Sunday, February 19, 2023

Speaking of Which

As usual, this is assembled piecewise as I find the pieces, kind of like an Easter egg hunt. As such, the bits accumulate somewhat randomly, although given the present political situation some topics inevitably recur.

PS [02-20]: I added a comment on the Washington Post Ukraine editorial.

Top story threads:

Top stories for the week:

DeSantis and Trump: For a primer on these two asshole clowns, consider how they interact: [02-18] Inside the collapse of the Trump-DeSantis 'alliance of convenience'.

Other Republicans:

Flying Objects: It's open season, although it's gotten so silly that even Biden wants 'sharper rules' on unknown aerial objects.

  • Ellen Nakashima/Shane Harris/Jason Samenow: [02-14] US tracked China spy balloon from launch on Hainan Island along unusual path: This report says the balloon "may have been diverted on an errant path caused by atypical weather conditions." It also suggests that, given the balloon was tracked from its launch on Hainan (a large island in the South China Sea) that the panic that ensued once the balloon was seen by civilians in Montana was unwarranted. Biden could have simply announced that we knew about the balloon, had tracked it since its launch, and considered it harmless.

  • Chas Danner: [02-18] Did an F-22 Blow Up an Illinois Club's Hobby Balloon? Perhaps the doubt is because when a $150 million F-22 shoots a $472,000 AIM-9X Sidewinder at a $100 "pico" balloon there isn't much debris left to analyze.

  • Jonathan Guyer: [02-13] Why the balloon and UFO affairs are a Sputnik moment: "As all these objects fall, a new space race is rising." The problem starts with the phrase "Sputnik moment": the original event was turned into fodder to fuel an arms race that resolve nothing; do the same thing here and you'll get the same stupid results (or worse).

  • Fred Kaplan: [02-15] The Very Serious Lessons We Should Learn From the Balloon Fiasco: Starts by citing the Nakashima post (above), then adds that both China and the US blew this incident up into something ridiculous, with their instinctive claims of innocence, macho posturing, and faux rage. The net effect was to add fuel to a conflict that neither side really wants. Not that there aren't factions in the US stupidly spoiling for a fight (most conspicuously among Congressional Republicans, not that Democrats, some, following Obama's "pivot to Asia," aren't also encouraging).

Hot Rails to Hell: Mostly on the derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. Also see Jeffrey St Clair's latest "Roaming Charges" (below) for a pretty detailed summary.

Ukraine War: The war is approaching its first anniversary, with a minor Russian offensive near Bakhmut, and not much more news to report, other than a lot of posturing about how both sides are resolved to fight on indefinitely, regardless of the costs.

  • Blaise Malley: [02-17] Diplomacy Watch: Is the Biden team laying the groundwork for talks? They still seem to be under the delusion that pre-negotiation posturing will make a real difference when the only thing that will work is finding a mutually tolerable agreement -- one that all that posturing, with the suggestion of bending the enemy to your will, only makes less likely.

  • Luke Cooper: [01-30] Ukraine's Neoliberal War Mobilization: "Low taxes, privatization, and pared-back labor protections could undermine Ukraine's fight against Russian aggression." One fact that's rarely been mentioned is that Ukraine's economic performance since independence has been worse than Russia's. That's a big part of the reason it can make sense that some parts of Ukraine -- especially ones where Russian is the first language -- might prefer reunification with Moscow to continued rule from Kiev. Since the war started, Zelensky has been pulled toward the US and Europe, mostly by his insatiable demand for weapons, but nothing comes with no strings attached. He may be hoping that after spending so much, the west will help Ukraine rebuild, but in Washington the redevelopment choices are neoliberal and even worse.

  • Francesca Ebel/Mary Ilyushina: [02-13] Russians abandon wartime Russia in historic exodus. "Initial data shows that at least 500,000, and perhaps nearly 1 million, have left in the year since the invasion began."

