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We Will Not Get Peace from the People Who Dismember Dissidents Alive

In the wake of Trump’s announcement that the US will withdraw from Syria and James Mattis’ subsequent resignation, Jeremy Scahill captured the ambivalence of the moment this way:

I agree with much of what Scahill says: I welcome withdrawing troops from overseas. We should never forget that Mattis earned his name, Mad Dog, nor that he got fired by Obama for being too belligerent. The panicked response of a bunch of warmongers is telling. Trump cannot be trusted.

But I think Scahill is too pat in saying “the chaos presents opportunity,” in part because (as he suggests) there doesn’t yet exist “an alternative vision for US foreign policy.”

And while I appreciate that Scahill really does capture this ambivalence, far too many others welcoming a potential troop withdrawal are not recognizing the complexity of the moment.

While we don’t yet fully understand the complex dynamics that led to it, Trump decided to withdraw from Syria during a phone call with a man who has spent two months embarrassing Trump, Trump’s son-in-law, and the corrupt Saudi prince whose crackdown Trump has enthusiastically backed by releasing details of how that prince lulled an American resident dissident to a third country so he could be chopped up with a bone saw while still breathing. And even while Erdogan was embarrassing Trump with those details about Khashoggi’s assassination, he was pressuring Trump to extend the same favor to him by extraditing Fethullah Gulen so he could be chopped up in some grisly fashion.

It is a mistake to think we will get peace from men who dismember dissidents alive.

All that said, Trump will do what he wants and unless the simmering revolt at DOD changes his mind, he will withdraw from Syria and drawdown in Afghanistan.

And if that happens those who would like peace had damn well be better prepared  for that “opportunity” than by simply hoping a future alternative US foreign policy arises. It will take immediate tactical actions to prevent any withdrawal from creating more chaos and misery both in the US and overseas. After all, Trump says he wants to bring troops home, but he has already come perilously close to violating posse comitatus by deploying troops domestically, and that was even with Mattis pushing back against that campaign stunt.

At a minimum, those who want peace need to answer some of the following questions immediately:

What person would both be willing to work for Trump and pursue a policy of peace?

I could not think of any person who could be confirmed by the Senate — even one where nutjobs like Marsha Blackburn have replaced people like Bob Corker — that would be willing to work for Donald Trump and might pursue some kind of alternative foreign policy.

In fact, the only person I could think of for the job (ruling out Erik Prince for a variety of reasons) would be Tom Cotton.

So job number one, for people who hope to use this as an opportunity, is to start coming up with names of people who could replace Mattis and anyone else who quits along with him.

How to prevent the refugee crisis from getting worse?

Multiple accounts of the events leading up to Trump’s decision make it clear that Erdogan would like to use US withdrawal to massacre the Kurds. It’s possible we’ll see similar massacres in Assad-held Syria and Afghanistan as those left try to consolidate their victory.

For all the years the refugee crisis has been mostly a political prop here in the US, it has posed a real threat to the European Union (indeed, I went to several meetings with EUP members in the weeks before Trump’s election where they said it was the greatest threat to the EU). So we need to start thinking seriously about how to prevent genocide and other massacres and the inevitable refugee crises that would result.

How to counter Trump’s fondness for fossil fuels and arms sales?

No withdrawal is going to lead to “peace” or even a retreat of the US empire so long as Trump exacerbates an already unforgivable US addiction to fossil fuels and reliance on arms sales. Particularly with Saudi Arabia but also with Turkey, Trump has excused his fondness for authoritarianism by pointing to arms sales.

And on these issues, Trump actually agrees with the “war party in DC,” which will make it far harder to counter them. Yes, many of the new Democrats entering Congress — most of all Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — don’t have these horrible habits. So what can you do to make sure her Green New Deal not only isn’t squelched by party leadership, but is seen as the alternative to Trump by centrists?

Nukes. How to prevent Trump from using them?

It’s not that Trump is opposed to violence. He’s opposed to engagement and complexity and long term engagement.

Which means, particularly as more and more so-called adults leave, the chance he’ll turn a tantrum into a nuclear strike skyrocket. Mattis won’t be there to stop him.

How to balance accountability for the mistakes that got us here with accountability for Trump?

The movement that brands itself as “The Resistance” has long made a grave mistake of embracing whatever warmed over anti-Trump centrist wanted to loudly denounce the President.

As a result, the mistakes of many of those people — people like John Brennan and Jim Comey and David Frum and David Brooks — were ignored, even when those mistakes created the vacuum that Trump (and Vladimir Putin) have filled.

