Sunday, August 21, 2022

Speaking of Which

In his book on Churchill: His Times, His Crimes, Tariq Ali offers this quote from George Kennan on "the political psychology of the West in relation to Russia in 1917" (where Churchill sent British troops to try to "nip Bolshevism in the bud"):

There is, let me assure you, nothing in nature more egocentrical than the embattled democracy. It soon becomes the victim of its own war propaganda. It then tends to attach to its own cause an absolute value which distorts its own vision . . . Its enemy becomes the embodiment of all evil. Its own side . . . the centre of all virtue. The contest comes to be viewed as having a final, apocalyptic quality. If we lose, all is lost; life is no longer worth living; there will be nothing to be salvaged. If we win, then everything will be possible; all problems will become soluble; the one great source of evil . . . our enemy will have been crushed; the forces of good will then sweep forward unimpeded; all worthy aspirations will be satisfied.

Churchill viewed all his enemies this way, but this is still a pretty good description of how Americans view the war in Ukraine -- or for that matter, how most protagonists in most wars have viewed their enemies, at least in the last century or so, as the traditional craving for loot and plunder came to be seen as uncouth. (Even in the 19th century, when loot and plunder was clearly the goal, politicians learned to speak of "civilizing missions" and such.) War has never worked like that. Even if one imagines moral differences at the start of a war, they soon disappear over its course. The US, for instance, entered WWII thinking that precision bombing would minimize civilian casualties, and ended the war levelling whole cities with atom bombs.

As Louis Menand noted in his section on Kennan in The Free World, Kennan had a pretty low opinion of democracy. So did Churchill, although he allowed that all other systems are worse. (At least democracies allowed him to retire in disgrace, perhaps to return again.) Americans like to tout democracy to others, but have a pretty tawdry record of practicing it at home, with a long history of contempt for voters -- one that Republicans these days are especially keen on, but Demorats have a pretty spotty record as well, especially where it comes to limiting the inordinate influence of money.

Andrew Atterbury: [08-21] DeSantis uses cash and clout to reshape Florida school races: The money helps build his personal political machine. The focus on school boards signals that he thinks his brainwashing agenda is a winner.

Bruce Bartlett: [08-10] I Quit the GOP and Moved Left. Will Liz Cheney Do the Same? Not likely, but after writing the rest of this I have to allow a slight chance. I still don't trust Bartlett, but at least he built his career on trying to argue that Republicans were better people than Democrats. He wrote a whole book on how conservatives are more generous and care more about their families. He wrote another one on how the Party of Lincoln was still less racist than many Democrats. He was wrong, and eventually admitted as much, but in trying to pretend Republicans were something they weren't, he prefigured his move left. He at least had a shred of integrity. Maybe she does as well, but it's different. She grew up trading on her father's far right brand, deeply imbued in militarism and crony capitalism, so it's reasonable to think she holds the same beliefs, but maybe it was all an act: she's really the DC insider she grew up as, and was never that comfortable going back to Wyoming to validate her political cred. (She failed in her Senate campaign, then lucked out with a House seat, which she immediately turned into a slot in the Republican House leadership.) That she lost her primary suggests less that Trump has real pull in the state than that the locals never really trusted her, not least because she never really was one of them. (They may not have trusted her father either, who abandoned them as soon as he wrangled a posh job in Washington.) She may have initially gambled that she could lead the Republicans back to true conservatism, but soon discovered that the best she could do with her hand was enjoy the publicity, even as it demolished any prospects for a career in Republican politics. Better to be a martyr for principle than to slink back into obscurity like Adam Kinzinger or Jeff Flake. She reminds me of Hillary Clinton: both had to sit back and chafe while knowing they could do a better job as president than the amiable morons they served (GW Bush in her case; sure, Bill Clinton was less of a moron, but he did have his dumb spots). Whether she moves left or not will depend much on who she hangs out with in the next few years: her ambition is the given, where it takes her is secondary, even though that's what matters to other people. I can think of dozens of scenarios that will pay her much more than her House salary, but it's not worth my time to speculate, other than to note that if she runs for president in 2024 as a Republican, she will get crushed much worse than in Wyoming, and that if she runs a spoiler campaign as an independent, she's unlikely to get as many votes as Gary Johnson did in 2016 (3.27%). It's probably still good publicity to encourage such speculation now -- an embarrassing number of pundits can think of nothing better to write about -- but I doubt she will be willing to expose herself to such brutal numbers. Better to enjoy her present celebrity, and indulge in a little buckraking. Also on Cheney:

