Sunday, September 10, 2023

Speaking of Which

I started to work on a books post this week, which caused some confusion when I ran across reviews of books I had recently written something about. I'm guessing I have about half of my usual batch, so a post is possible later this week, but not guaranteed. I'm still reading Eric Hobsbawm's brilliant The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848, which is absolutely jam-packed with insights -- probably why I drone on at such length below on liberalism and its discontents. I got deep enough into it to order three books:

  • Franklin Foer: The Last Politician: Inside Joe Biden's White House and the Struggle for America's Future (2023, Penguin Press)
  • Cory Doctorow: The Internet Con: How to Seize the Means of Computation (2023, Verso)
  • Astra Taylor: The Age of Insecurity: Coming Together as Things Fall Apart (paperback, 2023, House of Anansi Press)

I didn't bother with any reviews of Foer this week (there are several), although I mentioned the book last week. I figured I'd wait until I at least get a chance to poke around a bit. I have a lot of questions about how Biden's White House actually works. I'm not big on these insider books, but usually the outside view suffices -- especially on someone as transparent as Trump. Two I read on Obama that were useful were:

  • Ron Suskind: Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President (2011, Harper).
  • Reed Hundt: A Crisis Wasted: Barack Obama's Defining Decisions (2019, Rosetta Books).

Suskind was a reporter who had written an important book on the GW Bush administration (The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11). Hundt was a participant, but not an important nor a particularly successful one, so he took his time before weighing in.

Top story threads:


  • Holly Bailey: [09-08] Georgia special grand jury recommended charging Lindsey Graham in Trump case. We now know that the Grand Jury actually recommended prosecution of 38 people, but the prosecutor streamlined the case to just 19 defendants. It's easy to imagine the case against Graham, who was especially aggressive in trying to bully Georgia officials into throwing the election to Trump. But it's also easy to see how prosecuting Graham, and for that matter Georgia Senators (at the time) Loeffler and Perdue, could distract from focusing on the ringleader.

  • Amy Gardner: [09-08] Judge denies Mark Meadows's effort to move Georgia case to federal court: This was the first, and probably the most credible, such appeal, so it doesn't look good for the other defendants.

  • Alex Guillén: [09-07] Trump's border wall caused 'significant' cultural, environmental damage, watchdog finds. Rep. Raúl Grijalva put it more bluntly: "This racist political stunt has been an ineffective waste of billions of American taxpayers' dollars."

  • Nicole Narea: [09-06] January 6 rioters are facing hundreds of years in prison combined. What does it mean for Trump? Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio was sentenced to 22 years for seditious conspiracy, the longest individual sentence yet. Jeffrey St Clair notes (link below) that Tarrio was initially offered a plea deal of 9-11 years, in "a textbook case of how prosecutors use plea deals to coerce guilty pleas and punish those who insist on their constitutional right to a trial." He lists four more Proud Boys who received sentences approximately double of what they were offered to plea out.

  • Tori Otten: [09-07] Guilty! Trumpiest Peter Navarro convicted of contempt of Congress.

  • Charles P Pierce: [09-08] Get a load of the letter Fulton County DA Fani Willis sent Jim Jordan: "I didn't think there were this many ways to tell somebody to fck off."

  • Jack Shafer: [09-08] Donald Trump destroyed horse race journalism: "At least for now." I guess it's hard to enjoy a good horse race when something more than your own bet depends on it. Like whether there'll ever be another race. Especially when you have to spend so much time scanning the grounds for snipers and ambulances, which are the only things about this race you haven't seen before.

  • Li Zhou: [09-07] Trump faces another big legal loss in the E. Jean Carroll case.

  • No More Mister Nice Blog: [09-08] So why wasn't Trump impeached for emoluments?:

    It's a shame, because much of America struggled to understand the point of the first impeachment, whereas an emoluments impeachment would have been extremely easy for ordinary citizens to grasp: If you use your status as president to cash in, that's illegal. Simple. Relatable. It's like stealing from the cash register. And he was allowed to get away with it.

