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the USA’s presidential crisis – what will they learn from it?

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it really is this crazy

The USA has a tragic problem on its hands, of its own making. It now has, as its President, a career criminal, a narcissistic demagogue, a flim flam man who’ll stop at nothing to remain in power. Within a few days, though, his power will be curtailed and, I strongly suspect, and certainly hope, US law enforcement authorities will be rounding up some of his accomplices and generally turning up the heat. Everything about Trump tells me he would be prepared to destroy as much of the country’s political edifice as he possibly can, rather than go quietly.

But it’s the political edifice itself that’s allowed Trump, who isn’t a Republican, or a Democrat, or a politician or a businessman, to take over the ship of state and steer it on a bumpy ride to nowhere. This could never have happened under the Westminster system, which pertains in Britain and Australia, two countries of which I happen to be a citizen. 

The flaws in the US Presidential system have been unwittingly exposed by Trump, and this may be the one true gift he will have bestowed on his people, just as the horrors of the great European wars of last century left the one bright legacy of over seventy years of peace in Western Europe. 

So what are these problems? Well there’s one general problem of democracy, which is shared by all democratic countries, and that’s the fact that not everyone eligible to vote is sufficiently informed or detached to use their vote to the best advantage of themselves or the nation as a whole. Many are massively influenced by what is called ‘identity politics’, because they identify with a particular sub-culture, be it ethnic, religious, job-related, or special-interest-related in a host of ways. Many simply don’t understand much about politics and are easily swayed by political promises or the promises made by those around them on behalf of politicians. The intellectual elites, the cognoscenti, have no more weight to their vote than the more or less completely clueless. 

This problem is exacerbated in the USA by the fact that, every four years, they’re asked to cast a vote essentially for one person over another. In the run-up to that vote there’s massive fund-raising and lobbying, hype (short for hyperbole), overblown promising, and circus-like razzmatazz and bells and whistles. 

The one-against-one competition is, it seems, typically American, where the ‘great man’ who saves the world by single-handedly defeating all enemies is a staple of Hollywood blockbusters. In contrast, elections in the Westminster system are more like a blend of the American mid-term and presidential elections, but with much more of the mid-term than the presidential. People essentially vote for parties – a major party of the left and of the right, together with smaller independent parties and independent members. The two major parties and the smaller parties all have leaders, of course, and they’re elected by the rest of the elected MPs of their parties. They’re the ‘captains of the team’, and they work with them in parliament. The Prime Minister, the leader of the party elected to power in general elections, is thus in a very different position from the US President, who resides in and works from the White House, surrounded by staff and officials who are appointed by himself (though more or less vetted by others) without necessarily having been elected by the public to any office of any kind in the past. These include some very influential positions indeed – the 15 members of the Presidential Cabinet including Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Attorney-General and Chief of Staff. The President thus heads the ‘executive branch’ of government, which is entirely separate from parliament, or congress.

Under the Westminster system there’s no such separation. The Prime Minister does get to select his cabinet, but they’re all appointed from within parliament, and all of them work within the House, or the Senate. So the PM is literally ‘primus inter pares’, first among equals, and often has to defend his or her ministers and policies in the teeth of opposition sitting across the aisle. This creates much more of a team spirit, and if the PM ‘goes rogue’, as Trump clearly has, his party can organise a no-confidence motion to oust him. Such an event obviously has major repurcussions for the nation, but they are clearly nowhere near as disastrous as the ousting of an American President. Though, arguably, the difficulties involved in ousting the President are even more disastrous. 

In watching and learning about the US political system over the past year or so, I’ve been totally astonished at the power granted to the President, and with that power comes a sense of Presidential immunity, due to his ‘indispensability’. This is virtually a recipe for demagoguery and dictatorship. The current President has clearly utilised powers that previous Presidents quite probably didn’t know they had, because they grew up within the usual ethical guidelines of the vast majority of people, regardless of background. Trump has no such guidelines, and so has sacked appointed officials without replacing them, has used pardoning powers – and will continue to do so unless ousted – without restraint, and has issued executive orders in a manipulative and detrimental fashion. He has monetised the Presidency, obstructed justice by declaring war on the FBI and justice department officials, viciously and relentlessly attacked the fourth estate, and spread myriad falsehoods with impunity.

All of this has created a kind of internal paralysis in the US, while making the country and its President both a laughing stock and a cause for grave concern worldwide. Meanwhile the success of demagoguery and ‘power’ over ethics has had its echoes in elections in Austria, Sweden and Brazil. But the USA’s political problems are unique. The two principal problems are – How do you rid yourself of a rogue president? and, How do you present this from ever happening again?

Many concerned Americans are looking to the process of impeachment as the solution. I’m writing this on the day (in Australia) of the mid-term elections, November 6, though the USA is some 11-12 hours behind us in central Australia. It seems likely that the Democrats will take control of the House and possibly the Senate, though I wouldn’t bet on it – I usually get these things wrong. But impeachment is a political process and therefore highly partisan in a nation that has become partisan perhaps to the point of extreme violence. Impeachment doesn’t exist in the Westminster system, because there is clearly no need for it.

For a Prime Minister, under the Westminster system, to ‘successfully’ go rogue, as the US President has, he would have to carry the whole of his party with him, or a substantial majority, as the party system and party loyalty are deeply entrenched in the polity. A no-confidence motion in the Prime Minister can be put up at any time during parliamentary sessions, either from within the PM’s party or from the opposition benches. It’s easier for the President to become a ‘one-man band’ because he’s entirely cut off from congress. I don’t know if Trump has ever entered congress. There seems no reason for him to do so. This complete disconnection from what is is supposedly his own party and government is, I think, disastrous. 

The massive power of the President – veto powers, pardoning powers, executive orders, and apparent, if limited, immunity from prosecution – is no small problem for a country that is the most economically and militarily powerful in the world.  Rachel Maddow of NBC has highlighted the problem of prosecuting the President. If he is charged and placed in custody or let out on bail, does he still have presidential authority? If not, who does? This would not be a problem under the Westminster system – the Deputy PM would step up, as s/he does when the PM is overseas. And if the matter were serious enough, that deputy, or another senior cabinet minister, would take over the PM’s role permanently. And there would be no hesitancy, under that system, to arrest and detain. Why should there be? The law should treat all offenders in precisely the same way.

In the US there seems to be a lot of confusion on these matters. Many consider the President ‘too important’ to be charged with a crime while in office. This is truly ridiculous. If you have allowed one person to be so important within your political system as to be above the law, for even a second, then your political system sucks, to put it mildly. 

Another bizarre anomaly of the US system is this ‘hanging back’ by the federal authorities, in terms of subpoenas and indictments, during pre-election periods. This, it seems to me, is an interference, by a kind of stealth, of the judiciary by the political sphere. Where did this ridiculous idea come from? It seems abundantly clear to me that when investigating potential felonies of any kind, the political background should play no part whatsoever. Once investigators have ‘all their ducks in a row’, as Americans like to say, that’s when prosecutions should begin. I’ve no idea right now what will happen to Trump after these elections, but he has already been clearly implicated in campaign finance violations via his criminal fixer, so prosecutions should have occurred already. To not institute criminal proceedings when everything is set to do so, because of some election or other – that constitutes political interference. Am I missing something here?  

