Saturday, 21 January 2017

The 18th Brumaire of Donald J. Trump

“All great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”

Think for a moment of the act of placing a first-class letter in a mailbox somewhere in the United States, let’s say, Coleville, New Hampshire. The letter is addressed to a remote village on the island of Maui, Hawaii, a distance of 4,962 miles. It costs 47 cents, approximately 1/10 of 1% of the actual cost of getting the letter there. Why?

The two locations belong to the United States of America, and the people who live in them have the right, by the fact of sharing a nationality, of communicating with each other and of having their communication subsidized by, say, businesses in Manhattan that send out hundreds of pieces of mail to be delivered within a few hundred yards. In fact, the creation of the post office system and of the transportation infrastructure it required was instrumental in the formation of the country and our sense of belonging to it. This process is ably and amply outlined in a wonderful book entitled, How the Post Office Created America, by Winifred Gallagher.

We do not stop to think of the ubiquity of letterboxes or the fact that upon roaming around the 50 states, we are never very far from one. Each of them guarantees a uniform service and links us as citizens through this universal promise. Historically, we have supported it through government spending and through the acceptance of socially desirable subsidies that enable small, isolated communities to participate as fully as possible in the life of the nation. The American flag flies at every post office in the country.

It is this aspect of the Post Office’s symbolic and effective role in binding us together as a society with a national consciousness that makes the entity ripe for destruction by the neoliberal elites. Neoliberalism’s propagandists instruct us that, in Thatcher’s immortal words, “There is no such thing as society.” Thus, there should be no such thing as a national post distorting the market in communications and shipment of goods. Instead of shared public property, they lecture, there must only be markets, and consumers who use their purchasing choices to maximize self-interest and thereby direct economic activity in the optimum fashion (in this, the best of all possible worlds).

It is for this reason that the Trump International Hotel Washington, D.C., occupying the space of the old Post Office Department on Pennsylvania Avenue, is such an apt symbol of the Trump Era, in which three decades of the gradual transformation of public property into private goods will now accelerate to warp speed. The hotel itself may well generate the first of many scandals as we witness the Trump gang drain the public purse, housing, as it already has, many of the carpetbaggers and rent-seekers who will descend upon the nation’s capital, nostrils enflamed with the intoxicating aroma of money lifting like a dawn mist off the Potomac.

It is fitting that this phenomenon should occur at the very site of our socialized system of communications, a founding enterprise of our disappearing nation. The 263-room, five-star hotel embodies to perfection Trump’s uniquely grotesque expression of the neoliberal creed, i.e., that the state should function as a series of atomized markets. In Trump’s case, these markets will be exploited by the billionaire financiers with whom he has populated his cabinet, thereby making obvious what the Democrats better managed, minimally, to hide.

Thus the tragedy brought about by Ronald Reagan, by whom the idea of government as a collective expression of sovereign will and shared destiny was so skillfully discredited, repeats itself in the person of Trump, but now as farce. Whereas Reagan turned the presidency into a turnstile through which corporate plutocrats could seize ever larger chunks of the nation’s wealth, today Trump himself, as Dealmaker-in-Chief, hosts business partners and foreign dignitaries in his eponymous luxury palace a few doors away. Instead of interest groups subtly imposing their will, the president prepares to dole out vast riches directly, perhaps using his prince regents or the royal Infanta as intermediaries.

The model has operated these last four decades in part due to its opacity. It took an Obama, elegant, cerebral, with a classy wife and seductive syntax, to pretend convincingly that the continued accumulation of wealth at the top was an unintentional and temporary artifact, despite the glaring evidence of the 2009 bank heist and similar, ongoing spectacles of criminality. Trump merely takes the rules long established and plays by them, openly. This will not end well. But the nature and depth of the damage to be borne by us all is impossible to foresee.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Who's where? Trump and the Neo-Con oppo

It’s too early to see what the new alignment among the Masters of the Universe will look like despite all the howling and sniping and facile talk of The Resistance. But I have serious doubts about the assumptions many of us are making about who is on which side.