  • Hunter DeRensis: [08-17] Loser Liz Cheney: We knew ye, and that was the problem: "For 20 years she remained committed to using American power as a blunt force instrument, including torture and endless war."
  • Richard Eskow: [08-19] Liz Cheney and Donald Trump -- The Two Faces of American Totalitarianism.
  • Ben Jacobs: [08-19] The Never Trump wing of the GOP never had a chance.
  • Sarah Jones: [08-17] The Culpable Liz Cheney. I liked the original title better, but lost it.
  • Ed Kilgore: [08-17] Liz Cheney and the Demise of Anti-Trump Republicanism. You have to understand that for Republicans the most important thing in the world is winning -- something they value so highly they're willing and eager to dispense with any scruples in the process. Winning is what makes all the evil they do possible. Trump won many Republicans over during the 2016 primary season, mostly by echoing their own basest instincts, which was easy, given that all they had to do was watch Fox News. Trump won over the rest of the Republicans when he prevailed in the 2016 election. This wasn't an ideological victory (or surrender), because aside from a few minor quirks (like tariffs) they were all singing from the same hymnal. It was a matter of style, and no Republican -- even one whose own instincts left him constantly wrong-footed like Lindsey Graham -- could argue with that. In theory, when Trump lost in 2020, he should have been quickly forgotten, with a new generation of successors rushing forward their new and improved versions of Trump, but he pulled a dirty trick on them: he declared victory anyway, and the rank and file bought it -- showing how little grasp on reality they actually have -- so now all Republicans have to go along with this "emperor's new clothes reality." It's really pretty funny if you can get past your tears for the demise of democracy -- I'm sorry to say, but those of us who grew up on I.F. Stone and Noam Chomsky shed those long ago. Eventually this will become obvious, and Trump will be discarded as the loser he is, much like the Bushes and Nixon and Hoover and Benjamin Harrison (I've only recently read about what a horrible president Harrison was -- so awful the voters brought back Grover Cleveland, only to regret it; that's a story that will probably resurface if Trump wins the 2024 R nomination). But until then, why shouldn't cynical Republicans go along with the charade? Washington has long run on herd instinct, the shroud of popular ignorance, and a natural ease with spouting conventional wisdom. That's why politicians are almost never punished for being wrong, as long as they seemed right at the time. Kilgore also wrote: [08-19] Trump (Mostly) Got His Revenge on Republicans Who Voted to Impeach.
  • Amanda Marcotte: [08-19] If Liz Cheney runs for president, I'm registering as a Republican just to vote for her. This is unspeakably dumb. Marcotte assumes that only Republican primaries matter, and that even if you expect to wind up voting for a Democrat, which one doesn't matter, because they're all interchangeable. Even if Cheney were any good (which she isn't), and even if she had a chance (which she doesn't), this tactic is at best a wet blanket, designed to demoralize the only political party that has any chance of saving your sorry ass from Trump or DeSantis or Cruz or Hawley or dozens of more or less equally loathesome threats.
  • Timothy Noah: [08-16] Liz Cheney's Loss Is a Defeat for Conservatism. Assumption here is that "real conservatives" have character, of which Cheney is an example. "Trumpery," on the other hand, was "mostly a mishmash of nonideological vices: rank bigotry, xenophobia, authoritarianism, greed, and a gleeful breaking of rules and ethical norms large and small." But while conservatives like to claim their own "rules and ethical norms," everything else on that list is their "ideology," perhaps less these days stated as high-minded principle than revealed in crude speech and base actions.
  • Jeffrey St Clair: [08-19] Dizzy Miss Lizzy, the Last Spin. Much more, but on Cheney: "if she doesn't immediately land a gig at CNN or MSNBC she'll get a fat book deal and a seat on an oil company board." He cites what may be the worst liberal swoon over her: a Robert Reich piece titled "In Praise of Liz Cheney. May we have more politicians like her," with the subhed "We need more politicians who stand by their principles, even if it costs them everything." The cost? Cheney's net worth is $14.7 million (24th highest in the House, so she "lost everything" for standing up to Trump?). I expect that to go up a lot, even if she just falls back on the usual post-Congressional job on K Street. St Clair also has a long section on Salman Rushdie, including a lengthy quote from Edward Said.
  • Daniel Warner: [08-19] Is Liz Cheney a Profile in Courage?. Reference to JFK's 1955 book ("ghostwritten by JFK staffer Ted Sorensen, added to Kennedy's intellectual aura and was an important step of the created mythology in the rise of the former president"). Evidently it's still enough of a fetish that "Cheney was one of the recipients of the Kennedy family's Profiles in Courage 2022 awards."
  • Ryan Lizza/Eugene Daniels: [08-17] Cheney to launch anti-Trump organization after primary defeat: First step, a PAC called "The Great Task." Nothing says you're a political player like having your own slush fund.