Assuming that Trump is indicted after these elections (though what I’ve heard is that the Mueller will only issue a report to congress, even if it includes indictable offences, which makes my head spin with its unutterable stupidity and dereliction of duty), is it likely that Trump will give himself up to authorities? Trump is a career criminal who has never spent any time in jail, though his tax crimes and various scams should have seen him incarcerated for much of his adult life. It’s hard to know what he’ll do when cornered, but I can’t imagine him giving himself up to authorities. The real crisis is about to hit the fan, so to speak. It will get very very bumpy over the next few months, no matter what the election result. 

The other major question is – what will Americans learn from the Trump disaster? Will they reform their political system? With their jingoistic pride, I don’t hold out too much hope. My guess is that there will be some reform around the edges – the emoluments clause might be ‘promoted’ to something more than a mere clause, for example – but their beloved but outdated Constitution will remain largely untouched, and they’ll still keep their POTUS in splendid isolation, a law unto himself and a potential threat to their nation and the outside world. But then, as some dipshit has often said, we’ll have to wait and see. 

 

Written by stewart henderson

November 6, 2018 at 8:52 pm

another look at free will, with thanks to Robert Sapolsky

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Ah poor old Aynnie – from guru to laughing stock within a couple of gens

Having recently had a brief conversation about free will, I’ve decided to look at the matter again. Fact is, it’s been playing on my mind. I know this is a very old chestnut in philosophy, renewed somewhat by neurologists recently, and I know that far more informed minds than mine have devoted oodles of time and energy to it, but my conversation was with someone with no philosophical or neurological background who simply found the idea of our having no free will, no autonomy, no ‘say’ whatever in our lives, frankly ludicrous. Free will, after all, was what made our lives worth living. It gives us our dignity, our self-respect, our pride in our achievements, our sense of shame or disappointment at having made bad or unworthy decisions. To deny us our free will would deny us….  far far too much.

My previous piece on the matter might be worth a look (having just reread it, it’s not bad), but it seems to me the conundrum can be made clear by thinking in two intuitively obvious but entirely contradictory ways. First, of course we have free will, which we demonstrate with a thousand voluntary decisions made every day – what to wear, what to eat, what to watch, what to read, whether to disagree or hold our tongue, whether to turn right or left in our daily walk, etc etc. Second, of course we don’t have free will – student A can’t learn English as quickly and effectively as student B, no matter how well you teach her; this student has a natural ability to excel at every sport, that one is eternally clumsy and uncoordinated; this girl is shy and withdrawn, that one’s a noisy show-off, etc etc.

The first way of thinking comes largely from self-observation, the second comes largely from observing others (if only others were as free to be like us as we are). And it seems to me that most relationship breakdowns come from 1) not allowing the other to be ‘free’ to be themselves, or 2) not recognising the other’s lack of freedom to change. Take your pick.

So I’ve just read Robert Sapolsky’s take on free will in his book Behave, and it strengthens me in my ‘free will is a myth’ conviction. Sapolsky somewhat mocks the free will advocates with the notion of an uncaused homunculus inside the brain that does the deciding with more or less good sense. The point is that ‘compatibilism’ can’t possibly make sense. How do you sensibly define ‘free will’ within a determinist framework? Is this compatibilism just a product of the eternal complexity of the human brain? We can’t tease out the chain of causal events, therefore free will? So if at some future date we were able to tease out those connections, free will would evaporate? As Sapolsky points out, we are much further along at understanding the parts of the prefrontal cortex and the neuronal pathways into and out of it, and research increases exponentially. Far enough along to realise how extraordinarily far we have to go. 

One way of thinking of the absurdity of the self-deciding self is to wonder when this decider evolved. Is it in dogs? Is it in mosquitos? The probable response would be that dogs have a partial or diminished free will, mosquitos much less so, if at all. As if free will was an epiphenomen of complexity. But complexity is just complexity, there seems no point in adding free will to it. 

But perhaps we should take a look at the best arguments we can find for compatibilism or any other position that advocates free will. Joachim Krueger presents five arguments on the Psychology Today website, though he’s not convinced by any of them. The second argument relates to consciousness (a fuzzy concept avoided by most neurologists I’ve read) and volition, a tricky concept that Krueger defines as ‘will’ but not free will. Yes, there are decisions we make, which we may weigh up in our minds, to take an overseas holiday or spend a day at the beach, and they are entirely voluntary, not externally coerced – at least to our minds. However, that doesn’t make them free, outside the causal chain. But presumably compatibilists will agree – they are wedded to determinism after all. So they must have to define freedom in a different way. I’ve yet to find any definition that works for the compatibilist.

There’s also a whiff of desperation in trying to connect free will with quantum indeterminacy, as some have done. Having read Life at the edge, by Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden, which examines the possibilities of quantum effects at the biological level, I’m certainly open to the science on this, but I can’t see how it would apply at the macro level of human decision-making. And this macro level is generally far more ‘unconscious’ than we have previously believed, which is another way of saying that, with the growth of neurology (and my previous mention of exponential growth in this field is no exaggeration), the mapping of neurological activity, the research into neurotransmission and general brain chemistry, the concept of ‘consciousness’ has largely been ignored, perhaps because it resembles too much the homunculus that Sapolsky mocks. 

As Sapolsky quite urgently points out, this question of free will and individual responsibility is far from being the fun and almost frolicsome philosophical conundrum that some have seemed to suggest. It has major implications for the law, and for crime and punishment. For example, there are legal discussions in the USA, one of the few ‘civilised’ nations that still execute people, as to the IQ level above which you’re smart enough to be executed, and how that IQ is to be measured. This legal and semi-neurological issue affects a significant percentage of those on death row. A significant percentage of the same people have been shown to have damage to the prefrontal cortex. How much damage? How did this affect the commission of the crime? Neurologists may not be able to answer this question today, but future neurologists might. 

So, for me, the central issue in the free will debate is the term ‘free’. Let’s look at how Marvin Edwards describes it in his blog post ‘Free will skepticism: an incoherent notion’. I’ve had a bit of a to-and-fro with Marvin – check out the comments section on my previous post on the topic, referenced below. His definition is very basic. For a will, or perhaps I should say a decision, to be free it has to be void of ‘undue influences’. That’s it. And yet he’s an out and out determinist, agreeing that if we could account for all the ‘influences’, or causal operants, affecting a person’s decision, we could perfectly predict that decision in advance. So it is obvious to Marvin that free will and determinism are perfectly compatible.

