Sunday, October 8, 2023

Speaking of Which

I wrote the introduction below before Israel blew up. On Saturday, I moved my irregular section on Israel up to the top of the "top story threads" section, ahead of the breakout on the House Speaker -- lots of links there, but the story is pretty pat. The Israel introduction was written Saturday afternoon. I resolved to post this early Sunday, as I have other things I need to do in the evening, so my coverage of the rapidly unfolding Israel story is limited. Still, I think the lessons are obvious, even if no one is writing about them. When I see lines like "this is Israel's 9/11" I process that differently: for America, 9/11 was a sad, sobering day, one that should have led us to a profound reassessment of our national fetish of power; instead, America's leaders took it as an unpardonable insult, and plotted revenge in a foolish effort to make any further defiance unthinkably costly. It didn't work, and in short order America had done more damage to itself than Al Qaeda ever imagined.

The only nation in the world even more hung up on its ability to project power and impose terror is Israel -- so much so that America's neocons are frankly jealous that Israel feels so little inhibition about flaunting its power. Today's formal declaration of war was another kneejerk move. But until Israelis are willing to consider that they may be substantially at fault for their misfortunes, such kneejerk moves will continue, hurting Israel as much as its supposed enemies.

Good chance Music Week won't appear until Tuesday, if then.

I ran across this paragraph on conservatism in Christopher Clark's Revolutionary Spring (pp. 251-252), and thought that, despite its unfortunate source, it has something to say to us:

In a sympathetic reflection on Metternich's political thought, Henry Kissinger, an admirer, exposed what he called 'the conservative dilemma'. Conservatism is the fruit of instability, Kissinger observed, because in a society that was still cohesive 'it would occur to no one to be a conservative'. It thus falls to the conservative to defend, in times of change, what had once been taken for granted. And -- here is the rub -- 'the act of defense introduces rigidity'. The deeper the fissure becomes between the defenders of order and the partisans of change, the greater becomes the 'temptation to dogmatism' until, at some point, no further communication is possible between the contenders, because they no longer speak the same language. 'Stability and reform, liberty and authority, come to appear as antithetical, and political contests turn doctrinal instead of empirical.

I draw several conclusions from this:

  1. Reactionaries always emerge too late to halt, let alone reverse, the change they object to. Change is rarely the result of deliberate policy, which makes it hard to anticipate and understand. And change creates winners as well as losers, and those winners have stakes to defend against reactionary attack.

  2. What finally motivates reactionaries is rarely the change itself, but their delayed perception that the change poses a threat to their own power, and this concern dominates their focus to the exclusion of anything else. They become rigid, dogmatic, eventually turning their ire on the very idea of flexibility, of reform.

  3. Having started from a position of power, their instinct is to use force, especially to repress anyone who threatens to undermine their power, including those pleading for reasonable reforms. Reason itself becomes their enemy.

  4. While they may win political victories, their inability to understand the sources and benefits of change, their unwillingness to entertain reforms that benefit others, drives their agenda into the realm of fantasy. They fail, they throw tantrums, they fail even worse. Eventually, they're so discredited they disappear, at least until the next generation of endangered elites repeats the cycle.

Consider several major sources of change since 1750 or so:

  • Most profound has been the spread of ideas and reason, which has only accelerated and intensified over time. One was the discovery that we are all individuals, capable of reason and deliberate action, and deserving of respect. Another is that we belong to communities.

  • Most relentlessly powerful has been the pursuit of profit: the basic instinct that preceded but grew into capitalism.

  • The incremental development of science and technology, which has been accelerated (and sometimes perverted) by capitalism.

  • The growth of mass culture (through print, radio, television, internet), and its subsequent fragmentation.

  • The vast increase in human population, made possible by longer lives and by the near-total domination of land (and significant appropriation of water and air) on Earth, driven by the above.

Nobody anticipated these changes. Though reactionaries emerged at every stage, they failed, and were forgotten, as generations came to accept the changes behind them, often railing against changes to come. It tells you something that conservatives claim to revere history, but history just dismisses them as selfish, ignorant cranks.

Of course, there is no guarantee that today's reactionaries won't win their political struggles. There may be historical examples where conservatives won out, like the Dark Ages following the Roman Empire, or the closing of China in the 15th Century. But human existence is so precariously balanced on limits of available resources that the threat they pose is huge indeed. Maybe not existential, but not the past they imagine, nor the one they pray for.

Top story threads:

Israel: Last week I folded this section into "World." Friday night I thought about doing that again, which a single link reviewing the Nathan Thrall book wouldn't preclude. Then, as they say, "all hell broke loose." When I got up around Noon Saturday, the Washington Post headline was: Netanyahu: 'We are at war' after Hamas attack. What he probably meant is "thank God we can now kill them all with impunity, all the while blaming our acts on them." The memory of occupiers is much shorter and shallower than the memory of the occupied. The first tweet I saw after this news was from a derecka, who does remember:

Palestinians can't march, can't pray, can't call for boycotts, can't leave, can't stay, can't publish reports, what's should people do? land acknowledgments?

