Thursday, February 22, 2018

Billy Graham (2018-2018)

A friend of mine years ago clued me in to the fact that ordinary newspaper obituaries can be very interesting reading because of the sketches of the lives of the deceased that sometimes go much beyond their age and their family survivors.

For famous people, major news agencies have obituaries in the can before the person dies. There was a moment during the Shrub Bush Administration when CNN inadvertently posted several of their obituaries-in-waiting for people still living, including then-Vice President Dick Cheney. (CNN's Premature Obituaries 04/16/2018).

So when evangelist Billy Graham passed away this week, there were plenty of fairly detailed obituaries waiting to be published, as well as immediate reactions to his death.

Ed Kilgore writes in Billy Graham Lived at the Crossroads of Faith and Power New York 02/21/2018:
Graham’s frequently televised “crusades” (as he called his public evangelistic events until 9/11, when the connotations in the Middle East became newly salient) became a regular part of American life from the 1950s on, presenting an intensely personal but ecumenical version of evangelical Protestant Christianity to a rapidly secularizing world. Suffering from a variety of ailments, Graham had been out of the public eye since his last big preaching event in 2005 (in Flushing Meadows, as it happens). Upon his death today at the age of 99, his legacy as perhaps the first global evangelist, and certainly the first televangelist, is secure. But his relationship with the politically powerful, which in some respects anticipated the Christian right (which Graham himself conspicuously did not join), provides a more complicated picture.

The PBS Newshour presented Remembering Billy Graham, evangelical leader whose preaching felt personal to millions 02/21/2018:

Randall Balmer, who appears in the PBS clip, writes about Graham in Billy Graham, Most Famous Religios Figure of 20th C, Dies at 99 Religion Dispatches 02/21/2018.

Graham was part of the Southern Baptist tradition, though his message appealed to a wide range of the conservative Protestant spectrum. For those not familiar with it, Southern Baptists do not practice infant baptism like the Catholic Church and most Protestant denominations. A person formally joins a Southern Baptist church by publicly acknowledging that he or she has made a conscious personal decision to "accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior." Baptism takes place after the public "profession of faith" is accepted by the local congregation. A person doesn't have to be an adult to make such a decision. For kids growing up in the denomination, the profession of faith often takes place at middle school age, similarly to confirmation in the Catholic Church.

Southern Baptists don't usually describe themselves as having a "mystical" faith, mystical being as it is popularly associated with "Eastern religions" (Hinduism and Buddhism) or with long-haired hippies from The Sixties, a period which many conservative Protestant Christians view as a kind of cultural fall from grace for America and other places. But in fact there is a strong mystical element in Southern Baptist theology coming out of the Pietist tradition. For Southern Baptists, this includes a belief that God speaks to individual directly, though without the angels or visions accepted in other Christian traditions. It also includes a strong consciousness of a punitive God with a Hell of eternal burning fire for the unsaved, i.e., those who have not had the accepted type of conversion experience. Perhaps ironically, Southern Baptist belief also has a concept of "once saved, always saved," which says that once a person make a genuine confession of faith, their place in Heaven is guaranteed, no matter what they do or believe in the future. Still, even for the saved, Baptist teachings and sermons tend to stress a fear of divine punishment which even those considering themselves permanently cleared for entrance to Paradise still feel, often keenly so.

Because of the belief in the need for a conscious conversion experience to enter into an acceptable relationship with God, and how large Hell looms in the theology, regular Sunday services in a Southern Baptist Church normally conclude with an altar call, in which a person comes forward publicly before the congregation to declare their faith. It is considered to the duty of the converted to "witness" to others so that their souls can be saved through conversion.

And this is how Graham's famous religious events were structured around a message of salvation to escape the threat of eternal damnation, concluding with an altar call. Typically, large numbers of people could be observed coming forward at the end, which those within the conservative Protestant traditions, and not just the Southern Baptist version, would code as souls being saved. So having brought untold thousands or even millions "brought to Christ" by hearing Graham's message in person or through the media, Graham enjoyed great prestige among such believers. And he was also a great showman. Which is not to say that he was a fraud or a charlatan. I know of no reason to think he was anything but serious and sincere about the faith for which he proselytized. Although most believing Christians would presumably acknowledge at least the possibility of miraculous healings, Graham was not a "faith healer." And while those in the Pentecostal were impressed by him, Graham did not practice or distinctive Pentecostal "charismatic" practices like speaking in tongues or "prophecy" rituals.

As at least part of Graham's religious heritage, here is his granddaughter Jerushah Armfield talking about Christian Right adherents' loyal adherence to our current President, Billy Graham's granddaughter: My president doesn't have to be a Christian CNN 01/27/2018:

On the other hand, her uncle Franklin Graham seems to be the heir to Graham's larger ministry. And he has identified more thoroughly with the Christian Right than his father ever did. As Charlie Pierce puts it with even less reverence than I, "Given the fact that we are now left with his inexcusable wing nut son, Franklin, I’m not inclined to look too harshly on Billy Graham’s career. It can always get worse, and has." (Billy Graham Was a Giant in American Political Life Esquire Politics Blog 02/21/2018)

Part of the Graham hagiography is that he actively cooperated with Martin Luther King, Jr. in promoting desegregation in the Deep South in the 1950s and 1960s. Here is a version from a well-known conservtive Protestant figure, Richard Land (Confronting Graham's Demons Christian Post 06/25/2009):
Very early in his ministry, Billy Graham confronted the demons of racial prejudice and segregation, refusing to allow segregated seating at his evangelistic crusades from the late 1940s onward.

In the middle decades of this century, the only integrated worship experiences many black and white Southerners ever experienced were attending Billy Graham crusades together. This courageous early stand by Billy Graham earned him the undying devotion of those seeking to rid our society of the plague of racial prejudice, as well as the unrelenting hostility of the staunch segregationists.
Steven P. Miller (not the Steven Miller who works in Trump's White House!) covers the history of Graham's relationship to the politics of desegregation in Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South (2009). His makes a point that is key in understanding this aspect of Graham's career:
Within American popular evangelicalism, a mythology of sorts has emerged equating the work of Graham and King on behalf of racial justice. "Billy Graham Had a Dream," reads the title of one favorable treatment of the evangelist’s efforts to combat racism. Such thinking has blurred the significant distinction between those ministers who marched and those who did not. It also has obscured Graham’s fundamental discomfort with the civil rights movement. Part of a larger conservative effort to fashion a "limited civil rights movement" by invoking the legacy of America’s most revered civil rights leader, the misleading King-Graham equivalency has drawn sustenance from dreams about what an alliance between them might have accomplished. The interpretation first received popular dissemination in 1979 with the publication by Graham’s authorized biographer of a letter from Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan to the evangelist. "You and Rev. King," wrote the Democrat and former adviser to President Richard Nixon, "more than any two men — and, surely, with God’s help — brought your own South out of that long night of racial fear and hate." Graham’s own description of his relationship with King has also contributed to the mythology. [my emphasis]
During the 1950s, Graham undertook some active cooperation with King in the 1950s as a white "moderate" minister. In practice, that meant he hedged his bets on whether the Jim Crow segregation system in place in the South of the 1950s would survive or not. And he made important cultural gestures like not allowing racially segregated sections at his events. And he spoke out against acts like the Birmingham church bombing that were so obviously heinous and criminal that even the perpetrators tried to deny their own roles in them. But he was far more reserved on even speaking against the most serious state-enforced aspects of segregation like denial of voting rights to black citizens or segregated public schools.

And for African-Americans to actively protest such practices or, heaven forbid, engage in civil disobedience in such protests, well, that was something Graham felt very uncomfortable with. Because it wasn't nice, you know.

