19 January 2017

The perfect dictator

The Gambia is being invaded by a coalition of its neighbors, with the apparent approval of the United Nations Security Council, in a sign that Yahya Jammeh, who once hobnobbed with Presidents, has no more friends in the world. Jammeh took power in a coup d'etat back in 1994 but has submitted to elections since then. He squeaked through with 53% of the vote back in 2001 but won later votes by margins that would have seemed suspiciously larger if not for the outcome of last month's election, in which he won less than 40% of the vote. Despite initially conceding defeat, Jammeh has since called the result into question and has had a state of emergency declared. The president-elect, who won with a plurality in a three-man race, fled to Senegal, where he was inaugurated today according to the original schedule. As I read into the matter more, it looks like Jammeh has merely been stalling in the hope of negotiating an immunity deal. He doesn't seem to be one of the great monsters of African politics, but just the typical "big man" with policies and opinions that appear eccentric if not (in some cases) bigoted by western standards. I call him "the perfect dictator" since his fate seems to be playing out like liberals globalists' wildest dreams, with the international community apparently united in reprisal against a ruler who refuses to accept the outcome of an election. I can't find anyone defending Jammeh. No one defends his sovereignty against alleged western or globalist puppet masters, or claims that the election was rigged in favor of his opponent by sinister forces. Not even the usual defenders of sovereignty at all costs, Russia and China, are sticking up for him. This can mean one of two things. Either Jammeh somehow has made himself so odious that no one will take his side, or else The Gambia has nothing in which anyone has bothered taking a stake that would associate them with the president. Since it is one of Africa's smallest countries, with an economy based largely on agriculture, re-export and tourism, it's more likely that, for once, a country will benefit from no great power really giving a damn about it. The lesson, then, would seem to be that if you want to be a dictator -- or president-for-life, or whatever Jammeh had in mind, -- you had better have something to sell if not something with which to threaten the world, or else the world will turn against you eventually.

18 January 2017

Lies, damned lies and Donald Trump

In his latest screed against Donald Trump and the American news media -- proving that you don't have to take a side for one or the other -- Eric Alterman writes: "American journalists simply don’t know how to report on a president who is also a compulsive liar." The cynic in me is tempted to doubt this, since many of them have had decades of experience. But that wouldn't satisfy Alterman, the Nation columnist who every few weeks blames the media for failing to denounce Trump or the Republican party with sufficient rigor. For years he's gone against the grain by denouncing the media for cowardice rather than bias. He believes that the media has been intimidated by constant Republican whining about bias, but has also succumbed to a cynical, incorrect belief that "both sides do it" that blinds them to the unique evils embodied by the Republican party, and the still worse evils embodied by the President-elect. Varying his theme, Alterman claims that reporters "have no experience covering an American president who doesn’t even pretend to care about truth." He goes on to make slightly more sense for a moment:

Mainstream journalists are used to collaborating with politicians to tell the truth a little bit at a time. Lies are accepted when they fit the master narrative, but they need to hover within an acceptable range of plausibility. At the very least, they require the pretense of evidence, however specious it might be.

But again, Trump is alleged to be unique in his disregard for the truth and freedom of the press. The media have an imperative duty, Alterman insists, to call Trump a liar, and it infuriates him to hear an editor say that you “run the risk that you look like…you’re not being objective” by calling any politician a liar -- on the news broadcast, presumably, rather than in an opinion piece. What the editor meant, I hope, is that you would not look objective if you focused on  one politician's lies while ignoring those of other politicians. I don't think Alterman wants us to ignore Democratic lies, but he clearly doesn't see them -- whichever statements he considers lies -- in the same category as Republican or Trumpian lies. Alterman plays by "If you're not against him, you're for him" rules, the only ones that allow him to see Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski of MSNBC as "unpaid advisers-cum-supplicants to Trump." But if lies themselves are the problem then all lies should be exposed and denounced equally, and then what time would you have for the rest of the news? I suspect, however, that even for Eric Alterman some lies count more than others, and in his case the standard for weighing the wickedness of lies is certainly as ideological and partisan as anyone else's. I'd be all for a daily survey of proven lies by politicians without regard for party, and a quantitative test of Alterman's assumption that Democrats lie less than Republicans. But if it's the news media's job to show someone like Trump unfit for office, as I assume Alterman wants, it's also their responsibility to show whether the opposition is fit for office rather than declare them entitled by default, as I assume Alterman also wants. If it's the media's job to educate the American people, that might also mean a lot more than Alterman really wants. 

