Saturday, March 24, 2018

Anti-NRA protests. And it's time to lower the voting age to 16.

It's great to see so many young people coming out on Saturday to protest gun proliferation and the NRA, which is the main lobby group promoting it. Maybe 50 years ago, the NRA was more of a gun safety and hobbyist group. But it's long since become a firearms industry lobby in the form of a fanatical rightwing group that uses apocalyptic death-cult rhetoric to promote unlimited small-arms proliferation.

This Bloomberg Businessweek articles focuses on a problem that is rarely mentioned in the gun proliferation debate, the pitifully defective laws on basic product safety for handguns, Michael Smith and Polly Mosenoz, How Defective Guns Became the Only Product That Can’t Be Recalled 02/28/2018 (print version: "The Most Dangerous Gun" 03/05/2018 issue) It's about the Taurus handgun, manufactured in Brazil, which relatively inexpensive at retail prices in the US. A sidebar notes, "The Taurus 85 is the top-selling revolver in the U.S., according to Gun Genius."

The article talks about safety issues that have arisen with Taurus guns which caused the safeties on the pistols to fail, resulting in death and injury.
“I couldn’t believe that no one had warned us that those guns were bad,” Bud says. “Why didn’t Taurus warn us? Why did the government let them sell those guns?”

The simple answer is that no government entity has the power to police defective firearms or ammunition in America - or even force gunmakers to warn consumers. The Consumer Product Safety Commission can order the recall and repair of thousands of things, from toasters to teddy bears. If a defective car needs fixing, the U.S. Department of Transportation can make it happen. The Food and Drug Administration deals with food, drugs, and cosmetics. Only one product is beyond the government’s reach when it comes to defects and safety: firearms. Not even the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives can get defective guns off the market. If a gunmaker chooses to ignore a safety concern, there’s no one to stop it.

To understand how firearms makers escaped government oversight of the safety of their pistols, revolvers, and rifles, you need to go back to 1972, when Congress created the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Four years earlier, President Lyndon B. Johnson had signed the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, which regulated several aspects of firearm sales, and advocates of gun control hoped to give this new agency oversight of defective weapons. Representative John Dingell, a Democrat from Michigan and a hunter with an A-plus rating from the ascendant NRA, blocked them. In 1975 he did it again, when a colleague introduced a bill making a second run at giving the CPSC firearms authority. “We put in there an express prohibition against them getting their nose into the business of regulating firearms and ammunition,” Dingell said in debate in Congress. That second bill was crushed, 339-80, and the issue has never been seriously considered again. [my emphasis]
So it seems that even n 1938, the NRA's actual commitment to gun safety was questionable!

Smith and Moseno also report:
In 2013, Taurus stopped selling the nine gun models alleged to be defective in the U.S.: the PT-111 Millennium, PT-132 Millennium, PT-138 Millennium, PT-140 Millennium, PT-145 Millennium, PT-745 Millennium, PT-24/7, PT-609, and PT-640.

There are allegations, however, of a new kind of defect in at least one popular revolver that Taurus still sells in America. This time, the gun didn’t misfire; it blew apart, according to a lawsuit filed in September in U.S. District Court in Raleigh, N.C.
They describe the suit in more detail. It was apparently unresolved at the time of the article.

Here is a PBS Newshour report on Saturday's anti-gun proliferation and anti-NRA protests, Youth voices take center stage at March for Our Lives 03/24/2018

Also, it's time to lower the national voting age to 16.

Friday, March 23, 2018


I don't have much distinctive to say about professional warmonger John Bolton, now becoming the President's National Security Adviser.

Some of the early reactions in Twitter were pretty striking.

Fred Kaplan has this sketch of Bolton, It’s Time to Panic Now Slate 03/22/20118.

And Über-Realist Stephen Walt weighs in with Welcome to the Dick Cheney Administration Foreign Policy 03/22/2018: /
Let me be clear: Bolton’s appointment is on par with most of Trump’s personnel choices, which is to say that it’s likely to be a disaster. His views on foreign policy are crude and bellicose, and his track record as a policy advocate and pundit do not, to put it politely, inspire confidence. Nor does he seem to have learned a thing from his past mistakes. And where McMaster and Tillerson did what they could to limit the damage that Trump has done to America’s international reputation and critical alliance partnerships, Bolton’s particular skill as a diplomat seems to have been finding creative new ways to offend America’s friends. [my emphasis]

But Walt also reminds us that, for all his deserved bad press, John Bolton is very much within the broad foreign policy establishment consensus in the US. Walt doesn't mean that as praise:
Look at Bolton’s pedigree and career. He’s a graduate of Yale University and Yale Law School. He worked at Covington & Burling, a venerable D.C. law firm where former Secretary of State Dean Acheson once worked. He has been a senior fellow for years at the conservative but mainstream American Enterprise Institute. He writes frequently for obscure, wild-and-crazy “radical” publications like, er … the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and even Foreign Policy. This is your idea of a “fringe” figure?

True, Bolton was a vocal supporter of the Iraq War, but that hardly makes him a weirdo. As I’m sure he’d be the first to point out, a lot of other people drank that particular Kool-Aid, including Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Jim Steinberg, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Susan Rice, Robert Gates, and a long, long list of other “respectable” figures. And don’t forget that the other geniuses who dreamed up and sold that disaster — people like William Kristol, James Woolsey, Robert Kagan, Bret Stephens, Max Boot, Eliot Cohen, David Frum, Paul Wolfowitz, etc. — are still respected figures in the foreign policy establishment despite having never admitted they were wrong or expressed any public regret for launching a disastrous war in which hundreds of thousands of people died.
Other early takes:

Christine Kim and Josh Smith, 'Human scum and bloodsucker': Bolton's White House appointment fans worries over hawkish record in Asia Reuters 03/22/2018

Franco Ordoñez and Anita Kumar, Trump pick Bolton to drive hardline agenda against Venezuela McClatchey News 03/22/2018

Tracy Wilkinson and Noah Bierman, John Bolton's take-no-prisoners style may prove problematic in the White House Los Angeles Times 03/23/2018:
He has vigorously opposed the Iran nuclear deal, and no doubt will back Trump's threats to withdraw from the landmark accord. Before it was signed in 2015, he suggested bombing Iran to quash its nuclear ambitions.

He also has called for a military attack on nuclear-armed North Korea. Six months ago, as Trump and North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un traded insults and threats, Bolton said the solution was to topple the Pyongyang government and have South Korea take over the North.
Jacob Heilbrunn, Who’s Afraid of John Bolton? The National Interest 03/23/2018:
Here’s just how radical Donald Trump’s appointment of John Bolton as national security advisor really is: the Financial Times reports that even Iran hawks such as Mark Dubowitz, the head of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, are rubbing their eyes in disbelief. ...

Strictly speaking, Bolton is not a neocon, but there is definite consanguinity. Bolton has never been worked up about the democratization of other countries. When I saw him on the eve of the Iraq War at the State Department as part of a group of Los Angeles Times editors, he made it abundantly clear that he simply wanted to smash Iraq. He’s a regime-change kind of guy: go in. Take out the enemy. Then leave. Do it again if necessary. So what Trump’s moves seem to signal is the rise of conservative nationalism or, to put it another way, the Cheney doctrine on steroids.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Trump and Republicans' revolutionary (?) means

A report about vandalizing a statue fits in well with an issue I've been thinking about, which is how Trump and the Republicans are willing to use "revolutionary" means to achieve their ends, while the Democratic Party tends to be phobic about the word "revolution," except when they are pushing for regime change in a foreign country whose government has fallen out of favor with them.

This is the vandalism I mean: Katy Bergen, Historic John Brown statue in KCK vandalized with racial slurs and a swastika Kansas City Star 03/18/2018; updated 03/18/2018. More on this below.

I'm more reserved than ever about easy generalizations on typical ways democracy in other countries is eroded. That's because so much of it is proposed in service of some regime-change agenda. And the international reporting in the mainstream US media is often so spotty or just plain bad, I try to be careful about jumping to conclusions.

Having said that, it's generally understood that some kind of independence of the judiciary and law-enforcement agencies is necessary for the rule of law to function. And at some point, attempts to influence the justice system for political reasons does become an overriding of the rule of law.

You can tell this isn't a straight polemic, because I'm putting so many qualifications out there. But the lines can be confusing. I have serious doubts about lifetime appointment of federal judges, for instance. But electing judges is also a bad idea because that inevitably politicizes the justice system to so extent. But every system of selecting judges depends for its effectiveness on the participants taking their responsibilities seriously. The Dred Scott decision was clearly a political decision with massive consequences. It was an instance where the judicial system tossed its responsibilities and the rule of law overboard for a political cause: slavery, a cause of the worst kind.

