Sunday, May 31, 2020

America Has Always Been at War with America

I've been dithering on whether to write about the protests of the murder of George Floyd and the retaliatory police riots spreading across the country.  There's a lot of information flooding the media, corporate and otherwise, and I can't keep up with it.

On one hand I've been seeing white hipsters cheering on the People's Violence from a safe distance.  I think they've been playing too many dystopian video games, among other fictional media: one usually sensible guy on Twitter wanted to compare real life to V for Vendetta. I like the graphic novel, but it's not reality.  I suggested that the guy look at real-life parallels, such as the successful history of protest and resistance in South Korea; and I went back to reread my own coverage of the candlelight vigils there from 2008 onward.  (Which reminded me that I was unable to interest leftish bloggers and independent media in those events at the time.  Not as exciting as V for Vendetta, I guess.)

"Let's You and Him Fight" is one of the creepiest things I see on the white left, especially when it buys into the Right's narrative that the protests are predominantly violent.  It's hard to say for sure, but it appears to be the other way around. No one has access to the opinions of all African-Americans, but I see indications that the community is not united behind burning it all down.  I'd be surprised if it were. Those whites calling for more destruction are doing so, not because they stand with black people, but because they enjoy fantasizing about it.

The mutual aid and support, the caring for each other that is turning up everywhere - sometimes looted by the police -- are to my mind much more newsworthy than the violence, wholly justified though it is, and the mutual aid is not going to get the same amount of coverage by the corporate media.  There's also the near-certainty that a lot of the violence is being incited and committed by police agents provocateurs, just as we've seen in the past.  But you can't eat violence, you can't live on bricks, and nobody on the ground or in the streets wants a permanent diet of tear gas and pepper spray.

Except the police, of course.  Even the corporate media are recognizing that, as they are targeted for harassment and violence by the police.  The spectacle of heavily armed gangs of racist goons prowling the streets, assaulting bystanders and driving their SUVs into crowds, is going to get harder and harder to frame as keeping the peace.  So now the police are unlawfully ordering reporters to stay off the streets, to hide their criminality.  I'm not optimistic about how this will turn out.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Closet Yourselves

The refusal of some Christian churches in the United States to forego in-person worship during the pandemic has been much in the news, not least because numerous worshipers have gotten sick and some, including some pastors, have died.  Typically, there has been an effort to cast the problem as a matter of freedom of religion.  The best reply I've seen to that is this tweet:
If you're seeing the political rhetoric surrounding "religious freedom" for groups to reopen with f2f meetings during the pandemic, keep asking WHICH religious groups are pushing for this. It's not religion vs non-religion; it's *some* religious groups, speaking for all.
The more I've thought about it, though, the more doubts I have.  The main idea is correct, since not all churches or all denominations insist on face-to-face communal worship no matter what.  Of course the Christians demanding to cram crowds of worshipers into enclosed spaces are apt to regard all outsiders as non-Christians, even anti-Christians.  In general their opponents see them the same way: "so-called Christians" and "fake Christians" are among the epithets they lob at each other.  The idea of religious freedom arose in a religious context, however: the threat came not from the secular sphere, but within religion itself: Christian persecution of Jews, and Christian persecution of other Christians.  This is still true in the US, where religious freedom has to be asserted against Christians trying to impose their doctrines and practices on other Christians, though they are happy to force themselves on Jews or Muslims or atheists too.  The nominal separation of Church and State we have in the US encourages the idea that when government stops believers from killing each other or outsiders, it's doing so as a purely secularizing effort.  This attitude is encouraged by some academics, unfortunately.

A more popular response lately, though, has been to cite Jesus' saying from Matthew 6:5-6.
And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.
I've seen these verses cited fairly often in the past year, not just in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.  I don't believe they have any bearing on the issue of face-to-face public worship, though.  For one thing, neither Jesus nor the early Christians seem to have had any objection to communal worship per se.  According to the gospels Jesus was baptized publicly, attended synagogue, went to the Jerusalem temple for the major feasts, preached publicly to huge crowds, celebrated Passover, instituted a communal rite, and took for granted that his followers would gather together in his name.  His disciples continued to worship in the Temple after he ascended into Heaven.  The earliest Christian writings we have, Paul's letters, also take communal face-to-face worship for granted.  Whatever Jesus had in mind by ordering believers to be closet cases of prayer, it doesn't seem to have excluded communal worship.  And of course, if anyone in his multitudes had gotten sick, he could have just healed them.

For another, Jesus spent a lot of time behaving provocatively, so as to incite controversy with other Jewish teachers.  Some scholars argue that he wasn't really flouting the commandments, but it's certainly how he was perceived.  As Graham Shaw wrote in The Cost of Authority (Fortress, 1982: 246),
the refusal to conform to demands for public religious observance is itself intensely visible; so that the criticism of religious visibility acquires many of the characteristics of exhibitionism.  Repeatedly they attract hostile attention to themselves and their master.  Invisible spiritual religion thus proves to have a highly public face.
I've also seen several people invoking Paul's letter to the Romans, chapter 13:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.  For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
This does seem to undermine 21st-century Christian resistance to public-health orders, but it is also contradicted by early Christian practice.  Jesus and numerous early Christian leaders, including Paul himself according to tradition, were executed by the governing authorities because they refused to be subject to them.  (Some scholars have suggested that this passage is a later addition to the text, but as far as I know there's no manuscript evidence to support the idea.)

