an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

what Americans will never do to save their democracy

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– stop relying on their gentlemanly 18th century constitution and create more L-A-W.


– reduce the presidency to a figurehead and place more power in the congress where it belongs


– encourage a wider range of parties to create an effective multiparty system which works by compromise rather than a two-party adversarial system which encourages hostility and winner-takes-all


– get rid of these worthless, ridiculous presidential debates (goes with reducing the power of the presidency)


– cap individual and corporate campaign contributions at a very low level.


– ban all electioneering claptrap until 2-3 weeks before elections


– thoroughly vet all presidential candidates via testing on US political history, presidential responsiblities, US foreign relations, treaty obligations etc A vetting for the job as for any CEO position. Duh!

Written by stewart henderson

October 29, 2020 at 7:33 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

Reading matters 5

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Eichmann and the holocaust, by Hannah Arendt

content hints – the bureaucratic mind, ideological muddles, the replacing of slaughtered sub-groups with museums, the Nuremberg laws, the corralling and subjugation of the Jews, the brown shirts and the black shirts, zionist optimism, Eichmann as zionist, Eichmann as idealist, Eichmann’s gormlessness and petty pride, protecting the ‘best Jews’, an environment of death, the final solution, everyone on the same page, conspiracies of silence, Jewish denial of reality, control of deportations, policing of ghettoes, the impossibility of open dissent, failures of prosecution, failures of defence, reflections on an international criminal court, Eichmann’s final clichés, the banality of evil.

Written by stewart henderson

July 10, 2020 at 11:56 am

Reading matters 4

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Measure for Measure, by William Shakespeare, bit-part actor, theatrical investor and obsessive quill-pusher

content hints
– exotic locations, harsh laws and lax enforcement, whores and virgins, pre-marital sex, dubious disguises, a puppet-master duke, wise retainers, kind-hearted gaolers, a mean-spirited newbie, a much-married madam, justice v mercy, letter v spirit, high life v low life, capital punishment, malapropisms avant la lettre, gadabouts, spurned women, sunken dowries, a woman finds her voice, a man is bent by lust, the shoals of desire, fraternal betrayal, an absurd assignation, a head in a bag, from nunnery to marriage bed, sex in the dark, silent women, revealings and unmaskings, a triple coupling, a questionable ending?

Written by stewart henderson

July 3, 2020 at 10:21 am

Covid-19, politics, government – some observations

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No society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means.

Aneurin Bevan, founder of the UK’s NHS

Dr Anastasia Vasilyeva, engaged in the dangerous task of exposing Putin’s lies

Let me look at Covid-19 cases and deaths in different countries in terms of the political persuasions (and gender) of their leadership, with some obvious caveats and reservations, e.g. that correlation isn’t causation, that there are a whole host of factors influencing how well or badly particular nations are faring, that the data coming from many nations is highly suspect, etc. My statistics come from the Worldometer site, which names a wide variety of sources, and notably tends to be slightly less conservative than the WHO and Johns Hopkins sites in terms of numbers. The differences aren’t great, but I think it’s reasonable to assume that the overall numbers are greater than even the Worldometer site has been able to confirm.

I’m doing this because I’ve been checking the stats on a daily basis for weeks now, and impressions have, not surprisingly, been forming about the relationship between national leadership and the impact of the virus. So here are some statistics, and some speculations on them, for what they’re worth.

The UK (I was born in Scotland) has fared worse than any other country, apart from Belgium, in terms of deaths per million. Conservative PM Boris Johnson, prior to catching the virus himself, seemed to suggest letting it run its course through the community, which of course would have led to a huge death rate, and generally the messages from the beginning were confused, and mostly of a softly softly nature, which has clearly proved disastrous. The NHS has suffered years of severe cuts under ten years of conservative government, and mixed messaging has continued to damage what has been a truly woeful governmental response to the crisis. Scotland, which has a female First Minister and a centre-left government, has a slightly lower ‘excess death toll’ than England, but it’s still high compared to most countries, and higher than those of Wales and Northern Ireland. England is, of course, by far the most densely populated of the four UK nations.