Another famous situation where these issues were raised was Franklin Roosevelt's fight against the Nine Old Men of the 1930s Supreme Court. (William Leuchtenburg, When Franklin Roosevelt Clashed with the Supreme Court – and Lost Smithsonian Magazine May 2005) A reactionary Supreme Court was knocking down law after law passed by Congress that were aimed at improving economic conditions after the devastating Great Depression. Leuchtenburg gives a measured judgment on the practical lessons that historians and politicians have drawn from that fight:
The 168-day contest also has bequeathed some salutary lessons. It instructs presidents to think twice before tampering with the Supreme Court. FDR’s scheme, said the Senate Judiciary Committee, was “a measure which should be so emphatically rejected that its parallel will never again be presented to the free representatives of the free people of America.” And it never has been. At the same time, it teaches the justices that if they unreasonably impede the functioning of the democratic branches, they may precipitate a crisis with unpredictable consequences. In his dissent in the AAA case in 1936, Justice Stone reminded his brethren, “Courts are not the only agency of government that must be assumed to have capacity to govern.” These are lessons— for the president and for the court — as salient today as they were in 1937.
The conventional wisdom is that FDR overstepped and tried to improperly interfere with the Court by his proposal to appoint additional Justices, remembered mainly by the pejorative label of Roosevelt's "court-packing scheme." But the CW also holds that FDR's public fight against the Court jolted them into a (genuinely) more judicially reasonable position on New Deal legislation.

Roosevelt's proposals in that situation were a very different thing from what's going on now in Pennsylvania, where the Radical Republicans are trying to impeach the state supreme court justices who struck down an extreme, partisan gerrymandering scheme the Republicans put in place. (Sam Levine, Pennsylvania GOP Moves To Impeach Supreme Court Democrats For Gerrymandering Ruling Huffpost 03/20/2018)

The Republicans are willing to use impeachment for the most crass partisan purposes. But the Democrats never bothered to even hold Congressional hearings on strong indications of what looked an awful lot like improprieties by Supreme Court Justices Clalrence Thomas and Antonin Scalia. The symbolism of this is sadly ironic: "When Justice Scalia died two weeks ago, he was staying, again for free, at a West Texas hunting lodge owned by a businessman whose company had recently had a matter before the Supreme Court." (Eric Lipton, Scalia Took Dozens of Trips Funded by Private Sponsors New York Times 02/26/2016) See also: Ujala Sehgal, A Brief History of Clarence Thomas' Ethical Entanglements The Atlantic 06/19/2011.

Currently, we have a Republican Party that is committed to appointing highly activist judges and is willing to toss normal procedural and normative practices out the window in order to get rightwing ideologues entrenched throughout the federal judiciary. (See Garland, Merrick) In 2016, the Republicans in Congress effectively nullified the Constitutional procedure for selecting Supreme Court Justices. But when Trump nominated Neil Gorsuch to the Court, there was no resistance on the Democratic side remotely comparable. The net result is that the Republicans have dominance of the selection of federal judges entirely out of proportion to the number of American voters who support their party.

As bad as that is, I wouldn't call that a "revolutionary" method. Trump's blatant threatening and bullying of the FBI and the Justice Department over the Mueller investigation is. From his public statements and the firings of James Comey and Andrew McCabe, Trump has made it very clear that he wants the Justice Department to act on his behalf in much the same way his political mentor and longtime attorney, mob lawyer Roy Cohn, did for years (Ron Elving, President Trump Called For Roy Cohn, But Roy Cohn Was Gone NPR 01/08/2018):
This much is clear: Cohn was Trump's model in the handling of public relationships and media warfare.

Cohn's code was built on self-interest and loyalty; his style was all about intensity. If he was your lawyer, he was prepared to do anything for you; if he was your adversary, no holds were barred.
The title of the NPR article refers to a Trump quote reported by Michael Schmidt in the New York Times, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” (Obstruction Inquiry Shows Trump’s Struggle to Keep Grip on Russia Investigation 01/04/2018)

As Schmidt reminds us, Cohn "had been Senator Joseph R. McCarthy’s top aide during the investigations into communist activity in the 1950s and died in 1986." So Joe McCarthy's authoritarian heritage that was willing to ignore democratic and Constitutional rights and norms has now come to the White House is a potent form via Roy Cohn's political protege Donald Trump. (For more on Cohn, see also: Jonathan Mahler and Matt Flegenheimer, What Donald Trump Learned From Joseph McCarthy’s Right-Hand Man New York Times 06/20/2016; Marie Brenner, How Donald Trum and roy Cohn's Ruthless Symbiosis Changed America Vanity Fair Aug 2017; Robert O'Harrow Jr. and Shawn Boburg; The man who showed Donald Trump how to exploit power and instill fear Washington Post 06/17/2016)

Seve Bannon has rotated out of Trumpian favor for the moment. But his declaration that his goal in February 2017 when he was still a White House strategist that his goal is the "deconstruction of the administrative state" echoes the advocates of the Conservative Revolution in the 1920s, from which he draws some of his ideas and perspective. Francis Wilkerson reported last year (Bannon's Requiem for the Administrative State Business Insider 03/27/2017):
It's unclear so far what Bannon's phrase "administrative state" means, or what "deconstructing" it would entail. Deregulation is surely a key element of it. But Obamacare seems about as clear an example of the administrative state as you can get. It's a vast and highly complex regulatory regime that administers intrusive and often restrictive rules while transferring payments and benefits from some Americans to others via federal and state governments.

In effect, Obamacare is the leading edge of what National Review writer David French called a "vast and bloated executive branch -- existing through its alphabet soup of agencies such as the EPA, IRS, DOE, ATF, and the like."

The "administrative state," in other words, is all the structures and functions of government that conservatives dislike, an alien force that, as French said, "intrudes into virtually every aspect of American life." [my emphasis]
This certainly is a goal that has a "revolutionary" edge to it, though in the sense of "conservative revolution," i.e, overthrowing the existing legal order by extralegal means to establish an authoritarian order.

There is a rich and contentious history of debate and polemics over what how revolution should be defined which I'm not addressing here. But the Republicans have invoked revolutionary rhetoric for decades. The Reagan Administration and its policies were referred to by Republicans as the Reagan Revolution, a term the mainstream press didn't find alarmingly inappropriate. The official White House website still contains this: "At the end of his two terms in office, Ronald Reagan viewed with satisfaction the achievements of his innovative program known as the Reagan Revolution, which aimed to reinvigorate the American people and reduce their reliance upon Government." (my emphsis) 40: Ronald Reagan (n/d; accessed 03/20/2018; sourced to “The Presidents of the United States of America,” by Frank Freidel and Hugh Sidey; 2006)

Later there was the "Gingrich Revolution" of 1994, also called the "Republican Revolution," in which the Republicans under Newt Gingrich's leadership won control of the House of Representative. (Andrea Stone, Republican Revolution fades USA Today 01/19/2003; updated 01/22/2003) Steven Gillon in 2016 characterized the Gingrich Revolution by its highly abrasive, transgressive style of politics that failed " to appreciate the distinction between means and ends." (The Gingrich Revolution and the Roots of Republican Dysfunction Huffpost 10/12/2016) He writes:
The person most responsible for injecting [the current] virulent strain of partisanship into the Republican party was another dethroned House Speaker — Newt Gingrich. The firebrand conservative leaders today are Gingrich’s children. Gingrich rose to power in the 1980s as the pied piper of a new assertive conservatism that merged the moralistic rhetoric of the New Right, and the mystical conservative faith in tax cuts, into a powerful ideological message. It was Gingrich who manufactured the hyper-partisanship that defines modern politics.
And when Republican donors like the Koch Brothers decided in 2009 they needed an Astroturf movement to publicly protest Obama, it quickly became branded as the Tea Party, i.e., a familiar patriotic symbol of the American Revoluiton.

The there was the Neoconservative Revolution, which was heavily influenced by Trotskyism, which became the defining outlook of the Cheney-Bush Administration's foreign policy, including the Iraq War. John Judis wrote about this aspect of the neocons' outlook in the very Establishment journal Foreign Policy in 1995 ("Trotskyism to Anachronism - The Neoconservative Revolution" July/Aug 1995). Noting that the hawkish foreign policy adviser Paul Nitze, who drafted the famous 1950 NSC-68 memorandum during the Truman Administration, was a major influence on the neocons, he also writes:
The other important influence on neoconservatives was the legacy of Trotksyism - a point that other historians and journalists have made about neoconservatism .... Many of the founders of neoconservatism, including The Public Interest founder Irving Kristol and coeditor Nathan Glazer, Sidney Hook, and Albert Wohistetter, were either members of or close to the Trotskyist left in the late 193os and early 194os. Younger neoconservatives, including Penn Kemble, Joshua Muravchik, and Carl Gershman, came through the Socialist Party at a time when former Trotskyist Max Schachtman was still a commanding figure.

