an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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still bitten by the bonobo bug…

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Having written quite a few essays on a future bonoboesque world, I’ve found myself in possession of a whole book on our Pan paniscus relatives for the first time. All that I’ve gleaned about these fellow apes until now has been from the vasty depths of the internet, a gift that will doubtless keep on giving. My benefactor apologised for her gift to me, describing it as a coffee-table book, perhaps more pictorial than informative, but I’ve already learned much that’s new to me from the first few pages. For example, I knew from my basic research that bonobos were first identified as a distinct species in the late 1920s or early 1930s –  I could never get the date straight, perhaps because I’d read conflicting accounts. De Waal presents a more comprehensive and interesting story, which involves, among other things, an ape called Mafuka, the most popular resident, or inmate, of Amsterdam Zoo between 2011 and 2016, later identified as a bonobo. The zoo now features a statue of Mafuka.

More important, though, for me, is that everything I’ve read so far reminds me of the purpose of my bonobo essays, but also makes me wonder if I haven’t focussed enough on one central feature of bonobo society, probably out of timidity. Here’s how De Waal puts it:

It is impossible to understand the social life of this ape without attention to its sex life: the two are inseparable. Whereas in most other species, sexual behaviour is a fairly distinct category, in the bonobo it has become an integral of social relationships, and not just between males and females. Bonobos engage in sex in virtually every partner combination: male-male, male-female, female-female, male-juvenile, female-juvenile, and so on. The frequency of sexual contact is also higher than among most other primates.

In our own society, definitely still male-dominated but also with a legacy of religious sexual conservatism, this kind of all-in, semi-masturbatory sexual contact is absolutely beyond the pale. I’m reminded of the Freudian concept of sublimation I learned about as a teen – the eros or sex drive is channelled into other passionate, creative activities, and, voila, human civilisation! And yet, we’re still obsessed with sex, which we’re expected to transmute into sexual fulfilment with a lifelong partner. Meanwhile, the popularity of porn, or what I prefer to call the sex video industry, as well as the world’s oldest profession, indicates that there’s much that’s not quite right about our sex lives.

This raises questions about monogamy, the nuclear family, and even the human concept of love. This is ancient, but nevertheless dangerous territory, so for now I’ll stick with bonobos. As with chimps, female bonobos often, though not always, move to other groups at sexual maturity, a practice known as philopatry. Interestingly, this practice has similarities to exogamous marriage practices, for example among some Australian Aboriginal groups. It’s interesting, then, that female-female bonds tend to be the strongest among bonobos, considering that there’s no kinship involved.

Needless to say, bonobos don’t live in nuclear families, and child-care is a more flexible arrangement than amongst humans, though the mother is naturally the principal carer. And it seems that bonobo mothers have a subtly closer relationship with their sons than their daughters:

the bond between mother and son is of particular significance in bonobo society where the son will maintain his connection with his mother for life and depend upon her for his social standing within the group. For example, the son of the society’s dominant female, the strong matriarch who maintains social order, will rise in the ranks of the group, presumably to ensure the establishment and perpetuation of unaggressive, non-competitive, cooperative male characteristics, both learnt and genetic, within the group.

Considering this point, it would be interesting to research mother-son relations among human single-parent families in the WEIRD world, a situation that has become more common in recent decades. Could it be that, given other support networks, rather than the disadvantages often associated with one-parent families in human societies, males from such backgrounds are of the type that command more respect than other males? Particularly, I would suspect, from females. Of course, it’s hard to generalise about human upbringing, but we might be able to derive lessons from bonobo methods. Bonobo mothers rarely behave punitively towards their sons, and those sons remain attached to their mothers throughout their lives. The sons of high-status females also attain high status within the male hierarchy.

Yet we are far from being able to emulate bonobo matriarchy, as we’re still a very patriarchal society. Research indicates that many women are still attracted to high-status, philandering men. That’s to say, they’ve been ‘trained’ to climb the success ladder through marriage or co-habitation than through personal achievement. They’ve also been trained into the idea of high-status males as dominating other males as well as females. It is of course changing, though too slowly, and with too many backward moves for the more impatient among us. Two macho thugocracies, Russia and China, are currently threatening the movement towards collaboration and inclusivity that we see in female-led democracies such as Taiwan, New Zealand and a number of Scandinavian countries. It may well be that in the aftermath of the massive destruction wrought by these thugocracies, there will come a reckoning, as occurred after the two ‘world wars’ with the creation of the UN and the growth of the human rights movement and international aid organisations, but it is frustrating to contemplate the suffering endured in the meantime, by those unlucky enough to be born in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Now of course all this might be seen as presenting a romanticised picture of bonobos (not to mention female humans), which De Waal and other experts warn us against. The difference in aggression between bonobos and chimps is more a matter of degree than of type, perhaps, and these differences can vary with habitat and the availability of resources. And yet we know from our studies of human societies that male-dominated societies are more violent. And male domination has nothing to do with simple numbers, it is rather about how a society is structured, and how that structure is reinforced. For example I’ve written recently about how the decidedly male god of the Abrahamic religions, originally written as YWH or Elohim, emerged from a patriarchal, polygamous society in the Sinai region, with its stories of Jacob and Abraham and their many wives, which was reinforced in its structure by origin myths in which woman was created out of a man’s rib and was principally responsible for the banishment from paradise. The WEIRD world is struggling to disentangle itself from these myths and attitudes, and modern science is its best tool for doing so.

One of the most interesting findings, then, from modern neurology, is that while there are no categorical differences between the male and the female brain in humans, there are significant statistical differences – which might make for a difference in human society as a whole. To explain further: no categorical difference means that, if you were a professional neurologist who had been studying the human brain for decades, and were presented with a completely disembodied but still functional human brain to analyse, you wouldn’t be able to assert categorically that this brain belonged to a male or a female. That’s because the differences among female brains, and among male brains, are substantial – a good reason for promoting gender fluidity. However, statistically, there are also substantial differences between male and female brains, with males having more ‘grey’ material (the neurons) and females having more ‘white’ material (the myelinated connections between neurons), and with males having slightly higher brain volume, in accord with general sexual dimorphism. In a 2017 British study involving some 5,000 subjects, researchers found that:

Adjusting for age, on average… women tended to have significantly thicker cortices than men. Thicker cortices have been associated with higher scores on a variety of cognitive and general intelligence tests.

This sounds promising, but it’s doubtful that anything too insightful can be made of it, any more than a study of bonobo neurophysiology would provide us with insights into their culture. But, you never know…

References

Frans De Waal & Frans Lanting, Bonobo: the forgotten ape, 1997.

https://www.humancondition.com/freedom-the-importance-of-nurturing-in-bonobo-society/

https://www.science.org/content/article/study-finds-some-significant-differences-brains-men-and-women

on the origin of the god called God, part 2: the first writings, the curse on women, the jealous god

Written by stewart henderson

June 13, 2022 at 2:43 pm

democracy, women and bonobos

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Jacinta Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand

Some people out there might not think that democracy is the best system, but I’d say that, given the crooked timber of humanity and all that, it’s probably the best we can come up with. One of its major problems, as I see it, is its adversarial, or partisan nature. Modern democracies are generally about two major parties, left and right, with power swinging on a more or less regular basis from one side to another. On the other hand, many European nations have evolved multi-party systems, with fragile coalitions always threatening to break apart, and negotiations often bogging down and ending with decisions nobody is particularly happy about, or so it seems. While this can be a problem, so can the opposite, when one party’s decisions and initiatives are swept aside holus bolus by a new government with a polar opposite ideology.

When I occasionally check out social media, I’m disheartened by the number of commentators for whom party x can do no right, and party y can do no wrong. It almost seems as if everybody wants to live in a one-party state – their party. This is a problem for a state which is diverse and necessarily interconnected. That’s to say, for any modern state. And of course there are other problems with representative democracies – generally related to wealth and power. Parliamentarians are rarely truly representative of their constituents, each vote rarely represents one value, and cronyism has always been rife.

And then there’s the maleness of it all. It’s not just that the percentage of women in parliament is always less than the percentage in the general population, but the movers and shakers in the business community, notorious for their pushy lobbying, are invariably male. And then there’s the military, an ultra-male bastion which must have its place…

So here’s a ridiculous thought experiment. Imagine a cast-iron law comes in, dropped from the heavens, that for the next 200 years, no male is allowed to be part of any government of any stripe. Women must, and will, make up every political decision-making body on the planet. Sure they can have the odd male advisor and helpmeet, but they seem to find female advice more congenial and useful. And let’s imagine that in this thought experiment, the males don’t mind their secondary roles at all. They just see it as the natural order of things. After two hundred years, from the point of our current ever-expanding technological and scientific knowledge (which women and men will continue to fully participate in), where will be in terms of war and peace, and our custodianship of the biosphere?

