Speaking of * [10 - 19]

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.


Memorable tweets:

  • ryan cooper: Republicans keep getting more and more deranged and Democrats keep thinking that if they hide under the bed it will all go away.
  • Matt Blair: The funniest thing about Ted Cruz yelling "Do you know who I am?" at the airport is the very idea that the average person would treat him better after learning that he is Ted Cruz.


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:

As Russian troops attacked a nuclear reactor, George Packer wrote in the Atlantic that 'for the first time in decades, an American president is showing that he, and only he, can lead the free world.' The New York Times exulted over the new-found resolve of the free world: 'Nato has been revitalised, the United States has reclaimed a mantle of leadership that some feared had vanished in Iraq and Afghanistan.' Boris Johnson claimed that he had never seen such a stark 'dividing line between right and wrong.' More remarkably, Hillary Clinton called on MSNBC for a rerun in Ukraine of the 'very motivated' and 'armed insurgency' that 'basically drove the Russians out of Afghanistan.'

[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.

Ask a question, or send a comment.

Thursday, March 17, 2022


Speaking of Which

In started to do a "Speaking of Which" back on March 6 (or a bit earlier), so that provides the first pieces below. I picked it up again on Tuesday, March 15. As I was trying to wrap it up on Thursday, March 17, I noticed a new piece by Eric Levitz: The Emerging Path to Peace in Ukraine. Levitz has provided some of the most useful reporting on the conflict, so I've cited him below, and in previous pieces. His comments on a possible security agreement are closely aligned with what Phyllis Bennis has discussed (also see Fred Kaplan, below). Disappointing to me is the seeming Ukraine intransigence on parting with Donbas and even Crimea. I'm convinced that Ukraine would be better off disowning them. (A more proper decision would be to allow them to vote, which would almost certainly give Crimea to Russia, but it's harder to be sure about Donbas -- which certainly leaned Russian up to 2014, but haven't fared so well since.)


The following are some pieces that I read on Ukraine and care to note and/or comment on. I'm providing the dates because events are changing fast, although my selection of the piece implies continuing relevance.

[02-28] Ted Galen Carpenter: Many Predicted NATO Expansion Would Lead to War. Those Warnings Were Ignored: Collects the more famous quotes, like Strobe Talbott ("Many Russians see Nato as a vestige of the cold war, inherently directed against their country") and George Kennan ("it is the beginning of a new cold war . . . Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake"). Carpenter concludes: "History will show that Washington's treatment of Russia in the decades following the demise of the Soviet Union was a policy blunder of epic proportions."

[02-28] Fred Kaplan: No, You're Not Imagining It: Russia's Army Is Inept. I'm not seeing much detailed reporting on the actual fighting, and don't really have the perverse interest anyway, but links to and sums up a fair amount. What is clear from looking at the maps almost daily over three weeks is that the Russian offensive stalled at the big cities of Kharkiv and Kyiv (and even bypassed the much smaller Chernihiv), which probably reflects a fear of getting stuck in an urban guerrilla trap. You may recall that the US sent heavily armored convoys into Baghdad to gauge the resistance before they claimed the city. Russia hasn't got that close yet. Kaplan also speculates that as its ineptitude sinks in, Russia will try to compensate by increased bombing "for destruction's sake," as Russia did in Chechnya "when its officers feel frustrated." That we've seen. Kaplan has continued to report and offer thoughtful comments:

[03-02] Moustafa Bayoumi: They are 'civilised' and 'look like us': the racist coverage of Ukraine: I can't deny that racial prejudice has an effect on how Europeans and Americans respond to the atrocities of war, but the main reason the US and EU are responding so attentively to Ukraine is that Russian aggression fits our preferred political narrative, one that is readily and happily repeated by our political and military figures. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 was very similar to Russia in Ukraine now, yet there was little outpouring of support for Iraqi refugees, let alone efforts to financially cripple the US war machine. The one place where race may be having a big impact is that far-right parties haven't yet rallied to exclude Ukrainian refugees, despite directing a great deal of bigotry against East Europeans in the past.

[03-02] John Feffer: No Pasaran: Ukraine 2022: I've resisted linking to Feffer, less because I disagree than because he seems so predictable. Still, I found this analogy amusing: "Vladimir Putin is the Franco of today, and Ukraine must become the graveyard of Putinism." Sure, it's cliché, but he makes a fairly good case for Putin as "the contemporary face of fascism," and for you "antifa" types Ukraine offers a venue to get your feet wet and your hands bloody, without much more than the usual risk. And while I don't regard Putin as anywhere near the threat that Hitler was -- if you want an apples-to-apples comparison, compare the two invasions of Ukraine -- no doubt Putin's a bad dude who deserves to be taken down a notch or two. Still, I don't see his call for a "new internationalism" working elsewhere. Feffer also wrote [03-09]: Why Ukraine Matters.

[03-02] Eric Levitz: The War in Ukraine Looks Unwinnable (for Everyone). I didn't ever think it looked winnable. Russia can wreak a lot of destruction, but doing so only drives most Ukrainians more implacably against them. At most they can conquer a wasteland, at immeasurable cost not just to Ukraine but to their own souls. Why Putin ever thought otherwise is hard to grasp. It may just be that he had been lucky in war before (in Chechnya, in Georgia, in Syria) so he figured his run will last. As Napoleon and Hitler can attest, luck lasts only until it runs out. And surely Putin knows enough Russian history to realize that those defeats weren't because Russian were inherently superior fighters, but because they were defending their home turf. Putin's not doing that in Ukraine (even if he's trying to convince himself otherwise).

The bigger problem is likely to be that once Russia withdraws and Putin is humiliated, the assholes in and around NATO that did so much to pave the way for this war will start taking victory laps, claiming credit for the people who suffered and resisted this madness -- the very people they so callously put in harm's way. And as they do so, they'll make sure we forget the true lessons of this war -- as they have done in all the other wars (Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq) they've botched and left as open sores. Levitz returned to this in [03-04]: Putin's War Looks Increasingly Insane. I wouldn't put much stock in the armchair psychiatry, but the piece recaps the list of Putin's previous military "successes" and how they fall short here.

[03-02] Ezra Klein: Biden Has the Right Idea, but the Wrong Words: On the State of the Union speech, with his resolution to fight (up to a point) for Ukraine.

[03-03] Eric Levitz: Is America to Blame for Russia's War in Ukraine? Yes, in three ways. The first is that after 1945 the US developed an arrogant conceit that this was "our century" and that as the biggest economy and richest nation in the world were were entitled to set the rules by which everyone else would have to live. This conceit was relatively tolerable back when we were a progressive, relatively equitable and generous country, but that image became increasingly tarnished over the years. Still, with the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union, America's ego got a shot of adrenaline that made us increasingly insufferable (for examples, see Global War on Terrorism). Second, we made no effort to ameliorate the immense suffering caused by economic collapse as Russia and its former clients attempted to transition to capitalist economies. This was largely because we had forgotten the great truth learned so hard from the Great Depression: that capitalism only works within regulation by a state that has the public welfare in mind. Third, instead of developing international institutions that could be used to build broad consensus on problems like arms and climate, the US only went with organizations that it could run to its own taste, like NATO -- organizations that were design to divide and exclude parts of the world beyond our control. Still, it took about 20 years before NATO and Russia were irreconciliably at loggerheads, and the US made scant effort to repair the damage. None of this excuses Putin from the specific decision to send troops into Ukraine. While it's not clear how Putin could have changed the historical context, he certainly could have opted for some other diplomatic approach, and claimed some measure of moral high ground in doing so. So, yeah, he is the culpable party. But we shouldn't allow his guilt to distract from the deeper critique.

[03-03] Sarah Jones: Russia Tests the American Left. "What's so hard about condemning Vladimir Putin?" Nothing, really. Even leftists who still feel a strong sense of international solidarity (which certainly isn't as prevalent as it used to be) will, if they know anything but US propaganda attacks on Putin, recognize him as a nationalist, right-wing foe, not just of America but of the working class in Russia and around the world. What is hard is backing down from a principled critique of US foreign policy which has only been proven more prescient by recent events. Expansion of NATO and the increasing sanction of Russia, both of the state and of its prominent (and presumably influential) oligarchs, must be regarded as proximate causes of the crisis that led to the invasion. Same for the propaganda war and the often clandestine efforts by any number of western parties to realign Ukraine against Russia's economic interests. On the other hand, Russia did make its own clandestine moves to foment civil war in Ukraine, leading to the annexation of Crimea and the "illegal" but de facto separation of the Donbas region -- which have done as much or more than western entreaties to drive a wedge between Russia and Ukraine. And most importantly, Russia did invade, a decision that is impossible to defend, or even rationalize. And in invading, Putin has done something that US propaganda has never been able to do, which is to grant NATO a justification, one that we will be stuck with well into the future. Still, the left's anti-NATO stance was never predicated on allowing Russia to build up arms and threaten and subvert others. It was always tied to multilateral disarmament and the development of international institutions and laws that would peaceably resolve conflicts. Once this crisis abates, that we'll need to recognize that left critique as the path forward.

[03-03] Ben Jacobs: Was Ted Cruz Right About Russia? "He spent years fighting Putin's prized pipeline." Let's face it, Ted Cruz is never right about anything. He's been a loyal servant of the Texas oil industry, which is all you need to know about his efforts to exclude Russian gas from European markets, securing more profits for his sponsors. I doing so, all he has done is increase Russia's paranoia about American intentions, while preventing an economic trade bond that might have helped integrate Russia more peaceably into the world trade system.

[03-04] Jeffrey St. Clair: Roaming Charges: Hate and War, It's the Currency: Cue Clash video for the title. Usual set of ramblings, some memorable:

  • At some point, our oligarchs & their oligarchs are going to decide that sanctions on oligarchs are "counterproductive" and return to tried-and-true sanctions on the poor, the sick, the old, and the young.
  • [Richard] Engel and [Rachel] Maddow wanted the US to go to war over RussiaGate, a non-scandal their network pushed more aggressively than William Randolph Hearst did the Spanish American War.

[03-04] Jack Watling: Russia's callousness towards its own soldiers is undermining its combat power. I'm not sure this is right. Stalin's callousness was off the charts, yet Russians fought bravely and tenaciously against Nazi Germany, even though they suffered immensely. On the other hand, they had reason to fight, whereas Russian soldiers in Afghanistan and Chechnya (at least in the First Chechen War) found little reason to risk their lives. The US gave up on trying to field a conscript army after Vietnam, but Russia still has a lot of conscripts in Ukraine.

[03-04] Masha Gessen: The War That Russians Do Not See: As is usually the case, Putin is fighting his war on two fronts: in Ukraine, as you know, and at home, for the support of his own people. State-controlled media is key to that effort.

[03-04] Glenn S Gerstell: I've Dealt With Foreign Cyberattacks. America Isn't Ready for What's Coming. I'm not sure I'm right on this, but two weeks later we don't seem to have seen much cyberwarfare, on either side, so maybe there is a sense of deterrence, or maybe the stakes just aren't all that promising. For an update, see [03-14] Matt Stieb: Why Have Russian Hackers Been So Quiet?

[03-05] Ellen Ioanes: Russia is deploying brutal siege tactics in Ukraine: I'm not sure the narrow definition of siege applies here: back in the Middle Ages and before, cities were often fortified, and sieges aimed at breaking down those fortifications, so the attacking army could invade cities and take over. At least that's what I think of when I hear the word, and Russia isn't doing that. I suspect that the reason is that the psychological plus of capturing a city isn't worth the risk of getting stuck in a hostile confinement. On the other hand, I've used a broader definition of siege myself; e.g., to describe Israel's wanton shelling and bombing of Gaza. I suppose the fact that Gaza is surrounded by walls legitimizes the word, but the walls of Gaza weren't meant to defend against invasion. They were built by Israel to keep the Gazans penned in. The only real historical precedent for this is the Warsaw Ghetto, constructed by Nazi Germany in 1939 to detain Jews until the Nazis got around to slaughtering them later. What Russia is doing is different, but not much: they're camping outside of cities, then shelling and bombing them. Unclear whether they mean to kill them all, drive most away, or just see it as sport. Any way you slice it, the "brutal" is an understatement.

[03-07] Branko Marcetic: The Orwellian Attacks on Critics of NATO Policy Must Stop. Every time someone gins up a war, their first target isn't the other party; it's dissenters at home. Many people would like to think that war is above politics, but there's very little about war that isn't political -- perhaps the distribution of pain and tragedy. Marcetic recalls the days after 9/11, as do I. If I'm less bothered now, it's probably because the history of NATO provocation seems to be better understood than the "chickens come home to roost" critique of US's Cold War sponsorship of Al-Qaeda and other mujaheddin. But also, we all take heart in Russia's fledgling antiwar movement. Moreover, if you look at serious proposals for a negotiated end to the war -- and given Russia's nuclear depth that's the only thinkable option (note word choice) -- they all start with an understanding of how this all started with NATO expansion (e.g., see Kaplan, below, and Lieven, op. cit.). So while the kneejerk option is to double down on NATO, we need to resist that temptation. A good start would be to tamper down on the crazy talk. Putin is way too crazy already.

[03-09] Phyllis Bennis: Diplomacy, not war, is the way to help.

[03-09] Ben Walsh: The unprecedented American sanctions on Russia, explained: One estimate here is that "Russia's economy will shrink 35 percent in the second quarter of 2022 and 7 percent for the entire year." You can view that as a lot, or as not so much. My takeaway from this is that sanctions, even if imposed urgently, work slowly and gradually, which gives target countries time and reason to adjust. The track record of sanctions in past conflicts is decidedly mixed, and only rarely effective. (Perhaps the worst case example so far is the US ban on oil and metal sales to Japan, which the Japanese responded to at Pearl Harbor.) Also see: [03-07] Robin Wright: Why Sanctions Too Often Fail.

[03-11] Keith Gessen: Was it inevitable? A Short history of Russia's war on Ukraine. Pretty good background piece on the conflict.

[03-11] Alec MacGillis: How Putin's Invasion of Ukraine Upended Germany: "In the wake of Russia's attack, Germany has reoriented its energy policy and committed to dramatic military expansion for the first time since the Cold War." I'm old enough that any hint of German re-armament brings a twinge, but I suspect their pledge to spend an extra 100 billion Euros is mostly their way of saluting the Americans and NATO, in a way that doesn't really hurt all that much. And if they spend much of that, as promised, on the F-35 albatross, they will have made friends with Lockheed without really threatening anyone. The bigger issue is what to do about losing access to Russian gas. It probably means they will stick with nuclear longer than they wanted to.

[03-13] Ellen Ioanes: Why the US scrapped Polish plans to give Ukraine fighter jets.

[03-13] Zack Beauchamp: Could Putin actually fall? A lot of poorly grounded speculation here, largely based on mere wishes, like this from David Rothkopf: "Vladimir Putin's attack on Ukraine will result in the downfall of him and his friends." If history is just, of course, but how can you count on that? Worse still is when the wish turns into a threat, as when Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) says: "The only way this ends is for somebody in Russia to take this guy out." Almost makes you think he doesn't want it to end. The problem with this kind of thinking is that it's about a million times easier to get Putin to agree to a deal that leaves Putin in power without further disgrace than it is to insist that Russia also give us his head on a platter. That's why I worry when Americans try to paint him as a fount of evil. It's not because it might hurt his feelings (for all I know, he might take it as a compliment). It's because those terms lock us into a mindset that makes it harder to find compromises and seal the deal. As for speculating about odds, Graham's plea to the military to act is almost certain not to work. Much more likely is that Kremlin insiders will quietly usher him into retirement, as he did Yeltsin. They may even let him serve out his term, and thank him for his service. One thing we should know by now is that totalitarianism is never as total as it's cracked up to be. A "strong man" like Putin needs a lot of hench men and cronies, and when he fucks up, as Putin has done, he starts to lose that aura of invincibility. But that's longer term. Right now, you need to cut a deal with him.

[03-13] Stephen Kinzer: Assassinating Putin Won't Work. It Never Has for America. Includes the line before the Lindsey Graham line I made fund of above, and it's even more insane: "Is there a Brutus in Russia? Is there a more successful Colonel Stauffenberg in the Russian military?" Kinzer has written about these plots in the past, and includes a few here I was unfamiliar with, as well as many I've heard about. Some (not many) hit their target. None accomplished their erstwhile goal.

[03-14] Kevin T Dugan: Goldman Sachs CEO Says Ostracizing Russia Isn't the Finance Industry's Job: There's a guy who puts his mouth where his money is. Dana Milbank has a list of companies that are dragging their feet on disengaging from Russia: Zelensky says 'peace is more important than profit.' Koch Industries disagrees.

[03-15] Ariel Petrovics: NATO's restraint has made things worse for Russia in Ukraine: "The absence of US and allied forces in the conflict has highlighted that Putin is his own worst enemy."

[03-15] Patrick Cockburn: Demonizing Russia Risks Making Compromise Impossible, and Prolonging the War: Same thing can be said for demonizing Putin, which is the more prominent focus at the moment. "The problem is that the hatreds generated by war gain momentum during the conflict and do not have a reverse emotional gear." Cockburn also wrote [03-14]: Putin Has Grossly Overplayed His HAnd, but NATO Could Be Making the Same Mistake as It Senses It's Winning.

[03-15] David Ignatius: The best peace plan for Ukraine is military support: Link above is to Paul Woodward's Attention to the Unseen, which includes links to a couple more pieces. Besides, Ignatius is one of the geniuses who brought you the War on Terror. I don't know why anyone invites him to write in public anymore, but here he is, eager as ever to defend freedom by fighting to the last dead Ukrainian (or Iraqi or Afghan or fill in the blank). AJ Muste is still right that the way to peace is peace. The notion that peace comes from strength, that we have to always stand our gound and never show compassion or anything that could be interpreted as weakness, that mindset is a big part of why we find ourselves in this predicament. That said, if Americans want to send anti-tank, anti-aircraft, and small arms to Ukraine -- weapons that can be used to make Putin's troops feel some of the pain they're inflicting -- that's far from the worst thing they could do. Maybe it even nudges Putin a bit toward a settlement, but the only viable ending will come not from who holds the upper hand on the battlefield, but when both sides give up their fantasies and try to agree on the right thing. There's scant evidence of that realization in Ignatius or the others here. Their preferred scenario is to fuel a long-term guerrilla war against Russian occupation. They'd be quite happy to turn Ukraine into a multi-generational wasteland, like they did to Afghanistan.

By the way, Ignatius's [03-17] piece suggests that he's beginning to get cold feet: Watching Russia's military failures is exhilarating. But a cornered Putin is dangerous. One thing he finally realizes is that no matter how much he enjoys kicking Putin when he's down, "Zelensky's allies should also be thinking about how to put the pieces back together when this war ends." I'll add that while the US did a half way decent job of rehabilitating Germany and Japan after WWII, the US has an absolutely dismal record of addressing postwar reconciliation ever since. (Two more recent examples: the US claimed most Afghan foreign reserves for possible payout to 9/11 victims; Afghanistan is being forced to close its US embassy and consulates, for lack of expense money. Nobody's saying we have to like the Taliban, but we do owe the Afghan people a certain measure of respect, and to do that you have to go through their de facto leaders.)

[03-15] Anatol Lieven: What Zelensky will say to Congress and how the US should respond: The Ukraine president is schedule to address Congress on Wednesday. Presumably he'll say much of what he's been saying in public over the last 2-3 weeks, ranging from "give us more arms" to "impose a no-fly zone." Congress, as usual, will be sympathetically hawkish, so he'll get a lot of applause. Or maybe he'll trim his message back a bit to stay within Biden's guildelines (yes on some weapons, but no on others, including that no-fly zone). Just because Netanyahu can speak to Congress over and against the President doesn't mean it's a good idea. The article makes a reference to "a shameful history going back to Georgia in 2008 of Americans making quasi-promises of military aid that they had no real intention of ever fulfilling," which feels tacked on but was scooped up for the subhed. It really needs to be qualified carefully, because the implication here is to turn it into a Munich appeasement lesson. The underlying dynamic is similar -- Russia encouraging former SSRs to break up into smaller ethnic enclaves, some of which would turn to Russia for help -- but the conflicts themselves are vastly different. In 2008, Russia intervened in Georgia to stop a Georgian military operation to take back two breakaway provinces. Russia stopped the advance, then withdrew, leaving Abkhazia and South Ossetia quasi-independent. The Russian invasion of Ukraine also involves breakaway provinces (Donetsk and Luhansk, and one might add Crimea), but the focus of the Russian invasion is the rest of Ukraine. Lieven has generally been a good, level-headed reporter, but I'm confused here. Some other recent pieces:

[03-16] Benjamin Hart: Zelenskyy Invokes Pearl Harbor and 9/11 in Impassioned Speech to Congress. Much as he parrotted Churchill in his address to the UK Parliament, you gotta admit he knows how to read a room, and play into its prejudices. He repeated his plea for a "no-fly zone," which he knew Biden and the rest of NATO had pointedly ruled out, but how better to fish for other concessions? The US response was: Pentagon dials up size, scope of Ukrainian military aid. Now, the Washington Post is marveling: Outmatched in military might, Ukraine has excelled in the information war.

[03-16] Barbara Garson: Volodymyr Zelensky Is Not a Comedian -- and That's No Joke: A "belated review" of his TV show, Servant of the People. Life may imitate art, but it was funnier when it was just art.


Some other pieces of interest, way short of a systematic survey:

[01-31] John McPhee: Tabula Rasa: Volume Three: working toward a book on the books he never got around to writing.

[02-24] Jane Mayer: Why Does New York's Criminal Investigation of Donald Trump Appear All but Over? Two prosecutors resigned when not allowed to proceed further. On the other hand, others are more convinced than ever that a case should go forward: [03-16] Laurence H Tribe/Dennis Aftergut: The evidence is clear: it's time to prosecute Donald Trump.

[02-28] David Dayen: Larry Summers Shares the Blame for Inflation: And not for "warning that government spending could increase inflation" (which is a standard bugaboo against all spending you don't like; funny how stuff you want, like a war or a Wall Street bailout, never raises any red flags).

[03-08] James North: What the New Democrats' Mistakes Taught Us About Fighting Inequality: Review of Lily Geismer's book Left Behind: The Democrats' Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality. I noticed this book in my recent trawling, and thought: "what attempt?" So now I know a bit more, especially about the Clintons' fascination with "microfinance" -- you may recall that Muhammad Yunus won a Nobel Prize for his work on this in Bangladesh. Not so much that it was a bad idea, but it never raised enough money to work, and the pilot projects got wiped out in the recession that followed Clinton's repeal of Carter-Glass. Some other stories here were also attempt to use market dynamics for the public good: charter schools, public/private partnerships, welfare "reform." On the other hand, Clinton's schemes to help make the rich worked fabulously. The result was a huge inequality.

[03-09] Zach Montellaro: GOP pushes for an 'earthquake in American electoral power': "Conservatives are promoting the "independent legislature" theory, which would hand vast election powers to GOP legislators in battleground states."

[03-09] Jessica J Lee: Hawkish Yoon wins in Seoul, posing challenges for Taiwan, North Korea policy. Always bad news when a country shifts politically to the right, although this piece doesn't bother explaining why. We had an opportunity to finally end the Korean War with Moon Jae-in in office, but it was wasted by saboteurs John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, while a befuddled Donald Trump looked on.