  • Nicholas Kristof: [02-18] Biden Should Give Ukraine What It Needs to Win: Some rather huge hidden assumptions here, starting with the notion that the war can be won, that Ukraine can win it, that there is a finite recipe of weapons (and other aid, although Zelensky mostly just wants to talk about weapons) that can do the trick, and that Biden has it within his power to deliver them. Also that winning would be a good thing.

  • Anatol Lieven: [02-14] Austria should buck the West and welcome Russia to key security meeting.

  • Anton Troianovski/Valerie Hopkins: [02-19] One Year Into War, Putin Is Crafting the Russia He Craves: I don't know whether that's an accurate headline, but the images and descriptions of the propaganda barrage Russia is mounting to bolster support for the war are unsettling. It's hard to tell how effective this is, but the idea that defeating Russia in Ukraine will cause Putin's house of cards to crumble is far from certain. It's just as likely that, having been brought up on such propaganda, Putin's successors will be even more gung ho than he is.

  • Erin Banco/Sarah Anne Aarup/Anastasiia Carrier: [02-18] Inside the stunning gnrowth of Russia's Wagner Group: The obvious question this raises is how does Wagner compare with the mercenary outfits the US uses, like Blackstone?

  • Kelley Beaucar Vlahos: [02-16] The Sy Hersh effect: killing the messenger, ignoring the message. Remember: means, opportunity, motive. Hersh may not have every detail right, but can you spin a more plausible story? The main argument against the US having blown up the pipeline is that it would have been a really stupid thing to do (if you ever get caught). Again, I may spend too much time watching crime fiction, but the maxim at work here is: "criminals do stupid stuff." Ergo, stupidity is not a defense. It's practically a necessity.

  • Timothy Snyder: [01-23] Why the world needs Ukrainian victory: The author, an historian of the conflicts in 20th century eastern Europe, the study of which has left him with an outsized hatred of Russia (although at least he never was a Nazi symp; he started out as a protégé of Tony Judt, who was perhaps overly excited by the emergence of democratic movements following the Cold War). I can't imagine what a "Ukrainian victory" might look like, but I'd be happy to see Russian troops pushed back to pre-2014 borders (probably what he has in mind), or even to the separatist borders before last March. Still, the cost of doing so has already been huge, and will only get worse, so one has to doubt the value is of protracting the war, especially given the stalemate of the last six or so months.

    Perhaps I might agree that "the world needs a Russian defeat," but hasn't that already happened? And hasn't history taught us that defeats (and for that matter "victories") are often poor predictors of future peace? Perhaps "an utterly defeated people" (to cite a phrase Israelis have used to describe the goal of their plot against the Palestinians) isn't the best answer? Still, Snyder is not just claiming that defeating Russia will be a good thing in itself. He's arguing that Ukrainian victory will save and redeem European civilization. And without having the slightest wish to defend Putin, he's wrong on nearly every point. Quotes are from his piece (answers to "why does the world need a Ukrainian victory?"), followed by my brief notes:

    1. "To halt atrocity. Russia's occupation is genocidal." Not true. Brutal? Impossible to justify? Sure.
    2. "To preserve the international legal order." There is no such thing. Maybe there should be, but there are too many counterexamples, including the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
    3. "To end an era of empire." Does this presume that the US, UK, etc., will dismantle their empires (remember that the US has over 800 military bases abroad) if Russia fails in Ukraine? How does one cause the other? I don't doubt that some Russians harbor nostalgia for lost empire, and I don't approve, but fighting to defend fellow Russians who accidentally found themselves on the wrong side of an arbitrary border from threats they regarded as existential (one might say "genocidal," but let's not), is rather limited compared to, say, the European partition of Africa.
    4. "To defend the peace project of the European Union." Ukraine is not part of the EU, so this seems out of bounds. The notion that Russia is really fighting "against the larger idea that European states can peacefully cooperate" is specious.
    5. "To give the rule of law a chance in Russia." Russia has no shortage of "rule of law," nor is this likely to change regardless of the outcome of the war. It is true that states at war tend to become more repressive and less free (as Americans should know, from our own experience), but what helps is ending the war, not whether it is counted as a victory or defeat.
    6. "To weaken the prestige of tyrants." We're so gullible that we need a war for this? "Fascism is about force, and is discredited by defeat." Us so-called "premature antifascists" think fascism is discredited by its acts. Are you suggesting that fascism would be vindicated by victory?
    7. "To remind us that democracy is the better system." This assumes that Russia isn't a democracy, which is the stock propaganda line, but by most measures it's not much different from Ukraine: both have elections and multiple parties, with both significantly corrupted by oligarchs. Ukraine has been more volatile, partly because US and EU interests have lobbied more there. But unless the war is settled by some kind of referendum, there is no reason to think that its outcome will be determined by differences in political system. [*]
    8. "To lift the threat of major war in Europe." The only reason the threat exists in the first place is the exclusion of Russia from Europe, which is defined by NATO and the EU. Defeating Russia in Ukraine may make Russians meeker, or may make them more bitter and vengeful. Only cooperation lifts the threat.
    9. "To lift the threat of major war in Asia." He means "a Chinese invasion of Taiwan." This would take a long explanation, but in short that doesn't follow.
    10. "To prevent the spread of nuclear weapons." More faulty reasoning. He plays fast and loose here, drawing a conclusion from "if Ukraine loses," whereas supposedly he's arguing for "Ukrainian victory," as if there is no middle ground.
    11. "To reduce the risk of nuclear war." Partly derived from previous, but also depends on a tautology: a Ukraine victory only happens if Russia accepts defeat without resorting to nuclear arms, hence the risk removal is defined into the proposition. Real problem is that the proposition is the risk. Perhaps reasonable people might conclude that if the use of nuclear weapons is worse than accepting defeat, possessing nuclear weapons has no value. But are we dealing with reasonable people, on either side? And if, perchance, the taboo against using nuclear weapons is broken, the long-term risk of nuclear war elsewhere will most likely increase.
    12. "To head off future resource wars." There is no reason to think that frustrating this kind of war in one place will dissuade others from trying it elsewhere. More often than not, the failure of one war just encourages warriors to try harder next time.
    13. "To guarantee food supplies and prevent future starvation." Another case of overgeneralization. Ukraine may be a powerhouse granary, but pales compared to the threats posed by climate change.
    14. "To accelerate the shift from fossil fuels." To some extent the war has already done this, but it is tangential to the outcome, and in any case is something that should be decided on its own merits, rather than as a side-effect of war gaming.
    15. "To affirm the value of freedom." So why not end with something totally vacuous? Seems par for the course.

    [*] When comparing democracies, you might want to consider Julia Conley: [02-17] Due to Wars and Climate Destruction, US Ranks Worse Than Peers on 'Impunity' Index: "A democratic system of government is insufficient to fend off impunity." If you're unfamiliar with the concept: "Impunity is the growing instinct of choice in the global order. It represents a dangerous world view that laws and norms are for suckers." As best I can tell, Russia ranks worse than China, which ranks worse than the US, which is somewhere close to the median on a list of 160 countries.

  • Washington Post Editorial Board: [02-18] How to break the stalemate in Ukraine: On reading the title, my first thought was the way must be to press harder for a ceasefire and a sensible settlement, since that's the only way the war can possibly end. But no, they insist that "the West's overarching goal must be ensuring that the Russian tyrant gains nothing by his aggression. To allow an outcome that rewards the Kremlin in any way would be a moral travesty." As opposed to their alternative, which prolongs and intensifies the destruction and slaughter. They then go into a long shopping list of weapons systems they want to send Ukraine. And they insist the US should throw caution to the wind: "But a principal lesson from the past year is that the risk of escalation is overblown."