I told you this was ridiculous, but you don’t have to be a professional historian to realise that a more or less unspoken ban on female participation in government has existed historically in many countries for a lot more than a couple of centuries. And we’ve survived – that’s to say, those of us that have survived. Sorry about the tens of millions of Chinese that Mao starved to death in his Great Leap Forward. Sorry about the genocides of Stalin, Hitler, Leo Victor, Talaat Pasha, Pol Pot and Suharto, not to mention Genghis Khan and countless other known or unknown historical figures, again invariably male.

So returning to that thought experiment, we could take the easy option and say we don’t know how things would turn out – certainly not in any detail. But that’s surely bullshit. We know, don’t we? We know that the world, and not just the human world, would be a far far better place in the event of female leadership than it is today.

The evidence is already coming in, as creepingly as female leadership. I recently learned of the Democracy Index, a sophisticated worldwide survey of nations conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit, the people who publish the Economist magazine, among other things. The survey annually measures and ranks 168 nations according to their democratic bona fides, or lack thereof. According to Wikipedia, ‘The index is based on 60 indicators grouped in five different categories, measuring pluralism, civil liberties and political culture’. The nations are divided broadly into four ‘types’. The top 21 are described as ‘full democracies’, the second category are the ‘flawed democracies’, the third are ‘hybrid regimes’ and the last and largest grouping are the ‘authoritarian regimes’. But when I looked at the very top ranking countries I found something very interesting, which prompted me to do a little more research.

In 2017, just under 10% of the world’s leaders were female. The percentage may have grown since then, but clearly not by much. We could be generous and say 13-14% at present. There are some difficulties in defining ‘nation’ as well as ‘leadership’, but let’s go with that number. So I had a look at the rankings on the Democracy Index, and the leadership of various countries on the index and what I found was very enlightening. Of the 21 countries rated as full democracies on the Democracy Index, seven of them were led by women. That’s 33%, quite out of proportion to the percentage of female leaders in general. But it gets better, or worse, depending in how you look at it. Of the top ten democracies on the list, six were led by women. Sixty percent of the top ten. Narrow it down still further, and we find that four of the top five democratic nations – which, in order, are Norway, New Zealand, Finland, Sweden and Iceland, are led by women – 80 per cent. It’s almost ridiculous how successful women are at making things work.

So what about the bottom of the barrel – the Afghanistans, the Burmas, etc. Of the 59 nations characterised as authoritarian by the Democracy Index, (though I prefer to call them thugocracies), zero are led by women. That’s nothing to crow about.

So, bonobos. The females, who are as small compared to their male counterparts as female humans are, dominate through solidarity. The result is less stress, less fighting, less infanticide, less killing and rape, less territoriality, and more sharing, more togetherness, more bonding, more love, if you care to call it that.

We don’t know anything much about the last common ancestor we share equally with chimps and bonobos. We don’t know about how violent Homo erectus or Homo habilis or the Australopithecines were, within their own species. We may never know. We do know that chimp troupes have gone to war with each other, with unbridled savagery, and we have evidence, from sites such as the Pit of Bones in northern Spain, of human-on-human killing from near half a million years ago. Our supposedly great book of moral teaching, the Hebrew Bible, describes many scenes of slaughter, sometimes perpetrated by the god himself. So it seems obvious that we’ve gone the way of the chimpanzee. Our worst leaders seem determined to continue the tradition. Our best, however, are making a difference. We need to make their numbers grow. Let’s make those female leaders multiply and see what happens. It may just save our species, and many others.

References

A bonobo world and other impossibilities 25: women and warfare (2)

Number of women leaders around the world has grown, but they’re still a small group

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democracy_Index

Written by stewart henderson

May 13, 2022 at 10:48 am

US democracy: another problem

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Please Be Sensible, and fund public broadcasting properly

Jacinta: So we’ve long been wondering why things are so bad in the USA, why so many people believe such rubbish, and even act on it, to the detriment, it seems, of their democratic system. We’ve talked about their jingoism and their religiosity, but there’s so much more to it. For example, there’s a movement of the religious Right, the supposedly Christian Right, which seems to have nothing whatever to do with the supposed teachings of Jesus…

Canto: Or his example, since he clearly wasn’t much of a family man. Actually much of Jesus’s behaviour and speakings were contradictory, certainly nothing you could build a coherent moral framework from.

Jacinta: Yes the Christian Right is all about ‘old-fashioned family values’, men who are men, women who know their place, the corruption that is homosexuality, feminism and the pro-abortion crowd. And this stuff is prevalent in Australia too, but with nowhere near the force and noise. And the same goes for the conspiracy theories, the misinformation, the libertarian, anti-government breast-beating and so forth. In the USA it has threatened, very seriously, to bring down their democracy, which is clearly still under serious threat. But something I heard today on the SGU podcast (The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe episode 875) has helped me understand why so many United Staters are so loopy. Their public media outlets – as opposed to private media – have nothing like the presence that Australia’s ABC and Britain’s BBC have. Kara Santamaria, the SGU’s resident (but not token) female, presented research on this. Government-funded media (not of the Putinland or CCP kind of course) can be seen as ‘funding democracy’. The research comes from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, presented in a paper called ‘Funding Democracy: Public Media and Democratic Health in 33 Countries’. It’s behind a paywall, but the link is below, for anyone who ever reads this, haha. I’m basing my comments on an article about the research, published on the Annenberg website – and on Santamaria’s commentary.

Canto: My turn. From the abstract of the research article we get this conclusion:

Correlations and cluster analyses show that high levels of secure funding for public media systems and strong structural protections for the political and economic independence of those systems are consistently and positively correlated with healthy democracies.

The point being that the USA’s public media, such as PBS and NPR, is funded to the tune of about $1.40 per person per annum, whereas Britain, Western Europe and Australia spend orders of magnitude more. Less than half a per cent of the USA’s GDP goes to Public Media. The Australian government spends about $1.5 billion annually on its public broadcasting, compared to less than $0.5 billion by the USA, with a population about 14 times that of Australia!  These are quite mind-blowing figures. The funding in the USA has been decreasing over a long period, and this has correlated with the country being downgraded on The Economist’s ‘Democracy Index’ from ‘full democracy’ to ‘flawed democracy’. Now obviously the lack of a well-funded public media isn’t the only reason for the USA’s fall from grace – the January 6 insurrection and the growing insanity of the GOP are also factors – but it’s quite possible that the growing influence of unregulated social media, uncounteracted by reliable organisations such as Britain’s BBC, Germany’s Deutsche Welle and the ABC in Australia, is a major factor.
Jacinta: Print journalism, as we well know, is have trouble surviving, causing ‘news deserts’ throughout regional USA, not to mention Australia. And news monopolies are also a problem. I recently perused Adelaide’s ‘Advertiser’ for the first time in a v long time. It’s owned by Rupert Murdoch and is the city’s only newspaper. It was all right-wing stuff, criticising Labor throughout and not even mentioning the struggling Conservative government. It should be obvious that when the media is almost entirely privatised it will be owned by those who favour the status quo, as this is what has made them wealthy enough to buy into the media in the first place.
Canto: There’s no independent oversight with privately owned media – I think of comparing this to private prisons, and the destruction they’re causing. Publicly-owned media doesn’t encourage extremist views – the public outcry would be immediate, and understandable. It also covers a greater diversity of issues, and tends to be more educational. Think of ABC’s Landline, and even Gardening Australia. The public broadcaster here is essential viewing and listening for regional Australia, and is greatly appreciated. The private media tries to provide the public what they think the public wants, public media tends to focus on public need. It appeals to our better angels, while commercial media often appeals to our worst instincts.
Jacinta: More statistics, backing up your previous stuff:
In terms of its public media funding, [the USA] is almost literally off the chart for how little it allocates towards its public media compared to other democracies around the planet. It comes out to .002 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). At $465 million dollars, 2020 federal funding of U.S. public media amounted to just $1.40 per capita. Meanwhile, countries such as the UK, Norway, and Sweden spend close to $100 or more per capita toward their public media.
Which is interesting considering the conservative attacks on our ABC. They so often seem to think it’s a tool of the left – that’s what I get from occasionally accessing twitter. I think it’s because it covers politics a lot, whereas the commercial networks are light on about politics, assuming an indifference from their audience, which becomes a self-fulfilling thing. Certainly the private media have no interest whatever in educational stuff such as Catalyst or children’s educational programming.
Canto: It’s not surprising that the findings from this research back the view that well-funded and regulated public media supports the development of ‘well-informed political cultures, high levels of support for democratic processes, and increased levels of civic engagement’. The counter-argument is always something about ‘state capture’ along the lines of the CCP and Putinland, but recent events have surely revealed the yawning gap between these state thugocracies and the WEIRD world.
Jacinta: But the worry is that some media moguls have as much money and power as many states. I’ll leave the last, lengthy comment to Victor Pickard speaking to the journalist Alina Ladyzhensky, on his public media research re the USA:
Since the market is no longer supporting the level of news media — especially local journalism — that democracy requires, there is arguably now an even stronger case to make that public media needs to step into the vacuum to address the widening news gaps as the commercial newspaper industry continues to wither away. News deserts are expanding across the country and around the world. This should be public media’s moment – an opportunity to revisit its core purpose and assess how it should operate within a democratic society and within an increasingly digital media system. Ideally, we would both restructure and democratize our public media system as we expand this critical infrastructure.
The USA need to turn a corner on this. But will it? It seems highly unlikely at the moment. The slow-motion train crash of US democracy grinds on…