Here's another tweet, from Tony Karon:

Is Netanyahu threatening genocide? "We will turn Gaza into a deserted island. To the citizens of Gaza, I say. You must leave now." Everyone knows the 2m Gazans can't leave because Israel has locked them in for decades. So how will he make it a "deserted island"

Netanyahu is Prime Minister, comanding one of the world's largest and most sophisticated war machines, so I don't think you can dismiss such threats as idle huffing. Looking backward, Doug Henwood tweeted:

Some perspective -- since September 2000:

Palestinians killed by Israeli forces: 10,500
Israeli civilians killed by Palestinians: 881

That's a 12/1 ratio.

I've written hundreds of thousands of words on Israel since 2001. (You can find most of them in my notebooks and also in the "Last Days" series of book drafts.) I've read a lot. I've tried to be reasonable. I've never described myself as "pro-Palestinian" (or pro- any nation or ethnic group, not even American). I suppose you could say I'm "anti-Israeli" in the sense that I object to many policies Israel practices, also "anti-Zionist" in the sense that I believe Zionism is a fundamentally flawed creed and ideology. Still, I always felt that Jews had a right to settle in what became Israel. I just objected to the terms they imposed on the people who lived there before them, and continue to live there.

One piece I can point to is one I wrote on November 17, 2012, which is as good a place as any to start. In 2000, Ariel Sharon took over as Prime Minister, demolished the Oslo Accords that promised some sort of "two-state" division of Israel and Palestine, and provoked the second Intifada (Palestinians called this the Al-Aqsa Intifada, although I've always thought of it as the Shaul Mofaz Intifada, for the Defense Minister whose heavy-handed repression of Palestinian demonstrations kicked the whole thing off). By 2005, the Intifada was defeated in what isn't but could be called the second Nakba (or third, if you want to count the end of the 1937-39 revolt). Sharon then pulled Israel's settlers from their hard-to-defend enclaves in Gaza, sealed the territory off, and terrorized the inhabitants with sonic boom overflights (which had to be stopped, as they also bothered Israelis living near Gaza).

Hamas shifted gears, and ran in elections for the Palestinian Authority. When they won, the old PA leadership, backed by Israel and the US, rejected the results, and tried to seize power -- successfully in the West Bank, but they lost local control of Gaza to Hamas. Ever since then, Israel has tried to managed Gaza as an open-air jail, walled in, blockaded, and periodically strafed and bombed. One such episode was the subject of my 2012 piece. There have been others, every year or two -- so routine, Israelis refer to them as "mowing the grass."

Once Sharon, Netanyahu, and the settlers made it impossible to partition the West Bank -- something, quite frankly, Israel's Labor leaders as far back as 1967 had never had any intention of allowing -- the most obvious solution in the world was for Israel to cut Gaza free, allow it to be a normal, self-governing state, its security guaranteed by Egypt and the West (not Israel), with its economy generously subsidized by Arab states and the West. This didn't happen because neither side wanted it: Palestinians still clung to the dream of living free in their homeland (perhaps in emulation of the Jews), so didn't want to admit defeat; and Israelis hated the idea of allowing any kind of Palestinian state, and thought they could continue to impose control indefinitely. Both sides were being short-sighted and stupid, but one should place most of the blame on Israel, as Israel had much more freedom to act sensibly. But by all means, save some blame for the US, which from 2000 on has increasingly surrendered its foreign policy to blindly support Israel, no matter how racist and belligerent its politicians became.

I'll add a few more links, but don't expect much. It looks like this will take weeks to play out, and while the lessons should be obvious to any thinking being, Israel and America have dark blinders to any suggestion that the world doesn't automatically bend to their will.

Updates, by Sunday afternoon: Israel formally declares war against Hamas as hundreds killed on both sides; U.S. to provide arms, shift naval group toward Mideast; death toll in Israel, Gaza passes 1,100.

The shutdown and the speaker: A week ago, after acting like a complete ass for months, Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy reversed course and offered a fairly clean continuing spending bill, which instantly passed, cleared the Senate, and was signed by Biden. A small number of Republicans (eight), led by Matt Gaetz (R-FL), felt so betrayed by not shutting down the government that they forced a vote to fire McCarthy, which succeeded.


DeSantis, and other Republicans:

  • Perry Bacon Jr: [10-04] Republicans are in disarray. But they are still winning a lot on policy. Way, way too much, considering that their policy choices are almost all deadass wrong.

