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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?
Friday, September 10, 2021
Speaking of Which
As you probably know, this week is the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and hence of the US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan (although more like the 42nd anniversary if you count the "covert" action initiated by the CIA in 1979). There's been a fair amount of press on that, some noted below. And while the number of people who realize what a bad idea that war was has significantly increased in recent years, there are still a lot of important people who want to crank the war up again.
I was in Brooklyn that morning, with Laura Tillem for a visit with Liz Fink. From her apartment, we could see the streak of black smoke drifting east from the burning towers, against a bright blue sky, and we could look down on Grand Army Plaza and watch people trudging home from jobs in Manhattan. That's about three miles in from the bridges, so one of the first things I was struck by is that the adrenaline of pedestrians fleeing the scene had worn off. New Yorkers are used to difficulties, and this was worse than usual, but no need to panic -- unlike the politicians and media who quickly whipped up their "America under attack" chyrons.
Liz and Laura were glued to the TV, which I could hear from the other room, where I was thumbing through a book called Century, with often gory pictures covering the whole of the 20th century, from the Boxer Rebellion and Boer War to the bombing of the USS Cole. Liz predicted the TV would become unbearable in a couple days, but the bad ideas had yet to harden into even worse policies. Even before the second plane hit, Liz intuited who was doing it, and why. My reaction was that this was a moment for introspection: a wake-up call for Americans to reflect on and get right with God. Alas, there was little evidence of that. Even friends who were trusty leftists with long histories opposed to American militarism lost their minds.
Early afternoon we walked into Park Slope and ate in a Middle Eastern restaurant, doing brisk business -- probably the last day it was possible to do so without encountering American flags. We came back, and watched more TV. I remember John Major and Shimon Peres cackling about how at last Americans will understand what terrorism means, and will appreciate how much they can learn from British and Israeli expertise in such matters. Then there was Senator Hillary Clinton, on the Capitol steps, complaining about closing the session and daring the terrorists to take her out. It was already getting weirder. That evening, the media got some grainy video of a missile attack in Kabul, so they started celebrating "America strikes back."
We were locked down for most of a week. When the subways were clear, we rode into Grand Central Station to eat in the Oyster Bar. No sooner had we entered the Station than we saw a phalanx of firefighters marching to busses for the trip downtown. When the planes started flying again, Laura left for Wichita, and my sister-in-law flew into New York, having been stuck in Las Vegas. She brought horrible news: her daughter-in-law, my niece, was working in WTC and was one of those killed. I rushed down to my nephew's house, where everyone was stunned. A few days later Liz took a planned trip to California, leaving me alone in the apartment for another week or two (with the television never on, so I was sort of cocooned from the madness developing across the nation. In fact, I had never heard of "9/11" until a friend picked me up and drove me to where I had parked my car in New Jersey. But I can say that I attended an antiwar demonstration in Union Square Park, much like many I had been to (and many more to come). I had a project to do in New York -- that's when I built Robert Christgau's website -- and spent spare time prowling around bookstores looking for something to read to help me make sense of the world. I didn't find much at the time, and wound up reading a book on British "hill stations" in India. Intuitively, I knew this had something to do with colonialism.
This week is also the 50th anniversary of the Attica Prison massacre. I don't recall any discussion of its 30th anniversary 20 years ago, most likely because the civil case still hadn't been settled. Liz Fink joined the Attica Brothers defense team straight out of law school, shortly after the event, and stayed with the case until it was finally settled in 2005. There was some sort of a 40th anniversary, and this year there are more remembrances organized around the 50th anniversary. I watched the first two panels of Attica Is All of Us on the 9th, with two more coming up on the 13th. But what I really recommend you watch is the HBO Max documentary Betrayal at Attica, which draws a line from the lynchings and labor wars of the 19th century to recent killings by police, and finds Attica in the center, featuring narration by Liz Fink.
I had a rather troubled adolescence, but in 1971 I started to take control of my life. I got a GED, and entered college at Wichita State. I took a philosophy class, and when Attica happened my professor was so disturbed by the events that he put aside his plan and spent a whole session delving into what happened. That stuck with me, and various things caused it to reverberate over time. I have a cousin who taught political science at SUNY Buffalo, and she and her friends got involved in the Attica Brothers defense, so I followed the case more closely than I otherwise would have. Later I met and fell in love with Laura, and it turned out that her closest friend from college was Liz Fink. I got to know Liz fairly well over the years, and met several of her clients and fellow lawyers. When my nephew (Mike Hull) moved to New York in 2000, I introduced him to Liz. It took a while for them to click, but he's done several films and a lot of video editing, and offered to take Liz's Attica files and digitize and archive them. The film is derived from the archive, but the archive is public and will be a resource for anyone else who wants to find out what happened 50 years ago. But others will be hard-pressed to match the narrative power of Mike's film (or the economy and insight of Liz Fink). I should also mention that Mike has continued to interview participants, which will add to amount of information on Attica.
Robert Christgau wrote a terrific review of Mike's film, Out of the Box. I'm not finding many more reviews, but there are several reviews of Stanley Nelson's new Attica documentary (here and here and here). The latter is scheduled for the Toronto Film Festival, then later on Showtime (don't know when). Nelson is a famous documentarian (26 previous films, MacArthur Fellow, three Primetime Emmy Awards, etc.).
Matthieu Aikins, et al.: Times Investigation: In US Drone Strike, Evidence Suggests No ISIS Bomb: "It was the last known missile fired by the United States in its 20-year war in Afghanistan, and the military called it a 'righteous strike'" -- it killed 10, including "a longtime worker for a US aid group" and seven children. A little something for the Afghans to remember us by. Also see Ben Armbruster: New report: Post-9/11 US airstrikes killed upwards of 48,000 civilians: so the last airstrike wasn't exactly an exception to the rule.
Emran Feroz: The Enemies We Made: "Haunted by Predator drones in the sky and death squads on the ground." This is a big part of the US legacy in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and despite all the democracy propaganda, this is the part the imperial mandarins want to keep going with their "over-the-horizon" plans. Feroz also wrote: The Whitewashing of the Afghan War.
Anand Gopal: The Other Afghan Women: "In the countryside, the endless killing of civilians turned women against the occupiers who claimed to be helping them." Gopal's 2014 book No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes was one of the few I was tempted by, as it was one of the few to try to represent how a variety of Afghans saw the US occupation. He focused on three figures: a Taliban commander, a member of the US-backed government, and a village housewife. This article focuses on the latter. While he's critical of the Taliban, it's hard to read this and see anything the US was able to do right.
Meredith McGraw: Trump wanted out of Afghanistan. Now he wants to bomb it. This long and rather confusing article tries to round up what Trump and his people are saying these days on Afghanistan. As for Trump himself, all you need to know is that he viewed troops-on-the-ground as separate and independent of bombing. He saw that keeping troops in war zones was a liability, but had no qualms about bombing, even after the troops were gone. He liked blowing things up, and was happy to go along with anything the Pentagon offered. He wasn't what you'd call a deep thinker, and he was easily steered by subordinates who had their own agendas (like McMaster, Bolton, and Pompeo).
Paul R Pillar: The biggest problems in how the Afghanistan story has been told: "Not considering the alternative, or whether there was one"; "believing an exact scenario can be predicted"; "focusing more on the dramatic than on the important."
Storer H Rowley: An "Over-the-Horizon" Strategy for Afghanistan: There are no words to express how bad this idea is. The overwhelming evidence is that drone strikes are counter-productive: they almost inevitably kill bystanders, generating more anti-American sentiment than any conceivable practical value; they alienate the host country, not least by mocking sovereignty; they tempt target groups to embrace their own "far enemy" strategy (as Al-Qaeda did in 2001). The US actually has considerable experience with "over-the-horizon" targeting, especially in Pakistan, as well as Yemen, Libya, and Somalia. The result in the latter cases has been to further destabilize their political systems, increasing the jihadist tendency. As for Pakistan, resentment against US drone strikes have been routinely dismissed, but ISI support for the Taliban has proven decisive. Syria is another case, showing how the US predilection for bombing has drawn the US into internal political strife, making peace even harder to find. The only other nation which behaves so arrogantly toward other nations is Israel, especially in Syria, which Israel bombs periodically, with seeming impunity. America's neocons have always suffered from a severe case of Israel-envy. At this point they would like nothing better than to treat Afghanistan like Israel treats Gaza: as an arbitrary punching bag. This is bullying on a national (or for the US global) scale. It is an assault on humanity, even our own.
Adela Suliman: Lindsey Graham says United States 'will be going back' into Afghanistan: "The Republican senator predicts a clash between the Taliban and Islamic State will force Washington to re-engage." Shows how little he knows: ISIS was able to take over a quarter of Iraq because Sunnis were excluded from the Shiite-Kurdish ruling alliance the US left in power, a crisis which led the latter to invite the US back, temporarily; ISIS-K, on the other hand, is a minor faction competing for the Taliban's own ethnic and religious turf, which should be easy enough to control as long as the Taliban doesn't ally with the US. In the unlikely event that the Taliban needs foreign assistance, their obvious ally is Pakistan, which has its own reasons for suppressing the "Pakistani Taliban." The bigger question is why Graham would entertain, much less fantasize about, such a request. Is he really that hard up for countries to invade?
Brian Alexander: The GOP's War on Public Health Officials: Not among the examples here -- suggesting there are too many to enumerate -- Republicans in Kansas passed a law which strips our Democratic governor from being able to declare health emergencies, and another which allows counties to overrule state mandates. The former was quickly ruled unconstitutional, but the intent is that governments will never in the future be anywhere near as effective as they were in 2020. That's a gross error on the wrong side of history -- most of us who lived through it weren't all that impressed, but it takes a special kind of myopia to think that if only we hadn't had those lockdowns the economy would have boomed and we'd be so much better off now. As I recall, one country did try that strategy (Sweden), and had to admit it was a complete failure. It's bad enough that Republicans insist on doing stupid things here and now. It's even more insidious when they use their temporary power to future governments from ever correcting their errors. Nor is this a new strategy on their part. It's the key idea behind their obsession with packing the Supreme Court.
David Atkins: Donald Trump May Still Destroy the GOP, After All: You would think that the unique combination of toxicity and incompetence Republicans have embraced, especially given how vividly Trump exemplifies both, would have already sunk the GOP to levels beneath what Republicans suffered in the 1930s, but it hasn't happened. Atkins may be right that the longer Trump pushes his luck, but harder the party will eventually fall. But Trump's continued popularity within the party rests on two foundations: blind faith that he is a winner (even when he isn't), and dumb belief that it was Trump who finally saved the party from the insipidity of the Romneys, McCains, Ryans, and Bushes who have repeatedly failed the faithful, and who proved their treason by doubting their fearless leader.
Matthew Cooper: Democrats Are Better at Running FEMA. They Just Are. That's probably true of all branches of government, even ones that Republicans supposedly approve of (like the Defense Department), even ones that do nothing useful at all (like, uh, the Defense Department). After all, Republicans start with the assumption that government is bad, so it's easy for them to fall for self-fulfilling prophecies. In many cases, they even see that as a plus: if people see that government doesn't work well for them, they'll become doubters, which inclines them to fall for Republican propaganda. That's pretty obvious, but if government is really worthless, why do Republicans connive so to control it? Two answers: one is that it's a huge and potentially corrupt patronage machine, and that can be used to reward donors and even some followers, and that can be used to grip power ever more tightly; the other is that it keeps the Democrats from power, and using the patronage machine for their own purposes (or worse still, for public good). Still, FEMA is a special case, because its failures are so glaringly public -- partly because the media loves a good disaster, so this is a rare case where they are paying attention, and partly because the transition from planning to action is so abrupt (generously assuming that when you aren't in crisis you're preparing for future crisis, which doesn't seem to be the case when Republicans have been in charge). Cooper's data here could hardly be more clearcut, so why don't more people realize this? It's a point that's always been true, but as we're coming to recognize the link between global warming and increasingly intense disasters, it needs to be reiterated at every opportunity. Sure, we need to do something long term to limit and even reverse climate change, but even the most optimistic scenario (which I don't have any faith in, but still) is way out, ensuring that we'll have a lot of disasters in the meantime. And in those disasters, competent, honest government matters. To have any chance of that, we need to keep Republicans far from the levers of power.
Liz Featherstone: The Severe Weather Event We Routinely Ignore: Poor Air Quality: "Air pollution is just as fatal as hurricanes, and it profoundly affects our well-being. Yet we no longer treat it as a crisis." Also: How to Live in a Burning World Without Losing Your Mind.
Garrett M Graff: After 9/11, the US Got Almost Everything Wrong: "The nation's failures began in the first hours of the attacks and continue to the present day. Seeing how and when we went wrong is easy in hindsight. What's much harder to understand is how -- if at all -- we can make things right." Isn't the first step toward "making it right" to stop making it worse? I could write a whole book on this. While I would shade things a bit differently, Graff's article could work as my outline. Section heads:
Some more 9/11 anniversary comments:
Harvey J Graff: There Is No Debate About Critical Race Theory: Sen. Tom Cotton managed to pass an ammendment to the $3.5 billion infrastructure bill which "bans federal funds from going to K-12 schools that teach critical race theory. It passed 50-49." So while there may be no substantive debate about the theory itself, there is the matter of "bad-faith arguments from Republicans to sow dissension and fear."
Joanna L Grossman: The Texas Abortion Law Is a Nightmare for Pregnant Teens. I could link to a lot of articles on why SB 8 is a nightmare, but this does a particularly good job of describing the practical impact.
