Monday, January 30, 2017

If Russia isn’t supposed to protect Russian minorities, why doesn’t NATO do it?


The governments of Western Europe and North America have spent the first years of the 21st century complaining about Russian threats and aggression, and the major media have gone along for the ride. The march to Cold War II increased dramatically when the US government incited and funded a revolution in Ukraine in 2014, then accused Russia of aggression when it acted in the anticipated way by defending Russian minorities in Eastern Ukraine (Donbass region) and Crimea, and by protecting its strategic military assets (warm water ports, access to the Mediterranean Sea) in the Black Sea. By taking action to protect minorities, Russia was acting on the precedent set by NATO when it claimed RTP (right to protect) in Kosovo in 1999.
The US and other NATO countries accused Russia of violations of international law when it made a restrained defense of Russian minorities in Donbass and conducted a referendum in Crimea, which led to Crimeans choosing to join Russia rather than to continue under a political regime that didn’t offer a promising future. Californians are in a similar situation now as they start to talk about independence as an alternative to living in a nation that elected Donald Trump as president.
The legitimacy of Russia’s actions have been debated extensively elsewhere, so the topic will not be covered further here in great detail.[1] Instead, I will discuss a simple way the new cold war tensions could be de-escalated if the US were interested in pursuing it.
In an editorial by Julia Ioffe published in New Republic in 2014,[2] the writer pointed out what she thought was an obvious hypocrisy in the Russian policy that always claims to be defending Russian minorities in states along its borders. She described in detail the egregious human rights abuses that exist in some NATO allies, but she did so without making any criticism of the NATO partners that turn a blind eye to the abuses:

In a February 2012 referendum, Latvians roundly rejected Russian as an official second language. It is analogous to what happened in Ukraine after Yanukovich fled the country: The parliament overturned a law that would have granted official status to the Russian language... In Estonia, things are far worse. Ethnic Russians are somewhere between one-fifth and one-quarter of the population. And yet, after Estonian independence in 1991, they were not given citizenship, even if they were born there. Russians who weren't living in Estonia before Soviet times are given a gray passport connoting their official status as “aliens.” They can't vote in national elections and have trouble finding work.[3]

She contrasted these abuses with similar ones carried out in Ukraine, then pointed out in her “gotcha” line that Russia has taken no military action in the Baltic countries (Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia) that belong to NATO:

And where is Putin when you need him? Where are the Russian soldiers in unmarked uniforms patrolling the streets of Tallinn... And what, if you want to be cynical about it, of Estonia's strategic importance? ...But Estonia, you see, is part of NATO. As is Latvia, as is Lithuania.... So is it about protecting Russian speakers, or is about getting away with whatever you can get away with?

Or is it about doing what you can while being fully aware of the differences between Ukraine and the Baltic states? Russia supplied weapons in Donbass and held a referendum in Crimea—without needing to “invade” it because it already had military bases there under a pre-existing treaty with Ukraine. It was able to do this because Ukraine was not part of NATO, but Russia could take no such action in the Baltic states to protect Russian minorities because they belong to NATO. Putin obviously doesn’t want to start WWIII over problems with Estonia, and he is quite aware that their sovereignty is a settled matter. Another significant factor is that the human rights abuses in the Baltic states are much less of a concern than the violence, threats of violence and chaos that were evident in Ukraine in 2014. The problems in the Baltics are related to language rights, citizenship rights and so on. These are not the sorts of problems that call for military intervention. The revolution in Ukraine, however, was violent, and it was followed in May by a day of ethnic rioting that ended in fifty deaths inside the Russian Trade Unions House in Odessa, most of them ethnic Russian, while police stood by either impotent or unwilling to intervene.[4] These distinctions are all obvious to people who know the issues, so what is the point of the editorial in New Republic? The tone of it hints almost at a rejoicing in the fact that there are some places where ethnic Russians can be abused with impunity.
Interestingly, the writer seems to suggest that the reluctance to start a war with NATO is a reason to scoff at Putin, or she implies that Ukraine should be in NATO because, as we are all supposed to know, it would be such a great thing if the whole world got more involved in helping the neo-Nazis, holocaust deniers and kelptocrats running the illegal regime in Ukraine[5] (the president was never correctly impeached according to the requirements of the constitution)[6].
The writer also fails to make any distinctions between the Baltic states and Ukraine. The former were never a part of the original Soviet Union when it achieved recognition as a sovereign nation. They were illegally annexed during WWII as a defensive measure against German invasion. After the war there were provisional governments in exile that continued to fight to end the occupation, but since this was not part of the deal worked out by Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt at the end of the war, the Baltic states remained in the Soviet bloc. Late in Gorbachev’s rule, as claims for independence arose in all the Soviet republics, the Baltic states were the first to rise up with the most legitimate claims for independence. Gorbachev recognized that they had unique claims to sovereignty, just as the Kingdom of Hawai’i still has a claim that it has been illegally occupied since 1898 (no treaty of surrender exists, unilaterally annexed by a foreign nation)[7]. Putin also knows that the independence of the Baltic states is a settled matter. Later they joined NATO, and that is a fait accompli. Nothing can be done to reverse the situation, and why would Russia want to try anyway?
Ukraine and Crimea, on the other hand, have a history that is much more entangled with Russia culturally and economically, and Ukraine is not yet a part of NATO or the EU. The roots of Russian culture go back to the ancient capital in Kiev, and Crimea, mostly culturally Russian, Ukrainian and Tatar, was assigned to the Ukraine Republic by Khrushchev in the 1950s when no one imagined the breakup of the Soviet Union. It was just an internal re-assignment on the map.
Furthermore, there is debate about whether Ukraine is a recently constructed nationality because it has always been ethnically diverse and under the rule of various powers throughout history. The name even means “borderland.” The first nationalist movements were tainted by their collaboration with Germany during WWII, and the present wave of nationalism has seen a whitewashing of national heroes who were really collaborators and participants in genocide.

