Sunday, May 8, 2022

Speaking of Which

I had little desire to open this up, and don't expect anything thorough, but there were a couple things I wanted to take note of.

I finally finished Louis Menand's The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War, with mixed feelings about what was included and what got skipped or skimmed over, but it did bring back a lot of memories of the world I was born into. Appropriate that it ended with Vietnam. He notes:

Vietnam not only shattered the image of American invincibility. It meant that a whole generation grew up looking on the United States as an imperialist, militarist, and racist power. The political capital the nation accumulated by leading the alliance against fascism in the Second World War and helping rebuild Japan and Western Europe it burned through in Southeast Asia.

Unfortunately, he doesn't end there. He ends with two paragraphs about an English journalist named James Fenton, bemoaning how after the Americans left the Communists took over in 1975 they turned the country into a Stalinist hellhole. I couldn't help but think that maybe if they hadn't had to fight for 30+ years against Japan, France, and the United States, they wouldn't have turned out so hard.

That chapter starts out with the 1960s student movement, with Tom Hayden and Mario Savio even before the war became a galvanizing issue. That led to the revelations that the CIA had been funding student groups for propaganda purposes. Many people involved didn't know or care. Diversity of opinion even worked to advantage, as an illustration of freedom vs. the thought control practiced on the other side of the Iron Curtain. (The walls helped make the West look free, which is part of the reason Eastern Europe, and later Ukraine, turned so hard against Russia.) But how free are you when on critical matters the things you believe are on the approved list? Menand picks out an interesting quote from Christopher Lasch:

Both as symptom and as source, the campaign for 'cultural freedom' revealed the degree to which the values held by intellectuals had become indistinguishable from the interests of the modern state -- interests which the intellectuals now served even while they maintained the illusion of detachment. . . . The American press is free, but it censors itself. The University is free, but it has purged itself of ideas. The literary intellectuals are free, but they use their freedom to propagandize for the state. The freedom of American intellectuals as a professional class blinds them to their un-freedom.

I came along at a time when we were starting to see through the haze of ideology and the deceit of power. The workings of the CIA, and how they led to the disaster in Vietnam, were partly exposed, and efforts were made to reform, but the old culture returned, more devious and deluded than ever. It's impossible to dismiss US schemes to influence Ukraine, because that's exactly what the US has always done, or tried to do, at least since WWII. And when you hear people parrot US talking points, you can't tell whether they're paid to shill or just conditioned to go along with them. This leads to the massive irony that democracy is permitted to exist in countries where people can be trusted not to use it, and denied in countries where the leaders actually fear public opinion.

America is becoming like the world in that respect. We are divided between Democratic and Anti-Democratic parties. The latter is the one preoccupied with repression and thought-control, the one obsessed with purging schools of any hint of free thinking, the one that still hopes to cling onto power by training pious, obedient cadres. The former, or at least the nostalgic Cold War faction which still controls the levers of power, knows they don't have to be that controlling. They understand that diverse people can be trusted with a little freedom, because in the end most of them will agree on the right things anyway. And if, say, some strange idea takes root and becomes popular, they're flexible enough to absorb it and carry on.

The war in Ukraine has largely deadlocked, but there's still enough to note to give them their own section:

Edward Alvarez: [05-07] Why We Should Not Admire Zelensky: I suspect someone could write a critique which takes the Ukrainian leader to task on at least two points: his intransigence in the runup to the war, and his reticence to negotiate a cease fire leading to an agreement to partition Ukraine (preferably through plebiscites). This doesn't dig deep enough to be that article. Moreover, you'd have to raise the question of what (if any) options Putin offered. Even now, while it's possible to imagine a deal that both sides should be willing to accept, it's not obvious which side is dragging this out. It could be that Zelensky's success at begging for arms will swell his head, leading to demands that only prolong the war, I worry more about the donors, with much less risk, seeing continued war as a bonanza.

George Beebe: [04-29] Tell us how this war in Ukraine ends.

Stephen Kinzer: [05-02] These countries are willing to risk US ire over Russia-Ukraine: "The Global South is not intimidated and has increasingly refused to ally with the West on sanctions and condemnations."

Jen Kirby: [05-04] Are sanctions against Russia working? Hard to tell. Clearly, the sanctions put in place after Russia annexed Crimea didn't deter this war. If anything, they promoted it. Will more sanctions bring Russia to sue for peace? Litte evidence of that so far. Otherwise, it's mostly an exercise in arrogance (the belief that we are entitled to judge and punish malefactors) and gratuitous sadism (the actual effect of sanctions on most people).