    The question is probably rhetorical, but the obvious answer is that there was a faction of Democrats who thought that national security was the only unassailable moral high ground that exists, therefore everyone would get behind it. In the end, it persuaded no one who wasn't going to vote to impeach Trump for any of dozens of things anyway. Ironically, the key witnesses against Trump at the time have become the Washington's biggest Ukraine hawks, with the same "security Democrats" cheering them the loudest. And still Republicans are trying to get Hunter Biden prosecuted, so you didn't even win the battle, much less the war.

DeSantis, and other Republicans:

Biden and/or the Democrats:

  • Peter Baker/Katie Rogers: [09-10] Biden forges deeper ties with Vietnam as China's ambition mounts: Further proof that the only thing that can get American foreign policy past a grudge is to spite another supposed foe.

  • Jonathan Chait: [09-09] Biden or Bust: Why isn't a mainstream Democrat challenging the president? The simple answer is that no one wants to risk losing, not so much to Biden as to a Republican who should be unelectable but still scares pretty much everyone shitless. The greater left of the party isn't that unhappy with Biden, at least as long as they don't have to think much about foreign policy (which, frankly, is pretty awful, but so were Obama and Clinton). The neolibs aren't that unhappy either, and they're the ones most likely to sandbag anyone to Biden's left. Second answer is money. Nobody's got any (unless Bloomberg wants to run again, and that would really be stupid). But if Biden did drop out, ten names would pop up within a month.

  • Lisa Friedman: [09-06] Biden administration to bar drilling on millions of acres in Alaska: This reverses leases granted in the late days of the Trump administration, but only after [04-23] Many young voters bitter over Biden's support of Willow oil drilling, also on Alaska's north slope.

  • Molly Jong-Fast: [09-05] Can Joe Biden ride "boring" to reelection? "His administration is getting a lot done for the American people, yet its accomplishments don't get the same media attention as Trumpian chaos."

  • Andrew Prokop: [09-08] Should we trust the polls showing Trump and Biden nearly tied? You have much more serious things to worry about than polls, but what I take from this is that Democrats haven't really figured out how to talk about their political differences, and the mainstream media isn't very adept at talking about politics at all. There are obvious, and in some ways intractable, reasons for this. The idea of merely reporting the news gives equal credence to both sides regardless of truth, value, or intent. Republicans are masters at blaming everything bad on Democrats, while crediting them nothing. Democrats are reluctant to reciprocate, especially as we've been conditioned to dismiss their infrequent counterattacks as shrill and snotty. The double standards are maddening, but somehow we have to figure out ways to get past that. The differences between Trump and Biden, or between any generic Republican and Democrat you might fancy, are huge and important. At some level you have to believe that it's possible to explain that clearly. But until then, you get stupid poll results.

Legal matters and other crimes:

Climate and environment:

Ukraine War:

  • Connor Echols: [09-08] Diplomacy Watch: Inquiry finds 'no evidence' South Africa armed Russia. No meaningful diplomacy to report. The website has a new design, which I don't like, mostly because it makes it much harder to find new pieces on the front page.

  • Ben Armbruster: [09-05] Why blind optimism leads us astray on Ukraine: "The pre-counteroffensive debate in the US was dominated by claims of 'victory' and 'success' despite available evidence predicting it wouldn't meet key goals." This is similar to the Confidence Fairy, where Obama and his people seemed to think that the key to recovery from the 2008 meltdown was projecting confidence that the economy was really just fine. The effect of such thinking on war strategy is even worse: any doubt that war aims will succeed is scorned as giving comfort to the enemy, so everyone parrots the official line. The final withdrawal from Afghanistan was hampered by just this kind of thinking. The article includes a wide sampling of such yes men cheering each other on into thinking it would all work out. I've tried to take a different position, which is that it doesn't matter whether the counteroffensive gains ground or not. In either case, the war only ends when Russia and the US -- with Ukraine's agreement, to be sure, but let's not kid ourselves about who Putin's real opponent is -- decide to negotiate something that allows both sides to back down. And the key to that isn't who controls how many acres, but when negotiators find common ground. Until then, the only point to the war is to disillusion hawks on both sides.