Headquarters of the Euromaidan, Kiev, Jan. 2014. At the front entrance there is a portrait of Bandera. The Euromaidan was the name of the movement, created and funded by the US, to effect regime-change in Ukraine. The Euromaidan's "activists" are followers of Stepan Bandera, a WW II Ukrainian Nazi-collaborator and war criminal. This is why it is said that US supports Neo-Nazis in Ukraine, whom they call "nationalists." Bandera was a fascist, who opposed the Soviet Union. The KGB assassinated him in 1959. The Americans supported his rehabilitation by backing Ukrainian Maidan in 2014.
      Finally, a lot has happened since the Baltic states won their independence and joined NATO. Russia has watched NATO expansion continue, and has grown strong enough to stand up to it. The US-instigated coup in Ukraine (a violation of international law that preceded the alleged violation in Crimea) was the last straw, and Russia reacted. The legality of the reaction is debatable, but in contrast with all that America has done to assert its interests abroad, Russia’s actions have been minimal, restrained reactions to provocations on its borders. Since NATO was the first to normalize resort to RTP as an excuse for intervention, perhaps it is time to judge such interventions not on ambiguous technicalities and subjective justifications but on their outcomes. Unlike the many interventions carried out by the US since 1999, there has been no civil war in Crimea. There are no waves of refugees fleeing in dangerous boat journeys across the Black Sea—no bombardments of television stations and infrastructure, or “accidental” strikes on foreign embassies. A passenger jet was shot down, but the NATO-Ukraine sponsored investigation keeps finding excuses to dismiss evidence provided by Russia that shows Ukrainian forces shot it down. Recently, a new group of 25 journalists, former civil aviation pilots and researchers from Germany, the Netherlands and Australia have demanded... “a new investigation [that] should include independent international researchers able to overcome governments’ reluctance to disclose information.”[8]
The results of the intervention in Donbass are hypothetical—one can’t say what would have happened without Russian assistance—but it’s likely that the Russian minorities there are glad they had some protection—though what came from Russia and the international community has not been enough. The Minsk agreement has been broken again this month (January 2017) as Ukraine has been accused of backing militia attacks across the disengagement line.[9]
It is evident that because of the different history and context, Russia has entirely different rationales for its reactions toward the Baltic states and Ukraine. The most stunning thing about the New Republic editorial is that it describes in shocking detail how badly Russian minorities have been treated in the Baltic states, yet it completely avoids calling for justice or making the obvious critique. What it doesn’t say is more significant than what it does say. Why do Europe, NATO and the US not insist that the Baltic states uphold the high ideals and human rights that they always claim as the justification for their domination? Why is this not a pre-requisite of being allowed to join the club? Why do they prefer to constantly dwell on only Russia’s internal problems? Why is there no robust UN peacekeeping force, made of soldiers from neutral nations, in the Donbass region?
Such concerns for protecting minorities were never on the agenda when Turkey joined NATO decades earlier, so no one should be surprised by this inaction, but if NATO members insisted that the Baltic states grant citizenship and full rights to its Russian minorities, this gesture would go a long way in reducing tensions between Russia and the US. But who wants to insist on human rights when the military-industrial-congressional complex needs to increase the percentage of GDP that NATO members spend on defense? This editorial writer who set out so smugly to show Russian hypocrisy actually succeeded, unintentionally, in underscoring the hypocrisy and disdain for human rights within the NATO alliance.

Notes


[1] Gary Leupp, “The Utter Stupidity of the New Cold War,” Counterpunch, January 10, 2017.
[3] This situation is described in more detail in a 2016 report by Human Rights Watch: “Human Rights Watch submission to the Committee on the Rights of the Child concerning Estonia,” November 21, 2016.
[4] Roman Goncharenko, “The Odessa File: What Happened on May 2, 2014?Deutsche Welle (DW), May 2, 2015.
[5] Josh Cohen, “The Historian Whitewashing Ukraine’s Past,” Foreign Policy, May 2, 2016.
[7] Dennis Riches, “Hawaiian Kingdom, American Empire: An Interview With Professor Keanu Sai,” Mint Press News, January 4, 2017 (interview conducted in August 2015).

Friday, January 27, 2017

Nukes prove their usefulness once again: excellent for partisan fear-mongering



The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has moved the hands of its famous clock forward, immediately after Donald Trump was sworn in as president of the USA. In doing so they have proved that they are, as I have suspected previously, a part of the Washington establishment groupthink on foreign policy, biased, unconsciously perhaps, toward advancing American interests (previous post on this topic).
As much as one might despise Trump’s policies in other areas, or conclude that he lacks the experience and temperament to be a head of state, there is an argument to be made that his statements about nuclear policy are not much of a departure from standard nuclear doctrine. He has spoken carelessly about nuclear weapons, but most of his words have been interpreted with extreme bias. A more generous interpretation could be made. For example, he asked, “If we have them, why can’t we use them?” but his follow-up question was “Well, if we can’t use them, why do we have them?” but only the first question was widely reported. Like all American presidents, he expects all other nations to disarm first, which is why he came out in favor of renewing the deterrent. America must go down in history as the first and last nation to possess nuclear weapons. That’s a standard assumption in the US, not a Trumpism.
In addition, many years ago Trump spoke often about his fears of nuclear destruction, so much so that he appeared to be much more obsessed with the topic than the average citizen. In other words, he is like many of the anti-nuclear activists and scholars I know: obsessed with the fact that such a dread has been allowed to exist, worried about the world his children will inherit, trying to enjoy life regardless.
In The Bulletin’s 2017 Clock Statement, Trump’s worrying statements about nuclear policy were credited as the reason for moving the minute hand closer to midnight. He was described as having “made disturbing comments about the use and proliferation of nuclear weapons.” The report even lends credence to the ridiculous fear-mongering that Russia influenced America’s sacred democratic processes. It notes:

...events surrounding the US presidential campaign—including cyber offensives and deception campaigns apparently directed by the Russian government and aimed at disrupting the US election—have brought American democracy and Russian intentions into question and thereby made the world more dangerous than was the case a year ago.