Paul Krugman: [04-28] America, Again the Arsenal of Democracy: I like FDR more than most Americans, both because and in spite of knowing a good deal about him. Still, this is wrong on more levels than I can count, word for word in any permutation. Maybe not as wrong as Wilson's "war to make the world safe for democracy," when the US went to war to support the Tsar of Russia and the world's two largest colonial empires. But the bigger problem is that supplying arms to Britain and the Soviet Union didn't help end the war. Rather, it sucked the US in, by giving reason to Japan to attack Pearl Harbor, and to Hitler to declare war on the US. It may be that Germany and Japan were so hell-bent on empire that we would have had to fight them sooner or later regardless, but sooner was what we got for feigning peace while feeding war. Given the way WWII turned out, many people applauded FDR for his vision and bold leadership. Krugman ends his piece wondering whether Biden will get due credit for his staunch defense of democracy in Ukraine. Depends a lot on how much escalation he provokes from Putin, who under no conceivable scenario is going to capitulate as gracefully as Hitler. Also depends on whether Biden manages to save democracy in America, which at the moment seems like the taller order. [Also see Tooze, below.]

Anatol Lieven: [05-03] Reckless and ruthless? Yes. But is Putin insane? No. A distinction that doesn't offer much comfort. Putin's decision to start the war was based on several severe misconceptions: about what Russia could do, what the US couldn't, how welcoming Ukrainians would be, and why small bits of land and people mattered. And even if he admits he was wrong on those counts, his decision to double down rather than suing for peace is yet another hint he's not fully grounded.

Dave Lindorff: [05-03] War Secretary Austin Wants a Long War in Ukraine, Not a Quick Peace.

Paul McLeary/Lara Seligman: [05-05] 'There is no going back': How the war in Ukraine has pushed Biden to rearm Europe. Loose lips at NATO and the Pentagon. We have to ask, is this really something we want to be doing? St. Clair [see below] cites this bit:

"We think it's time to move on from this forward presence concept based on the tripwire approach," the NATO diplomat said, where a small number of NATO troops are stationed in Eastern Europe, to a larger footprint that could actually halt any Russian incursion. The idea is to move from "deterrence by punishment to deterrence by denial," the official said.

How is it possible to install a "deterrence by denial" force in such a way that it won't be interpreted by Russia as a first strike force? For that matter, isn't is stupid now to talk about deterrence of any stripe so soon after such theories failed to deter Russia from invading Ukraine? Here's another quote from a Pentagon "International Security Affairs" head: "The U.S. government's objective in this crisis relative to Russia . . . is that Russia ends this crisis as a strategic failure." But massive strategic failures on both sides hasn't ended the war yet. And if the US can't admit as much, why are they waiting for Russia to throw in the towel.

Rajan Menon: [05-05] Human catastrophe, flowing from Ukraine and across the globe. Most obviously, 12.8 million Ukrainians have been displaced, with 5.4 million leaving the country. Economic damages fans out from there: the displaced need to be fed and sheltered, even those who stayed are unable to go about their normal business; one-third of Ukraine's infrastructure has been damaged or demolished; sanctions against Russia affect costs elsewhere, and inflation spreads the pain even farther.

Adam Tooze: [04-18] Azovstal - Mariupol's final battlefield. History of the big steel plant in the news. Tooze also wrote a pretty detailed history of the conflict before it blew up: [01-12] Putin's Challenge to Western hegemony - the 2022 edition. More recently: [05-04] Is escalation in Ukraine part of the US strategy? Subhed: "The aim of the billions committed through the Lend-Lease plan could tip the geopolitical balance. History may be about to repeat itself." More pointed is this line: "It is a calculation so cold-blooded that it is little wonder that we want to dress it up in half-remembered histories of the second world war, in which the happy ending is assumed without the necessary sacrifices ever being spelled out."

Some other links and comments. Again, I'm not making any attempt to be thorough or systematic:

Rachael Bedard: [05-07] The Radical Life of Kathy Boudin: "She became infamous for her involvement in acts of political violence. Then she found her way out of the abyss."

Fabiola Cineas: [05-03] Florida's new election police unit is the scariest voter suppression effort yet.

