Wednesday, December 20, 2017

A Time Long Gone

“I detest John’s views, but what I detest even more is his effectiveness at espousing them.”
—Congressman Robert Bauman, Republican of Maryland, as quoted by The New York Times in February 1980
When I came across an John B. Anderson’s obituary a couple of weeks ago, it brought a flood of political memories.

The Illinois legislator was prominent in U.S. politics during the election year 1980. Strangely, my third novel Lautaro’s Spear, which came out in September, is set in the year 1980 and, though it makes mention of the main political events of the time, it does not mention Congressman Anderson. Nevertheless, he was central to my own political involvement at the time.

It was one of the few times in my life where I actually became enthusiastic about a politician. I had been impressed by Jimmy Carter when he came out of nowhere to become president in 1976. I even saw him up close and in person when I attended a press conference he gave on the campaign trail in Columbus, Ohio. By 1980, however, between a miserable economy and what I saw as a hapless foreign policy—exemplified by an ill-managed attempt at rescuing the Iran hostages—I had become disenchanted. Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were not setting me on fire either, but then I discovered John Anderson.

I felt a natural affinity for him probably because, like my father, he was a Republican Scandinavian-American from the Midwest. With his black-rimmed glasses and shock of white hair, he had the manner of a university professor. Indeed, he spent his post-electoral career teaching constitutional law at a Florida university. Early on, he had been very conservative, a supporter of Barry Goldwater who voted consistently against Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs. Over time, though, he evolved. In the wake of attending funerals for civil rights activists, he became more socially liberal and wound up being the deciding committee vote to send the Civil Rights Act of 1968 to the House floor. He reversed his positions on the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion, the Vietnam War and gun control.

Something that did not change, though, was his fiscal conservatism. He understood that social programs were no good if they were not sustainable in the long run and if the economy was shackled by ballooning deficits. That notion seems so quaint these days when Republicans do not care about deficits as long as they get their tax cuts and Democrats do not care about them except when they can criticize Republicans.

He ran for president in 1980 and that—plus the fact that it was hard to find a Democratic caucus in the Seattle suburb where I lived anyway—spurred me to join Republicans by showing up at my first precinct caucus. Previously, I had voted in California, a primary state. I have never felt particular loyalty to any political party, but Washington’s caucus system forced me to pick one—at least for the duration of an election year.

At the caucus I attended in 1980, I was outnumbered by Bush people, whom I found to be bullies. They were determined that all the precinct’s votes would go to their man, and that is what happened. In one heated exchange over internal security, I found myself saying something like, “But I don’t want my country to become like the Soviet Union” to which an irate Bush supporter rejoined with the non-sequitur, “Well, if you think it’s so great over there, why don’t you just go live there?”

Anderson never stood a chance of getting the Republican nomination but, when he decided to bolt the party and run as an independent, I followed him and gave him my vote in the general election. In the end, he got 6.6 percent of the popular vote and zero votes in the Electoral College. For years after, I was berated by friends and acquaintances when they learned how I had voted. One particularly aghast co-worker held me personally responsible for Reagan becoming president. Frankly, since the Gipper carried 44 states and defeated Carter by 489 to 49 in the Electoral College, I never lost any sleep over what part my vote may have played.

By the next presidential election, I would be living in the heart of Seattle in one of the most liberal districts in the whole country and I would be attending Democratic caucuses, largely by default. I was once even a delegate to the county convention. Living abroad now, I no longer attend caucuses. I simply fill out a ballot at home and mail it in.

The passing of John Anderson is a stark reminder of how much things have changed in the past three and a half decades. As hard as it is to believe, both major parties used to have a left wing and a right wing. Political discourse centered on principles and ideas rather than reflexively demonizing one’s opponents. There used to be politicians, even liberal ones, who saw the importance of fiscal responsibility. At the end of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, the federal-debt-to-GDP ratio was 32.5 percent. At the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, it was 102.7 percent.

In a strange way, Donald Trump accomplished what John Anderson failed to. Trump won the presidency despite the opposition of both major political parties. He did not do it, however, by running as an independent but rather by leading a successful mutiny within one of the established parties—Anderson’s old party, as it happened.

That, however, is where the similarity ends. John Anderson was a civil, thoughtful, principled debater in the public arena. His time now seems very long ago.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The Broken Moral Compass

“I did three movies with Harvey Weinstein, and I knew he was a sleazebag. I knew he was a vile bully and I saw his bullying up close. I saw him be absolutely appalling, not just to women but to men as well. He had very little respect for any kind of human being. He wanted his stars around him. I had heard vague rumours—I have to stress that they were vague—of doors being locked and women being compromised. I heard that once or twice from two very well known actresses, but the problem when you hear something like that is, do you pass that on? Because if it’s not true it’s awful, and if it is true it’s not your job to say, ‘Well, I wasn’t there, the door was locked, I don’t know what happened, I just heard the story.’ But I did not know, and many people didn’t know, the extent of the violence that he perpetrated on women.”
 —Actor Gabriel Byrne, quoted in the UK’s The Times (Ireland edition) on Sunday
Here is a story my mother told me many years ago about something that happened in my home town. Since it happened well before I was born, I cannot be sure I have all of the details right, but this is the way I remember her telling it. She was raised in a church that was, in those days, very strict. Certain things that are now considered just a normal part of life, like dancing and movies, were considered sinful. Needless to day, any thought of sex outside of marriage was considered beyond the pale. In this environment, the local church minister persuaded a teenage girl to enter a clandestine sexual relationship with him, using his moral authority to convince her it was “God’s will.” Despite his assurances to her, she clearly felt what they were doing was at some level wrong because, one evening when members of the congregation were invited to stand up and publicly confess their sins, she rose and told everyone about herself and the minister.

I have thought back on this story while reading and hearing the seemingly endless cascade of reports about politicians, journalists and entertainment people whose exploitive behavior has come to light. In many cases, it is the same story as the one my mother told. An older man takes advantage of a position of authority to impose himself on someone younger and trusting. To make it worse, the behavior is cloaked by his role as some sort of arbiter of right and wrong. That is traditionally a clergyman’s role, but do not politicians, journalists and artists also deliver implicit moral judgments in the stories they tell? What is striking in all these cases is the reluctance of victims to speak out and of bystanders to take note. When suddenly and dramatically revealed, the perpetrator’s actions explode in our minds with the dramatic thunder of shock and disbelief.

I have heard people argue that stories like the one my mother told me exemplify what is wrong with religion or at least with conservative religion—moral preaching is worthless because of the hypocrisy behind it. If that is true, though, then what does it say about politics, journalism and the arts that such rank hypocrisy can be found there as well? In a society where decreasing numbers of people report church membership or attendance, one could argue the media have, by default or design, filled the gap of informing us what is right and what is wrong. One only has to scan the social media sites and the harsh rhetoric directed at opposing viewpoints to conclude that politics—with its increasing dogma and stridency—is the new religion.

In all the stories of authority abused, the question that particularly haunts me is that of the silence. I refer to the silence of the victim but also to that of the witnesses and of those who suspect or have heard something second-hand. Yes, I have heard all the explanations about fear and reprisals, about not being believed or not wanting to rock the boat or just being dazzled by someone who has been put on a pedestal. There is something dark about human psychology when we form groups or teams with hierarchies. “Mob mentality” is not just something manifested by people running around in the street but can also be found in modern office buildings. Yet it is impossible to do away with hierarchies. After all, if you eliminate the hierarchy in the name of equality, you will then need someone to enforce the equality and you immediately have a new hierarchy.