Trump was blamed for wanting to upgrade the nuclear arsenal, but it is a well-known fact to the disarmament experts at The Bulletin that this upgrade has been in the works for years. The Bulletin makes no mention of the destabilizing influence of American meddling in Ukraine’s sacred democratic processes, and no mention of NATO expansion to Russia’s borders and the deployment of ABM missiles in Romania and Poland. During the presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton and the neo-con hawks backing her were on the war path to enforce a no-fly zone over Syria, a step that would have led to an air war with Russia. Surely the disarmament specialists who work for The Bulletin could have concluded that the danger of nuclear war had been recklessly increased by these words and deeds of Obama and Clinton. But instead it was a bit of thinking and tweeting out loud by Trump, before he was in power, that moved the hands of the clock forward. His "disturbing comments" about wanting to get along with Russia were not considered worthy of moving the hands of the clock backward. In the report there is a tangential mention of the need to reduce tensions over Syria and Ukraine, but the issue was not personalized the way it was for Trump. American policy, or statements and actions by Obama and Clinton were never mentioned. The partisan bias of this report leaks off of every page.
If all this is not enough to make my familiars in the anti-nuclear movement suspicious, I urge them to read page five of the Clock Statement. They will find there a rather strong endorsement, with some standard caveats, of nuclear energy as a solution to global warming. It seems that in this vision for a nuclear weapons-free world, the US will still have its network of 800 or so overseas military bases and the largest defense budget in the world—larger than the total spent by the nations ranked 2 to 10 on the list. They will still have offensive anti-ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and inter-continental ballistic missiles, loaded with conventional warheads, capable of accurately targeting and destroying any city on the globe (Belgrade in 1999 was the first demonstration of that power). Thus there will still be a great military threat aimed at nations with nuclear power plants, aimed also at their infrastructure and power grids (needed for cooling reactors in shut-down and cooling spent nuclear fuel pools). We could avoid nuclear war, but conventional war would still have the potential to create hundreds of Chernobyl catastrophes.
These non-conventional military threats and this tremendous imbalance are, of course, the well-known objections of Russia, China and other nuclear powers to moving forward in nuclear disarmament. It’s a curious thing that they consistently rate no mention in most Western nuclear disarmament think tanks and NGOs. This year’s nuclear ban treaty negotiations at the UN could have been turned into a much more comprehensive discussion. Why not have an agreement on limiting national defense spending, or curtailing the permanent stationing of military forces in foreign nations? Is it time to question the danger of large, outdated alliances that risk world war starting over, for example, a border skirmish in Estonia? The supposedly radical solution of banning nuclear weapons is actually not very radical at all. It consistently avoids engagement with the root causes of war and enmity between nations, which are rooted themselves in domination and control of the world’s resources.


Other recent views on the 2017 Clock report:

Chris Busby, “Real Doomsday clock passed midnight long ago,” Russia Today, January 29, 2017.

Gwynne Dyer, “Doomsday Clock and Talk Do More to Blow Up Fears,” London Free Press, February 1, 2017.

 

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Clockwork Orange President



What a field-day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly say, hooray for our side
It's time we stop, hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
- Buffalo Springfield

For what it’s worth, I’ll say there’s something happening here, but what it is ain’t exactly clear. Everyone knows the outrageous and offensive things Donald Trump has said and done in his past. He’s a shallow, tax-evading, anti-intellectual vulgarian. Yeah, we all know the score, but what it is curious is that he seems to have exploited Ralph Nader’s insight of a few years back that there was a potential for a left-right alliance just waiting for a new kind of politician to champion.[1] Many of Trump’s policies stated during the campaign were to the left of Hillary Clinton’s. Trump has come out in favor of the government using its dominant purchasing power to negotiate lower drug prices. He is against free trade agreements. He wants to halt the financialization of the economy and invest in building things. He wants peace with the other nuclear superpowers and nuclear disarmament. In spite of all the odious aspects of his presidency, the substance of these policies have to be weighed in the balance when Americans consider impeaching him and leaving the country to be led by the vice president and the familiar cast of Republican knuckleheads in Congress and state houses throughout the republic.
The question that nobody is asking is why the only permitted vehicle for these drastic alternative policies came in the form of the dreaded “orange-skinned” monster (don’t worry, it’s OK to mock skin color in this case according to the reigning ethos). He received billions of dollars in free publicity on corporate-owned media networks. Ralph Nader and Jill Stein, with similar foreign policy and economic policies but cleaner histories of personal integrity, never received such favorable coverage.
In the film Clockwork Orange, the violent behavior of the protagonist is treated with a behavioral psychology therapy in an experiment to test whether the government could save money by eradicating the criminal’s ability to commit crimes. The music of Beethoven excited him and inspired his frenzied orgies of violence, so psychologists designed an experiment which would associate feelings of dread with the music and the violence that he once enjoyed. He was given drugs that induced feelings of deep nausea and suicidal dread, and while under their influence he had to listen to Beethoven and view films depicting acts of violence. He emerged from the treatment cured, temporarily, of his ability to carry out acts of violence. The treatment never affected his impulses and motivations. It only affected his behavior.

Behavior adjustment therapy in A Clockwork Orange
It seems that the American public is being subjected to something similar. President Trump has been run up the flagpole, but already on the first day of his presidency the mainstream media has declared it doomed to fail. He will be forced to resign or impeached, or he will come to an untimely end. The next time a candidate comes along who wants peace with Russia and all the other progressive aspects of Trump’s platform, these positive aspects will be associated with everything that was odious about Trump’s character and his scandalous record on other matters. It will all be part of the Trump brand. America is being clockworkoranged.
It’s great that millions of people are on the streets in their pink caps standing up for dignity and respect, but it’s a little odd that this is the priority now when there is a large clique in America’s media, intelligence and legislative institutions that is escalating the chances of a conflict with Russia. The historian Stephen Cohen has this week said that he believes we are in a time more dangerous than the Cuban Missile Crisis, but no one is talking about it.[2]
Instead, everyone is indignant and shocked that a wealthy businessman has used his power and privilege in the pursuit of sex, or just talked about it, as if such characters are something unheard of in the history of American politics. In the infamous recording he talked about pursuing a married woman and making audacious and quick moves on women who “let him do it” because he’s famous. This is all odious and creepy, especially when it comes from the mouth of an older married man, but it would fit right in with the plot line of any cable television drama, the real lives of celebrities, or the love and sex columns of Salon.com (Salon was an uncritical supporter the Clinton campaign after she won the nomination) in which female writers have been known to extol the virtues of one-night stands and anonymous hookups. I’m not knocking these confessional sex columns, but there does seem to be a bit of reverse slut-shaming going on here. The traditional bodice-rippers written by women don’t involve the male lead asking for permission to place his hands. Everybody knows that in sexual encounters most of the communication is non-verbal.
The important distinction here is that many American voters now want to be children choosing the perfect daddy figure for their political leaders. They have to be better than us ordinary sinners. Barack Obama was a gentle and faithful husband and father, so it didn’t matter to most people if he destroyed Libya and Syria and drone-bombed innocents abroad. No one hit the streets in these large numbers until the groping ogre got into the White House.
So the American public has been left with this odious choice with a leader who has now “tainted” a few good policy goals borrowed from the left. People can defend female and minority rights, or speak up for ending wars abroad and preventing nuclear war. They could do both, but the protests on the streets of America this weekend are almost entirely focused on threats to gender and minority rights. Identity politics has degraded political thinking so much that people are incapable of going to the roots of the problem. The assumption seems to be that there could be a kinder, gentler form of oligarchic, militaristic capitalism as long as it delivers some racial and gender equality and reproductive rights. Would that it were so simple.

