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America’s disgrace – presidential criminality in plain view

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George Kent reads his opening statement to the House

As an outsider looking in, I’m appalled by the US Presidential system, and the licence given in that country to its head of state. I’ve learned over the past few years of watching the slow train wreck that is this presidency, that the US head of state is granted a level of immunity that should never be granted to any individual in a democracy. This is a total disgrace, and seems to have infected the judgment of many observers and commentators. I suspect they’re blinded by the power granted to the US head of state, and by the ease with which anyone, no matter how corrupt and incompetent, can become the head of state (providing they have sufficient funds and influence). Presidents in the USA seem to be idolised beyond normality, in a land of Superheroes. This love of Superheroes, in film and elsewhere, is a somewhat juvenile trait, and a dangerous one. Its dangers have generally gone unnoticed because most US heads of state have been cognisant of, and respectful of, the rule of law. The problem has become evident with the advent of a charlatan posing as the greatest Superhero of all, and who is perfectly willing to take advantage of the power granted to him to realise any of his whims and desires. 

Just today, at the end of the first day of public impeachment hearings, I’ve listened to the opening statement of career diplomat George Kent. His statement highlighted for me the enormous damage done to a sovereign state, Ukraine, by those working for the personal interests of this President. And yet I heard a panel of journalists, I believe from CBS, more or less agree that there was wrong-doing which however wasn’t impeachable. I couldn’t help but feel that this commentary was shocking and disgraceful.

Impeachment is a process derived from the United Kingdom, where it is now obsolete. It has never been a part of the Australian system and should, I think, be removed from any democratic system, and replaced by solid, clear law. Hopefully Americans will wake up to this one day, though I’m hardly sanguine about it. 

Americans – and I’m really talking here about the intelligentsia – seem overly obsessed with their constitution. Some are even describing this latest crime of their President as bribery, simply because that crime gets a specific mention in the constitution, which is preposterous. The eighteenth century constitution doesn’t go into great detail about the crimes a President might commit, nor should it, because it should be evident that the President would be held accountable for any law-breaking, to the same extent as any other US citizen. To accept or facilitate any other outcome for the head of state would itself be a form of corruption or criminality.

The US President, and his acolytes, notably Rudi Giuliani, are clearly guilty of extortion – demanding a thing of great value for the President, with menaces, or via coercion. This crime has essentially been proven. This particular case is also at the very high end for this type of crime, as it involves the extortion of an entire nation, an ally of the USA, endangering countless lives and a nation’s freedom. A very hefty prison term should be demanded for all involved. This should not be in any way controversial.

Failing this – impeachment? To describe this is a poor substitute would be the greatest understatement in American history. The democratic world watches with bemusement tinged with contempt.

Written by stewart henderson

November 14, 2019 at 2:39 pm

The boy in the white palace 4: extortion for dummies

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Beneficence is always free, it cannot be extorted…

Adam Smith

Jacinta: I’ve been bemused by the sloppy way, IMHO, that the boy king’s adversaries – the Great Patriots – are handling their strategy for the defence of the realm. Some are still using the Queer and Daft (Q&D) term quid pro quo, as if that’s going to be an effective rallying cry for the country’s GPs. In fact it’s so feeble that the boy’s courtiers and epigones are happy to use it themselves, saying quid pro quos are great things, very handy for the MAGA cause….

Canto: Yes but I do notice that some of the more quick-witted GPs are almost at the point of considering, in a consistent way, a more obviously criminal term for the lad’s crimes. Whoduv thunk it? Unfortunately they’re not quite sure which crime to bruit about.

Jacinta: And Q&D terminology is still de rigueur for many, especially the courtiers and epigones. The two more serious, and accurate, terms for the crimes being particularly focussed on – re impeachment….

Canto: And impeachment’s a process we’re going to have to deconstruct – to use a shitty po-mo term most appropriate for the occasion – in another post.

Jacinta: Indeed – the two crimes being whispered way too softly by the GPs are bribery and extortion, with bribery being, unfortunately, the most favoured. But the Great Patriots are wrong.

Canto: That’s bad.

Jacinta: I think the only reason they prefer bribery is because, apparently, it’s in the SACUSA…

Canto: Scusi?

Jacinta: What? Oh yes, dummy, the Sublimely Awesome Constitution of the USA. Get out from under your rock, mate. It’s apparently mentioned in the SACUSA as one of the high Crimes and Mis Demenours you’re not allowed to consort with. We’ll look into that later. But I think extortion’s the thing, to set before the wee king, because, well, it’s much more nasty-sounding. I also think it’s more accurate. Off the top of my head, it’s about demanding money – or a thing of value – with menaces. And the boy king doesn’t need money – he’s been rolling in it since he was in his nappies, according to the New York Times. He’s far more in need of something to trounce his enemies, so that he can stay in the White Palace until he’s all growed up – and that’s a long long time.