That’s it, I say again. That’s the entire substance of the argument. It all hangs on this idea of ‘undue influence’, an idea apparently taken from standard philosophical definitions of free will. Presumably a ‘due influence’ is one that comes from ‘the self’ and so is ‘free’. But this is an incoherent notion, to borrow Marvin’s phrase. Again it runs up against Sapolsky’s homunculus, an uncaused decider living inside the brain, aka ‘the self’. Here’s what Sapolsky has to say about the kind of compatibilism Marvin is advocating for, which he (Sapolsky) calls ‘mitigated free will’, a term taken from his colleague Joshua Greene. It’s a long quote, but well worth transcribing, as it captures my own skepticism as exactly as anything I’ve read:

Here’s how I’ve always pictured mitigated free will:

There’s the brain – neurons, synapses, neurotransmitters, receptors, brain-specific transcription factors, epigenetic effects, gene transpositions during neurogenesis. Aspects of brain function can be influenced by someone’s prenatal environment, genes, and hormones, whether their parents were authoritarian or their culture egalitarian, whether they witnessed violence in childhood, when they had breakfast. It’s the whole shebang, all of this book.

And then, separate from that, in a concrete bunker tucked away in the brain, sits a little man (or woman, or agendered individual), a homunculus at a control panel. The homunculus is made of a mixture of nanochips, old vacuum tubes, crinkly ancient parchment, stalactites of your mother’s admonishing voice, streaks of brimstone, rivets made out of gumption. In other words, not squishy biological brain yuck.

And the homunculus sits there controlling behaviour. There are some things outside its purview – seizures blow the homunculus’s fuses, requiring it to reboot the system and check for damaged files. Same with alcohol, Alzheimer’s disease, a severed spinal cord, hypoglycaemic shock. 

There are domains where the homunculus and that biology stuff have worked out a détente – for example, biology is usually automatically regulating your respiration, unless you must take a deep breath before singing an aria, in which case the homunculus briefly overrides the automatic pilot.

But other than that, the homunculus makes decisions. Sure, it takes careful note of all the inputs and information from the brain, checks your hormone levels, skims the neurobiology journals, takes it all under advisement, and then, after reflecting and deliberating, decides what you do. A homunculus in your brain, but not of it, operating independently of the material rules of the universe that constitute modern science.

This captures perfectly, to me, the dilemma of those sorts of compatibilists who insist on determinism but. They seem more than reluctant to recognise the implications of that determinist commitment. It’s an amusing description – I love the bit about the aria – But it seems to me just right. As to the implications for our cherished sense of freedom, we can at least reflect that it has ever been thus, and it hasn’t stopped us thriving in our selfish, selfless ways. But as to the implications for those of us less fortunate in the forces that have moved us since childhood and before, that’s another story.

References

https://ussromantics.com/2018/05/15/is-free-will-a-thing-apparently-not/

R Sapolsky, Behave: the biology of humans at our best and worst, Bodley Head 2017. Note especially Chapter 16, ‘Biology, the criminal justice system and free will’. 

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/compatibilism/#FreWil

https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/one-among-many/201803/five-arguments-free-will

https://www.theatlantic.com/notes/2016/06/free-will-exists-and-is-measurable/486551/

Written by stewart henderson

October 27, 2018 at 1:25 pm

What’s up with Trump’s frontal cortex? part 2

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Before going on with my thoughts about little Donnie’s brain, I want to address two pieces of relevant reading I’ve done lately. 

First, the short article by ‘Neuroskeptic’ entitled ‘Don’t blame Trump’s brain‘. Now, as anyone who’s read much of my blog knows, I consider myself a skeptic and a supporter of the skeptical community. However, I don’t entirely agree with Neuroskeptic here. First, describing people’s attempt to work out Trump’s psychology or neurology from his words and actions as ‘Trumphrenology’ is a silly put-down. In fact, all psychiatric conditions are diagnosed on the basis of observed words and acts – duh, what else? Unless there’s a brain injury or genetic abnormality. So the medical terms used to describe Trump and others do have some validity, though I agree that ‘medicalising’ the problem of Trump can be counter-productive, as it is with many ‘conditions’ which have appeared recently to describe the spectra of human behaviour. It’s more important, in my view, to recognise Trump as a career criminal than to put a psycho-neurological label on him. Then again, as someone who doesn’t believe in free will, the brain that makes Trump be Trump is of some interest to me. Second, Neuroskeptic describes the arguments of those who attribute medical conditions to people on the basis of behaviour as ‘circular’. This is false. Behaviour is more than s/he thinks it is. When we try to understand the brain, we look at how it behaves under particular conditions. According to Neuroskeptic ‘it’s rarely useful to try to understand a behaviour in neuroscientific terms’. If that’s true, then the monumental 700-page book Behave, by Robert Sapolsky, one of the world’s leading neurobiologists, was largely a waste of time. Third, Neuroskeptic questions the validity and ethics of Trump ‘diagnosis-at-a-distance’. This is absurd. Over the past two years alone, Americans have been subjected to several thousand tweets, hundreds of televised speeches and comments, and the day-to-day actions of the lad in the White House. Unless they make a real effort to switch off, most Americans can’t help knowing more about Trump than they do about just about anyone in their intimate circle. Where’s the distance?

Second, on The dangerous case of Donald Trump, by 27 people working in the field of mental health. I’ve not read it, but I’ve read the ‘summary’, attributed to Bandy X Lee, the contributing editor of the full book, though I prefer to believe that Lee, a respected Yale professor of psychology, had no hand in writing this summary, which is, syntactically speaking, the worst piece of published writing I’ve ever read in my life (I say this as a language teacher). I prefer to believe it was written by an intellectually disabled computer. I’m sure the full book is far far better, but still I’m amused by the variety of conditions Trump may be suffering from – ADHD, malignant narcissism, borderline personality disorder, psychopathology, sociopathology, delusional disorder, generalised anxiety disorder etc (OK that last one is what most reasoning Americans are supposedly suffering from because of Trump). All of this is a bit of a turn-off, so I won’t be reading the book. I tend to agree with what Neuroskeptic seems to be inferring – that we don’t need a psychiatric diagnosis as an excuse to get rid of Trump – his obviously asinine remarks, his insouciant cruelty and his general incompetence are in full view. His criminality should have seen him in jail long ago, for a long time. Further, the idea that a diagnosis of mental instability could lead to invoking the 25th amendment is absurd on its face. Anyone who’s read the 25th amendment should see that. I don’t see any evidence that Trump’s condition is deteriorating – he’s been consistently deceitful and profoundly incurious throughout his life. That means he was elected as a fuckwitted dickhead. Don’t blame Trump, blame those who elected him. And blame the lack of checks and balances that should make it impossible for just anyone to become President. Democracy does have its flaws after all.

So what are the patterns of behaviour that might lead to a diagnosis, which then might be confirmed neurologically – if, for example we were to apply a tranquillising dart to this bull-in-a-china-shop’s voluminous rump, then tie him up and probe his frontal and pre-frontal regions and their connections, in response to questioning and other fun stimuli (I’d love to be in charge of that operation)?

I’ll first list some notable Trump behaviours and traits, recognised by the cognoscenti, without suggesting anything about their relation to frontal cortex disfunction.