Notes

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Boots or Hearts, They Really Fall Apart


Boots or Hearts, They Really Fall Apart

See when it starts
to fall apart,
man, it really falls apart,
like boots or hearts,
oh when they start,
they really fall apart

The Tragically Hip
Album: Up to Here (1989)

The 2016 United States election may be seen in the future as a historic rupture in the nation’s history. Voter turnout was low, and less than half the population voted, with a historic level of displeasure expressed for both candidates of the two major parties. Bitter rebukes were leveled at those who wanted to vote for third parties. The victory of Donald Trump made his opponents think the republic was doomed, while his supporters saw the attempted sabotage of his inauguration as a sign that respect for democracy was in tragic decline. For the first time in history, Americans seemed to be asking, “Is this how it ends? What next?”
Those who think Donald Trump is an insane narcissist fear that he will stumble into nuclear war when his feelings get hurt, while others have fears about an American holocaust or widespread violent chaos in a nation with both militarized police forces and private militias armed with automatic weapons. As an alternative to these nightmare scenarios, there are some historical precedents that show how the USA could renew itself in a relatively peaceful revolution. Revolution, however, implies a complete reset of the game. America’s sacred constitution would have to be replaced with something entirely new. Consider the following fictional scenario of the near future, then read the explanation that follows of the historical example it is based on.
_____

The Second Republic (fiction)

The trigger for the collapse of the First Republic was the crisis of American forces overseas that arose in early 2022. America was still an imperial power, although rejection of the system had started to increase significantly in East Asia since 2017. The Philippines, Japan and South Korea still allowed US military bases on their soil, but popular resistance was mounting to unprecedented levels. South Korea, in particular, felt rising internal and regional pressure to rid itself of the American presence. The assertiveness of Russia and China in the region caused American forces to balk. The situation was complicated by the utterly dysfunctional and deadlocked politics in the executive and legislative branches of the American government.
Further complications came when a section of the US military rebelled and openly backed a movement to reverse the decline of the American empire. Revolts and riots broke out in 2021 against the US forces in Seoul, Tokyo and Manila, and there were no adequate diplomatic or political initiatives by the US government to win support in those countries for a continuation of American presence, owing to the insolvency of the federal government and political gridlock. Amid this chaos, and the imminent collapse of the North Korean government in December 2021, Russia and China brokered an arrangement for Korean re-unification that required the exclusion of US bases from the Korean Peninsula.
In Europe, disputes over contributions to the NATO budget led to Romania and Poland leaving the alliance and declaring neutrality. For US military leaders, it was obvious that a debacle like that of the Warsaw Pact collapse of 1989 was in the offing, and that the government was sacrificing American honor for political expediency.
This situation prompted a small group of generals to create a patriots’ committee to demand the formation of a new national government under former president Barack Obama, who still advocated a strong military policy. Obama was still making speeches in retirement about America’s status as “the indispensable nation” and the importance of retaining American uni-polar hegemony.
The generals declared that unless Barack Obama was returned to power, the US Army would openly revolt. The generals covertly planned the takeover of Washington, with 50,000 paratroopers preparing to take over airports. Armored units prepared to roll into Washington.
On 24 May, paratroopers landed in Miami, taking the city in a bloodless action called "Operation Flamingo." Miami was chosen as a shock demonstration of what would soon follow in other cities if demands were not met. The operation was cheered by the local population and met no resistance. The generals promised that Operation Resurrection would be implemented if Obama was not approved as leader by Congress, or if Obama asked for military assistance to take power, or to thwart any organized attempt by opponents to seize power or stall Obama’s return.
Barack Obama, who had retired from politics six years before, placed himself in the midst of the crisis, calling on the nation to suspend the government and create a new constitutional system. On 29 May 2022, Congress agreed upon calling on Obama to take over the government as acting executive. The military’s willingness to support an overthrow of the constitutional government was a significant development in American politics. With military support, Obama’s provisional government terminated the First Republic (the last Congressional sessions of the First Republic hastily voted for its dissolution) and drew up a new constitution over the next six months proclaiming the Second Republic in November 2022.
Freed from the traditional constraints on constitutional and electoral reform, the provisional government was able to preserve the best aspects of the First Republic while abolishing those unsuited to the 21st century. The electoral college was abolished, and various voting innovations were implemented, such as ranked-choice voting. The influence of corporations on the electoral process was shrunk so much that, as one advisor put it, “it could be drowned in the bathtub.” Experts have questioned whether the Second Republic is actually a republic. They argue instead that it has been reformed into a thing called “a democracy.” The rights to government-funded pensions, health care and education were enshrined in the new constitution.
In spite of the generals’ original intent to preserve America’s global dominance, decline continued while the nation went through an internal renewal. Both international and domestic populations no longer supported American hegemony, and the American treasury could no longer afford the cost of hundreds of foreign military bases. Restoration of “the homeland” became the pressing necessity of American politics for the decades to come. The military officers, to their credit, stood down when the interim government was in place, as they never intended to set up a dictatorship. Their goal of re-establishing global hegemony was completely overtaken by the dire finances of the republic and popular demand for domestic reform.
_____

