Thursday, 15 October 2020

The King is (or will be) dead; Vive le Roi!


Trump has outlived his usefulness, will be jettisoned

The plutocrats have amassed such vast wealth and such a tight grip on all the levers of power and influence that they need not jimmy the electoral college again to shoehorn Donald Trump into a second term. Had they been facing the prospect of, say, a Bernie Sanders presidency, the calculus would have been quite different. But with a lifelong defender of elites standing by promising to do essentially nothing once Trump goes, they can watch benignly while the Donald blows up his campaign and himself; they can welcome the Blues, count their fresh billions, and start the process of wiping their fingerprints off the weird Trumpian interregnum. The next period will be for consolidation.

The insanely rich must have been just as surprised as the rest of us at Trump’s bizarre march to the White House, but he offered them a chance to loot the nation’s wealth unparalleled in history and probably even in their wildest imaginations. Corruption and self-dealing are not just permitted during Trump’s pathetic reign; it is state policy. Taxes were long ago dismissed with a sneer. Environmental protections have been gutted; regulatory restraints are smashed far beyond even what Reagan and the Bush duo engineered. Financial manipulation, stock-price inflation, private equity looting, pension theft, contracting boondoggles—everything was and is there for the taking as long as you’re clever enough to make sure a Trump relative or surrogate is riding along on the gravy train. Anyone unable to salt away a sweet fortune under these conditions just doesn’t have the heart of an oligarch.

Trump’s smash-and-grab style was certainly nontraditional and probably, for some of the classier crooks and war criminals, distasteful. But it was deadly effective, and business is business (Meyer Lansky). The Democrats largely stuck to their assigned role of staged indignation and outrage calibrated to always fall short of effective resistance, except when Trump proved unenthusiastic about aggressive posturing for future wars. Much has been written about Trump’s eager packing of the federal courts with ideological hatchet men (long before the latest Supreme Court drama) though considerably less about Chuck Schumer’s complicity in facilitating it. Trump does the dirty work; the Democrats collude and avoid blame.

The incoming Democrats can spend at least one full presidential term pretending to repair the damage and wishing upon a star for the bipartisanship unicorn to reappear. A lot of anticipatory articles are couched in the language of restoration along the lines of, “Will a Biden Administration be able to repair the damage to [fill in the blank]?” This rhetorical construction assumes they actually want to, a fact not in evidence. Look no further than the campaign ads put out by our local Blue Dog Democrat, Max Rose, who urges his Staten Island neighbors to vote for him because he “supports Trump” and hates the city’s (Democrat) mayor. Rose’s campaign chest is bursting with $5.7 million, 70% of it from “large individual contributions.” Cue Nancy Pelosi telling us next January that her new majority backed by a Democrat president can’t possibly do very much because of foot-dragging by members like Rose, eagerly promoted by the corporate Democrat mainstream. 


Electoral fiddle-faddle at home and abroad

Though Biden’s accelerating lead may preclude any election night funny business, Trump is obviously capable of declaring himself the winner and setting loose a horde of lawyers to block the counting of mailed-in ballots likely to favor Democrats. There are certainly precedents. For example, back in January (yes, this year, though it feels like a century ago) try if you can to remember that there was a primary race among a slew of Democrat candidates for president. One of them had a slight lead just as the fancy new Iowa Democratic party-financed app broke down in mid-count; he declared himself the winner. Turned out that Sanders had actually won more votes, but that crucial next-day headline awarded the win to Mayor Pete Buttigieg who took advantage of the completely coincidental snafu. The Bernie-block favor surely merits Mayor B a cabinet post in a Biden Administration. 

Of course, that was just an early fight over front-runner status in a primary, but what about a contest where actual state power is at stake? We have another recent example that Trump could imitate, the intervention of the Organization of American States almost exactly one year ago to declare Bolivia’s presidential vote count suspicious and spark the coup d’état that ousted Evo Morales from the presidency and the country. The OAS, with a U.S.-friendly diplomat at the helm, jumped the gun as the pro-Morales vote trickled in from districts where he was stronger, calling it vote manipulation when it was probably simple voter dynamics. The country has been ruled by a fanatical Christian autocrat ever since who has conveniently flipped Bolivia's foreign policy positions to great satisfaction in D.C. 

What goes around, comes around. Americans shouldn’t be surprised if Trump sees how the U.S. jiggers elections overseas and decides to try the same here at home.


“America is not a democracy.”

Thanks to Utah Sen. Mike Lee for saying the nasty part out loud. Of course, people who had that illusion should get out more—what part of the electoral college, statehouse gerrymandering, voter suppression, and mass bribery in the legislative process did you not notice earlier? Not to mention slavery, Jim Crow, and the last 40 years of Republicrat cooperation to ship our industrial base to China and leave Youngstown an Amazon warehouse and a supply of oxy.