References

https://www.theskepticsguide.org/podcasts

https://www.asc.upenn.edu/news-events/news/public-media-can-improve-our-flawed-democracy

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/19401612211060255

https://www.eiu.com/n/campaigns/democracy-index-2021/?utm_source=economist-daily-chart&utm_medium=anchor&utm_campaign=democracy-index-2020&utm_content=anchor-1

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democracy_Index

 

Written by stewart henderson

April 22, 2022 at 4:27 pm

On current thugocrazies and the slow hard road to a bonobo world

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Canto: So how will this Ukraine horror end?

Jacinta: How does any thugocracy end? I recently heard one pundit saying that most – I can’t remember if he said dictators, autocrats or some other euphemism for thugs – die violently, but this is bullshit. Stalin, Mao, Leo Victor (aka Leopold I, ‘Emperor’ of Belgium) and Suharto are just a few such thugs who died peacefully without ever having to account for their crimes. Some are still worshipped today by many.

Canto: Good point, and I was amused to hear that Putin was much exercised by Gadaffi’s ignominious death, watching several times the video of him being roughed up.

Jacinta: He could’ve added the video of the Ceausescus’ shooting, but that was before his time I suppose.

Canto: His time in power, yes, but a cautionary tale all the same. But getting back to my original question, with Putin not backing down and no nation apart from Ukraine willing to fight against his troops, he can’t realistically lose, while at the same time, he can’t realistically create a puppet state there that has any chance of surviving.

Jacinta: Yes, he’s in a bind and he surely knows it. I’m tempted to say ‘it’s clear that he miscalculated’, but that would make me sound smarter than I am. So I’ll just say it looks as if he has miscalculated badly, and surely he must be wondering what to do next, since continued bombing, shelling and slaughter will only lead to a pyrrhic victory at best, but more likely an exhausting and costly campaign for his invading force, and disastrously long-standing sanctions which will cripple the Putinland economy and looks like accelerating the European move from Putinland gas to renewables.

Canto: There are arguments that some of the attempts to isolate Putinland (for example blocking Facebook and other social media) are playing into Putin’s hands, because he doesn’t want his people to have any contact with the WEIRD world – they might get ideas above their station. But look at the companies blocking or getting out of Putinland – Ikea, Adidas, Starbucks, McDonalds, Coca-Cola, Disney, Netflix, Apple, Toyota and many more apparently. This will change middle-class life drastically.

Jacinta: But others, including many Russian dissidents and exiles, believe this is playing into Putin’s hands, as it’s reducing the WEIRD presence in the country, a source of opposition. I suppose this means that Putin and his thugocracy will have to produce effective enough local alternatives – as the CCP thugocracy has largely managed to do. But China has a much healthier economy than Putinland, and with all the economic difficulties Putin’s fellow thugs are facing, I’m not sure they’re going to be able to pump much energy into local brands.

Canto: Which raises the question of just how much all this sanctioning is affecting the Putinland economy. Many who know about the situation are trying to leave the country. Sadly, these are the relatively wealthy who have contacts overseas and know how to get their money out of the country. Those who rely on cash must surely be most affected, but I must admit that economics isn’t my strong suit. By the way, can you lend me fifty bucks?

Jacinta: What’s also interesting is that it’s bringing more attention at last to Putin’s behaviour in Syria, Georgia, Chechnya and other places. And to Putin’s putrescence in general. For example, I wasn’t entirely aware of his fear and loathing of powerful women – though of course it doesn’t surprise me. I’d vaguely heard a story of his attempt to intimidate Angela Merkel by means of a dog, because he’d heard of her having a phobia about dogs, but I didn’t connect it at the time to misogyny, and then of his loathing of Hilary Clinton, apparently for no other reason than her womanhood. He was obsessed with ensuring that she wouldn’t become US President – it seems his sabotaging campaign might’ve been more anti-Clinton than pro-Trump. Of course we’re unlikely to ever know whether his animus or his destructive activity with respect to the 2016 Presidential election was the key to her ‘loss’. In fact she won the popular vote, and I’ll never understand why that doesn’t win a democratic election. How can it be democratic otherwise?

Canto: Good question. So Al Gore won the 2000 US election. Democracy seems less democratic than it seems. Anyway, instituting the bonobo world would ensure little Vlady’s emasculation. Why’s it taking so long?

Jacinta: We’re obviously not getting the message across. And since Merkel’s retirement, there aren’t any women, unfortunately, that are bestriding the world like a colossus. New Zealand, Taiwan, Estonia, Lithuania, Moldova, Kosovo, Greece, Denmark, Finland, Slovakia, Georgia, Ethiopia and Gabon, where women hold Presidential/Prime Ministerial positions (though some of them merely honorary) are all no doubt admirable nations, but in the horrible Realpolitik world we inhabit they’re minnows, easily ignorable by the thugocracies of China, India, Russia and the macho Middle Eastern oil-o-crazies. Why wasn’t I born a bonobo?

Canto: Well, as we speak, Putin’s forces are surrounding Kiev, and the most sickening things are happening. Ukrainians are clearly putting up stiffer resistance than expected, but with little outside support other than money and best wishes, they can’t be expected to hold out against a Svengalian thug with massive cannon-fodder reinforcements at his disposal, not to mention the nuclear option.

Jacinta: So, if he manages to strangulate Kiev, and to kill Zelensky, what then?  That’s his aim, presumably, but given Zelensky’s profile, what good will it do him? He doesn’t want to believe that macho thugs are out of fashion (sort of) in the WEIRD world, but his economy is quite dependent on that world.

Canto; Well, worse things are happening elsewhere in Ukraine. The people of Mariupol, in the south, are trapped and under heavy fire from Putin’s forces. It’s been the most bombarded city in Ukraine, apparently. In the east, Kharkiv is holding out pretty well, even though war crime-type activities have been carried out there by Putin.

Jacinta: Yes Mr Pudding has a lot to answer for, and if we could bring him to justice, what a shock it would be to the Xi Jinpings, the Ramzan Kadyrovs, the Lukashenkos, the Orbáns, the Mohammed bin Scumbags and so on, in a world that will become, I fervently believe, increasingly bonoboesque. And when it does, we will look back on Putinland, the CCP, the Middle Eastern thugocrazies and so on and so forth, and think, ‘how could we have sunk so low? How could we have reached such a level of stupidity as to let these male apes run roughshod over our children and our future, when it’s screamingly obvious that we, women, should be the leaders?’ And history will be written from a bonobo-influenced female prospective, inevitably, a future perspective, pointing out the pointless male thuggeries of the past, remembering the victims, female, male and children yet to decide, yet to have much of a life. I’m sorry, I’m imagining a future almost beyond nations, beyond nationalist brutalism, and beyond maleness. Women are our future – we have to grasp the nettle.

Canto: I think you’re right, but perhaps you’re just before your time. We have to play out the last gasp of male ascendancy – and I’m not suggesting that Putin’s last breath, which hopefully happens soon, will be that last gasp – far from it unfortunately. But we have a long, hard battle to fight against misogyny. Look at the Taliban. Look at Iran. Look at the CCP – their politburo has never had a female member in the seventy years of its existence. Even the USA has never had a female President, and women have a horribly hard road to hoe in the male province of politics even in democratic countries. Australia has had one female Prime Minister, and she was subjected to more vitriol than any male PM in Australian history – I would have no hesitation in claiming that to be a fact.