King didn't mention Billy Graham specifically in his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" (1963). But that statement paints a devastating picture of how useless (or worse) white "moderate" ministers could be when it came to protesting white racism and discrimination. Miller's book gives a realistic assessment of Graham's role in the civil rights movement:
The mid-1960s represented the high point of Graham’s regional influence [in the US South], when he facilitated the growth of a faith-informed, postsegregation public language and paved ground for the racially moderate Sunbelt ideal. While Graham and his southern booster collaborators worked to convince white southerners to accept the fated demise of legalized Jim Crow — and, through desegregated evangelistic services, modeled one way of doing so — they also steered the course of social change away from the more substantive goals of civil rights activists. The moderate forces of law and order (so distinct and decent when contrasted with a George Wallace or a Bull Connor) grew less civil in the face of demonstrations and downright vigilant when confronted with urban riots. Graham’s brand of demonstrations highlighted the better part of the white South, but also foreshadowed the Nixonian politics of the "silent majority." [my emphasis]

Graham styled himself as a counselor to Presidents. How seriously US Presidents from Truman to Trump actually took his advice is an open question. But his most significant political association was with Richard Nixon. He gave his only public endorsement of a Presidential candidate to Richard Nixon in 1972.

Nixon's infamous tape came back to plague Graham when a segment became public in 2002, as Haaretz and Reuters report in Billy Graham, Nixon and anti-Semitism: The Bombshell Tapes That Tarnished the Faith Leader's Reputation Haaretz 02/22/2018. This passage was pretty stunning:
"They're the ones putting out the pornographic stuff," Graham said to Nixon - "the Jewish stranglehold has got to be broken or the country's going down the drain," he continued.

Graham also confided in Nixon that he hid his [real] feelings about Jews from them: "I go and I keep friends with Mr. Rosenthal (then exective [sic] editor) at The New York Times and people of that sort, you know. And all -- I mean, not all the Jews, but a lot of the Jews are great friends of mine, they swarm around me and are friendly to me because they know that I'm friendly with Israel. But they don't know how I really feel about what they are doing to this country. And I have no power, no way to handle them, but I would stand up if under proper circumstances."

Graham, who had a long history of supporting Israel, apologized profusely after the tapes' release and said he had no recollection of the conversation.
Even during Nixon's time in office, Graham's well-know close association with him tarnished Graham's reputation as Nixon's Administration disintegrated in the Watergate scandal.

After Nixon's fall, Graham struck a more restricted public political posture, even advocating for nuclear arms control. But even during this period of his career, Miller asks us to look beyond the dominant public image:
The tale of Graham’s self-described "pilgrimage" toward moderation has highlighted certain changes at the expense of other telling continuities. Popular portraits of Graham have exaggerated the nature of his depoliticization. Specifically, they have elided his social ties with the emerging Christian Right, underestimated his presence in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush White Houses, exaggerated his defense of Bill Clinton, and not connected the dots between the motif of Christian statesmanship and the faith narrative of George W. Bush. In short, Graham never completely abandoned the world of politics. As he shed the political residue of the Nixon era, he walked an increasingly forgiving line between his reconstructed image and the fundamental endurance not only of his basic theological assumptions but of his political inclinations as well. During this time, the narrative of the Sunbelt South began to overlap with that of an ascendant conservatism. One need not embrace a glib thesis of "southernization" in order to draw a connection between the two developments - and Graham is a case in point. ...

In key respects, Graham helped to construct the political and religious culture that made the Christian Right possible. [my emphasis]

Here are some additional articles on Graham's life and career:

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

"Russiagate" Tuesday

The political scene in the United States at this moment is full of mutual accusations of being Russian stooges. The Democrats are accusing Trump and his team. (With considerable reason.) Trump and his supporters are accusing the Democrats of being Russian collaborators. (Essentially a continuation of his response to Hillary Clinton in one of the 2016 debates: "No puppet. No puppet. You're the puppet.") Corporate Democrats are accusing progressives of being Russian dupes. Some progressive are accusing others of naively falling for warmongering propaganda. Others are trying to thread the needle more carefully.

There are people trying to look as realistically as possible at US-Russia relations with a broader view of the partisan and intra-partisan polemics of the day or the week. They are more likely to be on the Democratic side of the spectrum. But not exclusively.

Just as I was drafting this, I got a pop-up news alert that the Special Counsel has taken new "Russiagate"-related charges public, apparently not reported in the press until today. Josh Gerstein reports in New charges filed in Manafort-Gates case Politico 02/21/2018:
Last week, prosecutors told the court they'd received new evidence that Manafort took part in "a series of bank frauds and bank fraud conspiracies" in connection with a loan he sought in 2016. Mueller's team said Manafort obtained the loan using “doctored profit and loss statements” that overstated "by millions of dollars" the income of his consulting business.

The bank fraud allegations were disclosed in a bail-related court filing made public on Friday that did not contain any indication of what action, if any, Mueller's team planned to take over the alleged fraud.

Manafort and Gates have pleaded not guilty.
Among informed observers who have kept their heads and analytical abilities intact on the Trump-Russia issues, Marcy Wheeler of Emptywheel is one of the most notable and evidently very careful. Today, she is writing about Jared Kushner's security clearance issues (Jared's Clearance and the Foreign Policy Version of Conspiracy to Defraud America 02/21/2018):
I’ve come to think of Kushner’s clearance process in similar terms to the way I’ve thought of the bail process Mueller has used with Paul Manafort and Rick Gates: While Gates ultimately did make bail, Manafort is still (!) almost four months after his arrest, struggling to show enough liquidity free of taint from his money laundering to alter his release conditions. The process of making bail (and having to serially beg to attend his kids’ soccer events) seems to have been one of the factors that brought Gates to the point of flipping, but along the way, he probably gave Mueller’s team far more leverage in plea negotiations, because they know how little Gates actually has to pay a defense attorney to oversee the flip (indeed, that may lie behind the confusion over Gates’ current legal representation).

Kushner’s liquidity problems are literally an order of magnitude greater than these men. But unlike them, he made the idiotic decision to work in the White House, and thereby to undergo the scrutiny of sworn statements laying out all the financial vulnerabilities and foreign entanglements that might make him susceptible to blackmail.

Which brings me back to my description of how Mueller is leveraging “conspiracy to defraud the United States” (what I will henceforward refer to as ConFraudUS*) charges to prosecute political influence peddling for which our regulatory system has completely collapsed. With the Internet Research Agency indictment, Mueller charged ConFraudUS because the trolls bypassed a campaign finance system that no longer works. With Manafort and Gates, Mueller charged ConFraudUS because they bypassed Foreign Agents Registration Act requirements that have never been enforced.
Marcy actually reads documents and vets them against other publicly available information and see them in a complex context. She not just claiming anyone who makes a non-hostile statement about Russia is a Kremlin stooge. (And I wonder how many people are aware of how seriously retro and dumb that kind of casual labeling people as Russian dupes really is.)

In both the stories just cited, shady business connections loom large. I still expect that business and dirty-money related issues are likely to be the most serious crimes revealed by this whole process. That's not at all to diminish the seriousness of obstruction of justice or conspiracy charges. But those latter two are likely to be much harder to prove in a legally decisive sense than a lot of Democrats prefer to believe.

Josh Marshall at TPM has also been doing a good job of reporting on the story but keeping his analysis within the bounds of what's in the public record. As I've noted on this blog a number of times, there is no shortage of journalists and partisan Democrats who are not that restrained in their judgments. In Why The Trump/Russia ‘Skeptics’ Are Wrong 02/21/2018, a respectful critique of Politico's editor-in-chief Blake Hounshell's Confessions of a Russiagate Skeptic 02/18/2018. Josh makes this point, which is an important one:
I’m also skeptical that we’re ever going to find this kind of formal and explicit agreement between Trump and Putin (what Hounshell calls the “silver bullet”) to conspire together at the very highest levels. My skepticism springs from a few sources. One is my simple skepticism of all bad behavior – both my bane and salvation as a reporter. The other is that I’m just skeptical of things for which I have yet to see clear evidence.
This one, as well:
But the biggest problem with this skeptics argument is this idea that if that explicit and formal agreement doesn’t exist – the “smoking gun” as skeptic Blake Hounshell puts it – that there’s “nothing there.” This strikes me as entirely wrong, not only as a legal matter but far more as a civic matter. This is for many reasons but the principal one is that corrupt transactions are often tacit. You’re helping me. I’m helping you. It’s a good thing for both sides. No need to complicate it.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Trolling liberals for not mongering enough war against Venezuela

Bret Stephens is an über-hack conservative warmonger who the New York Times selected last year to grace their stable of op-ed writers. The Right Web's article on Stephens describes him this way:
Bret Stephens is a columnist for the New York Times who previously worked at the Wall Street Journal and the neoconservative flagship magazine Commentary. A promoter of aggressive “pro-Israel” U.S. foreign policies, Stephens also previously worked as editor of the rightist Jerusalem Post and has appeared frequently on Fox News. ...

