Sunday, June 12, 2022

Speaking of Which

I don't feel like doing a general survey this week, but I felt like jotting down a quote from Sebastian Haffner's 1938 memoir, Defying Hitler -- Brian Eno recommended the book recently so I thought I'd give it a try. Haffner is a pseudonym for a young German lawyer (Referendar, basically a clerk in the courts system), from a professional class family, with centrist politics breaking against the Nazis (as opposed to the many centrists who broke the other way). From page 224:

Nationalism -- that is, national self-reflection and self-worship -- is certainly a dangerous mental illness wherever it appears, capable of distorting the character of a nation and making it ugly, just as vanity and egoism distort the character of a person and make it ugly.

I don't know which German word was translated as "self-reflection," but I imagine it has more to do with mirror-gazing than with any sort of mental self-scrutiny. Aside from that quibble, this is a pretty apt definition. I've often noted that political appeals to patriotism work mostly as flattery, as least for those who identify with the nation, and who use that identity to elevate themselves apart from others, who are easy then to characterize as enemies.

The paragraph continues:

In Germany this illness has a particularly vicious destructive effect, precisely because Germany's innermost character is openness, expansiveness, even in a certain sense selflessness. If other peoples suffer from nationalism it is an incidental weakness, beside which their true qualities can remain intact; but in Germany nationalism kills the basic values of the national character. That explains why the Germans -- doubtless a fine, sensitive and human people in healthy circumstances -- become positively inhuman when they succumb to the nationalist illness; they take on a brutal nastiness of which other peoples are incapable. Only the Germans lose everything through nationalism: the heart of their humanity, their existence, their selves. This illness, which damages only the external features of others, corrodes their souls. A nationalist Frenchman can still be a typical (and otherwise quite likable) Frenchman. A German who yields to nationalism is no longer a German. What he achieves is a German Empire, maybe even a Great or Pan-German Empire -- but also the destruction of Germany.

Haffner underestimates the pathology of nationalism in other countries, while failing to note that one thing that made German nationalism so ominous was that Germany was a large and powerful country that could invoke the memory of past empires. In small countries, nationalism may be equally distasteful, but it's more likely to assume a defensive crouch. (Nationalists in Ukraine may be as personally noxious as Russian nationalists, but the aggressor there is the one with size, power, and history.)

Haffner also credits Germans with more cosmopolitanism than seems warranted. As recently as 1918, Germany was a monarchy with a powerful military caste, a landed aristocracy, and an industrial and commercial autocracy, bent on imperial conquest. It shouldn't be surprising that many Germans who had bought into such delusions would seek out dynamic new leaders -- rather than admitting that the ideas themselves were rotten. (This was well before Britain and France were forced to abandon their overseas empires.)

On the other hand, you can plug "America" into this paragraph and it makes more sense. American history has its share of blemishes and warts, but what we remember fondly, what we most of us identify as distinctively American, has come from the left: ending slavery, expanding democracy, equal rights, free speech, opportunity for immigrants, freedom to develop and create and prosper -- things that the right has sought at every juncture to hinder. Take those things away, as America's self-identified nationalists want to do, and America will, like Germany in the Nazi years, become a bitter, hardened, hollow shell of itself.

It's unnerving to read this section the week the House Select Committee on January 6 chose to unveil their findings. The thing I find most disturbing isn't what happened at the time, but how Republicans (especially on Fox News) are reacting. However briefly, at the time many Republicans, including Congressional leaders Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell, instinctively sought to distance from the rioters and the inciters. But most of them have since reversed course, finding excuses first for Trump, eventually for the rioters. But what I heard after the Committee presentation was how many of them (especially on the Fox payroll) have adopted the rioters, most explicitly as martyrs to the Republican cause. While the insurrection was happening, I never for a moment doubted that it would be put down, that Congress would reconvene, and that the election results would be confirmed. My reasoning was simple: those were still things that the people believed in, regardless of the outcome. But seeing how so many Republicans have embraced both Trump's lies and the rioters' crimes, I'm less certain they will defend democracy next time around.

