisa to get a microwave for the Abaarso teacher’s mess. I wasn’t sure this could be accomplished, but after a tortuous peregrination, including a change of car and escorts, I finally managed it, returning just in time for an important event:

Trudy. Jonathan, & DPW honcho

A visit to Abaarso by a top level delegation from Dubai Ports World, preparatory to announcing a swathe of scholarships and funding another school on the Kaabe model in Berbera.

On Wednesday, Jonathan, Therese and I had a 45-minute private meeting in the Presidential Palace with Somaliland’s President Musa Bihi Abdi. Democratically elected in 2017, Bihi, 71, was a Somali air force pilot who became a top commander in the civil war against Siad Barre. A soft-spoken man, dignified without pomposity, a wise and decent human being (unlike certain presidents I could name).

With President Bihi (photo by J. Starr)

He spoke of the desirability of cooperation among different religious groups — a real issue for Jonathan’s project, still facing attacks on this score. And he was very strong about educating girls, understanding its importance for a country like his. During the meeting we were served delicious lemonades.

I’ve done a lot of foreign travel, but this was — like much else on this trip — a unique and thrilling experience.

Then we travelled an hour north on a “road” (hardly deserving the name) through a fairly desolate scrubland typical of the country. Passing many goats, camels, and giant termite mounds. With passengers squeezed in tight on this very bumpy ride, one of the soldiers volunteered to travel on the vehicle’s roof.

Barwaaqo

The destination was the other anchor in the schema, Barwaaqo University, a teachers college for girls, to eventually staff the Kaabe schools. Another impressive large campus; looked like a military base. A highlight was the debate club where Therese and I joined one of the teams. The question, chosen by the girls, was whether snacks in the school store should be free. Those girls were feisty debaters.

Somaliland certainly — like every society — has challenges. But its people have what it takes to overcome them. My lecture there ended by expressing the belief that Somaliland can rise to become a “developed” country, and that my student hearers can make it happen in their lifetimes.

Finally: how many wives would (while suffering from an illness no less) enthusiastically join in an intrepid expedition like this? (Jonathan’s soon-to-be-ex-wife never did.) Therese and I have a true marriage in that word’s deepest sense. A blessing for which I’m boundlessly grateful.

* Here: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2018/09/30/a-non-ugly-american-in-somaliland-jonathan-starrs-abaarso-school/

**Here: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2019/06/11/somaliland-the-country-that-was-left-for-dead-a-country-doing-everything-right/

America’s coming redemption — or its demise?

December 13, 2019

I never expected Communism’s collapse. Still less America’s — in terms of what it stood for.

I awakened in 1964. Living near the World’s Fair, one day at West Germany’s pavilion I saw a film about the Berlin Wall. I started to understand.

For the next quarter century the Cold War was a defining political reality. A dark one. Around the late ’70s, it seemed the world was going headlong in the wrong direction. I felt despair. But then things turned around. Like Hemingway’s line, gradually, then suddenly. And the Wall came down.

When 1989 closed, watching new year fireworks (with my new wife — another seeming miracle), I saluted it aloud as a blessed golden year. In 1993 I visited Russia — now a free country. Seemed a miracle. Walking up St. Petersburg’s Nevsky Prospekt, the grim grey Soviet facades were interspersed with occasional flashes of color — new stores! I returned in 1995 and now the Nevsky was all color. I was elated at this total triumph of my deepest ideals.

It wasn’t “the end of history.” But it appeared humanity had turned a corner, into a new dawn, finally putting behind us so much that had hobbled and afflicted us.

The “Flynn Effect” is named for a researcher who revealed a perhaps surprising global trend: people getting smarter. IQs literally rising over a long time span. More education and more exposure to different kinds of people are partial explanations. And if we were putting a lot of bad stuff behind us, better thinking played a role.

But now we see bad thinking is more tenacious than we may have realized. Especially when, as always, some people can benefit from exploiting it.

Of course I’m talking about today’s America. In the great moral triumph that was the fall of Communism, America had a leading role. We won the Cold War not because we were more bad-ass than the Communists, but because we won the war of ideas. Because our kind of society, the values we reflected, were more attractive to human beings. As a deep student of history, I’d always loved my country as (for all its human imperfections) a uniquely good creation in humanity’s story. Those triumphant American values were key positive components of my own personal identity.

Now that’s been betrayed. How could America have gone so far off the rails? I could never before have imagined a regime here that so travesties everything the U.S. once stood for. With four in ten Americans idiotically cheering it on. Defying the Flynn effect. Seems you can fool enough of the people all the time.