This scenario might seem outlandish, and overly-optimistic about the chances of a peaceful and progressive transition, but it is actually an adaptation of events that happened in France in 1958 as the Fifth Republic was created out of the Algerian crisis and the decline of French colonialism. The basic elements are all the same: the military demanded the restoration of the empire and the return of retired president de Gaulle, the military took Corsica as a preliminary step before taking Paris, de Gaulle returned, and the Fourth Republic was dissolved.
France and the United States both had their revolutions in the late 18th century, but France has gone through two Napoleonic empires and five republics while America is still stuck in its first. The chaos that followed the 2016 election should be making it clear that no meaningful change is possible within the constraints of the existing system, and amendments to it under the present rules are practically impossible.
This is not to say that all has been perfect in France since the Fifth Republic was established, and there are risks in depending on a military force to usher in a new constitutional system, but among all the alternatives, it might be the best.
One good outcome for France and other countries was the collapse of the empire, but France continued to exert oppressive control over parts of Africa through neocolonialism. Algeria and Polynesia were forced to suffer the consequences of French nuclear detonations conducted between 1961-1996.
This year, French voters face a similar dreadful choice as Americans did in their presidential election. Viable progressive alternatives are nowhere in sight, while the choice comes down to a conservative and an anti-EU, anti-NATO and anti-Euro conservative nationalist. Perhaps the French can double up with the Americans and they can both get a new republic at the same time, a two for one deal shall we say?*
If the French example is not convincing, the Carnation Revolution in Portugal in 1974 is another example to refer to. In that case the Portuguese military was exhausted from fighting in anti-colonial wars in Africa, so they launched a bloodless coup against the Portuguese dictatorship, not to continue the war and the empire but to bring them to an end and usher in democracy. The public in Lisbon reacted by flooding the streets, sticking carnations in soldiers guns and overtaking the military coup with a popular resistance movement.
Perhaps the United States is too conservative, too isolated and too attached to its present system to look to such historical examples in other nations for ways out of its present dilemma. However, it would be a good thing if the present raging and rudderless protests against the new president could calm down, get creative, and be turned toward some practical solutions. In the current derangement, some people imagine only nuclear holocaust or civil strife, and in desperation they have indulged in satire and personal insults toward the president-elect, and begged the CIA to conjure up some cabal to bring down this villain who has risen to power. In one of his speeches near the end of his term President Obama said Russians don’t make anything and don’t innovate. The question should be this: can Americans make something new and innovate their way out of this?


* In fact, there is presently in France the Mouvement pour la 6e République which is gathering signatures in support of establishing a 6th Republic. As of January 2017, 108,269 people have signed in support of this statement:

I demand the election of a constituent assembly with which citizens will establish the 6th Republic. This republic will abolish the monarchical presidency and will enshrine the new personal, ecological and social rights that our country needs.

America, what are you waiting for?

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Trump. Right. Okay, the world's gone nuts


Russell Brand, episode 327 of The Trews, November 10, 2016
 

Transcript:


Donald Trump's president [-elect] of America now. I wanted to talk to you now while everyone is sort of still delirious and in shock about it. We've talked about Donald Trump quite a lot on The Trews because he's a fascinating media operator. He said such outlandish and offensive things, but he’s antithetical to our times where politicians seem so groomed and slick, even though in some ways he's both groomed and slick, because he has a sort of earnestness and rawness.
Take even the first moment of his victory speech where he says, “Sorry I'm late. Complicated business.” He obviously knows that this is taking place in incredible adversity.
What I'm fascinated by, though, is the amount of fear and anger that's generated by the victory, and how obviously reminiscent it is to Brexit in this country. This for me, Donald Trump’s victory and the decision of Britain to leave Europe, point to a phenomenon that’s really well outlined in an article by a man called Thomas Frank in The Guardian where he points to the idea that liberalism as a political system is failing so many people that they have lost interest and lost faith. My own personal feelings about it is that people no longer trust the people that say, “Hey, we’ll look after you. It’s OK. Stay in Europe. We’ll be alright. Vote for Hillary Clinton. It’s going to be better,” because the people that you’re talking to are already living in a kind of post-apocalyptic world, for want of a better phrase. You can’t tell people that it would be terrible if we leave Europe if the world they live in is already terrible. You can’t tell people it will be terrible to have Donald Trump in power if the world they live in is already terrible. They’re not susceptible to that kind of threat.
Of course, I’m of aware of the mad things he said about women, and the mad things he said about Muslims, and the mad things he said about building walls. And what I think is fascinating is that someone can say that and it makes no difference. People still vote for him. How disenchanted, how disillusioned, how dis-empowered can you be that this seems like a sensible alternative? My interpretation is the only thing they actually cared about was change. Hillary Clinton, whatever she was offering, whatever she was saying, is a political affiliate of Barack Obama, who was already in power—Barack Obama, by the way, who now seems sort of like Christ, doesn’t he, compared to the people contesting this election? But let’s look at the last eight years and the kind of things that are happening. And that’s why people are disillusioned because they’ve seen that when it’s someone that seems affable and capable like Barack Obama in the White House: still terrible unrest, still drone killings, still terrible poverty, still no consequences for the people that exploited huge numbers of ordinary Americans through the financial crash. We can’t keep responding to events like this with more fear and anger. It’s fear and anger that are creating these conditions.
There was this yogi, whose name I really should learn, who said to Bertrand Russell when Bertrand Russell was campaigning for nuclear disarmament... he said to him, “What’s the point in us getting rid of nuclear weapons if we still have the mindset that created the nuclear weapons?” Bertrand Russel said, “I don’t want to talk about that. Let's just get rid of nuclear weapons. You can’t blow up the planet with a mindset.” But now forty years later, 50 years later, we haven’t achieved nuclear disarmament. There are more weapons, and the point that he was making is that Donald Trump for president of the United States is sort of not what’s important. What’s important is the conditions that have occurred in which Donald Trump becomes president. There’s no point in reacting “What? Donald Trump is president!?” Yesterday the conditions existed for it happen, and so they did two days ago, a month ago, a year ago, for the last ten to twenty years they’ve been building towards this moment. And what it is, and what I’ve always believed, what I’ve said very publicly, is the political system doesn’t connect with people. People want change. People want to have genuine power, so if someone comes along and says things like “I’ll drain the swamp of Washington of all its corrupt lobbyists and affiliates,” that’s appealing. My hope is that this victory for this sort of absurd and ludicrous character who said these outrageous and offensive things... my hope is that we will recognize that we have to provide an alternative. People have to provide an alternative. It’s not enough to say, “Look, here’s Hillary Clinton. Be grateful. Shut up.” People have had enough.
If the Democrats could have Bernie Sanders now, of course they would have him--a person who's talking about socialism, a person who’s talking about fairness and justice.
So what I've taken from it is that this is a time where we have to, instead of saying after Brexit, “Those bloody racists Brexited us,” we have to say, “Right, let's try to reach out and try to understand why people feel like this, and be loving and not be presumptuous. Those of us that are privileged enough not to be in financial trouble, that aren't feeling the weight and the pressure of the world, and looking for someone to blame and feeling like that so that when someone like Donald Trump comes along and in his own easy, accessible, TV-friendly way says it's because of Muslims, Mexicans… so that when someone like that comes along it seems appealing and attractive, we have to create a world where Donald Trump isn't necessary, and if we don't create that kind of world, don't be surprised when Donald Trump becomes president. For the last twenty years we’ve been creating the conditions where this was, as we now know, inevitable because it has happened. Now we have to find alternatives, and I don't think it's going to take place on the superficial, administrative level of Washington or Westminster politics. It’s going to take place philosophically and deeply. We have to change the way we treat each other, change the way we see ourselves, change the way we talk about the world--significant change because the people that voted for Brexit, the people that voted for Donald Trump… even if people do think that immigration is the issue, then those of us who don't think that's the issue have got a duty, haven’t we, to communicate in a way that is understandable and accessible, not condescending and not patronizing, why we believe that this is the wrong path for the world. We're talking to people that don't have an awful lot to lose, so if you do feel afraid, and disappointed and angry about it, try not to be. Try to be optimistic because this had to happen. In the end we have to reach some kind of climax, some sort of crisis, some kind of nadir where it is no longer possible to continue in the way we have been.
What I think the election of Donald Trump means is it is no longer possible to pretend that politics is all right because look at it. Now look at it. Now you see it. As Biggy Smalls would say, “If you don't know, now you know.” I can't use the next word, not being an African-American man or woman, but those are the sentiments I feel. If Hillary Clinton had become president… she's a person that did have those affiliations with the banks, that does want to go to war in the Middle East, and there is stuff I don't know very much about, but what I suspect is we would not have got real change. With Donald Trump it is no longer possible to ignore that real change is required.

