25 September 2018

Didn't expect that reaction

Has any nation's leader been as blatantly mocked by the United Nations General Assembly as President Trump was today? I know of no similar case. The diplomats responded with laughter when Trump boasted, in typical style, that he had "accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country. He based this claim, after the laughter, on the stock market and a low unemployment rate, emphasizing allegedly historic low rates for racial minorities. Of course, the same skepticism shown toward the Obama recovery, in terms of the quality and stability of jobs, applies equally, if not more so, to the Trump recovery, but in any event the President was there to talk foreign policy and, to his credit, and probably unlike his worshipers who will see the laughter as further reason to despise the UN, he seemed to take the mild heckling in stride. Nevertheless, it belies any claim Trump wants to make about the U.S. being more respected abroad than in Obama's time.

As for foreign policy, the really interesting thing about his speech was his implicit attack on the idea of economic spheres of influence. He sees "reliance on a single foreign supplier" as one of the "new forms of coercion and domination" that can "leave a nation vulnerable to extortion and intimidation." However friendly he might be toward Vladimir Putin, Trump clearly intends to compete with Russia economically even in Russia's "near abroad." He applauded Poland, which also got a shout-out, along with India, Israel and Saudi Arabia, later in the speech, for its role in a Baltic pipeline intended to free eastern Europe from energy dependence on Russia. Those who've been paying attention knew already that Trump was committed to aggressive economic competition with Russia. He made it more clear today that he wants the U.S. to compete as well with OPEC, which he accuses, his friendliness toward the Saudis notwithstanding, of "as usual, ripping off the rest of the world" but particular the U.S. that "defend[s] many of these nations for nothing." That sounds undiplomatic when, if anything, OPEC, or at least the Saudis, depresses prices to beggar Iran and Russia, but Trump is more salesman than diplomat here, as always after a better deal. The exception to this dealsmanship remains Iran, the one evil nation, other than perhaps Venezuela,  in the Trump demonology. His demands for Iran's further isolation will most likely go unheeded for reasons he can't really criticize. Trump's anti-globalist attitude affirms every nation's right to pursue or further it's own interests, and so long as Iran troubles the U.S. other nations with actual or potential beefs with the U.S. will find it in their interest to cultivate Iran's ability to make trouble. Why should they care if Iran threatens Israel or curses America or subsidizes Syria if none of that harms their interests? Until Trump can answer that question in a plausible way, the world may well keep laughing at him behind his back. To put it another way, Trump is unlikely to make progress with Iran, if any is possible, until he abandons the exceptional moralizing tone, reminiscent of neoconservatism, that he usually takes toward the Islamic Republic and  finds a more Trumpian way to deal with them and their friends.

21 September 2018

The Kavanaugh nomination: nobody wins

The timing is too dramatic, the charge too resonant with today's craze for me to believe Christine Blaney Ford's charge against Brett Kavanaugh. Something probably did happen between the two long ago, but only now would anyone think that whatever happened disqualifies Kavanaugh from public life, and only now that Kavanaugh stands at the brink of confirmation as the next associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court does Ford take the one action that might stop him. I could go on about the alleged excesses of the #MeToo movement that has weaponized grievances like Ford's, but on this occasion my only thought is that the Republican party, and Republican senators in particular, deserve whatever they get in this process.  They thwarted the nomination of Merrick Garland by legal but profoundly unfairly means, so until it's shown that Ford or whoever recruited her has committed a crime all is fair in the effort to thwart Kavanaugh. For what it's worth, this isn't about Donald Trump, who most likely was here merely fulfilling his pact with the GOP to nominate ideologically sound judges. I don't think the President is looking for a personal loyalist or robed consigliere, since even he must understand that Kavanaugh will remain on the court long after Trump has left the scene. The Republican senators, inconvenienced by Justice Scalia's sudden death, decided in their partisan and ideological arrogance that they didn't even have to debate his replacement by the nominee of a Democratic President. Some may feel that the Democrats should be bigger than that, or that it's their responsibility to restore bipartisan comity by offering no unreasonable resistance to Kavanaugh. These premises can be debated rationally, but for now all I have to say is that none of the Republicans whining and crying over the latest twist in the story get any sympathy from me.