What both the older and younger neoconservatives absorbed from their socialist past was an idealistic concept of internationalism.
Trotskyists believed that Stalin, in trying to build socialism in one country rather than through world revolution, had created a degenerate workers' state instead of a genuine dictatorship of the proletariat. In the framework of international communism, the Trotskyists were rabid internationalists rather than realists and nationalists. ...

The neoconservatives who went through the Trotskyist and socialist movements came to see foreign policy as a
crusade, the goal of which was first global socialism, then social democracy, and finally democratic capitalism. They never saw foreign policy in terms of national interest or balance of power. Neoconservatism was a kind of inverted Trotskyism, which sought to "export democracy," in Muravchik's words, in the same way that Trotsky originally envisaged exporting socialism. It saw its adversaries on the left as members or representatives of a public sector-based new class. [my emphasis]
The distinction between conventional war and revolutionary war was a familiar one in the 19th century. Conventional war involved fighting to defeat an enemy army, possibly taking over the opposing country or part of it, without seeking to change the basic structure of social relationships in the enemy country. Revolutionary war includes the latter. A model case would be the wars immediately after the French Revolution and then the Napoleonic Wars, in which not just conquest but the implanting of republican governments and the dislocation of feudal social relationships were a part of the goal and practice. When Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation during the Civil War, that was understood as a shift from conventional war, aimed at removing the rebel governments, to revolutionary war, that intended to undo the slave system that was the foundation of the Southern plantation economy.

The main official justification for the Iraq War was Saddam Hussein's nonexistent "weapons of mass destruction." And Dick Cheney didn't give a flying flip about democracy or freedom or basic human rights in Iraq. But that Administration's policy in the Middle East was also justified as installing democratic governments on the inverted-Trotskyist model.

So the Republican Party has been comfortable with the rhetoric of "revolution," though overthrowing corporate capitalism is certainly no part of their agenda. And the highly partisan approach of Trump and his party toward justice right now is a (conservative) "revolutionary" approach to policy. Joe Conason describes the recent majority report of the House Intelligence Committee on Russiagate as a "surrender of Congressional authority to the White House" of a kind which bears "a sad resemblance to the behavior of bogus legislatures under authoritarian regimes."

The Democrats on the other hand, have become allergic to the whole idea of "revolution," unless it comes in the form of a "color revolution" against a government friendly to Russia or hostile to the United States (and to Israel, in the Middle East.) We see it in the way the Democrats shrink from any favorable invocation of the party's two main founders, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. Both of whom fought in the American Revolution and both of whom were key leaders in establishing and expanding democracy. So they leave behind any patriotic imagery or symbols associated with the American Revolution and shrug when the Republicans appropriate the symbolism of the Tea Party or Andrew Jackson.

Yes, in real history there are elements in every period of American history that deserve critical summary, not the least of them slavery and Indian policy. But it's one more element of partisan imbalance when the Democrats are unwilling to claim any of the patriotic heritage of the country prior to 1860 while the Republicans effectively appropriate all of it they want to for their own purposes. The Democrats don't even contest it, for the most part, which is one of the ways they allow the Republicans to define themselves as the party of Real Americans.

In the 2016 Presidential contest, Bernie Sanders straightforwardly talked about his program as a revolution. Which he defined clearly as getting more people to participate in the political process including voting, reducing the massive corporate corruption in American politics which is plain to everyone,establishing a solid social-democratic infrastructure including single-payer healthcare, and a more peace-oriented foreign policy with a smaller military budget. Whether that qualifies as dramatic a change as kicking Britain out of the US in the American Revolution or overthrowing the Slave Power in the Civil War is open to discussion. But it certainly is more deserving of that name than the Reagan Revolution or the Gingrich Revolution.

But the Clinton campaign tried to use the "revolution" label against Sanders. Politics is politics, so of course they were going to do that. So we heard campaign-promoted comments like: revolutions get people killed; we don't want to have a revolution, we want to elect a President; Sanders talking about "revolution" and "socialism" makes Hillary the Electable One for the general election.

This kind of fearful/contemptuous attitude toward the left has been a chronic problem for Democrats since 1972. The 2016 Hillary campaign version of it just reinforced the conservative tone in which the Democrats all too often frame themselves.

It doesn't have to be that way. It wasn't that long ago that Democrats could speak with approval of the Roosevelt Revolution that brought the New Deal. The Dems still will speak sometimes of the "civil rights revolution," though it's typically framed as a series of events in the 1950s and 1960s rather than anything ongoing. And even as non-revolutionary a Democrat as Lyndon Johnson could invoke the song that for the civil rights movement was a hymn invoking militancy and radical change: "And we shall overcome."

And even now, the Democrats as a group are trapped by a toxic centrism with a conservative cast that recently led them to oppose Trump's militant populist rhetoric, which included actual incitements to violence at his rallies, with a bland slogan like Stronger Together. Which goes well with the obsession with Bipartisanship that the Democrats can seem to shake off.

Which brings us to John Brown's statue. If there was any white man in the United States prior to the Civil War who was devoted to democracy, despised slavery and actively tried to end it, considered blacks equal to white and women equal to men - in other words, characteristics that liberals now condemn pretty much every citizen of the US prior to 1860 - it was John Brown.

But will Democratic Party liberals be jumping up and down in outrage over seeing his statue defaced? This is the Democratic Party we're talking about, so the answer is: not many. The reason is illustrated by the opening paragraph of an article on Brown from 2005 by historian Sean Wilentz, who wrote a good short biography of Andrew Jackson that takes a nuanced view of him without falling into anachronisms ("Homegrown Terrorist" New Republic The New Republic 10/24/2005):
John Brown was a violent charismatic anti-slavery terrorist and traitor, capable of cruelty to his family as well as to his foes. Every one of his murderous ventures failed to achieve its larger goals. His most famous exploit, the attack on Harpers Ferry in October 1859, actually backfired. That backfiring, and not Brown’s assault or his later apotheosis by certain abolitionists and Transcendentalists, contributed something, ironically, to the hastening of southern secession and the Civil War. In a topsy-turvy way, Brown may have advanced the anti-slavery cause. Otherwise, he actually damaged the mainstream campaign against slavery, which by the late 1850s was a serious mass political movement contending for national power, and not, as Brown and some of his radical friends saw it, a fraud even more dangerous to the cause of liberty than the slaveholders.
While it's a serious point, Wilentz' argument here bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the notorious "moderate" argument during the 1960s: if blacks actively protest against segregation, it will make whites more resistant and damage their own cause.

John Brown fought in the guerrilla war between the pro- and anti-slavery forces in Kansas Territory. And the operation during which he was captured at Harper's Ferry was one he designed to set up resistance bases in the Appalachian Mountains to encourage and facilitate the flight of slaves from their masters' plantations. But America's center-left party, the Democrats, don't really want to invoke that heritage, either. It might get in the way of Bipartisan cooperation.

I'm not suggesting that the Democratic Party set up guerrilla bases in the mountains. In fact, I can't really envision such a thing in my imagination.

But the Democrats mostly let the Republican have John Brown, too! Antiabortionists invoke John Brown to justify extralegal violence against abortion providers. The racism and anti-woman attitudes so common in that movement would be completely repugnant to Brown.

And the Democrats should be able to recognize that in the face of a Republican Party in power employing revolutionary means to wreck liberal democratic institutions, something more militant than Stronger Together bipartisan bromides is needed. As long as they are allergic to even talking about "revolution" in the sense of getting more people out to vote, they will have a hard time getting there. And unless they can do more than "bipartisan" surrender to Trump and the Republicans on issue after issue, it will be hard to convince voters than the Resistance talk is serious on their part.

On the other hand, for the Democrats to try to imitate the loose talk from the right about "Second Amendment solutions" sounds kind of bizarre. (Ed Kilgore, Democratic Congressman Hints at Armed Rebellion Against Trump New York 03/19/2018) A party that can't organize its Congressional representation to block an ill-conceived bank deregulation law isn't going to be organizing its own popular militia.

The problem for the Democrats is that so many of its leaders and office-holders are stuck in the we-aren't-lefties attitude that establishment Democrats in the 1968-72 period used, even Democrats who were born well after that time. This way too often leads them to frequently adopt conservative framing and conservative arguments for their more liberal/progressive positions. They really need to stop doing that, as George Lakoff has been urgently recommending for years now.