Adam Tooze: What if the Coronavirus Crisis Is Just a Trial Run? Economic historian, adapted this piece from his forthcoming book, Shutdown: How Covid Shook the World's Economy. He cautions us: "The challenges won't go away, and they won't get smaller. The coronavirus was a shock, but a pandemic was long predicted. Thee is every reason to think this one will not be a one-off." But he also points out (and Republicans will gag on this): "We can afford anything we can actually do. The problem is agreeing on what to do and how to do it. In giving us a glimpse of financial freedom, 2020 also robbed us of pretenses and excuses. . . . Now if you hear someone arguing that we cannot afford to bring billions of people out of poverty or we cannot afford to transition the energy system away from fossil fuels, we know how to respond: Either you are invoking technological obstacles, in which case we need a suitably scaled, Warp Speed-style program to overcome them, or it is simply a matter of priorities." Also see Zack Beauchamp's interview with Tooze, "Neoliberalism has really ruptured": Adam Tooze on the legacy of 2020.
Friday, September 3, 2021
Speaking of Which
Joe Biden completed the US withdrawal from Afghanistan Sunday night, and delivered a forceful address defending the evacuation and reiterating his commitment to end the war. Here are some articles I noticed and felt like commenting on. The Matthew Cooper piece has more on the speech.
David Atkins: Wars Can Be Won. Permanent Occupations Cannot. What he means is that the US military can devastate other military units, effectively allowing them to run roughshod over most other countries. On the other hand, the US is incapable of establishing viable, legitimate governance in lands they have overrun militarily. I'm tempted to point out some possible exceptions, but they don't apply to the US in Afghanistan -- never stood a chance, given the military mindset, and also given that the US has always been comfortable with paying off elites to obtain a shallow level of deference. But when you get down to it, the US (most especially the Republicans) aren't much good at governing their own country, let alone a foreign one, half way around the world, whose people they have nothing but contempt for. The basic principles here were worked out by Jonathan Schell in his 2003 book The Unconquerable World, but the epic failure of western colonialism was clear by the mid-1960s, when the French and British gave up on the last remnants of empire. I do have a quibble with the title: I insist that wars cannot be won, but only lost in varying degrees.
Ben Armbruster: New post-9/11 wars cost estimate: $8 trillion: "The US military role in Afghanistan is over, but the costs will continue to mount as the forever wars rage on" -- much of the future cost will be health care for US veterans. Direct spending for Afghanistan is $2.313 trillion. I don't know of any estimates for total cost to the world, although the article has found that "between 897,000 and 929,000 have been 'directly killed,' so at least considers that way the US military has impacted others.
Joe Cirincione: The dangerous rise of a new stab-in-the-back myth: "The foreign policy elite are focused on defending their reputations and privileges, not in confronting failure in Afghanistan." As noted, there was concerted effort to blame the US military failure in Vietnam on failing popular support -- Andrew Bacevich's 2005 book, The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War has a fair amount on this. [PS: Useless idiot Marc Thiessen has already jumped on this bandwagon, ending today's column: "Our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines didn't fail. Their leaders did."]
Eli Clifton: Top defense firms spend $1B on lobbying during Afghan war, see $2T return. I doubt that includes the cost of the "revolving door" between the military and defense contractors, which is probably as critical a factor as direct lobbying.
Matthew Cooper: After Afghanistan Withdrawal, Biden Lashes Out at Critics. He had the courage of his convictions, stuck to his guns, and led his country out of a fruitless, pointless, and ultimately self-damaging twenty-year war. He should be proud. I'm proud of him (which is something I don't often, if ever, say about US presidents). If the early days of the evacuation looked chaotic, maybe that's because the US military plans to invade countries, but not to exit them. Americans compliment themselves on taking in over 100,000 refugees from Vietnam and Southeast Asia, but the US hardly flew any of them out of the country. Most cast off in boats, and were eventually rescued at sea. Biden flew 115,000 out in two weeks. Biden "ended a war more decisively than any president since Harry Truman accepted the Japanese surrender 76 years ago this week. . . . The president ended this war on his own terms. The University of Delaware grad thought he had more common sense than 'the best and the brightest' who deluded themselves into thinking that one more surge, one more drone assault, and we could stay forever. Joe Biden stood them down and didn't blink. His defiance counts as a victory."
Ross Douthat: Joe Biden's Critics Lost Afghanistan: Not someone I normally read, but Kathleen Geier was struck by how pointed this was as a critique of America's misadventure in Afghanistan, and she's right. No doubt his vitriol was encouraged by the opportunity to heap much of the blame on Obama, and (less justifiably) add "Biden deserves plenty of criticism" while extolling "the Trump administration in its wiser moments" (sorry, I must have blinked). Still, this is about right: "Our botched withdrawal is the punctuation mark on a general catastrophe, a failure so broad that it should demand purges in the Pentagon, the shamed retirement of innumerable hawkish talking heads, the razing of various NGOs and international-studies programs and the dissolution of countless consultancies and military contractors."
Michelle Goldberg: The Afghanistan War Was Lost Before Biden Ended It. You get the feeling that despite knowing better she still wishes it had all worked out. She attacks Biden for "not clearing bureaucratic obstacles that kept Afghan allies waiting for visas," but exonerates him from the charge of "losing the war." But she could have made a more persuasive case for the deep origins of US failure in Afghanistan.
Jeff Greenfield: The Hidden Message in Joe Biden's Afghanistan Speech: "Biden's caution about the limits of U.S. power could launch a debate that many Americans have wanted for decades." I don't see a general debate breaking out, but admission that the Afghanistan War was a costly failure will certainly raise doubts about similar ventures. We've already seen some of that with Syria and Libya, although US involvement in Africa seems to escape scrutiny. What is needed now is an alternative to US military power projection. One approach would be to offer to scale back the US military, including bases ab road, as part of a deal for arms reductions elsewhere (e.g., in China and Russia).
Ezra Klein: Let's Not Pretend That the Way We Withdrew From Afghanistan Was the Problem. After noting the prevalence of groupthink in American foreign policy -- and admitting he got suckered into supporting the invasion of Iraq because he trusted that consensus -- he notes: "It is telling that it is Biden who is taking the blame for America's defeat in Afghanistan. The consequences come for those who admit America's foreign policy failures and try to change course, not for those who instigate or perpetuate them." He also notes: "America's pretensions of humanitarian motivation were always suspect. . . . It is callous to suggest that the only suffering we bear responsibility for is the suffering inflicted by our withdrawal. Our wars and drone strikes and tactical raids and the resulting geopolitical chaos directly led tot he deaths of hundreds of thousands of Afghans and Iraqis."
Anita Kumar: As Biden ends mission in Afghanistan, a refugee backlash looms at home: I expect the Republican Party to split on welcoming Afghan refugees. On the one hand, Republicans have generally done well with immigrants from countries the US devastated with war and sanctions -- especially Cubans (think Senators Cruz and Rubio), but they've generally done well with any immigrants they could get a super-patriotic rise from. On the other hand, Trump cultivated an anti-muslim backlash which I expect to kick in here. And Trump's nominal (if practically meaningless) opposition to US wars in the Middle East offers an out from the "moral commitments" owed to US collaborators in the region, backed by the group's Christianist and racist prejudices. Xenophobia is a core tenet, and likely to remain a key one among Republicans.
Sandi Sidhu, et al.: Ten family members, including children, dead after US strike in Kabul. Leaving Afghanistan a little something to remember us for. Also see Dave DeCamp: Victims of US Drone Strike in Kabul Want Answers; e.g.:
Matthew Warshauer: 9/11 wasn't the Pearl Harbor of our generation: "But it was a trap laid by Osama bin Laden only Washington could spring. And it did." Bin Laden may have "declared war" on the United States, but he didn't have any resources to fight a war, and he didn't risk any territory (or many of his own people) in his recklessness. Indeed, that's why when GW Bush decided to respond with war, he had to pick a real country, Afghanistan, as a proxy for the non-state Al-Qaeda, in order to have something the US military could beat. By the way, the big difference between 1941 and 2001 was America. I wouldn't say that the US was innocent in the lead up to WWII, but Roosevelt did wait until Japan and Germany declared war to respond in kind, which is one reason Japanese and Germans acknowledge their responsibility for the war, and tolerated an American occupation force that was nearly as clueless as the ones in Afghanistan and Iraq. On the other hand, Afghans and Iraqis felt like victims of America's global hubris, even before the 2001-03 invasions.
One last thing I want to add that I've seen hints at but don't have a solid article to point at is that it's quite possible that Biden will fall into the rut of America's previous botched wars and insist on ostracizing and isolating the Taliban, to the detriment of the Afghan people, and to the greater risk to world peace. North Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, and Iran are all examples of America clinging to its grudges, forcing countries to continue to dig in and rally their people to defend against American imperiousness. We're seeing evidence of this as Biden freezes Afghan foreign funds, imposes sanctions on Taliban, and vows to continue drone attacks on ISIS-K targets (see Samuel Moyn: America Is Giving the World a Disturbing New Kind of War; on sanctions: US Wrestles With Taliban Sanctions as Afghan Crisis Looms). It is worth reiterating that Communist nations that the US had never directly fought almost universally reformed themselves along lines favorable to liberal democracy or at least capitalism. The US should give the Taliban a chance for peace and prosperity -- at least stop mucking up any possibility.
Finally, a few links and comments on other stories of note this week. I didn't flag a piece on Covid this week, but you can get the latest stats here. One of the articles I skipped over had a dire prediction that daily deaths could top 1,500 again. On September 2, the daily avg. was 1,521 (+67% over 14 days).
Benji Jones: Fires in the Amazon are out of control. Again. "Hundreds of wildfires have already scorched the rainforest this year, and the worst is likely yet to come." Thought I'd include an apocalyptic climate story that hasn't gotten much press attention.
Ezra Klein: The Way the Senate Melted Down Over Crypto Is Very Revealing: I've never understood cryptocurrency, and I don't understand it much better after reading this article. Part of it is that it's always seemed like something I could ignore. Indeed, for the most part all it seems to be is a self-involved betting game, like fantasy football, or derivatives. The political question is whether the government should consider regulating and/or taxing it, which seems like a fair question, especially if the answer isn't assumed. Some Senators care about that question, but they don't divide along left/right political lines, so that doesn't help much. One thing I really don't understand is why it takes so much compute power -- enough that some people consider it a factor in global warming (a point which will presumably be moot once we get to all non-carbon electricity, but wouldn't that point come sooner if we didn't waste it on things nobody needs?). The other thing that this article touches on is the potential for crypto to transform the internet. The idea here is that crypto can be used to enforce property rights on data (e.g., through NFTs), which in theory could make it easier to pay content producers for their wares. It does this by making data, which can be copied for zero marginal cost, scarce, and therefore expensive. That sounds to me like a terrible idea.
Carlos Lozado: 9/11 was a test. The books of the last two decades show how America failed. Washington Post book review editor, wrote a whole book on 150 books about Trump (What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era), offers a shorter digest of books on 9/11 and the wars that followed. Seems like I could write more on this, and possibly offer some alternatives, but for now here's the list ([x] are ones I've read, loosely graded for insight and utility; I cut back on my reading after 2008, while Lozado's list favors new books):
The list of books I've read since 2001 or so is here. The last few years have understandably been preoccupied with Trump and his Klan, but two books I'm surprised not to find here are Andrew Bacevich's America's War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, and Steven Coll's Directorate S: The CIA and America's Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The recent books by Ackerman and Watkins look promising, and Draper's book probably sums up a lot of detail I mostly sussed out in real time on the selling of the Iraq War.
Rick Perlstein: When America Had a Moral Panic Over Inflation. A historian who has written well over 1,000 pages on the 1970s takes a look at one of the decade's signature issues, and some of the many dumb things said about it, and about Paul Volcker, who usually gets credit for slaying the inflation dragon. One thing that's always bothered me is that while inflation is supposedly defined by the cost of goods, the measures used to suppress it are almost always aimed at wages. Another is that the way the Fed uses to "cool off" the economy is by raising interest rates (isn't that some kind of inflation?). I hadn't heard the Robert Solow quote on Volcker's recession, but it strikes me as right: "It's burning down the house to roast the pig."
Janet Reitman: 'I Helped Destroy People': "Terry Albury, an idealistic F.B.I. agent, grew so disillusioned by the war o terror that he was willing to leak classified documents -- and go to prison for doing it." I could have slotted this under the Afghanistan section, but the article is big and important enough to get its own heading. This point is pretty obvious, but should be spelled out: for every foreign war a country fights, there is a mirror war fought at home against one's own people. I suppose this goes back to the Crusades, when soldiers marching toward the Holy Land got some practice sacking Jewish villages along the way. No American war has ever been fought more viciously at home than WWI, with local committees to police anti-war dissidents, incarceration for anti-war leaders like Eugene Debs, censorship, and widespread attacks against German-Americans. In WWII, Japanese-Americans were picked up and carted off to concentration camps. (German and Italian nationals were also interned, but not US citizens of German or Italian descent.) Both World Wars ended in Red Scares, the Second kicking off the Cold War. After 9/11, the war rush was accompanied by pre-emptive attacks against anyone with a peaceful disposition. As the targets of those wars were Muslims, Americans became all the more Islamophobic, with the FBI both following and leading the prejudices. This article has a lot of detail on how and why that happened.