Canto: Is he still in his nappies d’you think? I’ve heard rumours…

Jacinta: Well, I don’t think I’d have the stomach for that piece of investigative journalism, but it would certainly raise a stink if that were true. But here’s the thing. Ukraine has a new leader, with an overwhelming mandate to beat off Madame Putain and fight internal corruption. It’s a vastly important, and simply vast, country lying between La Putain and his or her designs on Europe, and it desperately needs an alliance with the USA, Europe and any other region it can ally itself with, but their President, when he came to office, hadn’t yet cottoned on to the fact that the USA is an ex-democracy and that its wee king had googly eyes for La Putain. ..

Canto: So he was ripe for extortion, I get it. The boy loves La Putain and wants to be like him, master of all he surveys, so he wants to have the Ukraine slay his rival, so he menaces them with a range of shite – saddling the country with being behind interference in his ascension to the throne in 2016, refusing to have an alliance with it, and with-holding funds and weapons, in the hope that La Putain will invade, slay the putative wrong-doers and share the spoils with the wee laddie.

Jacinta: Yeah, something like that. But let’s just get back to demanding a thing of value with menaces. I think it’s pretty straightforward.

Canto: Yes, others use the term coercion, but it’s the same thing, and it definitely applies in this case. The boy’s courtiers even drafted exactly what they demanded the Ukrainian Prez had to publicly say about the poor wee Biden boy and his nasty papa.

Jacinta: It’s time to look more closely at what the SACUSA has to say on the matter. Impeachment gets a mention very early on (Article 1, Section 2), but the nub of the matter is expressed, albeit briefly, in Article 2, Section 4, entitled ‘Disqualification’:

The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.

So only two actual crimes are specified, which is a wee bit disappointing for dealing with the Most Powerful King in the Multiverse – but I don’t want to get into the impeachment disaster here, we’ll save that for another post. For now I’ll just say that ‘high Crimes and Misdemeanours’ however vague, was surely meant to cover more than nothing, and extortion sounds pretty lofty as crimes go. So let’s look more closely at extortion.

Canto: I have one dictionary definition here: ‘the practice of obtaining something, especially money, through force or threats’. Sounds like just the Right Thing.

Jacinta: Yes, and what the boy-king wanted to obtain was far more valuable to him than all the gold in Ukraine….

Canto: Encyclopedia Brittanica gives the definition as ‘the unlawful exaction of money or property through intimidation’, but in an article about white-collar crime it describes extortion as ‘a threat made to obtain a benefit from either a private individual or a public official’, and the threat here made by the boy and his courtiers, was ‘if you don’t invent something to besmirch the reputation of my domestic enemy, or announce that he has a reputation as a criminal, you will have no alliance with our mighty kingdom, no aid or support in defeating your enemy, La Putain (my own true love), and your people will die in great numbers, crushed by his or her mighty fist’.

Jacinta: Hmmm. A more clear-cut and extremely serious case of extortion could hardly be found. A girl-boy lawyer would win the case with a few hours’ training, except that the king is apparently above all law. He’s only subject to the law’s feeble sibling, impeachment.

Canto: I note that one of the Royal lad’s acolytes, one Nikki Hayley, has sought to churlishly dismiss the affair by pointing out that Ukraine finally received the aid, so no problem. However, the above definition points out that the threat is the crime, not the success or otherwise of the threat.

Canto: It also should hardly need pointing out that Ukraine finally received the promised aid because the scheme against the country was being leaked out – the lad’s courtiers had learned about the whistleblower complaint – not because there was a change of heart. In fact it’s widely believed that mirabile dictu, the withered boy has never managed to develop a heart, the poor sod.

Jacinta: That’s ridiculous, a piece of fantasy emanating from the Deep Kingdom….

Canto: We should operate on the boy to find out – we need real, pulsating evidence. I’m even prepared to do it under anaesthetic. I’d like him to do us a favour though…

Written by stewart henderson

November 10, 2019 at 11:13 am

The boy in the White Palace 1: admiring Rachel Maddow

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Canto: I can’t really keep my mind off the situation in the USA, because I know it’s of historical significance, while at the same time the bloke that’s causing all the trouble is the last thing I want to occupy my mind with. Any advice?

Jacinta: I know the feeling – it is mesmerising in a ghoulish way. So let’s start a new series, and take it right to the end of this tragic-comedy. We’ll call it The boy in the White Palace, and we’ll take it to whatever awful place it leads. Of course there are always heroes as well as villains. Take MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow – I just watched a brilliant piece of TV reportage from her. It should win a medal – though to be fair she manages this sort of thing quite often, so I shouldn’t just single out this piece of work. It started out  by mocking another of the boy’s moronic but very typical appointments – this time to an obscure (to us) body called the Commission on Presidential scholars – a body of smart people to ‘select and honour the Presidential Scholars’, presumably some academically bright young people who deserve a scholarship. This time a donor to the juvenile crime-machine and writer of Trump-boosting finance BS called George Mentz, aka ‘Magus Incognito’ (I kid you not) has been appointed.

Canto: Haha yes, and he also sells bogus certificates to prove you’re a finance guru like him – must be an ‘only in America’ kind of deal. And they talk about Ukraine as a corrupt country? Je ne comprends pas. 