The Trump gang has done us a huge favor by ripping off the fig leaf that has lightly covered the unlovely junk of modern financier capitalism, the profoundly undemocratic system now fully installed and dominating our Second Gilded Age. As Lee tweeted, “rank” democracy can thwart what he calls our shared objectives: “liberty, peace, and prospefity [sic].” All those smelly citizens just don’t understand how lucky they are as we march steadily toward ever more prospefity, defined among Lee’s GOP mates as “more wheelbarrows full of cash for us and our friends.” The rest of you can piss off up a rope and die of starvation (or Covid). Installing the Conehead woman on the Supreme Court is of a piece: they don’t even pretend to care that she represents nothing but their narrow class interests.


Hunter Biden’s emails 

The entire liberal-ish media universe has its collective BVDs in a major knot over whether anyone should breath a word about this story of Biden fils and his shenaningans in Ukrainian fossil fuels, given their suddenly high evidentiary reporting standards. This is the same passel of Beltway ho’s who have pumped up every fact-free accusation emanating from the security apparatus from the pee tape to the bogus Novichok poisonings and the Russian bounty for killing innocent Americans wearing military uniforms in a foreign country. Whispered rumors from “intelligence officials” get blown all over the front pages, but possible dirt on the anointed candidate’s family is suddenly off limits. Then again, what possible journalistic protocol could matter to a political system that impeached Donald Trump for allegedly bribing the Ukrainian government for policy favors while ignoring Biden’s proud public statements that he did the same? The only difference is that Biden got what he wanted, and Trump didn’t. 

Thursday, 1 October 2020

The Last Days (previews)


Dictated directly from my informants in The Beyond: 

Oct. 1 Both the Biden and Trump camps declare a crushing victory in the Sept. 29 debate. Reporters find voters in Utah, North Carolina, and Texas whose preferences were swayed during the event; two of the three promptly fall back into comas.

Oct. 2 Mitch McConnell shepherds Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett through the Capitol building in an attempt to meet with Democratic senators. A poorly dressed middle-aged woman resembling Chuck Schumer is seen ducking into the pages’ locker room.

Oct. 3 HHS Secretary Alex Azar appoints new communications staff with sweeping powers over all public statements from the CDC, the FDA, the NIH, the Indian Health Service, the Agency for Toxic Substances, and the Administration for Community Living. QAnon websites go dark; searchers are redirected to <>.

Oct. 4 CDC chief Robert Redfield testifies at a House subcommittee on guidelines for the reopening of daycare centers; next door, an 8-member Supreme Court upholds a South Carolina state law prohibiting childcare by unrelated adults.

Oct. 5 A $1.2 billion no-bid COVID contract comes to light when a convoy of Chinese container ships carrying masks, gowns and plastic shields creates a bottleneck in the Cayman Islands’ territorial waters, headquarters of a logistics firm “owned” by a newsstand vendor in Latvia. Island officials row out to inform the Chinese captains that the purchasing company is actually a post office box.

Oct. 6 Georgia residents receive a mass mailing instructing them to be sure to vote on Nov. 4. Some are puzzled that the election had been changed to a Wednesday.

Oct. 7 Education Secretary Betsy de Ville Vos issues a nationwide New Common Core curriculum for all K-6 students with lessons on “lesser-known Americans,” including Andrew Mellon, Charles Ponzi, and Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Oct. 8 The Ohio legislature passes a law closing all state polling places at 2:30 p.m., except in rural counties “where the farmers need extra time.” The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia agrees to hear arguments on a motion to halt enactment of the measure.

Oct. 9 Several members of the DC court mysteriously fail to arrive at their chambers. A Proud Bois Instagram account contains an obscure allusion to “study tours” of the Philippine legal system. Maine senator Susan Collins calls the absences “puzzling.”

Oct. 10 GOP-controlled Senate convenes a lightning session to confirm 12 Senior Fellows of the Federalist Society to fill unexpected vacancies on the DC Court of Appeals. A vote is scheduled for the afternoon.

Oct. 11 President Trump announces a breakthrough vaccine that will prevent Coronavirus infection, boost liver enzymes, and cure scabies. All Federal employees will be given the injection “unless they are Deep State saboteurs trying to undermine our brilliant scientists.” Government workers break into the embassy of Azerbaijan and request asylum.

Oct. 12 Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski asks the Federal Judicial Police to open an investigation into the disappearance of appeals court justices but says she will vote to confirm the president’s replacement nominees. “The sanctity of our judicial system must be preserved,” she says.

Oct. 13 Trump orders the Federal Judicial Police to ignore Murkowski’s request. “Some of these guys were so old they probably wandered off.” Open-carry supporters arrive en masse at Murkowski’s office in Anchorage to remind her of their Second Amendment rights.

Oct. 14 Joe Biden comments on the Appeals court disappearances. “I call on my Republican colleagues to do the right thing and help us look for these guys,” he says. “They can’t have gone far.”

Oct. 15 Absentee voters in Iowa receive ballots accidentally saran-wrapped with Trump campaign literature. Officials blame a glitch by an out-of-state vendor. Reporters find the beneficial owner to be the same newsstand vendor in Latvia who ordered 8 million face masks. Helmuts Blovanis says (through an interpreter) “I just signed for a registered letter, and then all these people started calling me. Where is High-owa?”