Belgium wears the shame of having the worst Covid-19 mortality rate of any significant-sized nation (of say, 5 million or more) on the planet. However, to be fair, Belgium appears to have an accounting system for the virus which is as anomalous as is that of Russia at the other end of the spectrum (a spectrum from inclusive, i.e Belgium, to exclusive in Russia’s case). This issue of accounting is too enormously complex and fraught to be dealt with here (though many are suggesting that measuring ‘excess mortality’ might be the best option), so I’ll take Belgium’s disastrous figures at face value for now. The country’s PM, Sophie Wilmès, is a member of the centrist Mouvement Réformateur, and heads a coalition government. In fact Belgium has long been so factionalised that coalition governments are a more or less permanent feature of government there, and internal squabbling in recent years has led to a lot of government inertia. Though clear information is hard to find, the lack of strong, supported central government is very likely negatively affecting the country’s Covid-19 experience.

Germany is generally regarded as the success story of Europe. It’s Europe’s largest country, and currently the 19th most populated country in the world. It is 12th overall in the number of cases, and 11th in the number of deaths. This may look bad, but we know that western Europe has been particularly hard-hit, and it’s worth comparing Germany to its neighbouring countries. Interestingly, Germany shares its border with no less than nine different countries, and in terms of deaths per million, which I think is a good guide of a nation’s internal handling of the pandemic, it is doing far better than its westerly neighbours (Switzerland, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark), and considerably worse than its easterly ones (Austria, Czechia and Poland). Again I’m skeptical of some of the stats, especially in a country like Poland, which has descended into a quasi dictatorship under its all-powerful Law and Justice party, but there does seem to be a radical divide between the eastern and western halves of Europe in terms of the pandemic’s impact. Anyway, Germany’s centrist Chancellor Angela Merkel has been in power since 2005, and she’s recently suffered under the description, ‘leader of the free world’ in lieu of the USA’s absence of leadership. Being a former research scientist, she’s been credited, rightly or wrongly, with having shepherded the country through this crisis better than most. Wikipedia has this to say about the country’s response:

The country’s low fatality rate, compared to fatality rates in Italy and Spain, has generated a discussion and explanations that cite the country’s higher number of tests performed, higher number of available intensive care beds with respiratory support and higher proportion of positive cases among younger people.

Italy, a country renowned for its political instability, fared disastrously early on (in March and April) in terms of cases and deaths, but has reduced the numbers greatly in recent weeks. Even so, Italy’s deaths per million is one of the worst rates in the world, five times that of Germany. Italy has in recent years developed closer ties with China than any other country in western Europe, and evidence points to the virus arriving in northern Italy via a Chinese couple from Wuhan. It’s clear that there was early skepticism and government officials were caught unawares by the magnitude of the crisis, and the rapidity of spread. The wealthy and densely populated Lombardy region has been disproportionately affected. Italy’s PM, Giuseppe Conte, has held the position for two years, making him one of the longest serving leaders in Italy’s post-war history. The nation’s volatile political history makes co-ordinated strategic planning for pandemics very difficult. This article on Italy from the Harvard Business Review, aimed at an American readership, captures the problems that face individualistic nations who favour rights over responsibilities:

Consider the decision to initially lock down some regions but not others. When the decree announcing the closing of northern Italy became public, it touched off a massive exodus to southern Italy, undoubtedly spreading the virus to regions where it had not been present.

This illustrates what is now clear to many observers: An effective response to the virus needs to be orchestrated as a coherent system of actions taken simultaneously. The results of the approaches taken in China and South Korea underscore this point. While the public discussion of the policies followed in these countries often focuses on single elements of their models (such as extensive testing), what truly characterises their effective responses is the multitude of actions that were taken at once. Testing is effective when it’s combined with rigorously contact tracing, and tracing is effective as long as it is combined with an effective communication system that collects and disseminates information on the movements of potentially infected people, and so forth.

