an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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

Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

Palestine 3 – the early 20th century, Zionism, the Balfour Declaration and the beginnings of Arab nationalism

leave a comment »

the very brief ‘Balfour Declaration’, contained within a letter to Lord Rothschild – note the reference to the rights of existing non-Jewish communities

Canto: Before we go on, I should point out that we’re using the term “Palestine” fairly loosely, much as we might use the term Canaan of old. The misadventures we’re talking about have taken place not just in the Palestinian West Bank and the Gaza Strip, but in the whole of what is now Israel, and surrounding regions covered nowadays by Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. 

Jacinta: So now we’re going to jump from the diaspora under the Romans, and the wandering, persecuted Jews of Europe in the Middle Ages, to the late 19th century and the rise of the Zionist movement. Modern Zionism is most commonly associated with the writings of Theodor Herzl, particularly his 1896 pamphlet The Jewish State, though the term ‘zionism’ was first coined by Nathan Birnbaum a few years earlier. Birnbaum was prominent in the first Zionist Congress of 1897, but became an anti-zionist activist in later life. 

Canto: Just an indication that there were, and are, plenty of Jews who had no interest in the movement, and some who actively opposed it.

Jacinta: Of course Jews are a heterogenous group, and we should at least differentiate between secular and religious Jews, who would have had different reasons for supporting or opposing Zionism. But the events of the Second World War clearly boosted the Zionist cause. 

Canto: The Palestinian region was under the faltering control of the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 20th century, when Herzl’s political version of Zionism was becoming popular (Herzl’s preference for Argentina over Palestine for the new Jewish state is indicative of his lack of religion). The Jews of Europe at this time were no doubt seeking a permanent solution to the latest anti-semitic flare-ups, such as the Dreyfuss affair in France and the Russian Pale of Settlement and the pogroms there in the 1880s. 

Jacinta: And notwithstanding Herzl’s preference for Argentina, he recognised that Palestine was the favoured option of most Zionists, and came to favour it himself before he died. And his diary writings reveal – what is clearly the fatal flaw of the whole Zionist Palestinian project – that, to quote Paul Heywood-Smith, ‘it was to be at the expense of the whole native population who were to be spirited out of the country and their land expropriated’.

Canto: Yes, and Herzl died in 1904, so it’s clear that this ethnic cleansing idea – which surely wasn’t confined to the thinking of Herzl – was a feature of Zionism from early on.

Jacinta: Though surely there was some opposition to this? I mean among the Zionists themselves – what were they thinking?

Canto: Well, we’ll get to that, but interestingly, the modern Israeli historian Benny Morris, a Zionist, supports the expelling of some 700,000 Palestinian Arabs from their homeland in 1948, the beginning of an act of ethnic cleansing that is yet unfinished. We’ll come to all that later. Morris’ only complaint is that David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s ‘founding father’, failed to finish the job, because, according to Morris the stark choice was between ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian Arabs and the genocide of the Jewish population. But that modern view, I suspect, is due to the many decades of animosity created between the two sides before and after 1948. But let’s go back to the turn of the century.

Jacinta: Yes let’s, because Simon Montefiore in his book Jerusalem paints a picture of that city in the late nineteenth century which contrasts sharply with the Zionist monocultural dream:

During the Jewish festival of Purim, Muslim and Christian Arabs dressed up in the traditional Jewish costumes, and all three religions attended the Jewish Picnic held at the tomb of Simon the Just north of the Damascus Gate. Jews presented their Arab neighbours with matzah and invited them to the Passover Seder dinner, while the Arabs returned the favour by giving the Jews newly baked bread when the festival ended. Jewish mohels often circumcised Muslim children. Jews held parties to welcome their Muslim neighbours back from the haj. The closest relations were between Arabs and Sephardic Jews … Ironically the Arab Orthodox Christians were the most hostile to Jews, whom they insulted in traditional Easter songs and lynched as they approached the Church.

Quoted in The Case for Palestine, by Paul Heywood-Smith.

Canto: Yes, I don’t know if that paints too rosy a picture of Arab-Jewish relations at that time, but subsequent events in the early twentieth century hardly helped to strengthen those relations.

Jacinta: Yes, and we should note that not all Jews who moved into the region in the early twentieth century were Zionist monoculturalists. However…

Theodor Herzl, Zionism’s most influential early promoter

Canto: The Zionist movement began to buy up land in Palestine. Herzl visited Jerusalem for the first time in 1898 and in 1903 sought the support of Pope Pius X for their Jewish homeland, but this was rejected as the Jews denied the divinity of Christ (the acceptance of which would’ve turned them all into Christians presumably). Tsarist persecution brought a wave of Russian Jews into Palestine in the early 1900s. And more land was claimed. An organisation called the National Jewish Fund was established in 1901, and it claimed, presumably without any legal authority at the time, that all acquired land would thenceforth, in perpetuity, be inalienable Jewish property – and if farmland, worked only by Jews as well. This land claim has been treated as law ever since.