17 January 2017

Lenin is dead; Orwell is alive

From Davos, after President Xi Jinping's speech to the World Economic Forum:

Former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt noted that a century ago, Russian Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin was plotting world revolution in Zurich, a couple of hours' train ride from Davos.
"And now, 100 years later we have the leader of the largest communist party in the world coming to the leading meeting of global capitalists to preach the virtues of globalization....Lenin is dead."

From  Anthony Scaramucci, the President-elect's man in Davos:

"[W]e want to have a phenomenal relationship with the Chinese....But if the Chinese really believe in globalism, and they really believe in the words of Lincoln, they have to reach now towards us and allow us to create this symmetry, because the path to globalism in the world is through the American worker and the American middle class."

From Animal Farm (1944):

There was the same hearty cheering as before, and the mugs were emptied to the dregs. But as the animals outside gazed at the scene, it seemed to them that some strange thing was happening. What was it that had altered in the faces of the pigs? Clover's old dim eyes flitted from one face to another. Some of them had five chins, some had four, some had three. But what was it that seemed to be melting and changing? Then, the applause having come to an end, the company took up their cards and continued the game that had been interrupted, and the animals crept silently away.
But they had not gone twenty yards when they stopped short. An uproar of voices was coming from the farmhouse. They rushed back and looked through the window again. Yes, a violent quarrel was in progress. There were shoutings, bangings on the table, sharp suspicious glances, furious denials. The source of the trouble appeared to be that Napoleon and Mr. Pilkington had each played an ace of spades simultaneously.
Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

In other news, Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia, but if the new administration has its way, it may turn out that we have always been at war with Eastasia....

16 January 2017

Icon vs. Iconoclast

On this year's Martin Luther King holiday the big story for many people is one of King's last surviving colleagues, Rep. John Lewis of Georgia. A leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee before it went radical, Lewis was one of the first Freedom Riders, spoke during the March on Washington, and got his skull cracked at Selma. This, I suppose, is why people got angry when the President-elect said that Lewis was "all talk." The President-elect was angry because Lewis had announced that he would boycott Friday's inaugural exercises, since he did not consider Donald Trump a "legitimate" president due to presumed Russian interference in the 2016 election campaign. Naturally Trump lashed out, apparently making a knee-jerk assumption that Lewis's congressional district was crime-ridden and that the congressman should attend to that instead of questioning Trump's credentials. Sociologists and statisticians can tell us whether that was a fair hit, but the indisputable thing is Trump's right to answer in kind. Lewis's place in history, is indisputable, however highly you rate it, but that shouldn't stop Americans from asking what he has done for us lately. He has been a congressman for thirty years -- and his views on some issues (e.g. trade, Iraq) aren't so different from Trump's -- but from what I can tell from Wikipedia his major legislative accomplishment was to secure funding for the national museum of African-American culture that opened in Washington D.C. last year. It should not be ruled out of bounds to dismiss Rep. Lewis as a partisan hack, regardless of his valiant deeds of fifty years ago. No one in the political arena is above politics or above criticism -- and for Trump, of course, no one is above or beneath criticism.

The Lewis controversy suggests a sad answer to the annual "What if Dr. King were alive today?" question: an 88 year old King might well be in a Twitter war of his own against Trump, though perhaps not on the same pretext, unless you suppose that his remaining alive would have so altered history that there never would have been a President Trump.  One might at least hope that King, unlike Lewis an adult during the McCarthy era, would refrain from the paranoid rhetoric or the conspiracy theories Lewis has apparently embraced. A critic of the Cold War, King presumably was not as Russophobic as today's liberal establishment. Today's Russophobia, however, isn't just about a traditional identification of Russia with illiberal government. For many Democrats, it's a rather desperate attempt to refute Trump's populist credentials. How can he claim to represent the "real" American people, presuming that any Americans are entitled to that adjective, when he's the dupe if not the willing agent of a foreign power historically antithetical to American values? Better still, if Trump's fans are indifferent to the Russia question, or if they share Trump's apparent admiration for the "strong leader" Vladimir Putin, how can they claim to be real Americans or question the authenticity of anyone else? It actually wouldn't surprise me if some people sought a racial explanation to tie everything together. Why is Trump so eager to be friends with the authoritarian Putin yet eager for confrontation with the authoritarian Chinese? The correct answer certainly has something to do with the comparative threat each country presents to the American economy, but it wouldn't surprise me if some Americans thought it came down to Putin being a white man. That wouldn't be entirely false, either; there's some racial geopolitics implicit in the wishful thinking of the current National Enquirer, virtually the Pravda of Trumpism, which predicts a Trump-Putin alliance against China (ha!), North Korea (ha ha!) and Iran (hahahahaha!). But that's the Trump of some sucker's fantasy, not the man himself, just as the Russophile puppet, compromised by damning documents and business ties, is a paranoid fantasy.

