An occasional blog about populist politics and popular music, not necessarily at the same time.
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Sunday, March 27, 2022
Speaking of Which
I started this a couple days ago, with a few piece I wanted to point out, and (as usual) it grew and grew, without ever feeling like I was getting the whole story straight. Rather, a lot of things that have been bugging me. Gradually, I grew disgusted with the whole project, and decided to arbitrarily cut it off, post what I had, and forget about it. Then I found more shit to include, but the cutoff is still pretty arbitrary.
The week's top story remains the war in Ukraine:
[03-18] Zack Beauchamp: Is Russia losing? The maps have been relatively stable for a couple weeks, even as the amount of rubble (and dead bodies) around the stalled lines has grown steadily. Beauchamp talks to Olga Oliker about morale, which seems to be very low on the Russian side, and impressive on the Ukrainian.
[03-20] Eric Levitz: The Left Has Half-Baked Answers on Ukraine: This occurred the same day as a Jonathan Chait rant about the Left's views on education, so I wonder what was in the coffee that morning. As I've pointed out many times, the left-right divide is over the question of equality, which mostly means politics but isn't far removed from economics, and doesn't include any number of other issues, which don't cleanly divide along left-right lines. So I'm a little chafed at arbitrarily singling out "the Left" for views that are more blurred. Then there's the added innuendo of "Many on the American left were ideologically unprepared for Putin's invasion," and "When reality turned against left-wing orthodoxy, some leftists turned against reality." I would grant that leftists have certain precepts that help frame our understanding of events, but "ideology" is a straitjacket, and "orthodoxy" is quite explicitly a right-wing concept, while "many" and "some" are weasel words. Same could be said about the right, or any other segment you might are to carve out. (Try replacing "Left" in those subheds with "Trump" or "Tucker Carlson.") On the other hand, anti-war people (both on the left and on the libertarian right) have been quick to identify how US indifference to Russia during the "shock treatment" phase, NATO expansion, the proliferation of sanctions, and the new arms race have contributed to conditions where Putin has acted out so badly. The real test has never been whether you're up to fight when someone gives you no choice, but whether you could have found a way to avoid that fight ever coming. PS: For a response to Levitz, see Branko Marcetic: What the Left's Critics Ignore About Military Solutions to Ukraine.
[03-20] Masha Gessen: The Russians fleeing Putin's wartime crackdown. I'm not sure they count as refugees, but most wars are fought on two fronts: one abroad against supposed enemies, and one at home against dissenters. Putin is struggling in Ukraine, but he still seems to have the upper hand against his own people. Fleeing is one form of resistance, especially where there are few alternatives.
[03-21] William J Astore: Russia invasion is a boon for the post-GWOT war machine. One of those stories that's so obvious it hardly needs mentioning, but so important it cannot be ignored. Donald Trump only understood one thing about NATO: it's basically an arms buying club, where the prime arms merchant is the US. (He didn't buy into the ostensible excuse, that it provides collective defense against Russia, because he regarded Russia not as a threat but as a handful of rich suckers willing to buy into his real estate scam.) So he tried to do the arms industry a solid and shake down Europe to buy more fear, and he did a really lousy job of it (not unlike he does a really lousy job of everything). However, Putin's invasion is driving the rest of Europe into buying American -- even Germany is promising 2% of GDP for "defense." This may seem to make sense given the fear and outrage most of us feel over Putin's attack on Ukraine, but in the long run it is likely to do more harm than good. Weapons and armies legitimize themselves, leading to arms races, and eventually to use. One of the founding lies of the post-WWII era is the notion that strength is necessary to preserve peace. What we need after the war is the realization that war was horrible for all sides, and that the only future lies in incremental disarmament, normalization of relations, and respect for other nations' wishes. Eventually that means no NATO, and no sanctions. Because after this war no one can honestly say that they kept us safe.