[03-10] Peter Beinart: The US supports illegal annexations by Israel and Morocco. Why the hypocrisy? Pace the subhed, America has long felt free to "pick and choose when to follow international law." The recent resolution calling on the ICC -- an organization the US has pointed refused to join and has repeatedly condemned for investigating Israel -- to investigate Russian war crimes couldn't be clearer on that point. Double standards are the prerogative of the self-anointed "essential nation" (you know, "the last best hope"). Beinart also notes: Russia dehumanizes Ukrainians in strikingly similar ways that Israel dehumanizes Palestinians.

[03-10] Eli Clifton: Mike Pence flies to Israel on Miriam Adelson's private jet. Sheldon Adelson's widow continues her late husband's role as a major financial kingpin in the Republican and Likud parties, a game Pence is only too willing to play.

[03-12] Nathan J Robinson: The Great American World War II Story: One of the great tragedies of American history is that, after struggling through the Great Depression, most Americans came out of WWII feeling really good about the war and themselves. Sure, mostly those were Americans who never got close to the front lines (which was true of most Americans), but it left the country with an overweening sense of its own superiority. And thanks to the gift of selective memory, that sense only grew over the next half-century, peaking with Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation in 1998. When Bush was plotting the invasion of Iraq in 2003, pundits fell all over themselves to make analogies not to Vietnam (a people who fought to free itself from the empires of France and Japan, then America) but to the war we won, WWII. (John Dower's dissent from back then is still worth reading: Occupations and Empires: Why Iraq Is Not Japan.) Robinson's piece offers a tour of the US National WWII Museum, but speaks more about how our selective memory of past wars condemns us to repeat them.

[03-13] Teresa Ghilarducci: Inflation Stings Most If You Earn Less Than $300K. Here's How to Deal. Today's prize for the most gallingly obvious headline. Goes on: "Coping with inflation could mean drastic actions or small ones." Points out that those making $19K or less spend 15% of their income on food, a share which drops significantly with increasing income.

[03-13] Eric Levitz: Here's How Biden Can Lower Gas Prices. Fairly good explanation of how the Ukraine war is driving oil prices up (although I wouldn't be surprised to find that financial speculation is playing a much larger role). Ideas to bring prices down seem reasonable, although they don't include the obvious one of allowing Iranian and Venezuelan oil back on the world market -- something I approve of not so much because I'm all that keen on lowering prices as because doing so would correct some major problems with US foreign policy. By the way, explaining gas prices, here's Paul Krugman: Lies, Damned Lies and Gasoline Prices. [PS: Also see the chart accompanying this tweet, which shows gas prices rising with the price of crude oil, then staying high as crude oil prices have since dropped. With the war in the news every day, people think gas is in short supply, and the oil companies are taking advantage of that.]

[03-13] Ed Kilgore: Tom Cotton's Idea of Law and Order: Andrew Jackson Massacring Fugitive Slaves. A prime example of how Republicans abuse history to reinforce their own myths, rather than trying to understand what actually happened. By the way, I also don't care for how some people, concerned with the need to oppose racism, try to dishonor and reject Jackson and Jefferson, while lionizing elitists like the Adamses and a martinet like Hamilton, just because they held less embarrassing views of slavery. I've found that looking for saints in history is a fool's mission. But there's no reason you can't acknowledge a good idea or a noble sentiment when you find one, even in an unexpected place.

[03-14] Stephanie McCrummen: 'Gutted': What happened when a Georgia elections office was targeted for takeover by those who claim the 2020 election was a fraud.

[03-14] Jason Ditz: 49 Republican Senators Will Oppose Iran Nuclear Deal: This came shortly after Russia blocked the JCPOA, which had been reported as close to settled, by insisting on exemptions from sanctions. (See [03-11] Trita Parsi: Already fragile JCPOA talks 'paused' over Russian demands.) More recent news reports are unclear on the prospects. Israel, of course, is opposed to the any, which is good enough for Republicans (who don't dare criticize their "ally" for abstaining from condemning the Russian invasion at the UN). You may recall that the deal was negotiated by Obama after years of Israel hysterically complaining about the threat of Iran developing nuclear weapons (complete with 20 years of 5-to-1 year schedule predictions). Obama realized that the only way to actually keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons (assuming they wanted to) was to get an agreement that would put inspectors on site, which is what he did. Israel, in turn, opposed the deal: not clear what they did want, but they certainly weren't worried about Iranian nuclear weapons.

[03-15] Nitish Pahwa: Why Absolutely Nothing Republicans Are Saying About Gas Prices Makes Sense: That's a section head, catchier than the "Joe Biden Didn't Do This" title. Next section: "Oil Companies Are Actually Just Trying to Pad Their Profits." At this point I'm more suspicious of financial speculators, who jumped out ahead of whatever shortages may be coming.

[03-15] David Dayen: A Windfall Profits Tax Would Be an Inflation Rebate: When the global price of oil increases, those people already pumping and selling oil get the extra profit of the price rise, with no additional work or value added. We recognized this in the oil crunch of 1973, and passed a windfall tax. Why not now?

[03-15] Ian Millhiser: The constitutional problem with Florida's "Don't Say Gay" bill. Looks to me like there are several. One has to do with vagueness, which forces teachers to guess what wording is and is not allowed. Another has to do with allowing parents to enforce it through civil suits (an approach pioneered by the recent Texas anti-abortion bill). This deputizes the "most prudish parents" (also the craziest), virtually guaranteeing a tsunami of frivolous lawsuits teachers and school boards will have to defend against. This law is typical of the thought control planks in Rick Scott's campaign platform, showing how they are meant to terrify teachers. A Supreme Court that respected basic constitutional rights would never let this law stand, but a 6-3 majority of Federalist Society hacks just might.

[03-15] Jane Mayer: Sarah Bloom Raskin Withdraws Her Nomination to the Federal Reserve Board: Score one for the oil, gas, and coal industries, with their magic bullet, Joe Manchin. I don't know that she's any good (she "had wide support from the banking industry"), or what she might have been able to do at the Fed, but this does show you who has power. Mayer previously wrote: [03-02] How Fossil-Fuel Companies Are Stonewalling Sarah Bloom Raskin's Nomination to the Fed. Also see: Kate Aronoff: Why Joe Manchin Sank Sarah Bloom Raskin's Nomination.

[03-15] Bess Levin: Idaho's Uniquely Evil Abortion Bill Gives Rapists Families a Say.

[03-15] Third Way: The Red State Murder Problem: What do you suppose could account for "Trump-voting states account for 8 out of the 10 highest murder rates in 2020"? Guns? Poverty? Kulturkampf assholes?

[03-15] Eric Levitz: Modern Capitalism Is Weirder Than You Think: "Three asset managers [BlackRock, Vanguard Group, and State Street] now collectively own a big chunk of nearly every corporation. As a result, capitalism no longer works as advertised." This leads to several points:

  1. Market competition is becoming impossible under capitalism -- or else increasingly plausible under socialism.
  2. There may now actually be a "committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie."
  3. The dominant theory of corporate governance no longer makes sense.
  4. Wall Street and organized labor are now aligned on monetary policy. I.e., they both want low interest rates, albeit for different reasons.

Ask a question, or send a comment.

Sunday, March 13, 2022


Speaking of Rick Scott

Florida Senator Rick Scott is chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. A couple weeks ago he released a manifesto -- a policy agenda and an ideological justification -- defining what Republicans want to accomplish if they can win control of the Senate in 2022. Of perhaps I should say what they'd do if they had the power to do it, which will take more than a mere Senate majority. You can read about it here. (The full plan is here, hyperbolically titled An 11 Point Plan to Rescue America: What Americans Must Do to Save This Country.) I'm especially struck by the deep paranoia in the preamble:

The militant left now controls the entire federal government, the news media, academia, Hollywood, and most corporate boardrooms -- but they want more. They are redefining America and silencing their opponents.

Among the things they plan to change or destroy are: American history, patriotism, border security, the nuclear family, gender, traditional morality, capitalism, fiscal responsibility, opportunity, rugged individualism, Judeo-Christian values, dissent, free speech, color blindness, law enforcement, religious liberty, parental involvement in public schools, and private ownership of firearms.

Let's start by returning to basics. The political terms Left and Right came from the early days of the French Revolution. In the assembly, supporters of the monarchy and aristocracy sat on the right, while opponents -- the people who coined the slogan "liberty, equality, fraternity" -- sat on the left. Those labels stuck with us, because while titled aristocracy is pretty much a relic of the past, the right has adapted to defend hierarchy in whatever form (usually wealth), while the left, having liberated us from many forms of hierarchy (aristocracy, slavery, and to a large extent discrimination based on sex and/or race) continues to champion greater equality.

Left and right is one of many axes that can be used to plot political tendencies, but it is especially important in times of great inequality, like ours. Politics is, after all, the practice of power, and power tends to follow (and in the hands of the right reinforce) inequities in wealth. There is some disagreement as to what equality means to the left: most agree on equal rights and treatment under laws that are decided in a democracy where every person has an equal vote, but not everyone would extend democracy to the workplace (aside from certain rights, like a minimum wage, and a right to join unions). And while most on the left support progressive taxation, only a few think it's possible to level incomes and savings.

However, those differences rarely matter to those on the right, who see any limits on wealth or the prerogatives of the rich as an attack on all they hold dear (i.e., their perch in the hierarchy). And when you're as far to the right as Scott is, that puts most of America on the left. And while Scott is an outlier by historical standards, it should be recognized that he speaks for the majority of Senate Republicans, and as such for the majority of the Party.

Sure, Scott makes a further qualification when he charges "the militant left," but that's an oxymoron -- in America at least, the left is profoundly anti-violence, action limited to dissenting speech, the occasional demonstration, and campaigning for votes -- using a term that is most often used posthumously to describe people killed by occupying forces (e.g., in Israel/Palestine, or by the US in Iraq and Afghanistan; I expect the Russians to follow suite in Ukraine).

Scott's trying to add an air of menace to "the left," but his examples only show how far out he's perched on the right. Most corporations are well to the right of center -- they do, after all, control most of the nation's wealth. Sure, some marketers try to present themselves as anti-racist, which drives far-right culture warriors (like Scott) crazy -- cf. Vivek Ramaswamy's recent book, Woke, Inc., or Glenn Beck's hysterical The Great Reset: Joe Biden and the Rise of Twenty-First Century Fascism (sure, pun intended). And news media and Hollywood are companies too, their owners well up the wealth hierarchy. Academia is nominally non-profit, but easily swayed by rich donors, as is a government which reports more to donors and lobbyists than to the public.

Also note that those supposedly left-controlled institutions all have pockets that are totally aligned with the far right, like Fox News, the Koch Network academies and "think tanks," the Federalist Society-selected 6-3 Supreme Court majority. But it's never enough, because the more they get, the more extreme they become.

How extreme is indicated by the list of things they claim the left wants to "change or destroy" -- the implication is always destroy, as they dogmatically insist that any change is intent on destruction. As someone who's pretty far out on the left -- for a crude estimate of how far, I voted for Nader in 2000, so if the left is all D+G voters, I am at least in the leftmost 4.7%; I voted for Kerry over Nader (and several other leftist candidates) in 2004, so I'm not in the leftmost 1.0%; I explained that decision here -- I thought I'd go down this laundry list and see how menacing my own views are:

  • American history: It is what it is, and no one can change or destroy it -- although the right (not the left) wants to sanitize it so Americans can feel better about themselves, and especially not notice the disgraceful history of conservatism, especially on race.

  • Patriotism: Let me start by noting that the people who opposed to aristocracy in and after 1776 (at least through the writing of the US Constitution, which banned issuing titles) were the same ones who called themselves patriots. They were the original American left, and were opposed to the right, which called themselves "loyalists" out of deference to the British crown. The left has held closer to the nation's founding ideals than the right ever has, and the left has demonstrated more concern for and solidarity with the majority of the US population than the right ever has. On the other hand, the right has appropriated the symbols and jargon of patriotism so crassly and jingoistically, often in the celebration of militarism and the pursuit of imperial adventures abroad, that many leftists naturally recoil from their posturing. So, sure, let's change patriotism back to its original ideal, extended to support equal rights for all.

  • Border security: As a leftist, I can imagine national solidarity extending to international, but I also recognize that each nation has its own laws, which are delimited by borders, which therefore need to be secure. So there seems to be no disagreement, but for years nativists (mostly Republicans, therefore often but not necessarily on the right) have used "border security" as a code word for railing against immigration, often in bad-faith negotiations which never delivered on promised reforms. (The most important is that the US has several million undocumented immigrants, a situation that needs to be cleared up in order to restore due process.) I don't particularly care about immigration as an issue, so wouldn't mind expanding or contracting legal immigration. The points I would insist on are: that the "undocumented" problem be cleared up, with due respect to the immigrants; that future policies be flexible enough to minimize additional "undocumented" immigrants; that immigrants have rights and protection to keep businesses from taking advantage of them; and that the cruelty and lack of due process evident in recent "border control" end. It's worth noting that some leftists are much more pro-immigration than I am. Also, that I put a lot more emphasis on improving standards of living elsewhere, mostly by supporting progressive democratic governments elsewhere and not rigging the world economic system against them, so people have less incentive to emigrate. Also, put an end to the wars that produce so many refugees.

  • The nuclear family: I have no problem with the nuclear family. Unfortunately, some people have trouble, and they may need help and understanding. However, policies cannot provide people with a nuclear family. The best we can do is to remove or limit some of the obstacles in the way. Doing so will only increase the strength of nuclear families. I don't see why this is a left-right issue. However, as with patriotism, the right has sought to anoint itself as the protector of "family values," eventually coming to believe its own delusions of grandeur.

  • Gender: Another non-issue, except when politicians (almost always on the right) attempt to legislate discrimination. Can they possibly believe that if we aren't cruel enough to LGBTs all children will want to grow up that way?

  • Traditional morality: Is usually the right morality, and is generally a good guide to living one's life, as it has been for hundreds or thousands of years. Except that we live in a world where many people have divergent views on personal morality, in which case law should only enforce moral views where acts impinge on others' rights. We have many cases where prohibitions were justified by a reading of "traditional morality," and those prohibitions have turned out to be cruel and unnecessary. Again, this is not strictly a left-right issue, but it is most often the right that wants to divide people up and persecute or discriminate against those they disapprove of. Leftists tend to be more wary of power, and more respectful of diversity.

  • Capitalism: Is a system that allows individuals (and groups) to take independent initiative and produce goods and services that ultimately benefit society. That is a laudable endeavor, one we should broadly support. However, it is a process which is fundamentally flawed, but the flaws are such that they can be mitigated with fairly painless regulation and tax and public spending policies which solve most of the attendant problems. It would take a huge book to detail all of these, but for present purposes let's note simply that the right chafes at any regulations or policies not strictly in favor of business, and assumes that any limits imposed on business are aimed at destroying all business. (Unlike right-wing ideologues, actual businesses often lobby for regulations, especially to guarantee minimal quality standards and eliminate unscrupulous competitors. And while no business likes to pay taxes, they do want to have a viable government to protect property rights, enforce contracts, and provide sound money.) One problem is that as right-wingers have increasingly swallowed their own propaganda, they've lost grip on reality, including any sense of their own very real flaws.

  • Fiscal responsibility: I accept that government has a responsibility to provide sound money, and that doing so imposes fiscal restraints on government. The Keynesian maxim that government should spend more than it takes in during recessions and run a modest surplus during boom times seems like a fair starting point -- and was practiced in the US between WWII and the Vietnam War. However, starting with Reagan in 1981, Republicans have repeatedly run up record deficits while in power, while turning into deficit scolds when Clinton and Obama were in office -- both sacrificed programs to reduce deficits, with Clinton turning the only surpluses since 1969. This shouldn't be a left-right issue, but Republican deficits go to tax breaks for the rich, increasing inequality, and to build up the military (an important profits program for their donors). All Scott's plank proves is that Republicans expect to never get called out for their hypocrisy.

  • Opportunity: Big difference here. The left supports free public education, allowing people to develop their skills as far as they can go. The right wants to make education rare and expensive, a rung in their hierarchy reserved for their own kind. America was once touted as a land of equal opportunity, but with Republican hegemony over the last 40 years has become one of the world's most inequal societies, and opportunities for all but the rich have suffered. Education is not the only factor here. Unions are also important. So is finance that all people can use, to buy homes and start businesses. These aren't novel ideas. They were (far from perfectly) incorporated into the GI Bill, which led to 20+ years of record economic growth. Since the Republican-driven turn to predatory finance and "winner-take-all" oligarchy, with virtually all productivity gains claimed by the rich, opportunity and hope have suffered. Republicans like Scott only offer more stagnation and decay.

  • Rugged individualism: A queer, macho-infused term, meant to celebrate the rare few who beat the odds as opportunity for most people diminishes, while denying the fundamental truth that nearly all significant developments are group efforts, facilitated by a society and culture that encourages initiative. The more opportunity, the more people will turn into self-styled "rugged individuals," so I don't see how the left can be accused of wanting to destroy them. Taming them, maybe. After all, what good does it do to for someone to achieve great success only to turn into a flaming asshole?

  • Judeo-Christian values: Not a left-right issue, although both sides can easily pick values they approve of. Like "traditional morality," most such values have stood the test of time, and few are uniquely Judeo and/or Christian. By the way, I always trip over that phrase, knowing that it is almost always used by Christians who know naught about Jews and care even less for Judaism, but somehow like the ecumenical ring of it (without going overboard and acknowledging related religions like Islam and Baha'i). I often hear people saying that we could solve all our problems if only people would "open their hearts" and turn to God and/or Jesus. I appreciate the sentiment, but have no idea what they are talking about, let alone how it would work. Turning politically to the left, on the other hand, would express the values that matter, in a program that is sensible here and now, with no divine intervention required).

  • Dissent: This one is pretty rich. Sometimes I think the only thing the left has ever been able to do is to dissent. Sometimes dissent triggers a conscience in people with more power, and that leads to change -- as when civil rights were restored in the 1960s -- but that always starts with a minority expressing dissent. You know who doesn't like dissent? The right. They're the ones passing "gag rules" and bans, and threatening demonstrators. Sometimes -- not often in the US recently, but famously elsewhere -- they form goon squads to attack demonstrators. Often they let the state do their dirty work for them. The left will never take away your right to dissent, because we recognize that dissent is a necessary check against abuse of power -- even, if we ever get any, our own.

  • Free speech: See "dissent," which I read as extending to the right to assembly and petition, but really starts here. I will add one thing: the right to free speech has been extended by the right-wing-dominated Supreme Court to apply to corporations, and that money they expend on political campaigns is protected as free speech. This in effect legalizes bribery, making it an assault on the integrity of democracy. Money has many pernicious effects on speech. It amplifies some speech at the loss to other, giving more power to influence to those willing to spend the most (you can see why the right likes the idea). Advertising is perhaps the least free speech of all. It would be in the public interest to curtail it as much as possible: not to prevent the flow of the ideas expressed, but to limit the distortions introduced by money.

    While most efforts to ban free speech come from the right, the left is often charged with one of its own, against "hate speech." It seems to me that one should be able to oppose something without passing laws against it and prosecuting offenders -- an instinct that strikes me as much more prevalent on the right. Analogously, one shouldn't assume that legalizing something (drugs is a major example) implies endorsement.

  • Color blindness: This is a recent complaint from the right, a weird one given their long support for racial (and many other forms of) discrimination. The logic is fair, and in the long run the point is well taken: if we don't officially recognize race, it should cease to matter, and the scourge of racism will have left us. However, there are several problems with this, starting with the bad faith of the people on the right pushing this line. On the one hand, they seem to want to sweep all evidence of the legacy of racial discrimination, which was mandated by law over 350 years and in many cases continued less formally over the last 50 years. On the other, the complaint about tracking people by race often comes from people who are complaining about discrimination against white people, something they wish to prohibit. This is just one of many categories where the right's capacity to imagine themselves as victims of discrimination and injustice they regularly practice on others is simply galling.

  • Law enforcement: We all agree that we need just and reasonable laws, and we need them enforced, simply and fairly. But we have difficulty doing this: some laws are bad (especially against drugs), and enforcement is often arbitrary and capricious, with some people largely exempt from scrutiny, while others are singled out for attention, sometimes to the point of harassment. The task is greatly complicated by the millions of guns in civilian hands, and that increases the likelihood of police using their own guns: one result of this is that over 1,000 Americans are killed by police each year. The criminal justice system has problems beyond police: the courts are slow and often prejudiced; the quality of legal defense is ridiculously variable; the prisons are badly run, and there is little effort made to equip convicts for their return to society. And all this takes place in a broader context that often includes poverty, miseducation, lack of housing and public health, and much more. The right has this psychology that insists that crime can be fixed by passing harsher laws, hiring more police, and allowing them to act more impulsively, especially because they are unwilling to consider any of the other aspects of the problem (especially inequality, lack of social services, and guns). Given their repeated failures, some people on the left suggested that instead we might redirect some of the money going to police to other social services that might be more effective. They came up with a slogan ("defund the police"), and Republicans seized on that as a threat to terrify their base. It's highly unlikely that anyone is going to cut police funding anytime soon. Indeed, it's likely that the reforms needed to improve policing will take more money, not less. But the real problem is much more systemic, and that's where we need to turn left for answers. What the right's been doing just doesn't work.

  • Religious liberty: Another quaint turn of phrase, one that sounds like something no one objects to -- freedom of religion, which for many of us means freedom from religion -- yet means something very different. Republicans have lately been pushing a line that if someone can claim that their objections to a law are rooted in their religion, they shouldn't have to follow the law. Moreover, if one owns a business, one's religious exemption can be used to set policy that governs employee benefits (e.g., a Catholic business owner opposed to birth control can deny employees health insurance which pays for birth control, even though the federal government requires that all insurance policies provide that benefit). In practice, so far at least, this "religious liberty" doctrine has mostly been used to permit certain people to act as bigots, which is a big part of why Republicans are so enthusiastic about this novel form of legal reasoning.

  • Parental involvement in public schools: Another piece of weasel wording, inoffensive on its surface but designed to allow a few politically-active right-wing parents to harangue school boards and educators over policies like masks and banning books and other matter that for whatever reason offends them. Such people have always been around, but they've become even more of a plague recently, as Trump and Fox have riled up the would-be culture warriors to an ever higher sense of righteousness and persecution, while the right's estimation of education has shifted from suspicious to downright bothered. In theory, politically-active left-wing parents could do the same thing, but they generally have too much respect for education and knowledge and understanding to stoop so low. (I use "they" instead of "we" because I've never been a parent. Besides, I still bear scars from my own horrifying experience of school, which I understand is the exception rather than the rule for people on the left.)

  • Private ownership of firearms: Not an issue I care much about: I think guns are dangerous, wasteful, and stupid, and I think they cause more problems than they solve, but I'm not keen on prohibiting things that people crave (e.g., drugs). That said, the right's obsession with guns is unhealthy, bordering on insanity. Their paranoia about regulation ensures that many guns will wind up in the hands of criminals, incompetents, and the mentally ill. Their "stand your ground" laws turn a reasonable argument for self-defense into a license to kill. Their embrace of assault weapons makes mass shootings much more likely. The flood of guns threatens police, and makes them more likely to shoot unnecessarily. It's only a matter of time before their rhetoric inspires right-wing militias and "lone wolves" to attack their imagined enemies. (Oh yeah, that's already happened, but could get much worse.) And they've made it hard to do any sort of research on the actual impact of guns in America, so it's hard to rationally debate even modest reforms.