Jacinta: Slowly but surely wins the race. Sadly for me, it’ll more likely take centuries rather than decades, but think of the progress made in a relatively short time. We couldn’t become university professors a century ago, never mind major political or business identities. Obviously our fantastical leadership qualities are likely to shine within democracies rather than the thugocratic alternatives – which are the only real alternatives to the WEIRD world, and they’re always male. The Chinese people – and I’ve met so many of them – deserve far better than this horrific CCP thugocrazy. Clearly the dictator Xi can’t last forever, and the Chinese people will hopefully not tolerate the country bumbling from thug to thug, and if we keep moving in a bonoboeque direction elsewhere, Chinese women will make themselves heard more and more within the country, before it’s too late for the already-decimated Uyghurs and other proud minorities.

Canto: Yes it amuses me that their oligarchy is called the Chinese Communist Party, an exquisitely meaningless name. They may as well be called the Soggy Bottom Boys Party, but humour has never been their strong suit. That’s thugs for you.

Jacinta: Yes, talking of humour, I’ve not yet heard from Mr Pudding about Elon Musk’s demand for Mano-a-mano combat. He’s such a coward, when it comes down to it….

References

https://ussromantics.com/tag/putin/

https://ussromantics.com/category/bonobos/

Written by stewart henderson

March 19, 2022 at 7:51 pm

17th century perspectives, 21st century slaughter

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Vlady the Thug – returning us all to the glories of centuries-old slaughter

Canto: So much is happening, so much is being learned, so much of my ignorance is being brought home to me, and so much of my good luck is also being brought home, in that I’ve never had to live in or be brought down by a thugocracy. Then again, if you’ve come to this ‘lucky country’ be means of a leaky boat, trying to escape a foreign thugocracy by any means possible, you’ll likely have a very different perspective.

Jacinta: Haha yes it’s Writer’s Week here in Adelaide, and we’ve been sampling, generally by sometimes dodgy internet links, the thoughts of former refugees writers, investigative journalists on even more dodgy pharmaceutical companies, and words of wisdom from our intellectual elders. And of course many of these conversations have been clouded by the invasion of Ukraine by Vlady the Thug, and the consequent carnage.

Canto: Yes, it seems he’s trying to channel Peter the Great, but he’s 300 years behind the times, and hasn’t been told that warlordism just doesn’t fit with 21st century fashion. But Vlady the Thug, that’s good, it would definitely be helpful if all world leaders, including and especially Zelensky, started  addressing him as such. Vlady is extremely small-minded, with a narrow understanding of nationalism and glory, and with a huge sense of his own grandeur. The WEIRD world may not be able to unite to destroy him, given the protection racket around him and the vast nuclear arsenal he and his predecessors have been allowed to assemble, but I think that worldwide mockery, difficult though it might seem at this awful time, might unhinge him just enough for a rethink, or alternatively, might be enough to turn his thug underlings against him.

Jacinta: True, but I don’t think Vlady the Thug is punchy enough…

Canto: It’s a good start, certainly a far cry from Peter the Great (who was a bit of a thug himself of course). And don’t forget, world leaders have never been too good at comedy, they’re generally too full of their Serious Destiny. I doubt if they would come at Vlady the Thug, never mind Vlad the Tame Impala or Mr Pudding.

Jacinta: True, but Zelensky is apparently a former comedian, and he’s absolutely Mister Popularity on the world stage at the moment. If he went with this mockery, and encouraged his new-found fans to follow his example, it might be the best, and certainly the cheapest form of attack available at present. Though it’s true that I can’t imagine Sco-Mo or Scummo, our PM, managing to deliver any comedy line with the requisite aplomb.

Canto: Well, it’s an interesting idea, if only we could get Zelensky’s minders to take it up. Unfortunately he seems to have caught the Man with a Serious Destiny disease recently – for which I don’t blame him at all. And anyway, I have to check the internet on a regular basis currently to see if he’s still alive.

Jacinta: Yes, I thought the imitation of Churchill in his address to the British Parliament was a bit cringeworthy, but I agree that it’s hardly a time to criticise Zelensky when Vlady the Thug is on the loose. Anyway, the WEIRD world is stuck in dealing with little Vlady. I listened to a long-form interview with Julia Ioffe on PBS today – she’s a Russian-born US journalist who has reported from that country for some years, and her depiction of Vlady was spot-on – that’s to say, it chimed exactly with mine. She feels that he will never withdraw or change his mind about Ukraine. He has stated often in communication with other leaders that Ukraine is not a ‘real country’.

Canto: Yes, unlike Afghanistan, Israel, Pakistan and all those African countries. Russia on the other hand is a real country thanks to the wars of Ivan , Peter, Catherine and the rest. Thanks to all the slaughter, rape and suppression of alternative languages and cultures. Just like Australia and the USA are real countries thanks to the removal of previous cultures from their land – with associated slaughter, rape, and ‘white man’s disease’.

Jacinta: Yes, few countries – or maybe there are no countries whose national ‘development’ hasn’t involved a fair amount of bloody repression. Ukrainians, as Ioffe pointed out, have made it abundantly clear in recent times that they reject Vlady’s thugocracy, and their resolve has hardened as a result of the 2014 events. But Ioffe’s view is also quite bleak – due to Vlady’s complete inability to back down, in her view. And I’m pretty sure she’s right about that. And, according to her, his ‘inner circle’ has contracted considerably in recent times, and they’re all as crazy as himself, maybe even crazier. So this may mean the invasion will continue, until he becomes master of an almost uninhabited wasteland. Nobody wants to provoke him to take the nuclear option, which he’s quite capable of.

Canto: So the only real option would be to kill him. And he’s no doubt been guarding himself against that option for years.

Jacinta: It would most likely have to be an inside job. I’m sure there are negotiations under way, but Putin is very much a survivor. At the moment he’s cracking down on dissent like never before. But the world is seeing it, and this will ultimately be a victory for democracy. In the short term though, it’s a terrible tragedy.

Canto: If there is a silver lining, it’s the winning of the propaganda war, the worldwide condemnation will give the CCP thugocracy something to think about vis-a-vis Taiwan. At the moment they’re trying to blame NATO for the invasion, and of course they have blanket control over the media there, but people have ways of getting reliable information, for example from the massive Chinese diaspora.

Jacinta: So I’ve been listening to Julia Ioffe, Masha Gessen, Fiona Hill and others, but of course no amount of analysis is going to improve the situation, and even our concern seems more debilitating than anything. I imagine holding Vlady prisoner and then pointing out some home truths…

Canto: Very useful. But here’s a few arguments. As you say, he’s been fond of claimng over the years that Ukraine isn’t a real country. But what makes Russia a real country? What make Australia a real country? What make the USA a real country?  Presumably Vlady thinks that Russia’s a real country because the slaughter, rape and suppression of ‘minority’ languages and cultures occurred earlier.

Jacinta: Well, we don’t know what he would say. What if we didn’t tell him why he’s wrong, but allowed him to explain why he’s right? What would he say?

Canto: Well, we know that he’s a very ardent nationalist, so to suggest to him that all nations are artificial in an important sense would just incense him. But once he calms down (and we’ve got him all tied up and hanging upside-down so he can’t escape, and we’ve promised him that if he provides really cogent arguments according to a panel of independent experts, he’ll be given his freedom, with his thugocracy completely returned to him), what will be his arguments?

Jacinta: Well, we don’t have his views on the legitimacy of Russia as a nation, and I suspect he would scoff at the very idea of having to justify Russian nationhood, because I’m sure he believes that if Russia didn’t exist his life would have no meaning – which is about as far from our understanding of our humanity as one could possibly get – but we do have his essay from last year about why Ukraine isn’t and can never be a legitimate nation.

Canto: Yes, he harps on about Ukrainians and Russians being ‘a single people’, who shouldn’t have a border between them, but the very idea of any nations being a ‘single people’ is a fantasy. It’s of course where the terms ‘unAustralian’ and ‘unAmerican’ get their supposed bite from – the fantasy of individuals being united by their ‘nationhood’.

Jacinta: More importantly, he seems completely unaware, or prefers to be unaware, of the extremely repressive state he’s created, and that few people in their right minds, whether Ukrainian, Russian or Icelandic, would want to live under a jackboot when they have the opportunity to choose and criticise their own government.

Canto: Yes, he talks in the vaguest, most soporific terms of Ukrainians and Russians occupying ‘the same historical and spiritual space’, and  being ‘a single people’, and with ‘affinities’ created by Vladimir the Great, the ruler of Kievan Rus over a thousand years ago. As if.

Jacinta: Yes, the fact is that Ukrainian pro-European and anti-Russian sentiment has obviously grown since Vlady’s bloody adventurism in 2014. Ukrainians are wanting to survive and thrive in the here and now. I mean, it’s good, sort of, that Vlady takes an interest in history, as we do, but from a vastly different perspective. His potted history, like many, is about rulers – earthly or spiritual, and territories won and lost between the Poles, the Lithuanians, the Russians and so on. But these battles for territories from centuries ago bear little relation to the lives and thoughts of individual people today, people whom Vlady is completely disconnected from, just as Xi Jinping  and his fellow thugs are completely disconnected from the everyday freedoms of Hong Kongers.