David Dayen: [04-26] Will Inflation Break the News? "The greatest threat to democracy from media isn't disinformation, it's the paywall." I'm sorry for all you "content providers" out there who want to make a living off your earnest thinking and writing, but the marginal value of information is very thin, unless you're in a position to profit from it. But who makes a living from good citizenship? Dayen imagines people will cut back on their subscriptions as inflation eats into their income, and it's hard to argue otherwise. That's already true of entertainment (like Netflix), and most people get a lot more there than they will ever get from subscribing to Matt Taibbi or Matthew Yglesias or many others. I can imagine a day coming when I feel the crunch and give up most or all of my subscriptions (with the side bonus of never writing this column again). But is this any way to run a democracy? By the way, Dayen also wrote (no paywall, but you have to beat down a pop-up): [05-05] Means-Testing Student Debt Relief: Big Hassle, No Results.

Sean Illing: [04-24] Michael Lewis on why Americans don't trust experts. More reason to plug his book, The Fifth Risk. Who knew that the government employs competent people looking out for you?

Sarah Jones: [05-04] Why Are Conservative Men So Scared of Cat Ladies? Jones also weighs in on the Supreme Court: [05-04] The Supreme Court Is a Tool for Tyrants.

Robert Kuttner: [05-04] The Fed's Dilemma: They hiked short-term interest rates half a point, because that's the only hammer they have to attack inflation, even when it's not caused by low interest rates, when the main effect of an interest rate is to slow business down and put people out of work (at a time when the economy is already shrinking due to war and supply chain issues). Oh, and this is Jay Powell (Trump's Fed Chair) doing this. You know, the guy Biden was talked into renominating because he finally understood that the Fed's job wasn't limited to fighting inflation: growing the economy and increasing employment also matters. Until, evidently, you get that second term.

Jamie Martin: [04-28] The US Wants to Tackle Inflation. Here's Why That Should Worry the Rest of the World.

Ian Millhiser: [05-03] 4 things we know, and one big thing we don't, on the draft opinion overruling Roe v. Wade. Millhiser covers the Supreme Court as comprehensively as anyone, so he's the obvious reporter/critic to look to. The "big thing" is whether a majority will continue to stand behind Alito's "maximalist" opinion. One option might be to concur with Alito's judgment but with a less sweeping opinion. One thing I've gotten from reading Millhiser is how sloppy and contorted the reasoning of right-wing judges has become lately as they try to invent legal theories to support their agenda. Another is that right-wingers seem to have unlimited resources to file ridiculous suits to harass others. Indeed, the recent avalanche of laws that depend on right-wing vigilantes for enforcement show their confidence in this tactic. Millhiser followed this piece up with:

  • Ian Millhiser/Li Zhou/Nicole Narea: [05-03] What happens next if the Supreme Court strikes down Roe.
  • Ian Millhiser: [05-03] The case against the Supreme Court of the United States: "The Court was the midwife of Jim Crow, the right hand of union busters, and the dead hand of the Confederacy, and is now one of the chief architects of America's democratic decline." The way I've often put it: we've been fortunate to have lived during a rare period where the Supreme Court sought to broaden our constitutional rights. Of course, by "we" I mean people more or less my age (71). The Court's been leaning back rightward at least since the 1980s, when Scalia and Thomas were installed with an explicit political agenda. But for much of US history the Court has had a malign influence, and the current majority is likely to become one of the worst ever.
  • Ian Millhiser: [05-06] If Roe v Wade falls, are LGBTQ rights next?

A few more links on Alito v. Roe v. Wade:

Jason Samenow: [05-08] Texas toast: Heat crushed records Saturday and will swell northward: Wichita hit 90F today for the first day this year, and forecast calls for 4-5 more 90+ days, so this is too close for comfort.

Jeffrey St Clair: [05-06] Roaming Charges: Playing for Keeps: Opens with a sizable section on abortion politics, so I could have filed it there, but also includes significant points on Ukraine, and more. Includes this Trump quote (per Mark Esper): "We could just shoot some Patriot missiles [into Mexico) and take out the [drug] labs, quietly. No one would know it was us." Come on, no one would even suspect it was anyone else. Charles Pierce [05-02] has more from the Esper book: Mark Esper Didn't Think Voters Deserved to Know That Trump Wanted to Turn DC Streets Into My Lai? ("The Secretary of Defense thought this information would better serve his bank account two years later.")

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