Sunday, January 28, 2024

Speaking of Which

Front page headline in Wichita Eagle today: Domestic violence killings at all-time high in Wichita. Deeper in the paper, see Dion Lefler: [01-27] Guns are dangerous. The Kansas Legislature's even more so, where he points out that since the KS legislature passed its "constitutional carry" law in 2014, the number of Kansans who have been killed by guns increased 53% (from 329 in 2014 to 503 in 2021).

I've been reading Christopher Clark's The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War, a painstaking examination of the steps the major European powers took to kick off what they soon called the Great War. It's a long book, and at page 500 the shooting still hasn't started (but will soon, as mobilization has begun). There are some striking similarities to the present: notably the belief that affronts to power have to be answered with violence (whence Austria-Hungary's compulsion to rush to war against Serbia). Also the notion of land as a currency to acknowledge power, which has arguably declined since the days of Europe's imperial carve up of the world, but still persists, especially in Israel's obsession with retaining the land of a depopulated Gaza, and in Russia's grasp of southeastern Ukraine from Luhansk to Crimea. France's eagerness to fight Germany in 1914 stemmed from losing Alsace-Lorraine in 1871.

On the other hand, what we thankfully lack today is the sort of balanced alliances that allowed war to spread almost instantly from Serbia to Flanders. Even though the US imagines it has enemies all around -- and Israel is doing its best to provoke them -- the conflicts are all marginal, mostly with opponents who have little or no appetite for directly attacking the US. It is deeply disturbing to see a nation with so much appetite for destruction floundering about with so little sense of its own needs, and so little concern over its trespasses.

Top story threads:

Israel: The genocidal war on Gaza continues, expanding on all fronts.

The genocide charge vs. Israel

Beyond Israel, wounded, frustrated empires spread war, leading only to more war, suffering, and disturbance:

Trump, and other Republicans: Trump, as predicted, won the New Hampshire primary, 54.3% to 43.2% over Nikki Haley, with lapsed candidates Ron DeSantis (0.7%) and Chris Christie (0.5%) far behind.

Biden and/or the Democrats: The New Hampshire primary, denied recognition by the DNC, was held on Tuesday, with Biden getting 63.9% of the votes as a write-in, to 19.6% for Dean Phillips and 4.0% for Marianne Williamson (who actually has much to commend, especially on peace, especially compared to Biden's recent record).

  • David Firestone: [01-25] Biden needs to lose it with Netanyahu: "His aides say he is close to losing his patience, but that isn't enough. He needs to actually lose it."

  • Kayla Guo: [01-28] Pelosi wants FBI to investigate pro-Palestinian protesters: "The former House speaker suggested without offering evidence that some protesters calling for a cease-fire in Gaza had financial ties to Russia and Vladimir V Putin." This story pretty neatly sums up the mental and moral rot at the top of the Democratic Party.

  • Ed Kilgore: [01-28] 4 reasons Biden's 2024 odds may be better than you think: I'll give you one: in November, folks on the fence are going to have to decide whether not whether they're happy or not, but whether they want change so desperately they'll risk electing a maniacal moron who's vowed to upend everything, or stick with the same boring status quo they've grown accustomed to. Vote for Trump, and you're going to hear about him every day for the next four years, framed by the seething hate he generates among friend and foe alike. Vote for Biden and you'll hardly ever have to hear about him. You don't have to like him, or understand him. You don't have to pretend he's smart, or some kind of great leader. All Democrats need to do is to pass him off as the generic Democrat who, unlike the actual Biden, still wins every poll against Trump. He actually fits that bill pretty well.

  • Paul Krugman: [01-25] Bidencare is a really big deal. True that Biden has managed some minor improvements over the health insurance reform popularly known as Obamacare, but hard to see how it helps his political pitch. Most of the value provided by the ACA was in arresting some horrifying trends at the time -- like the spread of denials for pre-existing conditions, which was fast making insurance unaffordable and/or worthless -- and slowing down cost increases that were already the worst in the world, but those are fears easily forgotten, leaving little in the way of tangible benefits. Meanwhile, Democrats paid a severe price politically for their troubles, while kicking real reform much further down the road. It's interesting that Biden's campaign seems to be embracing slurs like Bidenomics, but it's far from certain that doing so will help. "Bidencare" just sounds like not much to brag about.