  • A tendency, or need, to take credit for everything positive that happens within his particular environment, and a concomitant tendency, or need, to blame anyone else for everything negative occurring in that environment
  • a winner/loser mentality, in which losers are often members of ‘losing’ cultures, sub-groups or entities (blacks, latinos, women, the failing NYT) and winners are judged in terms of pure power and wealth (Putin, Kim, Manafort, Fred Trump)
  • lack of focus in speeches and an inability to listen; generally a very limited attention span 
  • frequently cited temper tantrums
  • lack of empathy and consideration for others, to quite an extreme degree, close to solipsism
  • emphasis on compliance and deference from others, inability to deal with criticism
  • extreme lack of curiosity
  • lack of interest in or understanding of ethics
  • lack of interest in or understanding of concepts of truth/falsehood 
  • extreme need to be the centre of attention

I think that’s a good start. As to how these traits map on to psychopathological states and then onto cortical development, I won’t be so psychopathological as to provide clear answers. Most people I’ve spoken to suggest malignant narcissism as a pretty good fit for his behaviour – perhaps due to its all-encompassing vagueness? Wikipedia describes it as ‘a hypothetical, experimental diagnostic category’, which doesn’t sound promising, and it isn’t recognised in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR), though narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is. I suppose that some people want to particularly emphasise Trump’s malignancy, but I think NPD is bad enough. Here’s the Wikipedia description, drawn from the latest DSM and other sources:

a personality disorder with a long-term pattern of abnormal behavior characterized by exaggerated feelings of self-importance, excessive need for admiration, and a lack of empathy. Those affected often spend a lot of time thinking about achieving power or success, or on their appearance. They often take advantage of the people around them. The behaviour typically begins by early adulthood, and occurs across a variety of social situations.

Now, I came up with the Trump behavioural traits before I read this description, I swear. I think the fit is pretty exact, but it’s clear that those responsible for diagnosing someone with NPD don’t do so on the basis of brain scans. I’ve explored enough neurology to fairly safely say that NPD, psychopathy and many other psychiatric conditions just can’t, as yet be reliably correlated with neurological connections or lack thereof. Even schizophrenia, one of the more treatable psychotic conditions, is rarely described in terms of brain function, and is diagnosed entirely through behaviour patterns. 

Having said this, all of these conditions are entirely about brain function, and in Trump’s case, brain development since early childhood. We’ll never get to know what precisely is up with Trump’s frontal cortex, partly because we’ll never get that tranquilising dart to penetrate his fat arse and to then practise Nazi-like experimentation… sorry to dwell so lovingly on this. And partly because, in spite of the galloping advances we’re making in neurology, we’re not at the knowledge level, I suspect, of being able to pinpoint connections between the amygdalae, the hypothalamus, the hippocampus and the various regions of the frontal and prefrontal cortex. I plan to do more research and reading on this, and there may be another blog piece in the offing. However, one thing I can say – Trump probably isn’t a psychopath. Psychopaths tend not to have temper tantrums – their emotional responses are minimal, rather than being exacerbated by life’s slings and arrows, and their violence is instrumental rather than impassioned. Their amygdalae – the founts of aggression and anxiety – are correspondingly reduced. Doesn’t sound like Trump.

Again, though reflection on Trump’s curious psyche may be intrinsically interesting, it’s his crimes that should do him in. As I’ve said before, the fact that he’s not currently in custody is a disgrace to the American criminal and legal system. His fixer is facing a jail term, and in pleading guilty to two felony counts of campaign finance violations, has fingered Trump as the Mr Big of that operation. Those authorities who have not arrested him should themselves be facing legal action for such criminal negligence. And of course other crimes will be highlighted by the Mueller team in the near future, though such scams as Trump University should have seen him jailed long ago. Others have suffered lengthy prison terms for less. But that’s the USA, the greatest democracy in the greatest, free-est and fairest nation in the history of the multiverse. Maybe such overweening pride deserves this fall…

Written by stewart henderson

October 12, 2018 at 4:20 pm

waiting for Mueller – the many and varied problems for Trump

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There are undoubtedly billions of worthier subjects to focus on than Trump, but I do find it hard to look away for long from the slow-moving train wreck – and I’m still nursing my prediction that he’ll be out by year’s end. Of course I keep stumbling at obstacles, and anything that gets in the way of justice being the same for everyone seems to me an unnecessary and illegitimate obstacle. Now it’s this ridiculous notion that you shouldn’t charge a President around election time. It’s bullshit. It should be absolutely clear that you should charge any felon precisely when all is in order to charge him, no matter what time of year it is.

But that apparently isn’t how it goes in the USA, and so we have to wait for two whole months to bring charges, assuming this ‘etiquette’ is followed. And then what happens after the mid-term fall-out? Too close to Christmas?

Needless to say, I’m completely opposed to the truly criminal notion that you can’t charge a head of state while in office. Only in America is such a notion even thinkable – a testament to one of the worst political systems in the western world.

Anyway, no sense bemoaning a system that the US Congress, fourth estate and intelligentsia are too jingoistic to even be capable of examining let alone reforming. So instead I’ll focus here on the legal jeopardy Trump finds himself in from various directions, as we wait for the Mueller team to hopefully finish him off.

Firstly the Michael Cohen case. Cohen is currently out on bail awaiting sentencing on eight criminal counts he has pleaded guilty to. According to this article in The Hill, from August 21, Cohen won’t be sentenced until December 12, which seems an eternity to me. It’s expected that he’ll do a fair amount of jail time.

What has this to do with Trump? Cohen was his fixer and I’m not sure how many of the felonies he’ll be sentenced on relate to Trump or his organisation. Some reports claim that more than one felony relates to the 2016 campaign. What is clear is that Cohen seems bent on revenge for the way Trump, who never treated him particularly well in spite of his loyalty, dropped him like a hot potato shortly after Cohen’s offices and home were raided by the FBI. In pleading guilty to one charge of campaign violations relating to the Stormy Daniels payment, Cohen implicated Trump as the person who directed his activities. This should have led directly to Trump’s arrest, but for some reason this hasn’t happened. In any case it stands to reason that whatever Cohen’s sentence on this particular count, Trump’s should be greater, as the ‘Mr Big’ in this case.

Of course Trump’s legal jeopardy from the Cohen direction is probably, or hopefully, more considerable than just the Stormy matter. Cohen struck a plea deal with the SDNY, clearly in the hope of getting a lighter sentence in return for dirt on Trump, but the plea deal seems to have been minimal, most likely because the Mueller team, who are surely in close contact with SDNY, have enough dirt on Trump already (particularly from the raid on Cohen’s offices and home, conducted by the SDNY, but nothing prevents the FBI from sharing information – in fact such sharing is essential), and they don’t like working with criminals if they can help it. Still, they may call on Cohen if they need to, which all spells trouble for Trump. Meanwhile, Emily Jane Fox writes In Vanity Fair (September 11) that Cohen’s attorney is set to meet New York State tax officials who are looking into the Trump Organisation’s finances. Hopefully Cohen will have more damning stuff on that topic. I should also add that it’s this SDNY probe into Cohen that has granted immunity to the CFO of the Trump Organisation, as well as to David Pecker, chief of the National Enquirer, a gutter mag dedicated to spruiking Trump’s ‘qualities’ and to ‘catching and killing’ negative stories about him. So, more legal jeopardy there.