Stephens advocates views that are largely in line with the foreign policy agenda espoused by neoconservatives, particularly with respect to U.S. Middle East policy. He often level harsh criticism at elected officials who espouse opposing views on Israel and the Middle East, including both Republicans and Democrats. ...

Stephens strongly opposed the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 world powers that resulted in a comprehensive nuclear agreement in July 2015.
Glenn Greenwald wrote about him in Listen to WSJ’s Bret Stephens Secretly Plot With “Pro-Israel” Evangelical Group Against Iran Deal The Intercept 06/30/2018, "Stephens, who previously served as editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post from 2002 to 2004 (where he anointed Paul Wolfowitz “Man of the (Jewish) Year”), is essentially a standard-issue neocon and warmonger."

Now in his Times column, he's trolling liberals for not promoting regime-change propaganda against Venezuela actively enough. (On Venezuela, Where Are Liberals? 02/15/2018)

As always, there's something that's always important to keep in mind when thinking about US policy toward Venezuela.

"Venezuela is Latin America's biggest exporter of crude oil and has the world's largest petroleum reserves." - Brian Ellsworth and Andrew Cawthorne, Venezuela death toll rises to 13 as protests flare Reuters 02/24/2014

"Venezuela claims the world’s largest proven reserves of petroleum, an estimated 298 billion barrels of oil." - Michael Klare, The Desperate Plight of Petro-States TomDispatch 05/26/2016

Monday, February 19, 2018

Russiagate and the left

Even the most legitimate of concerns in public affairs, like Russian interference in the 2016 election, has its politics. People engaged in politics in the US, and often elsewhere, have been threading various needles on the "Russiagate" activists.

For the audiences most engaged with the issues dealt with in the two interviews below, I should probably say interference in the 2016 US Presidential election by the rightwing oligarchic Russian regime of Vladimir Putin.

On The Real News features Aaron Maté interviews John Feffer about left perspectives on the Trump-Russia scandal, Do Russiagate Skeptics Go Too Far? 02/17/2018

In Does Hillary Clinton and Putin’s Beef Go Back To Fracking? TYT Politics 02/19/2018, Nomi Konst talks to filmmaker and anti-fracking activist Josh Fox about part of the oil angle on Russiagate:

Also a good interview. Nomi does say just after 17:40 that Putin's government's policy has been "to wage war with America on all fronts."

I would prefer to see people - everyone, not just progressives - to be more restrained in using "war" to describe what are actually adversarial acts that aren't actually war. Russia has not been waging war with the US on all fronts. That kind of threat inflation leads to bad results.

Robert Reich interviews George Lakoff

Robert Reich in this interview features the linguist George Lakoff about Lakoff's famous advice to Democrats about political framing. This really is an interview, not a debate or even a discussion, though it's partly the latter. And Reich does a very good job in asking probing questions that wind up highlighting both the strengths and weaknesses of Lakoff's argument. In Conversation: Robert Reich and George Lakoff, Language and Politics 02/14/2018:

I thinking a lot of what Lakoff has to say is very useful. I often talk about the importance of "framing" in the sense Lakoff means it.

My main criticism of his position is what I would describe as a kind of linguistic reduction. It's a little reminiscent of the 1960s cliche, "What we have here is a problem of communication." It became a punchline mocking people who tried to reduce real material problems to a matter of insufficient polite conversation with one another. I suppose that's a professional hazard for linguists.

I was impressed with this interview.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Russia's effect on the 2016 election, or is it on the "American mind," or what?

Wired posted a story about the effect of the Russian intervention on the outcome of the 2016 Presidential election, Did Russia Affect The 2016 Election? It's Now Undeniable 02/16/2018.

And the story fits with the headline. Referring to the Special Counsel's indictments announced Friday, it says, "this information makes it increasingly difficult to say that the Kremlin's effort to impact the American mind did not succeed."

The author is Molly McKew. Her author information at the bottom of the piece identifies her as "an expert on information warfare and the narrative architect at New Media Frontier. She advised Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s government from 2009 to 2013 and former Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat in 2014-15."

Wait. If she's an American citizen, she presumably had to register as a foreign agent to perform those advisory tasks. And aren't those countries over around Russia somewhere? Aren't we supposed to be suspicious of foreign agents talking about American politics? And doesn't that go for countries like Georgia and Moldovo that Americans can't find on the map? Or is it only Russia?

That's not just gratuitous snark, given the how she makes her argument. (Full disclosure: I'm married to an Austrian citizen.) McKew seems to think that Russia's 2016 mischief was ferociously effective in swaying American opinions. Of course there's nothing inherently sinister in itself about someone doing a legal consulting gig for a foreign government. Disclosure like the ones quoted above is important, because they can indicate a possible personal financial stake in taking certain positions. Which doesn't in itself imply corruption or bad faith. In this case, Mikheil Saakashvili was President of Ukraine during the Russo-Ukraine war of 2008. The Bush Administration and the following Obama Administration was sympathetic to Georgia in the conflict with Russia. But readers may be excused for assuming that if Saakashvilli was hiring an "information warfare" specialist in 2009, he wouldn't have looked for someone inclined to take a detached, scholarly position on Russia in international relations.

Vlad Filat was arrested in 2015 in connection with "the disappearance of $1bn (£646m) from three Moldovan banks. ... The missing money is equivalent to an eighth of the ex-Soviet republic's entire GDP. Moldova is one of Europe's poorest countries." (Moldova ex-PM Vlad Filat held over $1bn bank scam BBC News 11/19/2015)

It's worth noting here that the wording in the information warfare specialist's is careful throughout in strongly hinting that Russia's intervention in the 2016 election determined the result without making the explicit claim. Note in the first quote above, she argues that Russia made an effort "to impact the American mind."

The tweet at the top of McKew's Twitter page at this writing is this one:

Jeet Heer in The New Republic commented on the article of hers she links in that post (A “New Cold War” Against Russia Is a Terrible Idea 01/04/2017):
Molly K. McKew, who has been an advisor to the government of Georgian President Saakashvili and to former Moldovan Prime Minister Filat, argues in Politico Magazine that Russia is already at war with the U.S. According to McKew, Russia sees the U.S. as “the main enemy” and is working to undermine the American-dominated global order. Thus, McKew hopes Trump will come to his senses and treat Russia as the nation’s primary threat. In other words, McKew is calling for a return to the bipolar view of global politics that held sway during the height of the Cold War in the 1950s, when Americans thought every issue was a question of the free world versus “godless communism.” McKew is admirably forthright in stating her desire ...
Tweeting about Russia's "global imperialist insurgency" does sound like something straight out of 1955.

The argument McKew tries to make in the Wired article has the same problem that arguments to date about Russia having affected the election results share. Which is that while Russian interference that violate American laws is something to be taken very seriously, democratic elections involve so many factors that determining exactly what factors were decisive is difficult to say with precision. And given that the election result depended on pretty tiny margins in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, describing very precise effects i those three states would be necessary to make the argument. As McKew herself says near the end:
Persuasion and influence via social media cannot be estimated in linear terms; it requires looking at network effects. It is about the impact of a complex media environment with many layers, inputs, voices, amplifiers, and personalities. All of these elements change over time and interact with each other.