Friday, January 13, 2017

The President-Elect Through an Alamogordo Glass Darkly

The President-Elect Through an Alamogordo Glass Darkly

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. Corinthians 13:12

Long before Donald Trump became a presidential candidate he was a well-known public figure with a reputation for grandiosity and insensitivity to people affected negatively by his real estate projects, casinos and entertainment franchises. In the year 2000, The Simpsons set a story in the future that showed the aftermath of a Donald Trump presidency. It was a joke because no one believed then he had the temperament, the knowledge or the skills for high political office. In those long ago days, before the recent US election campaign, one could feel fairly certain about this. The problem now is that the anti-Trump outrage has reached such a fevered pitch that all reporting about him has become unreliable. Everything he says or does is being interpreted in the most negative light possible, backed up by gross exaggeration, rumors and lies fed to a mass media that has lowered its standards for fact-checking.


The rage against Mr. Trump has become so personal and irrational that now, contrary to the modern ethic against bullying and discrimination, Mr. Trump’s mental and physical attributes are fair game for ridicule. One example is the constant ridicule of the way he speaks. His inarticulateness is said to be a sign of his inferior thought processes, but this contradicts what we are supposed to say about people with language impairments. We are told all the time that such people are otherwise intelligent and capable of many great things. One would think that after Mr. Trump got himself elected as president of the United States, his opponents would have stopped underestimating his intelligence.
Another example of distortion became apparent when it turned out that video of him “mocking a disabled man” was framed to make him look bad. The gestures in question were actually part of Mr. Trump’s idiosyncratic hand gestures, which themselves have been mocked endlessly.
In fact it is Mr. Trump’s quirky gestures and character traits that seem to draw the most criticism. In a column in Alternet the writer said Mr. Trump could not be trusted because he doesn’t drink and has never used illegal drugs, and so this shows he has a fear of losing control.[1] The writer lists seven quirks of his personality that suggest he has functioned all his life with a mild obsessive-compulsive disorder. Thus the suggestion is that anyone who is a little “quirky” or who has ever suffered from a common mental health problem should be disqualified from holding public office. It’s an unusual argument to hear from the progressive left.


Russel Brand: My hope is that this victory for this sort of absurd and ludicrous character who said these outrageous and offensive things... my hope is that we will recognize that we have to provide an alternative. People have to provide an alternative. It’s not enough to say, “Look, here’s Hillary Clinton. Be grateful. Shut up.” People have had enough.


In spite of all the shady things everyone learned about Mr. Trump during the election campaign, sixty-million people were ready to forgive, perhaps because they could see he was just a regular sinner like everyone else, and certainly not much different than hundreds of other politicians. As Meryl Streep said in defense of Margaret Thatcher, excessive criticism is unfair because she “withstood the special hatred and ridicule, unprecedented in my opinion, ... [of] a public figure who was not a mass murderer after all.”[2]
As several media outlets published stories about unconfirmed intelligence reports smearing Mr. Trump, only ten days before his inauguration, Glenn Greenwald described the peril of this frenzied revolt against Mr. Trump:

... legitimate and effective tactics for opposing Trump are being utterly drowned by these irrational, desperate, ad hoc crusades that have no cogent strategy and make his opponents appear increasingly devoid of reason and gravity. Right now, Trump’s opponents are behaving as media critic Adam Johnson described: as ideological jelly fish, floating around aimlessly and lost, desperately latching on to whatever barge randomly passes by...
[This trend] can harshly backfire, to the great benefit of Trump and to the great detriment of those who want to oppose him. If any of the significant claims in this “dossier” turn out to be provably false ... that will forever discredit—render impotent—future journalistic exposés that are based on actual, corroborated wrongdoing. Beyond that, the threat posed by submitting ourselves to the CIA and empowering it to reign supreme outside of the democratic process is... an even more severe danger. The threat of being ruled by unaccountable and unelected entities is self-evident and grave. That’s especially true when the entity behind which so many are rallying is one with a long and deliberate history of lying, propaganda, war crimes, torture, and the worst atrocities imaginable.[3]