    Nuclear weapons? "As for the Russian autocrat, he has nothing left to escalate with other than manpower and nuclear weapons. If the West adequately arms Ukraine, he cannot win with the former and is very unlikely to resort to the latter, which would alienate his most important ally, China. A tactical strike by Russia would be one of history's greatest acts of self-immolation, cementing Russia's pariah status for decades." The logic here is hard to fathom, especially given that nuclear deterrence depends on the mutual understanding of logic and nothing more. If the West doesn't respect Russia's nuclear threat, and no longer shows that respect by limiting its military response, why shouldn't Russia follow through on its threat? If Russia is rational enough not to use nuclear weapons, why isn't it rational enough to negotiate? After all, it will only be "self-immolation" if the US decides to retalliate massively -- a separate decision which should make the US even more of a world pariah than Russia. After all, wouldn't a US strategic nuclear attack on Russia also be self-immolation?

    Thus far, both Biden and Putin have been sane enough not to paint themselves into a corner where they have to follow through on the dismal logic of their war strategists. Still, they have to endure insanity like this editorial.

Other stories:

Peter Beinart: [02-19] You Can't Save Democracy in a Jewish State. Of course, it's only ever been a slogan. From 1949-67, Palestinians within the Green line were able to vote, but subject to martial law, and Palestinians who fled the atrocities (like the mass murder at Deir Yassin) were denied re-entry as their homes and land was confiscated. After 1967, martial law was relieved, but reinstated in the occupied territories, where Palestinians were denied even the vote. As settlements encroached on Palestinian lands, a two-tier system of (in)justice was implemented. Now the right-wing wants to be able to strip citizenship and force into exile those few Palestinians who still have it, and they want to prevent the courts from reviewing whatever they do. Yet still zionists liked to brag that Israel was "the only democracy" in the region. Given that "democracy" is one of those slogans the US is supposedly fighting for in Ukraine and elsewhere, you'd think the loss of it in Israel might matter, but to the folks to direct US foreign policy, it doesn't.

Ryan Cooper: [02-17] Elon Musk Shows How Oligarchy Poisons the Speech Commons: "Free speech is not when one rich guy gets to shout 1,000 times louder than anyone else." And not just any rich guy: the one who now owns the platform had Twitter tweak its algorithms to promote Musk's own tweets. By the way, the least free speech in America is still advertising, where the volume is simply scaled by money, and the motives are always suspect, and often downright fraudulent. For an example, see: Christian Downie/Robert Brulle [02-19] Research Finds Big Oil's Trade Group Allies Outspent Clean Energy by a Whopping 27x.

David Dayen: [02-03] Amazon's Endgame: "The company is transitioning to become an unavoidable gatekeeper in all commerce." It's really hard to get a handle on how many angles a company like Amazon is playing to get control over virtually all consumer spending. ("The real danger from Amazon is that is invisibly takes a cut from everybody: consumers, businesses, even governments.") The other thing that's hard to get a grip on is that while this works mostly due to proximate monopoly power, it's based on network effects and efficiencies of scale that are impossible to compete with, so traditional antimonopoly remedies (divestments, standing up competitors) won't work. What might help would be to treat those parts of the business as natural monopolies and strictly regulate them. Or one could create public utilities to compete with them while eliminating many of the most onerous aspects of the business (like the capture and sale of personal data). Of course, a regulatory regime that would expose Amazon's side-dealing would help make alternatives more competitive.

Huntger DeRensis: [02-15] How a Super Bowl whitewash of Tillman cover-up was a helpful reminder. I've long felt that the only reasons people join the military are delusion and desperation. NFL star Tillman wasn't desperate. There is some evidence that his delusions were lifting before he was killed by other American soldiers, but that fact itself should disabuse one of some of the most common delusions, including the notion that the military serves the nation in any substantive way, and that joining it is somehow heroic. much of what I know about Tillman specifically comes from Jon Krakauer's book, Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, who takes the whole macho/hero thing very seriously.

Lauren Fadiman: [02-13] How a For-Profit Healthcare System Generates Mistrust of Medicine. I haven't been looking for support on such an obvious point, but did stumble across this:

Steve Fraser: [02-16] The Spectre of "Woke Communism". Explains that DeSantis's rant about "woke corporations" isn't a particularly novel idea: irate right-wingers have a long history of conflating "Bankers and Bolsheviks." Also at TomDispatch:

  • Andrew Bacevich: [02-12] Tanks for Nuttin': Or "Giving Whataboutism a Chance." Tipped me off to the silly Snyder piece above. As for "whataboutism": "When the Russian president embarked on his war in 2022, he had no idea what he was getting into, any more than George W. Bush did in 2003." Also: "Classifying Russia as a de facto enemy of the civilized world has effectively diminished the urgency of examining out own culture and values."