In one version of the new scenario, the bruised Democrats are getting ready to somewhat or partially dig in their (tiny) heels to try to stop some of the worst damage coming from the Trump Administration. In that narrative we should be paying attention to who is in charge of this pushback, trying to keep the reins out of the DNC/post-Hillary camp (this would be view from the Bernie wing), or letting the Dem establishment take the lead to block the worst Supreme Court nominees and hope for a reveral in 2018/2020 (this would be the more mainstream liberal attitude).

The assumption in both cases is that we are all more or less on the same side and are going to fight over nuances of strategy and tactics. I’m not convinced.

There is clearly a major catfight taking place at present, partly in full view and partly, we can presume, out of sight between the security/spy/war-making apparatus that was comfortably engaged in building up tensions with Russia and the unexpectedly uninterested commander-in-chief-to-be. Trump has signaled that he doesn’t think brinksmanship with the Russians is necessary or good for business, which is heresy for the neocon-influenced wing that backed Clinton. (Recall the enthusiasm with which the Hillary campaign trotted out all sorts of establishment Republicans to endorse her and warn against dangerous Donald.)

My personal view of the Russian Hack kerfluffle is that whether or not there is any truth to it is beside the point. There may have been more than the usual snooping that everyone does on everyone else, and there may not; the concrete evidence is sorely lacking so far.

If Trump were on board with the anti-Russian policy consensus, the issue probably would have been let die a natural death—even if the worst accusations are true—as part of the dirty dealings common to our electoral process, certainly no more grave than Nixon’s treasonous 1968 deal with the North Vietnamese to delay a peace settlement and let him win the presidency. Hillary would have been dismissed as a weak candidate who didn’t figure out how to play nasty enough.

But given the policy stakes, the Manchurian Candidate angle is too useful for discrediting Trump in advance and trying to force him back into line. Anonymous “intelligence” sources can keep up a steady drumbeat of alarming news about threats from the big grizzly indefinitely, given the eagerness with which Beltway reporters will rush into print anything whispered to them in the cloakrooms.

That’s where the composition of the teams breaks down: many of the Bernie-wing commentators are NOT on board with the hack consensus, recalling a similar rush to swallow the phony WMD story that justified launching a war of conquest the ongoing Iraqi debacle. For establishment Democrats, daring to doubt puts people like Taibbi, Greenwald, and any others in the traitorous Breitbart/O’Reilly camp. Even Bernie himself may not escape tarring—he has been remarkably mum on the topic.

The implications are disturbing given the sudden proclivity to label anything not in conformity with the permitted narrative as “fake news,” which is coming to mean things certain big players don’t agree with. There is even a new bill being introduced in Congress with one Democrat and one Republican sponsor, called the “Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act”, whose purpose is to “strengthen the U.S. government’s ability to track and combat disinformation and propaganda overseas, especially by Russia.” Although it’s sponsors, including Connecticut liberal Chris Murphy, insist that the act is not aimed at domestic newsmakers, check out its ambiguous language in the link provided and ask yourself if you feel safe with tools like that in the hands of Steve Bannon.

Murphy is from a blue state and touts his liberal credentials, but he also brags about bringing home the defense-spending bacon to Connecticut's many armaments producers. There are plenty more in his camp who we can presume were not at all unhappy about the possible largesse from a new Cold War and might be disposed to oppose The Donald as a threat to Pentagon contracts. We should be alert to the possibility that the authoritarian impulses so obvious from the incoming White House team may be echoed—and deepened—by our erstwhile allies.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Noticing Work (hat tip: TJ)

I try not to shop on holidays because I don’t think stores should open on those days and force their employees to come in, unless we’re talking about some absolute necessity—like movie theatres, for example. Yes, people like the convenience, and employees may like the extra holiday pay if that even still exists. We’re so used to being able to walk into supermarkets and chain stores at all hours that we tend not to think about the requirement that someone be standing there at all hours to serve us.

But in the atmosphere of open disdain for work and workers that has built up over recent decades and is about to be grostesquely exaggerated by the incoming regime, what might once have looked like an idiosyncracy now becomes a political act. The parade of squillionaires about to seize the reins of government promises to further impoverish average people who have no savings, no stock portfolios, no pension guarantees, and nothing but their labor to keep them afloat. Trump, who built a business empire by cheating banks and stiffing workers out of their pay, will usher in a glorification of stinginess and egocentrism and inaugurate a mass nose-rubbing of people of modest means by the delighted finance octupi with which he has surrounded himself.