Back around the time GW Bush was reëlected in 2004 I bought a copy of Richard J Evans' The Coming of the Third Reich, figuring it was time to brush up on the signs of how a nation could come to embrace fascism. It's still on the shelf. Bush self-destructed shortly after the election. Initially, he decided to use his mandate to wreck Social Security, which I knew would backfire, due to technical obstacles built into its design, and also politically. His wars got worse, leading to sacking Rumsfeld and sidelining Cheney. Katrina hit, and suddenly a "heckuva job" wasn't enough. Congress went to the Democrats in 2006, ending any chance of going after Social Security. Then the banking system collapsed, and with it the economy. Bush finished his term with the lowest approval rating of any president ever.

While I never got to Evans' book, I did wind up reading Bejmanin Carter Hett's The Death of Democracy: Hitler's Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic, which covers the same ground in half as many pages (Haffner's corresponding section is less than half that long, but includes the now-familiar names). And I've read a good deal more specifically about the Nazis, as well as more broadly about fascism (e.g., Robert Paxton's The Anatomy of Fascism, which narrowly excludes "conservatives" like Francisco Franco, who are still fascists in my book).

As a leftist, I'm exceptionally sensitive to the slightest whiff of fascism, so points of similarity tend to resonate with me: each one implies the likelihood of others, and cumulatively they add up to a diagnosis. Still, it only matters if the insight scores political points. (We do still oppose fascists, don't we?) And most people are reluctant to use The F Word -- liberals because they're extra-careful to respect political differences, and conservatives because, well, it cuts too close to the bone. But with Trump and his fan base, we keep getting closer (e.g., see Zack Beauchamp: The January 6 hearings showed why it's reasonable to call Trump a fascist).

My considered view is that Trump is a Fascist, at least as long as he gets to be Der Führer/Il Duce, but America isn't ready for a Fascist dictatorship, and he isn't smart/skilled/driven enough to make it happen. On the other hand, the number of Americans who would welcome a Trump dictatorship has probably doubled in the last six years. That's scary, but still not a huge number. And while they have a lot of guns, Trump militia like the Proud Boys are a long ways from being able to terrorize "the left" like the SA did -- not least because the police and courts, bad as they are, are unlikely to roll over like their German equivalents. What Trump, like Hitler and Mussolini, does have up his sleeve is deep support from conservative elites, who thus far are right in their belief they can pull the puppet strings (at least where it matters, on taxes, regulation, and the courts). Hitler was especially ruthless where it came to consolidating power. Trump has no idea how to do that -- not that he wouldn't applaud giddily if someone slew his enemies.

In Trump's wake, there seems to be renewed interest in Richard Nixon, especially his conspiracy to cover up Watergate. For example, see: Woodward and Bernstein thought Nixon defined corruption. Then came Trump. If Trump seems worse than Nixon now, it's largely because Nixon (and Reagan and Bush-Cheney and dozens of lesser Republicans) set the bar so low. The concept behind Watergate was the exact same one that led Trump's staff to meet with Russians, and the dump of DNC emails was as damaging as anything they hoped to dig up at Watergate. The two were morally equivalent. Nixon and Trump shared several traits. Both lusted for power, and neither had any scruples about pursuing it. Both believed that as president they were above the law. (As Nixon put it, "When the president does it, that means it is not illegal.") Both cultivated lists of enemies, and hurt themselves pursuing vengeance. Nixon broke new ground in raking in campaign money, and in manipulating the media. Trump followed suit, and probably topped him at both. (While Nixon seems to have been interested in money only for the power it could bring, Trump was after more money.) Nixon initiated the agenda of packing the Supreme Court, and Trump brought it to fruition. Nixon designed the reactionary political realignment (start from his "silent majority") which Trump kicked up to another level.

Trump left policy to his minions, who pursued corruption like never before, causing grave damage to the very concept of public service. Nixon was much more engaged, especially in foreign policy, where what he did was much worse. Nixon's escalation in Vietnam, and especially his "incursion" into Cambodia, were among the worst war crimes of the Post-WWII era. His coup in Chile was also murderous, just on a smaller scale, but forever a stain on America's reputation as a champion of democracy. Nixon still gets a lot of credit for his opening to China, but defense mandarins may be second-guessing him there. He was also responsible for promoting the regional power ambitions of countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia -- thinking both would be allies against the Soviet Union, they turned out to have their own agendas, with blowback.

Nixon also presided over the decision to ignore peak oil, replacing declining domestic oil production with imports, leading to the oil price shocks of the 1970s. One nearly immediate impact was that the trade surpluses the US had enjoyed for decades turned negative in 1970, never (so far, at least) returning. That produced a drag on the economy, and jump started the trend to ever greater inequality -- Republicans stoked this at every opportunity since, while Democrats did little to halt the trend. Longer term, Nixon's decision to keep gas cheap only accelerated today's climate crisis.