The best that can be said, as far as I can see, is that there is no biblical mandate to worship communally, let alone during a pandemic, so whatever drives these Christians to defy today's shutdown orders, it's not scripture nor even tradition.  I'm inclined to see it as theocratically-inclined Christians who hope to clear more space for their encroachment on everyone else's lives.  According to a recent poll, two-thirds of religious Americans view coronavirus as some sort of message from their god, but few regard the illness and death of those who insisted on face-to-face worship as an indication that they were wrong.  Indeed, "Fifty-five per cent of American believers say they feel at least somewhat that God will protect them from being infected."  That must include at least some of those who believe the pandemic is a divine dope-slap, but when you have faith you don't have to make sense.  Judgment, like karma, is for the other guy.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

A Revelation

A religious believer, objecting to the prohibition of religious gatherings during the epidemic, lied about the matter.  Referring to religious services, this person wrote: "They’re not essential businesses, they’re essential, period. That’s our first amendment right as Americans. Liquor stores, bars, restaurants, are considered essential but churches and other houses of worship aren’t? The left is the true enemy of the people."

Bars and restaurants are not "considered essential": they were among the first businesses to be closed, for the same reason communal worship was prohibited: because they are places where people gather in close proximity, breathing on each other and exchanging microbes, then go out and spread them to others.  I admit I was surprised to find that liquor stores were allowed to open, but they were also regulated.  The ones in my town offered only curbside pickup, and of course you could also buy alcoholic beverages at grocery stores.

Further, worship was not banned altogether.  Churches could, for example, continue to broadcast services over the radio and other media, as they've done for many years.  Communal worship is important in Christianity as in most religions, but it can be done virtually, or as Christians call it, "in the Spirit."  Public health concerns -- not just for worshipers but for outsiders whom the worshipers would put at risk -- take precedence in an epidemic.

This is not what I'd call esoteric knowledge, and this person could hardly be unaware of it, so it's fair to say they were lying.  I asked rhetorically, not for the first time, why religious believers find it necessary to lie so much.  Then I corrected myself: believers don't need to lie, they enjoy it.

And then something occurred to me.  People in general love to lie, not just religious believers.  The blogger at Fake Buddha Quotes has noticed that many people prefer inauthentic quotations from the Buddha to genuine ones, and I've observed the same on Facebook and elsewhere: many people, liberal and conservative, progressive and leftwing, are consistent in posting quotations that are not the actual words of the celebrities they quote, and only rarely do they post genuine ones.  I don't think it's a conscious decision, but they do seem to be drawn to the bogus.  I agree, then, with the Christian claim that men loved lies better than truth, but Christians are not in a position to cast the first stone. This pattern can also be seen in electoral campaigns, where it's a prominent feature, but it turns up to some extent everywhere. because human beings in general love to lie.

Revealed religion is something we humans invented in large part as a safe space for lies: a domain where lying is expected, enjoyable, and communally shared.  (I say "revealed religion" because as the old gods weren't much concerned about doctrine, but about proper ritual.)  Paradoxically, though, sects must then put limits on the lying, limiting it to authorized persons only, with some lies at least temporarily ruled out of order.  That still leaves a lot of wiggle room.

This problem is prominent in Christian history because of Christianity's schismatic tendencies.  Jesus taught his falsehoods "in the Spirit," attacking other Jewish teachers and sects, and promised his immediate followers that the Spirit would also speak through them. The apostle Paul, like other early teachers, took this promise and ran with it.  But it very quickly became clear that the Spirit wasn't telling all believers the same thing.  This is most visible in Paul's letter to the Galatians, but it turns up throughout the New Testament: Christian leaders accusing others of false teaching, and being accused of false teaching in turn.

To this day the mutual accusations are hurled back and forth: those so-called "Christians" over there aren't real Christians!  Thanks to the Biblical and historical illiteracy of most Christians, it almost always emerges that whatever the false Christians teach is straight out of the New Testament, though they too embroider, invent, and selectively omit biblical teachings.  It's entertaining, and luckily neither lot can do more nowadays than vilify the others, in that spirit of Christian love that they tout as the core of their faith.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

A Disturbance in the Force, a Glitch in the Matrix

Today is the thirteenth anniversary of the blog.  Even though I haven't kept it as diligently as I should these past few years, I'm still proud of having kept it going so long.  To all my readers, thanks.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

There and Back Again: Video Tours

My favorite videos on Youtube these days are the walking tours, in which someone carries a camera through a cityscape or landscape.  They range in length from half an hour to two hours and more.  I usually watch them on my TV through the Youtube app, which gives them extra vividness; I've caught myself thinking about buying a larger TV, but I don't have a good place to put one and 42 inches is really big enough.  They usually have no narration or musical soundtrack, so it's easy to get lost in the experience, but as often as not I just start one up and let it run as I do other things.

I first stumbled on some from Japan, starting with this one taken at night during a thunderstorm in Tokyo. The rainy soundtrack can be restful all by itself.  Youtube algorithms directed me to others.  Snowy landscapes or cityscapes are also pleasant, especially since you don't have to cope with the snow yourself.  (Here's one I found later, of snowfall in Manhattan.)  I also enjoyed these videos of Halloween in Japan.

When the quarantine started, I began sharing some of them on Facebook.  It occurred to me that these videos might alleviate feelings of confinement -- they do for me -- and when people began posting suggestions for home-schooling activities, I began looking for walking tours of other countries, in Europe or South America or the United States.  I passed along this tour of the inside of the Statue of Liberty.