Clearly this information-collecting, when it isn’t coercive, requires compliance and collaboration for the broader good. Libertarians are reluctant, it seems, to admit this.

Sweden‘s record on the pandemic is worth comparing to the other four countries comprising Scandinavia – Norway, Finland, Denmark and Iceland. Sweden is certainly the most populous of the five, but its deaths per million tell a grim story – more than five times those of Denmark, around ten times those of Norway and Finland, and almost 20 times those of isolated Iceland. The rate is higher than that of the USA and France, and not far below that of Italy. Currently, the centre-left PM Stefan Löfven heads a highly unstable coalition, which clearly isn’t able to provide the co-ordinated response required in a pandemic. In fact the country deliberately took a ‘relaxed’ attitude to the virus, and are now paying the price, though some of the country’s epidemiologists are still standing by the nation’s approach, astonishingly enough. Around half of the country’s fatalities have occurred in nursing homes. Apart from Sweden, all of the Scandinavian countries have female leaders. Just saying.

Russia, which has recorded the third highest number of Covid-19 cases in the world, has a bizarrely low death-rate, which can’t be accounted for from an epidemiological perspective, as I’ve reported before. Dmitry Peskov, one of Putin’s favourite arse-lickers, defended the record, saying “Have you ever thought about the possibility of Russia’s health care system being more effective?” This in fact caused a spike in fatalities, as several thousand Russians immediately died laughing. A very brave doctor, Anastasia Vasilyeva, founder and head of the medical trade union Alliance of Doctors, is creating videos exposing Putin’s lies about Russia’s handling of the pandemic, showing run-down hospitals, sick and unprotected medical staff and a generally under-funded and unprepared healthcare system. She has, of course, been viciously attacked by Putin’s media thugs, arrested and generally harassed. It’s safe to say that nothing credible is coming out of Russia’s state reporting of Covid-19, and the same must be said of China, or any other state which has more or less complete control of its media. So the full truth of what is happening in Russia, and in other closed societies, will likely not come out for years.

Final remarks – from what we’ve seen so far, right-wing, limited government, libertarian-type governments do worse than strong, centralised governments, especially those led by women. Closed societies generally can’t be trusted on their reporting, so it’s virtually impossible to judge their performance vis-à-vis  the pandemic.

Next time I’ll look at some countries in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

References

https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/apr/04/tories-protect-nhs-coronavirus-slogan

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-05-18/why-belgium-has-a-high-number-of-coronavirus-deaths/12259032

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/26/virologist-christian-drosten-germany-coronavirus-expert-interview

https://www.livescience.com/results-of-sweden-covid19-response.html

https://hbr.org/2020/03/lessons-from-italys-response-to-coronavirus

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-06-02/anastasia-vasilyeva-doctors-alliance-russia-coronavirus/12276094?nw=0

Written by stewart henderson

June 29, 2020 at 10:08 am

reading matters 3

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Will he go? Trump and the looming election meltdown, by Lawrence Douglas, Professor of law, jurisprudence and social thought, Amherst College

Content hints

  • failure of impeachment, high crimes and misdemenours, rigged voting, media scum, sleepy Joe, election hoax, treason, fraud, shades of 2016, tweetstorms, dictator worship, Putin, Erdoğan, Orbán, the USA’s quaint constitution, pathological lying, Presidential authority to ban media, Trump as weak authoritarian, foreign interference, catastrophic scenarios 1,2,3, the unforeseeable, the electoral college and faithless electors, uniquely awful system, hacked elections, profoundly antidemocratic outcomes, gerrymandering, swing states, 12th amendment, enemies of the people, problems of peaceful succession, civil war, hang on, bumpy ride.

