Sunday, March 26, 2023

Speaking of Which

Started this on Friday, but by Sunday evening I'm getting really sick and tired of it all. Nearly done with Nathan J Robinson's The Current Affairs Rules for Life: On Social Justice & Its Critics, and I'm getting tired of it too. Not that it's a bad book, but that I so rarely use terms like "social justice" (or for that matter, "socialism") that debate over their use hardly matters to me. Similarly, the long opening section where he tries to rebut conservative writers by taking them seriously wasn't a lot of help. (The chapter on Jordan Peterson was especially hard, as the main point that he writes verbose nonsense was proven by reproducing way too much of it.) Still, I do some of this myself in the Shields comment, which exasperatingly was the last item written here.

The Simmons-Duffin piece is one of the most important below.

Top story threads:

Top stories for the week:

The Fed, Banks, and the Economy: Just a couple notes here. I hardly need to remind you that I thought Biden made a big mistake in reappointing Jerome Powell.

Trump/DeSantis: Maybe we should start merging their names, like Benifer or Brexit? A lot of pieces that could be better sorted, possibly eliminating some redundancy. The race to the bottom makes you wonder how either will ever recover, but the American mainstream media hardly has any attention span at all.

  • James Bamford: [03-23] The Trump Campaign's Collusion With Israel: "While US media fixated on Russian interference in the 2016 election, an Israeli secret agent's campaign to influence the outcome went unreported." This is a big story, but for many of us it's anticlimactic: of course, Israel actively sticks its nose into American politics. I never had any doubt that Israel was more deeply involved in the Trump campaign than Russia could dream of being. All you need to know is that Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson was also Netanyahu's main backer. What this article adds to such common knowledge is that it involves more spies, and it makes the quid pro quo explicit for Israel's support of Trump.

  • John Wagner/Hannah Allam: [03-24] Trump warns of 'potential death & destruction' if he's charged in hush-money case.

  • Laura Jedeed: [03-22] Trump Asked Supporters to Take to the Streets. This Was the Sad Result. "Outside a courthouse in New York City, it was difficult ot tell who had come to protest the pending indictment of the former president and who had come to troll." Tori Otten adds: [03-21] The Pro-Trump Protest Was So Small Organizers Are Pretending They Wanted It to Be "Low-Key".

  • Dan Solomon: [03-24] Why Is Donald Trump Kicking Off His 2024 Campaign in Waco? "During the thirtieth anniversary of the Branch Davidian tragedy, no less." Sounds like an homage to Reagan's launching his 1980 campaign at the site of the 1964 murder of three civil rights workers, except that the appeal is less to plain racists than to even crazier militants (the late Timothy McVeigh would surely be impressed).

  • Zack Beauchamp: [03-22] Yes, Trump's indictment could cause a constitutional crisis. Just look at Israel. I don't really get either point. Israel doesn't have a constitution: Ben Gurion didn't want to pin himself down on principle, plus he like the idea of keeping British colonial law around without really owning it. And Israel has a history of sending politicians to jail. Netanyahu has avoided that fate by exploiting the fundamental weakness of democracy in Israel, and that's come as a shock to a lot of Israelis -- even ones who don't have a problem with Netanyahu's politics. But an indictment of Trump isn't even that.

  • Matt Ford: [03-24] Florida's Attempt to Muzzle the Press Could Hurt Fox News the Most: "Ron DeSantis and the Republican legislature want to make it easier to sue journalists. But right-wing outlets will be the ripest targets if defamation laws are loosened." Still, this is a pretty appalling bill.

  • Susan B Glasser: [03-23] Trolled by Trump, Again: "Thoughts after a week or waiting and waiting for the indictment that the former President promised."

  • Ed Kilgore: [03-26] Donald Trump Thinks America Is a Sh*thole Country: "In Waco, he denounced America more than any alleged super-patriot ever." With quotes so long, the article practically wrote itself. No Trump quotes (just one from a "conservative columnist" defending DeSantis) in Kilgore's [03-25] Can America Survive a Second Trump Presidency, Emotionally? I don't know about emotionally, but he makes a good case that we're in for a serious cognitive breakdown if Trump wins, because he's so far out of whack from everything we're disposed to believe about America.

  • Nicole Narea: [03-25] Would Trump's indictment help or hurt his 2024 campaign? Four "political strategists and pollsters" comment. They're split, but none of their opinions are very convincing.

  • Heather Digby Parton: [03-24] Donald Trump in Waco: It's a signal to the darkest elements of the far right. For more background, see Tara Isabella Burton: [03-23] The Waco tragedy, explained.