Jacinta: Yeah, and this Ubermentz bloke is also one of them book-writin types, and here’s a title: Success magic – the prosperity secret to win with magical spiritual power: how to grow rich, influence people, protect your mindset & love yourself like a warrior using timeless abundance secrets. And most of that is capitalised, but not in a good way. I should be careful of what I say here, though, as he’s a member of the Illuminutti and might smite me with his flamin sword. But this set-up by Maddow beautifully introduces the shallow incompetence of the administration, which she then further illustrates with something much darker, relating to China. 

Canto: Yes, and this is introduced by sound-bites of the thumpin great boy during the 2016 campaign going on – and on – and on – about China.

Jacinta: Right, which we don’t actually hear, coz we always keep the mute button handy while watching the cable news so we don’t have to hear la voix d’horreur

Canto: Yes, though Colbert’s voix de trompette is a sweet melody to my ears.

Jacinta: So, just as the Ubermentz financial guru has been rewarded by the Great Reader in the White Palace for his impressive swathe of Illuminutti books, and of course his generous donations to the cause of ‘Nya nya nana na’, an expression which fully captures the philosophy of the boy’s administration, so has another great writer of profound books on China, with thought-provokingly grandiloquent titles such as Death by China: confronting the dragon – a global call to action, and The coming China wars. This warrior’s name is Peter Navarro, and, as Rachel points out, his appointment as some kind of special adviser on Chinese affairs, though he’d apparently never been there, doesn’t know the language and has never formally studied the topic of China and its economy, is a reward for, again, fully endorsing the White Palace’s nya nya nana na philosophy.

Canto: But it’s surely true that you can’t allow China to become the global economic bully that the USA has become, and the British Empire before that, etc. En it?

Jacinta: There are good bullies and bad bullies, apparently, according to some – mostly Americans. Anyway, so this Navarro bloke has become a White Palace courtier, with the ear of the boy-king, and this helps to explain the trade war that the boy has embarked on, at the expense of various apparently dispensible farmers and factory workers, and business operators in both countries.

Canto: Massive bailouts are going to US farmers at the moment – no worries about the deficit – and I note the economy in general’s on a downhill slide…

Jacinta: Navarro has also shown the same dodgy tendencies as the Ubermentz and his boy master, in sometimes pretending to be someone else – but of course that’s nothing compared to his advice about tarrifs, which the poor clueless boy eagerly laps up. So Rachel has set up this story of crazies in the White Palace…

Canto: Ra Ra Rasputin…

Jacinta: And she’s sort of darkening the tale as she goes, so next she moves to the impeachment thing.

Canto: Oh shudder, I hate that.

Jacinta: Yes, she takes us through the whole Ukraine stuff, the White Palace call to President Zelensky, the whistleblower, the dodgy release of the call summary, which the poor wee boy thought would be exonerating, then the confused reactions of his courtiers and Republican supporters, and all the rest. Above all, Rachel reminds us of how the boy recovers his equanimity and serves up his much noted nya nya nana na response to reporters, by assuring them it was all perfect and very nice, and if these Ukrainians were honest people they’d start a major investigation into my main rival, and China, if you’re listening, can you too help me get re-elected?…

Canto: It must be so boring for the laddie to have to go through another one of them dumb elections – but then he does get to go on all those campaign junkets and shout ‘lock up them dems, nya nya nana na’ to his little stone heart’s content.

Jacinta: Well that’s all in the uncertain future, but the nya nya nana na approach does seem to have left his many loving supporters in Congress a bit flummoxed – though some of them just come out and say, ‘nothing I’ve heard so far is impeachable’, which just creates more flummoxedness among those trying to report all this to a flummoxed populace.

Canto: And then they brought out that actor, the one that acts as the Chief of Staff, and he admitted that there was a quid pro quo (which is some weird Latin term for extortion, apparently), which he kindly explained was normal government procedure. Now some people say that he fluffed his lines, but I don’t agree, because it was exactly in line with the nya nya nana na policy of the boy king…

Jacinta: That’s true, but not everyone’s as smart as the boy, so the actor tried out a few different lines the next day, which left everyone even more flummoxed than their previous flummoxed state. But something Rachel picked up on from the actor’s earlier media gig was that he dodged a question about the boy’s deeply fascinating remarks about how China should investigate the Bidens…

Canto: Yeah the boy wants all of us to investigate the Bidens, I wonder why that might be – but actually I seem to recall some reporting that this was already raised in Beijing, which apparently flummoxed even the inscrutable Mr Xi…

Jacinta: Ah yes, you’re stealing Rachel’s thunder… Yes, in June, before the Ukraine call, the boy-king brought up the Biden thing with Xi, whether in an extortionate way we don’t know, but it’s very likely, given the boy’s MO, that he might’ve tied digging up BS about the Bidens with some new trade deal. Anyway, that’s another one of those ‘hidden’ calls that’ll probably never see daylight again, but incredibly, the Chinese did provide some info on Biden – who knows what, but I don’t see why the Chinese would hesitate to provide a bit of BS if it was in their own interest – it’s not as if that government has to worry about being caught out.