It bears repeating that Scott's list consists of a bunch of buzz phrases that have been tuned to elicit emotional responses from their followers, and possibly befuddlement from anyone not in on their jargon. Most are so anodyne you might think we have more common ground than is commonly supposed. On the other hand, Scott omits a long list of things we do want to change (or even, rarely, destroy -- one I can think of is the patent system, but most Democrats haven't figured that out yet, as they look for band-aid solutions to exorbitant drug prices). I wouldn't trust him to list them anyway, as he clearly has no grasp of who we are or what we believe.


The introduction is followed by a page of bullet points meant to illustrate the dire threats facing America. They're short enough I can quote them (in bold, followed by my notes -- if missing, just assume I'm laughing, or aghast):

  • Our government has created the highest debt in human history

  • Americans are afraid to speak their minds for fear of being silenced and canceled by the woke elitists -- which is why folks on the right are so timid and circumspect.

  • Our children are being poisoned by a false political agenda in their schools

  • Inflation is a tax placed on us by politicians who waste our money -- this shows zero understanding of inflation, or of tax.

  • Our inept withdrawal from Afghanistan dishonored the sacrifices of thousands of Americans and encouraged our enemies -- so we should sacrifice more, to deny our folly further?

  • Our porous southern border is a national crisis

  • Our cities are overrun by theft, violence, and a 30% increase in murder

  • Our government is making us less energy independent and killing jobs -- and that's why we blocked the Green New Deal?

  • American war fighters are being indoctrinated with left-wing woke foolishness and kicked out of the military because of the 'Big Brother' vax mandate

  • Our government is eroding our work ethic by paying people not to work

  • We are allowing biological males to destroy women's sports

  • Our kids are taught to hate America and divide each other by skin color

  • The FBI is spying on concerned parents who speak out at school board meetings

  • Washington's economy is growing, America's economy is shrinking

  • Lethal drugs are pouring into our country from China and our southern border

Remember, this is a list of what Republicans regard as the worst problems facing America: nothing about inequality, climate disasters, a globe-straddling military that constantly sucks us into wars and other conflicts, environmental degradation, predatory and monopolistic businesses, loss of labor rights, loss of privacy (including the right to make reproductive decisions), mass incarceration, racism (except as affects white people), inadequate health care, rising personal debt (mostly due to shortchanging education and health care), the growing assault on public health laws and workers, declining life expectancy.

But if it sounds like all Scott is doing is complaining, read on to the "11 Points": Republicans have bad ideas too (some staggeringly so). In the following, the bold is quoted from the top-line summary, followed by brief comments, usually referring to the following details.

  1. Our kids will say the pledge of allegiance, salute the Flag, learn that America is a great country, and choose the school that best fits them. Public schools will be required to indoctrinate students in the core pieties of Republicans. Teachers can be fired if they fail to tow the line. Given this degree of thought control, one wonders why they'll continue to tout private schools, but they help divert resources and political support from public schools, and further their stock line that government is bad and business is good.

  2. Government will never again ask American citizens to disclose their race, ethnicity, or skin color on any government forms. Two lines later they have the chutzpah to quote MLK (you know which quote), but don't dare attribute it (lest you credit an authority who had less pleasant things to say about America and race). I suppose it's a measure of progress that they're ducking the issue, but you still know what they mean.

  3. The soft-on-crime days of coddling criminal behavior will end. We will re-fund and respect the police because they, not the criminals, are the good guys. They want to rub salt into the wounds caused by police abuse of power, giving police more immunity, encouraging police to clamp down on "mostly peaceful protests," and directing prosecutors to prosecute more cases (except "based on political ideology," which almost certainly means their supporters can't be charged. They're not yet running on pardons for Jan. 6 insurrectionists, but that's where they're heading.

  4. We will secure our border, finish building the wall, and name it after President Donald Trump. This is their anti-immigration plank. Enforcement will be more draconian than ever, including using the military. Reform will never happen. Dissent will be quelled by "strip[ping] all federal funding from 'sanctuary cities' and prosecut[ing] any elected officials who flour our immigration laws."

  5. We will grow America's economy, starve Washington's economy, and stop Socialism. Their plan to "stop Socialism" is to simply outlaw it. ("Socialism will be treated as a foreign combatant which aims to destroy our prosperity and freedom.") The Washington/America dichotomy is pure fantasy, but serves their purposes: slash government, push functions down to the states, or (better still) privatize them). This is also the place where they promise to force everyone to pay at least some income tax, regardless of how little income they make, so they will "have some skin in the game" -- a tax increase on the poor that I've seen estimated up to $1 trillion over 10 years. They also want a prohibition on debt ceiling increases ("absent a declaration of war"), to force balanced budgets on pain of destroying the federal credit -- something which has never been in doubt despite the record deficits Republicans have routinely run up.

  6. We will eliminate all federal programs that can be done locally, and enact term limits for federal bureaucrats and Congress. This expands on their desire to inhibit and eviscerate federal government. They present a number of bizarre planks. The worst is probably their extension of the 12-year term limits nostrum to government civil service employees, making it more difficult to hire and retain knowledgeable workers. (They make an exception "for national security reasons," possibly a sign that they realize the CIA and the military doesn't do anything useful.) Or maybe the most bizarre is "sell off all non-essential government assets, buildings, and land, and use the proceeds to pay down our national debt." There's also an only slightly veiled threat against Social Security and Medicare, which they assume will go bankrupt. And these are people who are asking voters to entrust the everyday workings of the federal government?

  7. We will protect the integrity of American Democracy and stop left-wing efforts to rig elections. After all, rigging elections is their job. Still, they're kind of cagey on how they do it.

  8. We will protect, defend, and promote the American Family at all costs. This includes most of their planks on abortion ("a tragedy") but they talk much more about adoption, including promises that the crop of unwanted babies will be trafficked through "faith-based groups." They're also against porn and "deadbeat dads," and want effective federal laws against obscenity.

  9. Men are men, women are women, and unborn babies are babies. They continue, "to say otherwise is to deny science," although this seems to be the only place where they claim science supports their bigotry.

  10. Americans will be free to welcome God into all aspects of our lives, and we will stop all government efforts to deny our religious freedom and freedom of speech. The operative word here is "our"; yours may be treated differently. A clue on how to tell the difference is "No tax dollars will be used to pay for any diversity training or other woke indoctrination that is hostile to faith." You see here how what they like about religion isn't the "golden rule" or commandments on forgiveness and charity, but how convenient it is as a justification for bigotry and cruelty. They throw in a few planks on social media, like "all social media platforms that censor speech and cancel people will be treated like publishers and subject to legal action." Unclear how they square this with federal laws against obscenity and their plan to treat socialists as "enemy combatants."

  11. We are Americans, not globalists. A set of insane foreign policy planks, starting with "A world without American leadership would be a very dark world," illustrated by the complete abdication of American leadership that follows: withdrawal from the UN, extortion against allies that "don't pay their fair share for their own defense," a "New Monroe Doctrine" which lays claim to all of the Western Hemisphere, threats against Russia and China, a promise of punishing wars followed by no help rebuilding, a vow to "end all imports from Communist China until a new regime honors basic human rights and freedoms," a return to autarky, and total supplication to Israel (ironically, the one "ally" that doesn't begin to "pay its fair share"). Also a plank about taking "climate change seriously, but not hysterically," adding "we will not adopt nutty policies that harm our economy or our jobs."

The preamble to the U.S. Constitution starts with a number of good reasons why the Founders felt that we needed a strong and honest federal government:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Given the vagaries of politics, that promise hasn't always been realized, but we have never before seen as systematic an assault on the founding principles of this nation as we see in Scott's 11 Steps. They're seeking to impose a thought control regime, from pre-school on, including the explicit banning of anything socialist or "woke." This will be enforced by police, who will not be held to account for any abuses of power or even lapses of judgment. They will undermine the ability of the government to regulate business and markets, destabilizing an economy that will shrink substantially as they eviscerate government, which will be hampered by shrinking trade, and which will likely collapse completely when the government is forced to default on its debts. The foreign policy planks are likely to plunge the US into further wars abroad, and while having a nation of morons armed to the gills may deter anyone else from invading here, it's likely to deteriorate into an even more gruesome civil war. And in all this "doom and gloom" I'm sure I'm skipping over other calamities (e.g., natural and manmade disasters caused by neglect to critical infrastructure and the hubristic ignorance over climate change). And somehow Scott thinks his plan is what it takes to "rescue America." More like finish it off.

I used to joke that Newt Gingrich's famous 1994 publicist stunt should have been called "The Contract on America." But what Gingrich aimed for was pretty placid compared to the wrath and fury Scott seeks to unleash. And it's not that the Republican Party is all that much crazier now than it was back then. It's sobering to read how deranged its leading "thinkers" were in 1994, or even in 1980 when Reagan ran, or even in 1964 when Goldwater was nominated. What's changed isn't so much the Republicans as the ability of the nation to keep chugging along as they did their worst. That's harder to do now because the wounds and scars are mounting up. Yet somehow, Republicans seem to be able to escape scrutiny, let alone blame, for their many mistakes over the last 40+ years, and having gotten away with their act so far, they see no reason to change. They claim to have exclusive claim to patriotism and religion, even though there is no lack of Democrats with equal claims. They claim to represent business, even though business invariably grows more under Democrats. They claim to represent aggrieved workers, even though most of the problems workers have were brought on by Republicans. They talk about things like deficits and energy independence, even though the numbers are strictly opposed. They claim to be "color blind," but where's the evidence for that? They lie, they cheat, and they steal, yet the monied media never holds them accountable. So what's to stop them from doubling down and doing even worse? At least back when GW Bush was president (and Karl Rove was his "brain"), they tried to disguise their sinister plots (remember Healthy Forests?).

Yet during the 40-year era from Reagan to Trump, they managed to change America a lot, in ways almost always for the worse, but in ways they wanted. Inequality is greater now than ever before. In the world, America is more loathed but also more feared than ever before. And even when they crashed the economy, it bounced back more profitable than ever for the very rich. And even when they blew trillions on wars that accomplished nothing, they kept building back their arsenal. So why are soldiers like Scott so miserable? Why do they sound so desperate? Won't they ever be satisfied? It seems: no. They're in it for the fight, so they're going to keep kicking no matter how badly they got you down. Like the scorpion, it's their nature. Reminds me of an old Mort Sahl joke. He explained that Charlton Heston once said he hopes that his children will some day live in a fascist America. Sahl added: "if he were more perceptive, he'd be a happy man."

Ask a question, or send a comment.

Saturday, February 26, 2022


Speaking of Ukraine

[PS: Added some further thoughts on sanctions to the Bennis comment.]

A couple days ago I thought I had figured a way out of the Ukraine crisis that should satisfy all but a handful of inveterate hawks and neo-nazis. The solution was so obvious I was wondering how I could get a prestige op-ed slot to change the course of history. Of course, it's practically impossible for someone with no credentials and barely 500 Twitter followers to get an airing. But without the benefit of my idea, history shifted the opposite direction, as Russia attacked Ukraine, transforming a threat of war into a cold fact. Or did it? All sides are so preoccupied with propagating their political stances that it's hard to find credible reports of what's actually happening. Nonetheless, while even limited war leaves wounds that are more anguishing and scars that linger longer than mere threats, short of total annihilation the only way this ends is in some sort of agreement. And while war may alter "facts on the ground," the only possible viable solutions are ones that are rooted in justice, and that hasn't changed.

For what it's worth, I didn't see Putin's recognition of the breakaway Ukraine oblasts of Donetsk and Lughansk as much of a problem. All that move did was signal that revival of the 2015 Minsk II Agreement, which neither side had implemented to the other's satisfaction, was not going to work. The idea behind Minsk was troublesome in the first place: the Donbas would in theory remain part of Ukraine but "autonomous," giving Russia a potentially subversive base inside Ukraine. A much simpler and cleaner solution would be to cut Donbas and Crimea free of Ukraine, and accept their annexation by Russia. That would leave Ukraine free both of Russian claims and of a substantial Russophile political base, allowing the rest of the country to align itself with Europe -- presumably what the rest of the country wants.

Of course, one shouldn't simply hand over territory because an aggressive neighboring regime demands it. That would justify charges of appeasement, and encourage further encroachments. However, the principle should be respect for self-determination: the people in a contested area should have the right to decide which nation to align with, or independence, by a fair and internationally supervised election. Moreover, people on the losing side of any such ballot should be able to move, on relatively favorable terms. Such disputes happen often enough that this mechanism should be established as a basic principle of international law, where nations which respect these procedures are recognized as law-abiding, and those who do not should be subject to sanctions.

Russia's motivation for acceding to such procedures would include the expectation that US-imposed sanctions would be lifted. It seems very likely that such a vote in Crimea and Donbass would favor annexation by Russia, while similar votes in other parts of Ukraine would not. It should be hard for anyone to argue against such an expression of popular will. Beyond that, the US, Russia, NATO, and Ukraine need to meet and work toward reducing threats, including nuclear and cyber. The US, as by far the world's most exorbitantly armed nation, has a lot to offer in terms of threat reduction, and all people and nations would benefit from such diplomacy. Of course, such talks should extend to other sectors, including US-China, India-Pakistan, Israel-Iran, Korea, etc., but substantial progress can be made in regional agreements. One can, for example, imagine NATO freezing its membership, unwinding deployments, and reducing exercises in tandem with Russia reducing its threats.

The principle of self-determination can be applied elsewhere: Georgia also has Russian-backed breakaway provinces; the former Yugoslavia still has issues over Kosovo and the Bosnian Serb enclave; Northern Ireland might wish to join Ireland to undo the effects of Brexit. The most dangerous territorial dispute is probably China's claim to Taiwan. This would give China a non-violent way of pursuing reunification, encouraging it to make itself more appealing, rather than more threatening.

Admittedly, all along I assumed that Putin was a rational leader pursuing limited goals in the face of increasingly virulent hostility from the US, whose foreign policy is largely driven by a huge arms industry and monstrous ideological conceits -- most conspicuously a desire to indulge Israel's settler-colonial project, with its roots resonating with America's own 19th century project. While I still reject blanket statements that Putin is evil, that he's engaged in a crusade to destroy democracy, and that he has designs on restoring and extending Russia's empire of yore, I must admit that he has some glaring flaws and blind spots, which have led him to overestimate the value of force and fail to appreciate how badly his use of force makes him look.

I've been critical of the Biden administration in the run up here: their unwillingness to consider limiting NATO and pressing Ukraine on Minsk II implementation, their use of scare tactics to rally public opinion (in Ukraine, Europe, and US), especially their "intelligence" leaks predicting imminent invasion that sounded more like taunts, their use of character assassination making eventual settlement even harder to achieve. Smart negotiators leave one with an honorable exit path, but they've boxed Putin into a corner where he had no choice but to strike back or admit defeat, so they've effectively provoked his bad behavior. On the other hand, the fault is ultimately his, and I suspect it will eventually topple him from power. I don't see that as a plus -- "the devil you know" and all that -- but I also don't see it as tragic either. Putin has done terrible things as leader of Russia, which is a big part of why he's gotten into this mess. The real question is whether the US can come out of this with a generous, constructive approach to world order -- something far removed from the arrogance that developed after the Cold War, that drove us into the manifest failures of the Global War on Terror. Looking around Washington it's hard to identify anyone with the good sense to change direction.

[Note that the area held by separatists is only about half of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, although it does contain the main cities. Delineating areas for such elections is bound to remain controversial.]

The following are some Ukraine links (note dates, as events move fast and people have a hard time separating fact from fiction from pure fantasy).

[2/14] David K Shipler: How America's Broken Promises May Lead to a New Cold War: What's with the future tense? It now appears that the US never stopped its scheming around the old Cold War: it only briefly shifted tactics to appear less threatening around 1990 when Gorbachev was desperately trying to reform the Soviet Union. The US didn't orchestrate everything that followed, but did repeatedly take advantage of disconnects and mishaps to isolate and impoverish Russia, not least by promoting anti-Russian sentiment in territories that been subservient and still had reason to be friendly. Expansion of NATO was a big part of the schema, not because NATO wanted to take advantage and finish Russia off but because NATO needed an enemy to justify itself (and all those purchases of American arms), and Russia was the easiest enemy to paint. It helps here to realize that NATO is basically a scheme for the US to assume control of Europe's armies (somewhat less than formally). The only way Russia can escape the NATO vise would be to give up its army, which means its independence -- a humiliation no Russian leader could survive. On [2/25], Shipler followed up with: A Russian Tragedy, noting that "Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine is also an assault on his own people." Shipler notes how a "sense of persecution echoes into Putin's current remarks." It may be impossible to imagine the world as seen through someone else's eyes, but it might help to try.

[2/15] Masha Gessen: How the Kosovo Air War Foreshadowed the Crisis in Ukraine: Sees 1999 as a turning point in post-Cold War US-Russia relations, one still remembered in Moscow as an affront, as well as a model for how one nation (or coalition, as the bombing was nominally the work of NATO) can terrorize another into submission. As the war started in earnest, Gessen followed up with: The Crushing Loss of Hope in Ukraine [2/23], and also: Russia's Last Independent TV Channel Covers the Invasion of Ukraine.

[2/21] David Remnick: Putin's Preparations for Ukraine: "The autocrat has been trying for decades to end what he sees as a prolonged period of Russian humiliation." Follows up Gessen's note on Belgrade, 1999, with a broader historical accounting. Putin's original motive may indeed have been the humiliation Russia faced following the breakup of the Soviet Union, but note how US politicians and media have striven to humiliate Putin personally, under Obama since 2009, and both for and against Trump since 2016. On [2/26] Remnick also published the more polemical Putin's Bloody Folly in Ukraine.

[2/21] Nonzero Newsletter: Why Biden didn't negotiate seriously with Putin. This is a good idea for an article, and his two major points are reasonable, but I think he messes up on some details. First is the Munich "appeasement" charge. It's been used hundreds of times since 1938 to derail negotiations, without examining what actually happened then and why, let alone what else could have been done about it. The author offers two differences between 1938 and now, which may be true but aren't the ones that matter (that Hitler was crazy but Putin is not, and that Hitler's demand was territorial, but Putin was more concerned with Ukraine's possible NATO membership). The more important difference is that in 1938 the world was dominated by global empires (which the UK, France, and effectively the US, had, with Japan gaining ground, and Germany shut out), whereas today such empires are politically and economically untenable. The consequence of that was that Hitler didn't just want the Sudetenland, he wanted a whole domino chain of additional territories. Sure, maybe Putin wants more than just the Donbas, but his appetite is necessarily limited in ways that Hitler's wasn't. Just because "appeasing" Hitler didn't work doesn't mean that a similar concession to Putin would only make him more voracious. It might not only have avoided this week's war, it would have given the world time to work on reducing the humiliation Russia has been subjected to since the end of the Soviet Union (a defeat in some minds as serious as Germany's war-and-empire loss). The counterfactual also fails: had Chamberlain held firm, would Hitler not have invaded Czechoslovakia? Or Poland? Or Russia? The UK had no troops that could defend Eastern Europe from Hitler. All they could have done was threatened to declare war, which in fact Chamberlain did after Poland. The only effect that declaration had was to move France up Hitler's checklist, force the evacuation of British forces at Dunkirk, and open Britain up to bombing. Yet, somehow the myth of Munich persists: that all it takes to stop an aggressor is a resolute show of strength. Thus the US showed its mettle by refusing to concede anything in negotiations, daring Putin to put his own strength on display. The second reason for not negotiating seriously is the "Putin can't be reasoned with" meme. Some people have psychological theories to support this, while others just rely on facile analogies (like Putin = Hitler, or Putin = Evil). But more likely is the arrogant notion that the US holds all the trump cards, so the only thing Russia can do is back down. After all, they've backed down at each NATO expansion. They've demurred at not implementing the Minsk II agreement. They've watched as the US has wooed Zelensky into becoming a puppet. And if ever they do object, just slap more sanctions on them, and they'll come begging for mercy. Diplomacy may be a lost art, but who needs it when you can get away with extortionate demands? Besides, isn't it comforting to know that when appeasement or its opposite doesn't work, it will be someone else suffering the costs?

[2/22] Patrick Cockburn: Russia-Ukraine is an Information War, So Government Intelligence Needs More Scrutiny Than Ever: More lessons from Iraq than current reporting on Ukraine, but lessons are advised -- and the full extent of deceits from all sides over Ukraine will take some time to work out. Another lesson from Iraq: Putin's Advance Into Ukraine Compares with Saddam Hussein's Invasion of Kuwait . . . a Disaster for Russia. This is a point I sympathize with, but needs to be taken with a couple caveats. First, Saddam was able to put down both popular uprisings and internal division to keep control over Iraq, and there is no reason to think that Putin is less skilled or ruthless in his exercise of power. Second, Saddam ultimately succumbed to a much greater foreign threat, but not even the US is at all ready to invade and occupy (or just blow to kingdom come) Russia. One more Cockburn piece: Russophobia Leads Us to Assume the Worst of Russians -- and Assuming They're Demonic Could be Dangerous.

[2/22] John Judis: A Dissenting View on US Policy toward Russia: He was right to worry that Ukraine "could signal the beginning of a Cold War II," but it would be more accurate to say that Cold War II brought us to the war in Ukraine, a pretty vivid reminder of why such Cold Wars should be avoided as assiduously as hot wars. Even during Cold War I, the Soviet Union sent troops into Hungary and Czechoslovakia to quash rebellion and shore up their control over their frontier provinces. What's different here is that it took Putin eight years to conclude that he had to act, making the final decision more unexpected. But after decades of painting him as an unreformed KGB agent, as a ruthless political dictator who kills his opponents, is it really so surprising that he would rise to the part?

[2/23] Ken Klippenstein: Saudi-Russia Collusion is driving up gas prices -- and worsening Ukraine crisis. Russia and Saudi Arabia are two of the world's three largest oil and gas producers, and unlike the US (the other one), their finances are strictly dependent on keeping prices high. So while the US has been cranking up anti-Russian propaganda, Russia has been ingratiating itself to the oil barons of the Persian Gulf. While Europe as fallen in line behind the US on Ukraine, support has been less forthcoming from supposed allies in the Middle East: see, [2/25] Matthew Petti: US-backed Middle East states cozy up to Russia during Ukraine invasion. Nor is it just the Saudis looking for a windfall. See Kate Aronoff: Vultures Are Circling the Ukraine Crisis.

[2/23] Eric Levitz: Which Russia-Ukraine Take Is Right for You?:] Useful primariy as a compendium of many of the dumb things people are saying as they try to fit events into their preconceived agendas. Note that none of these positions match mine, although I'm not so far from the "anti-war realist" position represented by Anatol Lieven (see articles below). He also refers to what he calls a "far left yet objectively pro-imperial oligarchy" position, and links to a 2014 piece on something called World Socialist Web Site which, well, I don't know who the hell they are, but it should be possible to be very critical of US/NATO foreign policy without supporting or defending Russia. For example, see [2/25] David Broder: Stop Pretending the Left Is on Putin's Side. Also [2/23] Branko Mercetic: With Putin's Ukraine Incursion, Hawks in Washington Got Exactly What They Wanted. Levitz has more on Trumpy-Right posturing, but also see Alex Shephard: Trump and His Putin Apologists Blame "Woke" Democrats for Invasion of Ukraine.

It wouldn't actually be hard for the right to construct a critique of how Biden's handling of Ukraine and Russia has cornered Russia into lashing out irrationally -- especially to link the conflict back to Obama's (and Hillary Clinton's) pivot against Russia, especially to the Democrats' anti-Russia scapegoating for the 2016 election and their subsequent impeachment of Trump. They could even try to argue that Trump tried to restore an element of respect and balance to the relationship, but that he was heckled at every turn by warmongering Democrats and their media allies. But that would require a modicum of critical thought, but their brain rot (and their reflexive demonology) prevents them from even approximating coherence.