I have no answers for any of this, but here are a couple of observations anyway. Thoughtful people look at what has been happening and try to come up with new rules or practices to avoid the abuses. Is that not what traditional religions were doing when they came up with the rules that new generations, like mine, found so old-fashioned, unnecessary and repressive? People laughed when Vice-President Pence spoke of his personal practice of not meeting alone with female colleagues. That will hardly become standard practice in this day and age—even if extended in the name of fairness to male colleagues as well. At the same time, though, wouldn’t a lot of people been better off if Harvey Weinstein had the same policy as Pence?

That brings me to this thought: the media narrative of workplace victimization sometimes runs worryingly close to arguing that women need to be protected, that more rules and laws are needed to solve the problem. That not only smacks of paternalism but, in the case of assault, the behavior is already against the law. In those cases it is reporting and enforcement that are the issue. What about behavior that falls short of being prosecutable? There is no quick fix because the culture needs to change, and that requires both leadership and time. It also requires a certain level of unity and good faith so that the issue is not merely political fodder. The signs of this happening are not hopeful.

One more random thought: maybe it is a bad idea to be getting our main moral guidance from people on television or in our Twitter feed.

In the end, men need to change their thinking. So do women. Men like Matt Lauer, Al Franken, Charlie Rose and John Conyers act under their own set of unwritten rules. People in general—and women in particular—must refuse to recognize or respect “rules” that are bad rather than accommmodating them just because they seem accepted in the environment in which they work. Moreover, these guys should never get a pass simply because they are part of one’s own political tribe. This is easy to say but difficult to do—especially when there is a penalty for one’s social acceptance, career or political agenda.

In a perfect world, it would not be this way. Sadly, it is not a perfect world. Insisting that the world ought to be perfect may provide some level of moral satisfaction, but it does not really change anything. What does? Focusing on what you yourself can do—or not do.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Great Divide

“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are so certain of themselves and wiser people so full of doubts.”
—British writer and Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell
Last month a friend was visiting from the States. As we discussed America’s strange political situation, he shared an interesting take. One lesson his father taught him early on and which stuck with him was that, “when there is trouble, it always comes from the right.”

That got me to thinking. Does trouble really always come from the same side? And what do “left” and “right” really mean when it comes to politics anyway? That may seem like a silly question in this polarized time but, to my mind, it is always good to question things that we think we know. For the simplicity of mass consumption, political views have been purposely reconfigured by the media and by politicians as binary. Everything is either/or—either conservative or liberal, either Democrat or Republican, either right or wrong, either left or right.

The world is much more complex than the dumbed-down binary view suggests. In the U.S. there is a wide range of varying opinions that do not easily fit in the either/or pigeon holes—and that’s just the Republican party. There is also diversity of opinion on the Democratic side, but it seems somehow more reined in, mainly because Democratic voters tend to be very united, if only by the notion that letting Republicans into power is a horrible prospect.

If you do not see the diversity of opinion out there, then you may be over-influenced by the mass media and/or whichever political party you pay attention to. For a long time the modus operandi of the political parties has been to focus on the most extreme individuals in the opposite camp and then paint those whackos as representative and typical of the entire party. That is why so many Democrats take it as given that all Republicans are knuckle-dragging, science-disbelieving, religious fundamentalists and why so many Republicans think the typical Democrat is a rabid communist who wants to confiscate all private property.

Where does the left/right terminology come from anyway? As with so many things, we can thank—or blame—the French. The terms go all the way back to 1789 when, in France’s National Assembly, the king’s supporters sat to the assembly president’s right and supporters of the French Revolution were on his left. During the 19th century, as political groupings grew, re-generated and sub-divided, the terms left and right were refined into categories such as extreme left, extreme right, center left, center right and, simply, the center. Generally, the left was called the party of movement and the right the party of order. In the 20th century, the notion of a left/right political spectrum spread to other countries. In Britain the terms came into use in the 1930s in debates over the Spanish Civil War. Early on, the left was generally considered republican, that is, anti-monarchial, and the right was conservative or pro-monarchy. How do these labels work in countries like the U.S. where absolutely no one is in favor of a instituting a monarchy?

Today the left is understood to champion values such as equality, rights, progress, reform and internationalism. That sounds pretty good, right? But political scientists also lump in other strains as part of the left, such as anarchism, communism and socialism. Similarly, the right is considered to comprise such values as authority, order, duty, tradition and nationalism. Again, political scientists throw in other disparate strains, which included libertarians, imperialists, monarchists and fascists. How do a libertarian and a fascist have anything in common?

When you think about it, this two-way division of political philosophies really makes no sense. Do not the center-left and center-right have more in common with each other—espousing moderation and democratic principles—than they do with either the extreme-left or extreme-right, both of which tend toward authoritarianism? In fact, do not the latter two groups have more than a fair amount in common themselves? In fact, if we study the history of Germany and Italy in the 1920s and 1930s, we find that groups considered communist and fascist and which spawned Hitler and Mussolini were all part of the same general grouping of agitating movements. Today people generally talk of the Nazis as “right wing” even though the party’s name was an acronym that prominently included the word socialist.

That is the strange thing. Parties of the center-left and center-right are often more inclined to build coalitions with or seek votes from parties on their fringes rather than poaching them from the center. That leads to what are called “establishment” Republican politicians, who are pro-business and pro-immigration and moderate on environmental questions, courting votes from voters who are farther right, who may be nativist and religiously fundamentalist. In turn, relatively moderate Democrats like the Clintons, who at the end of the day are not that far off from the philosophy of moderate Republicans, find themselves sweet-talking everyone from socialists to fairly narrow interest groups with their own hardline agendas. Why do the groupings in the center not align against the fringes on the left and right?

It’s a mystery. Sometimes the center does come together. One could argue that is what happened in the case of Ronald Reagan, who was not only popular among Republicans but also attracted a lot of blue-collar voters who were traditionally Democrats. Similarly, Bill Clinton was popular among Democrats while also attracting a large number of so-called swing voters, many of whom had voted for Reagan. During the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, however, the lines hardened with center-left and center-right gravitating toward their fringes. Why? Was it the war in Iraq? Was it the fundamental change in the economy in which the middle class saw its standard of living erode in the face of globalisation?

My worry is that what we are seeing is something more ominous. As traditional religion becomes less relevant in the West, it is as though politics has replaced religion in becoming the chief way people identify themselves and their values. If that is true, then the increasingly implacable lines we see drawn between left and right are less honest policy differences and more old-fashioned tribalism. And the more people’s positions are pulled toward the extremes as opposed to the center, the more people will accept the extremes’ insistence on specific results over adherence to constitutionalism and compromise.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Worse Than Fiction

“No one yet knows how all this will pan out. My hunch is that the liberal media are helping Trump greatly by setting expectations at rock bottom. Any sign that this isn’t, after all, the end of days is going to look like success.”
—Historian/columnist Niall Ferguson, writing in the The Times (UK) in January
This blog is feeling a bit neglected. Posts have become fewer and far between, and there is a simple reason for that. Over the past year and a half, writing about politics has become much less satisfying than writing fiction. And, yes, that was a not-so-sly way of once again bringing up my new novel, Lautaro’s Spear, which is still available from fine online booksellers everywhere. Christmas is fast approaching, and nobody who gets a book as a gift ever returns it because it is the wrong size.

Here is the question that currently preoccupies me. Was political conversation always so dreary or am I myself only noticing it now? Yes, the most recent American presidential election was extremely unusual in all sorts of ways, and it does bring words to mind like unprecedented and atypical. The election did not, however, occur in a vacuum. The divisions that brought it about how been roiling for some time.