Written by stewart henderson

June 28, 2020 at 3:01 pm

the USA’s weird Electoral College system

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number of electors per state, favouring rural states

Canto: What do the words ‘electoral college’ mean to you?

Jacinta: Let me see, ‘electoral’ has something to do with processes and methods relating to elections, and a college is an educational institution, and connected words like ‘collegial’ and ‘colleague’ bring to mind teams and teamwork, in an educated sort of way. I’ve also heard about the electoral college in relation to US federal politics, but I’m not sure what it means. At a guess, I think it just means the electorate, and the regions it’s made up of, though why that would be called a ‘college’ I’ve no idea.

Canto: Well there’s this American-only phenomenon called the Electoral College I’ve been hearing about since I’ve been tuning into what has become, hopefully briefly, Trumpistan, but the term has kind of washed over me, and I’ve not thought of it as anything more than a fancy term for the electorate and its divisions, as you say. But no, a little book called Will he go?, by Lawrence Douglas, a professor of law, jurisprudence and social thought at Amherst College, has taught me otherwise, though I’ve not completely got my head around it, so now’s the time.

Jacinta: Wikipedia tells me it goes back to that worshipped but problematic constitution of theirs. It also seeks to explain how it works, but it doesn’t really explain, at least not in its initial section, how it was thought needful.

Canto: Well, Douglas has a chapter in his book, ‘The Electoral College revisited, alas’, which opens thus:

The Electoral College is our constitutional appendix, a vestigial organ that has ceased to perform any valuable function and can only create problems for the body politic. It is a deservedly unloved part of our Constitution. Recently asked what part of the Constitution she would most like to alter, Justice Ruth Baider Ginsburg quickly answered, ‘the Electoral College – I’d like to see it abolished.’ Most Americans agree. No poll conducted over the past 70 years has found a majority of Americans supporting it. Only roughly one third of those polled in 2019 ‘would prefer to keep’ it.

L Douglas, Will he go? p 49.

Douglas goes on to argue that the USA is the only country in the world where the loser of a presidential election, based on popular vote, can actually win it by means of another system, namely the Electoral College in this case.

Jacinta: But in Australia we often have parties losing the popular vote but gaining more seats and so gaining ultimate victory, or in cases where neither party has an outright majority, it’s the party that can form a coalition with minor parties or independents that can form government.

Canto: Yes but here they’re talking about one-on-one presidential battles, no coalitions. Though such one-on-one races are just indicative of a bad political system, IMHO. And the reason parties win with a minority of votes is because the voters in some electorates are ‘worth more’ than the voters in other electorates. This imbalance was sort of deliberately created to provide more rural states with more power, so they wouldn’t be swamped at every election by the urbanites, but with the dramatic increase in urbanisation in recent decades, and the increase in productivity of those urban states, it’s become clear that the most urbanised states are effectively subsidising the rural states, while being dudded out of their share of the vote.

Jacinta: This isn’t a problem with the Electoral College, though, is it? The solution to what you’re talking about could surely be solved by a kind of independent commission on demographics, which could redraw the electorate every few years, say, on the basis of the movement of peoples….

Canto: Which would thus constantly be reducing the value of the rural vote, which would, if people considered the value of their vote to be a high priority in their lives, increase the rate of urbanisation. I’m wondering if that would ultimately be a good thing. But to return to the Electoral College..

Jacinta: Before you go on, this problem of losing the popular vote and winning the election, which has become much more of a factor in recent years in the US, is far more of a worry in these one-on-one contests, because you could have contests between, say, a centrist candidate and a far-right or far-left candidate, and if the extremist candidate manages to win the contest based on electoral boundaries rather than popular vote – which can be done more and more in the US, even with a substantial loss in the popular vote – that candidate and his personally appointed courtiers (another example of American exceptionalism) can do substantial damage to the public interest during his term, given the extraordinary powers given to one person by the system. That’s what’s happening now – though Trump is neither right nor left, nor up, he’s just down down down.