Jacinta: And meanwhile, Britain was becoming another place of refuge for persecuted Jews, which led, in turn, to them being persecuted in that country, with riots and abuse and the like. The country’s leaders, seeking a solution, were naturally inclined to listen to Zionist overtures. Chaim Weizmann, a brilliant biochemist and later to become the president of the World Zionist Organisation, and later still Israel’s first president, is credited with persuading the foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour to lend support in an official capacity to the recognition of Palestine as the homeland of a future Jewish nation.

Canto: So the Balfour Declaration of 1917 needs to be understood in terms of the complex Euro politics of the time. Not only was there a humanistic desire to find a solution for a persecuted people, but there were also the sorts of colonialist ambitions and jockeying that caused the Great Stupid War of 14-18 in the first place. The Palestine region was under the putative control of the fading Ottoman Empire, which was unlikely to survive the war, and the region was of strategic interest to Britain, particularly as a staging post to its prize possessions of India-Pakistan, but for many other reasons.

Jacinta: Yes, and Britain was also double dealing, because it had occupied Egypt from the beginning of the war in 1914 and had sought Arab support against the Ottoman Turks by signing the McMahon Agreement in November 1915, which guaranteed or at least supported Arab independence in the Arabian Peninsula, including Palestine.

Canto: Well this is controversial. Henry McMahon was the British High Commissioner in Egypt. His agreement was with Sharif Hussein of Arabia, and because it contradicted the later Balfour Declaration, there have been attempts to argue that it didn’t include Palestine, based on different translations. However, it’s generally agreed that these arguments are very strained. And these contradictory agreements with the Arabs and then the Jews weren’t the only headaches for the Brits. In between the McMahon Agreement with the Arabs in late 1915 and the Balfour Declaration for the Jews in 1917 was the notorious secret Sykes-Picot agreement involving Britain, France and, to a lesser degree, Russia. It was made public by the Russians after their October Revolution of 1917, much to Britain’s embarrassment. Basically this was an agreement to carve up the Levant region, southern Turkey and Mesopotamia between Britain and France – as protectorates, of course.

Jacinta: Yes it all sounds very high-handed, but to be fair, many of these negotiations, which went back to near the beginning of the war, did involve examining the situation on the ground, and the local sensitivities there. And there may have been a more or less benign paternalism at play – ‘we’ll take responsibility for this region until the locals grow up and become civilised like us’. Though it’s notable that all the squabbles were over the most productive and strategic regions. Most of the Arabian Peninsula was of no interest whatever to western powers before the discovery of oil there.

these Arabs are revolting (against the Ottoman Turks in 1916-18) in the Hejaz of western Arabia

Canto: So while the western powers were negotiating and wrangling over the projected spoils after the defeat of the Ottoman Turks, the Arab Revolt of 1916 broke out, initiated by Sharif Hussein and his sons. Its aim was to overthrow the Ottomans and to create a pan-Arabic state, and it represented and furthered a rise of Arab nationalism which had barely existed before. It was only partially successful, but in contributing to Arab identity it helped to provide a lens through which they would observe western interventions in what they considered to be Arab lands.

Jacinta: Yes, notably the Arabs refused to allow the Europeans to assist them in their revolt beyond material and logistic support – they rightly feared a European takeover. And Palestine certainly was a focus of global affairs, with zionists in the USA pushing for intervention in the war in exchange for backing the Brits in their promise for a Jewish settlement there.

Written by stewart henderson

January 28, 2019 at 1:24 pm

Palestine 2: more recent ancient history

leave a comment »

The Temple Mount, Jerusalem

Jacinta: So the so-called Kingdom of Judah, from archaeological evidence, was not a particularly developed region, from a modern perspective. Jerusalem, always regarded as its most significant city, and central to all Zionist aspirations, came into being as a small village between 5000 and 4500 years ago. From about 4000 years ago, it seems to have been a vassal state of the Egyptian empire, but there’s scant archaeological evidence from the period, though there was clearly an increase of building construction under Ramesses II a little over 3200 years ago. Some 2700 years ago, the region became a part of the Assyrian empire, and then the Babylonians conquered the region only a century or so after that, largely destroying Jerusalem.