The really unsatisfying thing about discussing politics these days is that there is less and less common ground on which to base a conversation with people coming from different political mindsets. In my actual real life—as opposed to conversations that happen entirely online—I find that people either want to avoid politics altogether or else they want to simply go on and about how awful President Trump is. Personally, I am less interested in who can come up with the best enunciation of his awfulness than I am in understanding how exactly he managed to get elected.

One thing that does not help is that people who are interested in politics habitually phrase their comments in terms of principles and fairness but then apply them completely differently in different situations. In other words, they are selective about their high-minded arguments entirely to justify the outcome they would like see. I will give you an example.

After the Brexit referendum last June, I heard many people arguing that the result was illegitimate because, even though the referendum won the popular vote, it was not fair for London, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—which all voted to remain in the European Union—to be bound by the wishes of masses of English voters outside London. Then, after the presidential election in November, I heard some of the same people making the argument that Trump’s election was not legitimate because (and I am paraphrasing here to emphasize my point), even though he won majorities in a large majority of states and congressional districts, it was not fair for the popular majority to be bound by the Electorial College.

Do not take the fact that I point out this inconsistency to mean that I do not sympathize with those people’s frustrations with both elections. I do, however, fret about so many people’s willingness not to have more respect for the legal electoral process in both cases. If you do not like the Electoral College, then by all means work as hard as you can to eliminate it from the U.S. Constitution (and good luck to you), but talking up the possible illegitimacy of an elected leader because you do not like him or his policies will ultimately not just undermine the guy you do not like but also successive leaders. It was not a healthy thing when people like future President Trump raised questions about President Obama’s birth certificate—or for that matter similar talk about President Bush’s legimacy after the 2000 election. The fact it is now erstwhile birther Trump who is the object of illegitimacy accusations does not make it any less unhealthy. There has to be a way to disagree with people without criminalizing them or their standard-bearers.

Frankly, the worst thing about the Trump presidency for me is the fact that his political opposition—in both the Republican and Democratic parties—tend to go so over the top that, when I comment on it, it comes off sounding as though I am defending Trump. This is not the place I want to be.

I worry about our two-party system but, as counter-intuitive as it may sound, I worry more about the Democratic party. There is a lot of craziness among Republicans and their voters, but a lot of it is just the raw craziness of diverse opinions and stubbornness over beliefs and principles. The Democrats could actually do with more of that kind of craziness. Both parties—especially Republicans right now since they have majorities—are prone to the dysfunction of career politicans comfortable in office, campaign contributions, lobbyist money and playing it safe. Democrats, I fear, are much less relevant at the national level than they appear. Ample and sympathetic media coverage belies Democrats’ numbers in federal offices. I can forgive them for going crazy over Trump—in fact I would be more than a bit disappointed if they didn’t—but they should focus less on the last presidential election and more on the most recent congressional elections. You cannot explain all those losses on gerrymandering, Russian collusion and AM radio. Nor can you realistically expect that a changing tide will automatically sweep in that many Dems back next year.

The aging party leadership should ask itself, what is a better prediction of future elections? Daily or weekly opinion polls and media coverage in Washington and New York? Or fundamental economic indicators?

For people who are depressed because they think today’s Washington D.C. is as bad as a government situation can get, I do have an antidote for you. As soon as you get the chance, run to see Armando Iannucci’s brilliant The Death of Stalin.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Looking Back, Literarily

A legendary reclusive filmmaker. An enigmatic cook and restaurant proprietor, who is clearly more than he seems. Two mysterious deliveries to be made behind the Iron Curtain. A desperate search for a long-missing old friend. An unexpected love affair on the coast of Normandy. Dallas Green’s life has only gotten more interesting in the years since his wild youthful adventure in Mexico, as told in the novel Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead. In the year 1980, he is now a photographer, living and working in San Francisco, where he adjusts to a world very different from that of his rural roots. He may be older, but that does not necessarily mean he is any wiser, as his continuing romantic misadventures attest. Lautaro’s Spear is Scott R. Larson’s third book, following the fantasy novel The Three Towers of Afranor.
—Blurb on various web sites that are, or will soon be, selling my new book
Yes, this means that another book is done and dusted. Officially, the release date is September 29, but I see the Kindle version is available already from Amazon’s US site. Other digital and paper versions should follow shortly. Links to the various sellers around the globe will be updated on my book blog, so check there if you are interested.

Lautaro’s Spear
Unlike the last book, this one takes place in the real world. Well, at least in a world as real as what goes on inside my head. The year is 1980, and the action moves from San Francisco to France to Germany and back again. This is a sequel to Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead and follows the progress of that book’s misguided teenaged protagonist, Dallas Green, a few years later, as he negotiates his late twenties.

I sometimes regret making Dallas the narrator of these books. It is actually a lot of work to write in character for nearly 300 pages while, at the same time, keeping the prose halfway readable. The reason I wrote the original novel in the first person was that I saw the book as my own personal Huckleberry Finn. If Mark Twain could write in Huck’s dialect, well, then I could write in Dallas’s. Instead of a raft on the Mississippi, Dallas and his friend Lonnie explored the world from the vantage point of a ’65 Chevy traveling the roads of California and Mexico. In the new book, Dallas goes on another journey, but he is a bit older and, hopefully, wiser—although not that much wiser. He is still a bit innocent, so he can also be compared to another seminal literary character, Voltaire’s Candide. He is something of a blank slate when it comes to politics, and he finds himself a bit out of his depth as he wanders into different political and social environments.

For some readers of a certain age, I suppose it will be an exercise in nostalgia. For younger ones, I flatter myself in thinking it might be some sort of history lesson.

I hate it when writers try to impose their opinions about current events onto some past era, although I understand it is a very hard temptation to resist. Writing about America in the 1980s, I could have easily have been lured into drawing parallels between that year’s presidential election and the one that occurred last year—if only I could have actually made heads or tails out of what happened last year. The comparisons, though, wrote themselves anyway. History now looks back at Ronald Reagan very differently from the way many people now look at Donald Trump yet, before he was elected, Reagan was seen by many as quite scary and his election came as a genuine surprise. This is not to say that Reagan and Trump are by any means similar human beings or that Trump will ultimately be seen as successful as Reagan was, but it is worth trying to keep some long-term perspective while in the middle of day-to-day political passions.

If there is a political theme running beneath the surface of my novel, it is the way people tend to divide themselves politically, sometimes with disastrous consquences. Dallas’s journey not only involves the late 20th century culture wars in America but also the residual rift in Europe after World War II and how political divisions in South America led to horrible violence.

Well, look at me, trying to make my silly old book sound profound. I hope some interesting insights did slip into the story but, in the end, my tale is ultimately about how we—mainly young men—get into all kinds of devilment out of boredom, confusion, and just trying to make some sort of sense of this crazy world.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Bolivarian Oblivion

“What’s so exciting about at last visiting Venezuela is that I can see how a better world is being created … The transformations that Venezuela is making toward the creation of another socio-economic model could have a global impact”
 —Linguist/activist Noam Chomsky, in 2009

“These days, the American dream is more apt to be realized in South America, in places such as Ecuador, Venezuela and Argentina, where incomes are actually more equal today than they are in the land of Horatio Alger. Who’s the banana republic now?”
 —Senator Bernie Sanders, on his web site in 2011

“The election process in Venezuela is the best in the world.”
 —Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, in 2012

“[Venezuela president Hugo] Chavez showed us that there is a different and a better way of doing things. It’s called socialism, it’s called social justice and it’s something that Venezuela has made a big step towards.”
 —Soon-to-be UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, in 2013

“Venezuela’s problem isn’t too much socialism—it’s not enough. The country, whose former president Hugo Chavez proclaimed ‘21st century socialism’, is deep in crisis. It has the world’s highest inflation rate—720 percent and rising. Its currency has plummeted to less than 1 percent of its official value, making it hard to import food. Hunger is endemic. Buying food at subsidised shops where price controls operate involves queuing for four hours, only on certain days, and sometimes still getting nothing. Medicines and sanitary products are scarce. Chronic power blackouts have seen factories close and public sector workers move to a two-day week. Growing numbers are emigrating, or depend on products sent by relatives abroad.”
 —Dave Sewell, writing in the Socialist Worker last August
Politicians from all the British political parties—including Labour—have been condemning the chaos, violence and ongoing power grab in Venezuela by the country’s wanton president, Nicolás Maduro. Notably absent among them, though, is Labour’s leader Jeremy Corbyn. Members of his own party are urging him to speak up. He has not spoken publicly about Venezuela since praising Maduro two years ago. He did, however, recently delete a post from his web site praising Venezuela for “seriously conquering poverty by emphatically rejecting … Neo Liberal policies.” In Spain, by contrast, Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez has said he “strongly condemned the destruction of the democratic freedoms that is taking place in Venezuela.”