  • Dean Baker: In honor of Bidenomics (and Bidencare), we'll slot these pieces here, giving Biden the wee bit of credit he deserves:

  • Eric Levitz: [01-25] A booming economy might not save the Biden campaign.

  • PE Moskowitz: [01-18] Marianne's people: "To her detractors, presidential candidate Marianne Williamson is a political joke. But for her most fervent supporters, it is, as one of them put it, 'Marianne or death.'" That's dumb way of putting it, at least without naming the death alternative as Joe Biden. Her fringe basis is largely based on her pre-political career, which with all its holistic healing, "New Age self-help speak," and A Return to Love vibes, suggests warm heart but soft head. On the other hand, if you limit yourself to what she says about politics, she actually comes off as pretty sensible.

Legal matters and other crimes:

Climate and environment:

Economic matters:

Ukraine War:

  • Connor Echols: [01-26] Diplomacy Watch: Ukraine nears a breaking point: "The window for peace talks is closing as Western support dries up." Most significant point here:

    Russia President Vladimir Putin "may be willing to consider dropping an insistence on neutral status for Ukraine and even ultimately abandon opposition to eventual NATO membership" in exchange for keeping the Ukrainian territory Russia currently occupies, according to anonymous people close to the Kremlin who spoke with Bloomberg. The report says the proposal is part of Moscow's quiet signaling to Washington that it is open to talks to end the war, though U.S. officials deny any backchannel communications.

    Details need to be worked out, but that sounds like a fairly decent deal to me. It's not worth further war to try to regain the lands that Russia has currently secured, especially as most ethnic Ukrainians have departed, leaving mostly ethnic Russians who seem to support Putin. I would like to see a deal which arranges for internationally supervised referenda in 3-5 years to determine permanent boundaries. Assuming Russia does a decent job of reconstruction, they should be able to win those votes, and if they don't, they should at least recognize they were given a fair chance. Future elections would incentivize good behavior on both sides, especially in reconstruction. While I don't see NATO membership as offering much to Ukraine, Russian submission on the point would signal that they have no further territorial ambitions in Ukraine, which should reduce the threat perception all along the Russian front. Ideally, that could lead to more general agreement on demilitarization.

    Note that I haven't changed my mind that Russia was totally in the wrong when they invaded in March 2022. But I've always insisted that conflicts have to be brought swiftly to negotiated ends, and that the only real way to do that is to try to do the best you can for everyone involved. Consequently, the best possible solution has shifted over time, as the underlying reality has shifted and hardened.

  • Fred Kaplan: [01-26] The truth about Ukraine's decision to give up its nukes in the '90s.

  • Constant Méheut/Thomas Gibbons-Neff: [01-28] After two years of bloody fighting, Ukraine wrestles with conscription: "A proposed bill on mobilization has become the focus of a debate as more men dodge the draft and calls rise to demobilize exhausted soldiers." One of the few lessons the US did learn in Vietnam was that no army can fight modern war with conscripts.

  • Joe Gould/Connor O'Brien/Nahal Toosi: [01-26] Lawmakers greenlight F-16s for Turkey after Erdogan approved Sweden's NATO bid.

Around the world:

Other stories:

Freddy Brewster: [01-24] Airlines filed 1,800 reports warning about Boeing's 747 Max: "Since 2020."

Sasha Frere-Jones: [01-23] The Blue Masc: "The brilliant discontents of Lou Reed." A review of Will Hermes' book, Lou Reed: The King of New York.

Amitav Ghosh: [01-23] The blue-blood families that made fortunes in the opium trade: "Long before the Sacklers appeared on the scene, families like the Astors, the Peabodys, and the Delanos cemented their upper-crust status through the global trade in opium." Original title: "Merchants of Addiction," which appeared as a Nation cover story. Covers the historical literature, especially of the Opium War, which the author knows well enough to have written a trilogy of novels on.