Trump would not be President if George Bush had not invaded Iraq, abetted by Frum’s nifty tagline, Axis of Evil. Trump would not be President if the banks that crashed the economy in 2008 had been accountable by people like former Bridgewater Associates executive and HSBC board member then FBI Director Jim Comey.

Again, this is about complexity. But so long as those who would keep Trump accountable ignore what made Trump possible, we will make no progress.

How to preserve democracy long enough to pursue a new foreign policy?

Finally, an increasingly real challenge. Trump sides with Putin and Erdogan and Mohammed bin Salman and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi not because it serves US interests (which is the excuse American politicians usually offer for tolerating Saudi and Egyptian authoritarianism). He does so because he genuinely loves their authoritarianism.

And as Republicans in the Senate begin to push back against Trump, Democrats in the House try to hold him accountable, and the so-called adults leave his Administration, it raises the chances that Trump will embrace increasingly desperate measures to implement his policies. We can’t just assume that Mueller and SDNY and NY State will prevent a Trump authoritarian power grab, particularly not as he continues to pack the courts.

While numerous State Attorneys General and NGOs are having reasonable success at constraining Trump, thus far, in the courts, eventually we’re going to need a bipartisan commitment in DC to constraining Trump. Eventually we’re going to need to convince a bunch of Republican Senators that Trump is doing permanent damage to this country. That’s going to take building, not severing, relationships with some Republicans, even while finding some means to persuade them that Trump can no longer benefit them.

To some degree, we have no choice but to find answers to these questions, one way or another. It is especially incumbent on those celebrating a withdrawal to acknowledge, and try to answer, them.

Culture and Neoliberalism

My last series summarizes the state of my neoliberalism project. It turns out that I have mostly focused on the economics of neoliberalism. Another aspect of the project was to learn how we as a society got caught up in neoliberalism. None of the work I’ve done so far has given me much of an answer to that, let alone the question of how we get out of this mess.

That part was relatively straightforward. I had a basic understanding of how to read and learn about neoliberalism. I have a background in dealing with the actual economy; I knew most of the mainstream economic ideas from College where I took several courses; and from continued readings over the years; and I’m reasonably fluent in college-level math. When it comes to culture as a field of study I’m pretty much at ground zero, and to tell the truth, I was surprised to see the emphasis on culture in Critical Theory. So, this will be a different kind of reading.

I’m going to start with Pierre Bourdieu, a French Sociologist of the second half of the 20th Century. Bourdieu and Foucault are perhaps the best known French thinkers of that period today, as existentialism and indeed most straight philosophy have fallen out of intellectual favor. Their kind of thinking is not that common in the US; we don’t exactly have an intellectual class, and we never really valued the life of the mind. We have a lot of experts and a lot of smart and well-trained people, but they are rooted in specific fields, and the number who think usefully beyond their areas is small. Historically, the intellectual was a recognized class in France, and even today many French politicians aspire to the title. Can you imagine a US politician who wants to be thought of that way? We elect regular folk just bursting with common sense, which probably explains something about our inability to solve problems.

But there is another factor: David Brooks. I read parts of Brooks’ New York Times column regularly as a check on my own ambitions. One common form of column is “I read this article and it proves conservatives like me are right and liberals are killing society.” Here’s a lovely example of High Brooksism. I think wants to say that neoliberalism is a bad theory because it emphasizes the isolated individual and rejects communal and social values, but he can’t because neoliberalism is at the heart of conservativism. Too bad, because it would enable him to criticize Republicans and most Democrats, and it would move him outside the boundaries of “both sides do it” and into an open policy space. But, as he says, people over 56 years old like him are clueless, so we get this absurd conclusion from the incoherent mess above it:

Congressional Republicans think a successful tax bill will thwart populism. Mainstream Democrats think the alienation problem will go away if we redistribute the crumbs a bit more widely. Washington policy wonks build technocratic sand castles that keep getting swept away in the cultural tides.

I absolutely don’t want to be like Brooks with his unmoored rationalizations and his pretense of intellectualism. My goal is to see what other people think and try to make sense of it. To that end, I think someone who sees things from a perspective outside my own culture will give me more distance, as was the case with my earlier readings.

I first heard of Bourdieu some time ago, I don’t remember where or when, but the gist was that his book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste was a must-read. Now I want to read it, because some of the issues around taste seem important in the US, where all our choices seem to define us. But as with Critical Theory, I’m going to start with an overview of Bourdieu to learn some of his basic concepts. So, the next book is David Swartz’s Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. I’ve started it, and it seems very readable.

I have a couple of basic thoughts to start with, and we’ll see if they hold up.