In Ireland a group representing Venezuelan citizens living here has gone on record as rejecting the Constituent Assembly whose members were elected on Sunday. The assembly, whose members will come exclusively from Maduro’s Socialist party, will be able to dissolve the congress, which is controlled by the political opposition but which has been stymied by Maduro’s authoritarianism and packing of the courts. A reported ten people died in violence that erupted from protests in the the Venezuelan streets on election day. Two opposition leaders, Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma, have been arrested in their homes.

In the interest of fairness, on its morning news program today, Ireland’s state broadcaster RTÉ interviewed a recently returned observer of Sunday’s election, Adrian Kane, who is an organizer for Ireland’s Services Industrial Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU). Kane defended the integrity of the vote—which has been criticized by other observers—citing glowing reports of past Venezuelan elections from The Carter Center and other organizations and saying that everything looked fine at the five polling stations he had visited.

He also dismissed the following comment on social media from Luis Rondon, one of five directors of the electoral council: “For the first time since I took up this commitment to the country, I cannot guarantee the consistency or veracity of the results offered.” The quote was from a Reuters report citing mathematical inconsistencies in internal electoral council data reviewed by Reuters and the 8.1-million-voter turnout reported by the government. Kane also seemed unaware that The Carter Center, which he had cited, had issued a statement which read, in part, “We condemn Sunday’s process to elect a National Constituent Assembly. The process was carried out in the complete absence of electoral integrity, posing serious problems of legitimacy, legality, and procedure. The measures taken by the government to prevent freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and the right to peaceful demonstrations contravene the democratic values of plurality and the democratic and participatory clauses protected in the Venezuelan constitution.”

Kane blamed the violence entirely on the political opposition, saying it was “engaged in acts of terror” and calling the government response “restrained.” He accused the media of spreading a false narrative about Maduro wanting to be a dictator.

I can understand the allure that figures like Maduro and his predecessor Hugo Chávez have for idealistic people who would like to see the world become more fair and just. The problem is that the cascading series of laws, rules and regulations necessary to enforce that fairness inevitably meet opposition from not only sectors of society that stand to lose but also from the very ones who are meant to be lifted up. More critically, as we see in Venezuela, the burden of government control invariably translates into bad economics and a lower standard of living, which mostly afflicts the less well off. The standard ideological response is to blame a colonial past and poverty. The problem for that excuse in Venezuela’s case is that the country is blessed with oil wealth that has been controlled by its own government. Apologists are left to mutter about a period of low oil prices.

Less understandable is why many, though by no means all, erstwhile admirers and defenders of Chávez and Maduro are so stubborn about conceding they made a mistake with their earlier praise. No one likes to advertise the fact they were wrong about something. That is only human nature. Still, it looks even worse to appear more concerned about your own ego than about people dying in the streets and about families suffering from economic deprivation for no good reason.

My guess is that the Corbyns of the world, along with the young starry-eyed idealists in the political trenches, will come around to condemning what’s happening in Venezuela—once they have found a way to rationalize an explanation that has nothing at all to do with the government-directed economic policies they themselves espouse.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Macron en Marche

An aide explained that his thoughts were too sublime to be comprehended by journalists, prompting the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné to print a spoof interview with Macron.
 Questioner: “So, it’s all over for interviews and press conferences?”
 Macron: “Affirmative. They will be replaced by the publication every month of a scan of my brain, so that the public may marvel at the complexity of my reasoning.”
 To critics, his lofty attitude recalls a remark made by Napoleon himself to his cabinet in 1804: “We are here to guide public opinion, not to discuss it.”
—News article on France’s new president by Michael Sheridan in the UK’s Sunday Times, July 9
I still do not have a handle on Emmanuel Macron.

The standard narrative of European state broadcasters and the American corporate media was that he was the political savior who brought voters to their senses after a string of witless decisions in Europe and the U.S. A surging tide of unfathomable populism and nationalism had caused a narrow victories for anti-European Union forces in Britain’s referendum last summer and for Donald Trump in November. Fear had been palpable that another unlikely surprise could result in the National Front’s Marine Le Pen ascending to the Elysée Palace in May. When Macron won the presidency handily, there were huzzahs all around. The E.U. and liberal democracy were safe. The epidemic of insanity was over.

Not so fast.

The funny thing is that, had there been a viable Socialist candidate in the race, I have no doubt Macron would have been painted by much of the press as some sort of populist reactionary. No more than the Democrats and Republicans in the U.S., the long-running major French parties—the Socialists and the ever-name-changing Guallist/conservatives (currently called Les Républicains)—more or less imploded and/or at least ground to an intellectual halt from lack of inertia. Socialist François Hollande’s term was so disastrous that he did not bother running for re-election. Two other leftist candidates—one of whom was out of the mainstream even by French standards—divided the vote. On the right, François Fillon might well have won if not for an inconvenient scandal involving high-pay/low-duty jobs for his wife and children. So far neither he nor anyone else, by the way, has blamed the Russians for his defeat.

As it is, some have compared Macron to Barack Obama because of his youth, freshness, photogenic image and the fact that he represents a break from the political past. I wonder, though, whether a comparison with Trump is not more apt. After all, he had never before held elected office, he campaigned successfully against all the established political parties, and his agenda was always unabashedly pro-business. Still, all that mattered in the final round was that he was not Marine Le Pen, so he was clearly the good guy. Also, unlike Trump, he was pro-European-Union and did not emit untoward tweets or cringe-worthy off-the-cuff remarks. So far, by the way, Le Pen has not blamed her defeat on misogyny.

Like Trump, however, Macron seems to be finding that, while having no long-term well-established major party support can sometimes be an aid to election, it does not make it particularly easy to govern. Trump, a nominal Republican, arrived in Washington with majorities in both houses of Congress. Macron’s barely-year-old party La République en Marche swept the legislature. Yet, as an article in The Guardian this week notes, in Macron’s first full month in office, there were no fewer than four high-profile resignations and investigations into two separate scandals. His approval rating has dropped from 64 percent in June to 54 percent this week—lower than Hollande’s at this stage. Much of the drop has been among pensioners and France’s sizeable number of civil servants, that is, l’état profond (the deep state), as no one is actually calling it. Why? Because Macron actually seems to be doing what he promised—trying to reform the country’s bloated bureaucracy.

Whatever happens next, it will be fascinating to watch. After the last French election—in which the top finishers were a novice independent and a far-right nationalist—will France’s politics eventually revert back to tradition or will it all have to be reborn? Similarly in the U.S.—where one major party still does not seem to realize how unpopular it is on a national level and the other one is fragmenting into bickering factions—can things ever go back to “normal” again?