[2/24] Zack Beauchamp: Putin's "Nazi" rhetoric reveals his terrifying war aims in Ukraine: As you know, Nazis are pure evil, so we can't have any of that. -- even though of late the term gets bandied about so often, over such trivial concerns as mask mandates, that it's on the verge of losing all meaning. But students of Ukraine recall that there were once real Nazis there -- at least, Ukrainian who hated Russians (and Jews) enough to collaborate with German invaders. One can't say how many Ukrainian nationalists are neo-Nazis these days, but it's an easy charge to hurl, and one invading Russians are likely to apply indiscriminately. Worse, it implies that they have designs not just on the rulers of Ukraine but on the people. Beauchamp also wrote [2/25]: Why the US won't send troops to Ukraine. Something about nuclear weapons, but one could also argue that US troops are incapable of not making any situation worse, even without resorting to WMD.

[2/24] Jen Kirby/Jonathan Guyer: Putin's invasion of Ukraine, explained. Not every point I would make, but a good general backgrounder, noting the confusion sowed by breakup of the Soviet Union, the renascent Cold War driven largely by the expansion of NATO, and the eight years of tensions following the anti-Russian coup in Ukraine and the subsequent pro-Russian revolt. Kirby also wrote [2/25]: US sanctions will squeeze Russia -- but they're unlikely to stop war in Ukraine. As many people have pointed out, Russia has considerable experience with US sanctions by now, and the new sanctions have been widely broadcast as threats, so they've had time to prepare and plan. Also, while sanctions have a "trickle down" effect hurting everyday lives, states that have largely insulated themselves from democratic control just tend to hunker down and redouble their convictions. In the great wave of anti-communist reform from 1989-91, the only regimes that didn't fall were the ones the the US had fought hot wars with and/or subjected to crippling sanctions and blockades -- something also true of non-communist states that had run afoul of US grudges, like Iraq and Iran. On the other hand, the mere threat of sanctions can unnerve countries with a large, globally-connected private sector, such as Apartheid South Africa. That's also why Israel is so agitated over the BDS movement, even though it has virtually no state support in the US and Europe, and even though it's a much more civil way to oppose the injustices of Israel's Apartheid regime than any others.

Sanctions against Russia right now are certainly preferable to more military options, but the US has a bad track record of understanding both what they are useful for and what their limitations are. One can only hope to achieve limited reforms -- which certainly do not include regime change -- with them, and they only have a chance of working if they can be repealed and lifted. But Americans tend to view them more as a way of expressing disapproval without risking military reprisal, and as such as a safe form of aggression (hence the threat rhetoric well in advance of Russia's "special operations"). And since disapproval is usually located in leaders (like Putin) and political systems, it's hard for Americans to rewind them. Hence they remain irritants, leading to future hostilities.

[2/24] Robin Wright: Putin's Historic Miscalculation May Make Him a War Criminal: Sure, as far as I'm concerned it does. I'd say pretty much every time any national leader starts shooting or bombing across borders they're committing war crimes or some sort. However, wouldn't that also apply to Saudi Arabia (bombing Yemen), the US (Somalia), and Israel (Syria), just to pick examples from the last few days I saw in a meme? But in the real world, nobody gets prosecuted for war crimes, unless they've been totally defeated, in which case the trials are regarded as mere "victor's justice." Even then, it's often more constructive to have some kind of "truth and reconciliation process" than something that simply looks like revenge. And in the case of Putin, it's possible that his own people might sack him, but until then the only way to bring this war to a close is to negotiate with him, and that is hardly helped by calling him names. This article has a bunch of examples, including the inevitable "others compared him to Hitler" -- lead example there is professional anti-Russia agitator Michael McFaul -- and an even more fanciful comparison to Stalin and Mao ("ruthless megalomaniac with a giant imperialist agenda" -- that from Nina Krushcheva, who really should know better).

[2/25] Anatol Lieven: Ukraine: What Russia wants, what the West can do: "For those who understand Moscow's establishment and view of their country's vital interests, none of this should be a surprise." Lieven has written numerous pieces on Russian/Ukraine over the last weeks and months: you can reach many of them through this link (and the "Load More" buttons). As he points out, Putin's appetite only grows with apparent victories on the ground, but prospects for occupying Ukraine beyond the Russian-speaking regions are fraught with danger, and there is little way to maintain a pliant government without enforcing troops. Hence, Ukraine is a trap for Russia, much like Afghanistan and Iraq were traps for the US, so the only way to secure gains is to negotiate for them. I've linked to this before, but Lieven's long paper from Jan. 4 remains immensely useful: Ending the Threat of War in Ukraine: A Negotiated Solution to the Donbass Conflict and the Crimean Dispute. Also see American Prospect's interview with Lieven: Worse Than a Crime; It's a Blunder.

[2/25] Phyllis Bennis: Respond to Putin's Illegal Invasion of Ukraine with Diplomacy, Not War. And remember that sanctions may be war by other means, but are acts of war nonetheless. Still, this is one instance where I don't mind them, and am even a bit hopeful that they might work. They give the US and other concerned nations a means of responding without adding to the conflagration, making matters even worse. I'm also curious to see effective they might be, given the extraordinary globalization of finance in the world. It may even be the case that Russia is especially vulnerable to sanctions on individual oligarchs, precisely because they've exported so much of their wealth. Also note [2/25] Marcus Stanley: Why sanctions on Russia are necessary.

[2/25] Ilya Matveev: The Putin Regime Is Straining Under Its Own Contradictions: Interview by Rafael Khachaturian with the editor of Openleft.ru. Not much on the war per sé, but quite a bit on the economic stagnation that has afflicted Russia since 2010 (after a decade of strong growth under Putin, following the disastrous Yeltsin 1990s). Matveev and Ilya Budraitskis also wrote: Ordinary Russians Don't Want This War.

[2/25] Jeffrey St. Clair: Roaming Charges: Insane in the Ukraine. Usual batch of scattered bullet points, many worth reading, as well as unrelenting scorn for American hypocrisy over other nations bombing and pillaging. He also cautions against reading too much into Putin's vow to "de-Nazify" Ukraine ("after all, he hasn't done much to de-Nazify Russia").

[2/26] Jason Horowitz: Putin's Aggression Leaves His Right-Wing Fan Club Squirming: A quick survey of world luminaries on the far right, folk like Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, Jair Bolsonaro, and Silvio Berlusconi, although Donald Trump only appears in a picture with Putin. Reminds you that despite the infantile red-baiting Americans habitually lapse into, Putin's international appeal has always been on the right, both for his "strong man" persona and for his knee-jerk conservatism. Also that when push comes to shove, nationalists tend to drift apart, as they discover that being from different nations matters. This is, by the way, one place where comparisons to Hitler are apt. People forget how widely the right admired Hitler in the first years after seizing power, before he launched the genocidal wars that he's now remembered for.

The New York Times has a piece Maps: Tracking the Russian Invasion of Ukraine. As of 11:55 pm ET, 2/26, Russian forces are shows as pushing close to Kyiv and Kharkiv and not quite in either. Unclear whether this is due to restraint or resistance. Russia appears to have moved faster in their breakout from Crimea, but the largest city they appeared to have captured is Kherson, an Oblast capital with less than 300,000 people. (At least that's the only one I recognized. Melitopol has a population of about 150,000.) There doesn't appear to have been any advance from the breakaway areas of Luhansk and Donetsk, although Russian troops have entered north of Luhansk.

I don't have much to report on antiwar protests within Russia, but there is a Wikipedia page on the subject, with extensive footnotes, and a box there with links to other pages on the conflict and war.


Normally, I'd follow this up with scattered links of interest, but the above has taken quite enough of my time, and the other stories can wait. Needless to say, events here are changing very rapidly. For instance, initial sanctions did not include barring Russia from the SWIFT financial system, but there are now reports of this happening.

Ask a question, or send a comment.

Saturday, February 12, 2022


Speaking of Which

PS: Added a further note on Ukraine, in response to a reader comment. It was written on Sunday, 2/13, and posted on Monday, to continued US hysterical warnings about imminent invasion, Ukrainian please to not panic, and Russian denials that it has any such plans.

I had no desire whatsoever to post anything today, even though my morning perusal of the Wichita Eagle has been a growing source of consternation. I started to write a Notes on Everyday Life piece yesterday on an extremely offensive op-ed from the Heritage Foundation, but stalled after two paragraphs. Today brought several more outrageous pieces, including a strong prediction that this will be the week Russia finally invades Ukraine. Reason and sanity says they won't, but the time framework -- which you may remember simply repeats what they said a week ago -- but it's clearly meant less as prophecy than as a taunt.

But what finally provoked me to start writing was a tweet: possibly the most dishonest and provocative I've ever seen, made worse (and brought to my attention) by being retweeted by a friend who should know better. It is by Michael McFaul, whose credentials I will get to in a minute. Here's what he said:

Completely unprovoked and with no justification, Putin is threatening to launch the largest invasion in Europe since 1939. Please stop treating this moment in history like some Twitter parlor game. If he invades, your snide, snarky tweets will not age well.

McFaul is an academic, a professor at Stanford and a fellow at the Hoover Institution, the Cold War think tank that gave us George Schultz and Condoleezza Rice. He spent 2012-14 as Obama's Ambassador to Russia, and is widely credited as "the architect of the Russia Reset." Which, regardless of intentions, left the relationship much more antagonistic than ever since the Soviet Union ended. In short, no one should know better than to claim that Putin is "completely unprovoked" and "with no justification" behind his threats -- not that he's ever actually said he intends to invade Ukraine.

I'm not saying I agree with Putin's complaints or think he's in any significant way justified, but it's foolish to deny that he has his reasons. It's also disingenuous to pretend that the US and its NATO/EU allies haven't done anything provocative. Admission of that much, and a willingness to acknowledge interests one can compromise on, are key to negotiating a solution, which is the only way this ever ends (with or without bloodletting, which would be far worse). As a diplomat, McFaul must realize that, but here he's clearly decided to be no more than a cheerleader and propagandist.

The "largest invasion in Europe since 1939" line is hyperbole, probably meant to pattern Putin on Hitler, while skipping over the later German invasions of Benelux, France, Norway, and the really big one in 1941, when the Germans marched through Ukraine and deep into Russia. It also skips over details like D-Day, and pertinently the Soviet interventions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, as well as NATO's various forays into Yugoslavia. But it's also meant to imply that any Russian move into Ukraine will be massive. That's possible, but isn't necessarily true, and hasn't happened. I'm not one to minimize threats, but it would be smarter not to precipitate them.

The rest is psych warfare over Twitter, which should be beneath him. He's already dismissing disagreements as "snide and snarky," and his "may not age well" is a rather strange curse for something as perishable as tweets. As for "parlor games," he's the one trying to play it out on Twitter. What else could he mean?

I'm also disturbed by the stat line: 33.6K likes, 6,833 retreats, 1,177 responses. Those are large numbers I almost never see. Of course, the replies include some people pointing out his arrogance and recklessness and deceit, but they also include many further variations, like: "It's quite terrifying, especially when one considers that the aggressor has vast nuclear powers" (presumably Russia, but you can read it otherwise); and "We need to have the US military use brutal force if the Russian army crosses the border. No appeasement." (Probably means "no mercy," but stuck on one of the propaganda words.)

One story that has been underreported is here: Ben Freeman: Army of Ukraine lobbyists behind unprecedented Washington blitz. Ukrainian agents, some paid by oligarch Victor Pinchuk, have been flooding Washington with money to grease the skids for various deals, mostly involving sending arms to Ukraine. And this doesn't even touch on the money being spent in Europe and in Kyiv, where Zelensky was elected on a reconciliation platform but has since turned into some kind of anti-Russia hard-liner. Of course, no Washington politician is more committed to lobbyist aims than Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), who says: I want all Russians to feel the pain. Perhaps it's deterrence to promise sanctions after a Russian invasion, but Menendez wants to do it now, in a peculiar mixture of provocation and sadism.

Some other Ukraine pieces that are helpful:


Since I'm here, a few more brief links:

Jacqueline Alemany: Some Trump records taken to Mar-a-Lago clearly marked as classified, including documents at 'top secret' level.

Zach Beauchamp: The Canadian trucker convoy is an unpopular uprising. In Canada, anyway, where the obvious involvement of right-wing Americans isn't winning any friends. On the other hand, it's very popular with the American right: Eric Levitz: Why conservatives celebrate the Canadian truckers. Side burn on Fox: "Few willing to recognize the network's bad faith remain unaware of it." Also: Alex Shephard: Fox News Can't Get Enough of Canada's Freedom-Loving Truckers. And then there's: Timothy Bella: Rand Paul urges truckers to disrupt Super Bowl and come to D.C.: 'I hope they clog up cities'. And dozens of them get shot in "road rage" incidents?

Garrett Epps: Donald Trump Promised He Wouldn't Nominate a Black Woman to the Supreme Court: I initially misread the title, as I wanted to note that I thought Biden's campaign promise to nominate a black woman was an unforced tactical mistake. I have no problem with him doing so, and there are clearly some much more qualified than the Federalist Society hacks Trump nominated. But why give Republicans a talking point, as opposed to their usual practice of inventing them from scratch? I'd also note that Republicans are every bit as inclined toward quota systems as Democrats, as was shown by their eagerness to appoint a black man to replace Thurgood Marshall, and a white (but not Jewish) woman to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But evidently the title was right: Trump made his own unforced tactical mistake. But as is so often the case, wasn't called for it.

Michael Hudson: America's Real Adversaries are Its European and Other Allies: "The US aim is to keep them from trading with China and Russia." I could have filed this under Ukraine, as it has a lot to do with the confrontation there. I suspect that China is already a lost cause: if forced to choose between trading with China and the US, a lot of countries would opt for China, and that number is likely to increase. Trade with Russia is much less diverse, but its concentration in oil and arms suggests why the US is agitated. Turkey is considering Russian arms. Germany wants a gas pipeline. Ukraine is a wedge for disrupting deal like that. But the more there are, the harder the bonds will be to break. As readers of Gabriel Kolko will recall, a big driver of the post-1945 Cold War was American desire to supplant British and French colonial regimes. We called them allies, but the main point was that they were under our thumb. Along these lines, see: Eve Ottenberg: Bigotry Unbound: The US Media's Anti-China Propaganda Blitz.

Fred Kaplan: Why Every President Is Terrible at Foreign Policy Now: Explains that foreign affairs have "become too chaotic for any White House to master," but I think the crux of the problem is that the US doesn't have any sense of the need to balance other people's interests, that the US is saddled with a military that is spread all around the world but isn't competent to do anything but blow shit up, and its heads are still stuck in the mindset that says they're "the indispensable nation" -- the one that should be able to tell everyone else what to do. This has produced all sorts of contradictions: e.g., the US is for democracy and human rights, but not when the violators are "allies" like Israel or Saudi Arabia; the US wants to limit climate change, but not at the expense of any profits; the list can go on practically forever.

Eric Levitz: The Democratic Party's "Mask Off" Moment. "The American people are sick of the pandemic and the public-health mandates. Unable to end the former, Democrats are now moving to roll back the latter." I'm not applauding this, but I'm not terribly bothered either. Personally, I'm one of the worst people in the world when it comes to following orders, so I generally hate mandates (though not on masks, and even less so on vaccines, which I've never had a problem with, going all the way back to Salk and Sabine). I suspect one problem with mandates is that they seem to push responsibility for a public crisis back on individuals, which is rarely effective let alone fair. The backlash against mandates is taking aim not just at coercion but at the whole concept of public health, and that's a collateral casualty I don't want to risk. One good thing about this piece is that it mentions a number of public policy changes that could help instead of taking it all out on recalcitrant people. Another problem is political vibes: Democrats are easily associated with an overweening "nanny state" -- a vast generalization on the trope of scolding you for not eating your broccoli. I don't think that's as bad as incarcerating, beating, and/or reducing people to penury, which are approaches Republicans seem inordinately fond of, but I generally don't like it either, and don't expect others to.

Liam Stack: A Jewish Teacher Criticized Israel. She Was Fired.


And here's the Heritage Foundation op-ed I was going to write about:

Kevin Roberts: It's Time to Win the War Against Big Tech: It may seem strange to see America's premier right-wing think tank, that bastion of capitalist cant, attacking America's most profitable business sector, but never underestimate right-winger's ability to get peeved over slights to their political omniscience. They liken the big tech companies to the Chinese Communist Party, repeatedly call them totalitarian, and even offer that antitrust laws should be enforced against them. But when you get down to details, the real rub seems to be:

There is Twitter and Facebook's selective enforcement of "standards" that has censored Republican members of Congress at a rate of 53-to-1 compared to Democrats, and suspended Trump supporters 21 times as often as Clinton supporters.

Those suspensions almost all have to do with disinformation about Covid and vaccines, a form of mental illness that indeed seems to afflict Republicans much more than Democrats. They go on to complain about Amazon banning a book and a video, and add that Spotify and others "have now joined their trillion-dollar industry leaders in discriminating against customers and entrepreneurs who insist on thinking for themselves. Just ask Joe Rogan." I'm not sure which is worst, the suggestion that Rogan "thinks for himself," or the ignorance of not knowing that Spotify is still paying Rogan millions to air his stupidity. Even more priceless is their characterization of their true enemies, the ones who have hoodwinked these companies through their "bullying abuses or totalitarian impulses": "the bigoted, bellicose progressivism now ascendant on the elite left." That's so wrong on so many levels you could emblazon it on a tee-shirt and wear it for a joke. I haven't heard anything so fatuous since Spiro Agnew slunk off in disgrace.

Heritage's solutions start with some reasonable antitrust planks, but don't go far enough, and wander off on tangents. Stripping the Section 230 liability protection would do nothing but allow rich people with political grudges to sue the companies, possibly creating enough of an annoyance to curtail reasonable free speech. What they don't suggest is the obvious real solution, which is to create free software and services for social media, which are prohibited from collecting and profiting from user data, and as such actually serve their users instead of nefarious entrepreneurs. For a while I thought I was the only person thinking along those lines, but such a scheme features in Kim Stanley Robinson's novel, The Ministry for the Future. Another important idea there is the shift to employee-owned companies. It seems like conservatives were right about one thing, anyway: the only solution to the world's major problems is a sharp political move to the left. Of course, they're against that. Much as they're against public health services protecting us from pandemics. When they exclaim "give me liberty or death," they aren't kidding.


PS: Regarding the McFaul tweet in the intro and my following digression, a reader wrote:

First, your 1939 point is silly. Obviously the 1939 invasions that began World War II were the first in a long series that includes those you name. Second, I regard Putin as the single most dangerous human in the world without whose support the almost equally odious but far more inept Trump would never have been elected. There do seem to be second- and third-generation leftists whose soft spot for Russia blinds them to this self-evident fact.

Perhaps my examples of post-1939 invasions were "silly," but we should understand that the only reason McFaul mentioned 1939 was to make Putin look like Hitler, implying that Putin has designs beyond Ukraine, as Hitler did beyond Poland -- and therefore, with Chamberlain's "appeasement" at Munich as the ever-present cautionary lesson, we had better stop him sooner than have no choice later.

The "completely unprovoked and with no justification" line dismisses any other possible interpretation: for instance, that Ukraine's pivot to Europe might hurt Russia's economy (Ukraine has long been a major trading partner, on terms that have tended to favor Russia), or that the increasing imposition of sanctions and trading limits aren't an even greater threat to Russia's security and welfare.

The line also absolves the US, its NATO allies, and various private sector entities engaged in Ukraine from any consideration let alone responsibility. I don't blame Ukrainians for looking to Europe for a more prosperous future, and I don't have a problem with businesses trying to exploit opportunities -- aside from arms industries with their political ties -- but one should consider how this looks to Russia, especially given past antipathy (which has proven remarkably easy for US propagandists to exploit).

I don't disagree with your assessment of Putin, although I have a more nuanced view of how to deal with him. Stalin was one of the worst actors in the 20th century, but Roosevelt managed to keep him happy enough to do most of the heavy lifting in defeating Germany. There's a Henry Stimson quote I'd have to look up about the importance of extending trust, which distinguished him as the wisest of Washington's famous "wise men." Later Americans consistently misunderstood and misjudged Russia, which led to wrecking the careers of reformers (Krushchev and Gorbachev) while, when they finally got the chance, installing a grossly incompetent (Yeltsin), resulting in a horrific decade (among other measures, life expectancy declined 10 years). Putin's main claim to fame was to have stabilized Russia after that debacle, which has included keeping even more reactionary politicians out of power. There are people in Russia who want to restore the borders of the Empire, but Putin is not one. And as right-wing authoritarians go, Putin has managed to keep a formal democracy intact, even though he has jealously guarded his power base, using tactics that I in no way condone much less approve.

What makes Putin dangerous is not his contempt for democracy, or his association with oligarchs, or his alliances with America's outcasts. It's that his rather limited indulgences in military power have thus far been relatively successful, making him all the more likely to bite off more conflict than he can handle. The most despicable thing he did was re-igniting the Chechen War, which was his ticket to power. I suspect that the charges that he was responsible for terrorist attacks on Moscow apartment buildings are credible. He certainly used those attacks as a pretext for going to war, much as McKinley, Wilson, LBJ, and GW Bush seized upon similar events as pretexts for wars they were already leaning into. (The difference being there was no reason to think the Americans had plotted the pretexts, although they often misrepresented them -- the "sinking of the Maine" was a self-inflicted accident, and the Tonkin Gulf "attacks" were nothing such.) After a year, Chechnya was demolished, with 20-0 thousand killed, but reintegrated into Russia.

Putin's interventions in Georgia and Crimea could also be counted as wins. Russia repelled Georgian efforts to re-capture the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Osetia, but made no further efforts to occupy Georgia, leaving the status quo ante. They did annex Crimea after a local revolt seceded from Ukraine, but they didn't move to annex the breakaway Donbass region. It's not clear whether they simply took advantage of local disruptions or had a hand in orchestrating them, but their efforts in Ukraine have thus far been limited to territories with Russian ethnic majorities. One may question both their motives and scruples in these situations, but Putin's ambitions are limited and circumspect (unlike, say, Stalin's efforts to subdue Finland following the 1939 Pact with Hitler). As Hitler, Saddam Hussein and GW Bush have shown, nothing predicts future war disasters more than believing that past wars have been successful.

Meanwhile, the US and its agents and allies have been relentless with their anti-Putin propaganda, including sanctions mean to incur economic harm, both on select oligarchs and on the Russian people as a whole. This, in turn, has been helpful in expanding the US arms cartel, aka NATO.

Perhaps most disturbing to me has been the explosion of cyberwarfare, which both Russia and the US (and China and Iran and North Korea and Israel and others) seem to regard as carte blanche to fuck with each other -- the only risk seems to be more of the same, which they're already doing anyway. I don't much credit Putin for the US election of Donald Trump, which can be blamed on any number of factors (the dark money of the Koch network and the brazen lies of Fox are the most obvious, although I'm still most critical of the Democratic Party and their poor choice of candidate; what I am disgusted by is the latter's incessant whining, less because it's dishonest and evasive than because it helps the hawks drum up sentiment for more hostilities). As usual, consequences rarely match expectations. Putin got few favors from Trump, and much ill will from across the US political spectrum, which is one reason Democrats (like McFaul and Menendez) are leading the charge. Whether Putin's been chastised by the experience isn't clear, which is one reason he's so dangerous.