Canto: True, and if you regularly adjusted those boundaries so that they better captured one-vote-one-value, it’s probable that Trump would never have been elected. As Douglas writes, perhaps a little optimistically, ‘it seems fair to say that it is harder to convince 50% of the electorate to embrace a politics of division and intolerance than it is to convince 40%’.

Jacinta: Trump has never had 50% popular support at any time during his presidency, which provides support for that.

Canto: So the Electoral College system is little understood by even tertiary-educated Americans. Douglas suggests that its very opacity from the public perspective is a damning indictment, but it requires an amendment from the most impossible-to-amend constitution on the globe to change or dump it. In fact their constitution is hoist by its own petard in this case, as the system gives disproportionate power to less populous states, who would have to ratify its elimination. It’s a collection of electors, 538 in all, so requiring the magic number of 270 for a majority, who meet every four years to decide who’ll be the President.

Jacinta: I thought the federal election did that. So clearly the EC, if I can call it that…

Canto: Please do.

Jacinta: Clearly the EC is tightly bound to the election. I knew there were some 500-odd parts to the election, or the electorate, but I just thought that meant 500 electoral regions, a certain number in each US state, just as there are currently 47 electoral districts here in South Australia. Why would they need electors, and what are they?

Canto: To be honest, it’s confusing – when people, including Douglas, complain about the Electoral College, it seems to me they’re complaining about the electoral system, which again can be made to be highly unrepresentative of the popular vote, with safe electorates and swinging electorates, which can change as electoral boundaries change, and that can happen quite often, in Australia at least. But, the electors…. it all started with the very concept of the President, and the so-called separation of powers. In the USA they originally had the idea of a President being something like a monarch, only elected, and having to fight for re-election every so many years. But they also wanted a parliament, again like Britain, which they, presumably just to be different, called a congress, as a ‘coequal branch of government’. But in Britain, parliament has long since ceased to be a co-equal branch, it is the government. No need for a separation of powers, parliament is the power.

Jacinta: You’re right, the US congress is just another parliament, and the USA is still just a British colony – why can’t they face facts?

Canto: Anyway, back in the day, there was a huge amount of argy-bargy about this separation of powers, with constitutional conventions and various formulae and compromises, and finally they settled on this weird electoral college thing, with electors from each state ‘in the same numbers as their representatives in Congress’.

Jacinta: So a state with, say, seven electoral districts will have seven electors. For what possible reason? If one guy wins the district, he wins the seat. What more do you need?

Canto: That’s the billion-dollar question. I’m trying to get to the reasoning. In fact, your straightforward option was favoured by some constitutional convention delegates, such as James Madison, though he recognised that this might disadvantage the South, where there was a disproportionate number of slaves, and of course, they would never be allowed to vote, even if they were freed. Though I’m not sure how this situation could be resolved by an Electoral College. The whole idea of this EC seems as complicated and bizarre as quantum mechanics.

Jacinta: And as impossible to get rid of.

Canto: So, an elector for each electoral district, who was expected to be a proxy for the district, voting the way the district voted. But each state was able to choose its electors and to decide on how they chose them. You would think this wouldn’t matter, as they were required to vote the way their district voted. But get this, they weren’t legally obligated to do so – at least there was no clear law, and still isn’t any clear law, forcing them to do so, and there have occasionally been ‘faithless electors’ who’ve cast their vote for the loser.

Jacinta: Which is highly undemocratic. But I still don’t get…

Canto: Don’t bother, just thank the dogs you don’t live in America.

Jacinta: Oh well, I’m sure they do their best, the poor wee souls…

Written by stewart henderson

June 22, 2020 at 11:01 pm

yank jingoism – why is it so?

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Patriotism is, fundamentally, a conviction that a particular country is the best in the world because you were born in it

George Bernard Shaw

I believe in American exceptionalism.