Finally I found some walking tours of places in Korea.  This one, of Seoul by night, is taken from the air and is breathtaking.  I was interested in areas familiar to me, and Seoul Walker provides plenty.  Some of these videos were shot before the epidemic, but Seoul Walker has kept busy, and there are several from the past month or two.  I used to spend a lot of time in COEX Mall before it was renovated several years ago, and I don't much like the new version but it's nice to see what it looks like nowItaewon is not my favorite district of Seoul, but I recognized the streets and even the stores.  Here's a Saturday afternoon in Gangnam, of "Gangnam Style" fame.  Here's a student district that I visited, I believe, on my last visit to Korea in 2018.  There are a couple of videos featuring Insadong, an artsy / touristy district not far from City Hall.  I know it well partly because friends took me there on my first few visits, but it's also a good place to buy gifts for friends and family when I return to the US.  It's also adjacent to Jongro (pronounced Jongno), where I spent much of my free time on my last several visits to Korea.  Finally, here's a tour along the ocean in Yeosu, a seaside city in South Cheolla province where I visited a friend on my most recent trip in 2018.  We walked along this very route.

I find this video rather chillling: it's a residential district of private houses, probably owned by moderately (though not extremely) rich people, with no stores or street vendors; it has the same kind of emptiness as upscale housing developments in the US.  I've never been there nor am I likely to go even if I am able to return to Korea.  On the other hand, here is Nami Island, a popular tourist attraction; I have a vague memory of going there or to an island like it in 2003 or so, but in any case it reminds me of parks I've walked around since then.  And here's a video of a train ride to Seoul from Gyeongju, a southeastern city that was formerly the capital of one of the ancient Korean kingdoms.  I've been there twice, and took this ride myself a couple of years ago.

It might seem odd that I prefer the videos set in cities, where the camera passes among crowds.  For me that's a (paradoxical?) pleasure of being in a city: to be surrounded by a river of people, while still being anonymous.  (As anonymous as an old white man can be in an Asian city.)  Or look at this one, of Provence Village, a tourist attraction northwest of Seoul: I don't feel left out and isolated among these people, I feel included, contained, safe.  Once in a great while someone will single me out to talk on the street or in a subway station, which is fine.  As I've written before, subways - at least in Korea - are social places, where a lot of interaction happens between people, offering their seats to others or just striking up conversation.  At the end of the day I'm glad to go back to the friends I'm staying with for dinner and more talk, or watching TV together.  But the city is one of the great human achievements, and I always feel satisfaction being in one, especially when it's as well-run as Korean cities tend to be.  Not perfectly run, of course, no human construction will be perfect, but well-run.

I have mixed feelings about these Korean videos.  On one hand, they bring back good memories; on the other, they remind me of places I may never be able to see again.  I'm nearly 70, and who knows when it will be possible to travel to Korea again as a tourist? But for now, I'm grateful to be able to see these places again.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Whataboutism? Hehehe, Indeed!

Great Cthulhu's ghost:

Robert Reich has been, among other things, Bill Clinton's Secretary of Labor from 1993 to 1997.  He's also good buddies, as he has asserted himself, with walking tumor Alan Simpson, a ferocious deficit hawk and would-be gutter of social programs.  Since Donald Trump became President, he's spoken out often against Trump's policies and conduct, and he turns up in my Twitter feed almost daily.  But it seems that he's more partisan than principled.  The quotation in the above tweet comes from this 2015 article, in which he declared that "if Hillary Clinton is to get the mandate she needs for America to get back on track, she will have to be clear with the American people about what is happening and why – and what must be done.  For example, she will need to admit that Wall Street is still running the economy, and still out of control."  He acknowledged the perception that Clinton is "compromised by big money – that the circle of wealthy donors she and her husband have cultivated over the years has dulled her sensitivity to the struggling middle class and poor," and cited Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt as evidence that great wealth need not prevent a politician from embracing reform.

From a strictly logical point of view, Reich is correct: it is possible for a wealthy person to work for serious reform.  And no one would have predicted that FDR would have gone against the grain to become a "traitor to his class," as he did.  But logic isn't at issue; it's history and human inertia.  FDR was the exception that proves the rule; he deliberately surrounded himself with advisors like Frances Perkins, who pressured him almost daily to keep to the task he'd set himself.  As Kirstin Downey showed in The Woman Behind the New Deal, her biography of Perkins, it was an exhausting, full-time job: rather like Donald Trump, Roosevelt tended to agree with the last person who'd counseled him, and Perkins had to stay constantly on the alert, and on the run, to make sure she was that person.  Perkins was always unpopular with the Washington insiders, who finally pushed her out after FDR's death, when the Democratic party began undermining his legacy.

As a longtime Washington insider, Reich must have known that the odds didn't favor his recommendations to Clinton.  I suppose he just published them to get his position on the record, and in hopes that against all odds they might reach her.  He was far too optimistic, as liberals tend to be.  Maybe he was sincere, but that just hammers home his bad judgment.

It comes down to party loyalty, I think, and whataboutism.  As people from Martin Luther King Jr. to Noam Chomsky have argued, before you can criticize official enemies (Trump, in this case) you must criticize your own side.  In the American mainstream, "whataboutism" only refers to any criticism of one's own side.  But if Reich had criticized Clinton or Obama as they deserve, he'd be persona non grata in the Democratic Establishment.  And would he say of Donald Trump what he said in defense of Hillary Clinton?  Like so many liberal/centrist talking points, it would seem to apply to Trump no less than to Democrats.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Is Your Hate Pure?