So anyone trying to tell you there was little impact on political views from the tools the Russians used doesn't know. Because none of us knows. No one has looked. Social media companies don't want us to know, and they obfuscate and drag their feet rather than disclosing information. The analytical tools to quantify the impact don’t readily exist. But we know what we see, and what we heard—and the narratives pushed by the Russian information operation made it to all of our ears and eyes. [my emphasis]
In this clip, Hillary Clinton loyalist Neera Tanden says that "we just don't know" if the Russian actions decisively affected the election outcome, though she clearly wants to imply very strongly that it did, Tanden: New Indictment Undercuts Legitimacy Of Trump's Election The Beat With Ari Melber/MSNBC:

Part of the reason that the Russia-Russia-Russia thread has been so central to Democratic criticism of Trump is that the Clinton campaign immediately after the election adopted it as an excuse. Ari Melmer starting around 1:00 in that clip asks her if she thinks the information in the public sphere so far affects "the legitimacy of Donald Trump as President." This is a different question than whether it decided the election or makes his election illegitimate. She responds, "It's hard to say, in my view, that didn't affect 70,000 votes" [referring presumably to the narrow margins in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan] followed immediately by "we just don't know." I don't want to split the hairs too finely here. But that's what I meant by Tanden implying that the Russian actions decided the election without actually saying so. In fact, she immediately follows with, "And, in my view, that does call into question the legitimacy of this election."

She's saying something like, prove to me that they didn't, despite saying explicitly that "we just don't know" whether they did or not.

There is clearly a lot more to come to public light, and some of it might provide evidence that suggests more strongly than what we have now that Russian intervention affected the outcome of the election.

Undoubtedly, the Clinton campaign and establishment Democrats generally would like to be able that it was Russian tricks that decided the election rather than any defects in Electable Hillary's own campaign. Establishment Dems have gotten very good at making excuses to continue using approaches that lose.

But the facts of illegal Russian interference are important and need to be fully clarified. And that doesn't depend at all on whether it can be shown to have affected the outcome of the election. It may still very well turn out to be business dealings with Russian entities that are the most important source of criminality and vulnerability of the Trumps to Russian government pressures. And problems in Trump's business dealings, including while he has been President, won't necessarily be restricted to Russian entities.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

David Neiwert on "toxic masculnity" and school shootings

Dave Neiwert of the SPLC spoke to The Real News' Aaron Maté "toixc masculinity" in relations to cases like the accused Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz. (Cruz' surname is an adopted one. He has an Anglo family background, not Latino.) Guns, Toxic Masculinity, and the Alt-Right 02/16/2018:

The transcript is available here.

Dave guesses that Cruz was likely involved in far-right networks in some significant way, online and maybe elsewhere. But he cautions about the claim of the far-right "Republic of Florida" (if it really is a "group") that they had trained Cruz:
The reports of him being part of a white supremacist militia are dubious, at best. The people who are claiming he was part of their militia is an outfit that's there in Florida, it's 430 miles away from where this guy was, and the guy who's making these claims is someone that the SPLC previously had dealings with where he was actually calling the SPLC up and trying to get on their hate list because he wanted to have that validation. And the guy actually wound up in a county jail when the SPLC went down to talk to him. So, they've never actually put him on their hate list because the guy, it's not really a real organization and as far as we can tell, they were actually just trying to troll the ADL and the media by making this report.

However, I wouldn't be surprised if it turned out that this young man had some kind of very far-right orientation, ideologically this is very often very much part of the package that we're seeing with these kinds of cases. It's very much woven into the whole thread of or fabric of toxic masculinity that we're dealing with nationally. And it's really, it's not just in these shooting incidents that we're having to deal with it. [my emphasis]
And he addresses the lop-sided, politically motivated attention that Muslim terrorists get in comparison to rightwing versions, the latter being actually far more common in the US:
Well I actually do think they take it fairly seriously, but there ... First is really two major observations here, one is that if this young man had been named Abdul and was talking about Jihad, the FBI would have been on this guy like smell on poop. But, and that's part of the real problem. I put together a database on domestic terrorism that we published in Reveal News last year that pointed out, essentially established very clearly, that actual domestic terrorism in this country happens primarily at the hands of right-wing extremists. By about a two to one rate.

And yet, our resources and investigative resources, the judicial punishments and sort of prosecutions that happen to right-wing extremists is very much minimal compared to what happens to Islamist radicals. So, there's really a huge disparity there. [my emphasis]
But he's also not ready to jump on the bandwagon of trashing the FBI for not responding more vigorously to the specific tip they had received about Cruz:
The flip side is, that I will say, there, the FBI has a really horrible phenomenon on its hands right now because this is actually happening at such a massive level that it's really hard to discern, you know this kind of intelligence is flowing into them at such a constant rate, this guy was going to be one of probably thousands of similar reports that they were receiving about similar threats. I mean, it's really become a tide and they're having, I think they're having a tough time sorting out which ones are real and which ones are not.

There's a lot of, a lot of this is taking place on the internet, a lot of it's through 4Chan or social media, and these places where people can really kind of go crazy because of the anonymity of the web affords them that luxury. And it's, so I don't know that the FBI could have done a whole lot. They certainly should have been on this guy, but he is one of literally hundreds of thousands. [my emphasis]

Friday, February 16, 2018

Friday in the Trump-Russia scandal

I've been saying since the 2016 election that it would be nearly impossible to determine that the Russian intervention was decisive in throwing the election to Trump, short of finding direct manipulation of voting machines or Russians doing get-out-the-vote operations in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. With one possible exception, I haven't seen anything yet to change my mind on that, even with today's indictments in the Trump-Russia case.

Even hardcore Hillary loyalists can't settle on whether Valdimir Putin, Jill Stein, Bernie Sanders, or James Comey is most responsible for Trump's win. I'm sticking with James Comey, myself.

Whether the Trump people get nailed legally on actually conspiring with Russians on election activities remains to be seen. Although it's looking more likely all the time. As much trouble as major Trump players have taken to conceal contact with Russian players, it's hard to believe that they're not trying to hide some underlying bad acts. But I would still guess that the biggest scandal will turn out to be corrupt business dealings with Russian companies and oligarchs and mobsters of various sorts.

And I would say the most serious hits to American democracy have come from all-American players, notably the massive voter-suppression efforts that the Republicans have been running all over the country. Nobody suspects Putin of rigging the Florida election results in 2000. But the damage that Kathleen Harris and Jeb Bush did in that operation is well known and the consequences for democracy in the US were enormous.

Marcy Wheeler is still on the case, too. Like her take Rick Gates possibly flipping for the Special Counsel, The Gates Flip and the 404(b) Delay Emptywheel 02/15/2018.

James Risen is doing a series of articles for The Intercept on the Trump-Russia case, starting with the provocatively titled Is Donald Trump a Traitor? 02/16/2018. James Risen doesn't exactly have a reputation as a stenographer to the powerful and The Intercept can't be reasonably accused of lacking in critical skepticism on the Trump-Russia allegations. He writes:
Most pundits in Washington now recoil at any suggestion that the Trump-Russia story is really about treason. They all want to say it’s about something else – what, they aren’t quite sure. They are afraid to use serious words. They are in the business of breaking down the Trump-Russia narrative into a long series of bite-sized, incremental stories in which the gravity of the overall case often gets lost. They seem to think that treason is too much of a conversation-stopper, that it interrupts the flow of cable television and Twitter. God forbid you might upset the right wing! (And the left wing, for that matter.)
This initial article in the series gives a useful recap of the state of the scandal based on what's currently in the public record. He updated it with a reference to Friday's indictments:
In fact, evidence of the connections between Trump’s bid for the White House and Russian ambitions to manipulate the 2016 U.S. election keeps piling up. Throughout late 2016 and early 2017, a series of reports from the U.S. intelligence community and other government agencies underlined and reinforced nearly every element of the Russian hacking narrative, including the Russian preference for Trump. The reports were notable in part because their findings exposed the agencies to criticism from Trump and his supporters and put them at odds with Trump’s public dismissals of reported Russian attempts to help him get elected, which he has called “fake news.”