Also, despite their enthusiasm for "color revolutions" today, Democrats have often blundered and sometimes caused great harm in no small part due to their inability to take a practical, nuanced view of homegrown revolutions in other countries, from Woodrow Wilson and the Russian Revolution, to Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam, to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on Libya and, to some extent, Syria.

Recycled prescriptions for the EU

An intriguing headline hinting at an important insight: It’s time for the EU to get real, an article by Jen Spahn, German Health Minister and a leading figure at the moment in Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, in Politico EU 03/22/2018.

His fresh and innovative solution? Double-down on the most misguided macroeconomic policies on which Angela Merkel has insisted in her years as Chancellor, at great cost to millions of people in the eurozone:
The future of our shared currency, the euro, is also central to Europe’s future. Reducing the debt levels of member countries is vital, as is reinforcing the European Economic and Monetary Union and ensuring that actions and liability go hand in hand. Credibly enforcing the EU’s stability and growth pact is the key task. In this way, we can enhance member countries’ financial resilience and our ability to withstand the next crisis.

In order to make the euro-architecture more robust, the European Stability Mechanism should be further developed into a European Monetary Fund, as already proposed by former Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble. Such a monetary fund would have to include better early-warning and prevention mechanisms for crises and credible procedures for debt restructuring in order to protect taxpayers.

Some sort of neutral internal governance — committed to compliance with the treaties, rather than political opportunism — will be vital. That would also enhance the attractiveness of the eurozone for those countries who have not yet introduced the euro. [my emphasis]
He also has this suggestion, "A recent proposal to provide a four-week Interrail pass for all school-leavers in the EU is intriguing, as it would help foster a connection to other Europeans. These are costly projects, yes, but they would allow us to make a positive — and distinctly European — mark on the world."

Easier than creating a common eurozone fiscal policy and budget, I guess. Not to mention creating shared eurozone debt instruments.

Spahn also has the not-exactly-bold suggestion of increasing the staffing of the EU Frontex border-patrol agency. He declares, "The issue that clearly causes the most anxiety with voters is migration. As long as human traffickers, rather than border officers, decide who sets foot on European soil, we put at risk one of the greatest achievements in European integration: the freedom of movement." This is a CDU-ish nod to anti-immigrant rhetoric, i.e., "human traffickers, rather than border officers, decide who sets foot on European soil."

The European immigration problem - a continuing crisis, actually - is not due to enterprising people smugglers, uh, "human traffickers." It's due to wars in the Greater Middle East including Afghanistan, and in North Africa. Along with the increasing and long term effects of climate change. It's a European problem. One whose actual solution will involve, yes, European countries agreeing of accepting a certain number of refugees. And preparation of adequate emergency services for spikes like those of 2015. All of which will require a practical attitude of solidarity, or cooperation, if you prefer. The nationalism and national resentments generated by Merkel's handling of the euro crisis have made that much more difficult.

If vague pronouncements like, "The creeping power grab by the European institutions must end," is all the EU leadership can come up with, that doesn't promise a happy future for the EU. Particularly since the eurozone's Fiscal Pact forces most eurozone countries to adopt procyclical austerity policies during recessions.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Should I feel backward for not knowing about Jordan Peterson?

Jordan Peterson is a Canadian intellectual that never much registered on my consciousness before the last couple of days. Sam Seder and his team talk about Peterson just after 14:00 in the 03/19/2018 edition of The Majority Report:

Peterson is celebrated as an "anti-PC" person who offers self-help suggestions with a bit of a professorial touch. providing with pronouncements dressed up with esoteric-sounding acadamic-ese. His guest, Nathan J. Robinson, talks about Peterson in the context of the divide between the academic press and the popular press, such that academic experts are often unfamiliar with the "popular intellectuality" in their field. Seder uses Sam Harris as someone who is widely known as a neuroscientist but not actually a familiar figure among academic specialist in subject areas for which Harris is well know.

Robinson also has a long essay out about Peterson, The Intellectual We Deserve Current Affairs 03/14/2018.

Peterson is even profiled in the prestigious New York Review of Books by Pankaj Mishra, Jordan Peterson & Fascist Mysticism 03/19/2018. Nishra describes him as "a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, ... a YouTube sensation and a bestselling author in several Western countries." Mishra explains "insists that gender and class hierarchies are ordained by nature and validated by science, [and] has suddenly come to be hailed as the West’s most influential public intellectual."

Whoever is hailing him as such, should I be embarrassed that I really have not paid much attention until today to "the West’s most influential public intellectual"?

I haven't seen anything so far that makes me thinks I should be. Mishra himself places Peterson's kind of work in a line of romantics with authoritarian tendencies dating back to the 19th century. He says that Carl Jung, Mircea Eliade, and Joseph Campbell. He gives particular emphasis to Peterson's celebration of traditionalist-authoritarian notions of proper gender roles.

Mishra provides this guideline to the kind of ideology which he understands Peterson to be promoting:
Peterson himself credits his intellectual awakening to the Cold War, when he began to ponder deeply such “evils associated with belief” as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, and became a close reader of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. This is a common intellectual trajectory among Western right-wingers who swear by Solzhenitsyn and tend to imply that belief in egalitarianism leads straight to the guillotine or the Gulag. A recent example is the English polemicist Douglas Murray who deplores the attraction of the young to Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and wishes that the idea of equality was “tainted by an ideological ordure equivalent to that heaped on the concept of borders.” Peterson confirms his membership of this far-right sect by never identifying the evils caused by belief in profit, or Mammon: slavery, genocide, and imperialism.
The question of what role a scholar's or scientist's politics should play in evaluating their ideas and intellectual conclusions of their work is a complicated one. Mishra is focusing in this short article on how a strain of thought contributed in some ways to reactionary attitudes and ideas. In the case of Jung, Eliade, and Campbell, their work is still taken seriously in itself, which doesn't mean that their approaches are mainstream now. jung's notion of the "colleective unconscious" is mostly not take seriously today in a medical or scientific sense. Yet there are still Jungian psychologists and others influenced by pats of his work.

But what Misha notes about those three here is important:
The “desperation of meaninglessness” widely felt in the late nineteenth century, seemed especially desperate in the years following two world wars and the Holocaust. Jung, Eliade, and Campbell, all credentialed by university education, met a general bewilderment by suggesting the existence of a secret, almost gnostic, knowledge of the world. Claiming to throw light into recessed places in the human unconscious, they acquired immense and fanatically loyal fan clubs. Campbell’s 1988 television interviews with Bill Moyers provoked a particularly extraordinary response. As with Peterson, this popularizer of archaic myths, who believed that “Marxist philosophy had overtaken the university in America,” was remarkably in tune with contemporary prejudices. “Follow your own bliss,” he urged an audience that, during an era of neoconservative upsurge, was ready to be reassured that some profound ancient wisdom lay behind Ayn Rand’s paeans to unfettered individualism.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Endless war in Syria

Patrick Cockburn was one of the best reporters on the Iraq War. If we can legitimately speak of it in the past tense. The trusty but staid Encyclopaedia Britannica's gives this definition (internal links omitted):
Iraq War, also called Second Persian Gulf War, (2003–11), conflict in Iraq that consisted of two phases. The first of these was a brief, conventionally fought war in March–April 2003, in which a combined force of troops from the United States and Great Britain (with smaller contingents from several other countries) invaded Iraq and rapidly defeated Iraqi military and paramilitary forces. It was followed by a longer second phase in which a U.S.-led occupation of Iraq was opposed by an insurgency. After violence began to decline in 2007, the United States gradually reduced its military presence in Iraq, formally completing its withdrawal in December 2011.
Cockburn gives us a grim update on the grim, ongoing Syria War, which is a civil war mixed with increasing foreign intervention, , The Syrian war could still be raging in four years' time unless the US and Russia agree to end it Independent 03/16/2018:

We must speak of multiple armed conflicts in Syria rather than a single war so that when one military confrontation gets close to its final chapter, it is swiftly replaced by another. Isis, the greatest threat of 2014 to 2017, is largely eliminated, but the new focus of violence is the escalating struggle between Turkey and the two or three million Syrian Kurds.