Canto: I’m not sure if the boy has to worry either, since he has a barmy army to back him up.

Jacinta: Well that’s to be seen I suppose. So the Chinese did provide something, because some White Palace delegate to China admitted as much, but he has since clammed up, apparently gotten to by the boy and his spivs. Meanwhile news has come out that trade assistance was being with-held from Ukraine, over and above military aid and a meeting with the Great Boy himself to publicise the relationship for the Ukrainian people. So, yes, extortion is the right word alright. But to return to the wonderful Rachel, she brings back this Peter Navarro, slayer of China, for the grand finale. Having raised the serious issue of nefariously self-serving dealings with two countries, at least, she ends with an excerpt from a CNN interview with this Navarro imbécile, which frankly makes you want to extinguish his lights with a fisticuff. The interviewer, Jim Sciutto, asks a simple question, ‘Did you raise the issue of the Bidens in your talks in China?’, and l’imbécile comes out with an obviously obfuscating and very aggressive rant about journalistic scuttlebutt. Truly a tour de farce, gift-wrapped by a genius of TV journalism.

an acolyte of the boy-king nastily evades scrutiny

Canto: Yes, admirable indeed, but the boy and his spivs aren’t listening, and neither is a vast proportion of that strange land’s populace. But we’re listening and watching way out here in Oz, and I have a great tale to tell next time.

Written by stewart henderson

November 2, 2019 at 1:53 am

first impressions of Trump

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Here’s the first of a series of very amateur vids on the crisis in the USA, and what a bemused and concerned outsider thinks of it all.

Written by stewart henderson

October 26, 2019 at 12:56 pm

Trump and the USA’s failure, part 2: effective law and distributed power

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I have established the republic. But today it is not clear whether the form of government is a republic, a dictatorship, or personal rule.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk

Australia’s House of Reps – politics as a team sport – mostly!

Australia has a Constitution, and so does Britain, but we don’t talk about them much – they don’t loom so large over the political system. The Westminster system doesn’t have an impeachment process, for the obvious reason that it is surplus to requirements. Due to its being a political process, impeachment is an unmitigated disaster.

So what happens, under the Westminster system, if a Prime Minister ‘goes rogue’ and either breaks the law or conducts herself in a manner contrary to the nation’s interest?

Well we need to step back a little to answer this question, because, under the US system, an elected President can be a rogue from the start. Trump is a clear case in point. Trump was, of course, far from being regarded as kosher by the Republican powers-that-be when he first suggested himself as a Presidential candidate, so he took his Barnum & Bailey campaign directly to the public, and in doing so highlighted the central problem of democracy, recognised two and a half thousand years ago, by Plato and Aristotle, who were unabashed anti-democratic elitists. The problem being, of course, demagoguery or populism – the notion that the public can be easily swayed by a candidate who promises everything and delivers nothing. The fact that this remains the most central problem of democracy surely says something about humanity in general – something that we may not be able to fix, but which we need to be on our guard against. Democracy is in fact a seriously flawed system – but far better than any other political system we’ve devised to regulate our seriously flawed human nature.

Under the Westminster system it’s far more difficult (though perhaps not impossible) for a ‘rogue from the beginning’ to reach the top of the political tree, because Prime Ministers aren’t directly elected. In fact the Westminster system has no correlate to the US presidential system, its general elections being much more correlated to the US mid-terms. This means, in effect, that under the Westminster system there is one set of general elections to two under the US system. Having two sets of general elections every four years seems a little over-indulgent. It means that you’re always preparing for or recovering from some election or other, and I’m not convinced that this is a good thing for your political health or your economy. And if you were ever to consider dispensing with one of those two sets of elections, clearly the Presidential elections should be the one to go.

Of course, this is sacrilege. Americans are obsessed with their Presidents – they even remember them as numbers – it’s bizarre. But it’s part-and-parcel, of course, with US individualism. It’s not surprising that the superhero is largely a US phenomenon. Many of your worst movies feature a Rambo or Indiana Jones-like character who single-handedly wins out over the baddies, often against a background of official incompetence or corruption. Think again of Trump’s OTT drain-the-swamp campaign rhetoric. And speaking of OTT, let’s not forget the carnivalesque razzamatazz of US Presidential elections, and the oodles of money that candidates are expected to raise, for no reasonable reason as far as I can see.

So, bearing all this in mind, let’s compare the situation and the job description of a Westminster-style Prime Minister with a US President.

Generally the Prime Minister is already an elected member of a party (either of the left or the right) and is chosen by parliamentary members of that party to be leader – much like a captain of a soccer team is already a player in the team and has proven herself to be experienced and knowledgable about playing the game and getting results. She has, in other words, earned the respect of her fellows. The Prime Minister works alongside her fellows, and under the scrutiny of her opponents, in the parliament. The President, on the other hand, is completely separate from parliament and surrounded by his own hand-picked team of very powerful courtiers, who need not have had any previous political experience.