More urgent messages to follow! 

Tuesday, 22 September 2020

The Facts, Ma'am, just The Facts


Trump, despite or rather because he has made bullshitting a high art, retains his loyal following, a source of baffled amazement for many of us. The half of the country that is trying to capitalize on his steadily sinking credibility remains somewhat on the back foot, struggling to combat his unusual redefinition of how politics works. But some of those prominent figures who purport to break through the fog machine he quite adeptly creates actually mirror him instead.  

One of these unhelpful reactions is the now-familiar appeal to “The Science,” that plea to return to the realm of rationality, of respect for facts found somewhere other than a Redditt thread or under Alex Jones’s toupee. Trump destabilizes this anti-posture precisely because he’s a bullshitter, not (or as well as) a liar. He riffs; he puts together a narrative thread for his fans who can’t be dissuaded with contrary evidence because his version is more fun. As Harry Frankfurt famously explained in his classic essay “On Bullshit,” the liar “cares about the truth and attempts to hide it; the bullshitter doesn't care if what they say is true or false.” Frankfurt says the bullshitter’s goal is that the listener be persuaded, but in this case I think “vindicated, empowered, gratified, and entertained” is more accurate.

Trump doesn’t tussle over details but rather stories, over who has the more satisfying narrative. His opponents think they should win because their tales are more elegant and stick to traditional rules. As a result, Biden’s rebuttals and appeals to expertise sound buttoned-down and elitist—an immediate fail. Biden, like so many anti-Trumps, shows up to a wrestling match in a fencing suit. But he and the mainstream opposition to Trump are also peddling narrative.

Take the relentless, bogus talk about “the” science related to COVID—as if there were only one. Yes, there is a scientific approach, there is dispassionate examination of evidence, there is prudent restraint from wild assertions and wishful thinking—all of which Trump violates with deadly consequences.

But there is also nuance and doubt, and the pious reverence for “the” science emanating from Trump’s detractors supposes cozy uniformity of opinion about what we know at any moment and what we should then do as a result. That’s also fantasy thinking and a cuddly narrative that people have good reason to question.

The whiplash of changing assumptions and beliefs about SARS-CoV-2 pathogenesis, transmission, treatment, prophylaxis, and sequelae should serve as a caution against overconfidence, even for those capable of plowing through an article in JAMA. We know or think we know a few things, and we keep getting what we thought we knew updated or tossed out by new knowledge, which is as it should be. “The” science changes, so it’s not a “the.”

Furthermore, worship of "the science" encourages amnesia about how much science-sounding stuff has been massaged to death by our pharmaceutical narco-traffickers, resulting in mass over-medication (sometimes poisoning) of the populace. This entire field is plagued by publication bias, which is the tendency of companies desperately trying to find evidence that their drugs work only to publish study results that say so while suppressing all others. That means that a dozen studies that the public never sees might show that a medication is a turkey, but the drug companies can still publish two that make it look good and sail through the approval process. The result is all those TV ads we’re assaulted with daily that encourage people to rush to their docs and demand colored pills. And it’s all based on “the science.”

Aside from selective publication, there is built-in distortion in the whole system of clinical testing for the lucrative pharmaceutical industry. As Johann Hari tells this story in his book Lost Connections about antidepressants:

[Dr.] Peter [Kramer of Brown University] went to watch some clinical trials being conducted. It’s pretty difficult for [drug companies] to find anyone who will take part, so they often turn to quite desperate people, and they have to offer other things to tempt them. Peter watched as poor people were bused in from across the city to be offered a gorgeous buffet of care they’d never normally receive at home—therapy, a whole community of people who’d listen to them, a warm place to be during the day, medication, and money that could double their poverty-level income.

As he watched this, he was struck by something. The people who turn up at this center have a strong incentive to pretend to have any condition they happen to be studying there—and the for-profit companies conducting the clinical trials have a strong incentive to pretend to believe them. . . . Peter concluded that the results from clinical trials of antidepressants—all the data we have—are meaningless.

Trump drives a truck through scholarly inquiry, but it is a wall with serious structural weaknesses that the mass of citizens, exposed to those relentlessly manipulative drug ads, must intuitively see through. We all should have developed by now a strong suspicion that a lot of “the science” is a pile of crap.

Of course, Trump’s camp followers do excel at credulousness and willingness to swallow ever-taller tales. QAnon conspiracies (which I hope not to have to learn more about) fit the Trumpian worldview for their gamey hilarity and seem to encourage vigilante violence to boot. At the same time, when photos circulate of Bill Clinton, Trump, and other celebrities partying with Jeffrey Epstein, is it really crazy to believe in a secret cabal of powerful pedophiles? Granted, thinking that it operates from the back room of a pizza parlor rather than a private island in the Caribbean does merit at least one wackadoodle icon.