There's an article at The Hill from yesterday about how Bernie Sanders is being "urged" to hand over his donor list to Joe Biden's campaign.  It isn't the Biden organization that is doing the urging, however: so far they're being diplomatic according to the article, praising Sanders for his cooperation and help.  They're "been pleased with how Sanders committed from an early point to rallying his supporters behind the presumptive nominee."

The complaints in the article come from not one but two unnamed pissy Democratic "strategists," too cowardly to speak on the record under their own names.  The article gives adequate space to a couple of named progressives, who
noted that the pro-Sanders super PAC Our Revolution was given access to Sanders’s 2016 email list and was only able to raise a fraction of what the campaign raised because it didn’t resonate the same way coming from a different source.

“That email list only works for Bernie Sanders and we’ve proven it,” Rocha said. “The strength of the list isn’t the list itself. It’s Bernie Sanders. If Joe Biden had four Bernie lists, he couldn’t raise much money off of it. That’s not a critique of Joe Biden. It’s just that Bernie is the reason that the list works.”
And scoffed:
“The idea that all Bernie Sanders has to do here is turn over his email list so they can pillage it and batter it until it spits out gold coins is absolutely ridiculous,” [Democracy for America strategist Neil] Sroka said.
This is true.  I'm still making donations through Sanders's list to progressive candidates for downticket races.  (I doubt that Biden, whose billionaire boosters evidently aren't coming through for him, would do as much.  He prefers to take money to support Republican candidates.)  If I started getting pleas the from the Biden campaign through Sanders's list, though, I would unsubscribe immediately, probably after sending an abusive email condemning the move.  Comments on Twitter indicate that other Sanders voters feel the same way.

I noticed, however, that a number of avowed Sanders supporters misread "urged" as "already has given Biden the list, and is cackling and rubbing his hands together gleefully."  They accused Sanders of selling out, and while one could make a case for that more generally, he evidently hasn't gone as far as they want to think.  (They must want to think it, since they chose to fantasize a falsehood.)  Malignant stupidity is not, alas, confined to Trump supporters and Democratic Party loyalists.

I would be upset, even angry, if Sanders shares his donor list to the Biden campaign, but not all that concerned.  As Sroka and Chuck Rocha, the other named Sanders associate, say, it would not do Biden much good, and might hurt him even more.  It would also hurt Sanders, who has already angered many of his supporters by declaring Biden to be a "decent" man.  Of necessity, as Nietzsche wrote, the party man becomes a liar.

But contrary to centrist delusion, most Sanders supporters are not personality cultists.  We support him because the principles and policies he stands for, and if he abandons them, we will abandon him.  He's not, contrary to the fantasies of some of his fans, the One without whom there is no hope.  And I must say, I was not pleased that he chose not to show up to vote against the new bill giving more surveillance power to the executive branch.  That's not as bad as voting for it, as ten Democrats did, but it's bad enough if you believe, as Sanders has said he does, that Trump is the most dangerous president in history.

Someone tried to counter criticism of Sanders on this matter by posting at least twice that Sanders "is over 65 and there's a pandemic going on."  I replied that he'd just described most of the Senate, so that doesn't give Sanders a pass.  I confess I hadn't fact-checked myself.  Today I did, and I found that 48 Senators are over 65 years old (as against 147 Representatives).  I am abashed, but if 47 other elderly Senators were able to brave the pandemic to vote, so could Sanders - especially since the bill only passed by one vote.

I'm not all that surprised, though.  I regard Sanders as a lesser evil.  He's good on some issues, terrible on others, especially in foreign policy.  I'll cast my vote for him in the primary next month, make the occasional donation, and continue to criticize him as seems appropriate.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Surely, Comrades, You Want Obama Back?

I didn't mean to return to this topic, but over the weekend some new light was shed on it.  Mehdi Hasan, a writer for the Intercept, stuck his foot into the Democratic rehabilitation of Bush a week or two ago, and now he answered a tweet by Glenn Greenwald on a related matter.

Greenwald posted a couple of video clips from 2013, in which Barack Obama debunked "the long-standing but central DC myth that the two parties are radically opposed on ideology & policy. Instead, he correctly explained, they're far more similar than different, & the US entails far less ideological dispute than most democracies."

Hasan replied: "Agree with this. But also agree with Noam Chomsky’s rider, to me, in 2016: 'Small differences in a system of great power can have enormous consequences.'"  And added: "I’m not disputing at all that he’s sadly right about the similarities, over the differences, just that the differences - while not enough for my liking! - can also result in millions of people getting healthcare or not, living or dying, getting asylum, not getting poisoned, etc."

As a matter of principle I agree with Chomsky's dictum, which is why I've mostly gritted my teeth, held my nose and voted for Democrats for the past few decades, though I did vote for Ralph Nader in 1996 and 2000.  But Hasan inadvertently undermined the recommendation. Before he took office, Obama had spoken positively about single-payer, but once he was president he blocked discussion of single-payer, even a "public option," in favor of continuing America's harmful private-insurance-based healthcare system, with some significant but minor reforms; it's reasonable to suppose that he changed his stance in collaboration with his donors and supporters in the insurance and healthcare industry.  But by the time he left office, premiums were soaring again, and even if Trump hadn't become president, even if a devastating pandemic hadn't come along, it's arguable that the whole unwieldy edifice of "Obamacare" would have crumbled under its own weight by now.  The choices Obama made improved many people's condition, but they were always at best a stopgap.  John McCain and Mitt Romney would probably have done no better, though it's important not to forget that the Affordable Care Act was based on Romney's own program for Massachusetts.  Obama made a small difference, but I can't agree that it constituted "enormous consequences."