  • Julia Gledhill/William D Hartung: [02-14] Merger Mania in the Military-Industrial Complex: Hartung is a long-term critic of Defense spending, with several books on the subject, going back to And Weapons for All (1994), and How Much Are You Making on the War, Daddy? A Quick and Dirty Guide to War Profiteering in the Bush Administration (2003). So I'm a bit surprised that in looking at the latest scandals, they don't mention the wave of defense contractor mergers in the 1990s (like Boeing-Douglas and Lockheed-Martin). Those were supposedly guided by the Defense Department on the theory that post-Cold War they wanted to reduce the number of competitors for a shrinking pie. (Given the infamous "revolving door" take that assertion with a grain of salt.) Of course, thanks to the CIA's backing of Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan, and the neocon plot to "garrison the world," the pie actually expanded, and the megacorporations spawned by the mergers became even more politically influential than ever -- leading to this latest round of mergers.

    While it made sense during WWII to temporarily convert industry to war production by guaranteeing high, low-risk profits (contracts were typically "cost + 10%"), it was foolish to build a permanent arms industry on that basis, specifically because it created a huge independent political force lobbying for more war. The result is that US foreign policy is now largely subordinate to the continued profit of the arms manufacturers. Absent this corrupt influence, a sensible foreign policy would focus on the need for peace, fairness, and cooperation between all nations, instead of splitting the world into permanent conflict zones. One example is the Abraham Accords, where Israel and its former Arab enemies puy aside their differences so that both can freely buy American arms to use against their own people. Another is the expansion of NATO with its vilification of Russia, eventually prodding Putin into creating the current Ukraine bonanza. And then there's the militarization of what are basically trade disputes with China. The latter hasn't blown up like Russia, but if/when it does the consequences could be far worse.

    Also relevant here is Stephen F Eisenman: [02-17] The Insecure Superpower.

Amy Goldstein/Mary Jordan/Kevin Sullivan: [02-19] Former president opts for home hospice care for final days: Jimmy Carter, 98. I've listed him among the short list of era-ending one-term presidents, along with Buchanan, Hoover, and Trump (a slightly looser definition of era might also pick up John Adams, and maybe even John Quincy Adams). Of those, Carter most resembled Hoover: an extremely talented technocrat who faced bad times and made them worse through dumb choices. When I look back now, the thing I'm most struck by is how many of his choices anticipated turns toward disaster that we now associate mostly with his successor, Ronald Reagan. He appointed Paul Volcker, who crashed and burned the economy to smash unions and slay inflation. He kicked off the fashion for deregulation. He exacerbated the Cold War with his Olympics shenanigans, and more seriously by arming jihadis in Afghanistan. He misplayed Iran, leaving a conflict that festers to this day. He paved the way for the neoliberal turn in the Democratic Party, a dead weight that still exercises undue influence.

On the other hand, give him credit for actually doing something constructive about Israel (even if he mostly rationalized it as countering Soviet influence in Egypt). He negotiated the Begin-Sadat accord that guaranteed that Israel would never again have to face a united front of Arab enemies. Less known is how he backed Israel down from intervening in Lebanon in 1978. Four years later, Reagan gave Begin the green light, leading to a 17-year occupation that failed in every respect, leaving Hezbollah as the dominant power. Carter has often been maligned for being critical of Israel (especially for his 2006 book, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, which is worth scanning through, even though the reality now is worse than apartheid), but he was a truer friend to Israel in 1978-79 than any of his more popularly obsequious successors.