  • Paul Krugman: [10-05] Will voters send in the clowns? A lot of things that show up in polls make little sense, but few show this much cognitive dissonance: "Yet Americans, by a wide margin, tell pollsters that Republicans would be better than Democrats at running the economy." Krugman spends a lot of time arguing that the economy isn't so bad, but regardless of the current state, how can anyone see Republicans as better?

Biden and/or the Democrats:

  • Kate Aronoff: [10-05] Biden scraps environmental laws to build Trump's border wall. Also:

  • Nicole Narea: [10-02] Who is Laphonza Butler, California's new senator? I did a double take on this line about the Democrats already campaigning for the Feinstein seat: "All three have sizable war chests for the campaign, with Schiff, Porter, and Lee having $29.8 million, $10.3 million, and $1.4 million on hand." Sure, they're all "sizable," but sizes are vastly different. They are currently polling at 20% (0.71 points per million dollars), 17% (1.65 ppmd), and 7% (5.0 ppmd).

  • Stephen Prager: [10-03] Voters have the right to be dissatisfied with 'Bidenomics': "The president's defenders think voters are ungrateful for a good economy. But people's economics experiences vary widely, and much of the country has little to appreciate Biden for." Well, compared to what? Not if you're comparing to Republicans. I'll grant that it can be hard to gauge, including shifts from Obama that I believe are very significant. But blaming Biden for canceling the Child Tax Credit misses the key point that Democrats didn't have enough votes to extend it. Same for the rest of the cutbacks from the Build Back Better bill that Bernie Sanders presented -- some of which (the parts that Joe Manchin accepted) was eventually passed. This piece cites another by Stephen Semler: [08-15] Bidenomics isn't working for working people. One thing that jumps out here is the chart "The U.S. is Shrinking Its Social Safety Net," where everything listed (and since phased out) was part of the remarkable pandemic lockdown relief act, which Trump got panicked into signing, but which was almost all written and passed by Pelosi and Schumer. To get it passed and signed, they had to sunset the provisions. Democrats need to campaign on bringing them back, and building on them.

Legal matters and other crimes:

Climate and environment:

Economic matters:

Ukraine War:

  • Connor Echols: [10-06] Diplomacy Watch: Ukraine's arduous path to EU accession: "A hopeful summit obscured the difficulties facing Kyiv as it pushes to join the bloc."

  • George Beebe: [10-04] Will Ukraine's effort go bankrupt gradually . . . then suddenly?

  • Dave DeCamp: [10-08] Biden considering huge $100 billion Ukraine spending package: If at first you don't succeed, go crazy! Good chance he'll be adding military aid for Israel before this passes. After all, look how successful the last 50 years of aid was.

  • David Ignatius: [10-05] A hard choice lies ahead in Ukraine, but only Ukrainians can make it: First I've heard of a McCain Institute, but if someone wanted a pro-war counter to the Quincy Institute, that's a pretty obvious name. As for the opinion piece, it is half-obvious, and half-ridiculous. The obvious part is that Ukraine, as well as Russia, will have to freely agree to any armistice. The ridiculous part is the idea that the US shouldn't exert any effort to achieve peace. The "defer to Ukraine" mantra is a blank check policy, promoted by people who want to see the war go on indefinitely.

  • Jen Kirby: [10-03] The West's united pro-Ukraine front is showing cracks. The leading vote-getter in Slovakia has promised to end military aid to Ukraine. Still, he's a long ways from being able to form a government. Biden's latest request for Ukraine got dropped from the bill the House finally passed to avoid (or forestall) a government shutdown. On a straight vote, it would probably have passed, but straight votes are hard to come by.

  • Jim Lobe: [10-06] Iraq War boosters rally GOP hawks behind more Ukraine aid: "Elliott Abrams' 'Vandenberg Coalition' also assails the Biden administration for being soft on Russia." Wasn't Abrams the guy who back in 2005 was whispering in Sharon's ear about how a unilateral dismantling of Israeli settlements in Gaza with no PA handover could be spun as a peace move but would actually allow Israel to attack Gaza with impunity, any time they might choose to? (Like in the lead up to elections, or in the interim between Obama's election and when he took office, so he's have to pledge allegiance to Israel before he could do anything about it.)

  • Siobhán O'Grady/Anastacia Galouchka: [10-06] Russian missile attack at Ukraine funeral overwhelmingly killed civilians: Link caption was more to the point: "Overwhelming grief in Ukrainian village hit by strike: 'There is no point in living.'" But already you can see the effort to spin tragedy into a propaganda coup.