Secondly, on those New York State tax officials. A Washington Post article from July 20 revealed that the state’s tax agency is investigating Trump’s personal charity (sic), the Trump Foundation. New York’s embattled governor, Andrew Cuomo, who appears to have launched the investigation under pressure from constituents, has said that the probe could lead to criminal charges. Trump’s children would be involved as well as himself.

Thirdly, the tax probe comes on the heels of a civil suit, filed in June by the New York Attorney-General, claiming that Trump and three of his children ran a charity ‘engaged in persistently illegal conduct.’ The Attorney-General’s department has been considering pursuing criminal charges, but apparently there’s a race to become the next Attorney-General there, and the Democratic candidates are all promising to go after Trump if elected. They’re hoping to focus on the Emoluments Clause in the Constitution, which is altogether a good thing. Not being well up on how the US electoral system works, I’m not sure how long it will take for this all to be sorted, but it definitely looks like there will be an annihilation of Republicans in the mid-terms, and this Attorney-General race will be caught up in that. So, more trouble for Trump.

Fourthly, the next Manafort trial starts soon, and it involves Russia. Manafort is apparently trying to negotiate a plea deal as I write, one that won’t involve dumping on Trump, and won’t involve actually going through the trial process. It’s hard to imagine that happening. An article in Fortune, out yesterday (September 13) claims that a deal has more or less been struck, but it’s hard to imagine such a deal not involving Trump. This deal may be announced as early as today. Considering that the Mueller team holds all the cards – a slam-dunk set of convictions on the second trial, and the possibility of retrying the ten counts that were left undecided in the first trial, it’s hard to imagine that Mueller wouldn’t have extracted some damning evidence about Trump, the campaign, and Russian money in exchange for any deal. Maybe Trump won’t be touting Manafort as a ‘great guy’ for much longer – but on the other hand, Manafort may just be lookingfor a way to avoid the expense of a court case he can’t win, and he’s hanging out for a pardon from Trump.

And fifthly, the Mueller probe itself. I see it dividing into three parts – conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and financial crimes.

Conspiracy charges will depend on whether Trump and/or his campaign knew about the Russian interference in the 2016 elections, an interference amply documented in the two speaking indictments, in February and July of this year, which together charged 25 Russian individuals and three Russian companies with hacking of servers and hijacking of social media sites to influence the election outcome, entirely in Trump’s favour. No American citizens were charged, but other persons ‘known and unknown’ to the investigators were repeatedly mentioned. The second indictment also raised profound suspicions that the Trump campaign had knowledge of the hacking, because of certain dates matching comments at the time by Trump himself. Apart from this there is the meeting at Trump Tower on June 9 2016, which I personally think is less significant, but about which there have clearly been cover-ups and lies by the Trump campaign and administration, including by Trump himself. It has always appeared to me highly likely that Mueller has an abundance of material on this conspiracy.

On obstruction, although much of the focus here has been on the firing of James Comey for the illicit reason of trying to stop the Russia investigation, it seems clear to me that the relentless public attacks on the Mueller enquiry, the FBI and the DoJ, and the hounding of  specific officers within those departments, are all very serious cases of obstruction of justice, so flagrant and criminal in intent in fact that they should have warranted dismissal from office long ago. These are questions, of course, about the limits to free speech, but one would think that such limits would indeed apply to the Head of State when speaking of cases in which he himself is implicated. The more power you have to influence, the more responsibility you should bear in speaking of such institutions as investigating services, the judiciary and the free press, a matter which should be inscribed in law. In any case it’ll be interesting to see what the enquiry’s findings are on this topic. They should be fulsome.

On financial misdealings and any other bits and pieces of criminality that might be uncovered during the enquiry, There’s potentially a lifetime of stuff there. It’s pretty certain that Mueller has all the tax returns, and knows a thing or two about Deutsche Bank’s dodgy dealings with Trump. This is the most murky of areas, obviously, but there are outstanding financial experts on Mueller’s team who’ll be having a wonderful time joining all the dots.

So who knows when the fireworks will start, but I’ll be happy to be viewing them from a safe distance. Meanwhile I’ll try, really try, to focus on other things for a couple of months.

 

Written by stewart henderson

September 14, 2018 at 4:58 pm

The battle for justice, part 1: some background to the case

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A prosecution should not proceed if there is no reasonable prospect of a conviction being secured. This basic criterion is the cornerstone of the uniform prosecution policy adopted in Australia.

from ‘The decision to prosecute’, in ‘Statement of prosecution policy and guidelines’, Director of Public Prosecutions, South Australia, October 2014

not this movie, unfortunately

I rarely focus on myself on this blog, but now I feel I have to. Today I lost my job because of something that happened to me about 12 years ago. So the next I don’t know how many posts will be devoted to my battle for justice, in the hope that it may help others in a similar situation. Of course I also find that writing is my best solace, as well as my best weapon. I have no financial resources to speak of, all I have is a certain amount of nous.

Between 2003-4 and 2010 I was a foster carer, under the aegis of Anglicare. Over that period I fostered six boys, with naturally varying success.

So why did I become a foster carer? I simply saw an ad on a volunteering website. I was being pushed to do some work, which I’ve always been reluctant to do, being basically a reclusive bookworm who loves to read history, science, everything that helps to understand what humans are, where they came from, where they’re going. And I hate when work interferes with that! But having come from what for me was a rather toxic family background, trying to shut myself from screaming fights between parents, and being accused by my mother, the dominant parent, of being a sneak and a liar, and ‘just like your father’ (her worst insult), and being physically and mentally abused by both parents (though never sexually), and having run away from home regularly in my teen years, I imagined that, as a survivor, I could offer something which might work for at least some of these kids  – a hands-off, non-bullying environment which would be more equal in terms of power than many foster-care situations. Call me naive…

Mostly, this approach worked. I did have to get heavy now and then of course, but not for long, so I always managed to stay on good terms with my foster-kids, as I have more recently with my students. This was even the case with the lad who accused me of raping him.

Let me describe the case as briefly as possible. A fifteen-year old boy was in my care in September 2005. He was much more of a handful than the previous two boys I’d looked after, and when I lost my temper with him during a school holiday trip in Victor Harbour, he took it out on me by claiming to his mother, with whom he spent his weekends, that I’d punched him on the back of the head. This was false, but his mother took the matter to the police, and the boy was immediately taken out of my care.

After an internal review conducted by Anglicare I was cleared of any wrongdoing, to their satisfaction at least, and another boy was placed in my care. Then, sometime in early 2006, this boy was secretly whisked out of my care, and I was informed by Anglicare that a serious allegation had been made against me. I was in shock, naturally thinking this new boy had also accused me of some kind of violence, but I was finally informed by the Anglicare social worker who’d been overseeing my placements that ‘it isn’t your new foster – kid’. The penny dropped more or less immediately that it was the same boy who’d accused me of hitting him. This boy, as far as I was aware, was now living happily with his mum.

