Sunday, February 18, 2018

Weekend Roundup

Late. No time for an introduction. This is what I came up with in a day of checking the usual sources. Obviously, there's much more to report, but the framework remains the same.

Some scattered links this week:

  • Matthew Yglesias: The 4 stories that drove politics this week: A gunman killed 17 at a Florida high school; All the different immigration bills failed in the Senate; The White House's Rob Porter story unraveled; There were a bunch of other scandals: including expense abuses at EPA and VA. Other Yglesias pieces:

  • Andrew J Bacevich: The War That Will Not End: Review of Steve Coll's new book, Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America's Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, effectively a sequel to his 2004 book Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, From the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001: it's oft remarked that "9/11 changed everything," but as far as America's perverse interest in Afghanistan is concerned, 9/11 was merely a convenient dividing line for two lengthy volumes on the same tale of ignorance, arrogance, and misadventure. Bacevich's opening paragraph is chilling:

    Steve Coll has written a book of surpassing excellence that is almost certainly destined for irrelevance. The topic is important, the treatment compelling, the conclusions persuasive. Just don't expect anything to change as a consequence.

    Bacevich notes that the American delusion continues past the scope of Coll's book, quoting Mike Pence's recent pronouncement, "I believe victory is closer than ever before."

    And by the way, US military forces are deployed many more places. The only reason people noticed Niger, in the central Sahara, is that four US soldiers were killed there last year. For a long report: Rukmini Callimachi, et al.: 'An Endless War': Why 4 U.S. Soldiers Died in a Remote African Desert.

  • Alexia Fernandez Campbell: This is America: 9 out of 10 public schools now hold mass shooting drills for students. As the conclusion states, "This trend is super depressing." I don't actually recall any of those "duck and cover" atomic attack drills back in the 1950s, even though we all knew that Wichita was a prime target, with military industries, an Air Force base, and a ring of Titan missile silos. I do recall drills for fires and tornadoes -- neither was very likely, but not unheard of. One thing about drills is that they tend to normalize and routinize the threat. We stopped doing atomic bomb drills not because the threat went away but because we realized such drills really didn't do any good. And while I imagine fire and storm drills have continued, the main thrust there has long been prevention: build safer buildings, and prevent fire hazards. On the other hand, mass shooting drills seem to be driven by the fear that nothing can be done to prevent such incidents -- that they are as inevitable as storms and earthquakes. That's pretty much the gist of Josh Marshall: Our Collective Impotence Feeds the Power of Guns, but it shows a lack of political will to face the mythology that's built up around guns and killing (see Taibbi, below). By the way, one of the myths is exploded in Paul Ratnet: Just 3% of Americans own more than half of the country's guns.

  • Joyce Chen: Donald Trump's Alleged Affair With Playboy Playmate: 6 Things We Learned. This is a separate story from the one Chen reported on in Stormy Daniels Details Alleged Donald Trump Fling: 8 Things We Learned, although the "things" are pretty much all of a piece. Still, some details may gross you out; e.g.: "Trump told Daniels that he believed his wealth and his power are linked to his hair."

  • Ryan Cooper: The rise and fall of Clintonism: Reviews two books -- Michael Tomasky: Bill Clinton and Amie Parnes/Jonathan Allen: Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton's Doomed Campaign -- but the books themselves don't fully support the author's overarching thesis, nicely summed up in his conclusion:

    In the context of postwar politics, the upper class accommodated itself to a truce in the class war, for about three decades. But when the system came under strain, the elites launched a renewed class war, leveraging stagflation to destroy and devour the welfare state. Clintonism could work in the early stages of that process, buoyed by the economic bubble of the 1990s. But when the inevitable disaster struck, it would become an anchor around the neck of the Democratic Party -- and it remains one to this day.

    Thomas Frank's Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? provides a more trenchant critique of Clintonism, but Cooper's outline occasionally adds something.

  • Masha Gessen: Trump Has Created an Entire Class of People Who Are Never Safe:

    Many Americans understand how important it is for every person in this land to feel safe. The most commonly advanced argument for sanctuary cities (or towns, or states) is that immigrants must feel safe reporting crimes -- they must know that the police will not be monitoring their immigration status. This is the simplest expression of the thesis that none of us are safe unless all of us are safe.

    Trump seems to understand this instinctively. Tyrants -- or aspiring tyrants -- thrive when populations feel unstable and under threat. His Administration's ongoing attack on sanctuary cities is more than the belligerent demand for total compliance: it is part of an effort to insure that some of us are never safe, in order to insure that no one is ever really safe.

  • Rakeen Mabud/Eric Harris Bernstein: Does America believe in public infrastructure anymore? Yglesias explains the mechanics of Trump's infrastructure proposal above, but one thing he doesn't make clear enough is that the only real reason for designing the plan that way is to pave the way for auctioning off public works to private owners, allowing them to set up toll traps to recoup their investments and to further line their pockets. Such a scheme should be laughable but lots of people have been snowed by the argument that the public can't be trusted to safeguard let alone advance the public interest, so we're better off handing the job over to private interests. Give it a mere minute's thought and you'll realize that's nuts, yet I read an op-ed in the Wichita Eagle (some "Fox News contributor," I forget who) arguing that the TVA and other government properties should be privatized.

    Still, see Paul Krugman: Trump Doesn't Give a Dam:

    And even the $200 billion is essentially fraudulent: The budget proposal announced the same day doesn't just impose savage cuts on the poor, it includes sharp cuts for the Department of Transportation, the Department of Energy and other agencies that would be crucially involved in any real infrastructure plan. Realistically, Trump's offer on infrastructure is this: nothing.