Canto: Right, and the Babylonians brought about a diaspora of sorts, which was soon reversed when Cyrus the Great of Persia defeated the Babylonians and allowed the Jews to return and rebuild their temple. Now this temple was a symbol of Judaism, and its destruction by the Babylonians struck at the heart of their religion, suggesting that it was well established 2600 years ago…

Jacinta: Yes, we’ll get back to the actual population of the region and their religion shortly. Persia remained in control of Judea until the time of Alexander the Great 2350 years ago (we’re avoiding the BC/AD designations) and remained under the control of his Seleucid successors until a local revolt led by Judas Maccabeus gave it semi-independence for a time under the Hasmonean and Herodian dynasties. The Romans by this time were the great power, and Judea became a client state, but when the population rose in revolt 1950 years ago, Jerusalem was sacked, and, after another revolt 70 years later, the troublesome province became an increasing target of Roman authorities, leading to a major diaspora that wasn’t reversed until the 20th century.

Canto: And that’s when our story really hots up, but getting back to that temple – you know it was built on this supposedly triple-holy site called the Temple Mount, current home of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, both of which are very holy of holy to Islam. Of course it’s no accident that Moslems built this dome about 1320 years ago just where the second Jewish Temple had stood…

Jacinta: Which, by the way, is the very place where, so says fundamentalist Judaism, their god created Adam, haha.

Canto: Yes yes and where he created the World as well, for old Adam to stretch his legs in. I mean it’s typical for a new religion to set its base camp on the ruins of an older one – just as the Christians did at ‘pagan’ sites when the Roman Empire turned Christian. But let’s look briefly at the history of the temple itself, since its first construction might be said to mark the beginning of Judaism as an organised religion. It has been called Solomon’s Temple, and there’s much bullshit in the Old Testament about Solomon being the ruler of a mighty empire, but absolutely no evidence has been found of his existence outside of those texts. My uneducated guess was that he was a local chieftain grossly exaggerated in his power by Old Testament propaganda. He supposedly lived around 2900 years ago, so believers assume the temple was built around that time. It’s noteworthy that the Israelis haven’t allowed any archaeological research to be done at the site for decades. But let’s be generous and assume from their own stories that Judaism is about 3000 years old.

Jacinta: And it seems that one of the tenets of Zionism is return to an ancient homeland. But a homeland isn’t a nation, quite. Australia’s Aborigines have had a homeland here for up to 60,000 years, but they didn’t have a nation in the modern sense of a state with institutions of government etc. Some Zionists, especially the religious ones, would use their holy books to argue for having an ancient nation-state under David and Solomon etc but that doesn’t sort with any evidence. Other Zionists though would argue that the region was overwhelmingly Jewish before the diaspora caused by Roman repression. That would be the basis of their demand for the creation of Israel as a nation, right?

Canto: That and their claim to be a uniquely oppressed people in their adopted countries, which was made more cogent after the Holocaust. The problem of course is that the region, one of the oldest humanly inhabited regions in the world, has never been exclusively Jewish, or Israelite or whatever you want to call it. Was it overwhelmingly Jewish during early Roman times? Perhaps so – I’m certainly willing to concede that, but I’m not sure what that counts for. The British Isles 2000 years ago, when Romanisation began there, was predominantly made up of Celtic tribes, migrants from Europe. The USA at that time was settled by a number of highly developed regional cultures, that tend now to be grouped under the heading ‘native American culture’. The Celts don’t have a nation, nor do the native Americans, or the Kurds, the Catalans, the Rohingyas…

Jacinta: But some of them have put forward cogent arguments for their own nation-state.

Canto: Yes, but the Zionist movement and its arguments were different – not necessarily more cogent – for a number of reasons. Zionism had a more international feel, due to the diaspora. It was locally active and felt in many parts of the world, unlike say, the Catalan movement. Also, It was a call to ‘return’ of a profoundly oppressed people – and this was before the rise of Nazism, after which it was able to take advantage of western guilt big-time. And for the religious Jews there was the whole thing about Jerusalem and the temple…

Jacinta: Okay, so we’re going to switch to the modern situation, but before that let’s look to the distinction made between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jewishness. Ashkenazi Jews currently represent around three quarters of the Jewish population. The Sephardim are descended from those who settled in the Iberian Peninsula from the time of the diaspora – Roman times – but were then infamously expelled from the region under the Alhambra Decree of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492, and a similar decree by the Portuguese monarchy in 1496.