  • Robert Wright: [10-06] The real lesson of Ukraine for Taiwan: Attempting to control a conflict through increased deterrence can easily backfire, precipitating the event one supposedly meant to deter. When Russia started threatening to invade Ukraine, Biden didn't take a step back and say, whoa!, can't we talk about this? No, his administration cranked up their sanctions threats, and expedited their increasing armament of Ukraine. Putin looked at the lay of the land and the timelines, and convinced himself that his odds were better sooner than later. Nor is this the only case where sanctions have backfired: the context for Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor was America's embargo of steel and oil. World War I started largely because Germany decided that war with Russia was inevitable, and their chances of winning were better in 1914 than they would be later. All these examples are bonkers, but that's what happens when states put their faith in military power. China has long claimed Taiwan (going back to the day when Taiwan still claimed all of China), but Peking has been willing to play a long game, for 75 years now. But the more America wants to close the door on possible reunification, the more likely China is to panic and strike first.

Around the world:

Other stories:

Kate Cohen: [10-03] America doesn't need more God. It needs more atheists. Essay adapted from the author's book: We of LIttle Faith: Why I Stopped Pretending to Believe (and Maybe You Should Too).

Kevin T Dugan: [10-03] The 3 most important things to know about Michael Lewis's SBF book: The book is Going Infinite, which started out as one of the writer's profiles of unorthodox finance guys, and has wound up as some kind of "letter to the jury" on the occasion of crypto conman Sam Bankman-Fried's fraud trial. Also on Lewis:

Karen J Greenberg: [10-05] The last prisoners? With its prisoner population reduced to 30, why can't America close Guantanamo?

Eric Levitz: [10-06] Don't celebrate when people you disagree with get murdered. "In view of many extremely online, spritually unswell conservatives, [Ryan] Carson's brutal death was a form of karmic justice. . . . Days earlier, the nihilist right greeted the murder of progressive Philadelphia journalist Josh Kruger with the same grotesque glee."

Blaise Malley: [10-05] The plan to avert a new Cold War: Review of Michael Doyle's book, Cold Peace: Avoiding the New Cold War. "If all sides continue to perceive actions by the other as hostile, then they will constantly be at the precipice of a military confrontation."

Charles P Pierce: [10-05] Guns are now the leading cause of accidental death among American kids.

JJ Porter: [10-05] Conservative postliberalism is a complete dead end: A review of Patrick Deneen's Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future, as if you needed (or wanted) one.

Emily Raboteau: [10-03] The good life: "What can we learn from the history of utopianism?" Review of Kristen R Ghodsee: Everyday Utopia: What 2,000 Years of Wild Experiments Can Teach Us About the Good Life. Also see the Current Affairs interview with Ghodsee: [10-04] Why we need utopias.

Corey Robin: [10-04] How do we survive the Constitution? Review of the new book, Tyranny of the Minority by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, the comparative political scientists who previously wrote up many examples of How Democracies Die. The authors are critical of various quirks in the US Constitution that have skewed recent elections toward Republicans, thus thwarting popular will and endangering democracy in America. I haven't spent much time with these books, or similar ones where the authors (like Yascha Mounk) seem to cherish democracy more for aesthetic than practical reasons. My own view is that the Constitution, even with its imperfections, is flexible enough to work for most people, if we could just get them to vote for popular interests. The main enemy of democracy is money, abetted by the media that chases it. The solution is to make people conscious, much less of how the Founding Fathers sold us short than of the graft and confusion that sells us oligarchy.

By the way, Robin mentions a 2022 book: Joseph Fishkin/William E Forbath: The Anti-Oligarchy Constitution: Reconstructing the Economic Foundations of American Democracy. I haven't read this particular book, but I have read several others along the same lines (focused more on the authors and/or the text, whereas Fishkin & Forbath follow how later progressives referred back to the Constitution): Ganesh Sitaraman: The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution: Why Economic Inequality Threatens Our Republic (2017); Erwin Chemerinsky: We the People: A Progressive Reading of the Constitution for the Twenty-First Century (2018); Danielle Allen: Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality (2015). I should also mention Eric Foner: The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution (2019).

Nathan J Robinson: [10-06] How to spot corporate bullshit: "A new book shows that the same talking points have been recycled for centuries, to oppose every form of progressive change." Review of Corporate Bullsh*t, by Nick Hanauer, Joan Walsh, and Donald Cohen, with plenty of examples.

Missy Ryan: [10-04] Over 80 percent of four-star retirees are employed in defense industry: "Twenty-six of 32 four-star admirals and generals who retired from June 2018 to July 2023." Based on the following report:

Washington Post Staff: [10-03] The Post spent the past year examining US life expectancy. Here's what we found:

  1. Chronic diseases are killing us
  2. Gaps between poor and wealthy communities are growing
  3. US life expectancy is falling behind global peers
  4. The seeds of this crisis are planted in childhood
  5. American politics are proving toxic

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