Throughout the Clinton-Bush-Obama years, whole swaths of the populace saw their lives systematically destroyed by business-friendly “free trade” deals and were told basically to suck it up, that “the economy” was doing better than ever and if they weren’t, they should just get retrained—perhaps as an “associate” at Walmart. Disdain for the yacht-less didn’t originate with Trump, but it’s about to get a lot worse.

As an antidote, I plan to make a daily effort to express appreciation and respect for the everyday tasks by workers who are being put in the crosshairs of the GOP parasites who are determined to take away what little they have left and transfer it to their own and their cronies’ pockets. It’s a small thing, but not an insignificant one as we usher in the next Gilded Age.

Friday, 30 December 2016

Biped Twilight is back

I have decided to resuscitate Biped Twilight, my blog that began in 2007 and that I suspended eight years later due to declining readership. I have three reasons for giving it another shot:

(1) The dual shocks of Brexit and Trump have caused many people, who previously had not given much thought to my topics of interest, to take another look at them. For example, I have argued that the Trans Pacific Partnership, a “free-trade” debacle pushed by Obama and other corporate Democrats, was key to the loss of the four Rust Belt states to Trump, and I have been very surprised to discover that a lot of otherwise knowledgeable and informed people have no idea what I am talking about. Given the repudiation of the Clinton-Obama-Clinton strategy of the last eight or indeed 20 years, they may be interested in learning more and coming to their own conclusions.

(2) We hear a lot of talk about fighting back against the seamier aspects of Trumpism and the coming assault on what’s left of the New Deal safety net by rabid oligarchs. People are already demonstrating in the streets and vowing non-cooperation, all of which is laudable and reflects both generosity of spirit and a commitment to democratic and humane principles. However, clarity and a strategic vision are as important as good intentions. A lot of what I see and hear so far is leading us straight toward the re-election of Trump in 2020, and I would like to contribute something toward avoiding that unfavorable outcome.

(3) One possible aspect of the new authoritarian mood now let loose on the land is a crackdown on criticism and on critics. While I disagree with the facile leap toward parallels with Weimar or Pinochet, it seems to me that we easily could witness a sort of creeping authoritarianism along the lines of the Erdogan model in Turkey, combining legal harassment, demagogic attacks, and massive propaganda. This makes all forms of sustained public dissent more important.

My audience for these comments is limited: I have no interest in polemics with unrepentant neoliberals and/or Democrats incapable of facing the obvious catastrophic failure of their party as it steadily abandoned working people and crawled under the luxurious bedcovers of the 0.1%. Needless to say, I have never had much to say to or with corporate Republicans whose fetid odors I avoided as a Washington correspondent in the 1980s and see no reason to start now. That said, we are in the midst of a shake-up of political categories, so I anticipate finding common ground with people in unexpected areas. I invite thoughtful commentary and will cut off unpleasantness, for which I have less patience than ever.

As before, the aim of Biped Twilight is to chronicle the glorious and now accelerating decline of our blissfully self-annihilating species in the spirit of both compassion and marvel.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Why should reason prevail?

How does Obama get cooperation from the nutcase GOP Congress on an Iran deal that it has a priori denounced and promised to scuttle? The agreement hammered out after marathon negotiating in Switzerland is clearly in our national interest and will stave off further useless war-making in the Middle East. So what? Why would that matter to the ideological zealots who have convinced themselves that Obama is the antichrist, eager to toss poor, helpless Israel to the Iranian wolves?

Perhaps the sober heads who allegedly still roam the hallways of power in Washington will prevail and get this deal past those hankering for yet more war, preferably including Armageddon and the Rapture. (They leave out the conversion of the Jews and God’s wrath against those who refuse. But I digress.) The commentariat seems to think eventual Republican acquiescence to the deal is a likely outcome.