Bill Scher: It's Time to Raise Hell in Texas Over the Insane Abortion Law: I hope I don't have to explain why the law is insane. It seems unlikely to me that the Supreme Court will tolerate the free-for-all of citizen suits in cases where they have no conceivable standing, even if the majority is inclined to reverse Roe v. Wade, so the 5-4 vote against a stay seems very reckless. I said a while back that it was premature to start talking about reforming (or re-packing) the Supreme Court, as I thought it would be impossible to get a consensus until it became clear how deranged the current right-wing Court is. This is one of the rulings that will help build the case that we need a reformed Supreme Court with a majority of Justices respecting constitutional rights and freedoms. By the way, this isn't the only insane law to come out of the Texas Lege (as Molly Ivans put it) recently. They also passed a law to get rid of all gun registration requirements. They also finally passed their anti-voting law. Texas can't turn blue too soon. Also see:
Nick Shay: Hurricane Ida Turned Into a Monster Thanks to a Giant Warm Patch in the Gulf of Mexico: Fairly technical explanation of the "warm eddy" that Ida passed over, leading to extreme intensification. My impression is that most hurricanes that enter the Gulf of Mexico strengthen due to the warm surface waters (which I would expect to be warmer in shallower areas close to land), but I hadn't previously read about warm eddies, where the warm water can be as deep as 500 feet. As we've seen, Ida's damage to Louisiana has been extensive. More surprisingly is the amount of rain it has continued to dump all the way to Philadelphia and New York, which have experienced severe flooding. Also see:
Friday, August 27, 2021
Speaking of Which
My interest in writing something this week has waxed and waned. At first I wanted to point out how pleased and proud I am that Biden has stuck to his guns on troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, despite the barrage of sniping not just from the usual quarters (Republicans for partisan purposes, warmongers of all stripes) but from a mainstream media that loves to add fuel to whatever panic is taking hold at the moment. Then an anti-US, anti-Taliban fringe group [also see: Anatol Lieven: Who are the Islamic State in Afghanistan] dispatched a suicide bomber near the Kabul airport, killing 170 civilians and 13 US troops, and Biden vowed revenge (while still defending withdrawal). Someone should take him aside and remind him that "revenge is a dish best served cold," lest he throw out a brave and conscientious stand in a fit of anger. ISIS wants the US there, in range as targets, driving more and more people into their desperate ranks. It was stupid to let Osama Bin Laden bait us into "the graveyard of empires" in 2001, and it would be even stupider to repeat that mistake now. [PS: Biden did order a drone strike in Nangahar Province, allegedly on an ISIS target.]
While Biden hasn't (yet) back-peddled from the August 31 withdrawal date, it's coming on Tuesday, so we'll know more then -- one reason I wanted to hold off writing. Meanwhile, pressure to do something stupid is building: e.g., Leon Panetta, a CIA Director and Secretary of Defense under Obama, says "Bottom line is that our work is not done in Afghanistan. We're going to have to go back in to get ISIS." I don't know how he could possibly imagine that could work. The US is tied up just now trying to get the few Afghans willing to help the US out of the country. How can they possibly support a new infusion of troops without any kind of local support? The only chance I see to hunt down "those responsible" for the attack is to subcontract it to the Taliban. I have no idea whether they would be amenable to that, but from a practical point of view, it's more important to get them to disband terror groups than to satisfy America's revenge cravings.
Speaking of irrational revenge fits, Josh Marshall has another good piece on the origins of the US invasion of Afghanistan: Remembering the Origins of the United States' 20 Year War in Afghanistan, in turn keying off an opinion piece by persistent warmonger Robert Kagan: It wasn't hubris that drove America into Afghanistan. It was fear. While it may be true that fear was the big selling point, I remember a lot of hubris. I also remember Arthur Vandenberg telling Harry Truman that if he wants to arm to confront Russia in what became the Cold War, he'd first have to "scare the hell out of the American people." That's what he did, aided by Republicans who had their own reasons for trumping up the Red Scare. But after the Gulf War of 1990-91, America's leading hawks (including Kagan) were convinced that the US military could have done so much more to clear out Saddam Hussein in Iraq, but were held back by cowardly politicians. The hawks stylized themselves as Vulcans (see James Mann's book, The Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet), and organized their Project for a New American Century (PNAC). (By the way, the first thing they did was to prepare a plan for Netanyahu to undermine the Oslo Accords, which promised to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Their most fervent dream was that the US should be free to attack its enemies with the same impunity Israel had gotten away with.)
Marshall corrects a lot of things Kagan glosses over. Along the way, he quotes Max Boot as writing: "Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets." That sounds a lot more like hubris than fear, but it also sounds incredibly stupid and racist. British rule reduced India from about 20% of world GDP to less than 5% -- meanwhile, the English working class weren't exactly wallowing in luxury. Imperialism may have benefited someone, but claiming it advanced humanity is ridiculous.
As it happens, I've been thinking about Boot's 2002 book, The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power. The book was an important part of the neocon argument, specifically meant to overthrow the Powell Doctrine (which argued that wars should only be fought if you had: overwhelming force, clear objectives, and an exit plan; the 1990-91 Gulf War was Powell's triumph, but the aftertaste was bitter). Boot offered thumbnail histories of several dozen US military adventures that he classified as "small," excluding wars fought on home ground (including the many Indian wars), the two World Wars, and the ones in Korea and Vietnam that got big and ugly. From his subset, he argued that the US doesn't need to worry about small wars (resources, objectives, exit plan), because they all work out OK in the end. Within 2-3 years, Afghanistan and Iraq destroyed what little plausibility his argument ever had, but a more critical eye on the wars he touted should have raised doubts.
Take, for instance, Pershing's long march through Mexico following a border raid by Pancho Villa in New Mexico (it was originally called the "Punitive Expedition"). This lasted about a year, needlessly provoked the Mexicans, and in the end accomplished absolutely nothing (other than that it convinced a young officer named Dwight Eisenhower that the US needed better highways). It's a pretty close analog to the effort to catch Bin Laden (or Panetta's proposed punishment of ISIS-K), except that it was much closer, and didn't bother trying to over throw the Mexican government, or getting stuck with rebuilding the ruins it created. But sure, it could have been worse. They could still be looking for Villa, while turning millions of Mexicans into refugees.
By the way, amidst all of the articles about Afghans trying to flee the Taliban, I haven't seen a single piece about the more than two million Afghan refugees that the US wasn't able to settle and protect during the last 20 years. Most are in Pakistan or Iran, so it will be interesting to see whether the net number of refugees rises or drops once the Taliban settles in.
Marshall's article includes a graph of US troop levels in Afghanistan over time. Offhand, it appears as though the security situation deteriorated as US troop levels increased, at least up to 2009, when the military panicked and Obama ordered a "surge" up to 100,000 troops. The model there was the supposedly successful "surge" in Iraq, although what little success could be found there had more to do with turning Sunni leaders against an increasingly erratic Al-Qaeda-in-Iraq, partly through bribe and partly because the US offered some protection against Shiite death squads (also encouraged by the US). No such magic switch was found in Afghanistan, so while the "surge" may have checked a Taliban offensive, it made no headway.
Beyond that, McChrystall's counterinsurgency program was defeated not by the Taliban but by American soldiers, who refused to accept the added risk of limiting civilian casualties. While Petraeus had supported McChrystall in theory, he quietly scuttled the program when he took over. After that, the only hope was "Afghanization," which worked even worse than "Vietnamization" had done to provide camouflage for a US withdrawal.
Some more Afghanistan links:
Also, a quote from Jeffrey St. Clair: Roaming Charges: Hour of the Goat, which says much of what I originally wanted to say:
St. Clair also notes a tweet from a @toddstarnes: "For every American who is killed, a city in Afghanistan should be wiped off the face of the Earth." The Romans used to talk about "decimating" villages. Hitler proclaimed bounties like this, up to 100-to-1. Morally Starnes is no better; mathematically, he's even worse.
A couple more brief notes on recent pieces:
Robert Christgau: Out of the Box: A substantial and very favorable review of the HBO Max documentary Betrayal at Attica. I should probably write more about this piece and the movie itself, which I watched again yesterday, but want to get this out without further delay. By all means, do watch the movie.
Luisa S Deprez: How Republicans Stoke Anti-Government Hatred: Refers to a new book by Amy Fried/Douglas B Harris: At War With Government: How Conservatives Weaponized Distrust from Goldwater to Trump. Needless to say, it's a lot easier to break trust than it is to restore it. Trust in government matters because it's the one institution that is capable of helping people without having a side angle or ulterior motive (mostly based on money, something obviously biased to them that has). The main reason many people don't vote their economic interests is that they don't trust politicians to deliver, ergo distrust in government favors those with money, especially those whose money buys them personal connections to politicians. Adolph Reed extends this argument: The Whole Country is the Reichstag.
Henry Giroux: For Stanley Aronowitz: Radical labor historian, died a week or two ago. I read and admired his 1973 book False Promises: The Shaping of American Working Class Consciousness, and met him around then, when Paul Piccone brought him to Washington University for a lecture.
Hugh Iglarsh: The New Ozymandias: Twilight Reflections on the Obama Presidential Center. From this angle, the photo of the model of the "Great Tower of Nothing" looks especially garish.
David Klion: The 9/11 Museum and Its Discontents: "A new documentary goes inside the battles that have riven the institution." I'm not sure I even knew it existed, let alone had sold a half billion dollars worth of tickets since 2014. I find the whole thing rather creepy. "This is the story of 9/11 a visitor is left with: They attacked us for no good reason, we mourned, we rallied, and eventually we got the bastards [i.e., Bin Laden]."
Robert Kuttner: Biden Should Retire Fed Chair Jay Powell. When Trump replaced Janet Yellen (and I don't recall any Republicans suggesting he shouldn't pick his own Fed Chair), he was given a list of two candidates, and picked Powell. On paper, he looked like much the better candidate, and turned out to be better than expected, at least on monetary policy. (Not that he was loose enough for an inveterate debt-hog like Trump.) I always felt that Obama made a big mistake in renominating Ben Bernanke instead of picking a Democrat, but there was a big campaign to boost Bernanke, and Obama was a born sucker. There's another campaign this year to give Powell another term, and some economists I like (like Mike Konczal and Dean Baker) seem to be behind it, so I was interested to see Kuttner argue otherwise. He does so mostly on regulatory issues, and he's probably right there. One of the big problems with the Fed is that, while hawks on interest rates can choke the economy and put lots of people out of work, low interest rates mostly get sucked up by speculators and used to inflate the price of assets.
Ian Millhiser: A new Supreme Court case could blow up decades of US diplomacy: This is the case where a Texas judge ordered Biden to reinstate a Trump-declared "Remain in Mexico" immigration policy. Millhiser argues that "Kacsmaryk's decision is dead wrong," then gets even more upset.
Timothy Noah: The Blueprint for Corporate Power Turns 50: On Lewis Powell's famous letter to the US Chamber of Commerce, which urged corporate leaders to corrupt politics in favor of their class interests.
Friday, August 20, 2021
Speaking of Afghanistan
I didn't expect the Taliban to take over Kabul so quickly. In retrospect, I can come up with three reasons, and one more point which is nothing but a hunch:
There had been a lot of strange talk over the last couple months about how, with US troops finally withdrawing (but threats of US air support for the still-US-backed Afghan government) about the advent of a new (and potentially lengthy) civil war. But for most Afghhans, war has been a constant plague for 42 years (dating from the Soviet "invasion," although resistance to the Communist regime had started earlier, only escalating in 1979 when the US took advantage of the situation), driven by foreign designs which inevitably provoked local resistance.
While the Taliban shared in responsibility for the violence, the US withdrawal gave them an opportunity to promise an end to the war. Afghan President Ghani refused to negotiate, but many lower officials and clan figures were willing to deal, ceding political power to the Taliban in exchange for security -- something the US and its proxies never could provide. The resulting change of power is more like a coup than a revolution, let alone a pitched battle. And while media and politicians in America are all "hair on fire" with their dashed expectations, there is reason to be cautiously optimistic about the way things have turned out. In particular:
That's a pretty succinct sketch of America in Afghanistan, but written generically so it also has obvious parallels with Vietnam (and Iraq -- a bit less of an embarrassment given that they wound up with a government we consider some kind of ally, but one which ultimately asked us to leave). Still, the coups, incursions, and occupations which didn't descend into quagmires exhibited many of the same traits: the main difference was that resistance there wasn't organized sufficiently to provoke Americans into showing true colors. In every case Americans see themselves as benign, although they're mostly self-interested and self-absorbed, oblivious to the harms they import on friend and foe alike.
Even though this week's events show clearly that Americans totally misjudged Afghanistan, you still see commentators clinging to the same conceits and delusions, especially in the sudden concern to evacuate as many Afghans as possible, saving them from the terrifying clutches of the Taliban. I don't doubt that there are people in need of saving, but let's be clear: this is a story which reflects the core story line we told ourselves: Taliban = bad, America = good. I'm not saying the US shouldn't take in refugees, but I'm not saying we should either. I understand the sense of obligation -- everyone should clean up after themselves -- but the greater moral lapse was launching the war in the first place. Accepting refugees is part of the price of colonialism, which is only made possible because there are always locals willing to trade old masters for new ones, to serve the invaders, to flatter and enable them. And, of ocurse, when they fail, they expect to be saved. They may be right, but they're still apologists for bad policy in the first place.
One thing I've always been critical of is how the US made no effort to negotiate a transfer of power in Vietnam that would have offered guarantees against reprisals for Vietnamese who supported the US, but were willing to stay. It's possible that the US will do better this time: the collapse of the provisional government was so fast that the US is having to negotiate with the Taliban just to get Americans out of the country. What would be better than carting off as many Afghans as one feels responsible for would be an agreement where the Taliban promises not to engage in reprisals, but the US (and other countries) have the right to offer exile to anyone who gets prosecuted by the Taliban.