    That's not to say that the plan is completely vacuous. One section says that it would "authorize federal divestiture of assets that would be better managed by state, local or private entities." Translation: We're going to privatize whatever we can.

    Krugman also wrote: Budgets, Bad Faith, and 'Balance'.

  • Andrew Prokop: The new Mueller indictments tell us a lot about Russian trolls: The link promised "What Mueller's new Russia indictments mean -- and what they don't." The indictments seem to show that various Russians were acting as internet trolls, spreading false information to influence the 2016 elections, but doesn't directly tie them either to Putin or to Trump. None of the Russians are likely to be arrested or tried, so I suspect this is merely the foundation to something else. There was, by the way, another new indictment, a Richard Pinedo, of which we know very little; see David Kurtz: Mueller Playing It So Damn Close to the Vest. Next on the burner, see Emily Stewart: Rick Gates is reportedly about to plead guilty to Robert Mueller.

    Also, in light of the indictments, Nate Silver tries to factor How Much Did Russian Interference Affect the 2016 Election? He doesn't come up with an answer, but he does note "the magnitude of the interference revealed so far is not trivial but is still fairly modest as compared with the operations of the Clinton and Trump campaigns" and "thematically, the Russian interference tactics were consistent with the reasons Clinton lost." In other words, "the Russians were at least adding fuel to the right fire." Still, I'm struck by how much more the Trump and Clinton campaigns spent -- $617 million by Trump and pro-Trump super PACs, $1.2 billion by Clinton. Alignment between Trump and Russia doesn't prove collusion, but it is some form of symbiosis. As for Clinton, the burning issue remains what did she do with all that money? And why didn't she get more value for what she spent? That's the same question I was left with after reading Shattered. Also, note that other Russian activities haven't been factored in here -- e.g., the DNC email hacks, which many believe to have been Russian work but haven't been proven.

    Of course, it's not just the Russians who meddle in other people's elections. For a primer, see Scott Shane: Russia Isn't the Only One Meddling in Elections. We Do It, Too.

  • Richard Silverstein: If Israeli Police Take Down Bibi, Don't Expect Much Good to Come of It: Pretty detailed explanation of the corruption case against Netanyahu.

  • Matt Taibbi: If We Want Kids to Stop Killing, the Adults Have to Stop, Too:

    Over two decades ago, I traveled to a city in the Russian provinces called Rostov-On-Don to interview a psychiatrist named Alexander Bukhanovsky.

    Bukhanovsky, now deceased, was famous. If you've seen the movie Citizen X, about the capture of serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, Bukhanovsky was the guy played by Max Von Sydow. He was the Soviet Union's first criminal profiler.

    One of the first things he said was that both Russia and America produced disproportionate shares of mass killers.

    "Giant militarized countries," he said, "breed violent populations."

    Bukhanovsky at the time was treating a pre-teen who had begun killing animals. He told me this young boy would almost certainly move on to killing people eventually. He was seeing more and more of these cases, he said.

    Nikolas Cruz, the 19 year-old just arrested for shooting and killing 17 people in Parkland, Florida, supposedly bragged about killing animals. He reportedly even posted photos of his work on Instagram.

    There will be lots of hand-wringing in the coming days about gun control, and rightfully so -- it's probably easier to get a semi-automatic rifle in this country than it is to get some flavors of Pop Tarts -- but with each of these shootings, we seem to talk less and less about where the rage-sickness causing these massacres comes from.

    The single most salient fact of life during my lifetime -- nearly seventy years -- is that the US has continuously been at war abroad. Even during the decade between the approximate end of the Cold War and the advent of the War on Terror, the militarist ethos was so imbued in American thought that we came up with "humanitarian" rationales for a half-dozen interventions (Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, Colombia, Kosovo, East Timor, what'd I miss?). And since 2001, that attitude has hardened into an obsession with targeting and killing individuals. Taibbi notes:

    In an era of incredible division and political polarization, military killing is the most thoroughly bipartisan of all policy initiatives. Drone murders spiked tenfold under Obama, and Trump has supposedly already upped the Obama rate by a factor of eight. The new president apparently killed more civilians in his first seven months in office than Obama did overall, making use of our growing capacity for mechanized murder.

    "We are killing these sons of bitches faster than they can grow them now," a CIA official reportedly told a subordinate with glee some years back. Another CIA vet told the Washington Post the agency had become ""one hell of a killing machine." . . .

    These aren't just scenes from bad movies. They're foundational concepts in our society. We're conditioned to disbelieve in the practicality of nonviolence and peace, and to disregard centuries of proof of the ineffectiveness of torture and violence as a means of persuasion.

    On the other hand, we're trained to accept that early use of violence is frequently heroic and necessary (the endless lionization of Winston Churchill as the West's great realist is an example here) and political courage is generally equated with the willingness to use force. JFK's game of nuclear poker with Nikita Khruschev is another foundational legend, while Khruschev is generally seen as a loser for having backed down. . . .

    Gun control? I'm all for it. But this madness won't stop until we stop believing that killing makes us strong, or that we can kill without guilt or consequence just by being "precise." What beliefs like that actually make us is insane and damaged, and it's no surprise that our kids, too, are beginning to become collateral damage.

    Note that the Florida shooter wasn't a veteran, but was in ROTC, so war and the military were very much on his mind. Also that the gun used in the Florida shooting, and indeed in many recent mass shootings, was designed for America's wars abroad. See: Tim Dickinson: All-American Killer: How the AR-15 Became Mass Shooters' Weapon of Choice. Also related: Marcus Weisgerber: Obama's Final Arms-Export Tally More Than Doubles Bush's.