The collective sigh of relief over Macron’s electoral triumph may have been just a tad premature.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Autoimmune Response

“ ‘Washington Post’ Reporter Frustrated Every Space In Parking Garage Taken Up By Anonymous Source”
 —Headline from The Onion, May 30
The improbable rise and election of Donald Trump has flummoxed people so badly that they struggle to find some comparable historical figure to help make sense of him. Quite a few of the more excitable ones quickly reached for the almost-always-inadvisable Hitler comparison, as well as fascists like Benito Mussolini. Some went for Argentina’s populist crook Juan Perón. Others likened President Trump to his putative bromance partner Vladimir Putin. I myself wrote in this blog of a potential similarity to Italy’s buffoonish media magnate Silvio Berlusconi.

Lately another comparison has occurred to me, and I am confident few others have thought of it—Chile’s Salvador Allende. Sounds nuts, right? Politically, two men could not be further apart. If you have any admiration at all for one of them, you will certainly have no time at all for the other.

The late Chilean president has been on my mind because my novel authoring efforts have again transported me back to South America in the early 1970s. (Yes, I have indeed seized upon a topic that allows me to plug my available-real-soon-now third book.) Events of that era in Chile figured into the plot of my first novel, Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead. They figure even more prominently in the sequel, which follows the further adventures of twentysomething Californian Dallas Green, who insists he is not interested in politics but keeps getting drawn into political situations anyway.

Indulge me with this Trump/Allende thing. First, let’s note the stark differences between them. Allende was a veteran politician and the head of a well-established political party, which was the Socialist Party. Trump is a businessman whose political views over time have been all over the map. His first ever elective office was president of the United States. He was elected on a platform that was pro-business and nationalistic. Allende, as a self-avowed Marxist, was very much into state control of the economy and spoke the language of international solidarity. The two are clearly poles apart ideologically—and that assumes Trump even has a real ideology.

So why do I see a correlation between the two? For one thing, both were presidents elected legally but by electoral minorities. Allende received just 36.6 percent of the popular vote, a slight purality ahead of Jorge Alessandri, the conservative independent candidate, who received 35.3 percent. The Chilean Congress functioned as an effective Electoral College, and the centrist Christian Democrats threw their votes to Allende. They came to regret that strategy. Nearly three years later they joined the rest of the political opposition to declare Allende’s presidency illegal. As for Trump, he of course won the Electoral College despite receiving only 46.1 percent of the popular vote.

In another parallel, both Allende and Trump caused alarm by perceived ties to foreign leaders. In Allende’s case, he was well known to be a personal friend of Fidel Castro. He was photographed several times holding an AK-47 Castro had given him as a gift. When the military came to oust him, he used that weapon to take his own life. (For years his supporters insisted he had been murdered, but eventually his family conceded that he had died by his own hand.) In Trump’s case, many observers were puzzled—if not outright unnerved—by the fact he was given to praising Vladimir Putin’s leadership and did not subject the Russian leader to the same outbursts he directed at most other world leaders. This hysteria continued to the point where Trump’s former campaign is being examined with an eye to possible collusion with the Russians and Trump himself has been reported to be a target for his possible interference.

The fundamental similarity between Trump and Allende is that each, in his own way, represented a threat to his society’s establishment. In Chile’s case, the conservative establishment—with support from the U.S. government—resisted him at every turn. Things reached a crisis when Congress condemned Allende for disregarding judicial rulings, ruling by decree, unlawfully confiscating land, and allowing his supporters to arm themselves while others were not so allowed. Three weeks later the military removed him and took control of the country.

In the current American case, it is the modern liberal establishment that cannot abide Trump. Talk of impeachment began before he was even inaugurated. From the outset, his administration has been undermined by a tide of leaks, not only from his own staff but from intelligence and law enforcement agencies. The leaking campaign extended as high as then-FBI director James Comey, who acknowledged in testimoney before Congress that he had leaked his version of a conversation with Trump with the (successful) intention of triggering a special counsel investigation. That investigation is headed by Comey’s personal friend and longtime colleague Robert Mueller. He has a sterling reputation, not unlike Comey’s, although Comey’s has suffered some since his recent testimony, where he came off more as an insider schemer than the boy scout had seemed before. As for Mueller, some are now looking askance at the fact that his hires for the probe are tending heavily toward those on record for having donated generously to Democratic candidates and political action committees. Moreover, the investigation is unusual in that, as far as I can remember anyway, it is the first one which is trying to establish whether a crime was actually committed as opposed to investigating a crime that has already been established as having been committed.

If there is one overriding similarity between Allende and Trump, it is that their presidencies both evoke the image of a foreign organism pushing its way into the body politic like a pathogen, causing a furious reaction from antibodies trying to ward off the infection. In Allende’s case, it was conservative society, businesses and the military that reacted. In Trump’s case, it is the Democratic party, the corporate media and, most of all, the legions of entrenched career government employees to whom some refer as the “deep state.”

What seems to be forgotten in the heated political environment is that, in a democracy, the political leader you revile was put there by millions of people. Allende may have been a threat to Chilean democracy, but he was supported by a large segment of the population. Many of his supporters wound up being imprisoned, tortured, killed or forced into exile.

What has gotten precious little acknowledgement since the U.S. election is the fact that nearly 63 million people voted for Donald Trump. Those voters had not seen their most serious concerns, fears and problems recognized and treated seriously by politicians of either major party. Rightly or wrongly, they tried to send a message by electing a president opposed by the establishments of both parties. If they turn on the news or pick up a newspaper—and who knows how many of them even bother anymore—what do they see?

Maybe some number of them read the president’s tweets and/or blogs sympathetic to him and still urge him on. Those who do not, on the other hand, must see little sign that their message in November was received or taken to heart by anyone in Washington or the corporate media.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Pot, Meet Kettle

“We published several … emails which show Podesta responding to a phishing email. Podesta gave out that his password was the word ‘password.’ His own staff said this email that you’ve received, this is totally legitimate. So, this is something … a 14-year-old kid could have hacked Podesta that way.”
—Wilileaks founder Julian Assange, in a Fox News Channel interview on January 3
Remember when conservatives and foreign policy hawks were the ones who lost their heads over covert Russian influence and infiltration in American society?

Now it is seemingly every politician, pundit and blogger to the left of center suggesting President Trump is a some sort of Manchurian candidate. Is he?

The term is a reference to Richard Condon’s 1959 novel and its 1962 film adaptation by John Frankenheimer. The book was adapted again thirteen years ago by the late Jonathan Demme. A paranoid thriller, the story is about a young scion of a prominent political family who, while serving his country in the Korean War, is captured by Soviets and brainwashed to act on their behalf of the Communists when he goes on to a political career.

I do not think anyone seriously believes the president was ever brainwashed in the manner of Laurence Harvey in the 1962 movie (Liev Schreiber in the 2004 one). I think what some people suspect (or perhaps hope) is that it may turn out that the president has a concrete reason not to go against Vladimir Putin’s international interests for personal financial reasons. Maybe the president would hope to benefit from business interests in Russia, according to one line of speculation. Another is that the Russians may even have funneled money to his political campaign. After all it has been pretty well documented that the Russians have done a lot of meddling in electoral campaigns in western countries. They were clearly involved in the hacking and leaking of the Democratic National Committee’s computers.

Will we find out the truth about the president’s collusion or non-collusion with the Russkies? The good news is that the appointment of former Robert Mueller director Robert Mueller as special counsel will be our best shot at finding out in a way that will satisfy most reasonable people—if there are any left. The problem is that we could be waiting years for the answer.