  • Areeba Shah: [03-23] Ex-prosecutor warns Trump to get a new lawyer over potential "conflict of interest" in Stormy case. It turns out that Trump lawyer Joe Tacopina previously represented Daniels on the same case. It's amusing to compare his press statements then to now.

  • Walter Shapiro: [03-23] The Trump Indictment Is Bringing Out the Worst in People. Here's a List of Them.

  • Alex Shephard: [03-23] Ron DeSantis Looks Like a Loser: "The Florida governor and presumptive presidential candidate is falling in the polls and making the same mistakes as Trump's past rivals." As James Baker once put it, "we don't have a dog in that fight." The thing is, DeSantis has adopted the Trump policy world in toto, assuming that it holds sway in the party. But Trump's hold over the Republican base has nothing to do with policy -- policy is just something Trump hands over to the donors and party operatives, in exchange for not getting in the way and cramping his style. His hold is his style, and DeSantis doesn't even have a style, much less one that can win against Trump. So if Trump implodes, which always seems like a possibility, is his successor going to be a cardboard cutout with Trump policies, or something else which we haven't seen yet, because nobody dares imitate Trump yet?

  • Kenny Stancil: [03-24] Critics say DeSantis move to expand "Don't Say Gay" exposes law's true intentions. As originally sold, it only covered grades K-3, where it seemed to be prohibiting virtually nothing. Having gotten away with that, extending it to grades 4-12 is something else.

  • Michael Tomasky: [03-26] Why Trump '24 Is Far More Dangerous Than Trump '16: Argues he's added two new "arguments" this time "that make him a much bigger threat to the republic than he was in 2016: revenge and apocalypse." Revenge I get: he started 2016 with his bad ideas about how to "make America great again," but he's so self-centered, and so thin-skinned, that all he can remember now is the people who have wronged him. But apocalypse? Tomasky quotes him: "Our opponents have done everything they can do to crush our spirit and break our will. But they've failed. They've only made us stronger. And 2024 is the final battle. That's gonna be the big one. You put me back in the White House, their reign will be over, and America will be a free nation once again." No doubt a Trump win in 2024 would be a major bummer, but only an incredibly concentrated ego could imagine that it would be so fateful. If he wins, we'll resist him, like we did in 2017, though perhaps more desperately, given that in many respects time is running out.

    I come from a long line of "Revelations scholars" -- people who while away their hours scouring the Bible for signs that the world is coming to an end, where all die but the elect are rewarded with heaven, while the rest are dispatched to hell. I've never understood such macabre fascination, nor the strange politics such a mindset breeds. We increasingly live in a world of plenty, where most people could escape the hardships and misery of the past. And while human justice may never be as perfect as God's is presumed to be, it could be vastly improved here and now, while we're still alive to enjoy it. Alas, not if Trump or his disciples can help it.

Climate: I'm still surprised at how little comment the U.N. report has resulted in.

  • Kate Aronoff: [03-24] Why Optimism Can't Fix Our Climate Politics: "This week's U.N. report shows how hard it is to save the world when capitalism is working against you." Aronoff also wrote: [03-17] Who Is Biden Trying to Please With His Middle-Ground Energy Policy? "He's pissing off environmentalists, and oil executives are still donating to Republicans."

  • Ketan Joshi: [03-21] The U.N.'s Disturbing New Climate Report Is a Call to Battle.

  • Hannah Ritchie: [03-21] We need the right kind of climate optimism: "Climate pessimism dooms us to a terrible future. Complacent optimism is no better." Aronoff cites, and critiques, this piece in her article above. It's tempting to fight back here with the Gramsci quote ("pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will"), but even that strikes me as a panacea. Optimism doesn't work -- doesn't mean anything, whether complacent or contingent -- and isn't even necessary. Maybe I'm betraying my Calvinist upbringing, but you do what you can, what after due consideration you think right, and that may or may not suffice, but as long as you act, it doesn't matter how you feel about it. In fact, feelings can just get in the way. Or perhaps you should consider the second law of thermodynamics: entropy is going to win, but if you work hard enough, you might be able to hold it back a while. Indeed, isn't that the model for life?

Israel: A couple items, no attempt to go deep, but one bit of context comes from a Peter Beinart tweet: "Yes, it's beautiful to see Israelis fighting a fascist government. But we can't forget that if this was a Palestinian protest in Tel Aviv against Israeli fascism, the protesters would likely end up j ailed, maimed or dead."

Ukraine War: Unless war breaks out with China, this remains the most serious story in the world, at least in the short term, yet the media is still asking, not what they can do to impress on everyone how urgent a peaceable solution is, but on furthering the propaganda aims of whoever they're most aligned with. Meanwhile, I filed some non-Ukraine pieces here, because they involve the broader neo-Cold War scenario.