I've talked about this idea before: an international treaty which establishes a "right to exile," where people who are jailed in one country can be claimed by another country, allowing them to continue their lives in exile. There would, of course, be much resistance to this from the United States, where we insist on the right not just to punish our own citizens for political crimes but to kidnap and imprison foreign nationals (or to just assassinate them -- note that for a "right to exile" to work, one would also have to outlaw capital punishment and extrajudicial killings).
Someone should write a book that carefully and critically sifts through the media hour-by-hour and day-by-day reporting on 9/11. I was in Brooklyn at the time, with Laura Tillem and Liz Fink, and they were glued to the TV while the towers fell, and the immediate human tragedy metamorphosed into a national (and international) political crisis. I spent most of the day loosely connected, one ear picking up the broadcasts, while I thumbed through a picture book called Century, which in my mind put the day's events into the context of the very bloody 20th century. I remember bits and pieces from the news. Most relevant here were the chyrons: by mid-day they were announcing "America under attack"; that evening, they came up with some grainy video from Kabul, showing a rocket explosion, so they changed the chyron to read "America strikes back." By the time the Kabul video appeared, it was widely reported that Al-Qaeda was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Still, it was the media that assumed that the American response would be war, and they wasted no time cheering it on.
It took Bush-Cheney a month to launch its war, but the media blitz had answered one question: would launching a war be a popular move? There was no need for war, and every reason to expect that war would be ineffective and would cause longer-term repercussions that could easily spiral out of control. The number of people involved in 9/11 numbered in the dozens, with all the actual bombers already dead. Pakistan readily agreed to help find and prosecute the others. The Taliban balked, which hardly meant that negotiation was impossible. But Bush-Cheney, secure in the knowledge that the political media was gung-ho for war, rejected negotiation and plunged right in.
They knew that the Taliban was weak and unpopular, and that its hold on Afghanistan was fragile. The Northern Alliance still ruled the Panjshir Valley, north of Kabul, and still drew on international support to fight the Taliban. Just days before 9/11 Bush-Cheney decided to side with them, which made the subsequent decision to invade all but automatic. It didn't exactly go smoothly -- Alliance leader Mahmoud Shah Massoud was killed, as was US favorite Abdul Haq. But the CIA entered with buckets of cash and hired a bevy of mercenary warlords, while the Taliban and Al-Qaeda slipped away, to regroup and fight another day, leaving the US stuck with the rump of a failed state and a lot of jaded, war-weary people.
I referred to the rapid advance of US-backed forces as the "feel good days of the war." They didn't last long, but the high sufficed to get Bush-Cheney looking for bigger and richer game in Iraq. Meanwhile, the initial goal of mopping up Al-Qaeda had failed, and the exit of the Taliban left a vacuum filled by the warlords -- the same people whose mismanagement had made the Taliban possible -- plus some slapdash political veneer, and finally the US military. After that, it all went wrong, for more reasons than I can count. But one was certainly that Bush-Cheney were too committed to stripping public resources and undermining democracy at home to be bothered with building a competent, popular government half way around the world.
Some more recent pieces on Afghanistan (no attempt to be comprehensive or representative here):
Finally, here's a list of books I've read on Afghanistan and Pakistan, including a few more general "war on terror" books, but not ones specifically on Iraq or other Arab countries (which would more than double the list) or Israel or American militarism (which would double it again). These are probably longer on background, with a relative shortfall of books on the Afghan government (and its corruption) and the evolution of the Taliban.
I probably have 100 books on Afghanistan in my Book Notes file. I started to pull out a select list of books that struck me as interesting, but they're pretty uneven, and not many are recent. Anand Gopal's No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes is one of the most promising, but I kind of gave up reading about Afghanistan after the Hastings and Chandrasekaran books in 2012. I expect there will be a rush to write up what's happening now, as most recent books have fallen behind. Meanwhile, Craig Whitlock's The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War (Simon & Schuster) is due Aug. 31, and Spencer Ackerman's more general Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump (Viking) came out last week. Also on the schedule for November 30 is Tariq Ali's The Forty Year War in Afghanistan and Its Predictable Outcome (Verso), probably undergoing some minor touch up right now (it's an essay collection, no doubt including the articles linked to above).
One last thought: I found it pretty gratifying a few days back when Seth Meyers repeatedly referred to "the disastrous war on terror," as if that's not just established fact but common wisdom. He even posted a picture of Barbara Lee, the only member of Congress to vote against the Afghanistan War authorization. On the other hand, I was dismayed in this article search to see another piece talking about how "9/11 brought us all together." I've rarely felt more separated and divided from other Americans than after 9/11 as war fever swept the nation. Still, not totally separated, as I was able to find a demonstration against the madness. (I was in New York at the time, but my wife had returned to Wichita, and she, too, found a friendly demonstration -- the beginning of our circle of friends after moving here in 1999.) There was nothing nostalgic about launching the war in Afghanistan. It was a recipe for disaster, and nearly everyone can see that today.
Friday, August 13, 2021
Speaking of Which
Wasn't going to write anything this week, but I got ticked off by Twitter today, and couldn't fit the depths of my outrage into a measly 280 chars.
Matt Taibbi: The Vanishing Legacy of Barack Obama: I've only read the "excerpt from today's subscriber-only post" -- not a great look for a guy who's accusing other people of selling out -- and probably wouldn't have gone that far had I not been irritated by seeing him plug the piece seven straight times in his Twitter feed, to his 542.7K followers (of which I am, with increasing regret, one). (I don't think I've ever tweeted about one of my posts more than once, not wanting to impose on my modest but growing 542 followers.) And I still probably wouldn't have mentioned it except for this line:
So, six months after Donald Trump left office, after four years of presiding over the most corrupt, mendacious, inept, and cruel administration in American history, Obama is the one remembered as "a common swindler" and "one of the great political liars of all time"? These statements defy history and logic by a mind-boggling degree. But they depend not just on overlooking most of what Trump did in the last four years, but also on blaming Obama for the rest of Trump's malign legacy.
Look, I've been pretty critical of Obama not just in retrospect but from the early days of his presidential campaign. You can read what I wrote in two large compilations of my notebook blog for the years 2009-2012 and 2013-2016 -- with bits on the campaign in the 2001-2009 volume, as well as an accounting of the Trump years 2017-2020 (these files are in Open Office format, a free word processor program, but you should also be able to import then into Microsoft Word, if that's the tool you prefer or are stuck with; they are pretty long). In assembling those files, I was a bit surprised at how critical I was of Obama (and how early), because I don't remember bearing him any ill will -- indeed, I had no qualms voting for him over Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries, nor did I have any doubt when he ran against the war-monger John McCain in 2008 or the vulture capitalist Mitt Romney in 2012, so I think I can claim a fair and reasoned appreciation of him.
Early on I criticized him for his lack of critical insight and vision. Later on I faulted him for not recognizing Republicans for the lethal madness they had embraced, and for not doing enough to build up a Democratic Party capable of defending against them. At all times, he remained a staunch and naive believer in American dreams and fantasies. That may have contributed to the "hopeless cynical mess that is modern America," but wasn't it Trump who made fun of Obama for ending every speech with "God bless America"? Sure, Obama's platitudes failed to solve America's problems, but America didn't have to respond with his antithesis.
In the long run, Obama's legacy comes down to two things. He will be remembered for running a relatively competent and legal administration, at least compared to Republicans fore and aft. And we'll lament the opportunity costs, eight years desperately in need of solutions that never came, and that ended in vicious recoil. If Biden seems radical today, it's because so many years of inaction and folly have made sensible policies that much more urgent now.
Still, even though Biden's agenda and tactics today are rooted in a sharp critique of Obama's agenda and tactics, no one makes a big deal out of that. Obama, Clinton, and for that matter Carter, are respected but obsolete former Democrats, carrying on with their lives while they still have them. Carter, perhaps because he grew up in a more public-minded era, or maybe just because he got rich before he got into politics, has had a very honorable post-presidential career, while the others come off looking like grifters, even though their actual tenure in office was respectably free of corruption. Even Taibbi gives them a bullshit out ("getting rich and not giving a shit anymore is the birthright of every American"; most Americans, including many of us whose roots in this country go back centuries, have nothing resembling that birthright). I'm inclined to be less generous: I hate the tendency to equate "American dream" with becoming rich and famous, and have serious doubts about the moral virtue of such a quest.
Still, why single Obama out for approbation that should apply to his entire class? If for hypocrisy, why assume that Democrats should eschew the material riches Republicans are expected to aspire to? Just because Obama's Democratic Party had a modicum of respect for workers, a whit of care for the poor, and a modest aspiration to opening up opportunities, doesn't contradict the warm support they habitually doled out to business. (It's the zero-sum Republicans who believe they're getting ahead by hurting others.) Obama may have been the last politician in America to truly believe in trickle-down: the silly notion that when you help the rich (e.g., by bailing out bankers), you're helping everyone. In one way Obama was exemplary: his failures are directly attributable to his faulty convictions.
Still, Taibbi's dumbest mistake is in using Obama to excuse Donald Trump. There's no excuse for that. Only shame.
Reminder: if you haven't already, go to HBO Max to see Betrayal at Attica. Brilliant film, featuring interviews with the indomitable Elizabeth Fink, and testimony from the resilient Frank Smith. I'm proud to have known both of them. And by the way, if you think "black lives matter" and "blue lives matter" are antithetical, you weren't in the courtyard at Attica that day, or in the courts thereafter.
Also, just found Amy Rigby's song released on Jan. 19, 2021, remembering Four Years of U. Webpage proclaims "We made it! (except for those who didn't)." Let me dedicate this to Diane Wahto, who once bravely proclaimed "we survived one George Bush; we can survive another." She did, but didn't make it through four years of Trump. Also to Kal Tillem, who didn't quite make it through the second Bush.
Friday, August 6, 2021
Speaking of Which
I've been reading Steve Benen's The Impostors: How Republicans Quit Governing and Seized American Politics, because it seemed likely to establish one of my own themes of late: that Trump is a mere reflection of the longer term moral and intellectual rot of the Republican Party. Of course, he couldn't resist illustrating this theme with Trump examples -- no one else has ever merged so succinctly thoughts that are fact-free, reason-free, careless, and mean-spirited. But Trump became the leader of the Republicans not because he paved the way, but he followed their Geist so flamboyantly. (Sorry for the German, but the usual translation of "spirit" doesn't quite do the concept justice; also it loses the sense of personification, the common root of "ghost," although in this case "zombie" would be more to the point. English speakers more often see the derivative Zeitgeist, the "spirit of the times," although the Republican Geist doesn't belong to the times so much as it attempts to defeat them.)
The thing that Benen doesn't make clear enough is that while the Republicans have been evil for quite some time -- from Goldwater they learned that extremism in defense of the rich is no vice; from Nixon they learned that winning justifies all manner of lying, stealing, and cheating; from Reagan they learned to live in a dream world of their own vanities; from the Bushes they learned that war is the ultimate form of self-glorification -- they didn't become shameless about it until the loss to Obama blew their minds. That was when Fox metamorphosed from being dutiful apologists for Republican politics and became raging agitators, spewing whatever rhetoric they could use to leverage their followers emotions, with no consideration for where that rhetoric might lead. They orchestrated an insurrection, and branded and sold it as the Tea Party. Having plunged the nation into an endless, hopeless series of wars, and having wrecked the economy on a bubble of deceit and fraud, they were voted out, and miraculously freed of responsibility for the disasters they had created.
Benen's formulation isn't quite right. Repubicans didn't "quit governing." They were fired, but since they weren't held accountable for the many things they had done wrong, the lesson that they learned was that they could get away with anything -- all it would take is the sort of confident bluster Trump excelled in. Yet to say they "seized American politics" gives them too much credit for deliberate plotting. They crippled political discourse, reducing it to their level of trash talk and gutter sniping. Their relentless attack media, combined with the deference showed by the mainstream media, gave them a huge advantage. They were also helped by Democrats playing into their hands.
Benen's favorite term for today's Republicans is "post-policy." Like "post-truth," it takes a glaring failure and refashions it as a clever novelty. But there's nothing new here: all "post-" means is we take no responsibility for failures, be they bad policies or mistruths. For Republicans, the key to unaccountability is their core belief: that government is incapable of doing things that help most citizens. You can trace that back to Reagan's joke ("The most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the government and I'm here to help"), although the idea is older -- cf. Friedrich Hayek and Ayn Rand, among other cult favorites. Once you buy into that joke, the only reason you need for electing Republicans is to deny Democrats the opportunity to prove you wrong. On the other hand, when Republicans botch governance, they're simply proving themselves right. Trump did that so completely he ranks in their minds as "the greatest president of all time."
This is my second draft note on Benen's book. I started a few days ago just wanting to comment on one little quote:
Trump's oft-promised replacement plan never materialized, which suggests either that he was never serious about coming up with one, or that he belatedly discovered "health care is hard" (didn't look it up, but I think that's an actual quote from him, followed by "who knew?"). Unlikely the latter, as there's no evidence that he could discern good from bad policies, unless one was labeled by party: Democratic policies are guaranteed to be "bad," because even if they work as defined, that would make Democrats look good, and that would be bad. On the other hand, Republican policies are always good, because they supplant bad Democratic policies, and even if they fail no one will blame Republicans, because, you know, government never works anyway.