Finally, we should mention the one ridiculous piece of Nixon's foreign policy that Trump was especially suited for: the "madman theory," where the US tries to intimidate rivals by feigning insanity. Nixon was never quite insane enough to pull it off, although Reagan's careless rhetoric nearly did lead to a nuclear confrontation. But Trump was so volatile his military leaders went behind his back to reassure foreign leaders the US won't nuke them.

Speaking of Watergate, we've watched the first three episodes of the eight-episode Starz series Gaslit, which focuses on the turbulent marriage of Martha and John Mitchell (Julia Roberts and Sean Penn -- the latter under massive makeup, leaving only his grin and voice recognizable, and producing more cognitive dissonance by playing him as such a horndog), with major parts for John Dean (Dan Stevens, juggling his insecurity and scruples while pursuing his own romance) and G. Gordon Liddy (Shea Wigham, psychotic). They seem to be keeping their facts straight, while taking liberties with the characters -- mostly making them much funnier than you figured, and therefore much more interesting to watch. (Martha Kelly as Nixon secretary Rose Mary Woods is especially note-perfect. Brian Geraghty, who played a sociopathic kidnapper in The Big Sky, reprises that character as a "minder" assigned to keep Martha Mitchell from talking to the press.) We've started but never finished several recent series on recent political figures (Mrs. America, Impeachment: American Crime Story), but this one we are enjoying. Also note that historian Rick Perlstein is on board to keep the facts straight.

On the back story, this just appeared: Manuel Roig-Franzia: During Watergate, John Mitchell Left His Wife. She Called Bob Woodward.

Here are a few more links. I haven't made any effort to collect on the Jan. 6 hearings, or on Ukraine, nor do I have more to say about guns. (Breaking news is that some kind of deal has been made in the Senate, but that still doesn't guarantee passage.) I also avoided pieces on the economy, which are hard to sort out or make sense of. We seem to be stuck with more and more inflation, even if there's a recession, which Wall Street and the Fed seem to be in a race to trigger. Also nothing on elections (American, anyhow).

One gun story I don't have a link for -- it's in today's Wichita Eagle -- is Kris Kobach explaining how he gives his children "a chance to shoot a deer" once they turn 7. His preferred gun is the AR-15, because it's designed to minimize the kickback, making it easier for children to handle. He also likes the AR-15 for coyotes (probably because it improves the chances of hitting one without having to aim carefully). He doesn't describe this as hunting, and doesn't mention what they do with the carcass (assuming they hit something), so maybe they're just not very good shots. My father took us hunting, but we never held a gun until well into our teens, and then it was a single-shot bolt-action .22 rifle. He also had shotguns, and I shot them a few times later, but never liked hunting or target shooting. I'm reminded, though, of a story a few years back, when a small girl was given an Uzi at an Arizona shooting range, and lost control of the gun, killing her instructor. The story also notes that all three Republican candidates for KS Attorney General favor arming teachers. One is quoted about how "an armed society is a polite society." (I wonder what evidence they have. I haven't noticed many police becoming more polite once they realize a suspect is armed.) If elected, Kobach has vowed to target the ACLU, and to set up a whole task force dedicated to suing the Biden administration. He's nothing but a terrorist with a Harvard Law degree.

Jon Lee Anderson: [06-06] Can Chile's Young President Reimagine the Latin American Left?