Because I’m no cynic, an idealist really, the country’s disgrace, by a regime behaving so contemptibly, lacerates my soul. My shock and pain have continued to intensify, and will not abate until this evil is purged.

This has re-energized, in the past three years, my political engagement (mainly through blogging). People find meaning in life through concerns larger than themselves. Seeing my country’s fate at stake is certainly such a cause, and my advocacy has been a source of meaning in my life, a deep part of my very personhood.

I have no illusions about what Trump’s 2020 defeat would portend. I have seen too many hopeful developments in the world turn sour. Trump and his minions will not disappear,* their poison will long continue to infect American politics. Their reality denial extends to believing victory is certain; losing will unhinge them even more. I worry about his gun nuts. He’s already darkly tweeted about civil war. At a minimum, thirsting for revenge, Republicans will wage partisan war against a Democratic administration with an intensified deranged ferocity. Untethered from truth and reality, with morality askew, there are no limits.

Yet nevertheless, their 2020 defeat will, for me, feel like a great moral triumph, on a par with the fall of Communism.

Maybe it could even be a turning point for the whole world, bending back a trend of brainless voting for authoritarian populists. And even while the infection will persist here, demography would militate against its recrudescence. That whole nasty strain in American politics will inexorably die off along with the older religious white voters upon whom it depends.

But on the other hand — if they cannot be defeated in 2020 even with a candidate so blatantly vile as Trump, then what hope would there be for the American ideal? How much more will that monster, drunk with triumph and unconstrained by any further need for votes, crush that ideal? His second term would be the end of America.

That would crush me; it would be existentially demoralizing.

I’d have to figure out a different way of being in the world. Deploying the serenity prayer. Perhaps going into exile — if not literally to Canada, then mentally. Disengaging, tuning out — at my age leaving it for another generation to deal with. For them to re-achieve, finally, the human revolution that I’d once thought had been achieved.

* Or maybe, given his off-the-charts narcissistic personality disorder, unable to handle the humiliation of defeat, he’ll kill himself. It wouldn’t surprise me. How would his supporters react? Would it break the spell — or martyrize him?

Bolivia, China, and 1984

November 12, 2019

Bolivia’s longest-serving President Evo Morales was first elected in 2006, a left-winger, of indigenous background, former head of the Coca growers union. He held a referendum to change the constitution to allow him to run for a fourth term. Voters said no. He ran again anyway. Typically for such autocrats, he got a packed court to legalize this. But voters said no again. When Morales tried to fiddle the election results, huge protests ensued. On Sunday, the military — Morales had not consolidated his co-opting it — finally said he must go. And Morales actually did step down; as did three others in his line of succession.

So it’s still possible for citizens to get rid of a seemingly entrenched regime. This is very encouraging. Yet the global trend is unfortunately contrary. Such regimes are perfecting the techniques for staying in power, neutralizing opposition. Look at Venezuela. The Maduro gang is literally destroying the country, impoverishing the populace, yet still it seems impregnable. There, unlike in Bolivia, the army is totally in bed with the regime. They’ve got the guns, and aren’t squeamish about using them.

It also helps to have at least some citizen support. In Venezuela, there are actually still a lot of people who actually believe the regime’s propaganda and back it. And they go into the streets and use organized violence against regime opponents.

It is indeed dismaying how so many people, everywhere, can be so misguided in their political allegiances. Look at Brazil. Its last presidential election had a run-off between right-wing and left-wing extremists — because in the first round few people would vote for the sensible, responsible moderate choice. So they wound up with an absolutely terrible person. The Brazilian Trump. Then there’s the Philippine Trump. Not to mention, of course, the American one.

But the godfather of authoritarian regimes, consummating the techniques for holding unchallengeable power, is China’s. PBS recently ran an exploration of Artificial Intelligence; one segment, titled “The Surveillance State,” focused on China’s use of AI to suppress any and all dissension. In its largely Muslim province of Uighuristan, it employs AI to intensively profile every citizen (or, more accurately, subject), and anyone suspect has been put into “re-education camps.” It’s estimated that that’s a million people. Meantime, nationwide, China is perfecting facial recognition technology to keep tabs on everyone, deploying a “social credit” system giving every inhabitant a score for subservience. Those with low scores are being treated accordingly. To make the whole system truly pervasive, China is deploying — wait for it — surveillance cameras — six hundred million of them.