1. I’m pretty sure that culture isn’t the outcome of the economy, as might be the point of early Critical Theory. It seems likely that people’s natural creativity just pours out. I read The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby by Tom Wolfe years ago, and came away with the idea that the people in that car culture, just like the surfers, the anti-war groups, and the disco dancers in Saturday Night Fever were happily living in the shadows of the economy, not straining for success in the broader world, but creating their own milieu with what was at hand. Of course, corporate culture sucked the life out of those cultures, or they died on their own, but the impulse to use the conditions of life in new and inventive ways never dries up. We can watch the process as gaming culture grows up and gets turned into an ESPN sport. I’m sure the kids will be moving on, leaving the olds farther out of touch.

2, When I was growing up, there was this trope about lowbrow, middle-brow and high-brow taste. We have plenty of classifications of people today: tribalists, angry white people, Evangelicals, Berniecrats; personality types like INTJ, and authoritarian submissives; and of course all the marketing categories, like these in Wikipedia. These characterizations feel ad hoc and instrumental, and no matter how fine the segments are, they hardly seem adequate to the complexities of most of the people I have ever met. But we can’t think clearly about a population of 320 million without categories, so some kind of classification seems important.

3. The first book about psychology I read was I’m OK, You’re OK, by Thomas Anthony Harris. I thought I knew something when I was done. Then I read some Freud, Jung, Adler and other actual psychologists (badly, I should add), and realized I had been sucked into a pop psych book. It wasn’t useless, but close. I want to avoid that. More pointedly, I don’t want a system. I think we all come in in the middle, including the Frankfurt School and Bourdieu and Foucault, and try to figure things out as best we can. What I’m looking for is some sort of starting framework that can be used and evaluated and reformed, over and over until it needs replacement by a better framework.

What I don’t want is sloppy, disjointed and internally inconsistent thinking, theories unconnected to data, or random collections of data interpreted ideologically. And no thought leaders, whatever the hell they are. And no David Brooks.

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude On the Twilight of Conservative Elite Pundits

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude On the Twilight of Conservative Elites

Previous posts in this series:

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 1: Introduction.

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 2: Antisemitism

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude on the Tea Party

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 3: Superfluous Capital and Superfluous People

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude on The Commons

Capitalism Versus The Social Commons (published at Naked Capitalism; discusses privatization using Rosa Luxemburg theory)

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 4: Humanity under Totalitarianism

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude on Right-Wing Authoritarianism

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 5: Artistic and Intellectual Elites and the Rise of Fascism

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude Defining Elites

After defining the term elites (see previous post), Arendt says that the elites did not actively oppose the rise of fascism in Germany and Austria, and in some respects were supportive. One problem I have (and I have several) is the lack of a direct explanation for the failure of the elites to confront the rise of fascism. The text raises one possibility. I suspect that immediately after WWI, most of the elites were sympathetic to the ideas of the Marxist left, and that many were actively interested. Then they saw that the Social Democrats directed the right-wing violence that killed and imprisoned the revolutionaries. That was enough to keep the fellow-travelers and the sympathizers away from left activism. They retreated to their writing rooms and their ateliers, and left the space of massive change to the right wing. They wanted “to see the ruin of this whole world of fake security, fake culture, and fake life.” (P. 328) The elites weren’t going to do anything about it, they just pointed and laughed as the mob solidified into the fascist movement.

Among the sins of these elites was their refusal to attack crackpot ideas.

To this aversion of the intellectual elite for official historiography, to its conviction that history, which was a forgery anyway, might as well be the playground of crackpots, must be added the terrible, demoralizing fascination in the possibility that gigantic lies and monstrous falsehoods can eventually be established as unquestioned facts, that man may be free to change his own past at will, and that the difference between truth and falsehood may cease to be objective and become a mere matter of power and cleverness, of pressure and infinite repetition. P. 333

That’s uncomfortably close to Karl Rove’s “we create new reality”.

At the same time the elites were disengaging from the political world, they were pursuing their own esoteric ideas, ideas which further distanced them from the mob. This ended badly for the intellectual elites. Some were driven out, some fled, and the rest found a way to accommodate themselves to the fascist states.

As I wrote in my previous post, the US has plenty of elites who are conservative, but if we limit ourselves to writers and philosophers, there has never been a serious conservative intellectual class in this country. There have been a few intellectual conservatives, although none spring to mind who would pass Hofstadter’s test, including specifically William Buckley. If you disagree, perhaps you could read down Richard Posner’s list of 600f or so public intellectuals and identify all the US people listed, living or dead. It is astonishing to think that the likes of Ann Coulter and Erik Erikson are included on Posner’s list. And I confess I’ve never understood why bookstores shelve Ayn Rand among the philosophy books. There is certainly a class of highly conservative economists, but to me they lack any pretense of being intellectuals in Hofstadter’s sense. Further, they do not self-criticize, they do not change their minds in the face of contrary evidence. This means they are ideologues, not intellectuals.