  • Ben Freeman: [06-01] Defense contractor funded think tanks dominate Ukraine debate: A lengthy report, finding that "media outlets have cited think tanks with financial backing from the defense industry 85 percent of the time."

  • Jen Kirby: [09-07] Are the US and Ukraine at odds over the counteroffensive?

  • Daniel Larison: [09-07] Hawks want Biden to take the fight with Russia global: "Walter Russell Mead thinks the West can wear down Russia by attacking it everywhere." The first question I have is: isn't it global already, or is he really arguing for escalating with military action? (Syria and Mali are mentioned.) The bigger question is why do you want to fight Russia in the first place? I can see defending Ukraine, but the hawks seem to be starting from the assumption the US should wage war against Russia, and Ukraine is just an excuse and tool for that purpose.

  • Anatol Lieven: [09-06] Afghanistan delusions blind US on Russia-Ukraine: "If Washington forgets the war's lessons, its mistakes are likely to be repeated."

  • Robert Wright: [09-08] Logic behind Ukraine peace talks grows: This is a pretty good summary of an argument that I think has been obvious if not from day one, at least since Russia retreated from its initial thrust at Kyiv: that neither side can win, nor can either side afford to lose.

  • Common Dreams: [09-02] US to begin sending controversial depleted uranium shells to Ukraine: The shells are effective at piercing tank armor, but they ultimately disintegrate, leaving toxic and radioactive uranium in the air, water, and soil. They were used extensively in Iraq, and the results have been tragic; e.g., Sydney Young: [2021-09-22] Depleted Uranium, Devastated Health: Military Operations and Environmental Injustice in the Middle East; and Dahr Jamail: [2013-03-15] Iraq: War's legacy of cancer.


Around the world:

Other stories:

Dan Balz: [09-09] What divides political parties? More than ever, it's race and ethnicity. That's what a report from the American Political Science Association (APSA) says. My first reaction was: that's a shame. My second was the suspicion that they got that result because that's all they could think of to measure. It's always possible to think of other questions that could scatter the results in various directions. And my third is that this is mostly an indictment of the news media, which seems completely incapable of explaining issues in ways that people can relate to.

Zack Beauchamp:

  • [09-06] Elon Musk's strange new feud with a Jewish anti-hate group, explained: So Musk is suing the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) . . . for defamation? He blames them for a 60% loss of advertising revenue, which couldn't possibly have been caused by anything he did?

  • [09-10] Chris Rufo's dangerous fictions: "The right's leading culture warrior has invented a leftist takeover of America to justify his very real power grabs." Rufo's book is America's Cultural Revolution: How the Radical Left Conquered Everything. Rufo is the guy whose rant on Critical Race Theory launched recent efforts by DeSantis and others to ban its teaching, even though it never had been taught, and thereby censoring the very real history of racial discrimination in America, lest white people be made to feel bad about what their ancestors did. CRT was developed by legal scholars to show that some laws which were framed to appear race-neutral had racist intent. This refers to the Critical Theory developed by mid-20th century Marxists like Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, which was very useful in detecting how capitalism and authoritarianism permeated and refracted in popular culture.

    I spent a lot of time studying Critical Theory when I was young. (I recently cracked open my copy of Dialectic of Enlightenment and was surprised to find about 80% of it was underlined.) It really opens your eyes to, and goes a long way toward explaining, a lot of the features of the modern world. But having learned much, I lost interest, at least in repeating the same analyses ad nauseum. (To take a classic example, I was blown away when I read How to Read Donald Duck, but then it occurred to me that one could write the same brilliant essay about Huckleberry Hound, Woody Woodpecker, and literally every other cartoon or fictional character you ran into.) But while Critical Theory appealed to people who wanted to change the world, it was never a plan of action, much less the plot to take over the world that Rufo claims to have uncovered.