  • Connor Echols: [03-24] Diplomacy Watch: The heavy price of a new cold war: Blinken wasted no time in condemning Xi Jinping for meeting with Putin in Moscow, even though Xi's public remarks were all in favor of a negotiated peace. Although I get the feeling that Zelensky is more hard-line than Biden, at least he doesn't go out of his way to butt heads with China. The US seems to view pushing China into an alliance with Russia as a positive step.

  • Gilbert Achcar: [03-17] There's No Settlement of the War in Ukraine Without China. Actually, there's no settlement without the US and Russia, assuming they can come to a settlement that is acceptable to Ukraine (possibly with the threat of bouncing some blank checks). China might have a bit of influence with Russia, if they want to press it, but the US is mostly reacting negatively to Chinese diplomatic efforts, and there's not much China can do about that. Still, it's good to have China in the mix.

  • Dave DeCamp: [03-22] Seymour Hersh: CIA Planted Nord Stream Cover-Up Story in the Media. (Hersh's article is: The Cover-Up.) Imagine the New York Times falling for such a thing. DeCamp also wrote: [03-23] Pentagon Leaders Say New Budget Will Help Prepare for War With China.

  • Connor Echols: [03-21] UK to send controversial 'depleted uranium' rounds to Ukraine: "The weapons are exceptionally good at breaking through armor but carry risks of long-term harm to civilians." I think the risks are well documented, especially in Iraq, where the US used uranium bullets extensively. "Depleted" means most of the U-235 isotopes have been removed, leaving the only slightly more stable but still radioactive and toxic U-238. There's nothing to stop Russia from reciprocating.

  • Fred Kaplan: [03-22] The Big Takeaway From Xi's Summit With Putin: Not a very clear one, but it boils down to: China will not help Russia fight its war, but China will also not help America strangle the Russian economy. So while China professes to want peace, it will not pressure Russia to surrender on America's terms.

  • Peter Rutland: [03-24] Why pushing for the break up of Russia is absolute folly. I'd go a step beyond this in insisting that the US has no right, and should have no desire, to interfere in the internal politics of any other country. (And yes, I would include Israel as a country we shouldn't interfere with, although the billions we give them to help finance their colonial project is also a form of interference.)

  • Justin Scheck/Thomas Gibbons-Neff: [03-25] Stolen Valor: The U.S. Volunteers in Ukraine Who Lie, Waste, and Bicker.

  • Trita Parsi: [03-22] The U.S. Is Not an Indispensable Peacemaker. I was going to wonder how long it's been since the US was any kind of peacemaker, but the first paragraph here starts with the 1978 Camp David Accords, where the US helped end conflict between Israel and Egypt, not least by promising each a substantial future stipend. Parsi also mentions the 1993 Oslo Accords, where the settlement was less generous, and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement over Northern Ireland. More recent deals are harder to find, mostly because the US has been too intimately involved in creating the conflicts. China, on the other hand, is large enough to offer a steady hand and some economic perks, much like the US once did. Hence the Saudi-Iran deal.

  • Kelley Beaucar Vlahos: [03-24] US launches airstrikes in Syria after American killed in drone attack: The US still has 900 troops in Syria. It's hard to think of any rationale for keeping them there, other than to provide targets for triggering pointless reprisal attacks like this one.

Iraq: A few more pieces related to the 20th anniversary.

  • Gordon Adams: [03-25] Has America's 'Vietnam syndrome' ever gone away? What a strange thing to ask. The phrase was a supposed ailment caused by completely sensible efforts to learn lessons from the mistakes made in Vietnam. Those who wielded the phrase wanted to deny those lessons (as they advised caution and concern for consequences), which they saw could limit the future use of US military power. So they devised a series of tests, where they meant to show that the US military could engage and win, without generating the popular outcry they blamed for their failures in Vietnam: hence, Grenada, Panama, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq. By the end, what returned wasn't "Vietnam syndrome"; it was reality, where people fight against alien invaders, even American ones. If Ukraine seems to be working out better, it's because the roles are reversed. This time, the US is supporting a people trying to dislodge a foreign invader, much as the Soviet Union supplied arms and support to the Vietnamese defending themselves against an encroaching empire.

  • Anthony DiMaggio: [03-24] 20 Years of Iraq Denialism: The New York Times Continues to Get It Wrong on U.S. Empire: A response to last week's article, 20 Years On, a Question Lingers About Iraq: Why Did the U.S. Invade?