The Syrian Army is advancing into Eastern Ghouta and the likelihood is that President Bashar al-Assad will soon have almost complete control of the capital for the first time since 2012. One outcome could be for the rebel fighters to leave with light weapons for opposition or Turkish-held territory in southern and northern Syria, while the bulk of the civilian population would be amnestied and stay where they are. But the Syrian war is littered with compromise solutions which never quite came about because there were too many players to agree on a common course of action. [my emphasis]
Cockburn argues that a deal between the US and Russia is the best hope of putting the armed conflict to an end sooner rather than later. He describes the enhanced influence of Russia in Syria this way:
The Russians, for their part, know that it was their military intervention in Syria which in a single stroke restored their status as a superpower or something like it, a position they had lost when the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991. When the Syrian crisis first exploded in 2011, a senior Iraqi official asked an American general what was so different between the situation in Libya, where Gaddafi had just been ousted and killed, and that in Syria. The general replied in a short succinct sentence, saying that in Syria “Russia is back”. [my emphasis]
It's worth noting here that the US' enhanced influence in the US that has grown over the decades since the Carter Administration, and especially since the Persian Gulf War of 1991 has been anything but an unmixed blessing. To put it mildly. Anyone who wishes Russia ill might be celebrating their current role in the Middle East.

Cockburn's article is worth noting in connection with these reflections from Lawrence Wilkerson, The Most Important Hearings Of The Young Century LobeLog 03/16/2018. He reminds us that starting a war is a way for Trump to rally public support around him in the face of the staggering scandals now being investigated in relation to Trump, his businesses, and his 2016 campaign:
But the Syria conflict will most likely be the conduit through which this presidential team, linked at the hip with Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu’s team, pursues its first new and immediately most likely use of military power. However, even the unending war thus produced — for that is precisely what it will be — will not sufficiently satisfy the appetites of this team. Moreover, taking on Syria and Iran might well lead to Russia. Putin has said as much publicly.

Imagine this scenario for a frightening moment. While embroiled in Syria with Israel at our side, Russia and Iran confront the U.S. and no one backs down. Turkey leaps into the mix to finish off as many Kurds as possible as the inevitable major regional war begins. Meanwhile, in the South China Sea, China delivers and immediately acts upon an ultimatum to Taipei. This bellicose White House team led by Donald Trump challenges China and, in the process, immediately loses USS Carl Vinson, sunk in minutes by a combination of missiles, torpedoes, and precision-guided bombs, an aircraft carrier worth $14 billion with about 5,000 souls on board.

Mr. President, what do you and your team do now?

Frankly, I believe this bone-spur-afflicted warrior will run upstairs in the White House, close the door firmly, pick up his smart device, and commence tweeting that, among other things, it was not his fault.
One of the implications of Wilkerson's comment is that, even if the Trump Administration is trying to be friendly to Russia, bad decisions in the context of unpredictable day-to-day events in the Syrian context could escalate to a much more consequential clash for the United States.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Bank deregulation and the Democratic Party 2018

Congress just passed a new bank deregulation bill with the usual propaganda name, Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief and Consumer Protection Act. A more descriptive one would have been the Financial Destabilization Act.

David Dayen at The Intercept has been following the bill and writing about its effects. In Democrats Offer Last-Minute, Pretend Defense of Fair Lending Laws, As They Prepare to Weaken Them 03/12/2018, he gives a good example of how conservative Democrats construct alibis for voting for bad Republican laws.

In this case, the bill had to have Democratic support in the Senate to prevent a filibuster from stopping it. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer opposed it. But 16 Senate Democrats voted for it, including Independent Angus King who caucuses with the Democrats, allowing it to pass. Here is the list from the Senate website:

Michael Bennet (D-CO)
Tom Carper (D-DE)
Chris Coons (D-DE)
Joe Donnelly (D-IN)
Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND)
Doug Jones (D-AL)
Tim Kaine (D-VA)
Angus King (I-ME)
Joe Manchin (D-WV)
Claire McCaskill (D-MO)
Ben Nelson (D-FL)
Gary Peters (D-MI)
Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH)
Debbie Stabenow (D-MI)
Jon Tester (D-MT)
Mark Warner (D-VA)

The list includes the Democratic Vice Presidential candidate for 2016, Tim Kaine and press favorites like Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Manchin, Debbie Stabenow, and Mark Warner. Heitkamp and Warner signed on as co-authors. It weakens regulations on mortgage lending for smaller banks and reduces reporting requirements aimed at detecting illegal discrimination in lending.

It won't be the last that the banking lobby will push (Zachary Warmbrodt, Senate passes deregulation bill scaling back Dodd-Frank Politico 03/14/2018):
While the bill is a huge victory for bank lobbyists who have been working to curb Dodd-Frank since it was first drafted, the industry will keep pushing lawmakers and regulators for carve-outs in the years to come.

"This is a first step," American Bankers Association President and CEO Rob Nichols said.
Jamellle Bouie explains why this is yet another kick in the face to the Democratic base (Democrats Back a Bank Bill That Could Hurt Black Homebuyers Slate 03/14/2018):
A provision in the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act would exempt the large majority of mortgage lenders from key disclosure requirements that help the government identify racial discrimination and enforce fair housing laws. The provision would facilitate redlining, allowing lenders to deny loans to black homebuyers, while also giving lenders carte blanche to overcharge black homebuyers or steer them into the same predatory loans that exploded during the financial crisis, pushing countless families into foreclosure.

Yet this bill, which would widen the already staggering racial wealth gap, won support from more than a dozen Democratic senators, including members such as Tim Kaine, Mark Warner, Claire McCaskill, and Doug Jones who rely on black and Hispanic voters to win elections. (The bill is also backed by one independent, Angus King of Maine, who caucuses with Democrats.)
I hope progressive Democrats won't overlook this Republican vote by Doug Jones. Strong bank regulation should be a no-brainer for Democrats. But Jones got elected in a tough race by running as an unapologetic Democrat with a strong Democratic turnout and enthusiastic support from black voters.

And then he turns around and kicks his voters in the teeth with this vote. This is not a good thing.

Drew Magary provides a good summary of why (The Democrats Can't Stop Using the Same Broken Playbook GQ 03/07/2018):
It makes no sense. Blessed with a touch of momentum going into the 2018 midterms, Chuck Schumer and his colleagues have decided that the best way to “win” is to build up their fundraising apparatus, reach out across party lines, and pass legislation that serves banks more than it serves people… legislation friendly enough to conservative folk that Senators like Tester (Montana) and McCaskill (Missouri) can sell it to their red state constituents and not have them get too mad.

This is the DNC's game plan, and it blows.

It’s an enraging time to be an American, and one of the most frustrating things about it is that the opposition party - the only one with the money and infrastructure to take on a Republican party that is now a de facto criminal enterprise - still leads and acts as if everything is Fine, and that we are not in a state of absolute crisis. I know Barack Obama is venerated for the speech he made at the DNC in 2004 that unofficially introduced him as a presidential contender, but he vastly overrated the value of bipartisanship that night. That Pollyanna mindset would continue haunt him through a great deal of his presidency, as Republicans openly schemed to destroy him at every turn. And, as a final insult, they’ve spent the past year feverishly, and hatefully, working to dismantle his legacy. Time and again, Democrats think the only way to win elections is to NOT fully be Democrats, and this bill is the toxic runoff of that discredited philosophy. Too many Democratic leaders and thinkers are beholden to a bullshit fever dream of civility that has led to staggering electoral losses and Republicans gleefully stripping lower income Americans of their rights and bodies.
Yes, it's a problem.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

A neo-Confederate moment in 2001

I came across this letter I wrote as a letter-to-the-editor in 2001, almost exactly 17 years ago, 04/24/2001. It was just after a now largely forgotten political moment in Mississippi, a special election whose only topic was whether Mississippi should keep its current state flag that features the Confederate battle flag, a symbol of treason and opposition to basic rights for African-Americans, in favor of a proposed alternative design that was, admittedly, bland and forgettable. The Confederate battle flag design won by a strong majority. The vote was heavily polarized along racial lines, as is often the case in Mississippi. The neo-Confederate Sons of Confederate Veterans group was the most visible proponent of keeping the Confederate version of the flag. As I allude in the letter to a slogan that the SCV used in the election that counts as a "thoughts and prayers" approach to white racism. Which at that time rightwing groups felt it necessary to pretend they did not condone.

Mississippi still has the same official flag today:

And there has recently been some active discussion in the state legislature about changing it.

This was the letter I did in 2001
The Mississippi flag vote was a week ago today. With today's news cycles, that's enotgh to qualify it as part of the state's "heritage" now. Though I'm not quite sure it qualfies for the "judgment of history" just yet. Actually, I'm trying to forget about it.

But walking to my office this morning, I saw Mississippi staring at me again right on the front page of the "Los Angeles Times." The headline announced that the state would be pumping $500 million into predominantly black colleges. Three weeks ago, most people would have probably thought, "Oh, things are really different now in Mississippi than they used to be."