Hong Kong is in revolt against all this. It’s widely feared that this must end with China’s regime violently cracking down, like in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Maybe; but I suspect that will not happen because it’s not necessary for China’s regime. There is simply no way for Hong Kongers to gain the democracy they seek. The Beijing bosses can just sit tight doing nothing. And the vast majority of China’s population is actually already so brainwashed that they support the regime — fervently —against the Hong Kongers.

Nineteen Eighty-Four may have been too optimistic. At the book’s end it was clear it was looking back on a regime that was no more.

Trump and Republicans: how vile can it get?

October 25, 2019

Before Trump took office, I wrote that power doesn’t make bad men better. Since, I’ve kept repeating: it will get worse. And so it goes.

Trump’s every word about the Syria situation perverts reality. He now says he’s lifting sanctions on Turkey because they’ve “agreed” to stop their military action. The action Trump green-lighted, and called a great victory for civilization. Actually, Turkey is ending it because it’s achieved its aims. But Trump boasts Turkey’s “agreement” means the picture in the region is now one shaped by America. Actually, it’s a Turkish agreement with Russia, America removed from the picture.

Trump meantime pats himself on the back for “bringing our troops home.” Actually, they’re redeployed elsewhere in the Middle East.

He says he’s saved thousands of lives. Actually, hundreds have been killed and over 160,000 forced to flee. Trump has oceans of blood on his hands. The atrocities apparently continue despite the supposed cease-fire. It’s a horrific human tragedy. He says it’s a U.S. foreign policy triumph. Actually, it’s a giant foreign policy debacle. Betraying our long time allies*,  rewarding the mass murderer Assad and dictatorial Erdogan. ISIS ranks are replenished. Others in the world will now think twice before trusting America about anything. Trump’s betrayal is explicable, if at all, only as serving the interests of our enemy Russia. It is treason simpliciter, and merits impeachment.

But Trump’s being impeached for a different abuse of power. Though one Trump apologist is quoted saying abuse of power is not a crime.

There’s an old lawyer line: if the facts support you, pound the facts. If the law supports you, pound the law. If neither, pound the table.

With facts and law increasingly leaving Trumpsters with no place to hide, they’re pounding the table, frantically, attacking the legitimacy of the impeachment process. Trump says it’s a lynching. Lynching entailed a mob hanging a usually innocent black person, normally with hideous torture, including cutting off genitals and forcing the victim to eat them.

But speaking of mobs, a mob of Republican congressmen literally stormed a secure room to disrupt for hours a committee hearing therein. The hearing was being conducted behind closed doors in a secure facility to protect sensitive national security information under discussion. That’s standard congressional practice. The Republican mob used actual violence and breached security by bringing in forbidden electronic devices. Their pretext was bogus, as if Republicans were being somehow shut out of the hearing; in fact, of course, Republican members of the committee were always in the room, with full rights to question witnesses and otherwise participate. And open public hearings on everything are scheduled to follow.

The more undeniable Trump’s monstrousness becomes, the more unhinged do Republicans become in their denial. Their mob violence was intended to distract attention from the testimony of Ambassador William Taylor, which was devastating and shocking. Taylor was a professional brought out of retirement by Pompeo to man the Ukraine embassy after our ambassador, Marie Jovanovich, was improperly removed at Trump’s order. Taylor’s testimony detailed how Trump improperly outsourced U.S. Ukraine policy to a rogue actor, Giuliani, because nobody in the proper chain of command would do the slimy stuff Trump wanted. Namely, extorting Ukraine’s complicity in smearing Biden and Democrats as a quid pro quo for releasing $391 million in Congressionally-mandated military aid that Trump was improperly withholding. (Aid to help Ukraine fight  Russia!)

Another effort to distract from Ukraine is Attorney General Barr’s now opening a “criminal investigation” of the Mueller probe’s origin. Trump always called it a hoax and a witch-hunt, based on various absurd conspiracy theories. Now his stooge Barr is resurrecting all that nonsense, launching an investigation of his own Justice Department. This  is a hoax and a witch-hunt. “History repeats, first as tragedy, then as farce.”

If Trump’s actions concerning Ukraine weren’t wrong, then the word has no meaning. No president before ever did anything remotely so malign. The impeachment inquiry is being lawfully conducted by the lawfully elected House of Representatives, pursuant to express constitutional provisions. There are no violations of due process or anyone’s rights. What is being revealed, rather, is destruction by Trump and Republicans of every principle this country used to stand for.

I was a Republican for 53 years. What has become of the party is tragic. It must be defeated.

* Correction: I wrote previously that the Kurds had lost 11,000 men fighting ISIS on our behalf. Should have said “men and women.” Sorry.