But do Trump’s detractors escape the cray-cray they find so appalling? Dismayed head-shaking about the gullibility of the great Unlettered pulsates from a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, which solemnly reports on a series of books on “disinformation,” “political warfare,” and “troll armies, junk news, and deceitful robots.” Author Jonathan Freedland laments that “our information supply is being deliberately, constantly, and severely contaminated.”

The “most vivid example” of this nefarious tendency, says Freedland, is “the intervention by Russian intelligence in the US presidential election of 2016, in which 126 million Americans saw Facebook material generated and paid for by the Kremlin.” This single sentence of Freedman’s contains two falsehoods, a striking performance in an article about the “contamination” of what the facts we’re being given.

It’s tiresome to have to re-debunk these pearls of contemporary liberal wisdom about how the evil Russkies destroyed Hillary, but here goes. The alleged 126 million Americans who “saw” the Russia-generated Facebook posts is an estimate based on a FB employee’s testimony to Congress in 2017 that that number may have been served one or more of the IRA stories at some time during the two-year period between 2015 and 2017. That means that while reviewing something like 23,000 pieces of content on your FB feed over 24 months, you might have seen one post (1, uno) that originated from the Russian commercial outfit at some point a year before the presidential election campaign began. Wow, we are Americans easily swayed! 

And what might that content have been? “The IRA’s most shared pre-election Facebook post was a cartoon of a gun-wielding Yosemite Sam.” Another featured an offer to “like” a photo of Jesus. But the entire blue-team universe indignant with Trump’s yahoo fans remains convinced that this inept campaign by a Moscow ad farm was actually Vlad the Great’s skillful scheme to shoehorn Donald Trump into the Oval Office. Slightly wacky, perhaps?

Yes, the Russian ad agency IRA spent around $75,000 to post this and other goofy click-bait material on social media while Hillary Clinton flushed a cool billion down the toilet instead of visiting the black areas of Detroit and Flint, Michigan, where voting participation rates dropped precipitously. But tsk tsk, everyone “just knows” that the Russians made Trump president, just like everyone else “just knows” Barack Obama is actually Kenyan.

Freedland also regurgitates that fact-free assumption that the Wikileaks publications of DNC emails were leaked via Russian hackers to Julian Assange. This conspiracy theory has been so thoroughly undermined by actual facts that it’s pointless to repeat them. Here’s one of a dozen of correctives, which those wedded to the Freedland worldview will carefully avoid since it smashes their comfy narrative to bits.

Freedland’s assertions are presented with supreme confidence and obviously passed fact-checker/proofreading review at perhaps New York’s premier journal of liberal sophistication. They are demonstrably false, but more fun than remembering that Hillary blew it because her campaign sucked.

More to the point, however, is Freedland’s defense of what one of his reviewed authors calls the “liberal epistemic order, or a political system that places its trust in essential custodians of factual authority.” These (essential! like essential workers!) custodians include “science, the academy, journalism, public administration, and the justice system.” And there we have it: Freedland just named all his friends and peers in the upper reaches of the intellectual elite and exposed his narrative for what it really is: a defense of his class. 

That is the Achilles heel of the drumbeat of sneering contempt for the unwashed yokels who buy into Trump’s three-ring circus: you are losers, they are saying, not smart enough to get where we are, the big guys with the big jobs. I have no doubt that Trump’s loyal fanbase hears Freedland loud and clear and can’t wait to give him and his A-list clique a big fat middle finger on Nov. 3.

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P.S. Freedland is a Guardian columnist who was instrumental in taking down Jeremy Corbyn with the Labour-is-antisemitic campaign. Once the damage was done, Freedland apologized for making a “very bad error” in falsely reporting that a Labour parliamentary candidate had been fined for making antisemitic remarks on Facebook. But that was just a mistake based on a tendentious, anonymous insider tip, not “contamination of our information supply.”

Tuesday, 8 September 2020

Stop feeding the orange ego

Matt Taibbi had an insightful essay last week, “The Trump Era Sucks and Needs to Be Over.” The title is unremarkable, but the brilliant subhead—“Is America sure it's ready to give up its addiction to crazy?”—nailed something that has been bothering me. Taibbi’s thesis is that those of us appalled by Trump can’t stop handing him our attention:
His schtick is to provoke rivals to the point where they drop what they’re doing and spend their time screaming at him, which from the jump validates the primary tenet of his worldview, i.e. that everything is about him. Political opponents seem incapable of not handing him free advertising. They say his name on TV thousands of times a day, put his name on bumper stickers to be paraded before new demographics (e.g. “BERNIE BEATS TRUMP”), and then keep talking about him even off duty, at office parties, family dinners, kids’ sports events, everywhere, which sooner or later gets people wondering: who’s more annoying, the blowhard, or the people who can’t stop talking about the blowhard?
Biden’s candidacy is the ne plus ultra of this approach because Biden represents nothing so much as the not-Trump. If there were such a thing as a Biden rally today, who would take the trouble to go? What would motivate you? Would you say to yourself, “I can’t wait to go out and not see Donald Trump!” Biden has explicitly promised NOT to provide Medicare for All, NOT to alleviate student debt, NOT to reverse the crazily skewed income distribution aggravated by both parties over the last 40 years. Can anyone name an attractive policy innovation that the Biden campaign represents? Being nice while in office? 