The Prime Minister is able to choose her own cabinet, but only, of course, from elected members of parliament. All cabinet ministers, and indeed all MPs, are under continual scrutiny from other members of the House or the Senate. If the Prime Minister herself (or any other minister) is thought to be ‘going rogue’ or underperforming, she can be subjected to a no-confidence or censure motion in the House – requiring a simple majority. These have sometimes been successful, resulting in a change of Prime Minister between federal elections. While traumatic, such changes of leadership have nowhere near the impact that a change of President would have, since under the Westminster system the power is far more distributed, the team is far more important than its captain. The ‘great man’ Presidential system is such, however, that the only feasible way of dumping a President is by impeachment – an overly elaborate and highly political procedure that is almost designed to inflict trauma upon the populace.

There is, of course, no provision for impeachment in the Westminster system, and there has never been any need for such a process. A Prime Minister can, of course, be dumped for any number of reasons – most of which fall very far short of high crimes and misdemeanours. However, if a Prime Minister does go that far, she would be dealt with by law. There’s no suggestion under the Westminster system that a Prime Minister or any other minister or government official, would be immune from prosecution while in office. To me, the idea is totally absurd, for it seems far more reasonable that the precise opposite should be the case – that a country’s leader should be held to a higher legal standard than any other citizen. In other words, with great power comes greater legal responsibility, as a matter of course. Any political system that operates otherwise is simply rotten at its very core. It follows that the nation’s body of law, not the constitution, should govern the behaviour of those holding high office in government. For example, gaining a financial benefit from holding high office, other than the official salary and benefits that accrue to that office, should be illegal and cause for immediate dismissal in the most straightforward way. Contravening campaign finance laws should also be dealt with severely and immediately. If this causes a crisis in government, then clearly the system of government needs to be reformed, not the law. The constitution is at best a quasi-legal document, a laying out of the political system and the roles of its component parts. As an eighteenth century document, it can’t possibly be expected to cover the legal responsibilities of 21st century office-holders. That’s the vital role of a living, constantly adjusting body of law, to keep up with the legal responsibilities of a constantly modernising and complexifying political and business sector.

But let me return to the situation of Presidents, and candidates for the Presidency, since it’s unlikely that the US is going to give up on that institution.

You’ve learned the hard way that a rogue from the outset can bypass the traditional party system and win enough popular vote – with the help of a foreign nation – to become the leader of the most militarily and economically powerful nation on earth, despite having no political experience, no understanding of his nation’s history, no understanding of the geopolitical framework within which his nation operates, and no understanding of or interest in the global issues that all nations need to work together to solve. In other words, you’ve learned the hard way that anyone can indeed become your President, no matter how unsuited they are to the position. So how do you stop this from ever happening again?

Well if you insist on maintaining a system which ultimately pits one superhero against another, then you need I’m afraid, to admit to a serious but really rather obvious deficiency of democracy – the attraction of the demagogue (and I leave aside here the inherent problems of a state in which so many people can be hoodwinked). You need to vet all Presidential candidates with a set of questions and problems pertaining to both character and knowledge. Character questions wouldn’t be just of the type “What would you do if…” or ‘Do you think it is right to…’, questions that a sociopathic personality can always find the ‘successful’ answer to (though it’s doubtful that Trump could). They should be in the form of complex moral dilemmas that experimental psychologists have been adept at formulating over the years, requiring essay-type responses. The knowledge questions, by comparison, would be straightforward enough. Such tests should be assessed by professional diplomats and psychologists. This vetting, of course, cuts across the democratic process with a measure of ‘adults in the room’ intellectual, emotional and ethical elitism. Because of course you need a member of the intellectual and ethical elite to hold such a high office.

You might argue that Prime Ministers aren’t formally vetted, and that’s strictly true, but there’s at least an informal vetting system in that leaders have generally to climb from the ranks by impressing colleagues with their communication skills, their understanding of policy, their work ethic and so forth. It’s also the case that Prime Ministers have far less power than US Presidents – who have pardoning powers, special executive powers, power to shut down the government, veto powers, power to select unelected individuals to a range of high offices, power to appoint people to high judicial office and so forth. It’s hardly any wonder that characters like Trump are frustrated that they can’t take the next few steps towards total dictatorship. It’s interesting that I’ve recently heard a number of US pundits saying out loud ‘this isn’t a dictatorship’, as if they need to remind themselves of this fact!

Many will scoff at all this gratuitous advice. But you currently have a self-styled ‘very stable genius’ – a boorish, blustering, bullying, belly-aching buffoon in fact – in barricaded isolation in your White House and due to the multi-faceted failings of your politico-legal system, you can’t get rid of him as easily as you obviously should be able to, and I honestly feel that things will get much much worse before you do get rid of him. You can’t blame Trump for this – he has been exactly the same person for over 60 years. The fault lies with your system. If you don’t change it, you’ll never be able to regain the respect of the rest of the democratic world.

Written by stewart henderson

October 7, 2019 at 1:21 pm

Trump and the USA’s failure, part 1 – some modern history regarding two democratic systems

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It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry. Thomas Paine

So Australia’s getting a tiny mention now in the Trump debacle, as he and his henchmen try desperately to find dirt on Mueller, Biden, anyone they can divert attention to as this iniquitous regime stumbles towards its own doom.
So it seems to me an opportune time to reiterate and expand upon some of my views about the US political and social system which led to this pass.