But what I wanted to point out was that Trump could have offered a health care plan to replace ACA that would have met his pie-in-the-sky policy goals: a single-payer "Medicare-for-All" scheme. Sure, a lot of well-heeled business forces would have been upset, but if Republicans rallied to his plan, it could have been passed (even attracting some Democrat votes). Admittedly, it wouldn't exactly be the plan Bernie Sanders has been campaigning for. Once Republicans accepted the key concept of universal coverage, and the necessity of limiting some of the greediest, most predatory companies anywhere, they could still do much to tailor the program to their prejudices. Bill Clinton described the "end of welfare as we know it" deal he made with Newt Gingrich as "a good welfare bill wrapped in a sack of shit." One thing Republicans can still be trusted to deliver is a sack of shit.
A Republican version of single-payer would keep open a role for private insurance companies, but they would be selling supplemental policies, like they currently do for people who have Medicare. The universal health care policy would just cover the basics, including vaccinations, regular check ups, emergency room visits, a standard menu of surgeries, and the risk of catastrophic care -- just enough to keep the system viable, and save patients from bankruptcy. These services could be riddled with co-payments and deductibles, for which you could either have to buy supplemental insurance, or find providers willing to waive fees. In other words, the system would be stratified by class, with the well-to-do having lots of options, others less so. Private insurance would be cheaper, because the insurance companies are protected against serious risks, and could offer lots of choices. Also, political control of the system could be delegated to the states (or multi-state compacts), which would avoid the "federal takeover" charge.
There are lots of ways the system could be made more efficient. One big one would be to phase out patent monopolies, which would make the supply chain and pharmaceuticals much more competitive. One that appeals especially to Republicans would be to end (or at least cap) malpractice awards. (Supposedly this risk drives a lot of "defensive medicine" waste, but it's certainly true that malpractice insurance takes a but chunk of doctor income, and hospitals and drug companies have huge exposure.) The big question will be how to rearrange current health care spending to support such a system, but with modest cost savings it could be done without raising more net taxes -- a key requirement for Republicans.
Of course, Republicans won't propose anything like this. The greed of the health care system hurts all other businesses, but Republicans are committed to defending every existing profit-seeking scheme, no matter how dubious or dangerous. They believe in self-responsibility, which means everyone should take what they can, with the winners free to enjoy their spoils. They don't care that health care is a classic market failure, even given its cancerous growth, as it's expanded from negligible to over 20% of GDP. And, as noted above, they believe that government intervention would only cause more harm, even though no other alternative is up to the task. But also, Republicans don't care whether working people have health care, so they have no motivation to do anything to help people.
Every now and then, someone tries to point out that we'd be in even worse shape if Republicans had elected someone competent, instead of an incompetent moron like Trump. That underestimates the real damage that was done by four years of Republican rule, mostly by the minions given free range to implement their neuroses and fantasies. But it also shows a fundamental misunderstanding of Trump's role in all of this. He was the front man, the media magnet. When people paid him so much the attention, they overlooked everyone around him. He had built-in deniability: after all, he was a moron. No one even tried to reason with him. He attracted an intense and impervious personal cult. When he won in 2016, I figured Republican regular would flock to him, if for no reason other than that he was their winner, and winning was the only thing that Republicans really cared about. And that's exactly what happened, but even now, as a loser-in-denial, he remains a powerful symbol for his party. He remains their leader, because he is them, and vice versa. They're all morons. They're all assholes. And they're proud of it. They think anyone who isn't with them isn't a real American, and they hate your guts.
If you could reason with them, they'd be able to see the advantages of backing a "radical" proposal like single-payer. But you can't, and they won't figure it out on their own. That's what makes this a good example of how limited they are.
A few recent articles I noticed:
Jonathan Chait: Tucker Carlson Has Seen the Future, and It Is Fascist: "Orban's Hungary is the road map for American authoritarianism." Only the headline writer uses the F-word here, but that's a bit of a trend regarding Viktor Orban's Hungary -- Chait prefers "authoritarian" but also offers "kleptocracy." It's probably easier to call fascist the leader of a country with a history of fascism, but there isn't much political daylight between Orban and Trump (or Carlson). But the disturbing thing about Orban as a model isn't his reactionary view but the way he's rejiggered Hungary's political system to ensure his party will rule even when the voters turn against him. His innovations read like a road map for the Republican Party, which studies and envies him. For more, see Zack Beauchamp: Why it matters that Tucker Carlson is broadcasting from Hungary this week.
Thomas Frank: US liberals' hysteria outlives Trump. We should be so lucky, and not just because Frank's tombstone for Trump seems premature. While it may be peculiar that it took a clod as outrageous as Trump to finally "induce such fear and loathing among the nation's highly educated elite" when a long string of precursors should have tripped warning signs, I say better late than never. The lack of "hysteria" in response to Reagan and the Bushes was no shortage of provocation, but it's not just frogs and lobsters who realize too late that they're being cooked. (One can't quite say the same about Nixon. While some of his crimes took a while to be uncovered, and some have never been given the scrutiny they deserved, the media did a better job of paying attention at the time, probably because so many people were marching in the streets in protest -- a big part, uncredited by Frank, of the "downpour of denunciation" that has dogged Trump.) I just found this piece, and don't have time to give it the fine-toothed reading it deserves, but I will offer a couple notes. No doubt there have always been liberal intellectual snobs -- Thomas Jefferson qualifies, and he owned slaves; while his pen pal John Adams didn't, you'd be pressed to find a contemporary with a lower opinion of the unwashed masses -- the line Frank draws between the elite opponents of William Jennings Bryan, Franklin Roosevelt, and Trump blurs what really matters: Trump is feared and loathed not because he's a populist (which, as Frank knows as well as anyone, he isn't even remotely), but because he represents a monstrous threat, not to their elitism but to the very foundation of principles they hold dear: liberal democracy, and the belief that America's exceptional wealth and success is based on principles of freedom, fairness, and justice for all. Frank's heroes have always been populists, so he's extra-sensitive to intimations of snobbery from elites he's never trusted. And so he has little trouble finding dubious examples of "hysteria" that have thrown up at Trump, such as the Russia "scandals," the "attack on norms," the lectures on the "authoritarian" threats to democracy itself. I've been critical on that front as well, not out of any desire to give Trump a fair break, but because I doubt the efficacy of those charges. In particular, I don't think the two impeachments did any good, and I don't see the January 6 investigation as leading to anything worthwhile. On the other hand, I don't know how to convey to people just how disastrous the 40-year Reagan-Bush-Trump era has been. So I'm inclined to cut people who are basically on my side a little slack. They don't have to reason correctly, as long as they get to the right answer. [PS: h/t to Matt Taibbi for the link, even though he did it for the wrong reasons, to make the wrong point.]
Gregg Herkin: Five myths about the atomic bomb: Well, let's list them:
The first four are adequately explained in the text. Most importantly, Herken emphasizes the fear in Japan of the Soviet Union's entry into the war. Japanese leadership had realized that they had lost the war well before August, 1945, and had actually approached Russia over possible surrender terms, which was one reason Stalin advanced the schedule for entering the war. (Another reason may have been the impending use of nuclear weapons, which Stalin was vaguely informed of by Truman in Potsdam, and knew more of through espionage.) The fifth point comes from Gar Alperovitz's 1965 book Atomic Diplomacy. I read the book shortly after it came out, and thought it had merit, but I've had doubts since. There certainly were factions within the American military and foreign policy apparatus that saw Russia and Communism as postwar rivals, and did what they could to pivot to confrontation, but they didn't become dominant until 1947-48, with the Berlin airlift, and more so in 1950, with the "fall" of China and the opening of the Korean War. I'd go so far as to count Leslie Groves, the general in charge of the Manhattan Project, as one of those factions. And there was a broader consensus that the US should become the dominant world power after the war, which would inevitably (not necessarily consciously) lead to conflict with the Soviet Union. George Kennan, who became the architect of the "containment policy," was one of them. On the other hand, Truman had not bought into any kind of containment policy, at least by Potsdam, where he lobbied Stalin to enter the war against Japan. For one thing, I doubt Truman (or anyone, except maybe Groves) had any real understanding about the power of nuclear weapons. Truman didn't even know about the Manhattan Project until FDR died and he became president. A lot of factors converged to create the Cold War, and no one was smart enough to figure them out ahead of time (not even Kennan, who thought he was). Meanwhile, for all its moral conceit, it was the United States (alone) who committed the atrocities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That should humble us. But it hasn't.
Michael Kazin: The Revolution That Wasn't: "Do we give the activist groups of the 1960s more credit than they deserve?" Well, yes and no, it all depends. As I've said many times, the fundamental arguments advanced by the New Left won broad acceptance and came to permeate American culture, but they didn't get organized into effective political power, which allowed the right to make gains, especially in the 1980s. There are lots of reasons for this. Arguably, we were too critical of establishment liberals, and too naive about the growing conservative movement. We were too indifferent to unions, and they -- especially after the Cold War purge of communist-sympathizers -- had become too reactionary. Or maybe it was just the corruptibility of a political system where both parties work full time to court donors. This is a review of a new book by David Talbot and Margaret Talbot: By the Light of Burning Dreams: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the Second American Revolution, which naturally focuses overmuch on marginal groups that were attracted by the idea of countering violence with violence. Such groups burned out fast, with little to show for their wasted lives.
Ian Millhiser: Georgia Republicans didn't waste any time in using their new voter suppression law. This lays out the mechanics of how the law could work. The first step is to challenge the election board in Atlanta, in hopes of replacing it with a state-appointed supervisor (i.e., a Republican), who could disqualify challenged voters (e.g., Democrats). Georgia is close enough that it wouldn't take a lot of cheating to tip the state back to the Republicans. If there is any saving grace in this, it's that this particular method will be hard to hide, and will raise a storm of protest. I generally think that voter suppression attempts are likely to backfire, as they motivate the targets to work that much harder to vote. Still, the Republicans are waging a full court press all across the country to steal elections. For more on who's behind all this, see Jane Mayer: The Big Money Behind the Big Lie: "Donald Trump's attacks on democracy are being promoted by rich and powerful conservative groups that are determined to win at all costs." Also: Richard L Hasen: Trump Is Planning a Much More Respectable Coup Next Time.
Kim Phillips-Fein: The Liberals Who Weakened Trust in Government: "How public interest groups inadvertently aided the right's ascendency." Review of Paul Sabin: Public Citizens: The Attack on Big Government and the Remaking of American Liberalism. Focuses on "public interest groups" in the 1970s (especially consumers and environmentalists), who often found liberal governments in league with corporations, undermining popular faith in government as an agent for the people. How much this ultimately helped conservatives as they rose to political power in 1980 is hard to say. A major problem for Democrats was that as unions started to lose power, they gave up on trying to represent the broad working class and came to be viewed as just another special interest, leaving them to compete with other public and private interest groups. What is true is that Democrats undercut themselves with a series of fiascos (like Vietnam), and wound up turning to business to make up for waning union support. The result was long-term loss of credibility, not that they didn't try to blame that, too, on Ralph Nader.
Aaron Rupar: Why Newsmax is failing: Interview with Jason Campbell. Viewership of the "Trumpier-than-Fox" channel is down more than 50 percent from January (average 300,000 to 114,000).
Alex Shephard: The Media Is Too Clueless and Sensationalistic to Properly Explain Breakthrough Covid: Or, well, really, anything else. Maybe they're right that most people don't want to understand, but it's not like they give them a chance. The same basic complaint is aired in Kate Aronoff: Why Mainstream Media Struggles to Explain the Infrastructure Plan's Climate Spending.
David Wallace-Wells: 'We Could Have Prevented This': "The scientist Eric Topol on the Delta variant and its dangerous impact." According to the New York Times, new cases peaked on Jan. 8 at 259,616 (all figures 7-day averages), then declined more or less steadily to 10,608 on July 5), before increasing again to 96,036 on Aug. 4 (+131% 14-day change). There has, however, been a considerable drop in mortality (although deaths are up 65% over the last 14-days, still below any point after the initial spike in 2020). Key line here: "the age skew of the disease and the age skew of vaccine penetration, taken together, mean that the country as a whole has probably had at least 90 percent of its collective mortality risk eliminated through vaccines." Lots more info here. [Oh, by the way, in headlines that need no further comment: Matt Stieb: GOP Representative Suing Nancy Pelosi Over House Mask Mandate Gets COVID.]
Friday, July 30, 2021
Speaking of Which
I finished reading Michael Lewis's book, The Premonition: A Pandemic Story, where he follows a circle of public health officials and researchers who figured out what was happening with Covid-19 early enough they could come up with a plan for fighting it before it got out of hand, then failed to implement that plan -- because, well, that part isn't so clear. Partly, the people who mucked up the response weren't nearly as interesting as the brilliant weirdos he found. Partly, the institutional biases run much deeper than he has patience for.
You get a hint of this when he talks about the "swine flu fiasco" of 1976, when the CDC's mass vaccination program had to be halted due to side-effects, while the flu itself petered out into something far short of the threatened pandemic. That's when the tables turned and the CDC was taken over by political appointees, and, well, you can see where that went. Lewis's previous book, The Fifth Risk, was effectively a bravo defense of public servants who work in (and sometimes in spite of) government bureaucracy, but this book feels more like The Empire Strikes Back, with the Empire as faceless and sinister as ever, and the heroes regrouping in the shadows of the private sector. Well, at least one hero, Charity Dean, who resigned from her post near the top of California's public health office to raise venture capital for a startup competing for scarce public health dollars. The last few pages read like her prospectus. (Although, it should be noted, that much of what Lewis has to say about private companies during the pandemic, including most hospitals and the big testing labs, is pretty damning. He does cite some companies that stepped up to the challenge civic-mindedly, but they were mostly exceptions.)