[03-24] Day 5, Day 9, Day 16: Responses to the Invasion of Ukraine: Various comments by London Review of Books writers. Pankaj Mishra isn't one to mince words:
[03-24] Sean Illing: How Putin became the victim of his own lies: Interview with Brian Klaas, a University College London professor and author of Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us. I wasn't going to bother with this standard critique of the tendency of autocrats to surround themselves with "yes men" (he calls it "the dictator trap," but the same affliction is common regardless of how one rose to power, or whatever checks and balances constrain it). But the pull quotes are worth noting: "The longer people are in positions of power, the more they start to believe that they can control outcomes that they can't actually control." I think it's more like they lose their fear of things they poorly understand. The other one: "When a significant chunk of people in your society no longer inhabit reality, you're in trouble." Not sure why he switched to "society" here, but it rings all the more true about America.
[03-24] Sophie Pinkham/Nick Mulder: Why Did Putin Decide to Invade Ukraine? Fairly long and wide-ranging interview -- Pinkham wrote Black Square: Adventures in Post-Soviet Ukraine, and Mulder wrote The Economic Weapon: The Rise of Sanctions as a Tool of Modern War -- not that it answers the title question definitively.
[03-25] Patrick Cockburn: Ukraine Could Turn Into Another Endless War, Especially if NATO Decides More Than Just Peace Is Needed. I think most people assume that the war must end soon, because the consequences and risks are already so severe it's hard to contemplate what more might happen. On the other hand, it's not unusual for recent wars to slog on, especially where decisions are being made far from the conflict. Moscow and Washington may well decide that suffering in Ukraine is a tolerable price compared to backing away from their symbolic game (the biggest beneficiary so far is NATO and its arms cartel). Before the war, Zelensky was becoming more ambitious at recovering Donbas and even Crimea, and is likely feeling an adrenaline rush over inflicting surprising losses on Russia, which could encourage him to hold out. Meanwhile the country is being destroyed, and millions of refugees have fled. At some point, one would expect concern over the long-term business losses, which are likely to be huge on both sides, would overcome the interests of the short-term winners (mostly arms merchants and oil companies thus far), and start to pressure both sides to compromise -- but the short-termers have the inside political track. On negotiation considerations, consider [03-25] Matthew Stevenson: Putin Is Not Dealin', which also offers some insight into why Biden and Zelinsky aren't dealin' either.
[03-25] Benjamin Wallace-Wells: The Biden official who pierced Putin's "sanction-proof" economy: The maps and damage surveys make it relatively easy to assess Russia's invasion, although the human suffering is hard to quantify, and what few stats are available are far from reliable. But the effect of the economic war is even harder to get a handle on. (Sure, there are lots of press releases, but what do they really mean?) This article helps a bit in explaining how the sanctions are designed, and what their intended targets are. Still, they're likely to play out slowly, and the lack of good metrics means they could miss their target entirely. We're running an experiment here, one that has almost never worked in the past, hoping once more that louder will make the difference.
[03-26] Michael D Shear/Zolan Kanno-Youngs: Biden denounces Russian invasion, casting it as part of a decades-long attempt to crush democracies: On Biden's big speech in Warsaw, an ideal stage for political posturing and a little sabre-rattling. One thing we cannot credit Biden with is a historically nuanced understanding of the complexities of international relations. His slip-up assertion that Putin cannot remain in power got walked back quick enough: one should understand that it's only Russia's business who their leaders are, and that it's wholly improper for Biden (or any prominent American leader) to interject an opinion (which could easily be misconstrued as a threat, or even an ultimatum -- as Obama did regarding Assad in Syria, one of his biggest blunders as president). I even think that the whole portrayal of Putin as the nemesis of democracy is overwrought. He clearly isn't a big believer, least of all for his own people, but it's hard to see his foreign policy as directed at opposing an idea (or ideal) -- as Bush, for instance, took aim at "terror." On the other hand, as Democrats have been backed into a corner where they're our only hope of defending democracy at home, maybe they're entitled to pose as defenders of democracy abroad.