Andy Greene: [01-22] The 50 worst decisions in the past 50 years of American politics: "These are the historic blunders, scandals, machinations, and lies that have defined our times." Silly article you can nitpick and re-sort and add your favorites to. But what the hell, let's list them (and I'll spare you the reverse order suspense, although you'll still be expecting things that never materialize*):

  1. Richard Nixon maintains detailed recordings of his White House criminal conspiracies (1971-73)
  2. Obama roasts Trump at the White House correspondents dinner (2011)
  3. Mitch McConnell makes no effort to bar Trump from office after January 6 (2021)
  4. Swing-state liberals vote for Ralph Nader over Al Gore, inadvertently electing George W. Bush (2000)
  5. Hillary Clinton decides not to campaign in Wisconsin in 2016
  6. Mitt Romney unloads on 47% of the country: 'my job is not to worry about those people' (2012)
  7. Gary Hart dares reporters to look into his personal life (1987)
  8. Trump tells America to fight Covid-19 by drinking bleach (2020)
  9. Congressional Republicans overreach by impeaching Bill Clinton, boosting his popularity (1998)
  10. Bill Clinton declares "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky" (1998)
  11. John McCain picks Sarah Palin as his running mate (2008)
  12. W. declares "mission accomplished" (2003)
  13. Dukakis poses in a tank (1988)
  14. Ruth Bader Ginsburg refuses to retire while Obama is president (2009-17)
  15. George W. Bush flies over Katrina, tells his FEMA director he's doing a "heckuva job" (2005)
  16. James Comey reopens the Hillary Clinton email investigation eleven days before the 2016 election
  17. Anthony Weiner reveals himself to be a monser by sexting with 15-year-old girl (2015
  18. Ronald Reagan says his "heart and best intentions" tell him Iran Contra didn't happen (1987)
  19. Michael Bloomberg burns a billion dollars on his 2020 primary run and only wins in American Samoa
  20. Trent Lott says America would be better off is segregationist Strom Thurmond won in 1948 (2002)
  21. Ford pardons Richard Nixon (1974)
  22. Trump refuses to lay off John McCain, costing him Obamacare repeal (2017)
  23. Elliot Spitzer brings a sex worker across state lines (2008)
  24. The butterfly ballot is created in Florida in 2000
  25. Donald Trump tells supporters not to vote by mail (2020)
  26. Rudy Giuliani shreds every remaining tiny bit of credibility he has by going all in on Trump (2021, or earlier?)
  27. Senator Bob Packwood keeps a diary logging sexual assaults, political bribes (1992)
  28. Jeb Bush thinks 2016 is his year to shine
  29. Rick Perry doesn't do his homework before a debate (2012)
  30. Biden totally mucks up the Anita Hill hearings (1988)
  31. Al Gore doesn't let Bill Clinton campaign for him (2000)
  32. Barack Obama says that Midwesterners "cling to guns or religion" (2008)
  33. George H.W. Bush pledges 'read my lips: no new taxes' (1988)
  34. Jimmy Carter follows up his infamous 'malaise' speech by inexplicably firing his cabinet (1979)
  35. Gerald Ford fails to brush up on basic geography before presidential debate (1976)
  36. Joe Biden launches 2008 presidential campaign by calling Barack Obama "clean" and "articulate"
  37. Chris Christie decides against running in 2012
  38. Todd Akin has some thoughts about "legitimate rape" (2012)
  39. Herschel Walker runs for the U.S. Senate (2022)
  40. Dan Quayle sets up Lloyd Bentsen for the mother of all zingers (1988)
  41. Ted Kennedy has no answer when asked why he's running for president in 1980
  42. Dr. Oz films a trip to the grocery store (2022)
  43. Clint Eastwood is given the stage at the 2012 RNC
  44. Mark Sanford "hikes the Appalachian Trail" (2009)
  45. Michael Dukakis calmly reacts to hypothetical question about his wife being raped (1988)
  46. John Edwards has an affair with a campaign staffer while his wife is dying of cancer (2008)
  47. The New York Republican Party makes no effort to vet George Santos before 2022 nomination
  48. Ted Cruz goes on vacation to Cancun during a state of emergency in Texas (2022)
  49. Rod Blagojevich can't keep his stupid mouth shut (2008)
  50. Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley rip each other apart but won't attack Trump in bizarre race for second in the 2024 GOP primary

*Top of my list here is Colin Powell's WMD speech at the UN (2003), or a dozen other signal blunders leading up to the Iraq war, ahead of the "mission accomplished" fiasco cited. Worse still, at least in my mind, was Bush's 2001 bullhorn speech at the World Trade Center, which kicked off the whole Global War on Terrorism. [PS: See the Jonathan Schell quote at the bottom of this post.]