Zack Beauchamp:

  • [08-12] Trump is pushing us toward the abyss: "His conspiracy theories about the FBI search have spawned a GOP assault on the legitimacy of the American state -- and set the stage for violence."
  • [08-19] To understand what the Trump investigation might do to America, look at Israel: "Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is on trial, and it has thrown Israeli politics into chaos." This is an interesting story, but it's hard to see a lot of direct relevance. One possible angle is that both Netanyahu and Trump tried to make themselves personally indispensable to their political parties, and have continued to practice politics as they are facing criminal charges.

Ben Burgis: [08-18] Salman Rushdie's Stabbing Should Remind Us That Free Speech Is a Nonnegotiable Progressive Value. Also on Rushdie:

Jonathan Chait: [08-19] Mitch McConnell's Terrible Candidates Are His Own Fault: Subhed ("This happened because the GOP decided not to confront Trump's election lies") is way off base. Republicans are nominating terrible candidates because Republicans, even ones who are not personally evil, are naturally attracted to really badass candidates. That's why their primaries are full of ads where candidates shoot their enemies. And while most of us are properly offended by both their behavior and by the stupidity that justifies it, this isn't something new: "I'd rather be right" was a 1964 Barry Goldwater bumper sticker. If McConnell, who was pretty emphatic in rejecting Trump's election lies, really feels that sorry for himself, he could switch his party affiliation. He'd probably be welcomed, and most Republicans think he's a RINO anyway.

David Daley/David Faris: [06-29] Democratic Strategies That Don't Court Disaster: This is a couple months old, responding to the the Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade, but it's a subject I expect to return to. Principles matter, but so do tactics, and Democrats haven't been much good at either. I wasn't very impressed with Faris's "fighting dirty" tactics, but there's something to be said for fighting, especially over things that are important and practical. Here's a line that caught my eye: "Yes, the nation is in this dangerous position because the Republican Party has swerved decisively toward authoritarianism. But this lurch has not happened in a vacuum. Over and over again, the forfeit of democratic freedoms has come about via the right's wing's opportunistic exploitation of a pronounced pattern of Democratic toothlessness in the face of bared GOP fangs."

Kelly Denton-Borhaug: [08-16] Is Moral Clarity Possible in Donald Trump's America? Tom Engelhardt starts his introduction with a story from a recent Trump book (The Divider: Trump in the White House, by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser), where Trump is complaining to John Kelly about US generals not showing him as much loyalty as German generals accorded Adolf Hitler. ("Why can't you be like the German generals?") Hitler's generals wound up trying to excuse themselves as "just following orders," which is exactly what Trump expects of his minions. Author has a book: And Then Your Soul Is Gone: Moral Injury and U.S. War Culture. She tries to come up with some exceptions, but Liz Cheney isn't very convincing. She cites two recent books that illustrate the lengths to which most Republicans are willing to go to stay in Trump's good graces: Mark Leibovich: Thank You for Your Servitude: Donald Trump's Washington and the Price of Submission, and Tim Miller: Why We Did It: Travelogue from the Republican Road to Ruin. This reminds me that when you're talking about an "authoritarian personality" you're not talking about would-be dictators like Hitler and Trump, but about the good folk who freely follow them, even to complete and utter ruin.