[03-27] Greg Jaffe/Dan Lamothe: Russia's failures in Ukraine imbue Pentagon with newfound confidence: More evidence that we're unlikely to learn anything from Russia's debacle in Ukraine. "One month into Russia's invasion of Ukraine, senior Pentagon officials are brimming with newfound confidence in American power, spurred by the surprising effectiveness of US-backed Ukrainian forces, Russia's heavy battlefield losses and the cautionary lessons they believe China is taking from the war." So they think US backing makes the difference? Have they already forgotten that the US, with all of its advantages in tech and logistics and morale (at least compared to Russia), wasn't able to hold Afghanistan (or Vietnam). Maybe, as Jonathan Schell put it, the world has become unconquerable? One hopes Russia will learn that lesson. One doubts the US, with its narcissistic doctrine of exceptionalism, ever will.
Other stories of note:
[03-14] Jill Lepore: Why the school wars still rage: "From evolution to anti-racism, parents and progressives have clashed for a century over who gets to tell our origin stories." Starts with the Scopes Trial, which I most likely learned about in Robert Wine's 8th Grade American History class: seems like I learned everything there, as he was one of the very few teachers I had who made learning fun, and was so successful at it (his secret was open-book tests where 3-4 students could share resources) that nearly everyone got an A. His kind of teaching was rare in Wichita (or anywhere else) in the 1960s (or any other time), but then was a time when the Scopes Trial was remembered as a case where reason triumphed over dogma, one small step toward becoming a more enlightened and progressive nation. We seem to have lost ground since then, although there have always been people who saw schooling as useful for indoctrinating children in conservative virtues, and they've often had the upper hand. Much of the Republican campaign agenda is devoted to thought control, of all ages but especially of children, while even many Democrats take a narrowly instrumentalist view of education as a pat.
[03-18] Dean Baker: We Don't Need a Cold War With China: Unlike Bush when he launched his War on Terror, Biden hasn't tried to crack down on neutral countries by insisting that "either you're with us or you're against us." China is the obvious case in point, although there is a fair list of abstainers from the UN condemnation of Russia, including India and Israel (our closest ally, some would sometimes have you believe). Baker explains some of the problems with trying to push China around.
[03-20] Natasha Ishak: State-level Republicans are going all in on extreme anti-trans, anti-abortion laws.
[03-21] Jonathan Chait: Democrats Must Defeat the Left's War on Educational Achievement: "School closing are over, but the fight over learning loss isn't." I don't begin to understand why Chait has a bug up his ass on this issue, if indeed it really is one. He includes a link in his line: "The progressive attack on academic achievement is a small but potent movement that has gained a foothold on the left and poses a serious threat to both American public education and the Democratic Party." The link is to his own piece from March 2021, "Just Reopen the Schools Now," but the article doesn't mention "the left" at all. Rather, he asserts: "It is entirely possible that when we look back at the coronavirus pandemic decades from now, we may see the gravest catastrophe as a generation of schoolchildren whose formative years were irrevocably stunted." Looking at his pieces and cited sources, I think he's confusing a number of issues, and don't have time or patience to try to unravel them. One thing I will say is that I think people on the left need to try to generate questions and ideas that need not be constrained to what is politically possible, so I see diverging ideas as being healthy. I don't, for example, think Democrats (even progressives) need to accept something like "defund the police" or "end borders," although proposals like that suggest concerns we should entertain. I personally had a horrific experience with public school, so I have some very idiosyncratic views about education, but at least I'm not under the assumption that my experiences are typical. (The only stunting I'm aware of was from the time I attended school, but fortunately for me that time was brief enough I could recover -- not without scars, but enough to become a functional member of society.)
[03-22] Ian Millhiser: The GOP's attacks on Ketanji Brown Jackson are nasty even by Republican standards: "Republicans turned the hearing into a blizzard of misleading attacks, many of which seem designed to appeal to QAnon supporters." Public hearings encourages politicians to "play to the crowds," which for Republicans means feeding "red meat" to Fox News in hopes of getting air time. And given that crowd, the nastier you appear, the more "authentic" you'll seem. And for good measure, they're still playing up the victimhood of Brett Kavanaugh for having to face serious questions about his character. As hearings continue, more on this:
[03-22] Jacob S Hacker/Amy Kapczynski: The Great Disconnect: "Why are Americans so unhappy about the economy?" Best advice here is: "Democrats should continue to say that the status quo is unacceptable and that effective responses exist." Obama's big mistake was buying into the idea that projecting confidence in the economy would help fix it. It was not just a bad idea, it was one that let Republicans blame him for an economy that had collapsed on their own watch, largely as result of their promotion of banking fraud and credit instead of real gains in income. It's tempting for Democrats to point to a few key figures and brag about how well we're doing, but inequality is baked so deeply into the mix that few people actually benefit from those numbers.