    Beauchamp does a nice job of showing up Rufo's paranoia:

    Rufo cites, as evidence of the influence of "critical theory" across America, diversity trainings at Lockheed Martin and Raytheon that used the term "white privilege" and similar concepts in their documents. This, he argues, is proof that "even federal defense contractors have submitted to the new ideology."

    But the notion that American arms manufacturers have been taken over by radicals is ridiculous. Lockheed Martin builds weapons to maintain the American war machine. It is not owned or controlled in any way by sincere believers in the Third Worldist anti-imperialism of the 1960s radicals; it is using the now-popular terms those radicals once embraced to burnish its own image.

    Rufo is getting the direction of influence backward. Radicals are not taking over Lockheed Martin; Lockheed Martin is co-opting radicalism.

    So Rufo is not wrong that some radical ideas are penetrating into the institutions of power, including corporations. Where he is bonkers is in thinking that the ideas are power, plotted by some malign adversary bent on total control, trying to force us to think (gasp!) nice thoughts. What's scary is the mentality that views any hint of civility or accommodation as a mortal threat. Beauchamp continues, in terms that will probably drive Rufo even crazier:

    Historically, liberalism has proven quite capable of assimilating leftist critiques into its own politics. In the 19th and 20th centuries, liberal governments faced significant challenges from socialists who argued that capitalism and private property led to inequality and mass suffering. In response, liberals embraced the welfare state and social democracy: progressive income taxation, redistribution, antitrust regulations, and social services.

    Reformist liberals worked to address the concerns raised by socialists within the system. Their goal was to offer the immiserated proletariat alternative hope for a better life within the confines of the liberal democratic capitalist order -- simultaneously improving their lives and staving off revolution.

    Meanwhile, conservatives like Rufo resisted every such reform, often histrionically, even ones they eventually came to accept as necessary.

Jonathan Chait: [09-07] Samuel Moyn can't stop blaming Trumpism on liberals. I only mention this because I recently spent a lot of time writing up a book blurb on Moyn's Liberalism Against Itself: Cold War Intellectuals and the Making of Our Times. I'll save the details, but note that Chait is upset because his heroes and his muddle-of-the-road philosophy were critiqued -- he says, incoherently. What happened was that after 1945, the New Deal coalition was deliberately split as most traditional liberals (like Chait, but he came much later) turned against the left, both abroad and at home, as part of a bipartisan Cold War consensus. They were pretty successful for a while, and with Lyndon Johnson even did some worthwhile things (civil rights and Medicare were big ones), but they neglected the working class base of the party, while throwing America into nasty (and in the case of Vietnam, hopeless) wars. So instead of building on the significant progress of the New Deal, the Democratic Party fell apart, losing not just to Republicans but to its own neoliberal aspirants. How that brought us to Trump is a longer and messier story, but it certainly got us Reagan, and the rot that followed.

PS: I wrote this paragraph before the one above on Beauchamp, so there's a bit of disconnect. Beauchamp talks about "reformist liberals," which diverge somewhat from Moyn's "cold war liberals." Chait thinks of himself as one of the former, but shares the latter's aversion to the left. Classical liberalism contained the seeds for both: first by individualizing society, breaking down the traditional hierarchy, then by declaring that every individual should have the right to "life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness." It turns out that in order for any substantial number of people to enjoy liberty, they need to have support of government. Some liberals understood, and others (including Hayek and Friedman) simply didn't care. Cold War liberals wound up on both sides, but even those who still supported reforms undercut them by fighting the left as much or more than the right.

Rachel M Cohen: [09-05] Is public school as we know it ending? Interview with Cara Fitzpatrick, who thinks so, as in her book title: The Death of Public School: How Conservatives Won the War Over Education in America.

Richard Drake: [09-08] Gabriel Kolko on the foreign policy consequences of conservatism's triumph: I occasionally still crack open Kolko's brilliant books on US foreign policy (both subtitled The World and United States Foreign Policy, The Politics of War: 1943-1945, and The Limits of Power: 1945-1954), but it's been some time since I thought of his earlier The Triumph of Conservatism: A Reinterpretation of American History, 1900-1916 (1963). The point there is that while the progressive movement sought to limit the manifest evils of capitalism, the actual reforms left big business and finance in pretty good shape -- as was evident in the post-WWI period, all the way to the crash in 1929.