So I came away feeling I've read the wrong book on the pandemic. There will in due course be dozens or hundreds of them, and I don't been any great urgency. I can do a preliminary sort next time I do a Book Roundup. Meanwhile, I have a couple of books on Trump and the Republicans that may help me gauge what is and isn't understood about the current political climate: Steve Benen's The Impostors: How Republicans Quit Governing and Seized American Politics, and Adam Serwer's The Cruelty Is the Point: The Past, Present, and Future of Trump's America. I'm starting with Benen, because I'm more deeply disturbed by the Republican Party than I am by Trump himself, and not just by the former's slavish devotion to the latter. (By the way, Serwer's book starts with a great truth: "Many people woke up on November 9, 2016, feeling like their country hated them.")
While reading the Lewis book, I came up with simple formulation that goes far toward explaining the central truth of US politics:
Maybe the points should be reversed, or merged into one. Everything Republicans say or do fits into this mold, which is why everything they say or do is wrong, and ultimately damaging. A reasonable person may think of natural disasters, especially the pandemic, as events that transcend political party, where smart people of good will can devise solutions that reduce harm and possibly even benefit nearly all people. That's how Democrats think, but it's not how Republicans think -- and our political system makes it harder to make things than to break them (indeed, you can view it as a special case of entropy).
This is not to say that there is no substance to conservative values. Republicans have been pretty flexible about their principles, but they've also locked themselves into some positions that are unpopular now and likely to hurt them even more in the future. And I don't just mean that they've aligned themselves with losing interests, like war and coal. Suspecting enemy preferences, they've turned against most civil servants, especially teachers, and their subject matter, including education in general and science in particular. Benen seems to focus on the party's "post-policy" shallowness, but other keys to their inability to govern include their contempt for knowledge and skill, their willingness to indulge predatory businesses, and their utter indifference to the fate of most Americans, including much of what they call their "base."
No idea how often I'll do this, but a few things came to my attention recently, prompting these notes.
I'm not trying to cover everything here, or even very much. I don't have any interest in the January 6 hearings -- I'm not even reading those reports. I don't care a whit about the Olympics, although I will note that it seems like once every four years we suddenly warm up to the great diversity of the American people. I care more about the infrastructure bill (or two), but not in sweating the details. While I've read a fair amount about Covid-19 recently, I'm not up to trying to sort it out here -- other than to say that the map looks significantly worse.
Paul Campos: The Truman Show: "How the 33rd president finagled his way to a post-White House fortune -- and created a damaging precedent." This caught my eye because Wikipedia has a List of presidents of the United States by net worth, which I consulted when I was thinking about writing a book on political eras. One contrast I wanted to make was between Donald Trump, supposedly the richest US president ever, and the previous list-topper, George Washington (now number two on the list, after everything was converted into recent dollar values). Despite their great wealth -- relative to their peers, Washington may have ranked even higher than Trump -- the two could hardly have been more different: Washington famously tried to appear disinterested (avoiding any suspicion that his wealth was a consideration for his actions), while Trump was the exact opposite. I noted then that Harry Truman was dead last on the list. The list has changed since the last time I looked at it: Trump was added at the top, as was Biden a bit below median (in 25th, between Eisenhower and Ford); recent presidents have climbed fast up the list (Clinton to 9, Obama 12, GW Bush 13); and the nine sub-millionaires were sorted by years (which left Truman last). Even if you accept Campos' valuations, Truman would only rise about 15 spots. And if you look at the various pleas and ploys Truman employed, it's interesting that he looked more to the public for graft than to "the malefactors of great wealth," which is where more savvy politicians like Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton turned, much more lucratively. While the absolute ranking on the list doesn't seem to matter much, it would be interesting to see wealth broken out in three columns: at inauguration time; when departing the White House; and peak before death (or now). One thing that's notable here is that presidents who died in office skew way down the list.
Jonathan Chait: Leftists and Liberals Are Still Fighting Over the Cold War. The occasion for this seems to be the protests in Cuba and Florida, which the latter claim to be aligned. The US left is expected to condemn Cuba, Venezuela, and other outposts of the "illiberal left," which has largely been forced by US sanctions to retrench into a repressive, defensive crouch. This is reminiscent of the posture of many liberal intellectuals during the Cold War era. This position was wrong then, and wrong now, but persists because it continues to sucker people of good will into bad politics. (I'm inclined to count Joe Biden and his foreign policy team in that group, although I know people who wouldn't give them the benefit of doubt.) It's bad politics because it doesn't help most of your fellow Americans, and because it doesn't help the foreign people you're trying to sympathize with either. There's nothing wrong with wishing other people brighter futures. Indeed, every time I see a news article about an election between left and right parties in another country, I root for the left -- even if I don't fully approve, because fairer and more just societies can only come from the left, and I believe that politicians who identify with the people are more likely to help them (in the long run, even if not soon). But best wishes is all I can muster, because I know that I have no say in how other countries are governed. (Hell, I hardly have any say in how my own is run.) People who want to do more are overreaching, probably out of some deep-seated hubris. I'm not saying that you shouldn't speak out when you see injustices elsewhere, but nations should accept other nations as they are -- at least as long as they don't pose existential threats to other nations (as the US has done a few dozen times in my lifetime, so we're more in need of correction than most countries).
To understand why this attitude hurts most Americans, it helps to recall the most basic principles behind the Cold War. At the end of WWII, the European colonial system was bankrupt, and the US was the only viable capitalist power. The threat was that people all around the world, including in the broken states of Europe, might rise up (either democratically or through revolution) and take popular control of their own nations. The idea was to replace colonial power with corporate dominance in a system linked together by American financial and military might. The Soviet reaction was passive-aggressive: most often they retreated, but they fought back on occasion, enough that they could be characterized as a threat to democracy and freedom (even if most American client regimes had neither). But this wasn't just a struggle to extend the viability of imperialism (by cutting a few local elites in on a share of the loot). As capitalists gained power around the world, they gained political power at home. Starting with the "red scare," they purged unions of their most dedicated and principled leaders. The tamed unions could then be used to undermine the left in "allied" countries, but more importantly they became ever more impotent, until they in turn could be broken. The Cold War was as much a war against the working class at home as it was abroad. Throughout this period, a number of liberal politicians and intellectuals regularly sided with the Cold Warriors. For a long while doing so was obligatory to avoid the "red" smear.
The irony is that as communist regimes reformed, especially around 1990, the last holdouts were the nations the US imposed the strictest and most debilitating sanctions on: Cuba, Vietnam, North Korea, China. Some became liberal democracies with mixed economies, some fell into chaos or got snatched up by functionaries-turned-kleptocrats. China and Vietnam reformed their economies without surrendering party control. I was thinking no one predicted this, but it turns out that David Ben-Gurion predicted as much back in the 1950s. By then he was trying to align Israel with America, and his reputation as a socialist was in tatters, but he seems to have understood that equality and democracy were always at the heart of the left. Indeed, that's what the left struggles for even today, with (or without) the help of self-identified liberals. One thing is clear: the demonstrations in Cuba and in Florida are different and opposed things. If you do wish to help the Cuban people determine their own future, you should oppose the "sympathy" protests in Florida, which are meant to rally Americans into attacking and visiting great harm on Cuba. And you should support efforts to normalize US-Cuban relations.
Alex Dalton: The Former Harvard Law Dean Who Wants Government to Save the News Business: Martha Minow, the book is Saving the News: Why the Constitutino Calls for Government Action to Preserve Freedom of Speech. We're a million miles away from entertaining such notions, but good to see that someone is articulating them, especially on the basis of constitutional rights, including the chartering of government to "form a more perfect union" and "promote the general welfare." As I recall, Thomas Jefferson once argued for pubic support of higher education not because we needed skilled workers (although nowadays we do) but because education makes for better citizens (something we seem to be in even more desperate shortage of). Republicans will be up in arms, because they see news and education as domains for thought control (which is why they finance their own). Capitalists will worry that government support will reduce their ability to profit from their news monopolies. And any time government gets involved, people will gripe about how their taxes are being spent -- whether to promote socialism or practice racism, everyone will be offended until no one is satisfied. Still, we desperately need fair and objective news, freely available to everyone. Why can't we figure out how to do that?
German Lopez: The opioid epidemic isn't unsolvable: The death count due to opioid overdoses shot up significantly last year, so much so that it became (actually remained) a major factor in declining life expectancy. Yet this is one public health crisis I have little interest in. Part of that may be that the victims are discrete (unlike the pandemic, where they infect others). But it's also because the way "experts" define the problem is so misleading. What we really have is a pain problem. Opioids are in many cases the simplest, most effective solution to pain, but only if they are administered with much more care than our profit-seeking health care system is capable of. Lopez is smart and knowledgeable, but look how he frames the "solutions":
In other words, start with prohibition, then give lip service to a few other mantras that will be forgotten almost immediately. The obvious problem with the first is that it's already being done quite seriously, and it hasn't worked. On the one hand, people with serious pain are hard-pressed to work the system to get relief. On the other hand, the black market has grown to take advantage of the shortfall, often with faulty product as well as no useful support or service. The other points are increasingly hard, expensive, and/or nebulous. Moreover, the right, despite occasional libertarian pretensions, is fond of prohibition -- it furthers the police state they hold so dear -- they haven't the slightest interest or desire in the other three (i.e., they don't like care, they don't care about risk reduction, and they reject any charge that the system might be at fault). But the system is broken -- so deep you're never going to be able to isolate opioid overdoses as something that can be fixed without overhauling the whole system. That's basically why I have so little patience for people who single out this problem. Give us a health care system that serves everybody, one that treats pain in all its complexity, because we as a people care about each and every one of us. Even so, you're not going to make pain vanish. The best you can hope for is that more people will be able to live with it, because it will be viewed within the context of life, not just as some racket to make money off of.
Kerry Howley: Call Me a Traitor: "Daniel Hale exposed the machinery of America's clandestine warfare. Why did no one seem to care?" Long story, lots about drone warfare. For an update, see Josh Gerstein: Leaker of drone secrets gets 45 months in prison. Howley previously wrote 'The World's Biggest Terrorist Has a Pikachu Bedspread': all about Reality Winter.
Ed Kilgore: Democrats Can't Out-Organize a Gerrymander -- or Outflank Joe Manchin: Argues that Democrats "have to play the cards dealt to them by the system as it currently exists." With razor-thin majorities, that means you can't get lots of things done that are needed. That shouldn't mean giving up. If anything, it means it's all the more important to focus on popular measures and show that you're trying. And make it clear that it's the Republicans who are blocking the government help that the people want and need. Take that into the 2022 election, and use that message to elect many more Democrats. Sure, the cards are stacked against Democrats, but they should have a popular program, especially versus the Republican legacy of doom. By the way, although it never hurts to point out how the Republicans are trying to rig elections, I'm not sure that reducing the number of voters works against Democrats. It mostly gets rid of a lot of low-information, low-commitment voters, who as 2020 showed are as likely to fall for crackpot theories as not. The idea that low turnout favors Republicans became cemented in 2010, when it was possible to explain Democratic losses by voter indifference after the Democrats achieved very little with pretty large majorities. But the 2010 dropoff from 2008 was almost exactly the same as the 2006 dropoff from 2004, except it cut the opposite way.
Paola Rosa-Aquino: New CDC Data Shows the Pandemic Crushed U.S. Life Expectancy. Note that the drop exceeds what can be directly blamed on the pandemic -- although demographic studies suggest that "excess deaths" were up some 50% more than the official Covid-19 body count. Next article I looked at after this one was Zak Cheney-Rice: The GOP's 2024 Strategy Has a High Body Count.
Friday, July 16, 2021
Speaking of Which
Last week, I jotted down these tweets for possible use here:
Steve M reply:
One tends to automatically assume that something like the uptick in violent crime rates over the past year-plus has more to do with deeper socio-economic shifts, like the desperation many people felt as the pandemic struck and the economy collapsed. I'm not aware of any detailed factor analysis on the increase, so I don't have much to go on other than speculation (which, sure, tends to reinforce one's predilections). One obvious point is that the proliferation of guns, as Republicans sought to politicize them after Obama's win in 2008, and Trump took to even more extravagant levels, has only added to the problem. But I think Yglesias is right about "a broader kind of social breakdown," and also that SM is right that a major part of this breakdown has been the loss of trust and good will that has resulted from Trump's extremely divisive politicization of everything. How extreme Trump's effect on his own people has been was born out when his mob stormed the Capitol building: you couldn't ask for a clearer demonstration of how a sizable slice of the public has lost all respect for the principles and institutions of America and/or democracy. Yet this was just one of hundreds of examples of how Trump and the Republicans put their greed and their naked power interests above the law, and simple decency.
Moreover, the example they set not only encouraged lawlessness in their people, it also tarnished the institutions they legitimately exercised power over, and discredited their positions. I don't know of any incidence of politically motivated crime on the left, but there were isolated instances of looting and vandalism in cities the police had abused and in some cases abandoned -- something not likely to happen where police and courts are viewed as legitimate, fair, and protective.
Like most things, trust is easier broken than repaired. It is especially difficult to restore when the leadership of a major political party is still working hard to tear it down, something Republicans and their propagandists are still very frantically engaged in. One might pray for a convocation of people of good will, but as long as one party believes "being an obnoxious asshole is not only fun but virtuous," the only hope is to vote that party out of existence. Republicans are irredeemable.