I was left in limbo for some time, but eventually I received a message from the police to go to the Port Adelaide police station. There I was asked to sit down in an office with two police officers, and informed that I was under arrest for rape.

I was somewhat taken aback haha, and I don’t recall much of the conversation after that, but I think it went on for a long time. I do remember one key question: if the boy’s lying, why would he make such an allegation? I had no answer: I was unable to think clearly, given the situation. But later that night, after my release on bail, an answer came to me, which might just be the right one. When the boy was in my care, the plan was to reconcile him with his mother, who put him in care in the first place because she couldn’t cope with him. I knew his mother, as I met her every weekend for handover. She was highly strung and nervous, and it seemed likely she was again having trouble coping with full-time care. Quite plausibly, she was threatening to return him to foster care, which he wouldn’t have wanted. She allowed him to smoke, she allowed him to hang out with his mates, and her environment was familiar to him. To him, I would’ve seemed boringly bookish and unadventurous. What’s more, his claim that I’d hit him had worked perfectly for him, getting him exactly where he wanted. Why not shut the door on foster care forever, by making the most extreme claim?

I don’t really know if this sounds preposterous to an impartial reader, but this answer to the riddle struck me as in keeping with what I knew of the boy’s thinking, and it was backed up by a remark he made to me, which soon came back to haunt me. He said ‘my mum’s friend told me that all foster carers are child molesters…’. It was the kind of offhand remark he’d often make, but it was particularly striking in light of something I was told later by my lawyer. Apparently, the boy didn’t tell his mother directly that I’d raped him, he’d told a friend of his mother, who’d then told her.

So, after the sleepless night following my arrest, I felt confident that I knew the answer to the key police question. I typed it up and took it forthwith to the Port Adelaide station (I didn’t trust the mail). How utterly naive of me to think they’d be grateful, or interested! I received no response.

So I obtained a lawyer through legal aid, or the Legal Services Commission. At the time I was dirt poor: I’d received a stipend as a foster carer, but that had stopped. Otherwise I worked occasionally as a community worker or English language teacher, mostly in a voluntary role. From the moment I was charged I spent many a sleepless night imagining my days in court, heroically representing myself of course, exposing contradictions and confabulations, citing my spotless record, my abhorrence of violence of all kinds, etc, etc. So I was a bit miffed when my lawyer told me to sit tight and do nothing, say nothing, and to leave everything to him. Standard procedure, presumably. The case passed from hearing to hearing (I don’t know if that’s the word – at least there were several court appearances), over a period of more than a year, and every time I expected it to be dismissed, since I knew there was no evidence. It had to be dismissed, there could be no other possibility. The only reason it had become a court matter in the first place, it seemed to me, was the absolute enormity of the allegation. But how could this possibly be justified? But I had to admit, the boy had, more or less accidentally, stumbled on the perfect crime to accuse me of – a crime committed months before, where there could be no visible evidence one way or another… It was all very nerve-wracking. And I was very annoyed at the fact that the DPP (the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions) seemed to have different lawyers representing it at every court appearance, and mostly they behaved as if they’d only been handed the brief minutes before.

Finally I arrived at the lowest point so far – an arraignment. I didn’t know this (my last) appearance would be an arraignment and I didn’t know what that was. I just expected yet another appearance with a handful of yawning court officials and lawyers in attendance. Instead I found a packed courtroom.

Arraignment is a formal reading of a criminal charging document in the presence of the defendant to inform the defendant of the charges against him or her. In response to arraignment, the accused is expected to enter a plea.

In Australia, arraignment is the first of eleven stages in a criminal trial, and involves the clerk of the court reading out the indictment. (WIKIPEDIA)

The reason the courtroom was packed is that several arraignments are processed in the same courtroom on the same day, so there were several accused there with their friends and families. Unfortunately, I was solo. On my turn, I was taken out to the holding cells and brought in – some kind of ceremonial – to the dock. The charge was read out (I’d already been given the ‘details’ by the lawyer, so I barely listened to it) and I was asked to plead, and the judge told the court, to my utter amazement, that I was adjudged to have a case to answer.

So it was perhaps even more amazing that, a week or two after that appearance, the case was dropped.

 


 

Written by stewart henderson

November 11, 2017 at 7:34 pm

the little dictator and his acolyte

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Having seen how Russia acts within the framework of what we call hybrid warfare, I really don’t exclude anything when it comes to Russian operations in other countries.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Secretary-General, NATO alliance, 2014

We’re living in interesting times, and I can’t help but be both enthralled and horrified them, so I’ll be dividing my time for a while between science and current international developments in politics and culture.

I wrote my recent post before I’d quite finished Masha Gesson’s 2012 biography of Putin, but I find that her epilogue, together with an afterword written in 2014, is by far the most important part of the book as regards the future for Putin’s ambitions, for Russia and for our response to his antics. And of course there’s also Trump’s love affair with the apoplectically anti-democratic dictator, which is no laughing matter.

Vladimir Putin’s rise to the leadership of Russia was unlikely, as the subtitle of Gessen’s book suggests. It seems that he was was plucked out of obscurity to be the saviour of Russia, and he grabbed the opportunity with both hands. But of course the story is far more complicated than that.

I want to compare (albeit briefly) Putin’s background, and even his appeal, with that of Adolf Hitler, partly because I’m challenged by recent claims that one should never invoke Hitler as a comparison (bullshit I say), but more importantly because the similarities are screamingly obvious. It seems to me that in many ways Putin is a Hitler constrained by the rapid rise of internationalism, which was itself largely a response to Hitler’s nationalistic adventurism. Certainly, the horrors of Nazism are behind us, but make no mistake, Putin’s attacks on homosexuality, which of course are in line with his own brutal, primitive instincts, are every bit as totalising as Hitler’s scapegoating of the Jews in the thirties. Certainly there’s a greater cynicism in Putin’s approach, and there’s no doubt that international attention will parry his blows against gays, but I’ve no doubt that Putin’s attitude to homosexuality is sincere, and might be put down to his being picked on as a slight and effeminate-looking youth. This persecution clearly affected him profoundly, causing him to take up martial arts and body-building and such, but I’m not particularly interested in the psychology behind his bigotry. The Dunedin Studies have shown me that character formation occurs remarkably early, and those early years are lost to most analysts in Putin’s case. Anyway, I’m more interested in the effects of his bigotry on the Russian psyche.

While Putin isn’t as shallow as Trump, neither is he deep. He’s a product of a profoundly dysfunctional world, and he found solace and identity in the KGB, the western world’s laughing stock (its successor, the FSB, is entirely a tool of Putin). From what I can gather, he was a doted-on only child, who grew up in the ruins of Leningrad/Petrograd, Russia’s second city. Like Hitler, he seems to have been devastated by the loss of something, nationally, that once promised greatness, and he may have taken this personally. Of course international developments since Hitler’s time would have largely quashed imperialistic ambitions, which is why it seems more accurate to see Putin as a mafioso-style crime boss, extremely petty-minded, vengeful and gleeful about the suffering of his ‘enemies’ – and probably generous to a fault to those who are most complete in their sycophancy.