Donald Trump has had a more raucous beginning to his presidency than any of his recent predecessors, but administrations being under investigation is actually pretty run-of-the-mill. Ronald Reagan had the Iran-Contra scandal. Bill Clinton had Whitewater, which somehow veered into his affair with Monica Lewinsky and impeachment. George W. Bush had the Valerie Plame affair, which resulted in no prosecution for the official who actually outed her but did for someone who gave the wrong answers in the course of the investigation. President Obama did not have to deal with a special counsel, but his Secretary of State was investigated by the FBI after she left office.

Unfortunately for Democrats in hindsight, they nominated her as their presidential candidate anyway. That fact betrays a huge amount of hypocrisy among Democratic politicians and their media supporters. Their cries of indignation about the current president letting slip classified info to the Russian diplomats in the Oval Office ring a bit hollow when they insisted for months it was no big deal when much larger amounts of such sensitive information sat for years on an unsecured computer server in Secretary Clinton’s home.

Their new concern about Russian meddling and ambitions also comes off as more than a little opportunistic. Even if the Trump campaign is found to have, say, gotten money from the Russians, it is hard to imagine they could have find the current administration any more compliant than the Obama administration. No one has ever accused Barack Obama of being on the take with the Russians, but his administration was observedly less than aggressive with Moscow on the international front. Whether it was the Crimea invasion or threatening then backtracking on Syria or unilaterally withdrawing defensive missiles from Eastern Europe in exchange for no concessions, he gave Putin a good deal more than once. There was nothing nefarious about it, though. The fact was he needed Putin’s cooperation in order to secure his cherished nuclear deal with Iran. All other foreign policy considerations seemed subservient to that goal.

So what if the Trump people are found to have taken Russian money? After all, it could conceivably happen. This sort of thing is not unprecedented. In 1997 the Justice Department investigated the funneling of Chinese money into the Clinton/Gore campaign, Bill Clinton’s legal defense fund, and some Democratic congressional campaigns. In the end the Justice Department, which of course reported to Bill Clinton, dropped the investigation. Calls for an independent counsel were ignored. Congressional investigations eventually fell apart under the weight of partisan squabbling. Years later Bill Clinton collected multi-million-dollar fees from the Chinese for a series of speeches while his wife was Secretary of State.

If any of the considerable smoke in the Trump presidency results in legitimate fire, one hopes that justice will take its proper course. When it comes to passing judgment, however, it is hard to imagine a more imperfect messenger than the Democratic Party.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Spun Out

“And right now we have about half the population who is—who have been conditioned, conditioned, one might even say brainwashed by close to 50 years of right-wing media, which has characterized, demonized mainstream media and characterized it as unpatriotic and un-American and has talked about grossly misogynistic way and in grossly racist terms, in Islamophobic and xenophobic terms and has allowed about half of our population to bathe in a sort of humiliation. And I use that term advisedly, because some of us are nervously paying attention to the parallels with Weimar Germany.”
 —Bob Garfield, co-host of NPR’s On the Media, hyperventilating on MSNBC in the wake of Donald Trump’s election last November
As I listen to the coverage of Bill O’Reilly’s sudden and thorough fall, I cannot help but wonder what my mother would have thought of it all.

My mother was something of a fan of The O’Reilly Factor, and she clearly was not alone. It was long the single dominant show in the cable news landscape. There is a bit of irony in Mom’s attraction to the so-called No-spin Zone, as she was not a particularly political person. It was my father who followed the news closely, had a definite political philosophy and loved a good back-and-forth about issues of the day. Mom had human reactions to people in the news but generally was not inclined to get into policy.

For the last decade or so of her life, though, she did have a weekday ritual. At five in the evening—the time that The O’Reilly Factor aired on the West Coast—she would switch the TV to Fox News and watch Bill for five minutes or so, that is, as long as it took for him to deliver his Talking Points Memo. Then she would switch to another channel to join in progress a syndicated rerun of one of her favorite sitcoms, usually The Golden Girls. Five minutes a day of O’Reilly was enough for her, but she did like to see him for those five minutes.

In hindsight, I find her idiosyncratic viewing habit impressively efficient. In absorbing Bill’s bullet points, she quickly got the gist of his thinking on current events, and by changing the channel she avoided all the longer monologues, features, debates with guests and commercials that filled up the rest of the hour. As with most programs on so-called news channels, the format yielded much more heat than light.

When Ted Turner’s Cable News Network debuted—and I finally got around to owning a TV and subscribing to cable—back in the 1980s, I thought it was a great idea. The evening newscast of the traditional broadcast networks had always been frustratingly brief and superficial. The idea of getting news 24 hours per day seemed like a news junkie’s godsend. It did not take long to realize, however, that as tantalizing as that promise was, the result was disappointment. CNN simply spent much of its time repeating the same major news stories over and over. Otherwise, the hours were filled with “discussion,” as exemplified by the program Crossfire which debuted in 1982 with Tom Braden and Pat Buchanan. The program and its inevitable imitators soon devolved into a formula of liberal and conservative sniping back and forth at each other, making politics a spectator sport where viewers could cheer on their own side.

What many of us found about CNN was that watching it did not make one more informed. It simply offered the opportunity to spend more time absorbing the same information. In terms of world view, the editors of CNN were not much different from those of the news divisions at ABC, CBS or NBC. In the end, CNN’s main advantage was that it did not have to cut back to regular entertainment programming during major news events like the Challenger shuttle disaster and the first Gulf War.

The real game changer in cable news was when Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes perceived that the reigning world view at the major broadcast and cable news outfits was not only fairly uniform but that it reflected an educated urban population that was not reflective of a large portion of the country. These are the many people for whom a quote like the one above from Bob Garfield sounds like pure and utter gibberish.

Despite its name, Fox News Channel has never been a channel that broadcasts mostly news. It has relied on the “political talk” staple that CNN—and later MSNBC—have relied on. The difference was that the hosts and guests reflected a more rightward bent. In a way, FNC’s format long reminded me, more than anything, of National Public Radio’s. One got five minutes of headlines at the top of the hour followed by programs featuring discussion or interviews, and in the evening there was an hour of two of block news coverage.

The idea behind Fox News was clearly a winner business-wise. The channel has long been the top cable news channel, luring in—for at least five minutes a day anyway—a one-time Roosevelt Democrat like my mother. And, I’m guessing, probably quite a few others. Personally, I had little patience for news chat shows like O’Reilly’s, but I was always amused that he drew such ire from modern liberals. He was, in fact, what would pass for a moderate voice on FNC. Despite his deliberately abrasive style, his opinions were by no means lock-step conservative. His main shtick was bloviating against political correctness which, as it happens, was how Bill Maher started out his TV talk career years ago on ABC.

Fox News is successful enough—and will probably continue to be successful—that it does not need me to defend it. I do, however, think it gets a bad rap on a couple of counts. For one, people who only know about it through attacks by the left will not appreciate how much diversity of opinion is showcased in its programming. I am not talking about the presence of token liberal commentators. As last year’s Republican presidential primaries and the recent Georgia primary demonstrated, while Democrats have no trouble flocking to a single candidate, there are numerous factions with Republican politics vying against one another and ranging from libertarianism to traditional paleo-conservatism to disturbing excesses of the so-called alt-right. Left-of-center-oriented news organizations, having learned nothing from their own clueless coverage of the Trump phenomenon and the large-scale collapse of the Democrats, still seem to see everything right of center as a monolith instead of the vibrant and exciting and scary free-for-all that it is.