Items 1-5 and 14 strike me as blown way out of proportion, and mostly contingent on other events that were impossible to predict at the time. Nixon's tapes only started to matter once he had been exposed for lots of other things. Had Ginsberg resigned in the last year of Obama's presidency, McConnell wouldn't have allowed a vote on a successor. Obama only had a Senate majority in his first two years, and Ginsberg outlived them by ten. And had Hillary Clinton won in 2016, as everyone expected, she (not Trump) would have chosen Ginsberg's replacement.

Many of the others testify to the trivia so much of the media prefers to dwell on. Still, I don't get picking on Obama's "guns or religion" gaffe at 32 while ignoring Hillary Clinton's "basket of deplorables."

Sarah Jones: [01-25] When a rapist's logic is the law. I should have filed this under Republicans, since they're the ones responsible for this sort of thinking (or at least for it becoming ensconced in law), but I felt this piece should stand out, rather than get buried in the rest of their muck.

Joshua Keating: [01-25] It's not your imagination. There has been more war lately. "Why the 'long peace' may be ending." What "long peace"? Looks like he's referring to arguments by Steven Pinker (The Better Angels of Our Nature) and Joshua Goldstein (Winning the War on War) that never had much empirical support, but -- and I'm generally sympathetic on this point -- reflect changing attitudes towards war, at least in wealthier nations where the potential costs are much greater than ever, and benefits are pretty much inconceivable. It's hard to say why this widespread public sentiment hasn't been reflected in policy. Partly it's because War has been hiding as Defense ever since the Department changed its name. Partly it's the corruption built up around the arms industries and other geopolitical interests (oil is a big one). Partly it has to do with the cult belief in power, despite its repeated failures.

The chart here of "estimated fatalities in conflicts involving at least one state military around the world" is farcical, as it seems to exclude wars states fight against their own people, but it also seems to be doing a lot of undercounting: how could you count 2001-11 as the least deadly stretch of time since WWII when the US was constantly fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as killing people with drones in another dozen countries?

Shawn McCreesh: [01-26] The media apocalypse: "Condé Nast and other publishers stare into the abyss." This looks to me like one of many areas where the private sector can no longer be counted on to provide public goods. When that happens, one needs to find other ways. Bailing them out -- hint: banks are another -- may suffice in the short term, but isn't a real solution. Unfortunately, this area is one that's so poisoned by partisanship that it's going to be especially hard to do anything sensible.

Doug Muir:

  • [01-22] The Kosovo War: 25 years later: An so to war: Fourth part of this series, where "earlier installments can be found here" (cited by me in previous posts). Also, note several long comments by Muir. I suspect there is much more to be covered here, especially as the conflict there seems to be recurring. I didn't think much about Kosovo at the time, although I was struck by the collateral damage (e.g., the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade), and alarmed by the notion that the US could intervene militarily at essentially no risk to American personnel. (The "no fly zone" in Iraq operated on the same principle.) I did pick up one or the other (or maybe both) of the following books, but never read much in them:

    • Noam Chomsky: A New Generation Draws the Line: Kosovo, East Timor, and the "Responsibility to Protect" Today (2011, Routledge)
    • Alexander Cockburn/Jeffrey St Clair: Imperial Crusades: Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yugoslavia (2004, Verso): for a taste, see: Kosovo: Where NATO bombing only made the killing worse.
  • [01-24] Why you should watch American football: I haven't watched for decades, and fast forward through the relevant virtual newspaper pages (in their appalling plenitude), but followed it close enough in my youth to recognize the points (also the counterpoints in the comments), and still find it appealing on the rare moments I happen to catch a play. One thing that really helped me was learning to focus on the line play, something Alex Karras brought to the early days of Monday Night Football.