In addition, a series of details has emerged through unofficial channels that seems to corroborate these authorized assessments. A classified NSA document obtained by The Intercept last year states that Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, played a role in the Russian hack of the 2016 American election. In August, a Russian hacker confessed to hacking the Democratic National Committee under the supervision of an officer in Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, who has separately been accused of spying for the U.S. And Dutch intelligence service AIVD has reportedly given the FBI significant inside information about the Russian hack of the Democratic Party.

On February 16, just hours after this column was published, the special counsel announced indictments of 13 Russians and three Russian entities for meddling in the U.S. election. The special counsel accused them of intervening to help Trump and damage the campaign of Hillary Clinton. The indictments mark the first time Mueller has brought charges against any Russians in his ongoing probe.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Nationalism, xenophobia and the EU

Damir Marusic, the executive editor of The American Interest, has an essay in the journal called The Dangers of Democratic Determinism 02/05/2018, in which he addresses the current state of democracy in Europe in particular. He has a useful observation about the EU, which he reasonably describes as "a largely undemocratic bureaucracy that talks in the lofty language of a post-national political community grounded in a set of universal Enlightenment values."
As Tony Judt remarked, historians and statesmen have invoked several recurring themes in describing those years in Western Europe: “Europe’s recovery was a ‘miracle’. ‘Post-national’ Europe had learned the bitter lessons of recent history. An irenic, pacific continent had risen, ‘Phoenix-like’, from the ashes of its murderous — suicidal — past.” These themes constitute a hopeful and morally redemptive narrative, especially for West Europeans who in large numbers had acquiesced to German occupation and had collaborated with the Nazis right up until liberation. Judt notes that Hitler managed to administer Norway with only 806 German overseers, and that 35 million Frenchmen made little trouble for some 1,500 German officials and 6,000 German civilian and military police. It was humiliating on a grand scale, even before these nations began to grapple with their complicity in the Holocaust.

The way in which these stories were used is also significant. Judt pointed out that a kind of ahistorical determinism related to these redemptive myths was built over time into the project of European unification. To oversimplify a bit, a set of trade treaties had set up an increasingly complex bureaucracy that had started to encroach on national sovereignty. It needed legitimation to continue doing so. “[T]he real or apparent logic of mutual economic advantage not sufficing to account for the complexity of its formal arrangements, there has been invoked a sort of ontological ethic of political community,” Judt wrote. “Projected backward, the latter is then adduced to account for the gains made thus far and to justify further unificatory efforts.” [my emphasis]

This is a broad narrative, of course, with many variations. But such narratives are necessary and often constructive in a larger, normative sense. Every political community has to have them.

Each such narrative privileges some information and values over others, and some historical events over others. Which mean they can have the effect of hiding or distorting historical realities that don't fit in with the broad line of the narrative. In this case, one of the historical realities that the narrative obscures is that the United States put a great deal of pressure on western European nations, West Germany and France in particular, to make some concrete moves toward unification. But recognizing that aspect of the story does not have to diminish the very real accomplishments of European leaders and publics in achieving what they have in the European project.

Marusic also desribes the dominant narrative of the Cold War for the US this way: "the Soviet challenge was quickly understood in Manichean terms, with American foreign policy driven by a form of secularized Protestantism." A reasonable enough broad description, though clearly the intensity of that perception ebbed and flowed with time and events. And, "Where it could, it sought to impose a version of the American Creed onto the world it encountered."

He uses the term "democratic determinism" to cover both the optimistic EU narrative, the Cold War US narrative, and the Western narrative on the post-1989 transformations.

Since the number of countries in Europe falling into the first category increased after 1989, "After 1989 and the fall of global communism, this narrative became turbocharged - triumphalist and self-certain." Presumably here he means "global communism" to refer to the USSR and the allied eastern Communist countries, and Yugoslavia, as well.

It's when he comes to how he understands the dominant narrative in the post-1989 period in eastern Europe that I become more reserved about his framework. He is reacting to xenophobic nationalism as a growing political force, even a currently dominant one in Poland and Hungary. And he argues that in eastern Europe, liberal democratic institutions were always primarily understood as being for the benefit of the dominant ethnic group.

Here he is making a broad judgment based on the history of nationalism in that area. The Russian Empire was known as the "prison house" of nations because of the various kind of national groups contined with in it: Georgian, Kazakh, Uzbek, Ukrainians, Chechens, Poles, to name some of the examples more familiar to Americans. Jews were also a major ethnic/national/religious grouping in the Russian Empire which was often a party to disputes with other such groups, most notoriously in the infamous pogroms . of the late nineteenth century.

The Ottoman Empire was also a large collection of national groupings with Turks, Turkmens, Armenians, Greeks and others, with a variety of languages, religious affiliations and cultural traditions. The Greek revolt against Ottoman rule in the 1820s (???) generated considerable sympathy in the West. The British poet Lord Byron died in Greece fighting on the side of the Greek revolt. It was over the foreign policy position of the United States on the Greek revolt during the Monroe Administration that occasioned the often-quoted remark of Secretary of State John Quincy Adams that the US does not go abroad in search of monnsters to destroy. As the Ottoman Empire weakened in the latter half of the 19th century, Russia and the Habsburgs competed to snatch parts of the declining empire. And movements for national independence gave birth to the Balkans Wars of the early 1900s, a bloody preview of those in the last decade of last century.

The Habsburg Empire, whose last incarnation was the Austro-Hungarian Empire with a "dual monarchy" arrangement (Austrian and Hungarian). The Habsburgs were the dominant dynasty for centuries in the "Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation," which was declared dissolved in 1806 after Napolean's armies had effectively pummeled it. Winston Churchill's famously grumped that it had been neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. Whatever measurements Churchill was applying in that judgment, the Holy Roman Empire successfully adjusted to the new nation-state system set up by the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Including Habsburg rulers of Spain that presided over the non-inconsiderable Spanish colonial possessions in the Americas.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire is sometimes cited as a precursor of the European Union as a functioning multicultural, multilingual political unit. And it did survie the end of the Holy Roman Empire by just over a century. But in many ways, it was dysfunctional, with chronic political conflicts and the 1848 upheavals. Frustrated democratic aspirations with intensely mixed with drives for national independence or greater rights for Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenians, Ruthenians, Galicians, Ukrainians (also), Poles (also), Hungarians, and even Austrian Germans, who were lumped in for years with others as part of Cisleithania, essentially the non-Hungarian part of the empire. And it also included a not-inconsiderable population of Jews.

All three of those empires were heavily involved in eastern Europe. The First World War emerged in signficant part from the competing interests of those three empires in the Balkans.

Marusic cites an essay by economist Branko Milanovic on the particular important of the desire for national independence by countries in the Soviet bloc in comparison to the desire for Western-style liberal democracy. I won't go into Milanovic's particular arguments here except to say that I'm not convinced that they are as heterodox as Marusic takes them to be.

Marusic goes farther, though:
The purpose of Milanovic’s essay is narrow: to show how dif??cult it will be to compel these recalcitrant countries to accept migrants anytime soon—maybe ever. But the essay’s deeper implications are striking, and help illuminate one of the blindspots plaguing democratic determinists. The discom??ting truth is that some amount of ethnic nationalism is not just tolerated, but accepted as completely legitimate by many voters throughout Eastern Europe.

Unlike Milanovic, a democratic determinist sees 1989 primarily as an ideological triumph, and understands the values that underpin it as universal and indivisible from the proper functioning of a modern state. If 1989 is thought of as a successful democratic revolution, then much of the politics of the past ten years in Eastern Europe can only be seen as backsliding. Someone like Viktor Orban, who has selfconsciously positioned himself as a kind of soft nationalist, is seen as inherently illegitimate — a symptom of political decay.

But insofar as Milanovic’s model is correct, an “Easterner” listens to the incessant complaining coming from democratic determinists in Brussels and bemusedly scratches his head. His legitimately elected leaders are merely protecting values dear to him and his country from a bunch of messianic foreigners preaching an idealistic universalism he’s never signed up for, and that he doubts exists. He just doesn’t see what the big deal is.
This sounds too much like resignation in the face of xenophobia for me to feel comfortable with this formulation. Extreme nationalism doesn't affect only internal politics. It encourages foreign aggression as well.