Also give Carter credit for a remarkable post-presidency, a record of public service unique in American history, one that worked on many levels, ranging from the mudane (Habitat for Humanity) to high diplomacy. (His mission to North Korea, which Clinton's people subsequently bungled, could well have nipped that conflict in the bud.) I had hopes that Clinton and/or Obama might have followed suit, but they opted instead to hobnob with the rich and grow their fortunes (with the bad faith effectively killing Hillary Clinton's political ambitions). At root, that's because Carter was a fundamentally different kind of person -- one rarely seen in American politics. As one recent piece put it, The un-celebrity president: Shunning riches, living modestly in Georgia.

Laurie Hertzel: [02-15] Is owning a lot of books a mark of middle-class smugness? This popped up in the wasteland of bits that is my morning newspaper, and rubbed me bad enough I decided to save the link. Smug? Sounds like someone is insecure.

Ian Millhiser:

Ashley Parker/Justine McDaniel: [02-17] From Freddie Gray to Tyre Nichols, early police claims often misleading: "Misleading" is putting it mildly.

Andrew Prokop:

  • [02-19] Can the Republican establishment finally stop Trump this time? As someone who regards the "Republican establishment" as even more malevolent than Trump, this is not a contest that interests me, but you're welcome to consider it. Sure, based on the four years when Trump was president, you could counter that Trump = the Republican establishment (for policy, admin, and judges) + a media-obsessed dose of crazy and extra risk of volatility, and that combination of risk probably makes him worse. But don't lose sight of how bad the other blokes are (or their handlers and donors).

  • [02-18] A juicy new legal filing reveals who really controls Fox News: "As Trump spread his stolen election lies, Fox was terrified of alienating its own audience, emails and texts show." This comes from Fox internal email collected by the Dominion Voting vs. Fox lawsuit. Also: Erik Wemple: [02-17] Fox News is worse than you thought; and Matt Ford: [02-18] The Fox News Text Messages Prove the Hosts All Know They're Craven Liars; and Ben Beckett: [02-18] Fox News Knew Donald Trump's Election Fraud Claims Were False. They Broadcast Them Anyway. Texts uncovered in the Dominion Voting lawsuit against Fox.

  • [02-15] The rise of the Trump-Russia revisionists: Latest summary of the latest analyses of the public reporting of Trump-Russia entanglement, if you still give a whit. I've said my bit many times over. For this one, note the chart comparing pre-2016 election search interest in "Trump Russia" with the alleged Clinton scandals (email, foundation, wikileaks). Even if Trump was maligned unfairly, the effect was much less than the insinuation of scandal re Clinton -- something both the FBI and mainstream media should be ashamed of (and not just because it tipped the election to Trump, a more disastrous outcome than the mainstream media, despite all their hyperventilation on Russia, prepared us for). The other thing that should be noted is that if reporters had a realistic concept of how political actors work, they could have dismissed 80% of the bullshit out of hand, instead of breathlessly repeating it for amusement.

Nathan J Robinson: [02-16] The Apocalyptic Delusions of the Silicon Valley Elite: Interview with Douglas Rushkoff on "how the super-rich plan to escape the world after they've destroyed it." Rushkoff is what you'd call a social critic, with a dozen-plus nonfiction books (plus some novels) since 1994, most related to tech. His latest is germane here: Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires. By the way, I've picked up a copy of Robinson's new book Responding to the Right. You can read an overview here.

Jeffrey St Clair: [02-17] Roaming Charges: Train in Vain: Leads off with a lengthy report on the East Palestine, Ohio train disaster -- probably the best piece to read on the subject. Also includes significant sections on the Seymour Hersh pipeline piece, which he doesn't accept at face value but also doesn't reject out of hand ("the lack of any follow-up reporting from the New York Times or Washington Post, to either confirm or discredit Hersh's story, is one of the more shameful episodes in a dismal couple of decades for American journalism"). And some pertinent comments on the art of shooting things down, as well as more statistics and details about prisoning America. One stat I basically knew is that we're running more than one mass shooting per day in 2023. One I didn't realize is that there have been over 1,000 train derailments (basically, 3 per day) for many year running. Also includes a link to L7, about assholes and their wars.

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