Joe Scarborough, MSNBC presenter (born in the USA)

I’ve had a gutful. I was listening to an American cable news program, which I do too often these days, and the interviewer was discussing the distinct possibility, much mooted currently, of Trump not giving up power peacefully later this year. Before asking his question, the interviewer spoke of America’s ‘unique and historic tradition of peaceful transition of power’. The word ‘unique’ jumped out of the screen and smacked me in the face like a wet kipper, and of course this piece of bullshit went unchallenged by others, either because they considered it irrelevant, or not worth correcting, or because they actually believed it, or, most likely, because it was so much a part of the ‘American exceptionalist’ blather that forms the background of political discussion there that they didn’t even notice it. Yet all they have to do is drive a little north and cross the border to find another of many such ‘unique’ nations.

I was born in the UK and have lived most of my life in Australia. I’m a humanist with no strong nationalist allegiances or convictions. Australia has a federal, Westminster-based system, and is a relatively new nation which has experienced peaceful transitions of power since it became fully independent a mere 120 years ago. The UK has experienced peaceful transitions of power since its constitutional monarchy was established after the Glorious Revolution of the 1680s, a full century before the USA achieved nationhood. I’ve already written here about the lies so many Americans tell themselves about the USA being the birthplace of modern democracy. And this is not to say that the ‘American experiment’ wasn’t one of the many important little steps taken since Magna Carta towards effective democracy, along with the aforementioned Glorious Revolution and the early parliaments under Simon de Montfort and Oliver Cromwell.

Of course there are good, balanced American historians, and the troubles now occurring there are a reminder to everyone about those excluded from political and economic power both in the USA and elsewhere, but my concern here is to get to the bottom of why so many Americans have this un-self-critical view of themselves. Is it a problem in their educational system? Is American exceptionalism drummed into their heads from the kindergarten years, as I suspect? Is this sense of American ‘specialness’ more prevalent among those who’ve never actually stepped outside of the country, as I also suspect?

Ideas about the American ‘experiment’ as something special of course abounded in the early years of the colony. Founded mostly by puritan radicals in the 17th century, it was certainly exceptionally religious, and could also be described as exceptional in other ways – in having to deal with an established and proud indigenous population, in having to bring under white, Europeanised control and cultivation an enormous area of land, and in having to devise a new polity from British and European sources. But of course I’m not talking about the ‘exceptionalism’ of the colonial experience, more or less shared by Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the South and Central American nations, I’m talking about ‘exceptional’ as in ‘better’.

It’s quite amusing to note Alexis de Tocqueville’s usage here, which seems to amount to damning with faint praise:

The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one. Their strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts, the proximity of Europe, which allows them to neglect these pursuits without relapsing into barbarism, a thousand special causes, of which I have only been able to point out the most important, have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects. His passions, his wants, his education, and everything about him seem to unite in drawing the native of the United States earthward; his religion alone bids him turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven. Let us cease, then, to view all democratic nations under the example of the American people.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1840

I have no great objection to American capitalism which, properly regulated, is a benefit, or should be, but many of the new nation’s apostles of liberty, such as Jefferson, were slave-owners, and the contribution of slavery to the development of the nation’s economy still receives scant recognition. And the point here is not to condemn the USA for its misdeeds – Australia doesn’t have a proud record in this regard – but to point out that the USA is no more or less liberty-loving, racist, exploitative, generous and selfish as any other Europeanised, or indeed human, nation.

But of course every nation is different, if only in degree rather than kind. Some scholars have argued that the USA is more ‘classless’ than Western European countries. That may be true, depending on your definition of class, but the country is old enough to discuss the difference between old and new money – the old Vanderbilts and Rockefellers versus modern real estate crooks and tech billionaires – and more importantly, this idea of classlessness is hard to sustain in the light of a massive rich-poor divide that makes a mockery of the American Dream. The African-American population, somewhere between 12% and 14% of the total, are statistically worse-off by every measure and by substantial margins. Again this is a problem for many other countries with ‘first-nation’ or minority cultures, but the US hasn’t found better solutions to these issues than any one else.