Then you read the secondary headline and see that it was in response to a court decision in a lawsuit. Now that Mississippi has branded itself (in the ranching as well as the marketing sense) with the Confederate flag, most people probably think, "Of course. Mississippi would never do something like that without being forced to." Unfair? Prejudiced? Maybe. But Mississippi's self-marketing pretty much insures responses like that.

This whole thing reminds me of one of Karl Marx's sayings that's still considered respectable, "History repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce."

The "first time" in this case would have been the segregation days, where Mississippians took resistance to the Constitution and the democratic standards of the country to an extreme in some ways beyond what even other Deep South states were willing to embrace.

Last week's flag vote was the farce. Mississippi succeeded in recreating the thrill of showing that it won't kowtow to the standards of the country, even to those of other Southern states. Someone remind me, just what is the thrill of that?

But 2001 just ain't 1961. The Confederate state flag's defenders pointed to the big Nissan factory being built there as evidence that things were fine. Mississippi still has the biggest number of African-American elected officials of any state - numerically, not just in proportion to the population. Japanese investors and black Mississippi elected officials were just not factors 40 years ago.

The NAACP will probably feel obliged to go through the motions of a boycott, because of their public stance in the South Carolina controversy. Ironically, the attitude of Mississippi's black elected officials will inevitably be a big consideration for them in making that decision.

But since the Sons of Confederate Veterans led the charge for the Confederate state flag saying that "racial reconciliation requires changing hearts, not the flag," I think it would be quite effective if the folks from the SCV were to meet with NAACP officials. They could explain to them all the good things they plan to do to improve race relations in the state, and see if they can avoid a boycott.

If they don't try something like that, people might suspect the Sons of Confederate Veterans of being just a bunch of gasbags.

Friday, March 16, 2018

How credible are the British government's claims in the Sergei Skripal assassination attempt?

I don't have any special insight on the assassination attempt in Britain against Sergei Skripal that became a prominent issue for Britain and NATO this week. there has been a pattern of untimely deaths of journalists and others that Vladimir Putin's government somehow found inconvenient. And the British government is expressing its confidence that Russia was involved. And if the former Russian diplomat Vyacheslav Matuzov's presentation in this Al Jazeera program is any measure, the responses coming from the Russian side don't sound especially convincing, How will a divided west tackle a resurgent Russia? Inside Story 03/15/2018:

So I'm considering at this point that the most likely explanation is the one endorsed by the British government. That doesn't mean I think it's been definitively demonstrated, only that I'm not hearing a more plausible explanation so far.

David Ignatius is on the bandwagon, too, in this Washington Post column, Putin has finally gone too far 03/16/2018. He displays the hawkish verbal posturing that is the default position of the Beltway pundits and most of the political establishment.

But let's give Ignatius a tiny bit of credit. This Morning Zoo segment has Joe Scarborough taking the Russian responsibility for the attempted murder as a given, and none of his panel is especially challenging it. And Ignatius joins in. But it does drop in a qualification missing in his column in his comments starting around 8:00: "it's way over the line, even for an ex-KGB officer to go out and do this kind of reprisal killing [sic] - again, we need to have more evidence to link this directly to Putin. But it's clear that this is a Soviet-era nerve agent. ..." (my emphasis). Special Counsel Robert Mueller Subpoenas Trump Organization For Russia Records Morning Joe/MSNBC 03/16/2018:

Not many Democratic politicians will be heard asking probing questions in public about this. Although that is part of the job of Members of Congress, regardless of party. They are too busy stressing the need to fully investigate and understand the Russian interference is the 2016 election and possibly compromising involvements by Trump and his closest associates to Russian entities. The more conscientious Democrats won't be eager to let Russia off the hook on this. But few of them will risk stepping on their public anti-Russia theme at this point.

For the rest of us, close reading and listening is usually in order. Despite the certainty in his column, Ignatius is already promoting the assassination attempt to an actual murder, even though the poor guy isn't dead yet. He does mention that we don't have the evidence to link the attack to Putin. Which, of course, is not the same as linking it to the Russian government. And when he says the toxin involved was a Soviet-era substance, he's referring to the USSR whose existence came to an end in 1991. So that's not at all the same as saying that it's a substance that is somehow distinct to the Russia of 2018.

I don't apologize for being cautious on claims like these, however plausible this one seems on its face. I remember when the British government of Tony Blair was declaring confidently that Saddam Hussein had operable chemical weapons that could be deployed on 45 minutes notice. (See: Vikram Dodd et al, 45-minute claim on Iraq was hearsay Guardian 08/15/218. Let's be very generous and say that governments do, uh, make mistakes about such things. Especially when they are pushing a phony story about "weapons of mass destruction" to justify a genuinely criminal war of aggression.

Another event that is also a constant reminder to me about the uncertainty of some intelligence assumptions. And that is the AMIA bombing, the deadly bomb attack on the main Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994. This event is routinely referred to as an attack orchestrated by Iran through Hizbullah. But the case itself is still open. The Argentine government's official theory of the case has been, under both conservative and left governments, has been consistent with the common assumption, that it was orchestrated by Iran.

But even after 24 years, that is far from a certainty based on what is in the public record. Former President Cristina Fernández when she was a senator prior to becoming President had raised questions about the official theory, based on considerable indications that radical right Argentines may have been deeply involved. She took a strong interest in the case and actively pursued it as President - despite infamously dishonest arguments that she did not - and proceeded on the official theory of Iranian involvement and direction.

But the case has never been resolved. That means while there are reasons to believe based on information in the public record that Iran was behind it, that is by no means clearly established. And, we are likely to keep hearing about the AMIA attack as though it is a certainty that Iran pulled it off. Because the AMIA case is used as a primary example, by far the most dramatic, of how Iran has long had the ability to project terrorist attacks worldwide. One of the revelations from Wikileaks documented that Dark Lord Dick Cheney, not known for being scrupulous in honest use of intelligence findings, pressured the US Embassy in Argentina to try to get Argentine prosecutors from backing off a related case involving Carlos Menem, who was President in 1994, a case that might have called into question Iranian responsibility. Neither Cheney nor other advocates of war against Iran want to give up the AMIA case as a propaganda claim against Iran.

In the case of the nerve gas incident in Britain, former British diplomat Craig Murray offers some reasons for reservations about the official British case. (Russian to Judgement 03/13/2018) I don't find the alternative scenario he suggests in the linked post plausible. But some of the questions he raises are worth keeping in mind.
The same people who assured you that Saddam Hussein had WMD’s now assure you Russian “novochok” nerve agents are being wielded by Vladimir Putin to attack people on British soil. As with the Iraqi WMD dossier, it is essential to comb the evidence very finely. A vital missing word from Theresa May’s statement yesterday was “only”. She did not state that the nerve agent used was manufactured ONLY by Russia. She rather stated this group of nerve agents had been “developed by” Russia. Antibiotics were first developed by a Scotsman, but that is not evidence that all antibiotics are today administered by Scots.

The “novochok” group of nerve agents – a very loose term simply for a collection of new nerve agents the Soviet Union were developing fifty years ago – will almost certainly have been analysed and reproduced by Porton Down. That is entirely what Porton Down is there for. It used to make chemical and biological weapons as weapons, and today it still does make them in small quantities in order to research defences and antidotes. After the fall of the Soviet Union Russian chemists made a lot of information available on these nerve agents.
Porton Down Murray mentions is described by Rob Evans, "Porton Down, founded in 1916, is the oldest chemical warfare research installation in the world," with a somewhat ghoulish reputation. (The past Porton Down can't hide Guardian 05/06/2004)

Leaving aside our President's Twitter spasms and his impulsive public statements, for most countries of the world, paying attention to the exact phrasing of important foreign policy statements is usually important. And it does presumably mean something that Theresa May wasn't mentioning any specific links of the toxin to the Russia of 2018. That doesn't mean she doesn't have any. But it's a carefully worded claim.

Murray also makes this observation about the circumstances:
From Putin’s point of view, to assassinate Skripal now seems to have very little motivation. If the Russians have waited eight years to do this, they could have waited until after their World Cup. The Russians have never killed a swapped spy before. Just as diplomats, British and otherwise, are the most ardent upholders of the principle of diplomatic immunity, so security service personnel everywhere are the least likely to wish to destroy a system which can be a key aspect of their own personal security; quite literally spy swaps are their “Get Out of Jail Free” card. You don’t undermine that system – probably terminally – without very good reason.

It is worth noting that the “wicked” Russians gave Skripal a far lighter jail sentence than an American equivalent would have received. If a member of US Military Intelligence had sold, for cash to the Russians, the names of hundreds of US agents and officers operating abroad, the Americans would at the very least jail the person for life, and I strongly suspect would execute them. Skripal just received a jail sentence of 18 years, which is hard to square with the narrative of implacable vindictiveness against him. If the Russians had wanted to make an example, that was the time. [my emphasis]
Now this doesn't mean that the Russians aren't changing their approach. But such considerations are important to consider in evaluating such claims.