But unless I am missing something, the agreement to weaken Iran’s ability to break Israel’s nuclear monopoly stands an excellent chance of being sabotaged. The wacko wing trashed it before they knew what it said; it is no stretch to assume that they won’t like the fine print, either. Nonetheless, Obama seems to think that there is a group of sensible people hiding out in the shadows of the Republican clown tent. He’s governed since 2009 on that assumption and consistently behaves as though he has X-ray vision that enables him to see something in the unremittingly hostile and often bizarre behavior of his adversaries that the rest of us don’t.

The Iran agreement doesn’t really need congressional approval—it needs Benjamin Netanyahu’s, as he amply demonstrated in his recent visit to dictate U.S. foreign policy to us. But while Netanyahu immediately declared that he has no intention of giving it, Obama continues to appeal to something called reason. He refuses to contemplate the possibility that he presides over a society that is demented.

“If Congress kills this deal,” said the prez, “not based on expert analysis, and without offering any reasonable alternative, then it’s the United States that will be blamed for the failure of diplomacy.” Show me where the Republican leadership or Fox News has indicated that it cares about that?

“Do you really think that this verifiable deal,” Obama continued, “if fully implemented, backed the world’s major powers, is a worse option than the risk of another war in the Middle East?” Worse for whom? If I’m an arms manufacturer in a red district slobbering over the possibility of another cool billion in sales once new hostilities are launched, the question answers itself. Obama’s rhetoric presumes that his enemies are thinking about the nation’s wellbeing rather than their immediate profits. Where’s the evidence for that?

Obama is reaping the outcome of his constant pandering to the people who wish he were dead. He swept into office with a huge mandate and a crushing congressional majority and briefly wielded enormous power to ignore the wackos and mobilize support for a more reasonable domestic and foreign policy, to stop the looting by the financier class and face down the warmongers who had just delivered us the Iraq debacle.

Instead he sat down determined to be BFFs with the people we had just repudiated and who openly vowed to annihilate him. He first empowered the banker class by letting them off the hook for the financial debacle instead of prosecuting their myriad, easily provable frauds. Then he buckled to the militarists and the snoopocracy while cracking down on reporters who dared to uncover their crimes.

They rewarded his friendly gestures by boycotting the weak-tea program he had designed to please them. Meanwhile, his inability or unwillingness to satisfy the needs of his own base led to mass indifference to the fate of his Democrats, who promptly sank out of sight in 2010 and again in 2014. GOP obstructionism has been wildly successful—why stop now?

Obama still acts as though he is living in some sort of Wilsonian age where bipartisan agreement in the national interest will prevail. Nothing we have seen this year, or in the decade to date, provides a scrap of evidence that that is the case. He has weakened the forces that might have stood up for this reasonable solution to yet another zone of tension in an increasingly violent and appalling world. I wish him luck, not that he cares about my opinion.

After the disgrace of the failed Iraq conquest and despite the voters’ eagerness for attention to domestic ills, the war camp is back in charge. The rhetoric coming out of Congress is so furious and the Israeli poison so profound throughout our governing classes that Obama needs something more than being right to counteract it. He has to go over the nutballs’ heads and appeal to the people’s desire for peace and prosperity. But Obama has never done that in the past and isn’t likely to start now. He governs through the elites and refuses to believe that a very substantial portion of it prefers to damage the country than allow him to record a success.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Netanyahu defeat only a breather

Eric Foner’s third course on the American Civil War is airing now on EdX, the MOOC channel. He tells this anecdote in one of the recent lectures on long-standing American attitudes toward post-war Reconstruction, molded by popular culture such as the films Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind and reinforced by racist historians headquartered at Foner’s own (and mine) Columbia University:

Allen Dulles, later the head of the CIA after World War II, was a diplomat in Germany when Hitler came to power. What does this have to do with Reconstruction? Well, he went to see Hitler in 1933. And Hitler started complaining about Germany’s plight under the Treaty of Versailles that ended the First World War and imposed all these penalties and financial burdens on Germany. And Hitler said to Allen Dulles, “How would Americans have felt after the Civil War if the North had made the southern states sign a treaty keeping them in subjugation?”

Well, without fear of exaggeration, Dulles replied, “In fact, the way the North treated the South after the Civil War was far worse than anything France had done to Germany. The North even installed former slaves as judges.” Hitler was astonished. Black judges? He admitted the South was treated worse than Germany.