[03-23] David Atkins: Refusing to Prosecute Trump Is a Political Act: It certainly is. And if Trump didn't have the political standing he has, prosecution would have been likely. But it's less clear to me that the politics of not prosecuting Trump is bad politics. It's not clear that he's likely to be convicted, while it's a given that vast numbers of his fans will him as a victim for purely political purposes, and the nature of his crimes isn't likely to move many people from their preconceptions. Nor does letting him off the hook add much to the general sense that justice in America is seriously flawed.
[03-24] Aviva Chomsky: The United States Is Exceptional: "Just Not in the Way Any of Us Should Want."
[03-24] Daniel Larison: How Albright's 'Munich mindset' turned into uninhibited interventionism: Madeline Albright, Bill Clinton's first-term UN Ambassador and second-term Secretary of State, died on Wednesday, at 84. She was born in Prague (Jana Marie Korbelova), the daughter of a high-ranking Czech diplomat, who continued to work for "the government in exile" after Germany invaded in 1938. The family returned after WWII, only to flee again after the Communist coup in 1948, this time to the US. She married "media scion" Joseph Albright, and they moved to DC in 1962, where she got graduate degrees in Political Science and Russian, and studied under Zbigniew Brzezinski, who later hired her for Jimmy Carter's National Security Council. She was, by birth and grooming, an inveterate Cold Warrior, and she never lost her taste for violence, or her callousness. I don't know whether she was involved in Brzezinski's campaign to bankroll a jihadist uprising against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, but that was perfectly in keeping with her projects from 1993 on. She famously defended sanctions against Iraq as worth the price of starving Iraqi children. She taunted the military to act more aggressively, asking "what's the point of having this superb military you're always talking about if we can't use it?" Thus urged on, Clinton used it to bomb Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, and most of all in the former Yugoslavia. She went on to lay the foundation for future wars, especially in her expansion of NATO beyond the old borders of the Soviet Union, all the way to an increasingly marginalized and ostracized Russia. Her warmongering was coincident with the single-superpower theories of PNAC (the ad hoc, mostly Republican "defense intelligentsia" group, stands for Project for a New American Century), including most of the neocons who rose to power in the GW Bush Administration, where they "took the gloves off" and launched their "Global War on Terror," while plotting further salvos against Iran and North Korea, and ultimately Russia and China. After leaving office, she combined academia with a consulting business, continuing to advise belligerent Democrats, most prominently Hillary Clinton in 2016. Her death comes at the best and worst of times, with Russia finally boxed in so severely Putin chose to lash out with a risky invasion of Ukraine -- in essence, the showdown Albright has spent her entire life plotting. Perhaps it ends in further disgrace for Russia, or perhaps in WWIII. Either way, we no longer have her around to reassure us that it's worth the cost.
Larison brings up another famous Albright quote (from 1998, by way of rationalizing yet another bombing of Iraq): "But if we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us." Yet Americans have proved incapable of seeing the future, because such hubris keeps us from seeing ourselves as we really are. So we wind up bumbling from one crisis to another, understanding little and learning nothing.
[03-25] Jeffrey St Clair: Roaming Charges: Both Ends Burning: Leads off with Madeline Albright and, well, he's not a fan. "But her policy of 'hands-off' killing through sanctions continues to function as the most lethal weapon in the US arsenal. Look no further than Afghanistan, where upwards of 175 newborns are dying every day as a consequence of crippling sanctions." He also acknowledged her pathbreaking role as the first female US Secretary of State: "In our identity-obsessed political culture, Madeline Albright finally proved that American woman (the Israelis and Brits had demonstrated this quality decades earlier) are fully capable of supervising mass death without flinching or showing the tiniest twinge of regret or remose." Much more, of course, including the collapse of the entire Conger Ice Shelf in Antarctica, and 175 wildfires in Texas burning more than 100,000 acres, Arctic land loss, gas leaks, oil spills, micro-plastics, famines, drought, deforestation. Also a link to a video of "Both Sides Burning."