Murray also states his broader perspective:
I am alarmed by the security, spying and armaments industries’ frenetic efforts to stoke Russophobia and heat up the new cold war. I am especially alarmed at the stream of cold war warrior “experts” dominating the news cycles. I write as someone who believes that agents of the Russian state did assassinate Litvinenko, and that the Russian security services carried out at least some of the apartment bombings that provided the pretext for the brutal assault on Chechnya. I believe the Russian occupation of Crimea and parts of Georgia is illegal. On the other hand, in Syria Russia has saved the Middle East from domination by a new wave of US and Saudi sponsored extreme jihadists.

The naive view of the world as “goodies” and “baddies”, with our own ruling class as the good guys, is for the birds. I witnessed personally in Uzbekistan [where Murray was British Ambassador 2002-2004] the willingness of the UK and US security services to accept and validate intelligence they knew to be false in order to pursue their policy objectives. We should be extremely sceptical of their current anti-Russian narrative. There are many possible suspects in this attack.
It's helpful in this things to keep some basic things in mind. Governments lie. Intelligence claims are often based on incomplete information. Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not after you. Threat inflation is a chronic problem for US foreign policy.

In subsequent posts, Murray reacts to critics of his position and to additional information.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

"Thoughts and prayers" for social problems

Christopher Stroop takes a look at the image of Billy Graham the Moderate in (appropriately? ironically?) Playboy, In Billy We Trust? How "America's Pastor" Birthed Our New Theocratic Wave 02/23/2018. Stroop describes himself in this article as part of the "the ex-evangelical community." His article has a tone of a convert away from a cause that he experienced as harmful. But he has real insight into fundamentalist culture, and is careful with facts.

He reminds us of what a large role Graham played in building the conservative version of the Cold War outlook, which had a heavy religious component. Although distinguishing the conservative from the liberal version would be a challenging undertaking. The liberal Cold Warriors had their own Christian theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, who actually had some important practical perspectives in his foreign policy vision known as Christian realism. Although Niebuhr own view of Soviet Communism was highly ideological, too.

Stroop also talks about how Billy Graham's public religiosity affected the contemporary versions of his son Franklin and of former alleged moderate Rick Warren. And he argues, "Radically conservative, mostly white evangelicals like Rick Warren and Franklin Graham are largely responsible for America being stuck with a thrice-married brash billionaire who brags about sexual assault as president."

I like Stroop's description of I've started to call the conservative evangelical "thoughts and prayers" position on social problems they don't want solved:
In a famous 1958 sermon, “What’s Wrong with the World?”, Billy Graham lamented that America had “rejected God’s simple program ... We’re not really living for Christ.” He insisted that “The race problem is a symptom. War is a symptom. Crime is a symptom.” A symptom of what? “Sin,” according to Graham, the “disease” inherent in “man’s nature.” In the same sermon, Graham decried the United Nations for not opening its meetings in prayer. His actions in respect to race were also in line with this way of thinking. While Graham did indeed bail Martin Luther King, Jr. out of jail, he also opposed King’s calls for civil disobedience.

Billy Graham never moved past this ideology. In 2012, for example, he wrote, “the farther we get from God, the more the world spirals out of control.” And how exactly had America moved away from God? Broadly, by embracing “the idolatry of worshiping false gods such as technology and sex,” and more specifically by limiting the ability of police chaplains in some locales to pray in Jesus’s name. Oh and, of course, abortion. Since the late 1970s, it’s always abortion.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Billy Graham, white evangelicalism now, and the history of slavery

Chris Ladd has a blog post about religious fundamentalism and cruelty which is interesting and, and the title indicates, provocative: The article removed from Forbes, “Why White Evangelicalism Is So Cruel” Political Orphans 03/12/2018.

Part of his post deals with Billy Graham and the moderate image he constructed and which became part of how he was remembered when he passed away:
White Evangelical Christians opposed desegregation tooth and nail. Where pressed, they made cheap, cosmetic compromises, like Billy Graham’s concession to allow black worshipers at his crusades. Graham never made any difficult statements on race, never appeared on stage with his “black friend” Martin Luther King after 1957, and he never marched with King. When King delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech,” Graham responded with this passive-aggressive gem of Southern theology, “Only when Christ comes again will the little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with little black children.” For white Southern evangelicals, justice and compassion belong only to the dead.
When addressing problems that they don't want solved, i.e., that they don't actually view as problems, "thoughts and prayers" are all that can be done. When it comes to problems they want addressed or laws they want changed, they think being militantly and actively engaged is fine. And that it would be a sin to wait for the Second Coming to take action on those problems.

Ladd covers a lot of historical grounds in a short post. But his basic point is well-founded: that the fundamentalist variant of white evangelicalism was very heavily influenced by the very worldly influence of slavery and segregation. And that influence is still visible today:
What did Jesus say about abortion, the favorite subject of [Dallas First Baptist pastor and prominent Christian Right figure Robert] Jeffress and the rest of the evangelical movement? Nothing. What does the Bible say about abortion, a practice as old as civilization? Nothing. Not one word. The Bible’s exhortations to compassion for immigrants and the poor stretch long enough to comprise a sizeable book of their own, but no matter. White evangelicals will not let their political ambitions be constrained by something as pliable as scripture.

Why is the religious right obsessed with subjects like abortion while unmoved by the plight of immigrants, minorities, the poor, the uninsured, and those slaughtered in pointless gun violence? No white man has ever been denied an abortion. Few if any white men are affected by the deportation of migrants. White men are not kept from attending college by laws persecuting Dreamers. White evangelical Christianity has a bottomless well of compassion for the interests of straight white men, and not a drop to be spared for anyone else at their expense. The cruelty of white evangelical churches in politics, and in their treatment of their own gay or minority parishioners, is no accident. It is an institution born in slavery, tuned to serve the needs of Jim Crow, and entirely unwilling to confront either of those realities.
Ladd also observes, "Many Christian movements take the title 'evangelical,' including many African-American denominations. However, evangelicalism today has been coopted as a preferred description for Christians who were looking to shed an older, largely discredited title: Fundamentalist."

It is notable that some white Christians and most African-American Christians draw different lessons that the Christian Right does from conservative/"evangelical" theological beliefs. After all, unless there is a secret version of the Christian Bible that only Christian Rightists ever see - and I'm often tempted to think there is - their Bible, which fundamentalists claim to interpret literally. contains the story of the Exodus, the words of the prophets, the parables and sayings of Jesus that shows solidarity with the poor and extreme skepticism about the capability of the rich to lead godly lives. Their Old Testament contains many injunctions to be just and compassionate to immigrants, and their New Testament tells the story of the Good Samaritan, a foundational story for the Christian religion.

This current article by Bruce Hindmarsh in the conservative Protestant Christianity Today magazine give a useful sketch of the historical roots of what we call "evangelicalism" in the US, What Is Evangelicalism? 03/14/2018:
Seventeenth-century movements of devotion such as Pietism, Puritanism, and the Anglican “holy living” tradition fused to generate a general spiritual awakening first in central Europe and Germany, then throughout the Anglo-sphere. In the middle third of the eighteenth century a number of persons, who later would be drawn into evangelical preaching, passed through crises of personal conversion. The most famous of these in Britain were John and Charles Wesley and George Whitefield, but there were many others. Most were already baptized, highly observant Christians who nevertheless came to a crisis of conscience and spiritual insufficiency that seemed to demand new and more deeply personal experience of repentance and faith in Christ. They discovered in these conversions new impulses to preach, travel, organize, and campaign for widespread evangelical renewal within their own spheres, whether Anglicans, Methodists, Moravians, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, or Baptists.
Hindmarsh's article gives a broad, non-critical description of what he understands to be "evangelical" in the American sense.

But to understand white American evangelicalism and fundamentalism, the social, political, and ideological factors that Chris Ladd discusses also have to be taken fully into account.

Hindmarsh also does not touch on the very large influence of Christian Zionism on Christian fundamentalists today. Believers in the "Dispensationalist" tradition that has been heavily influenced by the British theology and leader of the Christian Brethren sect John Nelson Darby hold beliefs that are particularly congenial to militaristic and warmongering views of the world as well as an underlying anti-Semitic worldview. That also is a theological dividing point that is significant for their politics.