Shannon Brownlee/Jeanne Lenzer: The FDA Is Broken: Case in point is the FDA approval of an insanely expensive drug to treat Alzheimers, where even the company's own test evidence shows its "failure to improve symptoms" and "also packs some nasty side effects" -- "three times as likely to suffer brain swelling and hemorrhages as patients given placebo." The approval was granted despite "ten of 11 members of the FDA's advisory committee of outside experts voted against approving the drug (the eleventh abstained)."
David Cohen: Trump on Jan. 6 insurrection: 'These were great people': "The former president described the participants as loving and patriotic, and said Democrats could be blamed for any violence." This is so perverse you have to wonder what the clinical term is for delusion where everything is its opposite. Note that one of those "loving and patriotic" people has since been elevated to coup martyr: See Josh Kovensky: The Deeply Racist Dimensions to Ashli Babbitt's Martyrdom.
Several books are coming out (if not already, then soon enough to leak to the news) on the last year of the Trump presidency, especially the election-to-inauguration period. The books:
Dan Diamond/Hannah Knowles/Tyler Pager: Vaccine hesitancy morphs into hostility, as opposition to shots hardens. Also: Fenit Nirappil: The delta variant is ravaging this Missouri city. Many residents are still wary of vaccines. I don't blame people for being wary, but so-called "conservatives" need to suck it up and show some concern for their fellow Americans. The number of Covid-19 cases in the US declined as vaccines became readily available, but the numbers have started to rise again: cases are +121% over the last 14 days, hospitalized +26%, deaths +9%. Deaths are almost exclusively among the unvaccinated. And cases are way up worldwide, especially in countries which haven't had the first chance to get vaccines (as we have). Also:
By the way, I should also note the appearance of several books on the pandemic, especially on the Trump administration's botched handling of the crisis:
PS: Just after posting, saw this tweet from UAMS Health:
Amy Gardner: A Texas man was arrested on charges that he voted in the 2020 Democratic primary while on parole. He could face as much as 20 years in prison. This is a pretty grotesque story, starting with the fact that in 20 states this wouldn't even be a crime, much less one punishable with a draconian sentence (the "minimum prison term" of 2 years is almost as horrific as the maximum). Also that the publicity-seeking Texas AG filed the charges in a neighboring county to avoid getting a Houston jury. Not mentioned is the fact that Texas recently passed a law that allows felons to avoid checks when they purchase guns. I can see a case for not allowing people in jail to vote -- mostly having to do with residency, although no reason for that to preclude state and federal ballots -- but don't you actually want people on parole to do things ordinary citizens do? Most of the things parolees are restricted from are behaviors that risk further crime, such as drugs or guns. But what's the risk of recidivism in voting? This is pure discrimination. If anyone is culpable, it's the state and its AG.
Garphil Julien: Assassination of Haitian Leader Highlights Nation's Monopoly-Dominated Economy: It's been hard to get a handle on this event, implemented by Colombian mercenaries and two Haitian-Americans ("translators," they say). The island nation's history of poverty and political violence is generally known, but the staggering inequality gets less press:
If inequality in Haiti seems more extreme than in the US, that is less due to the rarefied atmosphere at the top than the failure (so far) of the American right to destroy the safety net that limits poverty and protects most Americans from the most extreme forms of economic predation. Julien offers a telling example in Haiti's failure to build a robust electric grid -- a problem the rich work around by owning their own private diesel-fueled generators, and a problem that the private sector doesn't recognize because possible consumers don't have enough money to make investment in a grid profitable. Julien suggests that Biden's recent anti-monopoly moves could help here, but sounds to me like they need something more, like Green New Deal.
By the way, least surprising article of the week: Alex Horton: US military once trained Colombians implicated in Haiti assassination plot, Pentagon says. All right, maybe "Pentagon denies" would have been less surprising.
Michael Kranish: How Tucker Carlson became the voice of White grievance. I don't have much to add to this piece, other than to note that when I see Carlson (in clips, as I've never watched his show) I'm often struck by the dumbstruck absence of expression on his face, like a robot slowly searching memory banks for some politically right response. After some background, here's a sample:
Steve M comments on the article here, and followed that up with another piece, How Not to Profile Tucker Carlson. Another piece, starting with a photo that illustrates my point above: David Badash: Tucker Carlson: 'I've never met a white supremacist in my entire life.'
Eugene Robinson: It's time for progressives and conservatives to put the Cuba canards aside: No need for the "both sides do it" posturing. I've found it impossible to find anything credible on the demonstrations in Cuba or their "suppression," basically because the US media is totally in hock to the cold war propagandists, and they're not just hobbled with "canards" but have lost all credibility. And sure, some people on the left have long been reflexively defensive of Cuba, which doesn't help their credibility. While we might not be able to establish what is happening now, who is doing what, and what might ensue, there are a few basic things we should all be able to agree on: from "liberation" in 1898 to revolution in 1958, the US exploited Cuba as a colony through its corrupt and authoritarian political class, consigning most Cubans to deep poverty; that is what the Cuban people revolted against; US opposition to the revolution implicitly asserts American desire to return to colonial exploitation; the people who left Cuba to escape the revolution are not representative of the Cuban people, and have no stake in the future of Cuba (unless and until they return, a right that refugees generally have); as bad as economic exploitation was, the US-enforced blockade has done even more harm, and is arguably the source of continued impoverishment and repression in Cuba. We've seen, time and again, the folly of trying to topple unfriendly states by strangling the people. Robinson understands at least that much: "Trying to starve the Cuban regime into submission hasn't worked. Flooding it with freedom just might." Moreover, it would be good for Americans to give up on the conceit that we should dictate how other nations are governed, and acknowledge that (like us) people everywhere just want to be able to manage their own affairs, in whatever way they find works best. Also see:
Jason Samenow: Death Valley soars to 130 degrees, matching Earth's highest temperature in at least 90 years; also Death Valley had planet's hottest 24 hours on record amid punishing heat wave. There is debate whether this is the hottest temperature ever recorded on earth (an old reading of 134°F in 1913 is considered suspect), but it is awful hot, and not at all out of line with 120+ highs we've seen recently in cities like Baghdad and Phoenix. More heat:
Luke Savage: The Billionaire Space Race Is the Ultimate Symbol of Capitalist Decadence: That's one way of putting it. I was more interested in the curious phenomenon where insanely rich people get to pursue fanciful projects which no government or rational business would touch. The main examples in the past were big buildings. One wonders whether the human spirit is lifted by extravagances like Versailles, the Taj Mahal, Hearst Castle, or for that matter the Pyramids. It does appear that Bezos, Musk, and Branson are doing things that couldn't pass political or financial muster, things that they can only do because they are super-rich. Is this such a bad thing? I'm not sure, but there sure is a lot of hubris at stake. And it's more than a little troubling to watch them renting their toys with their fellows. Not that I have any desire to democratize their joy rides to the edge of space.
By the way, it should be noted that these ventures are structured as profit-seeking companies (even if much of their short-term value is to shelter profits made elsewhere). Given how thin the market is for $28 million thrills, it seems likely that their longer game is to promote and capture public spending on space, which has little to do with the glamour they seek, and (like "defense spending" ultimately depends on graft. PS: Also see this interview with Scott Galloway and Kara Swisher: Why Space Tourism Will Fall Flat.
Mark Schmitt: The American Left is a Historical Success Story: Only thing that surprises me here is that by focusing on the last 20 years -- part of that story is the growth of left/center think tanks has generated the ideas and personnel behind Biden's turn to the left -- this leaves out a lot of history. Indeed, it's hard to think of anything worth celebrating in American history that didn't start out with a small faction of the left. My own prime example is the New Left of 1965-75, which won popular support for the most important causes of the era: civil rights, peace, women, consumers, and the environment. One can fault the New Left on two major points: unions (considered Old Left, and divided on our issues), and electoral politics. The New Left started with an intrinsic distrust in political power (not least by the liberal elites of the Democratic Party), and never built up a political base able to consolidate, preserve, and build on the gains of that decade -- a weakness which allowed right-wing reaction to grab power, even if they were hard-pressed to reverse the winning principles of the New Left. (Not that they aren't still trying.)
Emily Stewart: America's monopoly problem stretches far beyond Big Tech. I always found it amusing when right-wing think tanks came up with schemes to employ the genius of the free market to solve all manner of problems -- "cap and trade" and "Obamacare" are two examples, famous as Democrats decided they could work with such market ideas, instantly abandoned by Republicans -- while their corporate and financial masters worked tirelessly to subvert the thing that makes markets work: competition. But monopolies and cartels are everywhere, so much so that it's virtually impossible for would-be entrepreneurs to raise money unless they can potentially corner the market. Competition has become something else the private sector is unable to do.
Tech companies get a lot of the antitrust notice these days because they're finding new and more ominous ways of exploiting monopoly power -- most often through network effects. Their high valuation signals that financiers think their potential monopoly profits are extremely high, and they can in turn use that to mop up potential competitors and niche products that could independently develop into threats. Another part of the attention is the worry that the old antitrust laws are not up to the task of protecting competitive markets.
Matt Taibbi: Our Endless Dinner With Robin DiAngelo: Scathing putdown of her new book, Nice Racism: How Progressive White People Perpetuate Racial Harm, which he describes as self-plagiarism of her 2018 book White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (itself the target of a savage Taibbi takedown). Sample: "DiAngelo is monetizing white guilt on a grand scale, and there's an extraordinary irony in the fact that she's got a home-field advantage in this game over someone like, say, Ibram Kendi, because she's more accessible to people like herself, the same phenomenon she decries. Normally I'd salute the capitalist ingenuity. Unfortunately, like Donald Trump, DiAngelo is both too dim-witted and too terrific an entrepreneur to stop herself from upselling a truly psychotic movement into existence." I don't know whether this is a fair description, nor do I much care. We all know nice, well-meaning people with notions and instincts that are rooted in racism, but it rarely seems worth the effort to correct them -- it even seems a bit presumptuous and prejudicial. Isn't it better to build on those nice, well-meaning instincts? I don't wish to belittle the harm caused by racism throughout American history, nor to deny that the past persists into the present, but I also don't see it as the root of all evil. Racism was invented as a rationalization for one group of people to dominate another, but it's not the only one, especially as inequality has increased despite the 1965 passage of civil rights laws meant to end (or at least to reduce) it.
Friday, July 9, 2021
Speaking of Which
No need for an introduction this week. The point here is not to try to cover anything. Just to note a few things, often as springboards for pet peeve rants (err, insightful comments).
David Atkins: Conservatives Have No Plan to Win the Culture War. They Intend to Rule Anyway. This spins off Tanner Greer's "excellent essay" ( Culture Wars Are Long Wars), admitting that serious writings from the right are few and far between, then punching enough holes in the thesis to make you wonder why he's worth the bother. The key line in Greer's essay is in bold: "Culture wars are fought for the hearts of the unborn." This reminds me of Paul Feyerabend's Against Method: scientific revolutions occur not when older scientists realize that there are better answers than the ones they had learned, but when they retire and die and younger scientists come along. Greer's complaint is that conservatives today have given up on forging ideas to appeal to future generations, and as such their current culture war salvos, leaning so heavily on authoritarian force, have lost appeal to younger generations. He contrasts this to Hayek, whose ideas written up in the 1940s finally became influential in the 1980s. It's not a very good example: Hayek (and his apostle Milton Friedman) never had any broad-based following beyond the ultra-rich libertarian right, which became politically powerful in the 1980s by camouflaging their agenda to exploit the backlash against the egalitarian and anti-war political movement of the 1960s (which really did pervade the culture of the period -- which is part of the reason those ideas persist despite the right's political efforts; the other part is that the right's agenda has repeatedly failed). Greer advises: "Values must be forged. Utopias must be imagined. Ideas must be tailored for mass intellectual appeal." But the right has given up appealing to the intellect. Their appeal is strictly emotional, requiring believers to ignore reality as well as reason. But if it weren't, it would be even less effective: the central idea of conservatism is that hierarchies are natural, normal, and necessary, which has always been a tough sell, especially as the people at the bottom feel the dead weight and desperation of those on top. Americans got rid of one oppressive hierarchy in 1776, another in 1865. The political movements of the 1930s and 1960s took aim at various hierarchies, which is why conservatives hate them so much. But they have nothing else to offer, so of course they've reduced themselves to pure hate.
By the way, Atkins has been writing a number of political essays that aren't exactly deep but try to look beyond the immediate fracas. See:
Will Bunch: Live free and die: Inside the bizarre political philosophy of America's unvaccinated. Last fall, when my doctor asked me whether I was going to get vaccinated when it became possible, I remembered an old quip: "always take drugs when they are new, while they still work." Implicit here is the fact that many drugs, even after they've been approved by the FDA, turned out to not work so well and/or have side-effects that ultimately caused them to be withdrawn (e.g., Vioxx). Some degree of wariness is reasonable, especially given that the pharmaceutical biz is one of the most rapaciously profit-driven in a nation full of greed and plunder. On the other hand, such stories about vaccines are far and few between. When I was growing up, the great fear was polio, and I remember getting both Sabine and Salk vaccines, as well as vaccine for the ancient (and now eradicated) scourge of smallpox. In recent years, I've gotten flu shots every years, and since they've become available, I've never had an adverse reaction, nor have I gotten flu. I didn't bother looking at technical details at the time, but it looks like the mRNA technology is intrinsically safer than many methods of vaccine design. And while the FDA didn't spend as much time as usual testing the vaccines, the real world application of them has been massive, and closely monitored, bearing out their advertisements for safety and efficacy. If the decision on whether to get vaccinated or now was strictly personal, I don't see any reasonable grounds for avoiding the shot. On the other hand, given the transmissibility and severity of the virus, the fact that most people around the world haven't had access to the vaccines, and the permeability of the world's borders, the decision really goes beyond deciding personal risks: your failure to get vaccinated increases the risks of other people becoming ill, of possibly dying, and of further spreading the virus, allowing it to further mutate. I'd argue that all this adds up to not just a personal but a social, indeed a national responsibility to get vaccinated. So it's fair to say that those who do refuse to do so are: (a) cowards, (b) hate Americans (if not necessarily such totems of Americanism as flags and guns), and (c) do not care whether the economy chokes on their toxic fear and ignorance. Of course, the article also suggests that they are (d) stupid and (e) have vile politics.