18 September 2018

Making the perfect the enemy of the great

In today's Albany Times Union a professor chides Governor Cuomo from backing down from his assertion, challenging President Trump's "Make America Great Again" nostalgia, that the nation was "never that great." In the professor's opinion, Cuomo was "condemned for speaking the truth." He proceeds to demonstrate, at least to his own satisfaction, the truth of the governor's original observation, presenting a litany of atrocities and insults directed at non-white or non-WASP people over the American centuries. Whatever we think of MAGAts,  I suspect that none of them will deny that any of the offenses cited in the op-ed actually took place, yet they would most likely still affirm that the U.S. was great while most of these things happened. The professor might assume that such a conclusion only proves their indifference to the oppression of minorities, but all it would show is that, for some Americans, greatness can be shown with a balance sheet on which inequality is outweighed by other factors, while for the professor, the governor and others, nothing imperfect can be great. Like Cuomo, the professor believes that the U.S. will only be indisputably great when, for starters and in the governor's words, "discrimination and stereotyping against women ... is gone." They appear to be guilty of the same fallacy that mainstream Democrats like Cuomo ascribe routinely to critics on their left: they're making the perfect the enemy of the good. Philosophically speaking, it may be arguable that equality is, or should be, the sole criterion of national greatness, but politicians aren't seeking votes from a nation of philosophers. Like people of all nations, most Americans find more obvious proof of greatness in wealth and military might, while Americans in particular will often cite our right to complain about everything as proof that people shouldn't complain about anything, much less dispute American greatness. Under such conditions, progressive politicians might take advice from Minister Louis Farrakhan, who defended his controversial claim that Adolf Hitler was a great man by amending his assessment to "wickedly great." If they can keep such qualifications in mind, and preferably to themselves, progressives may not get into self-destructive debates over semantics so often.

06 September 2018

Their hearts were hardened

The Los Angeles Times reported recently on an experiment that appeared to disprove the hopeful premise that Americans would become less vehemently partisan if we would only take time to listen to opposite points of view. For the experiment, conducted by the National Academy of Science, subjects of confirmed partisan views were paid to follow a Twitter bot that would retweet comments from the opposite party or ideology. At the end of the experiment, liberal subjects, taking a survey for the second time, had become "slightly more liberal" while conservatives had grown "substantially more" conservative. Those results should have surprised no one, but maybe it shouldn't surprise us that people who thought that the sort of listening some feel is needed could be done on social media were shocked by the results. Platforms like Twitter are not where people are going to seriously or sincerely consider other people's opinions. They're not where the sort of conversations we may well need are going to take place. They are places for people to vent their anger or flaunt their contempt for the opposition, so of course partisanship will harden if all you see from the opposite party is their hatred for you and all you stand for. A different venue is necessary for those hoped-for conversations in which people can demonstrate that disagreement is not the same as hate or show that saying you can't have everything you want isn't the same as wishing you dead. Whether such conversations are possible anywhere anymore is the looming question of our time.

04 September 2018

Department of Justice

Only someone like President Trump could make someone like Jeff Sessions a sympathetic figure. Whatever his own odious ideological or partisan agenda, Sessions can't help looking like a champion of the rule of law compared to the man who made him Attorney General and seemingly has used him as a punching bag ever since. Most recently, Trump has lambasted Sessions for allowing two Republican congressmen to be indicted during an election year, as if it were the Attorney General's job to prevent that. The President's persecution complex only spotlights his dubious assumption that the Department of Justice exists primarily to protect his own personal and partisan interests. On the assumption that Trump would only replace Sessions with someone who actually agrees with Trump's view, it may seem heroic of Sessions to stay on despite the constant humiliation and the more recent threat of a post-midterm sacking. But his persistence only reminds us of what many Republicans have seen all along as their bargain with the Trump movement. Despite the objections of many ideologues mainly concerned with the potential for mischief in the Executive Branch, more cynical Republicans, mindful of Trump's popularity among the yahoos, resolved to endure any executive idiocies of his so long as his popularity gave them cover to carry out their own reactionary agenda. Jeff Sessions is the embodiment of Republican shamelessness, yet his mere failure to comply with Trump's impossible demands may leave him looking like a man of principle on his inevitable exit and most likely guarantees him a big payday from some publisher. Only the dreaded Trump Derangement Syndrome could make Sessions seem like a martyr, but such are the diseased times we live in.