Freedom is of course often trumpeted as the force that propels US superiority. No country is as free as the US, so the story goes. This freedom, and distrust of government oversight and over-reach, appears to be one of the factors driving that nation’s tragic covid-19 response. I note that the New York Times has an article showing that many of the nations with female leaders (e.g. Taiwan, Germany, Denmark, New Zealand, Finland and Norway) are handling the pandemic far better than others, especially those with buffoonish and/or overly macho ‘I know best’ leaders (e.g. the USA, the UK, Brazil, Russia and Iran). We often mock male bluster, but the fact is that it can come at a great cost – and so can myths about individual freedom. I read somewhere that there were even protests in the USA against wearing masks during the ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic which killed over 50 million – ‘my freedom trumps your fear’.

As I’ve often written, we’re the most socially constructed mammals on the planet, and we owe to that social construction, first in tribes and villages, then in larger states and civilisations, our domination of that planet, for better or worse. It’s true that for most of our history, government has been too pyramidal, heavy-handed and ruthless, with most of the population consisting of landless ‘peasants’, despised and exploited by a fortunate hereditary minority of nobles, lords, daimyos, boyars, nan, seigneurs etc, and the USA, with its ‘we, the people’, played an important role in further flattening that gradually flattening pyramid of power. But there’s a real problem with the anti-government ‘freedom’ that so many Americans seem to espouse. It’s seen in the lack of a national healthcare system, the lack of a decent minimum wage, the weakness of environmental protection, the apparent lack of anything like truth in advertising, the gun craziness, and so much else. While I’ve met many a likeable American sojourning in my world, I don’t think I’ve ever met one who doesn’t ultimately complain or make mention of the ‘nanny state’ here in Australia. My guess is that they would make the same complaint in any non-American democratic country. The idea that a state would go out of its way to provide affordable housing, healthcare, education and other benefits to its citizens, and enforce particular norms, such as the driving of roadworthy vehicles, the wearing of bicycle helmets, the banning of smoking in particular areas and the like, all this seems to outrage the American sensibility. But what can you expect of a people who actually seem to believe that the right to own guns makes everybody more safe?

Of course, not all Americans are that silly, but the shifting balance between individual freedom and community responsibility (embodied in taxation, minority protections and developing provision of opportunity, inter alia) is never easy for nations to get right, and always in need of adjustment. The USA, it seems to me, is more in need of such adjustment than most advanced nations at present.

The aftermath of the Trump horrorshow, surely arriving in a few months, must be used for thoroughgoing troubleshooting and reform of a broken system. The current administration has revealed massive problems with the USA’s beloved, antiquated Constitution, and the lack of effective law around emoluments, the legal status of the President, vetting for high office, long overdue reform of the electoral college system and a host of other checks and balances, but these are essentially administrative matters. The more pressing but intractable problem is with the country’s culture. Internationally, I suspect there will have to be a lot of fence-mending and rather less breast-beating – the world really doesn’t need the ‘American leadership’ that David Frum and others seek to restore. There aren’t too many western nations seeking to emulate the American system. What they’ll be expecting is partnership, respect and forthright, humane dealing. All nations need to understand that economic and military might has nothing whatever to do with moral stature. As to how the USA deals with its many internal problems over the next few years, we’ll be watching with interest. Recycling jingoism and American exceptionalism won’t be solutions, they’re clearly tied up with the problems. The next couple of decades will be vital for the USA’s internal and international future. It might well be a bumpy ride.

Written by stewart henderson

June 16, 2020 at 4:51 pm

the US horror: the beginning of the end?

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right, and I didn’t even talk about education…

So there’s a bit of a crisis going on in the USA right now, and it may or may not be the beginning of the ‘blood in the streets’ scenario that I’ve been predicting and imagining as the end of this farcical, sad, disgusting, more or less unforgivable US Presidency.