From there, Hasan is in even worse trouble.  Most Americans' health declined during the Obama years, as their income stagnated and the stress under which they lived and worked increased. Life expectancy in the US began to decline in 2014.  Economic inequality increased, in large part because of policies Obama chose to enact.  Meanwhile, corporate profits soared.  Obama sought ways to justify cuts in Social Security and Medicare, with the long view toward destroying them.  "Living or dying"?  I cannot see any enormous positive consequences in that area resulting from Obama's election, and we don't know what his opponents would have done.  Probably worse, but who knows?

Overseas, Obama made sure that vast numbers of people died: he tried to prolong the US occupation of Iraq, he did escalate the US war in Afghanistan, he continued or started little wars that got less attention, he turned Libya into a slave market, he supported the Saudi invasion of Yemen, he droned wedding parties and bombed hospitals, and he joked about it.  He supported dictatorships and military coups, he materially supported the right-wing opposition in Venezuela, he tut-tutted over Israeli atrocities but continued to support them -- need I go on?

"Not getting poisoned"?  Obama supported fossil fuels, turning the US into a major oil exporter; supported nuclear power; equivocated on destructive oil pipelines, and undermined world action against climate change.

"Getting asylum"?  Obama deported a record number of immigrants, scolded them that they had to "earn" American citizenship (as he had?), and sent thousands of young Central American refugees back to danger and death in their home countries, knowingly.  Again, it's quite possible that McCain and Romney would have been worse, but we don't know, and electing Barack Obama had terrible consequences for millions of people in the US and around the world.  The strange thing is that Mehdi Hasan knows Obama's record at least as well as I do, and probably criticized him for it while he was in office: he writes for the Intercept, which published a lot of Obama-critical material.  Noam Chomsky, of course, was harshly critical of Obama throughout his tenure, and I don't think his tactical-voting recommendation means that he has changed his mind, or that he's nostalgic for the George W. Bush era.

Obama began his presidency with with Democrats in control of both houses of Congress, and it wasn't unrealistic to be optimistic about his administration then.  He promptly showed that he had no intention of fulfilling the hopes he'd raised in his campaign.  For me the most telling example is his offering tax cuts for the rich as part of his inadequate stimulus package even before the Republicans demanded them.  That can't be blamed on Republican obstructionism: it was his own initiative, and it was all too typical of his style.  The Democrats lost control of Congress in the midterms, and after that his cult could blame everything he failed to do on the evil Republicans.  Not only Congress but most state governorships and many Federal judgeships fell into the hands of the far right, partly because Obama and the Democratic National Committee didn't bother to support down-ticket candidates, saving their money and resources to re-elect him in 2012.  I think it's fair to say that this outcome was not what Democratic voters had voted for.  These and more are the "enormous consequences" the country (and the world) got from Barack Obama.  I rather wish someone would ask Chomsky about this point.

I have to temper this somewhat, because I don't get the impression that most voters are even aware of most of the consequences that bother me.  They did feel the sluggish economic recovery he engineered, the stagnant economy (except for the very richest) he presided over, and that was more than enough to sap their enthusiasm for him.  That Obama squandered his mandate is unquestionable, however much he and his apologists blame the voters.  (Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti of The Hill are erratic commentators, but this clip is an accurate analysis.)

Suppose, as a thought experiment, that in a parallel universe Obama had run for the presidency as a Republican instead of a Democrat, defeated parallel Hillary Clinton, and once in office governed exactly as he did in our universe - the same policies, the same consequences.  Would Mehdi Hasan, and others like him, defend Obama in the same terms he did last weekend?  Would he say that Republican Obama was a disappointment, but other Republicans would have been worse, so we shouldn't come down on him too hard, because Trump is so awful?  I doubt it, but maybe they would, just as Hasan and others have defended George W. Bush as a lesser evil compared to Donald Trump: by determinedly forgetting and misrepresenting his record.  Obama is the Republican we were warned about.

If Joe Biden manages to defeat Trump in November, I expect Chomsky will attack him as he has attacked his predecessors, and I also expect Democratic loyalists will attack Chomsky for undermining President Biden and giving aid and comfort to the Rethugs.  I wonder where Mehdi Hasan will take his stand.  The function of their argument - probably not intentionally, they're not clever enough to think tactically - is to divert criticism of Democratic politicians by playing the ranking game.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Today We Have Naming of Parts

A younger (but on the verge of middle age) gay male acquaintance of mine recently posted a meme of Tupac Shakur demanding respect for women: "A woman brought you into this world, so you have no right to disrespect one."  This doesn't really make any sense: I must respect Margaret Thatcher, Madeleine Albright, Hilary Clinton, Ma Barker?  I don't think so.  I suppose it was intended to refer to women in heterosexual relationships, and I don't know enough about Tupac or his oeuvre to know how well he honored his own mandate.  Once again, "respect" was being made to carry a lot more weight than it reasonably can.

Later on the same day my acquaintance posted another meme featuring a fictional conversation between an ostensibly straight guy complaining that his girlfriend demanded he perform cunnilingus on her even though her vulva stank like fish, and a gay guy offering to fellate him without demanding cunnilingus in return.  R-E-S-P-E-C-T, am I right?