Rick Perlstein: [01-24] American Fascism: "Author and scholar John Ganz on how Europe's interwar period informs the present." Ganz has a new book coming out in June, When the Clock Broke: Con Men, Conspiracists, and How America Cracked Up in the Early 1990s.

Kim Phillips-Fein: [01-24] We have no princes: "Heather Cox Richardson and the battle over American history." A review of her book, Democracy Awakening, which is based on newsletter posts since 2019, contemporary politics viewed by someone with extensive knowledge of history and a general commitment to democratic principles. I've read enough of her work to make me initially want to jump right onto this, like I did with Jill Lepore's These Truths: A History of These United States -- at least until I found a post on Biden's foreign policy that was insanely misconceived. Phillips-Fein, who's written several good books about the rise of the new right, helps explain where and why Richardson turns clueless.

Stephen Prager: [01-24] Conservatives are finally admitting they hate MLK.

Nathan J Robinson:

  • [01-13] How to spot red flags: Picture is of John Fetterman, who has of late been a disappointment to left-leaning fans.

  • [01-23] Can Trump be stopped? He was thinking of Lewis Mumford's Myth of the Machine critique of "how society itself can become like a giant machine, integrated with its technologies and directed from above," and noticed:

    The interesting typo is this: at one point in my edition, instead of "megamachine," it happens to say "magamachine." Which strikes me as an interesting description of the kind of giant, brainless, unstoppable engine that Donald Trump is trying to build. He plans to fire all the federal bureaucrats who disagree with him, to give himself complete immunity from the laws and to put the whole state in his service. Donald Trump likes having minions. He is building a giant personality cult that defers to him absolutely, and is incapable of self-criticism.

    Robinson contrasts this with what he calls "the great exhaustion," combined with "Joe Biden's total incapacity to inspire anyone."

  • [01-25] Would it be better if we all turned color-blind? Review of the Coleman Hughes book, The End of Race Politics: Arguments for a Colorblind America.

  • [01-26] Why you should be a Luddite: Interview with Brian Merchant, whose book on the early 19th-century movement is Blood in the Machine: The Origins of the Rebellion Against Big Tech.

Raja Shehadeh: [01-25] In the midst of disaster: A review of "Isabella Hammad's novel of art and exile in Palestine," Enter Ghost.

Jeffrey St Clair: [01-26] Roaming Charges: The impotent empire.

The Nation did us a favor and linked to this old piece by Jonathan Schell: {2011-09-19] The New American Jujitsu. Consider this:

The United States, as if picking up Osama bin Laden's cue, keyed its response to the apocalyptic symbolism, not the genuine but limited reality of the threat from Al Qaeda. It accepted bin Laden's brilliantly stage-managed inflation of his own importance. Soon, the foreign policy as well as the domestic politics of the United States were revolving like a pinwheel around Al Qaeda and the global threat it allegedly posed. Al Qaeda was absurdly likened to the Soviet Union in the cold war and Hitler in World War II, and treated accordingly. "Threat inflation" has a long history in US policy, from the "missile gap" of the 1950s to the Vietnam War, but never has it been so extensively indulged.

Now real, immense forces were in play, for the power of the United States was real and immense, and what it did was truly global in reach and consequence. In his address to Congress nine days after the attack, George W. Bush expanded the "war on terror" to states, declaring, "From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime." The policy of "regime change" was born, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were launched in its name. There was more. In a speech a few months later, Bush announced, "America has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond challenge, thereby making the destabilizing arms races of other eras pointless, and limiting rivalries to trade and other pursuits of peace." In other words, he claimed nothing less than an American monopoly on the effective use of force in the world. The famous White House policy paper of September 2002, the "National Security Strategy of the United States of America," touted the American ideals of "freedom, democracy, and free enterprise" as the "single sustainable model for national success." Politicians and pundits explicitly embraced a global imperial vocation for the United States.

This strategy, and the whole posture it represented, was doomed from the start, for reasons elucidated in Schell's 2003 book: The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People. Yet the lessons remain unrecognized and unlearned in Washington, in Tel Aviv, in Moscow, wherever national leaders instinctively lash out at challenges to their precious power.

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