The only thing Biden & Co. seem positively committed to is jacking up tensions with Russia and China even further. Maybe he should call a war mobilization rally—except that not even active-duty military personnel would attend it. 

The obsessive revulsion over Trump by the antis goes a long way toward explaining the eerie hold he exercises over his cult followers. Every furious anti-Trump meme confirms their deep resentment of the people their side designates as the enemy—liberals, non-white people, immigrants, transgender bathroom users, etc. As a result the actual policies Trump promotes, which harm his own followers along with everyone else, are shunted into near oblivion. When I read Facebook exchanges among Trump-lovers, a huge portion is dedicated to putting a rhetorical thumb in the faces of his alleged enemies. The two sides reflect and energize each other. 

Our politics is thus reduced to a theological dispute such as those that stir rival Hasidic communes or the weird tragicomedy of the wars of the Nestorian heresy when opposing 5th-century Christians drew their battle axes over whether Jesus embodied both human and divine natures in his holy person or just one or other of the two. This seems hardly a pressing issue in retrospect, but Europe was plagued with religious wars for decades over less. Soccer rivalries and Superbowl madness belong to the same category of furiously mindless opposing dualities that thrive on elegant fictions, the fiction in this case being that our underlying interests as human beings are in violent contradiction. They aren’t—unless you’re Jeff Bezos. 

This fight over gauzy nothingness masks the even more telling weakness in the tribe vs. tribe election that approaches: the Democrats’ critique of Trump’s reign ignores the vast panorama of his multiple assaults on the public welfare in favor of silliness, irrelevancy, and arcane insider baseball. Take the impeachment proceedings that were supposed to end the Trumpian nightmare—it was such a robust failure that no one even dared to mention it at the Democratic National Convention. (Nor did the Republicans breathe a word about the hated “Obamacare” act they pretend to reverse.) 

Or consider the nearly three years of breathless tail-chasing over Russiagate in which evil Vlad the Enabler allegedly undermined Hillary Clinton’s genius presidential campaign. “QAnon for Liberals,” is the fairest subtitle this exercise in mass hypnosis merits as the Mueller investigation to this day has not unearthed evidence of such attempted interference. But respectable mainstream publications continue to flog it anyway while pointing the finger at the yahoos and dupes who swallow conspiratorial ravings from Rush Limbaugh. 

These lame-ass fantasies are preferred by the Democrat mainstream over pounding away at Trump on, for example, tax giveaways to the Scrooge McDuckian plutocracy, the destruction of environmental protections that will result in more cancer for your grandchildren, his grotesque and blatant family corruption, the GOP’s blithe indifference to climate destruction, and on and on. Democrats can’t touch Trump on these issues because they are deeply complicit with them and beholden to the same economic interests that benefit from Trump’s betrayal of the commonweal. 

 As the November race tightens, and Biden’s free ride comes to an end, his handlers better shift gears and decide that it’s time to stop energizing Trump’s base with attacks narrowed to his disagreeable person and start offering a vision of something new. Maybe we can break the addiction by admitting we are powerless over what an asshole Donald Trump is, which as any veteran of recovery can tell you, keeps the focus on him—and with it, the control.

Monday, 31 August 2020

The long view

Presidential candidates always get a boost from a week in the limelight at their nominating conventions and the non-stop worship of their distinguished persons from a streaming claque of boosters. Therefore, it’s no surprise that Trump’s political stock is perking up from its persistent doldrums, a trend that is striking anguish into the hearts of many distressed citizens. That patriotic glow eerily lighting up Trump’s face, engineered by his shameless hijacking of the White House for his partisan aims, may fade in a few days. On the other hand, given the remarkably suicidal hero-worship Trump elicits from his thoroughly tribalized minions, it may not. The implosion of Trumpism is inevitable; whether or not it occurs by Nov. 3 remains to be seen.

But if we cast a dispassionate eye over the upheavals of the modern era, say the last few hundred years, a triumph of one or another faction that looks overwhelming in the moment often turns out to be fleeting. For example, I’ve been learning about the provocatively instructive year of 1830 in France. After the trauma of the 1789 Revolution and the Terror, followed by 20 years of continental warfare that finally concluded at Waterloo, the restored Bourbons thought they had things pretty well in hand. Louis XVIII, a modestly enlightened monarch, followed by his reactionary absolutist brother, Charles X, reigned as in the old days: the nobles occupied their estates (although not always the same ones they’d lost), and the peasants and urban underlings had to put up with them. Fifteen years went by, and the revolutionary fervor seemed a distant memory.