The other bad rap that Fox News gets is that, despite its regular depiction as a Republican party organ, its actual news organization—as opposed to all its talk-talk programming—is really quite good. Unfortunately, hard news only accounts for about an hour a day of its programming, but people looking to be informed could do worse than watching Bret Baier’s weekday evening newscast or Chris Wallace’s Sunday show. Their shows cover the same issues and events as the major networks but devote more time to them and without the soft features that often eat up a large part of the ABC/CBS/NBC blob’s scant 22 minutes of nightly airtime. In addition to the same stories everyone else is covering, Baier and Wallace also give you stories the others do not have time for, which may be the real reason Democrats hate Fox News.

FNC news consumers got way more coverage of stories like Benghazi and Hillary Clinton’s email server than people watching other channels. Does that mean that Fox was part of some anti-Democratic conspiracy? I’m not much of a conspiracist, but maybe if more Democrats had been watching Fox they would not have been so blindsided when those issues helped to derail their candidate.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Divided We Flail

“As The Times begins a period of self-reflection, I hope its editors will think hard about the half of America the paper too seldom covers. The red state America campaign coverage that rang the loudest in news coverage grew out of Trump rallies, and it often amplified the voices of the most hateful. One especially compelling video produced with footage collected over months on the campaign trail, captured the ugly vitriol like few others. That’s important coverage. But it and pieces like it drowned out the kind of agenda-free, deep narratives that could have taken Times readers deeper into the lives and values of the people who just elected the next president.”
New York Times public editor Liz Spayd, shortly after Donald Trump’s election
As I mentioned recently on my book blog, I have finished the first draft of my third novel. Writing a book leaves precious little time for blogging, but maybe that is just as well. With the way the world is going, it is hard to find much useful to say anyway.

The new book is not meant to be particularly political, but certain observations do creep in. It takes place in the year 1980, which means I have been revisiting that momentous period a lot in my head. Much happened during that year. In the course of the story certain events or situations, which are going on in the backround, keep getting referenced. Taken together these background events weave a running theme of how groups of people within a society become estranged from each other.

The protagonist is once again Dallas Green, narrator of my first book Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead. At 27 he is older but not necessarily much wiser. One faraway event that comes to his attention is the referendum in Chile that year to replace the country’s constitution 55-year-old constitution with one crafted by the Pinochet regime. Dallas also winds up visiting the divided city of Berlin as it enters the final decade of the Cold War. Back home, meanwhile, the United States is going through an election campaign that, in some ways, has future echoes of the one we all lived through last year. On a visit back to his hometown, shortly after the November election, Dallas ponders that people can become so divided despite being citizens of the same country. It is one thing to become passionate over whether the Democrat or the Repubican wins. How do things in other countries actually get to a point where one side takes over the government by violence? Or a city actually has to have a wall built through its heart to separate citizens of the same country?

A novel cannot hope to answer such questions—especially when politicians and social scientists who spend a lot of time thinking about these things do not seem to have a clue. This is definitely a job much better left to clever bloggers. (Yes, that was sarcasm.)

To answer my own question, Germany became divided at the end of World War II mainly because of external forces that were unleashed by the German government’s own tragic behavior. In America, certain rabid partisans on one side or the other have been awfully quick to invoke the Hilter label when it comes to each of the two most recent presidents. While it is always a good idea to be on the lookout for potential abuse of power by a national leader, in both of the recent U.S. administrations the opposition’s bandying of “Hitler” and “fascist” has only served to make the political discourse nonsensical. Unless I am grievously mistaken, the United States is a long ways from becoming Nazi Germany. Chile, on the other hand, is a more worrying comparison.

The fracture of Chilean society, unlike that of Germany, did not come about because of a leader’s deranged visions of conquest and racial purity. The Popular Unity allowed its socialist vision to become so overpowering that it ignored the country’s constitution and invited external support from Cuba’s Castro dictatorship. It anticipated a response from their country’s own military and armed itself in preparation. Even more devastatingly, that military reaction materialized and was supported by a portion of Chilean society that saw violence as being justified to stop the leftist takeover of the country. As a result, many people were imprisoned, tortured, killed or simply disappeared. All these years later, the divisions are still there, but it is remarkable how well the rift has healed 47 years after the election of Allende, 44 years after the military coup that toppled him and 29 years after the plebiscite that restored democracy.

Despite my serious misgivings about President Trump, I do not actually worry that whole groups of people will be rounded up and loaded on trains and sent to concentration camps. Or that the country will become internally militarized and that America’s borders will be fortified to keep people inside the country (as opposed to outside). I am saving my panic for the moment when he actually imprisons judges who thwart his executive orders—as opposed to merely complaining and tweeting about them. I do, however, worry that the country is becoming increasingly divided into two (actually more than two) camps where each side has its own particular view of reality which demonizes people on the other side. People seem increasingly to be talking past one another with no common set of terms or facts. It nearly feels as though we are at a point where the sides are not even debating each other. Instead, each side is having its own isolated debate with a straw man of its own creation.

What is the point of a blogger—even a clever one—trying to raise points to provoke thought when most people out there seem only to be looking for phrases and talking points that bolster their already established world view? In this environment, spinning yarns of fiction definitely feels like a more worthwhile use of time than trying to comment on political reality.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Truth and Consequences

“Now, people are comparing Donald Trump to Hitler. And the countdown has officially begun, to… well… I don’t know… but something really bad. I get that someone who is combative with the press and who wants to vet refugees and shut down open immigration fits the bill some are always looking for when it comes to finally getting their ‘Hitler’ villain. But if you study enough about it, you realize the guy vetting and banning refugees is probably not Hitler… the guy CREATING refugees probably is.”
—Songwriter/author Regie Hamm, writing on his blog on February 1
For those of us who love language, Denis Villeneuve’s Oscar-nominated film Arrival is a treat. Not only is the hero a linguist but the point of the movie is all about the way in which language shapes our perception of reality. We could certainly use the expertise of Amy Adams’s Dr. Louise Banks in unwrapping the linguistic mysteries that frustrated communication between the political left and right in America and elsewhere.

The point that Arrival makes in its entertaining way is that our language shapes our perception of reality. Just as eskimos supposedly see snow differently than English speakers because they have more words to describe it, so people arguing about politics tend to gravitate to their own particular vocabularies that reinforce their respective world views. By the way, that thing about eskimos having a large number of words for snow may or may not be accurate. A web search on the topic produces all kinds of articles not only arguing about just how many words eskimos have for snow (some say only a few, some say scores) but also about whether there really is such a thing as an eskimo language. The fact that so many authoritative publications out there have weighed in on the question with such varying results only emphasizes how tenuous everyone’s hold on reality actually is.

If you are that rarest of species, a completely detached person politically, and trying to get a handle on what is actually happening with the United States’ new government, you will get completely different pictures depending on what your source of information is. And those different pictures are not simply binary. There is not just one for people on the left and one for people on the right. There are all kinds of gradations of reality as you work your way from Mother Jones and The Nation on one end all the way across to National Review and Breitbart News on the right. Indeed, simply among news sources considered to be right-wing, there is a huge range of opinion. To haul out another old chestnut, reading the press these days is like trying to understand what an elephant is by surveying accounts from various blind men who have each touched the pachyderm in one particular spot.

I do not know many things for certain, but one thing I learned early on is that it is never a good idea to rely on only one source of information. In fact, the more sources the better—even if more confusing. In fact, if you are not confused, then you are probably not reading enough. Interestingly, the corporate media are currently on a kick to lock in their readers and to discourage them to confuse themselves by reading other sources. I am constantly getting emails from The New York Times telling me that it is the (the word “only” is strongly implied if not explicitly employed) place to go for The Truth. (One gets the feeling that the Sulzbergers may have actually looked into trademarking the term “The Truth.”) Operations like The Times clearly see an opportunity to reverse their sagging bottom lines, and good for them. Reportedly their subscriptions are up since President Trump was elected. Perhaps they feel under threat by the new administration and its harshly aggressive stance toward the establishment press, but I suspect they are sensing the Trump years could be a goldmine for them, not unlike the way years of Democratic administrations filled the coffers of Rush Limbaugh and his brethren.