Also, EU countries including Hungary and Poland have serious international commitments to NATO and to the European Union. In both western and eastern Europe, leaders of EU countries have tended to treat the EU as a free-trade zone whose political commitments don't need to be taken especially seriously. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has taken a regrettable approach to the EU of using it to maximize short-term national advantages for German and for her own neoliberal doctrine of austerity, even in the face of the Great Recession.

The EU gives Europe its best chance of coping reasonably with immigration challenges that are not going away, though they will have more and less acute phases. And the current EU solutions which rely heavily on dumping the problems onto Turkey and Greece, and to a significant extent on Italy, have practical consequences and serious moral implications, too. And all EU countries are failing their commitments and responsibilities if they don't accept more refugees on a regular basis and reject xenophobic policies and actions.

Our current US President is certainly not going to let xenophobia in other countries deter him from taking whatever policy he finds most convenient for his family business. But a more sensible and pragmatic Administration - I hope we have one sooner than later - may want to undertake a very practical re-evaluation of NATO commitments. And part of that new look would surely include a review of relations with Turkey, both because of its authoritarian trend and its commitment to allies in the aftermath of the Syrian civil war who are on opposite sides of those backed by the US. But a realistic re-evaluation of NATO could also raise the question of whether we should have a major security alliance with countries that reject basic democratic values, human rights, and international law.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The establishment Democrats' conservative instincts

A number of considerations are shaping my understanding and expectations of the this midterm election year:
  • Democratic primaries are critically important for the direction of the party and whether or not the intensity gap with Republicans will be reduced. If progressives do well and a few conservative Dems like Diane Feinstein in California lose to progressive challengers, that will be an excellent sign on the policy and intensity fronts.
  • The "out" party that does not hold the White House typically loses Congressional seats in midterms.
  • Polls are showing a good likelihood that Democrats will retake the House in this year's elections. ( Seth Masket, A House forecast holds good news for Democrats Vox 02/12/2018)
  • October will almost certainly see a flood of sexual harassment allegations of varying degrees of substance against Democratic candidates as a result of the Senate Democrats' hasty defenestration Al Franken under the Gillibrand Standard ("We should not have to be explaining the gradations between sexual assault, harassment and unwelcome groping.")
  • Ginning up a war can give a President a burst in popularity. (See: Iraq, Invasion of, 2003)
  • Even aside from the unique features of the current occupant of the Oval Office and his professional wrestling style, Republicans are terrible and governing but good at campaigning.
The Democrats have some well-established bad habits. Chief among them an instinctive conservatism on economic issues and a bad habit of distancing themselves from "the left," aka, their voting base. Let's recall The One True Thing David Frum Ever Said: "while Republican politicians fear their base, Democratic pols hate theirs." (Gibbs on the Left FrumForum 08/10/2010)

Establishment Democrats will be sorely tempted to look at the current situation this way: We have a big possibility of cruising to a win in November. So we have to be cautious not to offend any Republican voters who would never vote for us anyway. Our base voters have no place else to go! And we need to keep courting big donors and stick to our strategy of relying heavily on the same media consultants who we're used to losing with. So we'll complain a lot about the deficit, which gives us something to complain about even though no actual voters care about it. And we certainly don't want to disturb any rich people by loose talk about rolling back Trump's bandits' tax cuts. Or talking about Medicare for all. Or, Lordy no, we can't talk about bloated military budgets because that would step on our Russia-Russia-Russia talking points and might disturb military-contractor donations.

David Dayen has an excellent essay on the politics of the deficit. And how badly the Democrats played it during the Obama Administration, although the title maybe isn't the best for it, The Big Budget Deal Isn’t Irresponsible The New Republic 02/13/2018:
[Fred] Hiatt [of the Washington Post] longs for the halcyon days of 2012–2013, when [Republican] House Speaker John Boehner and President Barack Obama came together in a bid to slash Social Security and other domestic spending, nearly destroying the country’s full faith and credit in the process. While Social Security survived, the Republicans’ failed attempt to hijack the debt ceiling to cut the deficit led to the sequester, a painful, mindless policy that capped discretionary spending automatically across the board, regardless of whether the program was useful or not.

The result was the lowest public investment in the United States since the demobilization after World War II. Budgets for serious needs like infectious disease outbreaks or public defenders for the indigent were reduced indiscriminately. The United States wasted the chance to use low borrowing rates to rebuild outdated infrastructure, one of the biggest missed opportunities in recent memory. The output lost by capping spending amounted to trillions of dollars in lost income and reduced economic growth.

This unquestionably denied work and prosperity to millions of people, simply to feed the irrational desires of people like Hiatt. Public sector jobs sagged under Obama more than any president of the past 40 years. And because public spending disproportionately assists poorer and more vulnerable Americans—an inverse of a tax code which largely benefits the rich—the historic cuts fueled income and wealth inequality. [my emphasis]
The Democratic Party paid dearly for Obama's bipartisan obsession and his economic conservatism.

And the establishment Democrats haven't given up those habits, as Cenk Uygur reports, Democrats: Progressives KEEP OUT 02/12/2018:

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Remembering the limits of Obama's political project

As they have been doing for years, The American Prospect team have been presenting insightful analysis on current politics over the last year, the first of the Trump Presidency.

Julian Zelizer reviews Jonathan Chait's account of Obama's Presidency, In Search of Obama 05/05/2017. Zelizer uses the review for some worthwhile commentary on his own. More critical commentary than the erratic Jonathan Chait would be comfortable making. As Zelizer explains:
In his book, the left comes across as a bunch of whiny, unrealistic neophytes who don’t know much about how politics work. In his chapter on revered earlier presidents, Chait means to show that the critics of Obama have little understanding of what actually happened in the past. But for Obama and all other mainstream, pragmatic liberals, the left has been an essential force for generating ideas and creating grassroots political pressure. Historians such as Doug Rossinow and Michael Kazin, whom Chait criticizes, have demonstrated that many of the best moments for liberals—such as the mid-1930s or the mid-1960s—come when the left keeps the feet of the Democratic leadership to the fire, forces issues onto the agenda, and helps create the kind of political momentum that leaders need to overcome political opposition. The left pushes Democrats as a whole to address big questions—like racial injustice or economic inequality—that seem unrealistic or out of bounds, until they are not. If Democrats had ignored the cries of the left, we might never have obtained the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the ACA, for that matter. Chait downplays the role of congressional Democrats and the left in driving the health-care legislation in 2009 and 2010 even when the administration buckled.
I've been very critical of both the left and the center-left for surrendering way too much of American democratic and historical symbolism to the Republicans and the rightwing extremists. The Republicans branded their opposition to Obama's liberal policies and his entire Administration with the symbolism of the American Revolution via the "Tea Party" activists. Astrotruf activists to a great extent, often funded by the Koch Brothers and similar Republican Party sugar-daddies.

The Democrats, meanwhile, can't even manage to defend the progressive sides of their own party founders, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, and the progress in democracy and human rights they rightly came to represent, despite the extent to which those advances were restricted to the white males who constituted the political community of their times.

So I think it is important to recognized the elements of distant and more recent progressive moments in American history, even when those who led it had their inevitable limitations, perhaps even seriously reprehensible ones. Obama's stimulus in early 2009, passed by the Democratic House and Senate against intransigent Republican opposition - the Reps claimed to be terribly worried about it effects on the federal budget deficit, you may recall - was sufficiently large to contribute substantially to kickstart the economic recovery. The EU, by contrast, relied on the ludicrous neoliberal notion of "expansionary austerity," which caused their economic recovery to lag noticeably behind that of the US. On the other hand, a considerably larger stimulus recommended by outside economists like Paul Krugman and Joe Stiglitz and by some of the Administration's own advisers, would have facilitated and faster recovery and perhaps have left fewer swing voters in 2016 feeling like they needed a change of the kind that Donald Trump was putting on offer.