Canto: The point to make here is that no amount of tendentious historical description will conceal the fact that Ukrainians, like Hong-Kongers, see that their best future lies in the arms of the WEIRD world, with all its messiness. Here’s a banner epigram – fuck our history, what abut our future?

Jacinta: Good one. Yes, Vlady doesn’t like that not-so top-down messiness. He prefers stasis and control, especially by himself. And if it means wholesale slaughter to obtain it, so be it. Mind you, I strongly suspect he was misguided in his perception of Ukrainian sentiment, for whatever reason. And the people who are paying for this misguidedness, by and large, (and horrifically) are the Ukrainians.

References

Putin’s new Ukraine essay reveals imperial ambitions

 

http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/66181

 

Written by stewart henderson

March 12, 2022 at 7:59 pm

the world’s greatest democracy?

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forget about the kid, just get the t-shirt

 

Over the last 5-6 years, since Trump, to my great bemusement, began to emerge as a serious candidate for the US Presidency, I’ve been following US politics more than ever before, and more than I’ve ever felt inclined to. I try not to be prejudiced against the USA as a nation, and of course I’ve met individual United Staters who are as varied as individuals from other nations, but just as I’ve always had a special loathing for bullies and thuggish individuals, sometimes known, when they’re invested with some sort of official or tacitly accepted power, as ‘authoritarians’, I’ve also tended to harbour ill-feelings towards nations that like to throw their weight around on the international stage, or governments that do the same vis-a-vis the general citizenry.

Interestingly, as I observe myself, I find that my anti-authoritarian attitude has never led me to embrace libertarianism, as I’m too much aware of the hyper-social nature of humanity, and of many other species. So when I think of social evolution, I think of the social side above all, and of promoting awareness of this social side, and of enhancing the social situation for the individuals linked into it, which of course means all of us. And that ‘all’ needs to be as comprehensive as possible, not species-specific.

We humans have – at least most of us – organised ourselves (or have been organised) socially into political units known as nations, in recent centuries. And of course there have been up-sides and down-sides to this development. It surprises me, for example, how quickly nationalist fervour can be stirred up within these relatively recent entities – good for sporting competitions, but not always so good for those who want to leave the nation they find themselves in for a richer or safer one. ‘They don’t belong here’ is a chant I’ve heard more than once. And there are other, more subtle nationalistic tropes. Here in Australia, we poo-poo bad behaviour by calling it ‘unAustralian’, just as United Staters use ‘unAmerican’ (I suspect this is because the terms have a nice flow to them, whereas ‘unBritish’ sounds too clunky), as if Aussies or Yanks are generally better than other humans.

Which brings me to ‘American exceptionalism’, the idea that what they call ‘the American experiment’ is unique in human history. That’s to say, unique in some positively extraordinary way, for of course the formation of every nation or political system is unique. Since paying more attention to US politics, and the media that reports on it, I’ve heard a number of pundits – Maggie Haberman, Chuck Rosenberg, Adam Schiff and Joe Scarborough to name a few – mouthing terms such as ‘the American experiment’, ‘the world’s greatest democracy’ and ‘the leader of the free world’, either with virtual puffed-out chests or a mantra-like blandness, as if they might’ve had such platitudes drummed into them back in kindergarten.

So, to pick out one of these clichés, the USA as ‘the world’s greatest democracy’, let me explore its meaning and its truthiness. The term can be taken to mean two different things – that the USA is the world’s greatest country (militarily, economically or otherwise), which also happens to be a democracy, or that the USA has the world’s greatest (democratic) political system.

So let me take the first meaning first. Does ‘the greatest’ mean ‘the most powerful’ or ‘the best’? Or both, or neither? Or does it mean the greatest in terms of opportunity or well-being for its members? Whichever way you look at it, there are problems. A nation may be ‘great’ – that’s to say, full of well-fed, time-rich, intellectually productive members, because, through a whole set of complex circumstances, it has managed to exploit or even enslave its neighbours, or regions with resources that this nation knows how to profit from – as occurred in the ‘Belgian’ Congo under Leo Victor. That’s to say, look behind the self-aggrandising term ‘great’ and you’re likely to find exploitation – of resources and also of people. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans created profoundly hierarchical or slave states. The centuries-long feudal era was a period of massive intellectual and physical exploitation, often of women, nameless and forgotten.

Returning to the USA, its people have fallen for the same fallacy that the Egyptians, the Persians, the Romans, the Brits and the Japanese fell for – that their economic and military power entailed some sort of moral superiority. Often they learn their lesson too late. The term ‘savage’ was used to refer to African, American and Australian cultures by late arrivals from Europe, most of whom only came to understand the complexity and profound rootedness of their culture after it had been uprooted. And some are still clueless about these cultures. I spent some years teaching English to people newly arrived from Asian and Middle Eastern cultures, whose experience of indigenous Australians was of drunken cadgers and brawlers in the heart of the city – their traditional meeting place for thousands of years before the British usurped them. How to even begin to explain, in a foreign language, the cultural devastation these people had experienced?

In the USA the problems of colonial expropriation are compounded by those of abduction and slavery, which, very obviously, are far from being solved. The ‘greatest’ in terms of GDP means little to the majority when the gap between the rich minority and the poor has widened massively in recent decades, and poverty levels for African-Americans and Hispanics have hit record lows. US ‘freedoms’ allow for workers to be paid lower wages than anywhere else in the WEIRD world, leading to obvious poverty traps. Australia’s minimum wage is almost three times that of the USA (though we have our own failings in other areas, such as the treatment of refugees). Joe Scarborough has more than once cited the USA’s top universities as proof of the nation’s greatness, but the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of United Staters have zero chance of attending these institutions.

So how do we measure a nation’s ‘greatness’ if we disregard GDP, or at least treat its status as a measure with skepticism? The answer, of course, is that there’s no objective measure. If science is your consuming passion, there are a number of countries that are world leaders in the field, depending on the precise field. If you’re deeply religious you’ll find a country to suit your spirituality, within reason. If money-making is your life’s purpose, there are a few nations that might fit the bill. Others might be better for a simple community life. Of course, not all of these countries will be democracies, but that’s a problem with democracies, they change from election to election. If you want to live in a democracy, you’re going to have to cope with these changes.

This brings me to the second meaning. Does the USA have the world’s best democratic system? I’m more confident about answering that one, and the answer is definitely ‘no’. But I’ve already given my reasons in previous posts – for example, here, here and here. To my mind great democracies don’t have to have nuclear weapons, a roll-call of billionaires, or super-guy Presidents with numbers attached. They don’t need to rabbit on about individual freedom as the be-all and end-all of human striving, when in fact no individuals have ever existed for long without a social network, into which they’re born and within which they will have to operate until the day they die.

Of course there are worse countries, and probably worse democracies, than the USA – and I do agree that democracy is the worst political system apart from all the others, but it seems to me that one of the keys to an effective political system is an ongoing recognition of its weaknesses and failings, and an ongoing effort to bring about improvement. Rabbiting on about being ‘the greatest’ and the world’s natural leader has the opposite effect. Brilliant people are rarely big-heads. They just behave brilliantly. And are judged as brilliant by others, not by themselves.

Not that United Staters are ever going to listen to me!

 

Written by stewart henderson

February 24, 2022 at 10:27 pm

on voting and democracy in the USA: some history and some problems

with one comment

Congratulations, Germany wins

I try not to be anti-USA, but it’s hard sometimes. Lately I’ve been hearing that old chestnut, the American Experiment, being promulgated by Joe Biden among others. And the other day I was negatively energised by the lawyer and political pundit Jeremy Bash, who spoke of the US as the greatest democracy the world has ever known, or words to that effect. By ‘greatest democracy’ he also no doubt meant ‘greatest nation’, since we all quote the mantra that democracy is the worst political system apart from all the others. But to describe nation x as the greatest nation in the world is just as puerile as saying that person x is the greatest person in the world. There are no objective measures for such things. Such remarks highlight what I’ve written before about ‘American exceptionalism’. United Staters are exceptional only in their religiosity and their jingoism, which doesn’t augur well for having exceptional self-critical capacities.

But to return to democracy talk. The ‘American experiment’ idea, never quite made explicit, is that modern democracy is a US invention, a form of Enlightenment that they’ve been trying to spread to a largely reluctant world. The facts tell a different story.