On the other hand, he doesn't become less dangerous by repeatedly kicking him and Russia while they're down. The US needs to fundamentally rethink how we do foreign policy. We need to find ways to work constructively with other nations -- in particular on problems like climate change, which we can't solve by partitioning the world -- which means we need to become less confrontational and more respectful.

I don't know of anyone with a soft spot for Putin. I do know people who consider him less of a threat to world peace than the leaders of the country that spends more than 50% of the world's total military expenditures, the country that has troops and 800+ bases scattered around the world, the country that has (or works for people who have) business interests everywhere, a country that does a piss poor job of taking care of its own people and has no conception of the welfare of others, a leadership that so stuck in its own head that it can't tell real threats from imaginary ones, that projects its own most rabid fears onto others and insists on its sole right to dictate terms to the world.

Ask a question, or send a comment.

Sunday, February 6, 2022


Speaking of Which

Once again, I had kept a few articles in tabs that I felt like commenting on, then made a round of my usual sources and found a few more.

I'm about half way through Barbara Walter's How Civil Wars Start, and How to Stop Them. Too early to say much, other than that her structure make sense, and her evidence of how other civil wars developed is persuasive. That even includes characterizing social media (Facebook in particular) as "the accelerant" -- a position I've been reluctant to endorse. It's easy enough to see that there are forces on the right that want to spark a civil war. And it's certain that said forces will resort to terrorism if they don't get their way. On the other hand, like most of the left, I trust the system to be resilient enough to curtail their offenses. I never for a moment thought that the Jan. 6 mob would succeed. But then I also wasn't shocked that they would try. Their character has been clear for years now -- certainly going back to the "Tea Party" reaction to Obama in 2009. The people most deeply offended by the mob are the ones who were most naive about them, and more generally about Trump and the Republicans, in the first place.

The question as to whether the left will fight back should the right seize power is moot at present, but should be considered by establishment powers as a risk should they be tempted to throw in with the Trump mob (as some have already done). The Weimar German ruling class thought they could control Hitler, but he eventually brought them to destruction. (The German people survived, albeit at great loss, but the aristocratic class of the Reichs didn't.) The basic fact is that it's very hard to sustain dictatorial rule indefinitely, and not very difficult to disrupt it. While in some ways the tools of repression have advanced, they still depend on popular acquiescence, which is hard to maintain when it violates people's innate sense of justice. In the long run this limits what either right or left can do politically -- not that I worry about the left, as we are motivated primarily by out sense of justice.


As I was trying to wrap this up, I ran across this tweet thread from Steve M. @nomoremister:

I hope everyone understands that the issue Republicans plan to run on in 2022 is the upcoming U.S. version of the anti-vaxx Canada trucker convoy, which will inevitably take place not just in D.C. but in multiple state capitals, particularly in purple states.

The U.S. version of the caravan will be even more menacing than the Canadian version, but Republicans will do much better messaging. (Democrats will try to ignore it and stick with boring talk about poll-tested subjects.)

GoFundMe wanted to close down a funding page for the truckers and refund donors' money, but Florida and Texas threatened to sue and GoFundMe backed off.

Republicans *always* know how to play the victim card. They'll do the same thing in the U.S. version of the caravan. Look at how their side threatened people at school board meetings and yet declared victim status when the feds said they'd be looking into the threats.

This is what politics in 2022 will look like. I'm 100% certain that Democrats aren't ready for it.

I ran across a piece (or two or three) on this and decided not to bother, as jerks will be jerks, and that's about all I have to say about vaccine and mask mandates and the jerks who whine about them. I happen to be related to a Trumpy trucker who was very psyched by this, but a commenter dampened his enthusiasm by pointing out that states have laws designed to prevent truck convoys -- otherwise they'd basically turn into rolling traffic jams -- so it couldn't happen here. But yeah, as a piece of political theater, this is right up the Republicans' alley, and harder for Democrats to laugh at than their yacht parades. And now Steve M. has a longer piece on this: The Canadian Truck Blockade Is Coming to America in Less Than a Month.


Coronavirus in the US: Latest Map and Case Count: Case counts are down 57% over 14 days, which still puts them higher than they ever were before Dec. 31, 2021. Hospitalized is down 228%, but deaths are up 21%, to 2,597 (pushing the total to 901,009), which is more than there ever were except for the January 2021 peak. The regional map shows most improvement from northeast Ohio and Maryland to Maine, except for middle Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, the worst spots (aside from Alaska) are the belt from Oklahoma to the Carolinas, extending NE to West Virginia and SE to Florida. Unvaccinated remain 20X more likely to die than vaccinated. Also note: US Has Far Higher Covid Death Rate Than Other Wealthy Countries. The charts also show that the margin is widening, and that this can be attributed to lower vaccination rates. For more on this, see David Wallace-Wells: Why Are So Many Americans Still Dying of COVID?.

Barbara Caress: The Dark History of Medicare Privatization: This is mostly about "Medicare Advantage" ("a costly, unaccountable cash cow for private insurance companies that is swallowing traditional Medicare"), but it remind me that one problem with selling Medicare-for-All is that Medicare as currently constituted still leaves a lot to be desired. This is less of a problem for Bernie Sanders, as his bill seeks not just to extend Medicare but to fix most of its limitations, but it does make it harder to sell to people who don't know any better. As for the privatization schemes, I would have thought that their utter failure to deliver cost savings would have discredited them by now, but evidently they've become powerful profit centers: largely as government has increased their subsidies, even as they profit from shifting liabilities, both by cherry-picking patients and by denying more of their claims.

David Dayen/Rakeen Mabud: How We Broke the Supply Chain: "Ramp[ant outsourcing, financialization, monopolization, deregulation, and just-in-time logistics are the culprits." Or, more plainly, short term profits. Moreover, the people who broke it all profit both when their system works and when it doesn't. "Corporate profit margins are at their highest level in 70 years," "a little bit of inflation is always good in our business," and "inflation is being enhanced by exploitation, with companies seeing a 'once-in-a-generation opportunity' to raise prices." You might also take a look at Dayen's December, 2021 article: The Inflation-Fighting Bill You Don't Know About: "An overwhelmingly bipartisan effort would finally crack down on the ocean shipping cartel." Also Robert Kuttner: The Supply Chain Mess, which points out how "Biden is finding creative ways to get things unstuck." These are much more sensible reforms, much better targeted to the real problems, than the Fed's classic solution for inflation, which is to lay people off to reduce demand (while giving loaners a windfall, further suppressing demand by increasing debt).

Neel Dhanesha: Paleontologists study the past. This one has a warning for the future. Interview with Thomas Halliday, author of Otherlands: A Journey Through Earth's Extinct Worlds. I went through a period where most of what I read was books on paleontology and geology: John McPhee and Stephen Jay Gould were the "gateway drugs" but I got to the point where I could read pretty technical textbooks. After my first wife died, I found the idea of deep time comforting. But I moved on to other sciences in the 1990, and returned to politics and economics after 2001, so I haven't kept up -- other than the occasional paleoclimatology take on climate change. This book looks like an effort to systematize what scientists know about earth history for a readership accustomed to crisis and catastrophe. What's hard to tell at this distance is whether this record will calm or alarm current readers. But one thing you can bet on is that uniformitarianism, a doctrine that was just beginning to crack back when I was reading, is giving way to a new catastrophism, just right for the times. I may have to check this out.

Sean Illing: Why good messaging won't save Democrats: "Dan Pfeiffer on the Democratic brand and how to revive it." Another frustrating klatch on "why we suck so bad." For instance, Pfeiffer says: "I think we've spent too much time demonizing Fox News for its propaganda. There's this visceral reaction from a lot of people in our donor community. They don't want to be labeled propagandists in that way." Fox News is the single most important cog in the Republican machine, making sure that all the faithful have the right spin on all that matters. You don't have to demonize it to expose what they're doing, but you can't just ignore it because criticizing it makes "Democratic billionaires" uncomfortable. He goes on to complain that "the biggest problem with the [Terry] McAuliffe campaign was that it treated voters like idiots." I don't know where he got that analysis from, but sounds like Fox News. One of the main things they do is pounce on any blip to present it as a deep, unforgivable insult to their viewers (who often are idiots, and proud of it).

Murtaza Hussain: Killing of ISIS Leader Shows That US Forever Wars Will Never End: Biden probably sees this as his "Bin Laden killing" moment, still stuck in the mindset that trophy murders are a viable war metric, except that with US troops gone from Afghanistan and Iraq, all this really does is remind people that the US military is still engaged in dark, unreported corners, and hasn't learned much of anything from two decades of failures. We should remember that wars only end with armistice agreements. The US refusal to admit defeat and learn to work with de facto regimes in Syria and Afghanistan is pure spite, resolving nothing, continuing a long series of grudges, going back to North Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Iran, and Iraq. Also see Fred Kaplan: Are We Winning Yet? "The big, often unaddressed question is how effective these operations are . . . The answer, it turns out, is that, most of the time, they're not very effective after all."

Umair Irfan: Will climate change melt the Winter Olympics? "It will be hard to host the Winter Games when winter isn't cold." It's been pretty cold here the last couple days, but it was over 50F less than a week ago, and will be again less than a week hence, so Wichita isn't much of a place for winter sports. (Of course, it never was a candidate, not so much because it didn't get cold as for lack of mountains.) Even now, Beijing looks like a pretty iffy proposition, with all skiing events dependent on artificial snow. There's a chart here that projects that only 5 (of 15) possible sites will be reliably cold in the 2080s (with Beijing and Vancouver, among recent sites, not even making the chart). Of course, they could consider more reliably colder spots, like Thule, Fairbanks, or Murmansk, but the main determinants of late seem to have been money and vanity.

Ed Kilgore: Trump's Long Campaign to Steal the Presidency: A Timeline: "The insurrection was a complex, yearslong plot, not a one-day event. And it isn't over." Starts in 2016 with Trump's complaints about counting votes, asserting his claim that he would have won the popular vote but for the crooked system, then the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, which Kris Kobach led into oblivion. One could go back even further, and add a great many details. I'm not sure when Republicans first realized they could game the system, working it to advantage, but it certainly goes back as far as when Trump prankster Roger Stone apprenticed under Nixon. But they've become increasingly brazen about it of late, mostly because they've proven it works, and they haven't been held accountable. Republicans routinely win more House and Senate seats than their voting share, and that's sometimes been enough to tilt control of Congress. Four presidential elections went to losers of the popular vote, and all have been Republicans: two back in the 19th century as black people were being disenfranchised, and two in recent history (Bush in 2000 and Trump in 2016, the latter losing by three million votes). Those "wins" enabled the aggressive implementation of an unpopular right-wing political agenda, leading to endless war, greater inequality, and two major recessions. This was happening before Trump started his 2016 campaign, but Trump's unique contribution was his utterly shameless attack on the already hollow institutions of democracy. And the assault continues, as every Republican-controlled state has moved to make it harder to vote, and in several cases to exert greater political control over how votes are to be counted. Democrats have tried to respond by waxing eloquent over defending the traditional institutions of American democracy, but in looking only at the latest offenses, they've tended to overlook the real rot at the heart of politics: money. Their myopia over money can be explained by that fact that several successful Democrats (e.g., Obama and the Clintons) have excelled at raising money -- but fatally compromised their administrations in its pursuit, leaving theadbare legacies. This allows Republicans to attack Democrats for corruption and ineffectiveness, while offering more of the same, more shamelessly craven. As Republicans have normalized anti-democratic beliefs, they've freed themselves from having to pretend that they care about voters, leaving themselves exhilaratingly free to indulge their fantasies and prejudices. We should be clear that unless they are stopped, their victory will not merely spell the end of quaint institutions Americans have long taken pride in, but the very notion of "government of, by, and for the people."

Caroline Kitchener: Republican-led states rush to pass antiabortion bills before Supreme Court rules on Roe: "Lawmakers in at least 29 states, anticipating a new legal landscape, have filed measures to restrict abortion."

Eric Levitz: No, Democrats and Republicans Aren't Equally Anti-Democratic: This is framed as a response to a Ross Douthat column, which sought to muddy the waters by contending that "the modern Republican Party is also the heir to a strong pro-democracy impulse" and that "contemporary liberalism is fundamentally miscast as a defender of popular self-rule." This is at best shallow contrarianism rooted in rather dated sleight of hand. Sure, Nixon imagined a "silent majority," but he didn't exactly trust them to run the country. Rather, he connived to trick them into backing his own presidency, in the most blatant model of mass manipulation of the time, a practice all subsequent Republican leaders have followed. And sure, the idea of "liberal elites" has a long pedigree, at least to FDR's "brain trust" and JFK's "best and brightest." But even at their most paternalistic and condescending, the latter have always embraced the notion of a public interest, and sought to make government work more effectively for virtually everyone. Republicans disposed of such notions no later than the 1980s, substituting the creed that only self-interested individuals exist, that they are in competition, and that politics is a means for advancing the interests of some people (supporters of the Republican Party) against the rest. If playing on popular prejudices helps the GOP gain power, so much the better, Same for lying, cheating, stealing -- their manifesto reduced to three plain words. But parties are not fixed ideologies. They represent shifting alliances, and the period of elite domination of the Democratic Party seems to be if not ending at least opening up, mostly because the "New Democrat" faction failed on two major counts: to deliver programs much needed to help the party base, and to effectively counter Republican schemes. (It's possible that elite domination of the GOP is also waning as the Party sinks ever deeper into Trumpian incoherency, but thus far that has had little practical effect.) Despite Douthat's best efforts, the increasing dispute over the very essence of democracy is helping to divide the parties and clarify their differences, as Democrats realize they need to reform themselves to become more credible and effective defenders of democracy. Also:

Anatol Lieven: Leaked drafts of NATO, US responses to Russia are surprisingly revealing: I said most of what I have to say on Ukraine and NATO in my January 27 piece, NATO Pushes Its Logic (and Luck). The main thing I would like to add is more detail on how the current threat was almost totally orchestrated by the US and UK through a series of "intelligence" leaks meant to embarrass and corner Putin. (I can hear Robert Sherrill from his grave intoning "military intelligence is to intelligence as military music is to music.") Since I wrote my review, nothing on the Russian side has escalated other than rhetoric at the UN, although on the US end we've seen a steady series of reports on arms and/or troops moving closer to the conflict zone, while Ukrainian citizens have been training in the latest tactics for fighting guerrilla warfare. Presumably that's being advertised as a deterrent, but the appearance of an armed (most likely right-wing) militia in Eastern Europe is never a good sign. Lieven's uncovered a few leaks of his own, which help separate the posturing from the real concerns. Not least, they show how the US is orchestrating NATO ("you should talk to the organ grinder, not his monkey"). But they also show an easily solvable problem, as long as cooler heads don't allow themselves to be painted into a corner. Also on Ukraine:

  • Anne Applebaum: The Reason Putin Would Risk War: "He is threatening to invade Ukraine because he wants democracy to fail -- and not just in that country." Articles like this are why I don't subscribe to The Atlantic (well, that and the high price tag). I don't doubt that Putin has little regard for democracy, but he manages to game Russia's system well enough, and he no doubt appreciates that his election wins give him legitimacy that would be hard to otherwise claim. He may well regard other "democracies" as susceptible to similar manipulation, and may enjoy doing so in some cases, but is that any reason to risk war? Applebaum is not just projecting; she is hallucinating. Putin has real but limited aims in Ukraine. The only one trying to blow them up to ideological principles are a few hawks in the West, who are the real threats to peace.
  • David Bromwich: Russia, Ukraine, and The New York Times: "The paper of record's coverage of the crisis has been a series of shameless provocative conjectures posing as facts." And not for the first time -- remember Iraq? what about the Spanish-American War? (or was that just The Hearald?) The Washington Post, by the way, is keeping pace with Russia could invade Ukraine within days, US assessments find (link headline from front page; actual title is "Russia could seize Kyiv in days and cause 50,000 civilian deaths in Ukraine, US assessments find," going on to predict: "Up to 5 million people likely to flee if Russia invades").
  • Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux: War With Russia Has Pushed Ukrainians Toward the West: Suppose that's why the US started the panic?
  • John Quiggin: Myths that stir trouble in the South China Sea: This is nominally about China, but the real subject is how the US and its "allies" are orchestrating a propaganda offensive to "promote the interests of nationalists and militarists." Sound familiar?

Carlos Lozada: How Trump's political style smothered the last substance left in the GOP: A review of this week's big Trump book, Jeremy W Peters' Insurgency: How Republicans Lost Their Party and Got Everything They Ever Wanted. Of course, the rot predates Trump, which is why the party was ready to embrace him. It occurred to me in reading this that the real architect of Trumpism was Roger Ailes, and Trump was just the actor picked to fill the part. One interesting point here is the update to the Republican three-legged party model: social conservatives, economic conservatives, and national defense, to which is added "stylistic conservatives": "voters cared just as much, if not more, about the way a candidate talked as they did about what specific issues the candidate supported. The more aggressive, unfiltered, and politically incorrect, the better." They saw transgressive speech as a sign of commitment, candor, and integrity, and Trump delivered. I got a sense of déjà vu here, recalling other conservatives that put style -- latent and in some cases actual violence -- above all else. They called themselves Fascists, and would have been disappointed in Trump (the epitome of "all hat and no cattle"), but proto-fascists these days delighted in Trump, and thanks to Fox News they lived in their own bubble world.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: My Young Mind Was Disturbed by a Book. It Changed My Life. A personal response to the recent spate of book banning (e.g., Maus in Tennessee). I'm old enough to recall a time when lots of books were banned. I know that as a teenager I often refused "required" readings (Huckleberry Finn was one -- I especially hated the misspellings meant to be colloquial), and sought out "banned" ones (mostly because I grew up with a severe deficit of info on sex and drugs). Maybe banning works for some people, but it's mostly about parents and self-important guardians feeling morally superior -- which they rarely are.

Ashley Parker, et al: 'He never stopped ripping things up': Inside Trump's relentless document destruction habits: "Trup's shredding of paper in the White House was far more widespread and indiscriminate than previously known and -- despite multiple admonishments -- extended throughout his presidency." I doubt this qualifies as a shocking revelation or as one of the grosser malfeasances of Trump's presidency, but in its extreme pettiness it reveals most clearly Trump's imperious conceit of being above and beyond the law. Might as well hang more Trump outrage here:

  • Melissa Gira Grant: To Trump, the Law Is Always White: "There is a particular twist in Trump's latest rhetoric, the claim that only a corrupt country could elect Black people who would dare to investigate whites." There's also Trump's recent argument that black judges shouldn't be allowed to rule on his cases. After all, they could be prejudiced against racists. It's always interesting to watch the crowds assembled behind Trump when he does his rally stand up routine. They always include a smattering of black faces with "Blacks for Trump" shirts. I don't know whether they're hired for the occasion, but their faces can get awfully puzzled when he goes into some routine about how whites are being forced to the backs of lines.

Trita Parsi: Washington ignores Amnesty Israel 'apartheid' report at its peril: "Not holding partners to account for human rights abuses makes them burdens rather than assets to the US." This is, of course, standard operating procedure: cite the reports of Amnesty International and other human rights organizations that criticize countries you hold grudges against, while ignoring the same sources on "allies" -- the simplest definition of which is nations which buy US military arms. (By the way, it's increasingly obvious that the US military-industrial complex has become, as Tom Engelhart put it, "a scam operation." See William Hartung: Mission (Im)possible -- and You're Paying for It.)

Heather Cox Richardson: January 27, 2022: Seems like this should have a better title, like "The Best Economic Growth Since 1984." Of course, like 1984, the upsurge in 2021 has more than a little to do with the depression of the previous year (years for 1984). But while the 1984 growth, fueled by tax cuts and deficit spending, petered out as wages fell flat and the newly-deregulated savings and loans went bust, Biden's focus on infrastructure and labor development augurs well for the future (and would even more so if more of the program got passed).

Joshua Rothman: Can science fiction wake us up to our climate reality? A profile of Kim Stanley Robinson, author of many books, recently The Ministry for the Future on how responsible citizens (and a few eco-terrorists) solved the climate change crisis, with a new book (The High Sierra: A Love Story) coming out this summer.

David Siders/Natalie Allison: Trump's 'circular firing squad' threatens GOP midterm gains: Well, one hopes, but censoring Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger doesn't really rise to the metaphor here. As purges go, they're a mere drop in the bucket, and you don't have to be Joe Stalin to understand that their example will help keep many more others in line. The days of Reagan's "11th commandment" ("never speak ill of a fellow Republican") are long gone, as the powers in the party, perhaps just in fear of mass ferment at the party base, have decided the most important thing is to maintain message discipline, driving the Party ever farther to the right. Sure, that could, in theory, turn into a suicide pact, but they've already managed to push it so far without feeling major repercussions it's hard to see why this one little step should make any difference. Also see:

  • Jonathan Weisman/Reid J Epstein: GOP Declares Jan. 6 Attack 'Legitimate Political Discourse'. That's taking weasel-wording to a whole new level. None of the mob broke into the Capitol because they wanted to have a nice, civil chat. Some of them wanted to intimidate Congress, and some simply wanted to disrupt it. But this gives you a hint where the GOP is heading. By 2024, you're going to see people who did jail time using that a credentials to run for Congress. Eventually, Jan. 6 will be remembered like the Alamo -- which may give some of us second thoughts about the Alamo.

Margaret Sullivan: Jeff Zucker's legacy is defined by his promotion of Donald Trump. The disgraced CNN President resigned last week, though not for the sensationalist idolatry that promoted Trump as a ratings bonanza even before Fox started sucking up to him. Also: Alex Shephard: Jeff Zucker Was the Most Craven TV Executive of the Trump Era.

Adriana Usero: How an out-of-context Jen Psaki clip led to days of Fox coverage. The point here isn't just that Fox distorts and lies. It also defends itself relentlessly by portraying any attempt to point out its lies and distortions as a scurrilous attack on Fox and their viewers. The first order result is that Fox viewers are trained to never believe anything they hear from mainstream media. The second order result is that no one should ever trust anything that Fox broadcasts. This credibility gap is the purest driver of polarization today.

David Von Drehle: George Packer's opus on Afghanistan is a scorching indictment of Biden: Review of Packer's essay in The Atlantic (which, behind a paywall, I haven't read). Packer was an early promoter of Bush's war in Iraq (which he later regretted), and now seems to have been even fonder of Obama's "the right war" in Afghanistan. Packer's opening line line was more balanced: "It took four presidencies for America to finish abandoning Afghanistan." (Actually, it took eight, starting with Jimmy Carter's decision to bankroll a "holy war" there.) Biden was the only one who got us out, and this is the thanks he gets? Sure, it wasn't pretty, and some part of that was because Biden tried to keep up the pretense that US intervention in Afghanistan had some redeeming virtue, but in the end he knew what he had to do, and did it. I'd call that courage. And I'd add that Packer has squandered whatever good will he earned from second-guessing himself on Iraq. He remains a soppy, fair-weather imperialist to the end.

Laura Vozzella: Youngkin campaign attacks high school student on Twitter. Big man, the governor.