  • Melvin Goodman: [03-24] Still Spinning the Iraq War 20 Years Later.

  • Branko Marcetic: [03-23] For Putin, Iraq War marked a turning point in US-Russia relations: "Leaked diplomatic cables show an increasingly skeptical Moscow, souring by the day on Washington's determination to impose its will."

  • Jeffrey St Clair: [03-23] Selling the Iraq War: a How-to Guide. Essay adapted from his book, Grand Theft Pentagon, provides a lot of detail on the PR firms the Pentagon and CIA hired to promote the invasion of Iraq, as well as the revolving door between those firms and their clients. For instance, I recall Ahmed Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress, but forgot (or never knew) that they were set up as a front by John Rendon, who had previously shilled for the Kuwaiti royal family.

  • Jeffrey St Clair: [03-24] American Dream, Global Nightmare: On the Origins of the Iraq War: Mostly consists of a piece from 2003, which is exceptionally detailed on the impact of sanctions and periodic bombings between 1990 and 2003. As the introduction notes, "One of the problems with commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Iraq War is that the Iraq War didn't start 20 years ago. It had been going on for more than a decade before Shock and Awe." He also includes a long list of quotes from 2001 to 2017, "a kind of oral history of the war (mostly) from the perpetrator's point of view."

Other stories:

Zack Beauchamp: [03-24] India's ruling party just kicked a major rival out of Parliament -- and sparked a new crisis: Narenda Modi's government "has rewritten election rules in its favor, assailed the rights of the Muslim minority, jailed anti-government protesters, and reined in the free press." Now they expelled Congress Party leader Rahul Gandhi, after he was convicted of defaming the "Modi community" and sentenced to two years, for making what's generally understood to be a joke in a campaign speech. You'd think the "cancel culture" decriers of the US right would be up in arms over this attack on free speech, but Modi is a member of Steve Bannon's International Fraternity of Fascists, so I guess not. (That, by the way, was a joke, as well as an admission that I'm not traveling to India any time soon.)

Kyle Chayka: [03-24] The TikTok hearings inspired little faith in social media or in Congress. By the way, the New Yorker cartoon shows two people sitting on top of a flooded house, one looking at a phone, with the caption: "Looks like Congress might finally do something about TikTok."

Ellen Ioanes: [03-25] America's hypersonic arms race with China, explained. The problem with hypersonic missiles is that they can't be defended against. They make previously defensible targets, like aircraft carriers, vulnerable. Moreover, building more of your own hypersonic weapons doesn't change this. Hence, an arms race only makes you more vulnerable.

Ian Millhiser:

Win McCormack: [03-17] The Thucydides Trap: "Can the United States and China avoid military conflict?" I don't know. Suppose maybe they're overthinking this a bit? Before Britain, there never was a world hegemon, and even at its peak, Britain had rivals and blind spots. After WWII, the US took over and had more size and a bit more range, but still counted Russia and China as rivals, and the international working class as a threat. After 1990, some Americans thought they were had won, coining terms like hyperpower, but then they got tripped up in places as backward as Afghanistan. And then, while Russia imploded, China pulled it self up and came to be viewed as a formidable rival. Over the past 20 years, has any subject collected more stupid and histrionic verbiage than US-China? What makes this especially strange is that while Americans see a rivalry for power, Chinese are much more likely to think in terms of defense of autonomy. Of course, China is not the only nation threatened by American hubris, so it's always possible that they could create alliances with other nations so-threatened. I wouldn't bet against them, especially given how American power has been crushed by inequality and militarism. The best answer is to give up on the dreams of ruling the world (perhaps most explicit in Henry Luce's "American Century" of 1941, and in the Iraq hawks' Project for a New American Century). Pretending that trap is as old as Thucydides is nothing but an evasion.

Timothy Noah: [03-22] GOP's Idea of Youth: Little League? Proms? Try Working in a Slaughterhouse and Marrying at 10. "Republicans have declared war on children, and Democrats should talk more forthrightly about it."

Nathan J Robinson:

  • [03-23] Bernie Sanders Keeps Us Focused on What Matters: Review, sort of, of Sanders new campaign memoir/political manifesto, It's OK to Be Angry About Capitalism.

  • [03-13] Every Libertarian Becomes a Socialist the Moment the Free Market Screws Them: "If the rich customers of Silicon Valley Bank deserv to be protected from economic hardship by the government, what about the rest of us?"