But the 1820s were not the 1780s. The urban liberals and mercantilist bourgeoisie chafed under an anachronistic regime transplanted from the era of agrarian feudalism. Charles X, sure that he was boss for life, overplayed his hand, provoked the July 1830 revolution, and suddenly found himself boarding a ship for exile. And that was merely one more chapter in the topsy-turvy and often murderous battle of wills and interests among the various sectors of French and European society.

We Americans tend to think we’ve escaped all that, at least since the Civil War days, and to a large extent we have. There are movements and tendencies, waves of support for a variety of causes, reforms and rollbacks, and sometimes ugly incidents seasoned with random violence and the firing of weapons. But the underpinnings of our polity, the grinding monotony of our reliably duopolous structure of government, has undergone no serious challenge in 150-plus years.

That may change. There’s no telling what the cult now surrounding Trump will do, having long abandoned any pretense of trying to represent the majority of the nation (as opposed to the majority of white people). Trump’s stoking of racial divisions is playing with fire in a gunpowder factory. We gaze fondly on the era of Martin Luther King, Jr., (whom Trump & Co. love to quote), which now reassuringly looks like a troubled time with a happy ending, a civil rights bill, black faces on TV and in the movies (not just as maids), and the consignment of “colored” drinking fountains to history museums.

But there is an important difference between the mid-20th century and our times: in the 1960s modern industrial capitalism could credibly promise to fulfill most people’s needs most of the time. Its current replacement, the dictatorship of the rentier class, cannot. In recent weeks both the London stock exchange and its U.S. counterpart have scaled record heights at the precise moment in which unemployment in both countries reached similarly record levels and economic activity plummeted by unheard-of percentages. Financial assets are now completely decoupled from the real economy; zombie corporations deep in insolvency abound, fed by never-ending Ponzi streams of cash from the Fed.

As competition in key sectors is crushed by gigantism, the presumptions of “market equilibrium” lose all meaning, except as religious tenets deployed to legitimize ever more thorough looting by the financiers and their Beltway toadies. Amazon bleeds and destroys all commercial activity not feeding its bottomless money pit as Bezos’s ballooning fortune exceeds most countries’ GNP. Private equity seizes viable concerns, strips their assets in ways that would make Tony Soprano envious, and tosses the eviscerated shell onto the corporate scrap heap along with its workers. Trillions in illicit loot are squirreled away through “offshore” computer trickery.

Post-capitalist rentier exploitation is so dominant that the system is unable to achieve “price discovery” whereby market forces set reality-based values on financial assets, and its ever-tinier set of plutocrat puppeteers is uninterested in channeling capital toward productive capacity as the real money is to be made in hyper-leveraged arbitrage and other manipulations of computer keystrokes. The official economists no longer even bother to perform hypocritical nods toward providing employment as a policy goal and now openly encourage “essential” workers to march obediently to their deaths in service to an economy that can get by with fewer and fewer of them. Unproductive grandmas are told to take one for Team Youth, and destitute families facing eviction and hunger are forced to wait while Congress goes on holiday.

In short, the Trump cult is a perfect example of what one astute observer of his times termed the “great variety of morbid symptoms” that appear during the interregnum when old systems enter into terminal decline and their replacement remains invisible. In our case, the morbid symptoms proliferate in plain view, many of them quite alarming given their potential to produce harm. But while trying to stay out of the line of fire, much of the disturbing madness is merely the manifest death throes of decadence rather than a permanent new feature of our landscape. It’s at times like these when we need the long view.

It would be foolhardy to predict how all this will play out and simple-minded to think that an election will do much to right the ship of state aside from bringing a brief moment of existential relief. I for one remain uncharacteristically optimistic, even in the face a renewed mandate for Trump, unlikely though that seems. I’m old enough to remember Richard Nixon sweeping to a 49-state reelection in 1972 and forced out of the White House two years later. Neither Trump nor Biden can resist the pressures bubbling up from below; those forces are the architects of our future, not the clapped-out figures that dominate our rickety state.

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Monday, 24 August 2020

Weaponizing sex

Or more precisely, weaponizing sexual harassment, coercion, aggression, and violence: largely, a good thing. Our culture has changed its view of these behaviors, recognizing some that used to be thought cute or harmless, criminalizing others that once escaped that category. Women, and men for that matter, now have greater opportunities for bodily autonomy and safety, freedom of decision, and the chance, albeit imperfect, to pursue the right to be left alone.

And yet, our notoriously sexophobic culture can turn sexual misconduct into a selective weapon, just as corruption—undeniably a social ill in itself—is easily incorporated into the tyrant’s arsenal to consolidate autocratic power. (Recall the child-sex-ring debacle of the late 1980s—now revived as QAnon—that led to many horrific imprisonments of innocent daycare workers.)

Anita Hill educated America about how sexual harassers abuse and constrain women as workers; it is one of the age’s great ironies that a principal engineer of the backlash against Hill is now the champion of millions of women eager to see the back of the pussy-grabber-in-chief. Clarence Thomas still occupies the Supreme Court bench that Joe Biden ushered him into. The felling of an Epstein or a Weinstein remains an unusual denouement while most abuse escapes punishment.