The perennial pre-teen spoilt brat in the White Palace knows enough to know he might be nearing the end of the road, and all his crimes might be catching up on him. He has only one thing on his minuscule mind at the moment – winning an election. It’s like the scenario of an unbelievably melodramatic movie, proving that true scenarios are so often stranger than fiction.

I was never hugely engaged in US politics before the befuddled brat emerged as an unlikely candidate for one of the most responsible jobs on the planet. My thoughts then were – how can it be that such an obviously inept buffoon – a bragging, blustering blowhard incapable of ever saying, or thinking, anything remotely interesting – be permitted to be a candidate for such a position? What sort of a country…? Was this an example of American exceptionalism?

It still seems to me that the USA, not the babbling boy-bully, is to blame for this disaster, which cost lives and destroyed childhoods at the southern border, and has now wrought tragedy upon the country in the form of thousands of lost souls. Any reasonable person, examining this clown’s history, would bar him from any position of responsibility anywhere. He’s never worked for anyone in his life, and would be incapable of doing so. I’m totally convinced that if he’d ever been hired as a kitchen or factory hand – jobs that I’ve held in the past – he wouldn’t have lasted till the end of the shift.

So why did the USA commit this fatal error? Why do Americans still proudly proclaim that anyone – even a profoundly underdeveloped malignant narcissist – can become their Prez?

It seems to me that at least one of the problems, perhaps the main one, is that they’ve fallen into the too-much-democracy trap. Democracy – which a lot of Americans seem to imagine was invented in their country – is not a perfect political system. Its most significant weakness – and I’m sick of pointing it out – was described two millennia ago by the ancient, avowedly elitist Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle. And this weakness – populism or demagoguery – was exactly what the ageing brat exploited. Most other democratic countries provide screens against direct democracies though a process either of party discipline (someone applying for high office must prove to others that she can lead a team) or work on the ground (presenting her credentials to a particular electorate, and if successful locally, working herself up from there as an independent or party member). But the current American Prez has been allowed to bypass all that, and to do absolutely nothing but talk his way into high office (with more than a little help from his Russian frenemies). Promising everything works with a lot of people. And because of this, because, as a person who has spent sixty-odd years conning people out of their money and their brains, honing that one spoilt-brat skill of pretending to know what he’s doing and what he’s talking about, of barging about like an impressive-to-some bull in a china shop, he’s taken over a whole country, probably the only democratic country he could ever have taken over. Though, to be fair, he could’ve taken over other, non-democratic countries, with even more disastrous consequences – many dictators throughout history have had personal profiles similar to his.

The USA’s appalling Presidential system, with no vetting, with its ‘superhero fixit-man’ pitted against ‘superhero fixit-man’ elections, its reliance on a vaguely-worded and widely-worshipped Constitution rather than solid, clear L-A-W, its emoluments clause without claws, its White Palace in which the boy-king is able to sit amongst his selected sycophantic courtiers, fuming and tweeting and soiling himself instead of working in the cauldron of Congress or Parliament, proving himself every working day as a team leader and an agile opponent to his no-holds-barred critics… the USA’s system is to blame for this.

It’s long been my view, shared by a few others, but not enough, that this dangerous brattish narcissist will not go quietly, and that lives will be lost, and not his own, before he’s removed. Currently his hopes of ‘legitimate’ re-election are on a downward spiral, which makes him a very dangerous beast indeed. It’s clear that he sees the current riotous situation as an opportunity to create the kind of division he sees, in his strange unclear unerringness, as being to his advantage. It’s impossible to suspend a Presidential election, all the pundits say, but it’s not impossible to try to suspend an election. This bloke has gotten away with so much wrong-doing in his life, he’s been emboldened to try anything. Whatever happens in the next few months, I have a strong feeling that ‘we ain’t seen nothin yet’. I’m just glad I’m over here.

Written by stewart henderson

May 29, 2020 at 11:35 pm