Using my definition from the previous post, Buckley and a number of writers and pundits and economists would certainly qualify as a member of the conservative elite. Let’s focus on the pundits. Does anyone take them seriously? When was the last time any serious thinker took up an political issue raised by David Brooks in his NYT column, or the conventional nonsense he spouts on PBS? Just take a look, if you can, at this absurd column. It begins with a paean to the US system of capitalism and social welfare, and, of course, our crony capitalism: “nurturing disruptive dynamos like Bell Labs, Walmart, Whole Foods, Google and Apple”. Then this:

It’s amazing that a large part of the millennial generation has rejected this consensus. In supporting Bernie Sanders they are not just supporting a guy who is mad at Wall Street. They are supporting a guy who fundamentally wants to reshape the American economic system, and thus reshape American culture and values. As he told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, he wants to make us more like northern Europe.

Why those Millenials are just downright unreasonable in questioning a system that promises that their lives will be much worse than their parents. They should all start businesses and get rich, just like Brooks did, and just like their parents did, or something. Brooks says nothing about the lived reality of Millenials. He refuses to face the fact that his favored Republican policies, tax-cutting, deregulating, war-mongering, and refusal to govern, have saddled them with massive personal debts and a stagnating economy that shipped all the decent jobs out to other countries. In his latest, Brooks has clearly lost it. It’s an explainer of this op-ed in the New York Times from two years ago offering three views of marriage. And here I though glorifying marriage was Ross Douthat’s job description.

Douthat is a deeply silly man, mooning on about conservative values and governance in the face of the actual behavior of the Republicans in government. Here he explains how similar Donald Trump and Pope Francis are. Apparently if you want to change something Douthat likes, you are either a vulgar materialist or an intellectual ascetic. I’m waiting for Douthat to explain how Donald Trump has a classy marriage this time, and is therefore fit to be President.

The bizarre Thomas Friedman is shocked that Bernie Sanders said that the business model of Wall Street is fraud, which became obvious after those scumballs wrecked the economy and destroyed our retirement plans. Since the downturn also cost his wife’s family a staggeringly large amount of wealth, he might have wondered how that happened.

Not one conservative pundit has called out the crackpot stupidity of national politicians on climate denial, denial of evolution, tearing down the separation of church and state, denial of pretty much any fact or lesson from science, or their truly insane theory of government, that if you ruin it things will be great. Instead, they embrace every stupid idea, or simply keep quiet. They cannot tell fact from chain emails. Why do these conservative pundits, and by extension the rest of the conservative elites, think this will turn out better for them in the long run than it did for the German elites of the 1920s?

One Night of Indigestion for Obama

By now you’ve heard that Obama risked indigestion just days before his inauguration to reach out to the other side.

Barack Obama took the next big step in his Republican charm offensive on Tuesday night, when he dined with several of the nation’s most prominent conservative pundits.

The president-elect arrived at the Chevy Chase, Md., home of syndicated columnist George Will shortly after 6:30 p.m., according to a press pool report. Greeting him at the residence were other luminaries of the conservative commentariat, including the Weekly Standard’s William Kristol, New York Times columnist David Brooks, and Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post.

Just two comments about this. First, remember that two out of three of these men sort-of endorsed Obama as the election came to a close (indeed Brooks was a fan from early on). Here’s Brooks, enthusing over Obama’s self-efficacy in October.

But other candidates are propelled by what some psychologists call self-efficacy, the placid assumption that they can handle whatever the future throws at them. Candidates in this mold, most heroically F.D.R. and Ronald Reagan, are driven upward by a desire to realize some capacity in their nature. They rise with an unshakable serenity that is inexplicable to their critics and infuriating to their foes.

Obama has the biography of the first group but the personality of the second. He grew up with an absent father and a peripatetic mother. “I learned long ago to distrust my childhood,” he wrote in “Dreams From My Father.” This is supposed to produce a politician with gaping personal needs and hidden wounds.

But over the past two years, Obama has never shown evidence of that. Instead, he has shown the same untroubled self-confidence day after day.

Here’s Will, attacking the Republican ticket’s shared inability to think with complexity, in October.

Palin may be an inveterate simplifier; McCain has a history of reducing controversies to cartoons. A Republican financial expert recalls attending a dinner with McCain for the purpose of discussing with him domestic and international financial complexities that clearly did not fascinate the senator. As the dinner ended, McCain’s question for his briefer was: "So, who is the villain?"

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