Then this morning - Mother's Day! - the same acquaintance posted a meme comprised of a photo of a rather lethargic, sullen-looking white guy, and a caption assuring him that for every woman who wouldn't go down on him, there were three gay men who would, as often as he liked.

This is a style of misogyny that is very common among gay men, which I've often called out, and I did so on both these occasions.  I've done it in person, and in gay male chat rooms, but there was a fascinating difference between those occasions and this one.  In gay male chat rooms there were no women present, but my acquaintance posted these japes on Facebook, where he has many women friends whom he knows offline, in classic gay-man-straight-woman friendships.  It didn't seem to occur to him that he was revealing publicly what he really thinks of them.

Oh, of course he didn't mean his friends, they're different.  His best friends are women, he loves and respects women.  Sure.  I wonder what his friends thought.  Maybe they just brushed it aside, maybe they would agree that there are women and there are dirty sluts, or some such, and he wasn't talking about his women friends, just about those others.  In which case they deserve him, I guess, but I'd bet that at least some of them felt a little twinge of pain when they read his jolly posts.

I don't doubt that there are women who neglect basic hygiene and smell foul Down There.  There are also, I can report from personal experience, men whose unwashed nether parts stink, and some of them are gay.  And maybe I shouldn't take my friend's adolescent joshing seriously: like a lot of offensive humor, it's only half-meant, and is mostly intended to invite and cement solidarity.  It's related to Eric Berne's psychiatric game "Ain't It Awful?": you complain about stinky vulva, he complains about stinky vulva, you're both regular guys together, you bond, maybe the pants come down, all's right with the world, and I'm just a humorless PC prune who doesn't want guys to have a little fun.  I know, however, that my friend would not be as indulgent about homophobic humor by bigots, of white racism, transphobia, and the like -- he's been reposting a lot of stuff this weekend raging about the racist murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, and rightly so.  But what's a little friendly misogyny, nobody got killed, so chill out, okay?

Okay, deep breath.  Nobody got killed, folded, spindled, or mutilated.  I was just startled by the crudity and openness with which my friend expressed his loathing for women's bodies, where his women friends would see it.  I have known him for several years, and he hadn't said such things in my presence before.  I've also been away from gay men's society for a long time, and I guess I imagined that younger gay men might have left behind this misogynist humor.  Live and learn.

Something I couldn't help thinking about, though: When nominally straight men express their disgust for homosexuality, we often suspect that they protest too much, that they are hiding a more or less resisted craving for dick.  When nominally gay men exult in their disgust for women's bodies, what conflicted desires are they hiding?

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Daytime Thoughts on the Pandemic

Because I'm lazy, I just lifted the following from my journal today.  I'm leaving in street names and such, for vividness and because I doubt anyone knows this town anyway.  Indiana is beginning to re-open, and many businesses are taking the first steps starting on Monday.  The stores I passed that were announcing their re-opening mostly had signs up imploring customers to wear masks  My barber is taking appointments, and I'm not sure whether to go for it or not.  By luck I got my last haircut just a couple of days before the shutdown, and I'm not very shaggy yet.  It can wait.


I didn’t get anything done all morning.  Had a late lunch, then rode downtown.  It was in the 50s and still sunny, though the west wind still had a bite to it.

There was one brownie left at French Press cafe, which I bought and carried with me to eat as I walked around.  I tried calling the barber shop, hoping that the problem lay in where I was calling from; but no luck, I got a ring and a beep.  I could see from Laporte and Michigan an unusual number of cars parked in River Park, so I walked down that way.  There were maybe three dozen or so cars and an all-white crowd milling around, none of them wearing masks, none maintaining social distance.  One pickup truck had a big TRUMP 2020 banner on a staff.  But, for some reason, almost no MAGA hats.  I took some pictures.  A helicopter scoped out the scene, hovered over the crowd for a few moments, then flew away, and I also walked, to Garro Street then back to Michigan.  Got my bike and rode home.  Well, the state is beginning to re-open, so maybe these fools will simmer down.
 
I later wondered: it’s understandable that they’re unhappy about being out of work (if they are: I see a lot of working-class white guys at work around town -- construction, maintenance, transport; the bank next door is repaving its parking lot), but why be so stupid about their health?  It’s clearly a point of pride for them not to wear masks or keep apart, just to spite the Governor and the virus and the libs.  I imagine there’ll be a new cluster of cases around the county, just as there is now in Wisconsin in the wake of the anti-shutdown protests, and probably will be in other places.  It also looks like there will be one in the White House, now that two high-placed staff members have tested positive: one of them is Mike Pence’s press secretary.  Trump must be sweating a little.  What will he do if he gets sick?  As Jon Schwarz tweeted today, "It's unfortunate that Covid-19 has reached the inner circles of the White House, but I view our great president as a warrior."  I hope he doesn't die, just because the pious eulogies to Trump's decency, brilliance, compassion, integrity, from all over the political spectrum will be too nauseating to bear.  Let his rehabilitation by the Democrats begin later.

On my after-dinner walk I noticed a red convertible pulling out onto the street, driven by an elderly man in sunglasses and a MAGA hat.  Sometimes I forget that I'm in Trump country; today I was reminded pretty forcefully.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

The Amnesia Is the Point



I didn't intend to write more about Democrats' determination to whitewash and rehabilitate George W. Bush, but the controversy raged on, and while it seems to have peaked for the moment, it hasn't flattened yet.