Jenny Gross/Neil Vigdor: ABC Suspends Whoopi Goldberg Over Holocaust Comments: File this under "much ado about nothing." As usual, one has to wade through a lot of posturing to find the actual "wrong and hurtful comments." The first here was that Goldberg "said the Holocaust was about 'man's inhumanity to man' and 'not about race.'" Her first point was a little wishy-washy but plainly correct, so what's the problem? The second was technically wrong, but it turns on how one understands race. It is unlikely that any Nazis in the 1930s doubted that Jews belonged a different and inferior race. But is it really fair to fault an American black woman for race is about white-over-black instead? She made that clear when she added, "This is white people doing it to white people, so y'all going to fight among yourselves." OK, that wasn't helpful, but does her "wrong and hurtful comments" really just turn on identifying Jews as white? While Jews have been significantly more likely than Christian whites have been to recognize racism as a wrong and to support equal rights for all -- and have thereby become targets of white supremacists -- they've never had the same "skin in the game" as black people. But nowhere here is Goldberg denying or belittling the Holocaust. So why jump all over her? It's hard not to see this as a power grab, an effort to control language for political gain. That Goldberg was suspended, even after a full apology, suggests that the power is working. I could add that the reason it works is because the argument is structured in such a way that if you question it in any way, all you're doing is exposing yourself as an anti-semite.

The article quotes an ADL spokesman as scolding Goldberg: "the Holocaust was about the Nazi's systematic annihilation of the Jewish people -- who they deemed to be an inferior race. They dehumanized them and used this racist propaganda to justify slaughtering 6 million Jews. Holocaust distortion is dangerous." The problem here is that what's presented as a correction is itself a distortion. Sure, nothing stated is wrong, but this omits mention of millions of non-Jews killed by the Nazis. When I was growing up and first learning about Nazi Germany in the 1960s, the figure commonly cited was 10 million killed in Nazi concentration camps (out of about 50 million killed in the entirety of WWII). Over the next decade or two, the non-Jews were stripped from memory and everyone started using the six million figure. This shift in focus suited Israel, which used it (and its exclusive claim to represent the Jews of Europe) to claim reparations from a repentant Germany. It also suited US Cold War aims in that it minimized the leading role the left (including communists) had played in opposing and resisting the Nazi war machine. (On the other hand, not all Americans were pleased with the ploy. By rewriting German war aims as racist instead of imperialist -- the overarching ideology that promoted and was promoted by racism -- white supremacy in the US was cast into doubt.)

None of which should deflect one from understanding that the Nazi obsession with slaughtering every Jew possible was anything but one of the world's most spectacularly evil instances of "man's inhumanity to man." Nor does the fact that Germany accelerated the extermination in the waning days of the war lessen the extreme cruelty and viciousness the Nazi regime inflicted on Jews (and all other political opponents) in the early days of the regime -- a time when conservatives in the US, UK, and elsewhere were still much enamored with Herr Hitler. (That era's conservatives were, with few if any exceptions, much given to race theories, at least those that flattered their own sense of superiority. Their racism only gradually faded well after their champion had been disgraced, and in some cases still seems to linger.)

I'd also like to add that when I started reading into the history of WWII and Nazi Germany -- one particularly eye-opening book was Simon Wiesenthal's The Murderers Among Us, but also the concentration camp plays by Peter Weiss and Rolf Hochhuth -- I was instantly struck by the parallels between Nazi racism and the racist treatment of black and native people in America (although it took me a few more years to put them into the context of European imperialism). Only much later did I discover that Hitler based his racial theories on American models -- James Q Whitman's Hitler's American Model details this -- and that he viewed his drive for "Lebensraum" in the east as inspired by America's genocidal conquest of the old west. I should also note while Israel's dominant political faction has sought to capitalize on the Holocaust -- the book here is Norman Finkelstein's The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering -- no one should use that to generalize against all Jews (or even all Israelis). The threat of anti-semitism in today's world is indeed dire, and not lessened by co-existence with numerous other hateful, demeaning, and destructive beliefs.

When I first though of writing on this, I was thinking I'd use Tim Wise: Whoopi Goldberg's Suspension Is Ridiculous as a jumping off point, but while he has a number of valid points, I searched in vain for the offending quote. It also turned out that I disagreed with his main point, summed up in the subhed: "meanwhile, Ron DeSantis is out here refusing to condemn Nazis in his own state." I'm not really offended when a head of state refuses to take a podium and condemn any citizen group, and I'd be tempted to give them more credit when the media tries to goad them into it. Of course, the problem with De Santis (and Trump, who has also refused to disparage his own Nazi supporters) is that this isn't a principle of decency with them. They're more than eager to condemn people they dislike, and they've made it clear that they can't stand vast swathes of the public, so the real question is why they seem to think that Nazis should be the exception.

I also read Aja Romano: Can Whoopi Goldberg's public history lesson actually do some good?, which makes some interesting points, and adds context, both on the long history of anti-semitism and on Goldberg's generally constructive handling of past gaffes. Still much to nitpick here. Romano frames Goldberg's comments as "indicative of a growing cultural ignorance of the Holocaust," and notes sensibly this is "in part because of the passage of time and cultural memory loss," but continues "also in part due to the blatant manipulation of World War II history by the modern white supremacist movement and other bad actors who practice Holocaust revisionism and denial." Really? I understand that some such texts exist, but does any other historian take them at all seriously? No doubt there is a lot of ignorance on the subject, given time, geography, and political blinders, but no one who actually reads up on the history doubts the scale, intention, or methods of the Holocaust. What is up for debate is how the Holocaust fits in the broader context of history. Ironically, the ones most insistent that we never forget either the Holocaust or the long and disgraceful history of anti-semitism and racism that led up to it seem to have little interest in remembering the broader context of that legacy: and not just the millions of non-Jews the Nazis also killed, but the deep history of imperialism, of war, and of conservative repression of the left -- or as Goldberg put it, "man's inhumanity to man."

PS: I thought I was done with this, but have since found more insightful commentary worth citing:

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Sunday, January 23, 2022


Speaking of Which

I thought maybe I should do one of these columns last week. I had several pieces piled up in open tabs, but couldn't get started. Back when I started doing this things, I aimed for Fridays, but didn't get started this week until Friday afternoon, and then it just started sprawling. I will say that one incentive has been the cascade of reports on how Biden and the Congressional Democrats are losing the faith of the American people, and how Republicans are poised to make major gains in 2022. (I won't bother looking up the link, as I haven't actually read the piece, but Henry Olsen has something on how Republicans are gaining "majority party" status.) I think this is all bullshit, but it wouldn't hurt Democrats to be a bit paranoid, as the consequences of failure in 2022 and (especially) 2024 are dire. Meanwhile, here's what I did come up with.

One open tab I didn't write about below, but don't want to lose, is William Horne's Twitter thread on the Jan. 6 anniversary.

Here's the latest coronavirus map: looks like new cases have peaked, although the 14-day change is still up 11%, and hospitalized and deaths (which lag new cases) are up 30% and 44% respectively, the latter to 2,162 per day (864,182) total, which is higher than the September 2021 peak, a bit less than April 2020. The map is pretty uniform everywhere (except Maine). The unvaccinated death rate is back up to 20x the vaccinated rate.


Jedediah Britton-Purdy: The Republican Party Is Succeeding Because We Are Not a True Democracy: I came to this piece after writing most of the below, and could have filed it under any of several entries, but the point is worth underlining (and alphabetic order by author helps, too). For one example: "Trump could have tied Biden and forced the election into the House of Representatives by flipping just 43,000 votes in three states," which would have disqualified 7 million Biden voters for living in the wrong states. That's just one of many undemocratic advantages the party of wealth and privilege enjoys, so it shouldn't be surprising how harshly they've turned against democracy: their very success depends on upending or preventing it. Conclusion: "The way to save democracy is to make it more real." Article includes links to a number of articles collectively titled The Uncomfortable Lessons of Jan. 6. In particular, see Rebecca Solnit: Why Republicans Keep Falling for Trump's Lies.

Neel Dhanesha: Texas went big on oil. Earthquakes followed. "Thousands of earthquakes are shaking Texas. What the frack is going on?" Well, it's wastewater injection. The wastewater is pumped up with oil, especially from mature wells where much of the oil has already been pumped out. This isn't exactly caused by fracking, but fracking is used to increase yields in old wells, so they tend to go hand in hand. (Fracking is also used to break up shale to extract gas, and that's more problematical, in large part because the fracking compounds are more toxic, and more likely to leak into the water supply.) I wasn't aware of Texas having this problem, but it's no surprise. Oklahoma has experienced thousands of earthquakes, up to around 5.5, in the last decade, and we've had a few dozens in south-central Kansas (or maybe hundreds, depends on where you draw the line -- I get USGS reports on everything over 4.0, but there are many more closer to 3.0).

Jacob S Hacker: What does Jan. 6 say about American democracy -- and the prospects for war? Reviews two books: Mark Bowden/Matthew Teague: The Steal: The Attempt to Overturn the 2020 Election and the People Who Stopped It (Atlantic Monthly Press), and Barbara P. Walter: How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them (Viking). The former is detailed reporting which provides the broader (and critical) context behind the January 6 riot/insurrection. In focusing on the storming of the Capitol, we run the risk of turning that singular, inept, bumbling event into camouflage for the far more ominous Trump team schemes to steal the election via "legal" means, through the courts (which have been systematically packed with Republican loyalists) and ultimately by simply rejecting the certified electors from selected states (e.g., ones with gerrymandered Republican control of state offices). Trump's attempt to steal the election was always a multi-pronged effort, of which the mob was just one tool, a rather desperately employed one. (I've seen Peter Diamond grouching that the mob was counterproductive, disrupting the "real plan" of getting Pence and the Senate Republican majority to reject the electoral votes.) But one should bear in mind that the Republican assault on democracy has always been a multi-pronged affair, and has mostly been achieved through legally-sanctified means -- gerrymanders and voting restrictions get the most press, but the initial and paramount affront to democracy has been the overwhelming of politics by money (which Democrats of means, like Obama and the Clintons, even more blatantly Bloomberg, have contributed to).

Another danger of overly focusing on the riot/insurrection is that it suggests the Trump mob will turn increasingly violent if they don't get their way, plunging the nation into some kind of civil war. The Walter book provides a survey of civil wars around the world, like Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in their much-touted How Democracies Die. I'm more tempted to order Walters' book, because I'm more interested in general patterns than in the details of which Trump flunkies came up with which harebrained excuses to rationalize a 7-million-vote deficit, but I also have reservations (which is why I didn't bother with Levitsky/Ziblatt or several similar tomes -- I did read Timothy Snyder's The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America, which was time wasted enough). It's not that I don't see value in comparative histories, but they slight the differences unique in our situation, while often falling back on prejudices. No surprise that most of these examples are steeped in German and East European examples, allowing the authors to be uncritical of what passes for democracy in America. We flatter ourselves as the world's oldest democracy, which leads one to think of decrepitude, but it's more accurate to say that democracy was an ideal that was embraced early but never fulfilled -- in large part because real democracy has always had domestic enemies. Looking afar for ominous examples abroad tends to overlook obvious ones at home. It also misses how often new threats to democracy focus on past fractures.

One chapter in Waters' book that seems especially relevant is "The Dark Consequences of Losing Status." That seems to describe the Trump mob, even if there is little objective support for their fears. The fears, of course, exist because they're drummed into people by the Fox propaganda machine, which is the only way to motivate people to follow such a counterproductive agenda.

A few more civil war/eclipse of democracy links:

  • Zack Beauchamp: The intellectual right's war on America's institutions: This piece is old enough (11/19/2021) I must have cited it before, but I found it in an open tab, and it fits here. No evidence here that Chris Rufo and Patrick Deneen are very smart intellectuals, or that the Trump fan club cares about what their so-called intellectuals think, but those who are campaigning for a civil war shouldn't have any trouble lining up with guys who want to tear America down and start all over again. And why shouldn't they, if they really believe "the entire edifice of the American state has become a tool for repressing conservatives." I've long found it tiresome when liberals like Obama spout pious clichés about American virtue, but that seemed like part of the cost of doing retail politics. So I was shocked when I heard Trump mocking Obama for closing his speeches with "God bless America," and getting cheers for doing so.
  • Thomas B Edsall: How to Tell When Your Country Is Past the Point of No Return: Long on poli-sci studies about things like "nonlinear feedback dynamics of asymmetric political polarization," but the bottom line is that R's and D's are polarized to different degrees and in different ways, which in the case of R's (but not D's) has mostly driven them over the deep end. I think it's significant that when the Trump mob turned out to violently overthrow the 2020 election results, they weren't met by a corresponding D (or even antifa) mob. They were met by police (and eventually national guard), whom D's trusted to uphold the rule of law.
  • Michelle Goldberg: Are We Really Facing a Second Civil War? Writes about the Walter book, also Stephen Marche's more speculative The Next Civil War: Dispatches From the American Future. While Goldberg plays down the likelihood, she notes that "it's no secret that many on the right are both fantasizing about and planning civil war."

Jeff Hauser/Max Moran: What Biden's Message Should Be. I flagged this because I'm interested in messaging for the upcoming elections. I don't necessarily agree with everything here -- e.g., I doubt that political prosecutions against Facebook and Boeing would help much -- but I do think it's important to impress on people how much they have to lose if Republicans win. By the way, this is a little wonky, but is good messaging: Nathan Newman: How Dems Saved the Economy.

Michael Hudson: When Debts Become Unpayable, They Should Be Forgiven. Interview with the economist, pointing out that debt jubilees have been common throughout history. "Every economy that has interest-bearing debt has to restructure at some point, or else all of the economy will end up being owned by just a teeny group of people at the top, like you had in Rome." Or here and now. There's always been an element of pretense to debt. The rich get to pretend their money is working, protected by the promise of repayment which leaves them richer than ever, enjoying power over their debtors. Debtors, in turn, get to actually do something with money they don't own, but have to sacrifice to pay it back, and grovel along the way. As debt is a power relation, bankruptcy exacts a political as well as a financial reckoning.

Fred Kaplan: The End of the Afghanistan War Was Even Worse Than Anyone Realized: This summarizes a longer piece by Steve Coll/Adam Entous: The Secret History of the US Diplomatic Failure in Afghanistan, which I imagine will shortly turn into a book, following Coll's Directorate 5: The CIA and America's Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan (2018), and, much earlier but essential background, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden (2004). I don't feel like writing about this in any depth, but the following quote from Kaplan sums up the war fairly well:

Duplicity reigned in this war from the very beginning. President George W. Bush and his crew thought the war was over when the anti-Taliban rebels conquered Kabul and a Western-chosen president, Hamid Karzai, was installed, thus allowing U.S. troops to thin out and invade Iraq. In fact, the Taliban, who had never left, resumed the fight. Under President Barack Obama, when the U.S. effort escalated and switched to a strategy of nation-building, the generals sent rosy-eyed assessments from the front, claiming progress and promising more, knowing that they were at the very least exaggerating. (Obama eventually caught on, drew down the troops, and switched to a less ambitious strategy.) Trump wanted to get out of Afghanistan; his negotiator tried to maneuver the Taliban into a deal that gave a win to all parties, but he was the one maneuvered. Biden's team thought -- or pretended to think (it's unclear which) -- that a semblance of victory could be pried from abject defeat. All of these players were dishonest, with their allies, their adversaries, and, most damagingly, themselves.

The line "pretended to think" belies a persistent problem which Obama suffered from even more than Biden: the belief that projecting confidence influences reality toward desired ends. Ron Suskind's book on Obama's handling of the recession was called Confidence Men, based on their belief that the recession could simply be wished away. Such magical thinking is even more prevalent among America's defense and foreign policy mandarins. For all his blunders, Biden at least deserves credit for breaking the cycle of self-delusion. It is sad and pathetic that his approval ratings started to crumble when the US departed Afghanistan. Leaving was the best thing he's done, and we should all applaud his resolution in doing that.

Ed Kilgore: Biden Didn't Have the power or Luck to Become FDR or LBJ: True on both counts. The Congressional margins in 1933 and 1965 are in the article (as are notes about recalcitrant Southern Democrats, but also Progressive Republicans who supported FDR and LBJ programs. In order for any significant legislative program to pass, the opposition party has to collapse, and that hasn't happened (yet). A big part of the problem is the persistence of Republicans in voting their party line regardless of how severely disgraced its candidates are. Kilgore also wrote a piece which tries to explain this: Never Mind the Facts. Trump Fans Feel Like a Majority. I get the sensation, but can't help but feel it's illusory. You're not seeing Democrats out marching in the streets or tearing their hair out on Facebook, because those aren't arenas where we need to be fighting right now.

Ezra Klein: Steve Bannon Is Onto Something: Better title, provided by Paul Woodward, is: To protect democracy, Democrats have to win more elections. Klein's mostly talking about the need to recruit Democrats to run for small, unglamorous offices, because that's where the roots of political movements lie. At least that's what Republicans got real good at back in the 1990s, leading Jim Hightower to publish a book called If the Gods Had Meant Us to Vote, They'd Have Given Us Candidates. While they may still have an advantage, the gap's closed some in recent years, and the quality of Republican candidates is often ridiculous. This led me to another Klein article on political strategy: David Shor Is Telling Democrats What They Don't Want to Hear. I don't see Shor as much of an oracle, but he's pointing out things like: "Senate Democrats could win 51 percent of the two-party vote in the next two elections and end up with only 43 seats in the Senate." The obvious conclusion there is that Democrats have to win big, and they especially have to learn to win in Red States. Given where Republicans stand, it shouldn't be hard to craft a winning program. Selling it is another story. Shor's opinion is that trimming the left would help, and that's an opinion widely shared among Democratic Party functionaries, even among some nominally left-leaning, but the left also offer things that former New Democrats fail miserably at, like ideas and integrity.

Chris Lehman: How the Fed Supercharged Inequality: Review of Christopher Leonard's book, The Lords of Easy Money: How the Federal Reserve Broke the American Economy, which "follows the unintended consequences of quantitative easing." I'm not following this perfectly, but I'm not surprised that trying to pump up the economy by pushing vast sums of money out through the banks would result in numerous asset bubbles, since that's what you get when people with too much money try to park it in investments bought from other people with too much money. One might contrast this with offering to replace consumer debt, including school and home, with long-term 0% loans, which would significantly reduce debt overhang, increased spending, and (probably) reduce asset bubbles. Just an idea, and one that could be further tuned.

Eric Levitz: Give Manchin What He Wants Already: Sure, why the hell not? He's proven he can block anything he doesn't want. I think it's good to have passed the "bipartisan" infrastructure bill (which wasn't very bipartisan at all in the House). Unless you have some runaround to get Murkowski or Collins to cross the line, Manchin is the only game in town, so take what you can get. And run for more in 2022. And if, heaven forbid, you lose in 2022, at least you'll have however much this is in the bank. Manchin's wrong about a lot of things here, starting with inflation and the deficit. But you're not going to convince him of that. And before long he's not going to matter.

Anatol Lieven: Did this week's US-NATO-Russia meetings push us closer to war? Also recently wrote: Don't kick the can: two key US proposals for upcoming Russia talks, and: Ukrainian neutrality: a 'golden bridge' out of the current geopolitical trap. All three articles point out that the seemingly escalating tensions between Russia and the US over Ukraine could be negotiated away simply enough: by agreeing that Ukraine should remain neutral, with no prospect of membership in NATO (similar to the 1955 agreement where Austria was recognized as neutral in the Cold War division of Europe), and by implementing a 2015 agreement to provide some degree of autonomy for the Russian-aided separatist Donbass region. Both of these seem like painless deals for the US, and offer Putin with a degree of face-saving political cover. That matters mostly because Russia overreacted to the 2014 "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine by supporting separatist groups, and got away with it in Crimea, much less successfully in Donbass. I don't quite understand why this is a big deal for Putin, but backing down is never easy. On the other hand, the US is the one that's seriously overstretched and deluded in this conflict. NATO should have been phased out after the fall of the Soviet Union, but instead sought to perpetuate itself through expansion, eventually provoking the hostility it was meant to defend against. The key question is whether Ukraine (or any other state) is safer in or independent of NATO. During the 1950s, Austria and Finland chose to stay out of NATO, and their neutrality was respected by the Soviet Union. Most Eastern European countries signed up for NATO not because they feared Russia but because NATO was presented to them as a stepping stone to entry in the European Union. The problem is that as NATO expanded, the US became more negative and more militant toward Russia -- especially in the use of sanctions targeting not just the state but prominent individuals. Why is harder to explain as anything other than self-delusion: we lie to ourselves about our foreign policy aims and desires.

It's worth remembering why NATO was created in the first place. The "Allies" (principally the US and the Soviet Union) had defeated Nazi Germany in WWII, with American and Russian armies meeting in and dividing Germany, both intent on pacifying Europe and favoring their own interests. But occupation of Europe was expensive and potentially alienating. Under NATO, the US effectively took command of all of the military resources of western Europe, assuring that as they were rebuilt they would remain subservient to US foreign policy. But to make NATO attractive, the US had to posit an external threat. The "spectre of communism" sufficed, what with Russian armies still occupying central and eastern Europe, and labor movements in the west (especially in Italy and France) still feeling solidarity with the Soviets. The Soviet Union responded by organizing the Warsaw Pact and locking down the "Iron Curtain," although Yugoslavia and Albania, ruled by indigenous anti-Nazi resistance movements, resisted control from Moscow.

The resulting "Cold War" served US business interests in several important ways. First, "red scares" in the US and elsewhere helped suppress and in some cases break labor movements. Second, it became clear after WWII that Britain and France could no longer afford their colonial empires -- especially with their militaries circumscribed by NATO -- plus there was the risk that continued colonial rule would fuel independence movements led by communists, much as communists had led anti-fascist resistance movements during (and even before) WWII. The result was that by 1960 nearly all European colonies had been handed over to pliable local oligarchies, bound to the US through business interests and arms deals. (There were, of course, variations along the way: the US encouraged Britain and France to fight against independence movements led by communists, especially in Malaya and Vietnam.)

One can debate whether NATO in 1949 was a good or bad idea -- I'd argue that it was profoundly bad, both for Americans and for everyone else -- but the more pertinent question is why NATO didn't close up shop when the Warsaw Pact disbanded and the Soviet Union split up. Aside from losing their pet enemy, by then decolonialism was complete, the whole world (except for a handful of "rogue states" -- ones that the US bore long-standing grudges against but that, unlike China, were small enough to ignore) was integrated into the neoliberal order, and Europe itself had lost all interest in militarism and empire, its many nation states melting into the EU. Nothing NATO did after 1991 had to be done by NATO -- the US-led coalition against Iraq in 1990 had been organized under the UN, with broad support, and that could just as well have been the model for subsequent NATO interventions in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and/or Libya (if supportable cases had been made; with NATO the US was the only decider, so could get away with flimsier excuses and callous acts that ultimately made matters worse; NATO managed to stay out of Iraq, as Germany, France, and Turkey refused to cooperate, but that didn't stop Bush from proclaiming his "Coalition of the Willing"). And, in due course, NATO has managed to push Russia around enough to create the enemy it needs to justify itself. That's a consequence that was totally unnecessary, yet today threatens the world, as anti-Putin propaganda merges with Cold War propaganda into a kind of brain freeze that affects many Democrats as much as it does Republicans (who at least profit from selling arms, fomenting hate, and smashing the working class).

For an example of that "brain freeze," see Alexander Vindman/Dominic Cruz Bustillos: The Day After Russia Attacks: What War in Ukraine Would Look Like -- and How America Should Respond. The most telling line here is the summary dismissal of Lieven's arguments: "Presuming that diplomacy fails, there are three scenarios that could play out." All of the imagined scenarios start with more-or-less-limited Russian advances into Ukrainian territory (much of which isn't currently controlled by the Kiev regime). Some other references in the piece: "Kremlin's network of malign influence"; "marshal a unified response to Russian aggression"; "if Russian military action is a given"; "impose additional costs on Russian invaders and contribute to deterrence when paired with other actions"; "avoiding a one-on-one military confrontation with Russia while punishing Russia for creating this harsh new reality." By the latter, they mean that Ukrainians should bear the pain of America's demonization and isolation of Russia, which the US can continue at no risk to its own interests. Isn't is rather late to still believe that American intentions are always benign? Let alone that events always break favorably for the US?