If Netanyahu loses today’s Israeli elections, we’ll hear from a lot of well-meaning, na├»ve commentators who will hail a new day in the intractable situation there. They will spill much ink to tell us that the reasonable people now have come into office in Israel who will promptly prepare a cozy solution for all.

Foner’s tale is a sobering rebuttal to that fantasy. He reminds us that racist attitudes, once installed, are far deeper and more resistant to change than anyone can imagine. We are amazed in retrospect at how white Southerners went nuts over desegregation during the 1950s and ‘60s, but we forget the corollary: that without federal intervention the civil rights movement didn’t stand a chance. We read about the beatings of freedom riders in the Hattiesburg, Mississippi, bus station, but without phone calls to Wallace from Kennedy and later pressure from LBJ the white vigilantes would have slaughtered them outright.

Entire generations of Israelis have been raised to dismiss the concerns of the Palestinian minority, and a vast bloc of outright racists has been empowered by the legal apartheid of the last 60 years. So a temporary rejection of the worst extremes of rhetoric and behavior that embarrass Israel internationally doesn’t mean much. Israeli liberals will continue to blink at the relentless abuse of stateless Palestinians by zionist klansmen in the occupied territories until external forces call a halt.

Today’s election may bring a temporary respite from the region’s march to catastrophe and retire a particularly heinous representative of Middle Eastern racism. But only the U.S. and its European allies can reverse the trend, and without greater pressure domestically they won’t rock the boat.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Loyalty and betrayal

I was rereading Greg Palast’s “Bailout Bonanza” this week to recall the details of how Mitt and Ann Romney made millions on the General Motors “bailout” engineered during the first Obama Administration. Palast relates how the Romneys partnered with the notorious Paul “Vulture Fund” Singer and other financier sharpies to strip and deunionize the auto company’s parts supplier, Delphi, such that it now employs 100,000 Chinese (no doubt miserably) but only 5,000 Americans. One of their hedge fund squillionaire buddies, Daniel Loeb, crowed after the deal that his newly acquired stake in the company was a great coup because it now had ”virtually no North American unionized labor” and “significantly smaller pension liabilities,” as the hedges had jettisoned those responsibilities as part of the bailout arrangements.

This story provides important perspective on the accusations of “treason” that have enlivened our current political season, most recently those aimed at Republicans for trying to become penpals with the Iranian ayatollahs. Meanwhile, to call Obama a “traitor” has been a staple of GOP and Tea Party rhetoric since he took office—a Google search of the word pops up Obama’s photo more than Kim Philby’s.

But although the GOP love-note to Khameini is an Onion-worthy moment, to be sure, betrayal of the nation isn’t really out of character for the bulk of our rulers, despite their nonstop rhetoric of patriotism. That is, if we understand love of one’s country as a refusal to turn one’s back on it for personal gain.

We presume a basic loyalty to our immediate relatives, our society and the polity that governs it as a fundamental human virtue, an expression of gratitude and loyalty to what gave us life. The Latin root for “nation” is nascere, “to be born”; we are a nation because we share a “motherland.” In short, we feel affinity with and owe something to others who were born in the same place.

So do we? Should we? Perhaps like religion, how we understand these concepts is best left to the private sphere. In any case, the desire to contribute to the wellbeing of our place of birth and citizenship is certainly a laudable sentiment, but our governing class cannot be said to harbor much of it. As Palast describes in gruesome detail in the GM/Delphi case, Republicans and Democrats both have eagerly dismantled the country’s industrial base and shipped our citizens’ jobs to the four corners of the earth. The beneficiaries, along with themselves, have been regimes that crush their own workers to generate succulent profits for the deracinated, international owning class.

So Obama, Biden and Hillary C can rend their garments all they want about the GOP’s attempted seduction of a turbaned cleric. Republicans and their indignant bubba supporters can wail and stamp their feet over Obama’s daring to occupy the White House as a resident instead of a bartender. But they all have long betrayed the interests of the people who actually inhabit the country that bore and bred them. Despite the talk about patriotism and the fetish of American flag pins, these squabbling elitists are not true nationalists. They have no loyalty to the human polity that gave them birth as they continue to sell out working people of all nationalities for their own gain.