While it is healthy that people sometimes now dare to denounce outrages against the body, we should keep in view the great utility accusations related to sex have had historically for the powerful. Some barely reach our consciousness: the Malaysian regime deployed rape accusations in 1998 against Anwar Ibrahim, [above right] a deputy prime minister, leading to a lengthy imprisonment, convenient for his political enemies. Ibrahim’s ordeal was further complicated by the fact that his accuser was a man in a country where any homosexual acts were illegal.

That was far away, but closer to home we have the sexual misconduct (consistently headlined as “rape”) allegations against Julian Assange, exploited by the security states of the U.S. and U.K. to get him into prison. Having weaponized his behavior, the furious spy agencies now have Assange in solitary and facing life in prison in the U.S. for the crime of embarrassing and exposing them.

A more obscure weaponization of sexual harassment claims also comes from the U.K., where former first minister Alex Salmond was framed by his rivals in the Scottish National Party with a bevy of anonymous testifiers to his alleged groping and sexual assault [see photo above]. Salmond faced 13 separate charges—he was acquitted on each one. The court awarded Salmond 512,000 pounds in legal costs from the Scottish Government over their botched fishing expedition, termed “unlawful, unfair and tainted by apparent bias.” Sounds a bit fishy, no?

But the British legal system grants excessive protections to accusers in cases like these, enabling the tabloid press to splash for weeks lurid headlines, like the one shown at the top, while Salmond’s defense was hogtied and unable to counter the accusatory narrative. Although the case collapsed ignominiously, the tabloids never undid the damage inflicted by their salacious tales, which linger in the public mind and no doubt put an end to Salmond’s political career. A cynic might observe that Salmond’s opposition to foreign adventures such as the Iraq invasion may have put him in severe disfavor with the intelligence/weapons lobby, but we don’t know if they had a hand in all this. If we find out in 10 years that they did, it won’t matter. The accusations have done their job.

Furthermore, the judicial persecution continues with one of Salmond’s few defenders, former ambassador Craig Murray [left], now charged with contempt of court for his blog posts on the trial, in which he took meticulous care not to identify any of the women whose testimony the jury promptly tossed out. While the tabloids get off scot-free despite publishing far more questionable material, Murray has to face an expensive slog through the courts in what certainly smells like retaliatory, selective prosecution. Read the details at his excellent blog.

Then we have our presidential aspirant himself, against whom a credible accusation of sexual assault dropped into the well of forgetfulness soon after it surfaced. As a thought experiment, can anybody imagine what we would all be talking about today if the accused were Bernie Sanders? When the Democrat hierarchy coalesced around Biden’s candidacy, female Democrats jumped to exclaim “Me Too!” while tossing the “Believe Women” slogan into the temporary trashcan. Believe me, I get it—now’s not the time for purity tests. But let’s also admit to a towering double standard.

Which brings us to the case of Kansan Aaron Coleman, the teenaged dishwasher who pulled off a surprise primary victory against an incumbent for that state’s legislature. He turns out to have engaged in reprehensible behavior with a female middle school classmate and is taking considerable heat for it. He is apologetic and claims to have grown up. Some voices insist he be shunned and banned—no doubt many Biden voters among them. And the state Democrat party is amassing a huge war chest to reverse the vote with a write-in campaign for the corporate-friendly incumbent whom Coleman ousted, claiming that his behavior in childhood should disqualify him.

Of course, their campaign has nothing whatever to do with Coleman’s support for legalizing marijuana, abortion rights, and Medicare for All. But the party that welcomed an unrepentant Bill Clinton to their recent convention has no time for a kid who committed abuse at age 13.

I have read numerous accounts of how the Chinese Communist Party works at the local level and reached the conclusion that party operatives there are compelled to engage in routine corruption that greases the wheels of the state from top to bottom. If promoted, the lowly official then must collude with his bosses’ more lucrative graft and extortion at risk of marginalization, dismissal, or worse. With corruption then baked into the system, the top capos can easily take down their rivals with a lively “anti-corruption” campaign, which will resonate with the long-suffering citizens who have had to put up with the constant grifting by their overlords. Power struggles are veiled with pious phrases about cleaning up the bad behavior of this one and that one, but no real reform of the system is attempted or intended.

The weaponization of sex threatens to follow this playbook: shock and dismay over the antics of one’s enemies; understanding and dismissal on the rare occasion when the complaints reach one’s friends. Supporting victims of abuse should remain the focus; at the same time, we should not be naïve about when and why we hear from them and which ones are taken seriously.

Sunday, 16 August 2020

Our elections don’t need protection from any damn furriners

The loose talk about Russian-Chinese-Iranian interference in our democratic process makes several assumptions, the first being that we have a democratic process with which to interfere. That is increasingly debatable and brings up a correlate: that our system reflects the popular will or, as Lincoln phrased it, government of, by, and for the people.