Perhaps the most serious example of motivated reasoning against Mr. Trump has been on display in the many articles expressing fear about what he might do once he gets command of a nuclear arsenal. The Internet is suddenly full of images of Mr. Trump’s scowling face with a mushroom cloud in the background. In an ironic way, it is good that Mr. Trump was elected because it has brought much-needed attention to a problem that the public ignored previously. In fact, there is a long list of travesties that people of good conscience should have been protesting during the Barack Obama presidency, but they were ignored when the elegant speechifier in chief was in power. Now it looks like people are finally going to protest, and Mr. Trump will be the patsy taking the blame for all that is wrong with the country.
The risk of an intentional or accidental nuclear war has existed since the 1950s, and the decision to launch, for any arbitrary reason, has always been left in the hands of a single individual—the president, and America has always prided itself on being a land where anyone could become president. In contrast, in the Soviet system the president, the minister of defense and the chief of the general staff had to agree to launch the weapons.[4] When all is considered, there is no reason to believe the risk increased significantly when Mr. Trump was elected. Recall that it was Hillary Clinton who wanted to risk a conflict with Russia over Syrian skies, and Mr. Trump who wanted a new detente with Russia.
An article in Mother Jones expressing panic about Mr. Trump with his “finger on the button” illustrates how much his critics are straining themselves to portray everything he has ever said in the worst light possible. In Does Donald Trump Believe Nuclear War Is Inevitable? the author David Corn finds that, based on comments he made between 1990 and 2004, Mr. Trump has a dangerously fatalistic view about the inevitability of nuclear Armageddon.[5] It is good that Mr. Corn found these old quotes from long ago that give us insight into Mr. Trump’s thinking about nuclear weapons, but his interpretation and conclusions don’t stand up.
David Corn is also now famous for a series of articles that have tried to dig up dirt on Mr. Trump. He was the first to write about unconfirmed reports that a “veteran spy has given the FBI Information alleging a Russian operation to cultivate Donald Trump.”[6] For some reason, this story didn’t gain any traction until ten days before the inauguration, after the electoral college passed up a chance to reject him. Fitting with the new journalistic standards, this report belongs with all others that consist of a fabricated story concluding with “If true, these allegations would be...”
Mr. Trump’s thoughts about nuclear weapons are no different from those of millions of people who have worried about nuclear war and fought to have nuclear weapons eliminated. If we didn’t know whose words these were, we might notice that while the speaker doesn’t talk about the subject as well as someone with a degree in the history of the nuclear age, his thoughts are similar to those of millions of people who have contemplated the implications of a world stocked with thousands of nuclear weapons:

Mr. Trump in 1990:
I've always thought about the issue of nuclear war; it's a very important element in my thought process. It's the ultimate, the ultimate catastrophe, the biggest problem this world has, and nobody's focusing on the nuts and bolts of it. It's a little like sickness. People don't believe they're going to get sick until they do. Nobody wants to talk about it. I believe the greatest of all stupidities is people's believing it will never happen, because everybody knows how destructive it will be, so nobody uses weapons. What bullshit.
It's like thinking the Titanic can't sink. Too many countries have nuclear weapons; nobody knows where they're all pointed, what button it takes to launch them.
The bomb Harry Truman dropped on Hiroshima was a toy next to today's. We have thousands of weapons pointed at us and nobody even knows if they're going to go in the right direction. They've never really been tested. These jerks in charge don't know how to paint a wall, and we're relying on them to shoot nuclear missiles to Moscow. What happens if they don't go there? What happens if our computer systems aren't working? Nobody knows if this equipment works, and I've seen numerous reports lately stating that the probability is they don't work. It's a total mess.

Mr. Trump in 1995:
If Hitler had the bomb, you don't think he would have used it? ... I mean, you have people that are sick and they are now having nuclear arsenals, and I think it's one of the greatest problems of the world… So it's always tough to say—I mean I like to project for the future but really live very much for the present. And I like to learn from the past, but it's very, very fragile, life is so fragile.

Mr. Trump in 2000:
My uncle John Trump was an MIT professor and a brilliant man. He had a clear and compelling view of the future, including a strong belief that one day the United States might be subjected to a terrorist strike that would turn Manhattan into Hiroshima II. I always respected Uncle John, but sometimes found myself wondering if maybe he wasn't exaggerating just a bit. Today we know that John Trump knew exactly what he was talking about. So what are we doing about this threat? Are we getting tough with people who would wipe us out in a second? Hell no.

Mr. Trump in 2004:
I don't think any building will be here—and unless we have some very smart people ruling it, the world will not be the same place in a hundred years. The weapons are too powerful, too strong. Access to the weapons is getting too easy, so I think the landscape we're looking at will not be the same unless we get smart people in office quickly.
I had an uncle who was a great professor and a brilliant man—Dr. John Trump, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His whole life was devoted to the study and eradication of cancer, and sadly, he died of cancer. But he was a brilliant scientist, and he would tell me weapons are getting so powerful today that humanity is in tremendous trouble. This was 25 years ago, but he was right. The world is rocky, and some terrible things are going to happen. That's why I lead the life I do. I enjoy it. I know life is fragile, and if the world looks like this a hundred years from now, we'll either be very lucky or have found unbelievably good leaders somewhere down the line.

David Corn concludes from these comments that Mr. Trump expresses a terrifying fatalism about nuclear warfare being unavoidable. He does concede, however, that Mr. Trump has at least thought about this problem over his lifetime and made nuclear policy a priority, and that he obviously considers himself to be one of the smart people with a “very good brain” who could solve the problem. Yet Mr. Trump’s concern with the danger counts for nothing in the final conclusion:

Trump's campaign comments about nuclear weapons and the possibility of using them have not been reassuring. His previous remarks suggesting he believed nuclear war was all but inescapable are the stuff of nightmares.