First, a bit of a history of modern democracy and a corrective, to some of the views I’ve regularly heard on MSNBC and CNN as the journos and other pundits wring their hands over how the mighty have fallen. It seems accepted wisdom in the USA that their country is the leader of the democratic world, the potential bringer of democracy to the unenlightened, the light on the hill, the world’s moral police officer, the first and best of the world’s free nations. And its beginnings are often cited in the War of Independence against a tyrant king. So how could a nation, which owes its very existence to a revolt against tyranny, succumb to the blusterings, badgerings and bullying of this tyrant-child in their midst?

Well, let’s look at this story.  Britain did indeed tyrannise its colony. But let’s take note of some facts. George III was a constitutional monarch. Lord North was Britain’s Prime Minister during the war of independence. A century and a half before the War of Independence, Britain beheaded its king for being a tyrant. It was then ruled for a time by the Long Parliament, and then the Rump Parliament, before Oliver Cromwell was made Lord Protector of the Realm. These were some of the first none too successful steps towards a modern democracy. Baby steps. Two steps forward, one step back you might say. It didn’t work out so well, and the monarchy was restored in 1660, under the proviso that there would be some parliamentary representation. Then in the 1680s another king was forced out of the country, again for being a tyrant, and trying to convert the nation to Catholicism. This Glorious Revolution, as it was called, brought another branch of the royal family in from overseas, and William and Mary Stuart were presented with the crown, and the first constitutional monarchy was formed – though of course Magna Carta had earlier brought about the first limitations to royal authority, and there were more limitations to come in the future. Again, baby steps away from tyranny and towards democracy. A Bill of Rights was introduced in 1689, much of it based on the ideas of the political philosopher John Locke whose work also influenced the American constitution. 

So, America’s War of Independence was a war against tyranny, I grant that, but the tyrant was more a nation, or a government, than a king – though George III was certainly tyrannical in his attitude to the colonies. Britain, at the time, and for a long time afterwards, was a very powerful nation. And – guess what – powerful nations are always bullies. Always. That’s a universal. Imperial Britain was always a bully to its neighbours, and to less powerful nations that it could benefit from exploiting. The USA in more recent times, has been the same, as has China, Russia (or the USSR) and powerful empires of the past, Roman, Babylonian, Egyptian Assyrian, etc. It doesn’t matter their internal politics – they’re always bullies on the international stage. That’s why more powerful international agencies are needed and are just beginning to arise.

So getting back to democracy – the first US Presidential election was an odd one, as there was only one candidate – Washington. There were no parties, and very few states, and even then only about 7% of the adult population of those few states were considered eligible to vote, based on the possession of property (and of course skin colour, and gender). So, one of the bigger baby steps towards democracy, perhaps, but still another baby step. Of course, parliamentary membership in Britain at the time was subject to a vote, but also with a very limited franchise. 

So The USA significantly contributed to modern democracy, without a doubt, but the whole democratic movement proceeded by baby steps worldwide. For example, it’s surely unarguable that no nation or state could consider itself an effective democracy until it gave women – half the effing population! – the vote, and the USA was far from the first nation to do so. In fact the first state of any kind to do so was New Zealand in 1893, followed by the colony of South Australia – my home, from which I’m writing – in 1894. The USA didn’t grant the vote to women until 1920. 

So enough about democracy for now, but one reason I brought this up was to sort of complain a bit about American jingoism. You’re a really flag-waving, breast-beating country, and you tend to go on about patriotism as some kind of fundamental value. I say you because, though I have precious few readers, by far the majority of them come from the US, according to my WordPress data. Now, this kind of jingoism doesn’t allow for too much healthy self -analysis and critical distance. You need to get out more. I live in Australia, I was born in Scotland, so I’m a dual citizen of the UK and Australia, but I barely have a nationalistic cell in my body. I’ve never waved a flag in my life, never sung a national anthem. Nowadays I call myself a humanist, but I really came to that idea much later – my kind of visceral discomfort and dislike of nationalism goes back to my childhood, I can’t easily explain it, and any explanation would be post-hoc rationalism. I’m happy in any case that my humanism chimes with modern times, as we live in a more global and integrated world than ever before, but I do recognise that nations are still necessary and useful, and that global government will probably always remain an Einsteinian pipe-dream.

In any case, I feel lucky that I’ve spent most of my life here in Australia. The Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is a group of 35-40 countries, the most developed economies in the world – the world’s richest countries by GDP. Every year for several years now, they’ve rated the member countries on a ‘Better Life Index’ based on 11 different criteria, such as health, income, safety, job opportunities and so on. Basically, a rating of the best countries in the world to live in. A new rating has just come out, and Australia ranks at number two, up from number three last year, but down from number one the year before, and the year before that. So lucky me, though I have plenty of criticisms about the way this country is going. So how does the USA rate? Well, it’s never been number one, or two, or three or four or five or six, and I could go on – which isn’t to say it’s anywhere near the bottom. But could this just be anti-American bias from the OECD? Well, in a sense yes, because I suspect they’re biased towards nations or states that look after their citizens – where there’s more of a sense of communal values. They measure categories such as ‘civic engagement’, ‘community’, ‘environment’ and ‘work-life balance’, categories which step a little beyond individual rights and freedoms – and I think that’s a good thing.