What we do know is that Putin, like Hitler, is largely impervious to basic human values, but much better than Hitler at hiding the fact. Don’t expect much from his assurance, more or less forced from him by the new French President Emmanuel Macron, that he would investigate gay persecution in Chechnya, a region he bombed into submission when first gaining power in 1999-2000. The Chechen capital, Grozny, was later described by the UN as ‘the most destroyed city on earth’, with tens of thousands of civilians killed. The state has been ruled for some time by Ramzan Kadyrov, not so much a Putin puppet as a fellow-traveller who has learned from the Russian’s mafioso methods. Apparently, he’s both more charismatic and more openly brutal, having murdered a vast number of his enemies. It’s unlikely that this macho thug would take or expect advice on the treatment of homosexuals by his thuggish Russian mentor. Yet while Kadyrov’s political independence is more a relief than a burden to Putin, some 85% of Chechnya’s budget comes from Moscow, and this is the ultimate measure of Putin’s power over the region.

The murder of enemies (just a name for those who act defiantly, or even independently, and who might have some influence), often in far-flung parts, is the most recognisable feature of Putin’s (and Kadyrov’s) dictatorship, but there are others, including threats to bordering countries, and endless attempts to interfere with democratic elections worldwide. Of course Putin went well beyond threats when he moved swiftly to annex Crimea in March 2014. The move seems not to have been for economic reasons, as it’s expected that large sums of money will be needed to prop up the region. It seems to have been a land grab in defiance of the pro-European overthrow of the corrupt pro-Russia Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. It would also have been done for domestic reasons, to suggest to his long-suffering people the fantasy that Russia is still a great nation that can throw its weight around. It’s likely that the annexation greatly improved the petty dictator’s domestic stocks, but as I’ve said, there isn’t much room to manoeuvre today in terms of Russian expansionism – though the Baltic states are understandably anxious about Putin’s intentions there – so it’s not surprising that he’s turned his attention to his first love, espionage and the perversion of justice, in trying to manipulate the outcome of foreign elections in favour of their most anti-democratic candidates. He appears to have been partially successful in somehow fashioning more support for Marine Le Pen in France than she had a right to expect, but clearly his greatest coup was to infiltrate the recent US election to a degree that has – somewhat belatedly – alarmed many pundits.

The current US President has praised Putin more than any other democratically elected leader. He would certainly like to have the power over his nation that Putin has over Russia, but the fact is that he just doesn’t have the nous to use that power effectively, even for his own benefit. As David Frum and many others have pointed out, Trump isn’t a smart businessman, even in the field of real estate. He’s a big-noter and a bullshit artist who’s incapable of the strategic planning required even to be a semi-succssful mafioso boss. His ham-fistedness, however, has to be seen in some respects as a saving grace. The job of more responsible leaders and powerful figures in the USA now is to provide a convincing case to the public that the Trump administration’s ties and indebtedness to Putin and his henchmen are massively detrimental to the country they’ve been elected to administer, and to the western democracies in general. Many journalists and public intellectuals – I’ll mention David Frum, Anne Applebaum, Timothy Snyder, Masha Gessen, and Lilia Shevtsova, but I’m a complete novice in this field, so apologies for not mentioning others at this point – have been firm in arguing against any rapprochement with Russia under Putin, whose anti-western propaganda for domestic consumption has risen to bizarre proportions in recent years. It’s time for more western and particularly US leaders, on both side of the political fence, to argue strongly for isolating Russia under Putin. One way to do this is to go in hard on Russian political interference in the US and other prominent countries – the hybrid warfare that NATO’s Secretary-General spoke of. And this will surely have the added benefit of substantially weakening, and maybe even derailing, the Trump administration.

The little dictator will complete his first six-year term in office in 2018. Actually, this will complete 19 years of  effective dictatorship, and he has altered the Russian constitution to enable him to stand for office again. If successful, he may retire, at 71, after 25 years in power in Russia (the longest reign since the time of the Czars), having given up on modernisation and economic development and left behind a state characterised by cronyism, thuggery, stagnation and misery, and a fantasy that it is an alternative to the ‘decline of the west’, though hopefully few of Russia’s intellectuals are taken in by this.

But Putin’s success isn’t guaranteed. As Gessen and others have pointed out, he got a real scare in the lead-up to the last election, and was quite possibly only saved from defeat, or at least from ‘legitimate’ success, by his campaign against homosexuality and ‘decadence’. Recently there have been sizeable demonstrations against corruption in Russia, and no-one is more corrupt than Putin. The Russian analyst Lilia Shevtsova is particularly critical of those pundits who appear to have given up on the possibility for a fairer, more open and democratic Russia. Her remarks here are passionate and timely:

This means that Russians are incorrigible, doomed to be manipulated, and ready to tolerate repressive rule. I don’t know what information the authors are privy to that makes them so sure that the Russians will continue clinging to Putin. Why are the experts so sure of that? Do they know something about us Russians that we are unaware of? This approach can be interpreted in only one way: Russians carry a special gene that precludes them from living in a rule of law state that respects international conventions. In other words, we Russians are a predatory nation that can live only by being subjugated by our rulers and by subjugating other nations, and we cannot rid ourselves of the serf’s mindset. This is not merely a condescending way of looking at Russians; it is racist as well.

We should do everything in our power to support those in Russia who oppose Putin and his corrupt state, and to isolate him if he manages to wangle power for himself for six more years.

 

https://www.the-american-interest.com/2016/02/03/how-the-west-misjudged-russia-part-4-mad-about-medvedev/

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/02/08/putins-dragon

Gessen, Masha, The man without a face: the unlikely rise of Vladimir Putin

See also these interviews from Sam Harris ‘s Waking Up podcast: Timothy Snyder, the road to tyranny; Anne Applebaum, the Russia connection; Gary Kasparov, the Putin question.

Written by stewart henderson

June 7, 2017 at 10:06 am

Putin: a partial portrait of a ruthless barbarian

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a portrait of the small-minded, vindictive, mass-murdering multi-billionaire petty thief as a youngster – who’d have thunk it?

As I lie here, I sense the distinct presence of the angel of death. It is still possible I’ll be able to evade him, but I fear my feet are no longer as fast as they used to be. I think the time has come to say a few words to the man responsible for my current condition.

You may be able to force me to stay quiet, but this silence will come at a price to you. You have now proved that you are exactly the ruthless barbarian your harshest critics made you out to be.

You have demonstrated that you have no respect for human life, liberty, or other values of civilisation.

You have shown that you do not deserve to hold your post, and you do not deserve the trust of civilised people.

You may be able to shut one man up, but the noise of protest all over the world will reverberate in your ears, Mr Putin, to the end of your life. May God forgive you for what you have done, not only to me but to my beloved Russia and her people. 