The US declared independence from Britain in 1776, but of course the new country was full of British ex-pats and Britain was still a major influence. I’ve heard more than one US pundit speak about their fight against a tyrant king, George III. Not quite true. Britain in 1776 had been a constitutional monarchy for more than 80 years, with a Prime Minister, Frederick North (Lord North), elected under an extremely limited franchise. Britain had executed a tyrant king, Charles I, in the 1640s, and had chased another one out of the country in the 1680s. The country experimented with the first parliamentary system in the 1650s under a Lord Protector (something like a Presidency), Oliver Cromwell. Anyone who has studied the British civil war of the 1640s will be aware of how politically savvy and committed the general populace was at that time.

The War of Independence ended well for the potential new nation, which was undeniably being tyrannised by Britain. Powerful countries or states tend to tyrannise smaller ones. This occurred, obviously, during Britain’s imperial period, and it occurred in the USA’s treatment of the Phillippines, Nicaragua and Vietnam. That is why we need more collaborative international peace-keeping, with no single nation being allowed to consider itself or to behave as the world’s police officer.

So when the potential new nation came to consider its form of government, it looked largely to the ‘mother country’, bad mother though it had turned out to be. Even Magna Carta, seen through an eighteenth century lens, had an influence on the US Constitution and state legislatures. However, the most important British reference was their 1689 Bill of Rights, inspired (to a much-debated degree) by the political philosophy of John Locke. This important document has provided a template for many national constitutions, including that of the USA. The US founding fathers were also much influenced by a contemporary firebrand, Britisher Tom Paine, whose 1776 pamphlet Common Sense became something of a sensation. Pressures against traditional tyrannies, such as absolute monarchies and aristocratic oligarchies, were growing throughout Europe in the late eighteenth century in response to ideas expressed in Rousseau’s The Social Contract and Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws, among other works.

My point here is not to deny the experiment in modern democracy of the founding fathers and their collaborators. My argument is that this wasn’t the first experiment, nor was it by any means an experiment in full democracy. It was just one of many baby steps toward the full adult franchise that many democratic nations enjoy today. The 1789 election which brought George Washington, unopposed, to the presidency gave the vote to white property-owning men only – somewhere between 6% and 7% of the population. Women weren’t given the right to vote nationally until 1920, after decades of struggle. The Snyder Act of 1924 gave Native United Staters the ‘right to vote’, but left the final decision to state legislatures, leading to a fifty-year struggle to have that right fully established nationwide. African-Americans or ‘black’ men (I have serious issues with black-white terminology, which I present elsewhere – see links below) were given the right to vote by the 15th amendment of 1870, though voter suppression was endemic under ‘Jim Crow’ laws until the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. However, as we see today, that act has not prevented contemporary voter suppression by right-wing states.

The US voting and governmental system doesn’t seem to compare favourably with that of Australia, where I live. Australian governments are Westminster-based, as are the governments of the UK, Canada, New Zealand, India and South Africa, with obvious variations. That means the Prime Ministers of those countries are not elected directly by the populace, as occurs in the USA. They’re first elected by their particular parties, on the putative basis that they can best represent and promote that party’s policies to the people. The Prime Minister works in the Parliament – the Westminster version of Congress – and chooses her cabinet from other elected Members of Parliament, as opposed to the directly elected US President’s chief officers, who are personally chosen by the President, with no necessary experience in government. The Prime Minister (primum inter pares – first among equals) works inside the Parliament, shoulder to shoulder with her colleagues and within spitting distance of the opposition, whereas the US president is completely separated from Congress and is surrounded by his own personal staff and decision-makers, and so freed from direct confrontation with political opposition, or from defending his political actions and positions.

The case of Trump underlines many of the problems of the US system. United Staters boast that ‘anyone can become President’, but this isn’t such a great idea. There needs to be a basic proficiency test that, at the very least, separates adult contenders from children. Trump took advantage of this complete lack of vetting, and as such, took advantage of the major flaw in democracy that was pointed out nearly 2500 years ago by the likes of Plato and Aristotle. Unabashed anti-democratic elitists, these philosophers personally witnessed the damage that a populist demagogue, a person who promised everything but delivered nothing, could do to their state. The rise of Trump, always an object of contempt to the political elite, whether right or left, essentially repeated this 2500 year-old trick – appeal directly to the people, pretend you are one of them, and don’t stint on vague elaborate claims – drain the swamp, build the wall, make the state great again. The Republican Party was initially very reluctant to embrace Trump, but finally embraced his fanatical popularity among ‘the base’, with disastrous consequences for both the party and the nation.

How will the USA dig itself out of this hole? In the short term, there needs to be consequences for a person who has lived a whole life, from childhood, without consequences. Honestly, this doesn’t seem likely to happen. United Staters blindly worship their Presidential system, and remember their Presidents by number – something which will never be emulated by other nations. Recent events – including two impeachments -have shown that there are no clear laws or procedures for dumping a criminal President. The US President appears, for all intents and purposes, to be above the law, apparently due to the importance of is position. One would think it was self-evident that with great power comes great responsibility, including legal responsibility, but it has now become clear that in the USA, the President can act as a dictator between Presidential elections. I see no serious legislative activity to change this ludicrous situation. Gentleman’s agreements don’t cut it.

Voter suppression just isn’t a thing in Australia, New Zealand and other Westminster-based countries. In Australia, voting is mandatory, all Australian citizens over eighteen must vote in federal and state elections, or incur a fine. This includes all those in prison for sentences of three years or less. All ex-offenders must vote. Very few people object to these requirements. And of course, all voting takes place on a Saturday, to inconvenience as few working people as possible. The USA’s Tuesday voting system harks back to its agrarian past, and also its religious attitude to ‘days of rest’. It’s frankly too depressing to go into further detail. Needless to say, a Tuesday voting system acts against the needs of the working poor. The USA has the lowest minimum wage of any developed country. Australia, incidentally, has the highest. I point this out as a non-nationalist (though not an anti-nationalist).

No voting system is perfect (Australia, like the US, has problems with gerrymandering) but some are more perfect than others. A voting system that has a multitude of state laws for voting in a federal election is clearly disastrous. The USA seems overly governed in this regard. There is also too much voting – major national elections every two years means that the nation is almost perpetually in election mode. There also appears to be little oversight with regard to the vast amounts of funds spent on campaigning and lobbying, which obviously tilts votes in favour of the moneyed class in a nation with the largest rich-poor divide in the world.

I’ve pointed out just some of the problems facing ‘the world’s greatest democracy’. Many of its other problems are social – failures in the basic education system, massive incarceration rates, especially for victimless crimes, the intensification of partisan politics exacerbated by social media and the absence of a multi-party political system, and out-of-control gun and armaments ownership, to name a few. All of this requires root and branch reform, which I don’t see happening. It’s a shame. Europe now seems to be emerging as our best hope for the future.

References

https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/magna-carta-muse-and-mentor/magna-carta-and-the-us-constitution.html

https://edtechbooks.org/democracy/britishinfluence

https://www.history.com/topics/british-history/english-bill-of-rights

https://www.britannica.com/place/United-States/Constitutional-differences-with-Britain

Australia had the highest minimum wage in the world in 2019

https://ussromantics.com/category/race/

Written by stewart henderson

July 18, 2021 at 6:49 pm

covid-19 – on civil liberties and death in the USA

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Canto: So, in the USA, according to today’s Worldometer figures – and it’s not unreasonable to say that these figures are only as reliable as the reporting agencies, and are probably understated – there have been slightly more than 203,000 deaths from covid19 – that’s almost 250 times the number of deaths in Australia, which has one thirteenth of the US population. This is a stark illustration of the USA’s failure to protect itself against this virus, in comparison to some other countries. Maybe this is an unfair comparison, though I honestly don’t see why it would be, but we can make an even more stark comparison. The liberal democracy that is Taiwan, the world’s gold standard in terms of response to covid19, with its population only slightly smaller than Australia’s, has experienced seven deaths so far. So, to compare with the USA, that’s a fourteenth of the population, but the USA has suffered almost 30,000 times more deaths from the virus. Such are the almost unfathomably various degrees of success in dealing with this pandemic. I’ve chosen these more or less opposite ends of the spectrum – and, to be fair, the USA isn’t the shit standard (in comparison to gold), as Brazil’s performance is even worse – in order to reflect on how best to save lives, which is surely what we want to do above all else, as a matter of common humanity.

Jacinta: And our discussion will be based on a statement made by the US Attorney-General, William Barr, who described the current lockdown in the USA as the greatest erosion of civil liberties in the country since slavery. But maybe, as an outstanding humanist, and a follower of the meek and mild Jesus, a supporter of the downtrodden, who told his followers that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (Matthew 19: 23-26), Barr was speaking positively about the lockdown as a sacrifice that must be made to save lives – especially those of the poor, with whom he so strongly identifies as a follower of the aforementioned Jesus.