Zelizer includes observations like this:
Chait recounts the many ways that the Affordable Care Act succeeded in expanding insurance coverage and containing costs. The economics of health care forever changed as a result of the policy. ... Dodd-Frank constituted a bold piece of financial regulation that curbed Wall Street’s riskiest and most destructive form of behavior. Chait even depicts more modest programs such as education reform as crucial policy innovations that would have been considered breakthroughs in other presidencies if it hadn’t been for the overwhelming number of other changes that took place.
But he also notes some of the very real limitations of Obama's project from a progressive and even a narrowly partisan Democratic viewpoint:
The organizational strength of the Democrats at the state and local level has withered under bad leadership, as Theda Skocpol has argued. To the dismay of congressional Democrats, the president has not always worked hard enough to help the party amass the resources that it needed to fight an aggressive GOP. His Democratic critics complained that Organizing for America, his political campaign operation, had always focused on Obama over the interests of the party in the states and localities. Unlike Franklin Roosevelt, Obama does not leave behind a coalition that, at least in the short term, has the muscle to protect what he built.

Obama had an unyielding belief in the potential for bipartisanship and civility. This was the promise of his brilliant speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention, when he questioned the idea of a hardened red and blue America and claimed the divide did not have to be permanent. He continually attempted to reach out to Republicans early in his term, putting compromises on the table even when it became clear that the Republican compromise would never come. [my emphasis]
Zelizer also alludes to what George Lakoff famously describes as Obama's and the Democrats' framing problem. Noting the beneficial effects of the stimulus, Zelizer rightly notes that " nobody seemed to give the administration any credit for what it had achieved." And that is in major part due to the fact that Obama insisted on defending his program in conservative terms, i.e., expressing apparently serious concern about the size of the deficit that most Republicans haven't cared about since 1980 at the latest.

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Macrism in Argentina

This is an interview in English with the Argentine political scientist Atilio Boron. Boron is a distinctly left analyst and activist, though he is very much sympathetic to left-center parties in Latin America when they are confronting conservative or rightwing parties. That's not self-evident in Argentine politics; the Socialist Party since the 1940s has generally supported the conservative Radical Civic Union over the left/center-left Peronist Justicialista Party. Argentina's President Macri Withdraws Neoliberal Reforms Due to Massive Resistance The Real News 02/04/2018:

Since taking office in December 2015, President Mauricio Macri has applied a standard IMF/Washington Consensus/neoliberal economic policy of reducing government and social services, cutting real wages and living standards for workers, tax reductions and deregulation for the wealthiest, privatization projects, a drastic boost of public debt, etc.

Eduardo Dvorkin (La agenda del 19 Cash/Página 12 04.feb.2018) describes the result this way:
Desde el 2015 se ha escrito muchísimo para caracterizar y denunciar al gobierno de los CEOs: la desindustrialización, la desocupación, el crecimiento de la desigualdad en el reparto del ingreso, la exclusión, el ajuste en ciencia, la cancelación de los proyectos de desarrollo autónomo de tecnología.

[Since 2015, very much has been written to characterize and denounce the government of the CEOs: deindustrialization, unemployment, the growth of inequality in the distribution of income, exclusion, the cutbacks in science, concellation of the porjects for autonomoous development of technology.]
Axel Kiciloff, the left-Peronist former Argentine Economics Minister and current National Deputy, wrote on his Facebook page (@kicillofok) 02/01/2018 commenting on the following statement by Macri:

My translation: "After more than 100 years, we have managed to lower spending, which reduced the deficit, which lowered inflation, that lowered taxes, and allowed the country to grow for two consecutive years."
En una sola frase Macri batió un nuevo récord olímpico de mentiras.

1. El déficit fiscal fue mayor en los dos años de Macri que en 2015.

2. La inflación de los dos años de Macri es la mayor de los últimos 15 años (IPC CABA).

3. Después de 2 años de gobierno, el PBI recién recupera valores de 2015. Y en su repaso Macri parece olvidar que entre 2004-2015 el crecimiento promedio anual del PBI fue de +3,7%

4. La industria todavía está 2,9% puntos por debajo de los niveles de 2015.

El gobierno de Macri tiene otros “récords” que omite: el endeudamiento más rápido de la historia (usd 80 mil millones en 2 años); el déficit comercial más alto de la historia; y medalla de bronce en bicicleta financiera (3º país en el mundo).

Macri viene de mentir en Davos y en Francia, pero en Argentina la realidad es que cae el salario, recortan jubilaciones y cae el empleo de calidad. #AumentaTodo y hay un sinfín de despidos.

Eso es #ElGranAjuste

[In one single phrase, Macri broke a new Olympic record of lies.

1. The fiscal deficit was larger in the two years of Macri than in 2015.

2. The inflation of the two years of Macri is the high of the last 15 years.

3. After two years of governing, the GDP recently recovered its value of 2015. And in his review, Macris seems to have forgotten that between 2004-2015, the annual average GDP growth was +3.7%.

4. Industry still is 2.9% below the levels of 2015.

Macri's government has other "records" that he omits: the most rapid increase in indebtedness in history ($80 billion in two years); the largest trade deficit in history; and a bronze medal in the financial bicycle (third-place country in the world).

Macri went to Davos and France to lie, but in Argentina the realities is the fall in salaries, reduction of pensions, and a fall in the quality of employment. #AumentaTodo {inflation on everything} and there are layoffs without end.

This is #ElGranAjuste {the big cutback}. ]
The bicicleta financiera ("financial bicycle") is a phrase often used in economics and politics in Argentina. It refers to financial profiteering in the carry trade, which is basically exploiting exchange rates to extract economic "rent". Bert Dohmen (Carry Trade: The Multi-Trillion Dollar Hidden Market Forbes 09/04/2014) defined the carry trade briefly this way, "What is the carry trade? It’s the borrowing of a currency in a low interest rate country, converting it to a currency in a higher interest rate country and investing it in the highest rated bonds of that country. The big trading outfits do this with leverage of 100 or 300 to one."

The Presidential administrations of Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández had imposed capital controls - heresy to the neoliberal gospel - and carefully regulated the dollar reserves to support their policy of promoting domestic industrial development and as part of blocking "imported inflation." Macri reversed that policy. And the predictable consequences have followed.

See also: Daniel Pardo, Qué es la "bicicleta financiera", un símbolo de la Argentina de Mauricio Macri con el que inversionistas de todo el mundo han ganado millones BBC Mundo 27.junio.2017; El Banco Central renueva la "bicicleta financiera" con $380 mil millones en Lebac El Destape 14.nov.2017; Federico Kucher, El regreso de la bicicleta financiera Página/12 30.dic.2016.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Establishment "identity politics"

I'm still cautious about using the term "identity politics" because it doesn't yet seem to have achieved a reasonably stable meaning in the American political vocabulary. And the "Identitarian" movements in Europe are a small but militant and influential group among the far right.

The term was tossed about a lot in connection with the 2016 elections. It was often used by pundits to distinguish Hillary Clinton's pitch that emphasized civil rights for women and minorities from Bernie Sanders' emphasis on economic issues. while this wasn't entirely off-base, "identity politics" still carries a pejorative connotation. Especially among Republicans. Which is why some Democrats take care to emphasize that Trumpism is very much white identity politics. Dibgy Parton recently wrote, "This is the fundamental contour of American politics. When the two parties take opposite positions on slavery, now racial equality, we are divided. It's hard to believe that we are back to this place, but we are. And we can try to ascribe that to other motives all we want, it won't change anything." (It's white supremacy, people. It's always been white supremacy. Hullabaloo 02/04/2018)

But whatever term we use for it, it has become common in the internal arguments within the Democratic Party for the corporate Democrats to try to accuse progressives of being deficient in their concern for women's and minority rights. On the face of it, this doesn't make much sense, since the Sanders wing of the party is very much in favor of women's rights, including abortion rights, and of protecting minority civil rights, including affirmative action. The key difference is that the Democratic progressives also support New Deal economic policies, while the corporate Democrats are on board with the neoliberal economic agenda which is mostly in agreement with Republican positions.