Americans have been feeding off their own propaganda since the early days of the Cold War (or maybe since the Monroe Doctrine, but the quantity and quality took a huge leap in the 1950s, and became increasingly deranged through Nixon and Reagan and Clinton and Bush, to the point where US foreign policy gyrates between schizophrenia and dementia. (Obama was a believer who still tried to rationalize fringe cases, leading to half-hearted openings to Cuba and Iran, but never questioning something as sacrosanct as NATO, so he wound up promoting conflict with Russia and China. Trump was a cynic, but his only real interest was in graft, so he effectively changed nothing, other than to make "US interests" look even more selfish and cynical.) This needs to change, but Biden's team is reflexively locked into the mythology, and the left has deprioritized foreign affairs given the need to advance domestic goals and oppose Republicans. But also note that the ability of the US to dictate craziness to its "allies" has long been diminishing, and could collapse. It's one thing to blackball inconsequential countries like North Korea and Cuba; quite another to bite off one as large and connected as China, where sanctions may push nations to isolate the US instead. Russia is dangerous because no one knows the limits of possible US bullying, least of all Washington.

By the way, Lieven also wrote: America must stay away from Kazakhstan's troubles. He probably has the same article somewhere on Belarus, and I wouldn't be surprised to find one forthcoming on Turkmenistan, maybe even Moldova -- countries that Americans have no understanding of and negligible interests in, but plenty of conceited opinions about -- a conceit peculiar to people who think they rule the world, but who don't. Some other pieces on Russia/Ukraine (including one more by Lieven that appeared after I wrote the section above):

Jane Mayer: Is Ginni Thomas a threat to the Supreme Court? That's Justice Clarence Thomas's wife, who has long worked for right-wing think tanks and lobbying firms (currently one called Liberty Consulting). That not only provides her with untoward influence on the Court, it is an obvious vector for bribery and influence peddling. I've long thought that Thomas could and should be impeached for this relationship, but there's never been a political consensus behind doing so. (As I recall, Antonin Scalia had a similarly compromising spouse, and his son became a prominent member of the Bush and Trump administrations.)

Ian Millhiser: The Supreme Court can't get its story straight on vaccines: "The Court is barely even pretending to be engaged in legal reasoning." The Supreme Court overturned the Biden administration's OSHA rule requiring vaccination or testing for workers in covered businesses, but allowed another rule on health care workers. As a subhed put it: "The Court is fabricating legal doctrines that appear in neither statute nor Constitution." In other words, they're making this shit up as they go along, responding to a political agenda that that is rooted in nothing but their own presumed powers. When Trump packed the court, I thought it was premature to talk about rebalancing schemes. In order to be politically possible, people first have to be convinced that the current Court is out of control. That's what these rulings provide evidence of.

Millhiser also wrote: It was a great day in the Supreme Court for anyone who wants to bribe a lawmaker.

Rani Molla: A new era for the American worker: "American workers have power. That won't last forever." But it could last longer if Democrats got behind it. To some extent, they did: the first Covid-19 stimulus bill, which Trump was so desperate for he largely let Democrats craft it, was probably the most pro-worker legislation in this century (or well back into the last). The disease itself gave some workers leverage. Partial enactment of the $15 minimum wage also helped. But most important was the reluctance of workers to settle for the lowest paying jobs offered. That left many businesses moaning about labor shortages, but it also incentivized them to do what markets are supposed to do: adjust prices so supply can meet demand.

David Sirota: Voting Rights Alone Will Not Save the Democrats: One thing that Republicans and Democrats seem to agree on is that Democrats do better when the American voting public expands, while Republicans gain when the voting public contracts. That much is clearly expressed in myriad state bills Republicans have passed since 2020, and in the federal bill Democrats failed to pass last week. I doubt that's true. For one thing, increasing the voting share means that you get more ill-informed and even marginally interested voters, who are more likely to vote based on style than substance. We had an exceptionally high turnout in 2020, yet Democrats lost ground from 2018, and won the presidency by about half the expected margin, despite running against the most embarrassing fuckup imaginable. The key for Democratic wins is the same as it ever was: getting your people to come out en masse, which takes a combination of two fundamentals: making them fear the consequences of loss, and giving them some positive hope to vote for. Saving democracy offers something on both sides of that equation, but it would mean more if you can show that democracy is good for most people. Republicans are doing their part by showing that their corruption of democracy is pretty awful.

Michael Wines: Census Memo Cites 'Unprecedented' Meddling by Trump Administration: A fairly minor story, but another example of how obsessively thorough Republicans are when it comes to tilting the political playing field.


I saw this "Media Bias Chart" in a Facebook post. I don't know anything about its provenance, but it seems roughly plausible as far as it goes. (One common objection is that their center is farther to the right than they represent. Another is that what's blithely grouped together as "opinion pieces" divides between based on a deeper factual understanding of the world, common on the left, and opinions based on rank fallacies, so often found on the right. Even with so much effort at balancing, note that the right dips much further on the "News Value and Reliability" axis.)

I mention it mostly because I want to quote/preserve a comment by Peter Feldstein:

An early version of this chart had Natural News on the furthest left! Good they corrected that. That one mistake was highly influential on my understanding of right-wing media strategy five years back -- it hasn't changed -- which is to astroturf continually as "left" in order to woo political unsophisticates (if I may) traditionally claimed by the left on one of their favourite issues; in this case, natural foods. In each case (anti-feminism, taxation, belief in civil liberties, even reflexive anti-Americanism!), the message is, "Blame the (Democratic, (Liberal, Labour, etc.) establishment." Then offer a smorgasbord of other right-wing things to believe in.

I'm convinced this is why, as George Monbiot put it recently (and I've been observing for many years), "in the countercultural movements where my sympathies lie, people are dropping like flies." He means that hippies are turning into right-wing true believers. He goes on, "there has been an almost perfect language swap. Parties that once belonged on the left talk about security and stability while those on the right talk of liberation and revolt." Only those on the right aren't sincere about it, while those on the left are bound to dominant parties using the language of security and stability.

I've largely concluded that all sorts of countercultural interests -- like animal rights, dietary regimes like veganism, psychedelics, and various "spiritual" leanings -- have no bearing on the left-right axis, and trying to throw them into the mix just muddies the matter. There is no reason why people who believe in peace, justice, and equality should give up meat, just as there is no reason that people who relish hamburgers should fear the left. Right-wing propagandists, of course, try to have it both ways. I could add vaccination-phobia to the list: a lot of anti-vaxxers lean left politically, but it is the right that has sought to politicize the issue, further endangering public health.

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Saturday, November 27, 2021


Speaking of Which

I saw a meme today which pictured Dwight Eisenhower and quoted a number of seemingly progressive planks in the 1956 Republican platform:

  • Federal assistance to low-income communities
  • Extension of Social Security
  • Asylum for thousands of refugees, expellees and displaced persons
  • Extending minimum-wage protections "to as many more workers as is possible and practicable."
  • improving the unemployment benefit system
  • Protection of the right of workers to organize into unions and to bargain collectively
  • assure equal pay for equal work regardless of sex.

While figureheads like Eisenhower and Nixon saw little benefit in attacking the overwhelmingly popular platforms of the New Deal, rank and file Republicans were often still as adamantly opposed as they had been under Coolidge and Hoover (two of the three presidents who famously "served under [Treasury Secretary] Andrew Mellon"). This was posted by a distinguished historian who also mentioned Wendell Wilkie, but way overshoots the mark in arguing that "there were days when being Republican was a mark of intelligence and integrity" -- consider Joseph McCarthy for one, and Barry Goldwater for another. But rather than nitpick, my comment tried to show a broader context:

From 1932-80 and 1980-2020 we've seen eras where one party dominated and the other tried to cope by largely adopting the dominant party's rhetoric and agenda. Only two Republicans were elected president in the former period: Eisenhower and Nixon. Both basically accepted the New Deal/Great Society framework, although their commitment to it was negligible, and the core of the party was often resistant and destructive, as when Republicans joined with Southern Democrats to pass Taft-Hartley, which eventually crippled the labor movement. Similarly, from 1980-2020 only two Democrats were elected President: Clinton & Obama. Both accepted major tenets of Reagan's anti-big-government conservatism, both actively courted business interests, and limited their reform proposals (e.g., in health care) to ones that would favor business interests. That slide to the right was halted by the abject failure of Republicanism to do anything but make the rich richer, by the failure of New Democrats to actually reform anything, and by the gross embarrassment of Trump. On the other hand, Biden doesn't look like an era-founding leader on the order of Roosevelt and Reagan (or looking back further, you can play this game with Jefferson and Lincoln, who inaugurated similarly dominant eras), and there are still Democrats stuck in the Reagan-era mindset (most famously Manchin and Sinema), so we're in a bit of a muddle right now. On the other hand, the only way you're going to see Republicans start trying to be reasonable is if the party gets beat so bad they have no other alternative.

One notable thing about this these eras is that the first three start with dramatic breaks toward more equitable and inclusive polities, but the Reagan one is anomalous, attempting to impose a more stratified, hierarchical power. It is also by far the least popular, secured beyond Reagan himself only through chicanery and corruption. Moving forward, we can draw on the progressivism of the past, but need a new understanding of how the word works, and what our place within it should be.


David Edward Burke: Has the Antiracist Movement Become a Counterproductive Religion? I don't know anything more about John McWhorter's book Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America than what I've read in this review, but I have a couple of kneejerk reactions. First is the inclusion of "Racism" in the title. Call it Wokism if you must, and try to show how a religious (he specifically rejects that it is merely religion-like) devotation to Wokism is counterproductive in various ways. But as written, Wokism is a subset of, and therefore more or less equivalent to, racism. That is not true, and muddies our understanding of racism. Sure, the word by itself can be confusing, but it's hard to grow up in America without understanding that racism refers to white-over-black or white-over-non-white discrimination. Second, the implication is that racism is simply a matter of belief. I know Critical Race Theory isn't often taught in America, but isn't it obvious that racism in America is not just opinion but systemic in law, custom, and culture? If you don't know that, you deserve to be harrangued by the consciously woke. There is much more we can quibble with, like when it's useful or counterproductive to accuse someone of being racist, or whether a phrase like "white privilege" even means anything significant. But that's because I jumped to the end of the review, only to read: "Democrats will be motivated to think carefully about whether to wholeheartedly embrace or distance themselves from the more extreme and tyrannical elements of the far left." What the fuck? I get that some people "on the left" (not unlike "on the right" or "in the middle") care so much about seemingly minor slights that they react harshly (whether about racism or sexism or snobbery or pollution or food or satire or all sorts of things) but that doesn't make them tyrants. In order to be a tyrant, you have to have power, including the ability to punish people who offend you. Maybe someday some people on the left will have that kind of power, and we should work to ensure they wield it responsibly, with charity and forbearance, such as would be consistent with a belief system based on equity, justice, mutual respect and tolerance -- i.e., on the very principles that separate left from right. But for now, virtually all tyrants and would-be tyrants are on the right.

James M Bush: Author, activist and contributor Dan Georgakas has died aged 83: Probably best known for his book about his home town, Detroit: I Do Mind Dying.

Clay Cockrell: I'm a therapist to the super-rich: they are as miserable as Succession makes out: We're taking it slow through Succession's 3rd season. I can't think of a single show ever more devoid of sympathetic characters -- even Billions, where comparably rich wastrels at least on occasion get to show off their cleverness and accomplishments, or Breaking Bad, another triumph of technical skill over any shred of decency. Perhaps we are meant to admire people who get rich through lack of scruples. Popular culture started lionizing criminals in the 1960s with The Dirty Dozen and It Takes a Thief -- they broke the ice by toiling for legitimate institutional powers, but as such groups and causes became increasingly suspect, and as the notion of a public good gave way to individual greed, the rationalizations soon broke down. Succession differs in that it focuses more on the idiot heirs than on the conquering founder, although in this case whatever skill Logan Roy may once have wielded seems every bit as atrophied as his offspring. No one in the show seems even remotely competent to run the company, including Roy's lackeys and the featured outside investors (from Sandy and Stewie to Roy's estranged brother). One might suspect the whole concoction is intended as a stereotyped assault on contemporary capitalism, but our limited view of reality isn't all that different. This article's testimony about the miserable rich feels right. Of course, the rich feel trapped. They live in a world where getting rich is sold as the solution to every problem, yet also a world where one can never be too rich. For more on the show, see Emily VanDerWerff: The four F's of trauma response and the four Roy kids of Succession.

Matthew Cooper: Biden Was Right to Pick Powell to Chair the Federal Reserve. I don't agree, but I'm not terribly bothered either. I thought Obama made a serious mistake in reappointing Ben Bernanke instead of picking someone more in sync with Democratic interests, and Clinton's double-reappointment of Alan Greenspan was an even bigger mistake. If you're going to get blamed politically for the economy -- and Democrats have a knack for getting blamed even when all conventional indicators are bully (see Clinton, Obama, and especially Biden) -- you really should get your own person into the slot, especially since you lose the power to fire that person as soon as he's confirmed. Of course, Clinton and Obama were badly compromised here: the Fed Chair nominally works for the people, but really works for the banks, and both had a lot of big donors in the banking industry, with this one spot they're especially serious about IOU's. Biden too, most likely. Powell has done a decent job so far, and has some fairly progressive economists in his corner (e.g., Dean Baker). But he's been on his best behavior pending reappointment, and even so he's promising interest rate hikes. He could easily turn into Biden's worst nightmare.

Garrett Epps: Are the Courts Getting Ready to Crack Down on Reporters? Good question. The right-wing Veritas Project, which is designed to produce defamatory videos about what they regard as the left, is suing the New York Times not just for defamation but for an order to prevent the Times from further reporting about Project Veritas. Normally, such a lawsuit would be a joke. Epps has also written a big piece on How the Trump Era Changed the Supreme Court.

Paul Krugman: Wonking Out: How Global Is Inflation: Very, which means it has little to do with US federal policies; and Going Beyond the Inflation Headlines. For many people, pandemic subsidies and extra support for the safety net, like the extra money added to usually-miserly unemployment compensation, was a lifesaver, but for other people it just added to savings, helping to fuel the recovery even before the pandemic has really ended. Where this demand got ahead of supply (which is still impacted by various dislocations caused by the pandemic), companies have been able to jack up prices, reducing buying power. I'm not sure it's helpful or even accurate to describe this as inflation -- an old-fashioned but more apt term is price gouging. What one calls it matters, not least because different solutions appear depending on whether one calls it inflation or price gouging. We're accustomed to thinking of inflation as something that can be controlled by government austerity and central bank fiscal policy, even though the effects of both are precisely equal to the long-discredited medical practice of bleeding. To limit prices, we reduce demand by putting people out of work, so they can't spend. However, the method -- increasing interest rates -- is perverse, as interest rates are often a component in costs, so you'd think they'd prices further up. Moreover, higher interest rates are a windfall for lenders -- especially those debts that are indexed to the interest rate (like credit card debt). (There is also a perversity on the side of lowering interest rates: it makes money cheaper for banks, and the easiest -- and therefore the first -- thing they do with it is to fuel speculation, creating asset bubbles.)

On the other hand, the main ways for attacking price gouging are to increase supply, reduce monopoly, and tax away windfall profits. Also: the old-fashioned approach of price controls and rationing, which can be effective in the short run, while raising fears of shortages and bureaucratic hassle -- not that the famously efficient market doesn't have comparable problems. Also: a lot of price gouging is predicated on fraud, so oversight and review can help.

Much more to be be said about this than I can manage now. Some more links:

Chris Lehmann: We All Live in the John Birch Society's World Now: A review of Edward H. Miller's book, A Conspiratorial Life: Robert Welch, the John Birch Society, and the Revolution of American Conservatism, noting: "It's clear today that figures like Welch were much closer to the emerging ideological mainstream than any Cold War liberal could have imagined."

Susan Lustbader: What the Arbery and Rittenhouse Verdicts Couldn't Tell Us: Writer is a public defender in New York City. She provides a judicious, tightly reasoned analysis of this month's two high-profile murder trials: the acquittal in Wisconsin of a teenager, Kyle Rittenhouse, who shot three and killed two at an anti-racism march in Kenosha, and the conviction of three self-appointed vigilantes for the murder of an unarmed black man in Georgia. Good description here of why each trial went its own way, but the bigger point is how exceptional such trials are compared to the everyday workings of the mass incarceration system. "To get a sense of the way racism pervades our criminal justice system, I would recommend paying less attention to blockbuster cases and instead visiting a local criminal court on a random day and witnessing the parade of low-income people of color shuffled before the court, most of them accused of minor, victimless offenses. Pay attention as a judge decides, within minutes, how much money will be required for each person to get out of a cage." More pieces relevant here:

Gail Pellett: Why Care About the Rise of Fascism? The legacy of Sophie Scholl and White Rose, and their resistance against the Nazi regime in Germany, in 1942. The segue to its contemporary relevance starts with the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville in 2017, and includes a smiley, armed picture of Kyle Rittenhouse. If you doubt the relevance of fascism to right-wing political "thought" in America, check out where Chuck Rufo is heading in Zack Beauchamp: The intellectual right's war on America's institutions.

Bill Scher: Youngkin's Win Proves That Republicans Shouldn't Fear Expanded Voting Rights: When Republicans swept the 2010 elections, it occurred to me that most of the shift could be explained by the dropoff in votes following the peak 2008 presidential election. Evidently, Republicans came to the same conclusion, as they've become obsessed with erecting obstacles against voting ever since. Of course, they've worked even harder at obstacles that discriminate against likely Democratic voters, but a lot of restrictions, like limiting early voting, cut across party lines. One thing I didn't realize until later was that the dropoff in 2010 was almost identical to the dropoff from 2004 (which Bush won, barely) to 2006 (which was a major Democratic wave). What I now think happens is that when voter turnout increases, a lot of low information voters show up, and those are precisely the ones that are most gullible for Republican propaganda. Both in 2016 and 2020, Trump ran significantly better than the polls. There is a theory which tries to explain this: that Republican-leaners are intimidated by pollsters and are too shy to disclose their true feelings. Given how many Republicans are proud of being assholes, I rather doubt this. Same basic thing happened in Virginia, where Republican overshot the polls. Scher thinks this means that Republicans shouldn't fear higher voter turnout. I'd counter that Democrats shouldn't fear lower voter turnout. Indeed, as long as you keep your people committed, the total turnout doesn't matter much. I'm not saying that Democratic efforts to expand the electorate and get more people to vote are wasted. They underscore the Democrats commitment to democracy, which is something Republicans have given up on, so this helps to underscore the danger of giving Republicans more power to abuse. On the other hand, Democrats need to understand that the real threat to democracy in America isn't gerrymandering or the other scams Republicans use to leverage their power. The real threat is money. And while Democrats complain about money interests when running for office, they have yet to try to do something about it when they do have power. The result is to make them look corrupt -- something Republicans harp on even though they're even more complicit in giving moneyed interests inordinate power in federal and state governments.

Zachary Siegel: Give People Safe Drugs: "Over 100,000 overdose deaths happened last year, driven by volatile and lethal fentanyl." I think this is clearly right, although I'd add that it should be under the rubric of a general health care reform such that people can both get the painkillers they think they need and also the medical supervision and social workers they really do need. The main thing holding us back, aside from the myriad profits many interested parties (both legit and criminal) reap, is a stubborn idiotic belief in the persuasive power of hypocrisy. If anything, the effect is the opposite.

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Friday, September 24, 2021


Speaking of Which

I wasn't planning on posting anything this week, but I tweeted after reading the Dougherty article below, and felt like I should expand on that a bit more.

I don't want to get into the weeds over Biden's approval poll dip, or into its associated (all too predictable) politics, but I was rather taken aback by a piece of email I got from something calling itself National Democratic Training Committee. Omitting the poll solicitation and the garish background colors, it looked rather like this:

BAD NEWS: REPUBLICANS CALL FOR PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN TO BE IMPEACHED

President Biden is UNDER ATTACK. Unless we can prove good Democrats are still standing by him, this could spell the END of Joe Biden's presidency.


Republicans are OVER-THE-MOON.

Their baseless calls for Biden's impeachment are working, and now his presidency is on the verge of COLLAPSE.


This is a C-A-T-A-S-T-R-O-P-H-E!!!


But without MASSIVE support from Democrats, Biden's presidency will be doomed.

Biden is working day and night to END the pandemic and SAVE our voting rights . . . while Republicans try to sabotage his presidency???

We must act quickly! Respond before 11:59 PM to give Joe Biden a fighting chance >>

I realize all they're really doing is phishing for donations for their organization (National Democratic Training Committee), which may (or may not) be worthy, but this level of hysteria is totally uncalled for, and counterproductive. Impeachment is a press release, not a practical threat. (Marjorie Taylor Greene filed impeachment articles the day after Biden was inaugurated. Four more Republicans filed articles last week, trying to make political hay out of Afghanistan. Two Texas Republicans added their articles over border policy. Also: Greene's impeachment rant goes off the rails.)

Impeachment cannot possibly proceed, let alone succeed, without significant Democratic defections. Even if the House acted, the Senate would fail to convict, the process would be viewed as purely political, and consequences would be few and far between. Assuming Biden's health holds up, his presidency is secure through 2024, and the only real threat is if Democrats lose Congress in 2022 (which is something that happened to the last two Democratic presidents). But that's still more than a year away, and unless you're running for office then, there's very little you can do about it now, so please chill, and save your energy for when it's needed. Above all, don't panic and back down. Republicans are unhinged, and their devotion to fringe insanity will ultimately undermine them. Don't help them by going insane yourself.


On my Facebook feed, a right-wing relative forwarded this meme:

In the 60s, the KGB did some fascinating psychological experiments.

They learned that if you bombard human subjects with fear messages nonstop, in two months or less most of the subjects are completely brainwashed to believe the false message.

To the point that no amount of clear information they are shown, to the contrary, can change their mind.

My first thought was to respond, "so you're working for the KGB now?" Her personal posts are harmless enough, but in spurts as much as 10-20 times a day she forwards right-wing troll memes, many designed to inculcate fear, others aimed to flatter totems of the right, and all massively mendacious and mean. I've replied to a few, like the one that tried to illustrate the evils of socialism by offering Facebook as an example (as I pointed out, "I think the word you're looking for is capitalism"). But I may have learned something from this one: namely, that the reason Russia's trolls favor the Republicans has less to do with currying favor with their fellow oligarchs than because they've both embraced the same model of psychological manipulation.

Further down, my relative forwarded another meme, which shows a donkey in a chemical protection suit, carrying a tank marked "Center for Democrat Control" and spraying "FEAR" all over. I didn't recognize the donkey at first, so my initial reading was that "FEAR" was being used to control Democrats. No Democrat would label it that; not that they would use "Center for Democratic Control" either, as democracies are opposed to control, but using "Democrat" as an adjective breaks the association of the Party with democracy -- something at least until recently that Republicans had to give lip service to. The donkey spoils the malaproprism, but it underscores how Republicans' worst fears are that Democrats will act just like they do.