So here’s how I see the problem. The USA seems a little overly obsessed with the individual, and that seems to put it a little out on the libertarian end of the spectrum that stretches from libertarians to communists. I’d argue that there’s never been any instantiation of a communist state or a libertarian non-state – and in a democracy, which is by its nature a bottom-up sort of system, which has to cater for a wide range of views about government, you should always expect to be swinging mildly in the centre between these extremes. But America’s focus on individual freedoms and the great individual leader was evident from the outset, with the way it set up its federal political system. My plan here is to compare it to the Westminster system which I know quite well, and which has sort of evolved slowly rather than being set in stone by an all-powerful 18th century constitution.

Under the Westminster system there’s no directly elected President. Of course, that system did begin with a great individual power, the unelected, hereditary monarch, who, in the time of the USA’s founding and the drawing up of its constitution, was a lot more powerful than today’s monarch. So it seems to have been the thinking of the founding fathers that you could have this powerful figure but he could be elected. And I do say ‘he’ because, be honest, there’s nothing in the thinking of the founding fathers to suggest that they would ever have contemplated a female President. So, remembering that many of the ideas of the founding fathers actually came from Britain, through the likes of John Locke and Tom Paine, their idea seemed to be something like a constitutional President, elected rather than blue-blooded, and hedged around by a parliament that was more constitutionally powerful than the parliament of the time back in the old ‘mother country’. And by the way, it slightly irritates me that there’s this lexical difference for the legislature in the USA versus Britain/Australia, i.e congress/parliament. They’re really the same thing and I wish they had the same name. From now on I’ll use the term ‘parliament’ to refer to the legislative branch under both systems.

So, it seems – and I’m by no means an expert on the US constitution – that the constitution was drawn up to create a kind of balance of power between three branches of law and government – the legislative, the executive and the judiciary. And this would have been quite revolutionary and progressive in its time, some two hundred odd years ago. In fact, the founding fathers may have seen it as so progressive and all-encompassing that the term ‘eternal’ might have been whispered about, like the eternal values of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And so they may have suffered from that natural pride which assumed that the constitution ought not to be altered without difficulty, and so the USA has largely been stuck with it. And I should point out – because it strikes non-Americans as a bit weird – that Americans seem a bit overly obsessed with their constitution.

Okay, so I’ll leave it there for now. Next time I’ll focus a bit more on the Westminster system, and a comparison between Prime Ministers and Presidents.

Written by stewart henderson

October 4, 2019 at 1:20 pm

Lessons from the Trump travesty?

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Consider this passage from The moral landscape, by Sam Harris:

As we better understand the brain, we will increasingly understand all of the forces – kindness, reciprocity, trust, openness to argument, respect for evidence, intuitions of fairness, impulse control, the mitigation of aggression, etc – that allow friends and strangers to collaborate successfully on the common projects of civilisation…

These are indeed, and surely, the forces, or traits, we should want in order to have the best social lives. And they involve a richly interactive relationship between the social milieu – the village, the tribe, the family, the state – and the individual brain, or person. They are also, IMHO, the sorts of traits we would hope to find in our best people – for example, our political leaders, regardless of which political faction they represent.

Now consider those traits in respect of one Donald Trump. It should be obvious to any reasoning observer that he is deficient in all of them. And I mean deficient to a jaw-dropping, head-scratching degree. So there are two questions worth posing here.

  1. How could a person, so obviously deficient in all of the traits we would consider vital to the project of civilisation, have been created in a country that prides itself on being a leader of the free, democratic, civilised world?
  2. How could such a person rise to become the President of that country – which, whether or not you agree with its self-description of its own moral worth, is undoubtedly the world’s most economically and militarily powerful nation, and a world-wide promoter of democracy (in theory if not always in practice)?

I feel for Harris, whose book was published in 2010, well before anyone really had an inkling of what was to come. In The moral landscape he argues for objective moral values, or moral realism, but you don’t have to agree with his general philosophical position to acknowledge that the advancement of civilisation is largely dependent on the above-quoted traits. But of course, not everyone acknowledges this, or has ever given a thought to the matter. It’s probably true that most people, in the USA and elsewhere, don’t give a tinker’s cuss about the advancement of civilisation.