[03-25] Nick Cleveland-Stout/Taylor Giorno/Hayden Schmidt: Saudi bombs drop on Yemen, DC lobbyists whitewash the damage: "The Kingdom has spent $100 million dollars over the course of the 7-year war to make you think they are all about 'peace.'" When Putin invaded Ukraine, I saw a number of "what about" complaints about ignoring Saudi Arabia's relentless bombing of Yemen. I've been aware of the war in Yemen since its inception, and while I have no particular fondness for any local faction(s), it's been clear all along that Saudi Arabia and UAE have been engaged in a campaign of random punishment with no constructive aims. Perhaps there is something to the notion that Yemen is some kind of proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but even if that is the conflict, why is it so hard to negotiate some form of peaceful coexistence? Even knowing about this, the opening paragraph is sobering: "March 26 marks the seventh anniversary of the disastrous war in Yemen, which has resulted in almost half a million dead." While we're already weary of three weeks of war in Ukraine, which has been marked by an unprecedented worldwide effort to counter Putin's aggression with small arms and massive economic sanctions, the world response on Yemen has been moot -- mostly, one suspects, because the war there has been profitable for the US arms cartel, and that seems to be all Americans care about (as long as the right palms are greased).
[03-25] Jane Mayer: Legal scholars are shocked by Ginni Thomas's "stop the steal" texts: Asks whether Clarence Thomas will recuse himself in Jan. 6 cases. More:
[03-26] Andrew Cockburn: 'The worst' defense program of all. And it's not the F-35: It's the KC-46 tanker program, which just from a political standpoint is called "the dirtiest deal ever." I've been following the "tanker deal" since its inception, when it was originally planned not to meet any Air Force need (the KC-135 tankers were old on paper, but had been refurbished regularly -- my father spent much of his 38 years at Boeing working on them and the similarly refurbished B-52s the Air Force still uses when they want to deliver bombs indiscriminately over long distances), but to extend the life of the 767 production line, and was originally packaged with a very shady private-public financing scheme. Todd Tiahrt, a Kansas congressman wholly owned by Boeing, was so obsessed with the deal that GW Bush nicknamed him Tanker Todd. We were repeated promised thousands of jobs, then a thousand, then Boeing shut down their Wichita plant because it became too unionized. There's lots more on the graft side of the equation (including a Boeing VP who went to jail), but there's also good reason to ask what tankers are actually good for. The short answer is global reach: the fighters and bombers that lead the assault on distant targets can't make it on their own gas tanks, so need periodic refueling. On the other hand, tankers can't be used in a contested air space, where they'd be sitting ducks (and bright, shiny new ones make no difference whatsoever). Tankers were necessary to implement the "no-fly" zones over Iraq and Libya, but the US doesn't have (and realistically cannot create) that kind of dominance over Ukraine, so the idea of a "no-fly" zone there is pure fantasy (even if there were no risk of trying to establish one escalating the war, which of course it would).
[03-26] David Owen: A Freelancer's Forty-Three Years in the American Health Care System: A long-time New Yorker staff writer, which is a plum job for a freelancer but not exactly real employment, Owen's written several books I've enjoyed (mostly on old houses), and others I probably would could I ever find the time. He finally made it to Medicare age, but not without a few tough spots along the way.
[03-26] Nick Cleveland-Stout/Taylor Giorno/William Hartung: Washington should think twice before launching a new cold war: I would have used past tense in the headline, because the New Cold War can actually be seen to have been started in the late 1990s, with the expansion of NATO and its first-ever action in Yugoslavia, especially in the bombing campaign against Serbia over Kosovo. It's true that it took Russia a few years to recognize the American threat, but they finally got the point, especially after the effort to flip Ukraine out of the Russian orbit succeeded in 2014. The article, however, focuses on the Old Cold War: lots there everyone should know, even if it's not immediately relevant -- except to raise questions about the geniuses in Washington who dictate American foreign policy.