It seems like Republicans are flipping on a lot of rhetoric these days, whatever it takes to make their side sound plausible. The big recent one is how vaccine refusal rests simply on "free choice" -- something they deny in their efforts to criminalize abortion.

Another meme: "Right now, TODAY . . . We have the very government our Founding Fathers warned us about." Only thing I can think of there -- at least it's one that was widely discussed at the time -- is the peril of having a standing army.


Carter Dougherty: Senate Democrats Have a Big New Corporate Tax Idea: Democrats want to pass a fairly major public works bill -- top line is advertised as $3.5 trillion over 10 years, which works out to a measly $350 billion/year, well less than half of what the Defense Department costs, but for things that are actually useful and valuable. (For more context, see: Peter Coy: It's Not Really a '$3.5 Trillion' Bill; also: Eric Levitz: $3.5 Trillion Is Not a Lot of Money; and Michael Tomasky: How the Media's Framing of the Budget Debate Favor the Right.) But to get it through the Senate reconciliation process (i.e., around the filibuster), they have to offset that cost with revenue increases. Reversing Trump's corporate income tax giveaway is an obvious candidate, but swing voter Joe Manchin has been balking at anything over 25% (up from 21%, or down from 35%, depending on your perspective). So Bernie Sanders has proposed a compromise, which "would impose a surcharge on corporate income tax if the company paid its CEO 50 times more than what its median employee earns." Dougherty applauds this as "a wildly popular idea just waiting for them." Sounds like a real dumb idea to me. Sure, CEO compensation is ridiculous, but there are more straightforward ways to deal with it: income tax, and you can also limit the deductibility of the corporate expense (since executive bonuses are basically profit-sharing, why not tax them twice, first as profits, then as income?). To raise any significant revenues, the surtax would have to be steep, which puts a lot of emphasis on the pivot point: why 50 times? Doesn't that suggest that CEO pay 40-49 times is OK? You don't have to go back very far to find years when that ratio was not just exceptional but unheard of. This also raises questions about what is CEO compensation (base salary, obviously, but CEOs also routinely get "performance" bonus, stock options, and all sorts of non-salary perks, treated variously). And why just CEOs? Aren't their also issues with COOs, CFOs, CTOs, board members, and others? The whole proposal is simply perverse.

All the more so because there is a simple alternative, one so obvious I'm shocked no one seems to be discussing it: make corporate income tax progressive. It should be easy to pick out brackets and a range of tax rates -- say, from 21% (or less) to 35% (or more). Given the concentration of profits in large companies, one could even lower the tax rate for a majority of corporations while increasing total revenue. Seems like that would be good political messaging. One might object that a progressive profits tax would discriminate against companies that are simply large and/or successful (have high profit margins). That sounds to me like a feature. High profit margins are almost always due to monopoly effects. It's very difficult to break up or even regulate monopolies, especially in marginal cases. Taxing them will make them more tolerable. And if the prospect of higher taxes leads some corporations to spin off parts to tax them separately, that too sounds like a benefit.

There are cases where flat taxes are appropriate, but income/profit taxes aren't one. It's OK to have flat taxes on consumption (sales and excise taxes), because that saves having to identify and qualify the spenders. But income/profit taxes are always identified, and the level is an intrinsic part of what's being taxed. Elsewhere I've proposed a scheme where unearned income (interest, dividends, capital gains, gifts, inheritance, prizes) should be taxed at a rate which is progressive over the lifetime sum (see: here and here and here and here). Admittedly, it's fun to tinker with tax schemes, but the real questions are harder, as they turn on what income and what can be deducted. The big problem with corporate income/profit taxes is that many corporations are able to avoid/evade them -- in which case the marginal rate may be moot. On the other hand, it's just those questions that are least transparent and most subject to interest group lobbying. It's very hard to develop a fair tax system when every political office is up for auction, as is the case now.

[PS: A related story: House Bill Would Blow Up the Massive IRAs of the Superwealthy: The rationale behind IRAs is to allow people to postpone paying tax on retirement savings until they need them, at which point their incomes will probably come down, so they'll save a bit when they have to pay tax on their withdrawals. However, Peter Thiel (to take just one example) has used this loophole to shelter $5 billion. The proposal is to limit tax-sheltered savings to $20 million, which is still pretty generous.]

Anne Kim: A Case for a Smaller Reconciliation Bill: Of all the sources I read regularly, Washington Monthly has been consistently defending the more conservative Democrats in their efforts to go slow and small (if they have to go at all). I don't particularly agree with them, but I'm not especially bothered as well. I'd like to pocket a few real (even if ultimately inadequate) gains as soon as possible, like the "bipartisan" infrastructure bill and the whittled-down Manchin-approved fragment of the $3.5 trillion reconstruction package. Pass those and you can go into 2022 with a message that you've already produced important, tangible gains -- things that were never even attempted when Trump was president -- and all you need to do more is get more Democrats elected. As this piece advises: "Take a longer view, with a strategy and tactics geared toward building a sustainable governing majority." On the other hand, while I can see the centrists' impulse to take things gradually, they need to decide which side they're on, and act accordingly. As Benjamin Franklin put it, "we must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately."

PS: Seth Myers recently pointed out that Democrats in Congress are divided into three groups: progressives, moderates, and "Republicans" -- cue picture of Manchin (Follow the Money Into Joe Manchin's Pockets) and Sinema (Kyrsten Sinema Is Corporate Lobbies' Million-Dollar Woman). By the way, Steve M. has a theory about conservative/corrupt Democrats like Manchin and Sinema: No, Mr. Bond, They Expect the Democratic Party to Die:

I don't think she cares. She's being sweet-talked by corporate interests who've undoubtedly made it clear that whatever happens to her in the future, she'll never go hungry. She'll be taken care of if she carries out a hit on Biden and the rest of the Democrats. So she knows she has nothing to fear. She'll be fine.

This country is in deep trouble because even people who should know better can't grasp how dangerous the Republican Party is -- and it's also in deep trouble because of a failure to understand the stranglehold corporate America has on our politics. We need to see Republicans and the rich as the enemies of ordinary Americans. And we need to recognize that the damage the rich do isn't always done by means of the GOP.

By the way, I noticed that the former right-wing of the Democratic Senate, Claire McCaskill and Heidi Heitkamp, have been in the news recently, appearing as paid corporate lobbyists against the Biden bill, so the notion that Manchin and Sinema will, in cue course, dutifully lose their seats and wind up making more money lobbying, isn't at all far-fetched.

For more on this, see Krugman, below.

Ezra Klein: The Economic Mistake the Left Is Finally Confronting: Interesting article, although the title doesn't do it any favors. The "Left" is Biden's economic team, and the "Economic Mistake" is, well, what? Arthur Laffer-style "supply side" gimmickry? Opposition to same? Does it matter? The point is that they're looking not only at increasing demand (by government spending, plus putting more money into the hands of workers and the poor) but also at supply-side bottlenecks, hoping to limit friction that could produce inflation. Of course, one big item there (infrastructure) works both ways, which is why investments in infrastructure and education have such big returns. Klein cites two papers, one on the problem: Cost Disease Socialism (an even worse title) from the "center-right" Niskanen Center; and one on the solution: An Antidote for Inflationary Pressure by Biden advisers Jared Bernstein and Ernie Tedeschi. I'd add a few more points. Antitrust enforcement would help eliminate supply bottlenecks, by encouraging more companies to exist and add capacity. Eliminating patents and limiting other forms of "intellectual property" would prevent many monopolies from forming. And while government can encourage private companies to form and invest by guaranteeing future purchases, it could be more efficient to directly fund new ventures.

Paul Krugman: Are Centrists in the Thrall of Right-Wing Propaganda? Republicans are predictably acting out as nihilists, but:

More surprising, at least to me, has been the self-destructive behavior of Democratic centrists -- a term I prefer to "moderates," because it's hard to see what's moderate about demanding that Biden abandon highly popular policies like taxing corporations and reducing drug prices. At this point it seems all too possible that a handful of recalcitrant Democrats will blow up the whole Biden agenda -- and yes, it's the centrists who are throwing a tantrum, while the party's progressives are acting like adults.

So what's motivating the sabotage squad? Part of the answer, I'd argue, is that they have internalized decades of right-wing economic propaganda, that their gut reaction to any proposal to improve Americans' lives is that it must be unworkable and unaffordable.

Well, right-wing propaganda for sure, which includes the occasional nod to economists like Hayek and Friedman, although these days they rarely bother with rationalizations for their political preferences when shouting them louder will do. Keynes, who like Krugman held his occupation in exceptionally high regard, famously derided political opponents as "slaves of some defunct economist," but the less-quoted continuation is more true today: "Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back." Or for every stupid idea in circulation today, you can find some past "thinker" who articulated it first. (Sure, this is just a variation on one of my old aperçus: that every bad idea in Western thought can be traced back to some Greek.)

It's mind-boggling to recall this now, but back in the 1990s Reagan Republicans were widely regarded not just as crafty politicians but as serious thinkers. Not that the "Laffer curve" survived much more than the few months when it was useful for selling the Reagan tax cuts, but the idea was propagated so widely that some Democrats started buying into it, which is how we got Clinton and Obama -- Democrats who raked in huge donations on the promise that they could do more for the wealthy than even the Republicans could. That idea lost its lustre during the Obama years, and especially with Hillary Clinton's loss to Trump. But it's recent enough that it's no surprise that there are still Democrats trying to make the "Reagan Era" Clinton-Obama model working -- the one they've been fairly successful at for their own political careers. Besides, nothing has been done to reform the system that allows the rich to dominate elections and smother elected officials with lobby interests.

Indeed, the real surprise is that Biden, who followed the Reagan Era's zeitgeist as uncritically as anyone, and who was the overwhelming choice of the Clinton-Obama legacy minders in 2020 (at least once every other right-center candidate had been eliminated), should have broken the mold as definitively as he has. I attribute that to two things: one is that politics has ceased to be simply a vehicle for office-seekers to advance their careers on -- voters have started to demand services and representation, which means that Democrats have to consider more than their donors; and the other is that most serious thinking about practical solutions to increasingly dire real problems is concentrated on the left these days.

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Sunday, September 12, 2021


Speaking of Which

The real deluge of 9/11 anniversary/memorabilia articles didn't hit until Saturday, a day after I published my Speaking of Which roundup, so I missed a few that were worthy of reference and/or argument. Plus, I always have second thoughts the day or two after a post. A comment forum might be a good place for them, but that hasn't been practical. Sometimes I add a "PS" section, or a bit more often I might sneak a few extra comments into the next Monday's Music Week, but the former is rarely noticed, and the latter often missed. But this seems worthy of its own post.

I have one key point to make here, so let's make it bold: We've gotten used to living in a world where rhetoric routinely wins over facts and logic. If that's still true, Joe Biden has just walked into a trap which will destroy his presidency and his party. Unless, that is, people accord the Republicans no credibility and see through the trap. One hint that they might comes from Jennifer Rubin's column: Biden delivers straight talk -- and wins kudos.

Republicans are up in arms over vaccine mandates everywhere, and Biden has just taken ownership of that political issue, which only makes them more furious and frenzied. Why exactly Republicans have chosen to get so worked up over this issue -- defending the "right" of individuals to infect and possibly kill their fellow citizens -- strains credulity, especially given their relentless attack on so many other fundamental rights (like the right to decide when and if to become parents). Maybe they've become risk junkies? (That would be consistent with their guns fetish.) Or maybe it's just that having crafted so much of their political rhetoric to appeal to the dumbest and most gullible citizens, they are not being led by their patsies. (No one illustrates this better than Donald Trump.)

Rubin also praises Biden for fighting back against the Texas SB 8 law, which attempts to ban abortion by deputizing vigilantes to sue "offenders" for bounties. (By the way, that law got me wondering, why don't blue states pass a law which lays the basis for people who got Covid-19 to sue any unvaccinated people they came in contact with during the incubation period. That would be a bad law, for many of the same reasons SB 8 is, but at least those who got sick have a valid case for standing. The change is that instead of having to prove transmission and intent, you'd be able to base the suit on simple negligence.)

But I had a second "trap" in mind. This is the bald assertion that in withdrawing US troops, Biden "surrendered to the Taliban," and is usually accompanied by intimations of treason. I first ran across this in a column by the odious Marc Thiessen: Biden has no business setting foot at Ground Zero on the anniversary of 9/11, and I've seen it a bunch of times since. Thiessen's political agenda is obvious from his recent run of columns: Greenlighting the Taliban's takeover of Kabul is a national disgrace; Our military's sacrifice in Afghanistan was not in vain; and Biden's Afghan retreat has done irreparable damage to our alliances. The middle one of this series is the most repugnant, not least because it's the most dishonest. It is a line that every apologist for every war utters sooner or later as the toll mounts while the fantasies of glory fade. Even if the only things you ever read about the war are by shameless propagandists like Thiessen, all a sane person can deduce is that the cause is lost, if indeed there ever was a cause at all.

Of course, it's a bare-faced lie to say that Biden "surrendered" to the Taliban, or even that he passively "greenlighted the Taliban takeover." The negotiations spared the US from fighting the Taliban for over a year (during which US casualties in Afghanistan dropped to zero), while the Kabul government and military appeared to be holding its own. I always hated those "training wheels" metaphors, but at some point the US had to let go and see if the Kabul army could stand on its own. We now know that it couldn't, and that the collapse came from within, as most of a mercenary army hired by the US had no principled will to fight against the Taliban.

If Biden made a mistake, it was in not withdrawing sooner. The Kabul government was supposed to negotiate some kind of power-sharing framework with the Taliban, but cynically figured the Americans would be stuck as long as they held out, but they didn't really any other angle: just steal as much as they could, then clear out. Meanwhile, the Taliban did negotiate, with everyone else, allowing them to isolate and ignore Ghani, who wound up fleeing even before the last Americans left. Even if Biden was willing to side with the hawks and send troops back in, it's inconceivable the US could recover from this setback. More likely, the US would eventually have to fight its way back out, like the British in 1842.

The US war effort in Afghanistan has long survived on the fumes of denialism and magical thinking. It was the height of arrogance and vanity to think that a mission conceived as revenge and meant to be so horrifying it would deter further terrorist acts would ultimately be embraced by the Afghan people as a great venture in humanitarianism. Those fumes continue to intoxicate the hawks, whose last refuge is to blame their systemic failures on politicians like Biden, who finally found the courage to stand up to their delusions.

What remain to be seen is whether Biden and the hawkish elements of his own party -- forget the Republicans, who are proving themselves to be terminably stupid on this count -- can learn the lesson of failure in Afghanistan and back out of the entire "forever war" posture. The first indications are not promising, as Biden seems to have embraced an "over-the-horizon" strategy for killing "terror suspects" without having local bases. The problem here is not simply that bombing remote locations recruits more "terrorists" than it kills (partly because most of the people killed aren't terrorists by any sane definition). (How many of you remember that Clinton ordered cruise missile attacks on Afghanistan and Sudan three years before 9/11?) The other problem is that by disrespecting the sovereignty of the Taliban, the US will preclude any possibility of enjoying a normal relationship with Afghanistan, or of the Afghan people interacting constructively with the world. If the great fear is that Afghanistan may someday harbor a group that tries to attack the US -- as it did with Al-Qaeda -- the dumbest thing we could do is to use sanctions and subversion to turn them into more desperate enemies.

Yet this is exactly what we are seeing the foundation being laid for. For instance, the Washington Post editorial (i.e., not just the rantings of its token right-wingers like Thiessen and George Will): The Taliban shows what it means by 'inclusive.' The time for American wishful thinking is over. It's frightfully easy for Americans of all political stripes to malign the Taliban -- after all, that's been the official US propaganda line for close to 25 years. The Post also published Hamid Mir's I met Osama bin Laden three times. I'm sorry to say his story isn't over. The concrete recommendations in these pieces are actually pretty lame, which makes me wonder why try to be hostile just to make yourself feel better about losing?

The Post also published 6 former secretaries of defense: We must memorialize the fallen in the global war on terrorism. The only thing I want to hear from this sextet is their guilty pleas before a war crimes tribunal. This doesn't quite qualify as something more to charge them with, but it does say something about their character. In particular, their term "sacred war dead" strips humanity from the unfortunate souls whose lives were so cynically squandered by political opportunists and turns them into war fetishes -- really just a gilting of Thiessen's "not in vain" con. But also, it attempts to merge and sanctify the whole Global War on Terror schemata. I might be more sympathetic if I thought said war was over and done with, but it was designed to run forever, and so its monument is something that we'd bound to feed indefinitely.

I've long been stuck by the wisdom of a quote from Henry Stimson (FDR's Secretary of War during WWII, a period when the US depended on a strategic alliance with the Soviet Union): "The chief lesson I have learned in a long life is that the only way you can make a man trustworthy is to trust him; and the surest way to make him untrustworthy is to distrust him." We might argue about whether the Taliban deserves our trust (or whether they should trust us), but the only way this situation ever gets better is if we bury the hatchet. We don't need to flatter them, nor them us. But we do need to recognize that it isn't our right or duty to pick their leaders or dictate their policies. And we also need to admit that we've believed in and tried to enforce that sort of interference for way too long. The US doesn't need to disengage from the world, but Americans do need to give up thinking they have a right to tell everyone else how to live. As recent history has shown, we don't even have the good sense to direct our own affairs.

I've digressed, but just to underscore how profoundly malignant this week's Republican talking points have become. The question, again, is will people fall for them. No doubt the Republican base will, as they've proven they'll fall for anything. But why should anyone else believe anything Republicans say? As one who doesn't, I can't answer that. But our future depends on the answer.


Notes on a few more scattered pieces. I don't have much to say about vaccine mandates, other than that the extreme communicability and relative peril of Covid-19 means that those who refuse to get vaccinated are recklessly endangering more lives than their own, and are showing utter disregard for the lives and well-being of others (as well as doubtful intelligence). I see no reason to credit such people with an ounce of the patriotism many see as their natural claim (nor is that the only political stance I see discredited by their refusal). I'm not in favor of forcing people to do things they find abhorrent, and I'm inclined to go light on enforcement, but I have no respect or sympathy for them.

Andrew J Bacevich: A modest proposal: Fire all of the post 9/11 generals; also Don't let the generals dictate the war's legacy, make them answer for it [July 23]. If you think he may be being harsh, consider this interview with Petraeus: "Q: How do you think the situation in Afghanistan ended up where it is today? A: It started with the Trump Administration . . . I just think it was premature to leave."

Jason Bailey: '25th Hour': The Best 9/11 Movie Was Always About New York. I mention this because I know Bailey (and felt like giving him a link) -- he moved to New York from my home town, Wichita -- and I listened to his podcast on 9/11 and the film (where Mike Hull, who also moved from Wichita to New York, has a good disquisition on what New York was like immediately after 9/11). But I barely recall seeing the Spike Lee movie.

Dartagnan: Republicans vow to prolong the COVID-19 pandemic as long as possible: A Daily Kos contributor, sums up the Republican reaction to Biden's mask mandate without mincing words. Much like Mitch McConnell strove to extend the recession Obama inherited in hopes voters would blame Obama, it isn't too far fetched that Republicans see Covid-19 as something they can ultimately get away blaming Biden for. (As I recall, a big part of the rationale for recalling Gavin Newsom in California was his handling of the pandemic.) Indeed, Biden's approval polls have fallen as Covid-19 has surged back and dampened the economic recovery, but will people really give the Republicans a free pass when they're working so hard to be spoilers? Here's a related story: Alabama Man has Heart Attack, 43 Full Hospitals Turn Him Down, Finds One 200 Miles Away, Dies There.

Ezra Klein: Gavin Newsom Is Much More Than the Lesser of Two Evils: The California recall election is Tuesday, September 14. I'm sick of hearing about it, but here you go.

Jim Lobe: How 9/11 enabled a preconceived vision of an imperial US foreign policy: Starts with the blueprint, a Defense Planning Guidance draft document written in 1992 ("literally a 'Pax Americana'") written by a couple of Defense Departments underlings who later became architects of the Global War on Terror: Paul Wolfowitz and Scooter Libby. This document has been pretty well known for a long time, even if little discussed. I see Lobe also has a [04-30] piece that is news to me: Hawks seek revival with new group: they're calling it the Vandenberg Coalition, after the Republican Senator who advised Harry Truman that if he wanted to raise funds to counter Soviet influence he'd have to "scare the hell out of the American people" -- in other words, the driving force behind the Red Scare and the Cold War.

Julian Mark: Marine vet 'tortured' 11-year-old after killing her family, sheriff says. The girl 'played dead' and 'prayed.' This sort of thing never enters into those "cost of war" calculations. I don't know how to valuate it, but I am certain that the cost is real.

Dylan Matthews: 20 years, $6 trillion, 900,000 lives: "The enormous costs and elusive benefits of the war on terror." The value, but also the limits, of this piece is its relentless effort to quantify everything. I'm increasingly convinced that the real cost is much more psychic, and that takes its toll often far away from the obvious points. Also note that "elusive benefits" was just there to suggest balance. I wasn't able to find any benefits in the text, even elusive ones.

Kathleen Parker: 9/11 broke us. And we are far from healed. This is what happens when someone with no discernible principles or insight is assigned to write something to commemorate an arbitrary event date: she writes the same column she always writes, about how partisan division has torn us apart, so "division became an end in itself, a self-righteous vision that culminated in the Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol." I'm glad she was bothered by Jan. 6, but that was the work of one faction on one side of the partisan divide. Sure, it's tempting to bookend the two dates, as Spencer Ackerman does in his Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump (links in previous post, but add this dissenting view: Blame the Kochs, the Murdochs, and The Turner Diaries for January 6, Not 9/11). Pace Parker, there is something real and substantial that has divided Americans: economic (and political) inequality. From 1945 (or 1933) to 1980, America became more equal, with a dominant middle class and serious efforts to improve the lot of the marginal poor. During this time, for instance, wages rose in lockstep with productivity. But then business revolted, and used their money to buy political favors, like tax breaks, deregulation, union busting, undermining the safety net, neglecting infrastructure, promoting monopoly, and routinizing war. The result was that wages have stagnated, and all productivity gains have been captured by the owners. Division was part of the sales pitch for this vicious political agenda. Many pundits like to cite 9/11 as a brief, glorious moment of unity in this polarized 40-year stretch. Parker laments its briefness, but the real lesson is the collective damage is even graver in the rare periods when both parties and most of the media agree. People like to say that "9/11 changed everything," but what really changed America was the Bush decision to go to war, which went unexplained, unexamined, and unquestioned because the opposition party failed to check assumptions built into the war mentality.

Robin Wright: The anguish over what America left behind -- and Afghanistan's future: It pains me how bad she's gotten. Consider this: "For the U.S., the forever war is over, but American military missions are not." Ergo, the "forever war" is not over. It's still very much on track to last forever, because it doesn't have any defined terminal goals. Or as she quotes Biden, "To those who wish us harm, know this: the United States will never rest. We will track you down to the ends of the earth, and we will make you pay the ultimate price." What ended in Afghanistan was the pretense that we could enter a country, occupy it, and get the people to love us because we set them free. No more "speaking softly" for America. From now on it's all "big stick." The thing is, the US is fighting "over-the-horizon" wars in another dozen countries, like Somalia (which we withdrew from in 1993) and Libya (since 2011, although we first bombed them in 1986), so there's not a shred of evidence of that being anything other than forever war. Nor is that the only howler here: "The reality of America's exit -- its mission unaccomplished in multiple ways -- would have been unimaginable when Bush spoke two decades ago." The real question is how could anyone not have imagined such an exit?

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