Canto: Well, that’s an interesting interpretation, but I think the more straightforward one is that he thinks people should be free to mix and mingle, in spite of the pandemic. In any case I’ve not heard of him wanting to impose any restrictions of any kind, in spite of the covid19 death rate in the country. It would be interesting to know what he makes of the fact that covid19 is disproportionately affecting the poor as well as African-American and Latino communities. He himself is a multi-millionaire, unlike Jesus, and Euro-American, also unlike Jesus. Yet he calls himself a Christian and believes that Judeo-Christian values, whatever they may be, are the basis of civilisation, at least in the USA. I’m not sure if he’s ever sampled any other society. 

Jacinta: Which brings us to Taiwan. What is it that has made Taiwan the gold standard in dealing with this pandemic? Is it Christianity, of a different kind from that which the multi-millionaire Barr espouses, in spite of Jesus’ teachings? Or is it a very different, but equally, or more, effective tradition? Did Taiwan even experience a lockdown, of the type that Barr seems to have such strong feelings about?

Canto: So let’s explore Taiwan. in fact it has had a complex and very turbulent history, especially over the past century or so, one that, I’d say, would have made its citizens value their hard-won freedom rather more than those of most nations, including the US. I can’t imagine that these people, who’ve undertaken rebellion after rebellion, would allow their government to take away their ‘civil liberties’ without good reason. They just wouldn’t stand for it.

Jacinta: Could it be that they’re just more educated than ‘Americans’, as to their national interest? And even as to what’s required in dealing with a pandemic? It certainly seems that way.

Canto: In fact last month the US federal health secretary (I didn’t know they had one) was over in Taiwan praising the country’s covid19 response. That was a good thing to see. 

Jacinta: Yes and many prominent nations are warming in their relations with Taiwan, not before time, and it’s annoying the Chinese government no end. But on covid19, I suspect many ‘Americans’ will dismiss Taiwan’s success as typical of Asian nations and their collective, ‘sheep-like’ mentality. Clearly, collective pro-community action trumps selfish individualism when it comes to pandemics, but I’m sure Taiwan’s success can’t be explained in such simplistic terms, as the Taiwanese have fought long and hard, against the communists, the Japanese and the Kuomintang, suffering massacre after massacre, to achieve multi-party democracy. So the idea that this is about tough-minded, risk-taking ‘sovereign citizens’ who won’t be pushed around by so-called health experts versus namby-pamby obedient puppets of the state who’re prepared to sacrifice their freedom just for the sake of their lives – well, this is surely a furphy. 

Canto: So what do we make of this Barr character? He attacks ‘lock-downs’ – which are simply a needed response to the refusal by so many to wear masks and to practice physical distancing. Sometimes authorities need to clamp down, when so many lives are being lost. Every government, regardless of their place on the political spectrum, has done something to try to reduce the spread of this virus. As would be expected. And this has necessarily impinged on ‘civil liberties’, because there are obviously other priorities. So, again, what point is Barr trying to make?

Jacinta: I can’t honestly say, but it does appear that he’s opposed to lock-downs, so presumably he has other ideas for saving the lives of ‘Americans’, but I’ve no idea what they may be. He’s also said recently that ‘scientists aren’t seers’ and that ‘free people make their decisions through their elected representatives’, which is a little incoherent, because when it comes to epidemics, sensible people should obviously listen to the advice of epidemiologists, especially those who are expert in the disease, virus or pathogen in question, rather than to politicians. You don’t even have to be an adult to realise that.

Canto: Yes, people are free to decide on their own science by popular vote, but if they did, we’d still be living in caves and believing that the earth is flat. Such are the limits of democracy.

Jacinta: So in times like these, the politicians should work with the experts, which is exactly what’s happening in all those countries that have handled covid19 most successfully. It’s notable that when he talks about these freedoms and civil liberties he makes no mention of all the suffering and the deaths in the USA. It somehow doesn’t seem to be relevant to him. What a bizarre, creepy character. 

Canto: Well, as a multi-millionaire – and I didn’t realise that politics was such a lucrative business – he very likely lives in one of those gated communities (with the emphasis on the gate rather than the community). Covid19 is disproportionately affecting African-Americans, Latinos, the poor, factory workers, prisons, aged-care facilities. Not really the sort of people you associate with gated communities. So I can only suppose he’s out of touch with much of the suffering. Lock-downs affect people universally – though obviously in different ways, depending on whether you’re in a mansion or a hovel – but the financial elites naturally don’t feel equal to the poor, and their ‘inequality’ is a matter of great pride to them. Barr is being a spokesperson for these types, I think. They’re having to suffer lock-downs because the less privileged are dying. It’s just not fair. 

Jacinta: And I just want to add something here about scientists. I’ve met a few of them, and I wish I was one of their number. They don’t pretend to be seers – my experience is that they tend to be nerdy, self-effacing types, not power junkies as many politicians tend to be. They generally tend not to display all the knowledge they have – it often has to be dragged out of them, whereas the worst politicians often claim knowledge they don’t have and like to belittle the knowledge or understanding of their rivals. In this respect, Barr is very much the politician, and little else.

Canto: Yes, and meanwhile the deaths keep piling up in the USA, and at the federal level the scientists are being sidelined by the politicians, the CDC is being stifled, and the world watches on with alarm, disgust and sometimes a smug sense of superiority. It isn’t of course the end of US ascendancy – the states with the most massive weaponry will always be the most powerful – but as to moral authority, that’s fast disappearing. If you leave aside the many non-democracies, which nation is less worthy of respect and emulation than the USA? I can’t think of too many.

Canto: Well, on a more hopeful note, there’s an election coming, and the country may start to redeem itself. But it will take far more than an election to do that, IMHO.

Written by stewart henderson

September 21, 2020 at 10:47 pm

some thoughts on fascism and American exceptionalism

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Fascism isn’t compatible with democracy, that’s the common view. Yet we know that fascism can utilise democracy to get started, and then toss it aside, when it, fascism, gets itself sufficiently established. It happened in Germany, of course, and in modern Russia Putin has trampled upon the seeds of democracy that were just starting to take root after the fall of the Soviet Union. Now his brand of fascism has managed to prevail for the foreseeable.

Also, fascism, though somewhat limited, can occur between democratic elections, if the elected person or party is given too much power, or leeway to increase his power, by a particular political system.

Fascism is a particular type of popularism, generally based on the leadership rhetoric of particular, highly egotistical individuals, almost always male. Other current examples include Bolsonaro in Brazil, Duterte in the Phillippines, Erdogan in Turkey, Kadyrov in Chechnya, Kim Jong-Un in North Korea and Orban in Hungary. There are certain features of this political brand. Ultra-nationalism, militarism, ‘law and order’, control of the media and persecution of opposition are all essential elements.

I note that historians would mostly disagree with the ‘fascist’ moniker being used today – they like to restrict it to the early-to-mid 20th century, generally being quashed as a ‘coherent’ political movement by the second world war. Even the term ‘neo-fascist’ is generally grumbled about. I think this is false and ridiculously so. The elements of fascism described above have been used by states not only in the 21st century but since the origins of the state thousands of years ago, though of course no two fascist states are identical, any more than their leaders have been.

Every state, even the most democratic, is susceptible to fascism. The USA’s susceptibility is worth noting. To me, its ‘soft underbelly’ is its obsession with the individual. Perhaps also an obsession with worship, saviours and superheroes. Of course, Americans like to describe themselves as the most democratic people on earth, and the world’s greatest democracy. In fact, having listened to more US cable news shows since 2016 than is good for my health, I find this declaration of America’s top-class status by news anchors, political pundits, lawyers and public intellectuals to be both nauseating and alarming. It betokens a lack of a self-critical attitude towards the USA’s political system, which lends itself to populist fascism more than most other democratic systems. Few other such nations directly elect their leaders, pitching one heroic individual against another in a kind of gladiatorial contest, two Don Quixotes accompanied by their Sancho Panzas. Their parliament, too – which they refuse to call a parliament – has become very much a two-sided partisan affair, unlike many European parliaments, which feature a variety of parties jostling for popularity, leading to coalitions and compromise – which to be fair also has its problems, such as centrist stagnation and half-arsed mediocrity. There are no perfect or even ‘best’ political systems, IMHO – they change with the personnel at the controls.