Andrew Bacevich: [06-07] The F-Word (The Other One): Fascist, of course. I could have slipped this link in above inasmuch as the author offers his opinion (and several others) on whether Trump is a Fascist. ("My own inclination is to see him as a narcissistic fraud and swindler." Sure enough, and bad enough, don't you think?) But the bone he wants to pick is with Timothy Snyder: [05-19] We Should Say It. Russia Is Fascist. Snyder is a historian of 20th Century Eastern Europe, whose hatred for Nazi Germany is only matched by his loathing of Soviet Russia, leading him to identify strongly with anyone caught up in their savage machinery: Bloodlands is his big history book, but he's also written political tracts which try to defend liberal democracy against its modern foes, who are invariably rooted in the region's totalitarian past. In this, he's found that mapping his targets to Fascism is all it takes (QED), so that's what he does with Putin. On some level, this is more satisfying than the pundits who try to pigeonhole him as a Marxist (no evidence of that), the ghost of some Tsar (or Rasputin), or (more commonly) as a diehard KGB spook. No doubt Putin shares some traits with Fascists, but most are common to many right-wingers (nationalism, reactionary cultural tastes, a heavy hand defending the order), and few offer any insight into why Putin decided to invade Ukraine, or what he wants to achieve. Rather, the F-Word is a label which argues he needs to be stopped, because his aggression is insatiable. Bacevich is historian enough to debate the 1930s vs. now, but his reticence to use the F-Word may owe more to his wariness of getting caught into an inevitable war trap. Because in the end, war is what Snyder wants, and he wants it now, in Ukraine, against Putin, because he sees that conflict as some sort of cosmic struggle. ("If Russia wins in Ukraine, it won't just be the destruction of a democracy by force, though that is bad enough. It will be a demoralization for democracies everywhere.") Bacevich knows better than to give into that kind of ideological blackmail.

Jonathan Chait: [06-10] Republicans Respond to January 6 Hearings by Defending Trump: No remorse, no accountability. Probably much more like this. Probably more even worse. Trump's own: "January 6 was not simply a protest, it represented the greatest movement in the history of our country to Make America Great Again."

Jason Ditz: [06-10] Syria's Damascus Airport Shuttered After Major Israeli Attack.

Matt Ford: [06-08] The Supreme Court Keeps Chipping Away at Your Constitutional Rights. "What recourse do ordinary citizens have when federal agents violate their rights? After Wednesday, not much." Also on this, Ian Millhiser: [06-08] The Supreme Court gives lawsuit immunity to Border Patrol agents who violate the Constitution.

Sarah Jones: [06-09] Democrats Need a Vision. Fast. I meant to write more about this, but for now will merely note it. Also in this vein: Jason Linkins: [06-11] You Deserve the Good Life. Democrats Should Promise to Deliver It.

Ed Kilgore: [06-10] Rick Scott Backtracks, But His Plan Is Still Ultra-MAGA Madness: I only note this because I wrote a long critique of Scott's manifesto, in case I want to update it later. The main change seems to be an attempt to dodge the charge that he wants to raise income taxes, but he's made up for it by finding new ways to demean poor folk.

Markos Kounalakis: [06-09] The US Should Recognize Belarus's Government in Exile: Why? Because Putin isn't paranoid enough about US intentions on his border? (Or as the author puts it: "Recognizing Tikhanovskaya's government in exile would force Russia to worry about its western flank as it attacks eastern Ukraine.") Author also wants "to designate Russia a state sponsor of terror (SST)." The net effect would be to add insult to injury, making it even harder to negotiate peace. But the general principle just underscores how arrogant the US is in believing it has the right to pass judgment on who represents other countries.

William LeoGrande: [06-10] Biden's 'Summit of the Americas' showcases failed Cold War worldview: In excluding Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, another example of the US presuming it has the right to pass judgment on the political choices of other countries. Also Rosa Elizalde: [06-10] Storms at the Summit of the Americas.

Edna Mohamed: [03-25] Lowkey says he will 'not be silenced on Palestine' after push to remove him from Spotify: I've had this tab open for quite a while, meaning to check him out. Finally did last week (he's still on Spotify, also Napster), and will have reviews tomorrow. For whatever it's worth, "Long Live Palestine" is a small part of his repertoire -- at least compared to neoliberalism, or war in Iraq. (He was born in London, but his mother came from Iraq.)

Nick Parker/Bryan Pietsch: [06-12] 31 tied to hate group charged with planning riot near LGBTQ event in Idaho.

Christian Paz: [06-11] Can blaming corporate greed save Democrats on inflation? Let's concede that as far as 2022 is concerned, inflation is a political issue of some import. What Democrats need to be able to do is argue that they can deal with it better (for most people) than Republicans can, and corporate greed is an issue that should break their way, and is worth hitting on otherwise. Where Biden is most responsible for inflation is for letting the Russia-Ukraine War drag on, which is constricting the world market for food and fuel. I don't expect people to grasp that point, but peace could make a dramatic change in two of the most obvious categories.

Jeffrey St Clair: [06-10] Roaming Charges: The Politics of Limbo.

Robert Wright: [06-12] A case study in American propaganda: The Institute for the Study of War (aka the Kagan Industrial Complex).

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