Besides, something became clearer to me as I read more of the discourse.  There's probably no way to stop people from playing this game.  Many people are obsessed with ranking and comparison, and the culture and the media feed it by ranking the Top Ten Best or Worst Whatevers: movies, books, music, athletes, artists, stocks, potato chips, soy sauce, and so on, including presidents.  Really thinking about presidents is very difficult, even for specialists, and I think that ranking them is a waste of time.  At best it provides clickbait, a hook for magazine essays.  But it also means that people will focus on the traits they can rank.  With athletes, say, it's easier: you can rank them by their statistics.  With presidents it's not so clear what to compare, and people get bogged down looking for comparable details.  It's related to competition, which obsesses American culture.  But you can't line up the past ten presidents and see who among them can kill the most dusky foreigners, invade the most countries, trample the most civil liberties.  The competition takes place in the mind of the beholder.  Again, I think it's a waste of time, but it appeals to a certain kind of simpleton.

The thing is, if you really insist on playing this game, you need accurate data.  You can't rank the greatest batters of all time if you just make up their numbers.  But what characterizes pretty much all of the people comparing Bush to Trump is that they consistently misrepresent Bush and his record.  One of the easiest and most common rebuttals has been to point out that Bush killed a lot more people than Trump -- around a million people in Iraq alone.  Most of his defenders tend to focus only on the number of US troops who died in Dubya's wars, because Americans are not very interested in America's civilian victims.  The only score they care about is the number of Our Fallen Heroes and Wounded Warriors.  However, they're not as invested in dismissing the number of Iraqi dead as Republicans would be, so they tend to accept correction on that point.

So they move to other defenses -- and though they deny that they want to defend him, they soon talk about his supposed (but imaginary) positive qualities.  Often they claim that he has empathy, or that he has a conscience.  Now, Bush was notorious for his lack of empathy and conscience.  If you want a fuller picture, Molly Ivins wrote a couple of books with Lou Dubose about Bush's political career, but I think his moral emptiness can be summed up by a couple of his comic moments.  First, there was an interview where he was asked about a double murderer, Karla Faye Tucker, who'd become a born-again Christian in prison, leading to calls for clemency.
In brief, Bush was apparently asked if he had met any of those pressing Karla Faye Tucker's case for clemency. Bush said he hadn't, but claimed to have seen an incident on the Larry King show wherein King had asked Karla Faye Tucker what she would say if she could speak directly with George W.

What was her answer? the Talk reporter asked Bush. And George W. apparently puckered his lips and, in a mocking, simpering tone said: "Please don't kill me."
As it happens, Tucker had not said this.  Dubya was as enthusiastic a fantasist as Trump, and like Trump, never more so than when he fantasized about killing people.  George Will, whose 1999 essay on Bush I just linked, sniffed:
Mr. Bush should take care not to exacerbate the suspicion that he has a seriousness deficit. When he was asked by Mr. Carlson to name something he isn't good at, he should not have said, "Sitting down and reading a 500-page book on public policy or philosophy or something."

Mr. Bush told James Barnes of the National Journal, "I'm a decisive person" who doesn't "read treatises," and he told Mr. Carlson, "I'm not interested in process. I want the results. If the process doesn't yield the right results, change the process." All very brusque and hearty.
There's another presage of Donald Trump, who doesn't like to read, and prefers the process of making deals.

Another well-known example: In 2004, after Bush's invasion of Iraq had failed to turn up the fabled Weapons of Mass Destruction that had been one of its main rationales,
During the annual Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner this week, Bush presented a slide show of quirky photographs from inside the White House. In one, the president is looking under furniture in the Oval Office.

"Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere," Bush joked. "Nope, no weapons over there ... maybe under here?" (Bush pokes fun at himself at dinner)

Democrats have seized on the matter, calling it astonishingly insensitive when Americans [plus a million Iraqis, but who cares?] have died for their country in Iraq while the search for WMD has turned up nothing. 
I've also seen it said that Bush "unified the country" after 9/11.  This is arguable, but what is not arguable is that he worked to unify the country by going to war in Afghanistan and Iraq.  In his fine book The Bush Dyslexicon, Mark Crispin Miller sought to show that Bush is not very good at inspirational rhetoric, but he can be eloquent when he talks about punitive violence.  And Americans, like many nations, love punitive violence, at least at first.  Trump may not be as eloquent when he celebrates punitive violence, but his base aren't picky.

Related to this is the claim that Trump has alienated our allies overseas, but Bush worked together with them.  Again, the convenient amnesia is remarkable.  It was a Democratic commonplace in 2009 that Bush had alienated our allies -- there was considerable difficulty in getting them to line up for his War on Terror -- and that Barack Obama won them back over.  At last, they crowed, we have a president who doesn't embarrass America before the world!  (As Trump is doing now.)  There's some truth there, because although Obama was happy to ignore multilateral action when it suited him, European leaders found him much more congenial than Bush, who like Trump they considered a boor.  This rapprochement was more complex than well-trained liberal memories like to remember; Naomi Klein wrote about it well in late 2009.
After nine months in office, Obama has a clear track record as a global player. Again and again, US negotiators have chosen not to strengthen international laws and protocols but rather to weaken them, often leading other rich countries in a race to the bottom.

Let’s start where the stakes are highest: climate change. During the Bush years, European politicians distinguished themselves from the United States by expressing their unshakable commitment to the Kyoto Protocol. So while the United States increased its carbon emissions by 20 percent from 1990 levels, the European Union countries reduced theirs by 2 percent. Not stellar, but clearly a case where the EU’s breakup with the United States carried tangible benefits for the planet.