Connor Echols: [08-19] Diplomacy Watch: Talks to end the war are back on the agenda: Not a lot of good news here, but after both sides accused the other of risking nuclear disaster, they've finally agreed to worry about it. Some more articles on Ukraine. I'm not much inclined to cite pieces bragging about or deploring long-distance attacks (Ukraine has started to hit deep in Crimea), or accounts that sanctions are crippling Russia or not -- staples of war propaganda. The first batch is from a recent (and possibly ongoing?) Washington Post series about who knew what when:

Melissa Gira Grant: [08-11] Why the Right Can't Quit Its Antisemitic Attacks Against George Soros. Even if it's pure coincidence that the Republicans's chosen billionaire boogieman ("puppet master") is Jewish, when they attack him, they almost inevitably fall back on classic anti-semitic tropes, which seem to be embedded in their genetic heritage. Reminds me that Fred Koch and Fred Trump were nazi-sympathizers back in the 1930s, but few dwell on that given the more recent crimes of their progeny offer plentiful targets.

Jonathan Guyer: [08-15] No one has been held accountable for the catastrophic Afghanistan withdrawal: What do you expect? No one has been held accountable for the orders-of-magnitude more disastrous 20+ year war. No one is every really held accountable for America's foreign policy debacles, largely because they're never freely debated and critiqued before it's too late. At least the final withdrawal, regardless of how ugly it may have seemed, ended the war: the first positive turn in more than 20 years. Still, articles like this make me nervous. For one thing, they exaggerate and isolate the problem: the final withdrawal was far less catastrophic than any given year of the war. It doesn't compare poorly to comparable events, like the evacuation of Saigon. Although many Afghans sought to leave the country as the Taliban took over, the exodus looks to be far less than with Vietnam. The obvious explanation for poor planning is that Americans from Biden down felt they needed to demonstrate faith that the US-installed Afghan regime could stand on its own without US military support (which had, in any case, always been a mixed blessing). Both the US-backed regime in Vietnam and the Soviet-backed regime in Afghanistan had managed to survive for a couple years after foreign troop withdrawals. It's easy in retrospect to see how this situation was different, but no one in the administration could have argued that ahead of time -- had they done so, they would have been dismissed as defeatist. Second point is that Republicans are looking to hang Afghanistan on Biden, whose approval figures dropped below 50% at that very moment. Democrats can point to the Trump agreement on withdrawal, much as Obama pointed back to Bush's agreement to withdraw from Iraq, but that doesn't seem to be a very convincing argument. Critics will always argue that if we hadn't withdrawn we'd still be able to hold the government together and support our clients, ignoring the fact that doing so only protracted a tragic war. More on Afghanistan:

Margaret Hartmann:

Rebecca Heilweil: [08-17] Airlines are trying to resurrect the Concorde era. Partly they're desperate to take advantage of rising inequality by offering exclusive services for the rich. Let's face it, in a more equal world they wouldn't be so concerned with sorting us by class when we get on public transportation.

  • Jeff Wise: [08-17] The Eternal Disappointment of the Return of Supersonic Travel. For lots of reasons, it's a safe bet that the new companies betting on this working will fail. Still, how dumb is it to call your company Boom? The headline writes itself: "Boom Goes Bust"; still not as bad as the distinct possibility of "Boom Goes Boom."