After the 2008 and 2016 primary campaigns, it is now pretty much standard practice, at least at that level, for female candidates to try to portray male opponents and minority candidates to portray theirs as anti-black, anti-Latino, etc. In some cases, it's more objectively accurate than in others. But politics is politics. It's part of the mix. Whether it's effective or not depends on a lot of variables, including who is making the criticisms and, obviously, how the target audiences process the attacks.

I've expressed concern before about the Gillibrand Standard applied in the defenestration of Al Franken by his fellow Democratic Senators in 2017. I'm worried that the lessons Republicans have taken from it is to prepare to deluge Democratic candidates in October 2018 with frivolous allegations of sexual harassment. (Which doesn't exclude their being able to find some real ones.) See my posts: Kirsten Gillibrand as Presidential candidate 12/12/2017; The Gillibrand Standard Takes Out a Female Candidate? 12/17/17; Two weeks too late 12/19/17

Branko Marcetic writes about the use of "identity" issues against progressives in Only When It Suits Them Jacobin 02/02/2018.
During the primaries, Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright appeared to admonish young women for favoring Bernie Sanders over Clinton. Numerous liberal feminist writers insisted on the importance of getting Clinton into the White House, regardless of how centrist she may be. “Not electing a woman, again,” warned Rebecca Traister, would be “much more than symbolic.” In a now-deleted post on David Brock’s Blue Nation Review, Clinton loyalist Peter Daou explained that, “[Sanders’] views notwithstanding,” he was “a white male who has been in Congress for over a quarter century,” making him the “definition of establishment,” while Clinton, solely by being “a woman attempting to break the ultimate gender barrier” was “the definition of anti-establishment.”

This line of attack continued into 2017, when similar claims were used to deflect substantive criticisms of potential presidential candidates. Skeptics of Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Deval Patrick — three establishment Democrats floated as 2020 contenders who also happen to be black — were told they were simply motivated by bigotry, to the point where some critics were blithely misidentified as white men. In the words of Briahna Joy Gray, liberal discourse became “a world in which personal identity [is] shorthand for ‘progress’ … and ‘white man’ [is] an epithet.”

Howie Klein of Blue America comments on that article at his Down With Tyranny! blog in an apparently ironically-titled post, My Budding Romance With The DCCC, The Blue Dogs, The New Dems And EMILY's List 02/06/2018. "I like his line of thinking," he writes of Marcedtic's article, "but he wastes it on [Chelsea] Manning and [Paula] Swearengin, one step up from vanity candidates." But Klein also stresses, "The tragedy of all those walking garbage candidates the DCCC--along with the Blue Dogs, New Dems and EMILY's List-- try to pass off as real Democrats is that most of them have-- or had before the DCCC chased them away-- fine progressive candidates. Don't be fooled."

Zaid Jilani calls attention to establishment Dem primary mischief in Democrats Anonymously Target Muslim Candidate, Questioning His Eligibility to Run for Michigan Governor The Intercept 02/01/2018.

Charles Blow also uses the establishment-Dem trope here, somewhat carelessly equating Trump's vote with white working-class voters assumed to be primarily motivated in their voting by white identity issues, "He [Trump] was working-class white America’s rebuff to an erudite black man and a supremely experienced woman. Trump’s defects had been validated. He was loved among those who hate." (my emphasis; Constitutional Crisis in Slow Motion New York Times 02/05/2018)

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Democrats, Russia, Trump and nuclear disarmament

California Sen. Kamala Harris attracted a good bit of attention in 2016 as a possible corporate Democratic candidate for President in 2020. Here position in the liberal/progressive continuum is not entirely clear, even after serving as California's Attorney General for six years before entering the Senate in 2017.

She appear in this Morning Joe segment talking about the Nunes Memo, potential Constitutional crisis, and the Dreamers Senate Intel Committee Member Kamala Harris Criticizes Nunes Memo 02/05/2018:

Harris' comments about the Trump-Russia affair and about the upcoming budget deadline were sensible. And nothing that would gives Democratic progressives any particular cause for concern.

But I'm also concerned about what the Democrats are not saying about Russia. They need to bee making this a major issue: Ben Doherty, US's new nuclear policy 'a blueprint for war', Nobel peace laureate says Guardian 02/05/2018. Tilman Ruff, the chair of the Australia-based International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), warns that the Trump Administration's new nuclear policy increases the risk of nuclear war. And that policy doesn't look sound like one that Russia should especially like:
Last Friday the release of Donald Trump’s nuclear posture review revealed a significantly more aggressive stance towards Russia, saying Vladimir Putin’s regime must be convinced it would face “unacceptably dire costs” if it were to threaten even a limited nuclear attack in Europe. ...

The Pentagon-led review of the US nuclear arsenal and the policies that govern it was ordered by Trump a year ago. Such reviews are customarily done at the outset of a new US administration. ...

[Ruff says,] “The goal of a world free of nuclear weapons has disappeared from that document. It’s been described as a blueprint for nuclear war, and I don’t think that’s too extreme a characterisation.”

Ruff said on myriad indicators the risk of global nuclear war was increasing. “The continued reliance on nuclear weapons; the continued massive investments on keeping them indefinitely; making them more usable and more deadly; the lack of talks about disarmament, the increasingly belligerent postures and extraordinarily specific threats to use nuclear weapons by multiple leaders in multiple parts of the world,” he said.

The US position has also been criticised – predictably – by China, Iran and Russia.

Russia’s foreign ministry said the Trump administration’s policy statement was both “confrontational” and “unscrupulous” while Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said it risked “bringing humankind closer to annihilation”. [my emphasis]
Not having a nuclear war is a good thing. Peace is a good thing. Peace is also popular. And Democrats need to be advocating it.

Listen carefully to see if you hear any hint of such a thing in the comments Democrats make about Russia these days, including Kamala Harris' appearance above.

The antiwar critics who accuse the Democrats of using the "Russiagate" issue to promote hawkish foreign policies and bigger military budgets are right, so far as that goes. We need a pragmatic Russia policies with reducing the nuclear threat at the heart of it.

Of course, Russian interference in the 2016 election has to be seriously addressed. So do Russia-NATO tensions, trade relations, climate change, and a variety of other issues. The Democrats should be building a political program for a practical approach to Russia and nuclear disarmament, not simply an anti-Russia policy, which they are pretty doing presently.

And this is another reminder that the Dems need to be careful about accusing the Trump Administration of being a "puppet" of Russia or the like. Because when we look at policies like the critically important nuclear posture, we don't see anything close to an across-the-board "pro-Russia" policy.

Monday, February 05, 2018

Germany and the future of the EU

This Politico EU article by Matthew Karnitschnig provides a succinct statement of a basic problem with the real existing European Union In German GroKo talks, not much love for Europe 02/02/2018:
The dirty little secret of German politics is that the population doesn’t really care that much. Europe has become a rhetorical prop — everyone is for it, at least in the abstract.

In a survey last month of Germans’ views of the most pressing political issues, the question of fixing Europe didn’t even register.

That may be because many Germans don’t think the EU is broken. Germany, with its strong economy and perpetual export surpluses, is the prime beneficiary of European integration.

While most in the country welcome measures to strengthen the EU’s external borders and other efforts aimed at keeping migrants at bay, they have less time for proposals such as one for a Europe-wide bank deposit insurance. Reforms that could put German treasure at risk remain politically difficult, even outside conservative circles.

The repercussions of the euro crisis may have convinced Europe’s elites that closer integration in the eurozone is the only way forward, but the bailouts in Greece and periphery countries have only deepened the German public’s skepticism.
This lack of a sense of European citizenship is one aspect of the "democratic deficit" in the EU. As long as German politicians in both the CDU/CSU and the SPD see the EU as an instrument for narrow German nationalism, the EU will contine to stumble it's way from crisis to crisis, with failure of the Union at the end of the road.