Something else I am pretty sure of is that President Trump is a master of misdirection. While I listen to the same panels of pundits and analysts (who assured me he would not be nominated and then that he would not be elected) telling me what a disaster his administration already is and how he is in over his head, the man and his administration have their hands on all the levers of power and staffing up and issuing executive orders and consulting with congressional Republicans preparing legislation. For every refugee ban that falls apart on arrival and which gets saturation coverage, there is also a Supreme Court nomination that consequently gets less coverage. Maybe the president does not have a clue what he is doing, as many in The Truth business keeping trying to tell me, but personally I think he does.

One of the most insightful political cartoons I have seen lately (sorry, I cannot remember where now) showed an airport terminal with two lounges behind a wall of glass. One was filled with people with cigarettes and labeled “Smoking Lounge.” The other was filled with detained refugees and labeled “Smoke and Mirrors Lounge.”

If it is hard to get the straight story from the media, getting it from the president himself is no easier—his infamous Twitter feed notwithstanding. Taking his words literally is no use—though many in the establishment media still insist on doing so, even though they should know better by now—since he does not use language in the same way as any other traditional politician. He nearly speaks in pure metaphors, not unlike Captain Dathon, the Tamarian encountered by Captain Jean-Luc Picard in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode I wrote about nearly five months ago.

Depending on what news outlets they are getting their Truth from, Americans may either believe they are at the dawn of a new Golden Age or in Germany in the 1930s. Common sense suggests that the reality is actually somewhere between those two extremes, but closer to which one? Lots of commentators have been working overtime at finding parallels between Trump and Hitler but, as suggested by Regie Hamm’s quote above, one of the clearest signs in the 1930s that something was rotten in Germany was the stream of people fleeing the country.

People will always have their say one way or another, and in a democracy they will have their vote. Donald Trump got enough votes in enough places to get elected president, and that has to be respected. People also vote with their feet, however, and to date people all over the world still want to go to the United States—even if Donald Trump is president. While building a border wall is never a desirable thing to do and probably not that effective anyway, I will worry much more about it when the wall is being used to keep people from leaving the United States rather than trying to keep people out.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Let It Go

“Republican America is now so vast that a traveler could drive 3,600 miles across the continent, from Key West, Fla., to the Canadian border crossing at Porthill, Idaho, without ever leaving a state under total GOP control.”
—Lead paragraph of a front-page Wall Street Journal article by Reid J. Epstein and Janet Hook, November 19
I had an epiphany this morning. Bill Clinton cost his wife the election.

For the record, I do not actually believe that, but it does seem as plausible an explanation for Hillary Clinton’s shocking loss as any excuse being bandied about non-stop in the media these days. Personally, I was ready to move on from the election weeks ago—months ago, if truth be told—but the chattering classes do not want to let me.

Further for the record, I owe my epiphany to Mara Liasson. She is a journalist I have been listening to for ages, and she amazes me because she manages to divide her time between National Public Radio and Fox News Channel. Juan Williams tried doing the same thing for a while, but at the first opportunity the angry purists in the NPR audience demanded and got his resignation, so now only Fox has him. Meanwhile, Liasson manages to balance both audiences where, I am guessing, there is precious little overlap. Anyway, she was on a panel yesterday discussing the Justice Department’s inspector general’s decision to look into FBI Director James Comey’s handling of the probe into Hillary Clinton’s email practices as Secretary of State. Liasson made the obvious observation that few others in the media think is worth mentioning. Comey would not have been making statements, writing letters or giving testimony about any of that if not for Bill Clinton and Attorney General Loretta Lynch. Normally all of that would have been Lynch’s job, but she stepped back and left it all to Comey after the (understandable) fuss when, days before the FBI report was due, Lynch had a friendly chat with the former president aboard her jet.

I have nothing but sympathy for Comey. He had a sterling reputation going into the election period, but he wound up in a situation where he was guaranteed to have political activists on all sides livid at him. He clearly did not want to be discussing the investigation at all, but his boss Attorney General Lynch left him no alternative. When new emails on Anthony Wiener’s laptop surfaced, he had the impossible dilemma of choosing to say nothing publicly and risk accusations of a cover-up later or opting to do what he did and bring down Democrats’ ire on himself. Either way, there was nothing wrong with what he did in terms of the voters’ interest. All he did, after all, was give the public more information than they already had. (That is also true, by the way, of Wikileaks and the Russians, who merely confirmed what was already obvious: the Democratic establishment made sure Bernie Sanders would not have a prayer of getting nominated.) The damage was actually done by that meeting on the airport tarmac and, since Bill Clinton initiated it, he deserves more blame than Lynch. Of course, that meeting would not have been a problem at all if not for—and this is where all “explanations” of the electoral loss ultimately lead—Hillary Clinton. If she had not been so reckless with her State Department emails, there would have been no investigation. If her campaign had had even a single clue about cybersecurity, the Russians would not have had a field day with the campaign emails.

It is normal for political parties, like individuals, to go through an angry period of woulda/coulda/shoulda after a devastating setback, but its benefit is more emotional than practical. It does absolutely nothing—in fact it hinders—moving forward and solving the problems that caused the setback in the first place. The more Democrats harp on the unfairness of the election, the more it makes them look like hypocrites. After years of rubbishing Republican talk of electoral fraud and antagonism toward Russia, are swing voters really supposed to accept that Dems are now speaking out of principle rather than political expediency?

When Democrats finally calm down, they would do well to work on recruiting younger candidates and in more parts of the country. If they are calculating instead that it is only a matter of time before shifting demographics put them in charge, they may find themselves disappointed—especially if the economy becomes more robust and inclusive during the Trump presidency.

The last thing they should want to do the next time around is to repeat Hillary Clinton’s performance. In hindsight, her decisions are absolutely baffling. The way she kept going back to states she could not lose and avoiding states that could be potentially close made no sense. It was as though she did not understand how the American electoral system worked, pumping up her popular vote while taking reckless chances with the Electoral College.

And that brings us to another prominent excuse being bruited that is of absolutely no use to future Democratic prospects—attempted de-legitimization, directly or by implication, of the Electoral College. Is it strange that an election’s loser could have nearly 3 million more votes than the winner? Yes. Is it a scandal?

A lot of Irish commentators I listen to seem to think so. Well, let me explain it to them in terms they can understand. How many direct votes did Ireland’s current head of government, Enda Kenny, get in last February’s election? He got 13,318 out of 2,132,895 votes cast in the country. How could his total possibly be so small? Because only people actually residing in his district, or constituency, were able to vote for him directly. You see, Ireland also has an “electoral college.” It is called Dáil Éireann. (In most countries it is called Parliament.) So how many indirect votes (i.e. votes for his political party, Fine Gael) did Kenny get? That would be 544,230, or 25.52 percent of the total. Again, how is the total so small? Because the other 74.48 percent was divided among 19 other political parties and alliances as well as some 136 independent candidates.

Yes, Kenny’s party—unlike Donald Trump—did at least get a plurality. That does not, however, change the fact that three-quarters of the Irish electorate voted for something other than a government led by Enda Kenny. And, at least as far as I have heard anyway, no one has questioned the legitimacy of the current Irish government or of the Irish constitution.

Definitely time to move on from the U.S. election, is it not?