By the way, the odious Marc Thiessen has another op-ed arguing Give Trump credit for the vaccines, based on the dubious proposition that Trump's followers would rush to get vaccinated if it was seen as affirming rather than rejecting their hero. It's true that Trump was president while the vaccines were being developed, and that the federal government put a lot of money into vaccine development and committed a lot of money to buying those vaccines. There is no chance that any other president would have done less, but that wouldn't have stopped Trump from claiming credit -- if only he wanted it, something he has wavered on, especially after he recovered from his own bout with Covid-19, and significantly increased his denials of the danger of the illness (despite growing numbers, which peaked while he was preoccupied with plotting his insurrection). Even now, if Trump wants credit for the vaccines, he doesn't need Democrats (or Thiessen) to give it to him. He can claim it on his own. The simplest way would be to demand proof of vaccination to attend his rallies, with those lacking it being offered vaccination on the spot. He won't do that, because he's a coward, and they won't agree to it, because he's not their real leader: he's just a blowhard fool who makes them feel better about themselves, and superior to all the other Americans they so hate.
Jelani Cobb: Derek Chauvin's Trial and George Floyd's City. I don't have much to say about this, but this is a valuable piece of coverage. I'm not someone who thinks justice should be measured by the prison terms given to offenders. Indeed, I'd say that it's impossible to say now whether the 25 year sentence given to Chauvin is too much or too little, but that has more to do with our inability to foresee the future than any intrinsic notion of justice. What we can say is that Chauvin was convicted on overwhelming, incontrovertible evidence, and that his sentence isn't out of line with common practice. I'll also note that the article isn't just about Chauvin and Floyd, as they cannot be isolated from the larger political context. There is, for instance, a story about "a trumpeter named Keyon Harrold" -- not the way I would have phrased it, as he's well known to me as a brilliant musician -- which is both trivial and profound. I recall that after Obama was elected president, a lot of liberals thought the occasion was self-congratulatory proof that the American people had finally overcome their racist past. What happened next was that the racists doubled down, and Republican political opportunists took advantage of their energy. It may not be the case that more Americans are racist now than in 2008, but the political discourse is much more racially charged. Convicting Chauvin puts a little bit of a damper on that, but is also an outlier event that doesn't go far toward settling the much deeper problem of excessive police violence.
Jen Kirby: Can Biden do anything to stop ransomware attacks? With the Internet offering instant global communication, he'll need a lot of international cooperation, which means dialing back the tensions and animosities that undergird America's imperial belligerence. But we need a deeper moral shift: we need to make crime less attractive and less appealing, which will only happen if the "rules-based order" is viewed as fundamentally just and secure. It's easy to see why Russia is at the center of the ransomware crisis: when Communists converted to Capitalism, they kept their view of the latter as a criminal racket where greed trumps all other concerns. Russia today is often viewed as a mafia state, with Putin as a mob boss. On the other hand, it was not Putin but Yelstin (America's favorite) who turned Russia's resources over to crime bosses, and set up the environment Putin has struggled to manage, to sanitize, to legitimize. But America is also a criminal-minded oligarchy -- most blatantly under Trump, but his removal from the presidency has yet to change fundamental power relationships, especially in business and in the "security services." The US is at least as committed to cyberwarfare as Russia, China, or any other state you could mention (even Israel), and as such is a fertile source of cybercriminals. Americans culture has long embraced the pursuit of wealth and power, while blurring the lines between criminality and "legitimate" means, and that has only increased as the US right, with its faith in unregulated capitalism and its penchant to use force, both at home and abroad, to protect the privileges of the rich. I date the cultural shift to two Vietnam War artifacts: the TV series It Takes a Thief (1968-70), and more dramatically to the 1967 movie The Dirty Dozen. Both argued that criminals were better suited to government missions, most likely an admission that the government had itself crossed the line. By the time of The Sopranos (1999-2007), the mobsters justified their criminal acts as soldiers and/or businessmen. The show may have been meant to expose such conceits, but it perpetrated them nonetheless. Nowadays it's hard to find a police procedural that doesn't turn on quasi-legal hacking. Culture reflects and confirms broader, possibly less coherent social views. I don't blame these works for the sea change in public morality. I see deeper sources, especially in war -- which inevitably becomes more desperate and brutal the longer it lasts and the more fruitless it has obviously become -- and in the post-WWII embrace of capitalism as a crusade to be imposed on the post-colonial world. Also in the inequality and injustice that political support for oligarchy has fostered.
I recognize that changes in public morality occur slowly and fitfully, but the problem of ransomware illustrates the need, and possibly points the way. We live in an increasingly complex world, which more than ever depends on conscientious engineering and management of technology. It's hard to get that is a system that depends on profit-seeking businesses and self-serving bureaucracies hiding behind "national security" codes. We need to reduce the profit incentives behind crime, and we need to open up technology and insist on its public utility. There are ways to do this, but I can't go into all of that here. But I do want to mention the absurdity of America's conventional "anti-terrorism" mentality. For example, Tyler Cowen wrote:
Cowen's world-view is a dead end. Do we really want hospitals to be run as covertly and unaccountably as the CIA? Do we want hospitals to be as expensive to run as the CIA is? It's hard to tell what value (if any) the CIA produces, but the most likely net answer is: not much. (Tim Weiner's big history of the CIA is called Legacy of Ashes.) The essential key to a functioning economy is trust, an insight as old as the Golden Rule. Without it, we reasonably become paranoid, and the quest for security overwhelms every other aspect of our lives. Cowen's argument is that as individuals we have to protect ourselves against attacks on trust, because he cannot conceive of doing so as a society. Isn't that carrying individualism a bit too far? Won't doing so end with Hobbes' "war of all against all"?
Paul Krugman: What Underlies the G.O.P. Commitment to Ignorance?, and Only the Incompetent Need Apply: The former was occasioned by Tucker Carson's attack on Gen. Mark Milley ("He's not just a pig, he's stupid") for saying that it's important "for those of us in uniform to be open-minded and widely read." As Krugman points out, "Closed-mindedness and ignorance have become core conservative values." He could have added that's because it's the only way to protect the rotten heart of conservatism. The latter piece came from reading Nightmare Scenario, by Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Paletta, on Trump's mishandling of the pandemic, but he couldn't help working Stephen Moore into the narrative. Krugman has long recognized that Moore is among the stupidest people to ever claim to be an economist, but he claims to have been unaware of "the special destructive role played by Moore."
By the way, Krugman also wrote an interesting piece on Trump's tariffs and their lingering effects on supply chains: The Trumpian Roots of the Chip Crisis. Back when this was happening, I tried to argue that tariffs only make sense when combined with some kind of central planning -- you protect the industries you want to develop -- but America is allergic to state direction, and open to all sorts of corrupt lobbying, so all Trump wound up doing was shoring up failing industries that were no longer competitive. Krugman's take is the mirror image: that tariffs introduced uncertainty that made the private sector less likely to invest in new capacity, leading to our current "booming with bottlenecks" economy.
German Lopez: How political polarization broke America's vaccine campaign: This is something that's going to have to be researched much more systematically, but my impression is that Republican denialism has gone through several stages. The first was built around the belief that nothing (certainly not a microscopic virus) should get in the way of businesses making money. But that's not how the pro-business faction lines up popular support in the GOP. They line it up by scaring and taunting the base, by denying the existence of real threats and by playing up the spectre of phony ones. Denialism at that point took the form of denying that young, healthy people would get seriously ill, so why force them to take precautions. By any objective measure, that's turned out to be bullshit, which would have been easy enough to admit once vaccines became available. From that point, the pro-business crowd should have lined up behind everybody getting vaccinated so business could return to normal. But by then, they had already ceded so much ground to the crazies that they had lost control. And, of course, it didn't help that the Democrats all lined up dutifully behind the vaccination regime, because that just confirms their paranoia to the right-wing base. And at this point it's hopeless to think that Republican "leaders" could turn their "followers" around. Republican politicians have learned to fear their base, so they can't be seen as attacking them. Same for Trump. He can't stand up because he's never led anything. He's never been anything but a reflection of the Fox-deranged base, which makes him their stooge, nothing more.
It's probably true that there will always be stupid people, but the genius of the Republican Party is that they've convinced so many stupid people that they deserve to rule the world. Trump's uniqueness is that he actually got the audition. Needless to say, it didn't go well.
Gary Peller: I've Been a Critical Race Theorist for 30 Years.Our Opponents Are Just Proving Our Point for Us. "It makes sense that the depictions of CRT by its opponents bear so little resemblance to our actual work and ideas. Like the invocation of Willie Horton in the 1980s and affirmative action after that, the point of those who seek to ban what they call 'CRT' is not to contest our vision of racial justice, or to debate our social critique. It is instead to tap into a dependable reservoir of racial anxiety among whites." Many more issues appeared on the efforts of the right to ban CRT (e.g., Kimberlé Crenshaw: The panic over critical race theory is an attempt to whitewash U.S. history), but it's refreshing to read one that actually explains the theory itself.
Mandy Smithberger/William Hartung: What Price "Defense"? There's another exception to what I said above about bipartisanship: defense spending, currently approaching $1.3 trillion per year, even with operations in Afghanistan and Iraq winding down. Also at TomDispatch: Andrew Bacevich: So It Goes, from his book After the Apocalypse: America's Role in a World Transformed. Daniel Larison summed up the book: Bacevich: Get out of NATO, shut down combatant commands. (While looking for this, I also saw this 2013 op-ed by Bacevich: Time for the United States to Leave NATO.)
Jennifer Taub: How to Understand the Trump Tax Indictment. This is a pretty good explanation of what's happened so far, with a side glance to the broader world of tax evasion. Conclusion: "For Trump, the worst is yet to come." Gossip for junkies: Alex Henderson: A former federal prosecutor thinks Ivanka may be the next person who gets indicted in Trump Org case.
Rebecca Traister: Biden's Big Left Gamble: They say you can't teach an old dog new tricks. Biden certainly qualifies as old, and his 50+ year career in politics offers nothing to suggest that he's likely to break with the dominant neoliberal model that made Obama and the Clintons so much a part of the Reagan-Trump era yet, well, times have changed, illusions that Democrats have doggedly held have disappeared, and people have started to realize that time is running out. I've argued that anyone who takes current problems seriously must look to the left for answers, and we're seeing some of that. But it also seems to be true that he's looking back to the New Deal. He's not that old, but the America he grew up in was radically transformed by Franklin Roosevelt, and much was lost (for all but the rich) as parts of the New Deal were ripped apart (sometimes with Biden's help). "Biden's team insists that he alone is the engine behind his administration's progressivism, that he has not changed, that he has always been this person." That will eventually prove to be a limit, but to start out it's his strength. Latest update: Joan McCarter: Biden signs sweeping anti-trust executive order to make life fairer for American workers, consumers.
John Washington: The Human Cost of 10 Years of Conflict in Syria: When the "Arab Spring" swept into Syria the government of Bashar Al-Assad was broadly unpopular, but each faction had their own mutually exclusive reasons, and many had more to fear from the others than from Assad. A sensible solution would have been to hold elections and let parliamentary factions trade off with one another. But Syria had been subject to a series of coups and dictatorships, which finally stablilized under the Assad family, and they built a political and military machine that didn't trust their people -- in part because the leadership drew heavily from the minority Alawite population, and in part due to hostile neighbors (especially Israel, but also Turkey and Iraq, plus complications from their long-standing intervention in Lebanon). So Assad did what Syrian governments had done in the past: attacked dissenters militarily. And adjacent nations did what they had often wanted to do: pick factions and subsidize war. The conflict has long reminded me of the Spanish Civil War, where a local struggle was exacerbated by some foreign interests and hampered by others (often through indifference). The last decade hasn't made Assad seem any more legitimate, but it's hard to see any scenario that could dislodge him, so the quickest path to peace would be to accept his continued rule, and try to negotiate non-vindictive and non-discriminatory terms in exchange for aid in rebuilding. But we should be clear that as bad as Assad has behaved during the war, the far greater offense was the (sometimes clandestine) intervention of other countries in the war. Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah (in Lebanon) supported Assad, so presumably continue to have some influence. (Russia, in particular, was able to get Syria to decommission its chemical weapons, not that the US gave them much credit.) Iraq had split interests, with Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis (primarily through ISIS, which straddled the border) had their own interventions. The Saudis, UAE, and possibly other Persian Gulf states backed Islamist factions separate from ISIS. Israel and Turkey used the war as cover for their own perverse interventions (Israel against Iran/Hezbollah, Turkey against the Kurds). And the US, well, mostly fought against everyone, including itself, marking itself as schizophrenic and nihilist, even while spouting the usual liberal democracy propaganda.