Drake goes into the later books, but this piece doesn't do much to clarify how the "triumph of conservatism" in 1916 led to the "politics of war" in 1943. In this, I must admit I'm a little rusty on my William Appleman Williams, but "democracy" in Wilson's "making the world safe" slogan could just as easily been replaced with "capitalism." That was exactly what happened in the later 1943-54 period, when Roosevelt did so much to revive Wilson's reputation, while forever banishing opponents, including remnants of the anti-imperialist movement from 1898, to obscurity as "isolationists."

Kolko's formulation also does a neat job of solving the debate about whether Wilson was a progressive or a conservative: he was the former to the ends of the latter. Nowadays we dwell more on Wilson's racism, which we associate with the right, but in his day the two weren't strangers, even if what we still admire about the progressive idea suggests they should have known better.

Zeke Faux: [09-06] That's what I call ponzinomics: "With Sam Brinkman-Fried, Gisele, and a credulous Michael Lewis at the zenith of crypto hype." On first glance, I thought this might be a review of Lewis's forthcoming book on Bankman-Fried (coming Oct. 3: Going Infinite: The Rise and Fall of a New Tycoon), but it's actually an excerpt from Faux's new book, Number Go Up: Inside Crypto's Wild Rise and Staggering Fall, about a conference in 2022 where Lewis was talking about Bankman-Fried "as if he were presenting a prize to his star pupil."

Constance Grady: [09-08] The sincerity and rage of Olivia Rodrigo: One class of story I invariably skip past is "most anticipated," especially with albums, because interesting albums rarely get the advanced hype to make such lists. (TV and movies fare a bit better, because there are many fewer of them, at least that you'll ever hear about.) But I gave this one a spin as soon as the banner popped up on Spotify, and then I gave it a second. If you don't know, she's a 20-year-old singer-songwriter from Los Angeles, whose 2021 debut Sour won me and practically everyone else over immediately (RIAA has certified it 4x Platinum). Her new one, Guts is her second, and I'll review it (sort of) next Music Week. For now I just want to note that she's getting newsworthy press:

Adam Hochschild: [09-05] The Senator who took on the CIA: Frank Church. Review of James Risen/Thomas Risen: The Last Honest Man: The CIA, the FBI, the Mafia, and the Kennedys -- and One Senator's Fight to Save Democracy.

Whizy Kim: [09-08] The era of easy flying is over: "Lessons from a summer of hellish flights." As far as I'm concerned, it's been over for at least 20 years, about the time when it became obvious that deregulation and predatory profit seeking were going to devour the last shreds of decency in customer service.

Karen Landman: [09-07] Covid is on the rise again, but it's different now: "Covid transmission continues to ebb and flow -- but at least the latest Pirola variant isn't too menacing."

Prabir Purkayastha: [09-08] Is intellectual property turning into a knowledge monopoly? The question almost answers itself, given that the current laws defining intellectual property include grants of monopoly (with minor exceptions, like mechanical royalties for broadcast use of songs). The question of "knowledge" is a bit fuzzier, but there is real desire to claim things like "know how" as property (read the fine print on employee contracts). A patent can keep others making the same discovery independently from their own work, and the tendency to chain patents can keep competition away almost indefinitely. Copyrights, as the word makes clear, are more limited, but once you start talking derivative works, the line gets harder to draw. Moreover, the smaller granularity of fair use gets, the more likely accidental reuse becomes. How serious this is depends a lot on how litigious "owners" are, but in America, where so much seems to depend on wealth, we are very litigious indeed. This piece is excerpted from the author's book: Knowledge as Commons: Towards Inclusive Science and Technology (LeftWord, 2023).

Ingríd Robeyns: [08-28] Limitarianism: academic essays: Author has edited a book, Having Too Much: Philosophical Essays on Limitarianism, with various academic papers on the problem of having too much stuff. Fortunately, they read their own book and decided to make it available through Open Book Publishers, so it doesn't add to your surplus of stuff.