  • [03-04] Why Centrism Is Morally Indefensible: Review of Tim Urban's big book, What's Our Problem? A Self-Help Book for Societies. Urban seems to like to explain his ideas with drawings, so Robinson reproduces a few (of some 300). One is called "The Illiberal Staircase," which descends from "Liberal Environment" to "Even Worse Shit" as it becomes "More Dictatorship-y." They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but all this diagram is exhausted after 26 (including the less "worse shit" I skipped over).

  • [03-24] The Problem With AI Is the Problem With Capitalism. Something I saw about AI last week reminded me of Robert Reich's The Work of Nations (1991), where he reassured us that American workers need not worry about trade sucking manufacturing jobs overseas, because all those lost jobs will be replaced by higher-paying jobs as "symbolic manipulators." (Clinton was so enamored with Reich's reasoning that he picked Reich as his Secretary of Labor, to preside over the great NAFTA exodus.) I can think of a lot of jobs that AI won't be able to degrade much, but it should easily wipe out "symbolic manipulators" -- as if Reich's thesis hadn't been demolished enough already.

Jon A Shields: [03-23] Liberal Professors Can Rescue the G.O.P.: A self-described conservative professor of government begs his liberal colleagues to assign readings from Edmund Burke, David Hume, and Adam Smith, so their impressionable young students will get some exposure to "good conservative thinking." After all, "It's hard to imagine how the next generation of Republican leaders will become thoughtful conservatives if all they've ever been tutored in is its Trump-style expressions." After all, he pairs his assignments with "books by progressive authors" (but doesn't name any in the article). Still, the conservative cause he leads with is the defense of marriage. I don't have a problem with marriage; in fact, I recommend it. My problem is with a legal system that penalizes people who aren't married, and one that traps people (mostly women). Lots of conservative "virtues" are just that, and people who embrace them deserve respect. But that changes when they're used to attack and/or degrade other people who don't conform to conservative ideals -- of which the one that really matters is the belief in a hierarchical social and economic order. Give that a fair hearing, and most people will reject it. As for the rest, lots of complaining and pleading: conservatives are powerless because most professors are liberals, and students are mostly liberal too, so conservatives feel left out. Boo-hoo.

Selena Simmons-Duffin: [03-25] 'Live free and die'? The sad state of U.S. life expectancy: As the chart shows, life expectancy is dropping, so fast that the last two years have wiped out all previous gains since 1996, which had been trailing most "comparable" countries at least since the 1980s. Pandemic is only the most obvious cause: it caused a drop pretty much everywhere, but nowhere near as much as in the US. Moreover, other countries have started to bounce back, but not the US. As noted elsewhere, Republicans not only decided that deaths due to pandemic are acceptable, they've vowed never to allow public health officials to do their jobs again. Still, many other factors add to the problem, and most of have a Republican political component. It's as if they read Hobbes' description of 17th century life as "nasty, brutish, and short," and said, "yeah, that's freedom."

Paul Street: [03-24] Lost and Found: The Republicans Haven't Lost Their Conservative Minds: Review of Robert Draper: Weapons of Mass Delusion: When the Republican Party Lost Its Mind. Every time I look at Draper's book, the thing that strikes me as most odd is how he only looks as far back as the 2020 election to date his subject moment ("when the Republican Party lost its mind"), when evidence of deep irrationality and dangerous psychoses has been plain for anyone to see for decades. For example, Dana Milbank's The Destructionists sees Gingrich as pivotal. David Corn's American Psychosis goes back earlier still, to McCarthyism, the Birchers, and Goldwater. Street's a little effusive with the F-word, but I can still figure out what he's talking about.

Prem Thakker: [03-24] Michigan Becomes First State in 58 Years to Repeal Anti-Union "Right-to-Work" Law: But the law in question was only passed in 2012, when Republicans temporarily seized control of state government.

David Wallace-Wells: [03-17] The idea that pandemic response went too far is no longer confined to the margins: Republicans all across the country are trying to pass laws to make sure that public health officials can never again use their offices to protect public health. Linked to by Dean Baker, who has his own point to add: [03-17] NYT Can Trash Trumpers for Leaving Us Less Prepared for Next Pandemic, but Not Drug Companies. Baker also wrote: [03-16] The Cult of Intellectual Property Has Taken Over Our Leading News Outlets.

Sharon Zhang: [03-24] GOP is seeking rich, self-funding candidates as party is outraised by Democrats: If this is true, it flips what has long been standard policy of the two parties. Republican elites are famous for recruiting ambitious young lawyers to run for office, much like they hired help for their businesses (Richard Nixon and Bob Dole are famous examples; Nelson Rockefeller and Pierre DuPont were the exceptions). Meanwhile, Democrats have pined for candidates who could pay their own way, and generally blackballed anyone who couldn't.

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