So the general answer to question one is easy enough, even if the answer in any particular case requires detailed knowledge. I don’t have such knowledge of the family background, childhood and even pre-natal influences that formed Trump’s profoundly problematic character, but reasonable inferences can be made, I think. For example, one of Trump’s most obvious traits is his complete disregard for the truth. To give one trivial example among thousands, he recently described Meghan Markle, now the Duchess of Sussex, as ‘nasty’, in a televised interview. In another televised interview, very shortly afterwards, he denied saying what he was clearly recorded as saying. This regular pattern of bare-faced lying, without any concern about being found out, confronted by his behaviour, or suffering consequences, says something. It says that he has rarely if ever been ‘corrected’ for breaking this commandment, and, very likely, has been rewarded for it from earliest childhood – this reward being likely in the form of amusement, acclamation, and encouragement in this practice. Since, as we know, Trump was a millionaire before he was old enough to pronounce the word, the son of a self-possessed, single-minded property shark, who bestowed on the child a thousand indications of his own importance, it’s more than likely that he grew up in a bubble-world in which self-interest and duplicity were constantly encouraged and rewarded, a world of extreme materialism, devoid of any intellectual stimulation. This is the classic ‘spoilt child’ I’ve already referred to. Often, when a child like this has to stand up on his own feet, his penchant for lying, his contempt for the law and his endless attention-seeking will get him into legal trouble, but Trump appears to have stayed under the wing of his father for much longer than average. His father bailed him out time and time again when he engaged in dumb business deals, until he learned a little more of the slyness of white-collar crime (including learning how to steal from his father). His father’s cronies in the crooked business and legal world would also have taught him much.

Trump is surely a clear-cut case of stunted moral development, the darling child who was encouraged, either directly or though observation of the perverse world of white-collar crime that surrounded him, to listen to no advice but his own, to have devotees rather than friends, and to study and master every possible form of exploitation available to him. Over time, he also realised that his habit of self-aggrandisement could be turned to advantage, and that it would continue to win people, in ever greater numbers, if effectively directed. Very little of this, of course, was the result of what psychologists describe as system 2 thinking – and it would be fascinating to study Trump’s brain for signs of activity in the prefrontal cortex – it was more about highly developed intuitions about what he could get away with, and who he could impress with his bluster.

Now, I admit, all of this is somewhat speculative. Given Trump’s current fame, there will doubtless be detailed biographies written about his childhood and formative years, if they haven’t been written already. My point here is that, given the environment of absurd and dodgy wealth to be found in small pockets of US society, and given the ‘greed is good’ mantra that many Americans (and of course non-Americans) swallow like the proverbial kool-aid, it isn’t so surprising that white-collar crime isn’t dealt with remotely adequately, and that characters like Trump dot the landscape, like pus-oozing pimples on human skin. In fact there are plenty of people, rich and poor alike, who would argue that tax evasion shouldn’t even be a crime… while also arguing that the USA, unlike every other western democracy, can’t afford universal medicare.

So that’s a rough-and-ready answer to question one. Question two has actually been addressed in a number of previous posts, but I’ll address it a little differently here.

The USA is, I think, overly obsessed with the individual. It’s a hotbed of libertarianism, an ideology entirely based on the myth of individualism and ‘individual freedom’, and it’s no surprise that Superman, Batman and most other super-heroes were American products. It’s probable that a sizeable section of Trump’s base see him in ‘superhero’ terms, someone not cut in the mould of Washington politicians, someone larger than life, someone almost from outer space in that he talks and acts differently from normal human beings let alone politicians. This makes him exciting and enlivening – like a comic book. And they’re happy to go along for the ride regardless of whether their lives are improved.

I must admit, though, that I’m mystified when I hear Trump supporters still saying ‘he’s done so much for our country’, when it’s fairly clear to me that, apart from cruelly mistreating asylum-seekers, he’s done little other than tweet insults and inanities and cheat at golf. The massive neglect of every aspect of federal government under his ‘watch’ will take decades to repair, and the question of whether the USA will ever recover from the tragi-comedy of this presidency is hard to answer.

But as to how Trump was ever allowed to become President, it’s all about a dangerously flawed political system, one that has too few safeguards against the simplistic populism that the ancient Greek philosophers railed against 2500 years ago. Unabashed elitists, they were deeply concerned that ‘the mob’ would be persuaded by a charismatic blowhard who promised everything and delivered nothing – or, worse than nothing, disaster. They were concerned because they witnessed it in their lifetime.

The USA today is sadly lacking in those safeguards. It probably thought the safeguards were adequate, until Trump came along. For example, it was expected – among gentlemen, so to speak – that successful candidates would present their tax returns, refuse to turn the Presidency to their own profit, support their own intelligence services and justice department, treat long-time allies as allies and long-time adversaries as adversaries, and, in short, display at least some of the qualities I’ve quoted from Harris at the top of this post.

The safeguards, however, need to go much further than this, IMHO. The power of the Presidency needs to be sharply curtailed. A more distributed, collaborative and accountable system needs to be developed, a team-based system (having far more women in leadership positions would help with this), not a system which separates the President/King and his courtiers/administration from congress/parliament. Pardoning powers, veto powers, special executive powers, power to select unelected officials to high office, power to appoint people to the judiciary – all of these need to be reined in drastically.

Of course, none of this is likely to happen in the near future – and I still believe blood will flow before Trump is heaved out of office. But I do hope that the silver lining to the cloud of this presidency is that, in the long term, a less partisan, less individual-based federal system will be the outcome of this Dark Age.

Written by stewart henderson

June 14, 2019 at 5:00 pm