Let me hasten to say that, having lived under military dictatorship, I value democratic forms even when imperfect or plagued with cheating in all its multitudinous manifestations. We have not sunk to the depths of electoral playacting that occurs in, say, Azerbaijan or Guinea-Bissau; opposition candidates are not regularly assassinated, nor are their supporters frequently beaten with pipes or caused to disappear. Even budding autocrats such as Erdoğan in Turkey, Orbán in Hungary, Duterte in the Philippines and many like-minded others must submit at least superficially to the electoral process while massaging it to assure their permanence in power. Pinochet himself could not crush the electorate when he stood in a 1988 plebiscite to award himself a new eight-year term as president and famously “ran alone and finished second.”

But the idea that the sovereign American people march to the voting booths, select representatives to defend their interests and well-being, and then monitor these solons to make sure they do so is frankly fantastical. Rather than worrying ourselves about what the nefarious Russkies or an Iranian hacker in a long gown might be doing, we should direct our gaze to the behavior of native-born Americans.

Before delving into that, however, let’s pause to remind those who came in late that ALL the “reports” of foreign interference in our sacred elections come from anonymous sources at spook agencies whose record is weak when it comes to propagating actual facts. More often, they pull convenient rumors out of their collective G-I tract and feed the tasty chittlins to selected stenographers at the Times and Post. These spicy propaganda sausages are like QAnon chalkboard drawings for liberals, satisfying fantasies designed to keep Democrat-leaning voters believing in the November tooth fairy while remaining in a state of paralyzed anxiety. Pore over the dozens of breathless paragraphs in the Times or listen to the endless MSNBC chatter about these spy tales from anonymous insider sources, and you will wait impatiently for anything resembling a confirmable datum. Check out Craig Murray for many hilarious details of the British version of this journalistic cotton candy from the “Intelligence Community.”

While our discomfited gaze is drawn to the prospects of October surprises, November sabotage, and post-election defiance, the evidence of ongoing voter suppression right here at home performed by U.S. citizens on other U.S. citizens is evident for all to see. Furthermore, it’s been going on for years. In 2019, Georgia tossed hundreds of thousands of mostly black and Hispanic voters off their registration rolls. Earlier, in 2017, Georgia governor Brian Kemp cheated his way into the statehouse by purging 1 out of every 10 voters in a similar fashion. Democrats let him get away with it.

In 2016 Michigan Republicans successfully challenged on technicalities 75,000 absentee ballots, mostly from Detroit districts, enabling Trump to win that key state by a margin of 10,000.

Wisconsin Republicans put so many obstacles in the way of voting that Trump arguably squeaked by in 2016 with that thumb on the scale.

Then in 2020 the 600,000 residents of Milwaukee (40% black) had five polling stations available while the state refused to let people vote absentee.

Going back further, Ohio purged its voter rolls in 2004 to lock in a key state for W’s second term victory.

States everywhere use electronic voting machines that are easily hacked, producing dubious results that can never be audited due to the lack of a paper trail.

We now hear cries of horror about the attempts to cripple the U.S. Postal Service and block mail-in voting, as well we should. But note that these voter suppression tactics are old news. They have been in the GOP toolbox for at least two decades while the Resistance raises no more than a bland objection before acquiescing to the results of the theft—the classic example being Democrat legitimization of the purloining of the 2000 presidential election with Supreme Court collusion. The kind of permanent denunciation of vote-rigging that would educate (and inflame) the public to insist on free and fair elections—the kind of thing we demand from other countries—is sorely lacking.

Perhaps one reason is that the Democrat machines actually like the cheating as they can do it, too. After all, electoral chaos, incompetence, and the subsequent freedom from accountability enables them to maintain minority control in their respective fiefdoms. Brooklyn (NY) famously “lost” the registrations of many tens of thousands of likely Bernie voters during the state's key 2016 primary.

California’s primary apparatus is so dysfunctional and unreliable that no one can confidently say that that all-blue state accurately reports voter preference, especially in close races. [Upon searching for links for this item, I noted that the headlines for 2016 and 2020 both used the word “chaos.” Plus ça change . . .]

Aside from dubious outcomes in close races, our political class has made sure that most of them aren’t close at all. Gerrymandering is a long-standing national sport, enabling the two sets of party insiders to set up shop as feudal potentates in their respective enclaves without fear of annoying interruptions from mere citizens. North Carolina’s absurd districts [see map above] are a national disgrace. Wisconsin Republicans regularly get fewer votes and a majority of state legislative seats.

Finally, of course, there is the staggering absurdity of the Electoral College, a slaveholder-protection artifact from the most shameful aspects of our early history. But perhaps this anti-democratic anachronism more accurately reflects the nature of our democracy than we care to acknowledge. A hefty percentage of seats occupied by our political class are non-competitive, safely dominated by one party or the other, such that the respective machines can concentrate on serving the interests of whatever lobby or corporate interest group they wish. No wonder preserving the accuracy of expressions of the people’s will awakens so little fervor among them. And if something goes wrong, there’s always the Russians/Chinese/Iranians to take the blame.