For at least a century now, Russia has been useful to different factions of Americans as an antithesis of America, and enmity to Russia has often been a test of Americanism. It might sadden us but it shouldn't surprise us to see black politicians, whom we might assume reluctant to question other people's Americanism, doing just that when it serves partisan ends or simply softens the blow of a painful defeat. Martin Luther King probably saw no nationality as the enemy. If so, for Lewis to indulge in Russophobic conspiracymongering, whether cynically or sincerely, is a betrayal of King's and his own legacy.

11 January 2017

Nazi tactics?

It was an interesting choice of words from the President-elect to characterize the newest sleaze campaign against him. Given the context -- as ever, the allegation is that Donald Trump has a compromised or compromising relationship with Russia -- the right term might have been McCarthyism, but Trump is probably wise not to use that term, since many of his older constituents probably believe that McCarthy was right all along. The irony is that "Nazi tactics" is exactly what you'd expect a Russian or a Russophile to say, since they tend to see anyone who hates Russia as a Nazi. This latest round reinforces our impression of the bipartisan nature of both Trumpophobia and Russophobia, since the dirty dossier was, as I understand it, initiated for use against Trump during the Republican primaries, then was passed on, or at least offered, to the Democrats, and was more recently passed on to the FBI by Senator McCain, who reportedly made no judgment on the actual claims made but was impressed by the sources. Get ready for up to four more years of this. The hunt for smoking guns proving corrupt ties between Trump and Russia will be unrelenting, because American Russophobes believe even the desire for better, less judgmental relations with Vladimir Putin to be corrupt. The role of Republican neocons in whipping up the hunt makes clear that this is more than a matter of partisan sour grapes among Democrats. And you don't have to be some naive or, alternately, heartless character to recognize something irrational in this fear of Putin in particular, if not Russia in general, among the American political establishment. I don't doubt that Putin is a corrupt bully whom Russian liberals and East Europeans have every right to hate, but he is self-evidently not the same sort of threat to the United States that he is to those unfortunate groups, and American diplomats should not treat him as such. I wonder, presuming that McCarthyism circa 1950 reflected an American fear that communism was catching on not only around the world but at home as well, whether 21st century Russophobia, focused on Trump as a Russian stooge, reflects a current fear that "authoritarianism" is catching on at home, but has to be blamed on outside forces and treacherous Americans. It's still highly debatable whether Trump represents any sort of "authoritarian" tendency -- it really can't be proven one way or another until he actually wields authority -- but if he does we'd be better off, as the original McCarthyists would have, seeking domestic sources for the problem instead of foreign monsters to destroy.

10 January 2017

Celebrity and statesmanship

Many people find it ironic if not hypocritical for Donald Trump's fans to question celebrities' right to criticize the President-elect, since he seems to many people no more and no less a "celebrity" than the people he Twitter-feuds with. The latest round pitted Trump against Meryl Streep after she denounced him (without speaking his name) at the Golden Globe awards show. Naturally, Trump saw fit to challenge Streep's standing in her own profession, in a form of ad feminam attack, by calling her an overrated actress. Perhaps he had in mind her impersonation of him at some event last year, admittedly not one of her finest moments despite the fat suit and wig, and perhaps impersonation (see also Alec Baldwin) makes him especially angry. For his fans, it's sufficient to note that Streep is a mere entertainer and thus without credibility on political subjects. Again, it's ironic given that a great part of Trump's appeal with such people is his lack of political experience. As opposed to the dreaded career politician, Trump and Streep are equally outsiders, and if we're to reject the platonic premise that statesmanship requires specific expertise not acquired in commercial life, then there's no reason to conclude automatically that Streep, for example, has more or less credibility than Trump -- who, despite whatever his fans may claim, would not be where he will be later this month without first appearing on The Apprentice.