People of a certain age may remember that similar things were said about Ronald Reagan in 1980 as his political opponents feared that his literal belief in scripture would self-fulfill and hasten the arrival of Armageddon. It turned out that he was devoted, in his own roundabout, reckless way, to a world free of nuclear weapons, and he ended up making progress in that regard when he had a Soviet counterpart who was more than equally committed to the goal.
We must also remember that much of this outrage, and even awareness of nuclear risks, has been absent in the years since G.W. Bush abrogated the ABM treaty in 2001, thus eliminating Russia’s trust and interest in continuing nuclear arms reduction talks. The issue has essentially been off the table as far as China and Russia are concerned because they have no interest in living in a nuclear-free world in which America has a vast supremacy in conventional weaponry. But that’s another issue Americans, and even nuclear disarmament groups, don’t want to face.
The outraged voices were also silent when Barack Obama approved the trillion-dollar upgrade of the nuclear arsenal, a decision that is now being unfairly attributed to Mr. Trump just because he wrote a tweet supporting the continuation of the policy. Where was the outrage and concern before the bogeyman rose to power? And would there have been any outrage if Hillary Clinton had won and continued the hawkish foreign policy, the erosion of civil liberties and the neoliberal policies that worsen economic inequality?
This question brings us back to the quote from the Bible embedded in the title of this essay. The glass could be both glass to see through and mirror to reflect. It suggests that we do not have a perfect understanding of ourselves, of others, or of the world we observe, but by the act of looking humbly at the glass we should strive to see clearly. In straining to see evil in everything Mr. Trump does, the liberal elites have darkened the glass further. They have decided to not look inward, not look at the nature of their country, and not look for any humanity in the object of their revulsion.
The entertainment world that is so terrified of Mr. Trump could recall some insights from long ago. Neil Young knew “even Richard Nixon has got soul,” and we might recast Sting’s lyric from 1985 as “I hope the Donald loves his children too.” One hopes that Sting was being ironic when he sang, “I hope the Russians love their children too,” but it’s hard to tell. It was a sign of the idiocy of the Cold War that people had to seriously wonder about this question. Russians? Love their children? Is it possible? Of course they loved their children as much as anyone, while they also matched the irrationality of their adversary by risking nuclear annihilation to protect them.
Just as Cold War paranoia viewed Russians then and now, Mr. Trump’s critics refuse to credit him with having any humanity. Liberals who would argue for prison reform and rehabilitation of the worst criminals fail to see that Mr. Trump, in spite of his flaws, seems to have friends and family that he loves, and that is something that they could build on. Is it safe to assume Mr. Trump loves his children and has no desire to see their world destroyed? There is in Mr. Trump’s character, as Jimmy Carter noted, some malleability, and he has announced some progressive foreign policies that stand in sharp contrast to the rigidity and hawkishness of the Republican Congress that has been elected.[7]
If Mr. Trump has said anything crazy about nuclear weapons, it is only a reflection of ourselves and the situation we are all in. Everyone who has ever contemplated a nuclearized world has had dark thoughts about its fate. The Noble laureate Bob Dylan (would you trust the genius American poet with his finger on the button?) declared, at the height of his fame for anti-war songs, that Hard Rain was about “some sort of end that’s just gotta happen.”[8] And just as Mr. Trump wanted to enjoy life to the fullest during an era of nuclear dread, so did Jim Morrison when he told rapturous fans in a performance of American Night, “I don't know what's gonna happen, man, but I wanna have my kicks before the whole shit house goes up in flames.” Such thoughts have been in a lot of people’s heads since the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Any generous interpretation of Mr. Trump’s thoughts about nuclear weapons would show that there is nothing unusual in what he said as an ordinary citizen, long before he ever thought he would have the responsibilities of the presidency.
As most of the American political and entertainment elite fell into line with a boycott of Mr. Trump’s inauguration, Jimmy Carter, the most liberal of former US presidents, was one of the few who declared early that he would attend. He hasn’t explained his reasons, probably because he considers them self-evident. He ascribes to a traditional belief system in which one should strive to love those who are most difficult to love. Or perhaps he just sees honor in returning the respect shown to him at his own inauguration. At the very least, opponents might begin to realize what the Japanese have understood ever since they were defeated, occupied and forced to live as a vassal state of America. It is rather unsubtle and counter-productive to pursue one’s goals by antagonizing the adversary. The demon at the gate, cornered as he is in his own precarious hold on power, must be fed and humored. If you are worried that the demon cannot be trusted with his finger on the button, then it makes no sense to be constantly poking him through the bars of his cage.

DISCLAIMER

Many writers who take a contrarian stance and refuse to join the backlash against Mr. Trump and “populism” feel obliged to pre-empt criticism by noting his faults and declaring non-endorsement, but I hesitate to submit to such pressure. I’m not even American, so perhaps I shouldn’t even be interfering in the sacred American democratic process, hermetically sealed as it must be from all foreign influence. I will instead endorse this passage written four years ago in an essay by Phil Rockstroh:

There exists one requisite trait needed to face evil: The knowledge of one’s own capacity for embodying the trait. Inseparable, treachery and redemption arrive together. The human heart, capable of both cruelty and kindness, provides the arena where one’s better nature might gain the upper hand against one’s destructive inclinations. And this is precisely why I eschew being a “pragmatic” predator drone-apologist liberal or a purity-swooning conservative: A compulsion towards partisanship serves to censor the disorderly dialog of the heart, and thus compels one to remain locked within an ego-fortified structure of imprisoning platitudes and self-serving rationalizations.[9]

More on this theme: 

Tom Slater, "What's Scarier than Trump? The Elite Revolt Against Him," Spiked, January 20, 2017.

Notes


[1] Janet Allon, “Seven Disturbing Facts about Donald Trump’s Personality,” Alternet, December 22, 2016.
[2] Ben Child, “Meryl Streep praises Margaret Thatcher as ‘figure of awe,’” The Guardian, April 9, 2013.
[4] Richard Rhodes, Twilight of the Bombs (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), 85.
[5] David Corn, “Does Donald Trump Believe Nuclear War Is Inevitable?Mother Jones, December 8, 2016.
[7] Greg Bluestein, “Jimmy Carter is the only ex-president to commit to Mr. Trump inaugural,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, December 24, 2016.
[8] Jonathan Cott (Editor), Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews (New York: Wenner Books, 2006), 7-9.
[9] Phil Rockstroh, “Atomized America of Late Capitalism,” Consortium News, August 15, 2012.