Aftermath of the Conor Lamb election

I wrote prior to Tuesday's special election in Pennsylvania about how establishment Democrats could be expected to draw the "lesson" from either a win or a loss there along the lines of, well, what corporate Democrats always want: candidates beholden to wealthy donors and who hold "Blue Dog" (i.e., Republcican) positions on guns proliferation, abortion rights, the military budget, and corporate deregulation.

One way to look at this is to use a metaphor along these lines: the progressive Dems are the left/center left party, corporate Dems are the conservative party, and the Republicans are the raging reactionary Trump party.

That's only a metaphor, though, because the American electoral system with winner-takes-all districts creates a very strong incentive for a two-party system, and that's what we have. Despite the dissonance within the Republican Party over Trump's erratic foreign policy style and his protectionist rhetoric, there is remarkable uniformity over major issues like the military budget, massive tax cuts for the wealthiest, and reckless disregard for international agreements and treaty commitments.

It's worth stressing here that people generally assume that Barack Obama was a "left" Democrat. Republicans, of course, generally profess to see no difference between Democrats, Bolsheviks, and tribes of cannibals in a Tarzan movie. But Obama also repeatedly called for cuts to Social Security and Medicare as part of a bipartisan "Grand Bargain" that he apparently wanted intensely. So Conor Lamb in his Pennsylvania race was to the left of Obama on Social Security and Medicare.

The two wings of the Democratic Party have more substantive differences. I'd have to bracket military policy here, though. The Democrats have spent so long trying to reassure everyone they are "tough on defense" that few of them are willing to criticize even a world-historical boondoggle like the "missile defense" corporate-welfare program. They mostly aren't willing to assert Congressional war powers under the Constitution in a meaningful way. There are exceptions. Sanders, Lee and Murphy Introduce Yemen War Powers Resolution 02/28/2018:

And even there, only one of those three Senators is elected as a Democrat! Although, of course, Bernie Sanders caucuses with the Democrats in the Senate.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee - who represents my Congressional district - has obviously been a leader in this regard, challenging bad war policies and criticizing intelligence agency abuses:

But Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, Joe Manchin, even Diane Feinstein are generally firmly in the Bipartisan consensus in favor of constantly supporting the military-industrial complex and pretty much anything the Intelligence Community wants to do.

Here is the corporate Democratic Chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) Tom Perez on the Conor Lamb election, DNC Chair: 'Republicans Are Understandably Quaking In Their Boots' Velshi & Ruhle/MSNBC. He gives the safe, poll-tested answers in this interview withStephanie Ruhle, the kind that are guaranteed to make the listeners eyes glaze over in 60 seconds time:

Perez says that Lamb was "talking about" various issues including "pension security." Is it really too much to expect the DNC chair to uses a moment like that to say that Lamb campaigned against the cuts that Republicans will make to Social Security and Medicare unless we stop them? Apparently, it would be. But he rolled along with Ruhle in chatting about the horse race. Also, Tom, it probably not the best choice to say that African-American voters in Doug Jones' Alabama Senate race were the "linchpin" of the Democrats' success. I'm just sayin'.

Ruhle also picks up the Republican/corporate Dem theme that ludicrously says that Conor Lamb ran as a Republican. Ed Kilgore takes down the Republican spin in No Clear Winner Yet in Pennsylvania Special Election, But the GOP Is the Clear Loser New York 03/14/2018:
Yes, this is a special election; some might imagine that in a regular election, such as the one in November, more Republican voters will show up. The problem with that hypothesis is that turnout today was at full midterm levels. There’s no reason to think turnout patterns in November will be more favorable for the GOP, particularly given the massive Trump administration attention that this district got during this contest.

Another Republican rationalization we have already heard from the Washington Examiner’s Salena Zito is that Conor Lamb is not a real Democrat (because he was nominated by a convention and didn’t have to win the votes of left-bent primary voters), and thus his performance does not show how real Democrats will do in November. But, by any standard, Saccone is a real Republican who ran more than ten points behind the normal GOP vote in PA-18. And Lamb was lifted to parity with Saccone by the very same labor movement — battered and diminished as it is — that will be fighting for Democrats in swing districts all over the country. Dismiss labor, dismiss energized rank-and-file Democrats, and dismiss the ability of the Donkey Party to find suitable candidates like Lamb, and you’re well on the way to underestimating the likelihood of a Democratic wave in November. [my emphasis]
Others suggested better lessons for the Democrats to draw from the experience:

Pierce expounded on the implications in his distinctive style (Conor Lamb's Victory Matters, and Paul Ryan Should Be Scared Esquire Politics Blog 03/14/2018):
There will be some attempt now to minimize what the voters in that district did on Tuesday night. Rick Saccone was a dullard of a candidate. (True.) Conor Lamb is personally going to run Nancy Pelosi out of national politics, so he’s not really a Democratic candidate. (Please to be giving me a break.) It’s a long way until November and Things Can Still Happen. (This theory depends vitally on the president* suddenly becoming Up To The Job. Yeah, right.) This is whistling very loudly past a very large graveyard. This was a Republican district. It was built to be a Republican district in perpetuity, which is why its days are numbered right now.

In the latter days of the campaign, the Republicans abandoned their economic pitch that was based on the president*’s ability to convince congressional Republicans to pass a massive plutocrat’s wet dream of a tax cut. This was supposed to be the magic bullet in this election. Instead, Saccone decided to let the traditional culture-war boogeypersons out of the closet.

On Monday, for example, Conor Lamb was a wild-eyed "libtard" who was going to let undocumented immigrant doctors perform abortions on your 10-year-old daughter in the middle of a mass gay wedding in Greene County. On Wednesday, according to those same Republicans, Conor Lamb was basically Mark Meadows in Democratic drag. Are the Republicans pretty well and truly fcked up as a party right now? Signs point to “Yes.”

Monday, March 12, 2018

What establishment Democrats will learn from Tuesday special Congressional election in Pennsylvania

Will Bunch worries that whether Trump wins or loses in the special Congressional election, the national Democratic Party leadership will draw the wrong lesson from it. (Yes, that's about as safe as predilections get, I know, but stay with me.)

In A Democratic win in Pa. Trump Country won't mean what you think it means Philadelphia Inquirer 03/11/2018, he doesn't call Democratic candidate Conor Lamb Republican Lite. But he takes a dim view of the conservative tone Lamb's campaign seems to be striking:
These are the voters who deliver special elections, and they may do so on Tuesday because of antipathy for Trump, not because of any love for Lamb. And there’s a lot for the Democratic base and voters on the left not to like about their special-election candidate. Although ostensibly pro-union, Lamb won’t support a $15 living wage. His attacks on fellow Democrat House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi are more than a tad awkward in this season of #MeToo politics. But then, Lamb goes out of his way to not mention that he’s a Democrat, or discuss any policy at all other than he’s for “working people.”

While there’s no dispute that Western Pennsylvania leans right on guns, Lamb’s passion for weaponry — he filmed a campaign spot firing an AR-15 — is shameful in a political moment dominated by the Parkland massacre. Hours after a teen gunman mowed down 17 people in the corridors of that Florida high school, Lamb (who mildly supports stronger background checks and thus sits a tad left of his fellow gun zealot [Rick] Saccone [the Republican candidate]) said, “I believe we have a pretty good law on the books.” Since Parkland, Florida’s NRA-backed Gov. Rick Scott has shown more gumption on guns than Lamb. Let that sink in. Sometimes firing an assault rifle for the camera isn’t a mark of political courage but cowardice.
Bunch talks about the shift the pollsters are finding nationally of suburban women being particularly disturbed about the Trump Orange Clown show. He thinks it's probably not a good strategy for Lamb to de-emphasize criticism of Trump.

On the other hand, for a candidate of either party to go hard on local problems in the campaign isn't unusual. And certainly not a bad idea in itself.

He concludes by stating what people who have been following the Democratic establishment's approach to the 2018 campaign will recognize as a sensible concern:
This [the Conor Lamb approach] isn’t the only way forward; another new study published in the Times last weekend urged the Democrats to push to regain a few million young and mostly nonwhite Obama voters who failed to show up at the pols in 2016; that wouldn’t mean so much in predominantly white PA-18, but it could sway key Senate races from Texas to Ohio. That, and tapping into the energy of angry, anti-Trump women. Playing for the God, guns and gold crowd that went ga-ga for Trump in 2016 seems a much lower priority — especially when it might drive away the first two groups.

But if the past is prologue, Beltway Democrats are going to get the wrong message from whatever happens on Tuesday. The worst plan for moving past the Trump nightmare would surely be to lead a flock of “Lambs” into November, some of whom will surely be slaughtered at the polls.
This is why ousting Trump, either by impeachment or election, depends on a sufficiently reinvigorated Democratic Party to actually stand for something in people's eyes besides not-being-Trump.