Sean Illing: [08-14] How capitalism ensnared some of its radical critics: Interview with Stuart Jeffries, author of Everything, All the Time, Everywhere: How We Became Postmodern. This reminded me that Gilles Deleuze invented the term "postmodernism" in 1979. It made no sense to me until I saw it used for architecture, and that reminded me that modernism always sought to push boundaries, but limits were hit at different times -- "modern" typefaces hit theirs with Giambattista Bodoni in the 18th century. The avant-garde in art and music pretty much did their thing in the 1960s, by which time the world didn't have much more that could be modernized. Jefferies (following Deleuze) thought that postmodernism, in letting us escape from the tyranny of the modernist vector, could be liberating, but he has a convenient scapegoat for its failure: neoliberalism. The term now is mostly used by its critics, but it was initially proclaimed by its adherents (much like "New Democrats" and "New Labor"). It would be more accurate to describe it as a degenerate tendency in liberalism, one whose plotline parallels Breaking Bad. Liberalism initially sought a set of freedoms for a set of people, both of which were rather limited by the imaginations of early liberals, but the initial idea spurred people to want more freedoms for more people, until the latter became universal. Neoliberalism limits that spread, not by arguing with the principle (as conservatives do) but by restricting the permissible methods (preserving or restoring the crude capitalism of earlier eras). Unclear to me how this restricts postmodern art, but it does create an ever-widening division of classes, ensuring that the liberal ideal of broad freedoms for all people can never be met.

Ellen Ioanes: [08-14] After the latest clash with Israel, Gazans' struggle continues.

John E King: [08-17] Paul Sweezy Was One of the 20th Century's Great Economic Thinkers.

Will Leitch: [08-17] The 'Real' Home-Run Record is 73, not Not 61. He does mention the Roger Maris asterisk, but not why it ever existed, with no mention of Babe Ruth let alone Ford Frick. I gather that Aaron Judge, who is one of the very few contemporary baseball players I've actually heard of, is on a pace to top 61 home runs this (Maris) season, but probably not 73 (Barry Bonds).

Steve M: [08-19] Threatening Federal Agents: It's a Felony and a Campaign Stunt!: This is about Republican Florida State House candidate Luis Miguel, who wants to introduce a bill where "all Floridians will have permission to shoot FBI, IRS, ATF and all other feds ON SIGHT!" Whether he's a cynic, as the author believes, or simply insane, he's gotten some traction. "Much of the Republican electorate thinks the most batshit insane right-wing proposals sound perfectly reasonable, and the rest might not agree but don't think they're at all objectionable."

Dana Milbank: [08-04] The GOP is sick. It didn't start with Trump -- and won't end with him. An excerpt from the Washington Post columnist's book: The Destructionists: The Twenty-Five-Year Crack-Up of the Republican Party. I'm a little suspicious that Milbank only goes back 25 years, basically to Newt Gingrich, because Gingrich (much like Trump today) was clearly a manifestation of a pre-existing malady, a deep sickness in the American soul that only seemed new because no one else had previously acted it out so flamboyantly. But we should be thankful whenever anyone draws attention to the continuity in the Republican program to screw us over so completely.

Ian Millhiser: [08-19] The 4 major criminal probes into Donald Trump, explained.

Eve Ottenberg: [08-19] The Biden-Trump Persecution of Julian Assange: This is the clearest example since 9/11 of the US pursuing a political vendetta for no better reason than spite and arrogance. At least with 9/11, the hunting down of Al Qaeda's leader was tied to thousands of deaths at their hand. What did Assange do to merit so much vitriol? Exposing some secret documents that hardly mattered? More like thumbing his nose at American power, which when you get down to it, was Al Qaeda's core crime -- just writ much more dramatically. Author quotes one famous chicken hawk asking, "can't we just drone him?" This story has gone well beyond sick and embarrassing.

Will Porter: [08-20] Biden Steps Up Somalia Strikes After Redeploying Troops. Follow up on [03-16] Over 1 Million Somali Children Near Starvation as Pentagon Plans New Troop Deployment. Also see:

Matt Stieb: [08-18] The Accountant Flips on Trump's Empire: Trump Organization CFO pled guilty to 15 charges, most dealing with tax evasion, and agreed to testify in a further trial of the Organization itself (how that is not a trial of its owner isn't clear to me).

Margaret Sullivan: [08-21] My final column: 2024 and the dangers ahead.

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