Flash forward to the high-stakes climate negotiations that just wrapped up in Bangkok. The talks were supposed to lead to a deal in Copenhagen this December that significantly strengthens the Kyoto Protocol. Instead, the United States, the EU and the rest of the developed countries formed a unified bloc calling for Kyoto to be scrapped and replaced.
Obama was hailed by liberals as a vast improvement on the brutish Bush, in just those areas where they'd denounced Bush while he was in office.  This may be partly because Obama continued many of Bush's terrible policies, and Democrats promptly forgot that they were Bush's or that they were terrible.  That willed forgetting may have extended to embrace Bush himself.

I suspect that many liberals, as dependent on TV for news as conservatives and reactionaries, never paid much attention to Bush's policies.  They were more concerned with his spotty oratorical ability, his many gaffes and bloopers, his inability to pronounce the word "nuclear," than about a million Iraqi dead and another million Iraqi refugees.  They couldn't help noticing the Iraq War or Abu Ghraib, but most likely they blamed the media for making them notice them.  They hated Bush because he's a Republican, the same way they hate Trump.  If they'd read a range of print media, they might be better informed.  Or maybe not, I don't know.

Now, to repeat, it would be different if Democrats looked at Bush with eyes wide open and concluded that he wasn't as bad as they thought.  That they choose to falsify his record, that they seem to have forgotten comparatively recent events from their own adult lifetimes, is strange to me.  It may be their very American Manichaeism, a desire to see the world in terms of heroes and villains, light and darkness, that drives them to invent a George W. Bush wholly unlike the real man.  If Trump is bad - and he's not just bad but Evil incarnate - then anyone who criticizes him, indeed almost anyone who isn't Trump, must be good.  These Bush apologists insist that they're not defending him, not saying that he was a good president, but that's exactly what they're doing: they can only rank him higher than Trump by lying about him, inventing virtues that he notoriously lacks.  No wonder they're equally willing to whitewash Joe Biden in much the same way.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Abiden with Me, Fast Falls the Eventide

This really needs to stop.

I haven't watched this new Dubya video, and see no reason to.  If he made it from a jail cell in the Hague, I might be more interested.  The rehabilitation of George W. Bush by Democrats is one of the most repugnant phenomena of the Trump years.  I can't think of a good reason why anyone should pay attention to what appears to be a routine exercise in platitudes, which of course he didn't write himself anyway.  Note too that it's identified as a message from "President George W. Bush," because like any ex-President he gets to use the title.  Trump will get to do it too, just in case you think it's reasonable.

But Katie Hill, a former Congresswoman from California, takes the syndrome to such depths that it beggars belief.  That's kind of okay, because she makes it even clearer how irrational, what a distraction this thought experiment is.

Just what am I supposed to imagine?  How would Bush still be President?  If I'm to fantasize that a fairy godmother or wise space aliens remove Donald Trump and put Dubya in his place, I would rather fantasize that they put, say, Bernie Sanders in the Oval Office instead.  The fairy godmother could turn Congressional Republicans into mice, and replace them with 435 clones of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Ro Khanna.  This would be very far from an ideal situation, but it would be a lot better than what we have now, and also better than giving George W. Bush an opportunity to destroy the economy again and kill another million or so people with illegal wars.  You don't think he's learned from his "mistakes," do you?  He's never faced any accountability at all.

Or maybe I'm supposed to imagine that I'm still living in 2001-2009 America, and Katie Hill tells me that as bad as Bush is, he's better than future President Donald Trump?  No, this makes no sense at all.  If I were back in that period, I would still feel terrible, and the prospect of another vile president would not make me feel any better.  Nor, I believe, would most liberals, who as I remember fell into despair when Bush stole the 2000 election.  Hill apologizes, with typical politician's smarm, if her remarks "seemed dismissive of the horrors of the Bush years," which they do.  She seems not to remember them, and can only think of the invasion of Iraq in terms of its cost to Americans; the millions of Afghan and Iraqi dead, wounded, tortured, and made refugees are not on her radar.

If Bush were somehow in his fifth term as President today, would he have handled the COVID-19 crisis any better?  His record on civil liberties, disaster management (hello? Hurricane Katrina!), and running the economy indicates that he'd be at least as bad as Trump.  Like Trump, he was warned of impending disaster, and ignored it.  If she's going to get all weepy over a propaganda video, I'm damn glad she's not in Congress now: she'd vote for another invasion in a heartbeat.

I also don't get what having been "an LGBT teenage girl" has to do with anything. (For what it's worth, she's not LGBT -- she's either L or B.)  Maybe she's forgotten about Bush's horrible record on LGBT issues.  When he was President he wanted a Constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, remember?  It's possible to believe, if one is driven by wishful thinking (and Hill evidently is) that this was as politically calculated and expedient as Barack Obama's opposition to same-sex marriage, but that's the point.  If he were President now, he'd have to appease the same Christian-fascist constituency he pandered to before.

What it's all about, as usual with nice liberal Democrats, is her feelings.  She assumes that "we all" are weeping with her.  The next time she feels tempted to go on Twitter and tell the world how "we all" should feel about George W. Bush, she should resist the temptation.  Crying doesn't make the world a better place.  Yes, Trump is terrible, a monster, but that doesn't justify the liberal amnesia for Bush.  No wonder they're supporting Joe Biden now.