Of course, Trumpists will remind us that Donald Trump is a "successful businessman," but even were we to concede his success, as many do not, how is that a qualification for political office? It may be true that the Founders did not want the country run by the sort of career politician we see today, but I doubt whether many of them wanted it run by the sort of businessmen Donald Trump has been.  The rural Jeffersonian types certainly would not have conceded that Trump's sort of businessman had special qualifications for political leadership. Nor would anyone living today, were they honest, argue that business expertise or "success" entitles anyone to serious consideration for political office. At bottom, Trump's vocation matters less than what he says and what he claims to stand for. After all, would his fans feel that they owe any deference to Warren Buffett, due to his business success, when he says the wealthy should pay more taxes, or to George Soros, whom many on Trump's side see as almost the Adam Weishaupt of our time? And history shows that a mere actor, one who to my knowledge created no more jobs in private life than Meryl Streep has, can become the idol of those same people, or their fathers, simply for saying what they wanted to hear. So the argument that mere celebrities have no business imposing their political opinions on us is pure bullshit or, if you prefer, a smokescreen covering the real wish never to hear from liberals anywhere, ever. That doesn't mean that the celebrity of the moment isn't an idiot, or simply wrong, but whether their opinions are wrong or stupid really has nothing to do with who they are or what they do. Complaining about celebrities is just a way to avoid actually answering what they say, which is probably convenient for people who can barely articulate their own beliefs and most likely envy entertainers' ability to do so.  But who are they to have opinions on anything, one might ask, much less any ambition to express their opinions? The answer might suggest a golden rule of discourse to people interested in anything besides imposing their will or silencing everyone else.

09 January 2017

Age of Assange

Michael Gerson notes a recent shift of attitudes among some Americans. Not so long ago, he recalls, Republicans like Sarah Palin, Sean Hannity and Donald Trump called for Julian Assange, the Wikileaks impresario, to be hunted down, arrested and killed for crimes against the United States. Now, however, Palin has apologized for her stance, Hannity conducts a fawning interview with Assange and the President-elect takes his side against national intelligence agencies when they claim that Wikileaks received Democratic National Committee emails from Russian hackers. For Gerson there's a simple explanation for this: these Republicans credit Wikileaks with damaging Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, and Assange's good works of 2016 eclipse his alleged past treacheries in their minds. This scandalizes Gerson, who blames these reversals on blind tribalism, the tribe being the Republican party. By applauding Assange, he claims, Republicans put party interests before national interests. He accuses them of condoning (or at least forgiving) any real damage Assange has done to this country  because Democrats are his most recent victims. But is no other explanation possible? Could it be that some people's view of Assange has changed because their view of the world has grown closer to his? This may well be the case with Trump, though I'm reluctant to give any intellectual credit to the other two.

To the extent that Assange has an ideology, it seems focused on the abuse of power, with an emphasis on American abuse of superpower in the forms of atrocities and cover-ups. If we can infer from this that Assange would prefer a more multipolar world, or at least a world in which the U.S. doesn't intervene in other countries' affairs so often, you can see some hints of convergence with what we know (or suspect) of Trump's agenda, which includes reducing his country's overseas commitments (or what we spend on them) and presumably conceding some sort of regional hegemony to Russia that the last two administrations could not accept. And if Trump seems less jingoistic in some respects than he used to be, despite the "Make America Great Again" rhetoric, perhaps that's because identifying abuses of American power with an Obama-Clinton axis opens a perspective that Republicans usually refuse, and may make possible a better appreciation of Wikileaks' work apart from its immediate personal benefit to Trump. Some, of course, still refuse that perspective. Since Wikileaks emerged, two groups in this country have held consistent opinions on Assange: the Republican neocons, for whom he is a permanent villain, and the anti-interventionist (or "anti-imperialist") left, for whom he remains a hero. Many other Democrats thought more highly of him back when he exposed apparent misdeeds of the Bush administration than they do now that he has held Obama and Clinton to the same standard. For Gerson, apparently, Assange has always been a villain, because he exposes U.S. abuses of power -- and supposedly endangers U.S. intelligence assets. It's interesting that he accuses recent converts to Assange fandom of tribalism, since a viewpoint that values American hegemony beyond any principle of accountability might well be described as "tribal" compared to how things might be done in a more civilized world.