(Final words dictated by Alexander Litvinenko before his death by polonium poisoning, London, November 2006. A public inquiry concluded in January 2016 that Litvinenko’s murder was an FSB (Russian Federal Security Service) operation, that was probably personally approved by Vladimir Putin).

 

I seem to have always felt an extreme, visceral loathing for Vladimir Putin, or at least ever since the first reports about his behaviour and attitudes began percolating through to me, and in the following posts, at the risk of raising my blood pressure to dangerous levels, I’m going to examine why it is that with each little tidbit that comes my way I loathe him more.

Of course I know why in general terms. I’ve loathed bullies ever since I was a kid being bullied by parents, teachers and boys (and girls) who were bigger than me – which was almost everyone (I mean everyone was bigger than me, not that they were all bullies!). People seem to characterise me as a leftist, but I’ve never thought of myself that way. My politics springs above all else from anti-authoritarianism, though it doesn’t veer off into the kind of atomistic individualism known as ‘libertarianism’. We need each other, and it’s as a profoundly social species that we’ve achieved what we have on this planet – such as those achievements are. And our best achievements, I think, have been more scientific than political.

So, considering my greater focus on science in recent years, I surprised myself some months ago by buying a book on Putin from a second-hand stall at the market near my work. Even as I bought it I asked myself – why? Why make myself angry and outraged? Or was I wanting to indulge in that holier-than-thou feeling you can get from reading about a truly inferior being?

Probably not, since it took me a while to bring myself to start reading the book, entitled The man without a face: the unlikely rise of Vladimir Putin. It was written by an established journalist, Masha Gessen, and published in 2012. It’s a fast-paced page-turner, though necessarily convoluted given that Putin is the embodiment of KGB deviance and disinformation, and it’s reassuringly skeptical about its own findings given the incredibly murky and profoundly corrupt politics of post-Communist Russia – a mafioso-type situation for which Putin is almost single-handedly responsible.

My impressions: when Putin first became a prominent news figure out of Russia almost two decades ago, I knew nothing about him but I didn’t like what I heard and saw. He was clearly no eloquent reformer in the mold of Gorbachev; he looked cold and shifty and seemed inarticulate. From all I’d heard, Russia had become something of a basket case since the collapse of the USSR, and the transition to democracy was progressing slowly if at all. Insofar as I thought about the country at all, I recognised its Czarist history and its lack of any kinds of democratic institutions, but I couldn’t benefit from the knowledge gained from witnessing the mess of post-war ‘democratic’ Iraq and the largely failed Arab Spring. I imagined wrongly that Russia was a quasi-European nation whose sorry history would make its citizens leap at the chance of developing the sorts of democracies that had been so successful elsewhere. Putin hardly seemed the type to lead the democratic advance, but he was probably just a transitional figure. But when the bits and pieces of info started trickling in, I became – well, not so much alarmed as disgusted. After all, I lived worlds away and wasn’t directly affected by his exploits.

First, there were his KGB connections, and his apparent pride in them. Like most westerners I’d learned to think of the KGB as a kind of sick joke, a caricature of an evil spy agency. Any reasonably humane leader would surely have wiped the Russian slate clean of such an organisation, even if it weren’t guilty of half of what it was notorious for (which seemed to me unlikely).

Second was the apparent closing down of independent media outlets, together with the murder of journalists and other prominent persons critical of government. Elimination of ‘enemies’ seemed a high priority for this government, but I also got a sense of general criminality and corruption, so I couldn’t be sure of Putin’s culpability.

Thirdly, the Pussy Riot fiasco, which again I didn’t look into too deeply, but as an anti-authoritarian I was instinctively on their side. I felt that their over-the top antics were a natural reaction to the over-the top repression of the government, though clearly they were doomed to fail and suffer. It was probably for that reason that I didn’t follow events too closely. I had enough in my life to be depressed about. And by this time I was pretty convinced that Putin himself – Pussy Riot’s polar opposite – was the driving force behind much of the nastiness. And when I later learned that one of his favourite forms of recreation was hanging out with a bikie gang that specialised in bashing gays, the picture of a total scumbag and a walking advertisement for abortion was complete.

So now the very thought of Putin turns me, I’m afraid to admit, into a penis-hacking thug who wants to resurrect Vlad the Impaler and his delicious torture methods. Don’t blame me, blame my testosterone.

Of course, the real solution to Putin isn’t so simple or crass. It’s the creation of a civil, respectful society with institutions that promote its thriving. They include a free press, an independent judiciary, a comprehensive and accessible education system that promotes critical thinking and co-operation, and a system of democratic government that’s as open and participatory as practicable. People like Putin wouldn’t be able to thrive in such a society. More importantly, such a society wouldn’t often create people like him.

Of course there’s another good reason why we might need to focus critically on Putin and the Russia that shaped him and that he is shaping. He is the hero and role model of the current US President. Suddenly this genocidal, democracy-loathing multi-billionaire President of a failed state (oh, I’m talking about Putin, not Trump) has become more important to us all than he deserves to be.

One thing I knew almost nothing about was Chechnya (and nor have I paid much attention to Putin’s Ukrainian adventure, which occurred too recently to be included in Gessen’s book). Chechnya, I’ve just discovered, is a tiny landlocked region between the Caspian and the Black Seas. Fundamentally Islamic, it has been in conflict with its Russian or Soviet overlords for centuries; however, after the death of Stalin, who had many Chechens and other ethnic groups in the region forcibly removed from their homes, things were relatively calm. The collapse of the Soviet Union changed all that, and a war of independence broke out in 1990. By the mid-90s hostilities had subsided, but a second war broke out in 1999, at the time that Putin was consolidating his power. Putin’s response was typically ruthless, and by the end of 2000 the main Chechen city, Grozny, lay in ruins, with no attempt to discriminate between fighters and civilians. Extremely bullish and threatening statements made at the time and since have indicated that Putin is prepared to go to any lengths to maintain and if possible extend the borders of his mafia regime. Unfortunately for him, times have changed since the days of Genghis Khan, or even Hitler. I’ve little doubt that he would invade the Baltic states if it weren’t for their NATO affiliations (which Trump, Putin’s greatest fan, has been seeking to undermine), and he must surely be envious and frustrated in his ambitions by the rise of China. He will no doubt try to use his influence on the man-child in the White House to provide licence for murderous adventures on his western borders, though hopefully current revelations will put a stop to that. Meanwhile, have pity for anyone who flags an independent and principled view within Russia itself. And please, everyone, we should try, with international co-operation, to do everything in our power to bring this monster to justice.

https://www.businessinsider.com.au/7-stories-of-putins-thuggish-behaviour-2013-6

https://www.samharris.org/podcast/item/the-russia-connection (interview with Anne Applebaum)

https://www.samharris.org/podcast/item/the-path-to-impeachment

Gessen, Masha. The man without a face. The unlikely rise of Vladimir Putin. Granta, 2012

Written by stewart henderson

May 22, 2017 at 9:18 am