It’s unarguable that the current administration which supposedly governs the USA is extremely corrupt, venal and incompetent. It is headed by a pre-teen spoilt brat with an abysmal family history, who has managed to succeed in a 50-odd year life of white-collar crime, due to extraordinarily lax laws pertaining to such crime (the USA is far from being alone amongst first-world nations in that regard), and to be rewarded for that life, and for the mountain of lies he has told about it, by becoming the president of the world’s most economically and militarily powerful country. Unfortunately for him, the extremely high-profile status he now has, and which he revels in, being a lifelong, obsessional attention-seeker, has resulted in detailed scrutiny and exposure. Now, it may be that, even with the laying bare of all the criminality he has dealt in – and no doubt more will be laid bare in the future – the USA’s justice system will still fail the simple test of bringing this crime machine to book after he is thrown out of office. Then again, maybe it will be successful, albeit partially. And the crime machine is well aware of this. And time is running out.

The USA is in the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic, and suffering terribly. On this day, July 24 2020, the country suffered over a thousand Covid-19 deaths in the past 24 hours. The USA has approximately 14 times the population of Australia, where I live, but has suffered more than 1000 times the number of Covid-19 deaths. It is a monumental tragedy, with hubris, indifference, blame-shifting and deceit at the highest government level, and heroism, frustration, exhaustion and determination at many state levels and especially at the level of critical and general healthcare. And there’s a presidential election in the offing, an election that the current incumbent is bound to lose. He hates losing and will never admit to losing, but there is more at stake for him now than for any other previous loss, and he knows this well.

Which brings us back to fascism. It has recently been tested, on a small scale, in Portland, and it’s being threatened elsewhere, but to be fair to the people of the USA, their civil disobedience, so disastrous for getting on top of Covid-19, is a very powerful weapon against fascism. It remains to be seen whether it will be powerful enough. The next few months will certainly absorb my attention, happily from a far-away place. I’m sure it’s going to be very very messy, but I’m also interested in 2021 in that country. How will it ensure that this never happens again? Serious reform needs to occur. Greater restrictions on presidential candidature must be applied. Not financial restrictions – wealth being apparently the only vetting criterion Americans seem to recognise. How is it that a person is allowed to become the leader of such a powerful and dominant country on the world stage without any of the kind of vetting that would be the sine qua non for the position of any mid-level CEO? Without any knowledge of the country’s history, its alliances, its laws, its domestic infrastructure and so forth? To rely entirely on the popular mandate for the filling of such a position is disastrous. This sounds like an anti-democratic statement, and to some extent it is. We don’t decide on our science by popular mandate, nor our judiciary, nor our fourth estate. We have different ways of assessing the value of these essential elements of our society, and necessarily so. The USA now suffers, via this presidency, for many failures. It fails to vet candidates for the highest office. It fails to provide any system of accountability for criminality while in office. It fails to ensure that the candidate with the greatest number of votes wins office. It fails to ensure its electoral system is secure from foreign and/or criminal interference. It permits its elected leader to select a swathe of unelected cronies without relevant experience to positions of high domestic and international significance. It permits its leader to engage in extreme nepotism. It fails in dealing with presidential emoluments. The current incumbent in the ‘white palace’ may not be able to spell fascism, but his instincts are fascist, as shown by his absolutist language, not necessarily the language of an adult, but neither is the language of most fascist leaders, who share the same brattish love of insult, thin-skinned intolerance of opposition, and lack of common humanity. These are precisely the psychological types who need to be vetted out of all political systems. This isn’t 20-20 hindsight. Vast numbers of people, in the USA and around the world, saw Trump as the mentally deficient liar and con-man he’s always been. It’s up to the USA to ensure that such a type can never rise to anything like this position of power and influence again. It requires far more than soul-searching.

Written by stewart henderson

July 25, 2020 at 11:53 am

there’s no such thing as a fair election 2: Australia’s systems, and the real value of democracy

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Canto: So let’s talk about varieties of representative democracy, because I’ve never been clear about them. Looking at the Australian experience, this government website has a summary which starts thus:

The Australian electorate has experienced three types of voting system First Past the Post, Preferential Voting and Proportional Representation (Single Transferable Vote).

The first-past-the-post system hasn’t been used in Australia since the 19th century. All our elections now use forms of preferential and proportional representation voting. Australia, incidentally is one of only three countries in the world that uses preferential voting in major elections. Under full (as opposed to optional) preferential voting, each candidate on the ballot must be given a preference, from first to last. This tends to favour major parties, whose candidates are recognisable, but it can also lead to a local election being won by a candidate with fewer votes than her major opponent.

Jacinta: Yes, this can occur when no candidate gets a majority on the first count. A second count is then held and the candidate with the least votes is excluded. That candidate’s second preferences are distributed amongst the remaining candidates. This may give the second most voted-for candidate the lead, with over 50% of the vote. Or it may put the most-voted-for candidate over the 50% line. Or neither, in which case a third count occurs, until one candidate scores over 50%.

Canto: Yes, as this shows, minor party candidates need to score highly in the first count to have much chance, as second preferences are more often than not directed (by how-to-vote cards, which they may not choose to follow) to the more high-profile major party candidates. This is why minor parties almost never win a seat in the House of Representatives, which, unlike the Senate, uses the preferential voting system. And overall, there can be a problem with this type of voting in single-member electorates, in that one party may win a few seats by large margins, while another wins many seats by a small margin, and so wins more seats while losing the popular vote. That’s of course why governments often engage in pork-barrelling to swing marginal seats.

Jacinta: Some of the concerns raised by full preferential voting can be alleviated somewhat by an optional preferential system, but that brings its own problems which we won’t go into here. Let’s look now at proportional representation, which in the Australian context is described thus on our government website:

Proportional Representation is not a single method of election, for there are a number of variations in use, including the Single Transferable Vote, two variants of which are used in Australia. One is used in Senate elections, and the Hare-Clark version….. is used for elections to the Tasmanian House of Assembly and the ACT Legislative Assembly.

The Senate model for elections is described thus:

Each state and territory acts as a single, multi-member electorate in Senate elections. In half-Senate elections six senators are elected from each state, and two from each territory. In full Senate elections, which follow a dissolution of both houses of the Parliament, 12 senators are elected from each state and two from each territory.

To be elected, a candidate must achieve a quota of votes. Without going into detail, the system provides a greater likelihood of minor parties gaining a Senate seat, and so a greater diversity of voices tends to be heard in that chamber. This also helps the Senate’s function as a ‘house of review’ as the governing party has difficulty in gaining a majority there.

Canto: In ‘Choices’, a chapter of David Deutsch’s book The beginning of infinity, proportional representation is described even more negatively than other options, as it tends to result in watered-down, compromise solutions which end up pleasing nobody and, more importantly, don’t actually solve the problem at hand. But the real issue is broader. We can try to invoke mathematics and social-choice theory to make political systems more representative, but even if this was ‘successful’, which various no-go mathematical theorems show can’t be done, the question arises as to whether the most ‘truly’ representative system will be the fairest and best. As Deutsch points out, all this argy-bargying about voting and representational systems is about input to the system rather than output in the form of good decision-making – the institution of good policy and the removal of bad policy. The creation of pathways to good policy.

Jacinta: Yes, it’s worth quoting what Deutsch, partially channelling Karl Popper, is aiming for here:

The essence of democratic decision-making is not the choice made by the system at elections, but the ideas created between elections. And elections are merely one of the many institutions whose function is to allow such ideas to be created, tested, modified and rejected. The voters are not a fount of wisdom from which the right policies can be empirically ‘derived’. They are attempting, fallibly, to explain the world and thereby to improve it.

Canto: Interesting that Deutsch is careful not to say anything negative about democracy here, but he’s actually underplaying the role of democracy in decision-making, because we all know, I think, that new and important and worthwhile ideas aren’t created by democratic process, but by intellectual elites of one kind or another. These ideas are often carried forward by elected officials who have either helped to create them or have been persuaded by them. It may be that they don’t work or ‘their time hasn’t come’, but if there is a kernel of truth or real benefit to them, as for example with renewable energy and electric vehicles, they will, with modifications and adaptations, succeed in the end.

Jacinta: Yes, and what this sort of progress has to do with democracy is that there really is no political system that nurtures innovation and improvement in the way that democracy does, even if it does so with what sometimes seems frustrating slowness, and with the blockages by vested interests that so often infect politics, democratic or otherwise. Patience, I suppose, is a virtue.

Canto: Yes, democracy is in some ways a politics of persuasion, an invitation to try and discuss and dispute over new ideas, with accepted rules of engagement, trial and error, modification, exchange and respect, grudging or otherwise. And of course, with ongoing elections, it’s also a politics of renewal and revision, and that’s the fairest way of going about things as far as I can see it.

References

David Deutsch, The beginning of infinity, 2011

https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/rp/RP0708/08rp05

Written by stewart henderson

May 31, 2020 at 3:34 pm