Dylan Scott: [08-07] The NFL season opener is also the kickoff for the biggest gambling season ever: "How America became a nation of gamblers -- and what might happen next." Few things make me more pessimistic for the future of the nation.

Norman Solomon: [09-07] Venture militarism on autopilot, or "How 9/11 bred a 'War on Terror' from Hell: America's response to 9/11 in the lens of history." Seems like every week brings enough new stories about America's bloated, wasteful, stupid, ineffective, but still really dangerous war culture, even beyond the ones that fit securely under "Ukraine" and "World." This gets to the big picture, being adapted from the introduction to Solomon's new book, War Made Invisible: How America Hides the Human Toll of Its Military Machine. The focus here is less on what war is and does than on how it is talked about, to make it seem more valorous and/or less cruel than it is, or just as often, how it's not talked about at all, allowing most of us to go about our daily lives with no sense of what the US government is actually doing, let alone why.

  • Melissa Garriga/Tim Biondo: [09-08] The Pentagon is the elephant in the climate activist room: "The US military is the world's largest institutional oil consumer. It causes more greenhouse gas emissions than 140 nations combined and accounts for about one-third of America's total fossil fuel consumption."

  • Maha Hilal: [09-05] 22 years of drone warfare and no end in sight: "Biden's rules on drone warfare mask continued violent islamophobia." Author wrote the book Innocent Until Proven Muslim: Islamophobia, the War on Terror, and the Muslim Experience Since 9/11, so that's her focus, but one could write much more about the seductiveness of drone warfare for the gamers who increasingly run the military, with their huge budgets to waste while risking none of their own lives.

Jeffrey St Clair: [09-08] Roaming Charges: The pitch of frenzy. Lots here, as usual, including some links I've cited elsewhere. One I'll mention here is a tweet by anti-woke pundit Richard Hanania: "Jimmy Buffett taught Americans to hate their jobs and live for nights and weekends so they could stuff themselves with food and alcohol." Actually, he picked that trope up from country music, where he sold most of his records before being reclassified as Adult Contemporary. The classic formula was to transpose Saturday night and Sunday morning, but many singers never got to the latter (or only did so in niche albums).

PS: I mentioned Biden's stop in Vietnam above, but hadn't seen this article: Katie Rogers: [09-11] 'It is evening, isn't it?' An 80-year-old president's whirlwind trip. Which focuses more on his age and foibles than on the diplomatic mission, showing once again that the mainstream press would rather focus on appearance than substance. Why does "the rigors of globe-trotting statesmanship" even matter? I'd rather prefer to have fewer photo-ops and more actual communication. But the reason I bring this piece up isn't to rag on the sorely atrophied art of journalism yet again. I found this tweet by Heather Cox Richardson, which pointed me to the article, even more disturbing:

Here's what I don't get: this administration's reworking of global relationships is the biggest story in at least a generation in foreign affairs -- probably more. Why on earth would you downplay that major story to focus on Biden's well-earned weariness after an epic all-nighter?

No doubt Biden has been very busy on that front, but it's hard to tell what it all means, which makes it hard to agree that it's big, harder still that it's good. GW Bush did at least as much "reworking," but his assertion of imperial prerogatives wound up undermining any possibility of international cooperation, and more often than not backfired. Obama tried to unwind some of Bush's overreach, and negotiated openings with Iran and Cuba, but left the basic unilateral posture in place. Trump did more in less time, but was too erratic, greedy, and confused to set a clear direction.

Biden, on the other hand, is mostly intent on patching up the mess Trump made, without addressing any of the underlying problems. And because he's left the imperial hubris unchecked, he's actually worsened relations with many countries, of which Russia and China are the most dangerous. On the other hand, even though Ukraine has brought us near a precipice, he hasn't actually plunged into disaster yet, as Bush did. It's still possible that, having reëngaged, he could move toward a more cooperative relationship with an increasingly multipolar world. But you can't call this a "story" without some sense of how it ends, and that's far from clear at the moment.

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