Canto: Not to mention the 1290 expulsion of the Jews from England under Eddie I. They all appeared to say ‘Go East, young Jew, or we’ll have your guts for garters’, or words to that effect.

beating up on Jews in 13th century England – the design on the central figures’ robes represent the twin tablets brought down by Moses – 5 commandments on each?

Jacinta: The Jews descended from those who remained in the Levant and the Middle East during the diaspora are called Mizrahi Jews. The Ashkenazim’s descent is complicated. Actually the whole story is really effing complicated. For example the Ashkenazim were also pushed eastward during the late Middle Ages due to persecution. By the early Middle Ages they had settled in Northern and Central Europe, for example in settlements along the Rhine, where they developed the Yiddish language, from German mixed with Aramaic, Hebrew and other Eastern elements.

Canto: Yes, and they were pushed eastward, but also pushed into being more integrated into local cultures. This led to a kind of modernising movement, a Jewish Enlightenment known as the Haskalah, which revived Hebrew as a literary language.

Jacinta: But the point is that the Ashkenazim were, according to some observers, at the greatest remove from the Jews of the old spiritual homeland, due to their European integration and their Enlightenment values. On the other hand, it was above all the Ashkenazim who suffered under the Holocaust. So there was this post-Holocaust tension in the west between relieving itself of its guilt by acceding to the, largely Ashkenazi, push for occupation of the Southern Levant, there to recreate the nation of Israel, and questioning the bona-fides of their claim to this land.

Canto: Yes, and as a sidebar to all that, Paul Heywood-Smith claims in The Case for Palestine that there’s ‘considerable evidence’ that the Ashkenazim are ‘substantially derived from the conversion of the Khazars to Judaism in or about 805 CE’. He goes on:

The Khazars were Turkish nomads who occupied that land between the Black and Caspian seas (called the Caucasus today), including parts of eastern Turkey, north-west Iran and Georgia. Khazaria seems the likely source of the Jewish influx into Russia, the Ukraine, Poland, and Eastern Europe – and from there, into Western Europe.

But the authors of the Wikipedia article ‘Khazar hypothesis of Ashkenazi ancestry’ claim there is ‘meagre evidence’ for the hypothesis. In any case, the controversy is an indication of how fraught the Zionist issue is. You could say the Jewish claim to the Palestinian lands is stronger than the British claim to Australia ever was, but then the eighteenth century was a lot more lawless about such things than the twentieth, and a lot more contemptuous of native claims to their own land, insofar as they ever even considered the matter. In today’s more human rights oriented world, the fact that there were non-Jewish Palestinian people living in Palestine for centuries before the Zionists started making their claims in the late nineteenth century makes what has happened in recent history to create and maintain the state of Israel a source of concern to many of us. After all, we could have been one of those Palestinian people.


Paul-Heywood-Smith, The Case for Palestine, 2014

Written by stewart henderson

January 21, 2019 at 3:06 pm

why the US has one of the worst political systems in the democratic world, and why they’re unlikely to change it

with 3 comments

I think this may be the longest title of any blog piece I’ve written, but that’s not the only reason why few will read it. After all, most of my readers are from the USA, and they’ll be put off by the title for other reasons. Anyway, here goes.

Of course I’m not really qualified to rank all the democratic political systems out there – I’m no expert on the German, French or Spanish systems, or those of the Scandinavian countries – but I think it’s a reasonable assumption that few if any other other democratic states would accord as much power to one person as the USA does.

I’ve been on a steep learning curve re the US system, but of course there’s plenty I still don’t know about. I live under a variant of the Westminster system here in Australia, and that’s the system I’m most familiar with, and as a British/Australian duel citizen, and a sometime student of British history, I know a fair amount about the origins of parliamentary democracy in Britain. The Westminster system of course, has other variants in New Zealand, Canada and other countries formerly under the British Empire, including India, Pakistan and South Africa, but my focus here will be on Australia as fairly typical of democracy at least in the English-speaking countries other than the US. And don’t forget I’m no expert generally, being an autodidact/dilettante, but I like to think I’m a keen observer, and don’t we all?

This my view: I’ve learned enough about the US political system – the Presidential system in particular – in the past 12 months to drop my jaw to the floor and keep it there for most of that period. It really is a shocker.

I’ll summarise, then expand. The US directly elects its President – a really bad idea. There’s no vetting of Presidential candidates: Americans like to boast that anyone can become Prez. Do you really want just anyone to be given that responsibility? Once elected, nominally as a representative of one of the two major parties, the President sets up office completely separately from the Congress/Parliament in which the two major parties, together with smaller parties and independents, battle it out to run the government to their liking, ideologically speaking. Or is it the President who runs the government? It’s confusing. The President, in his separate, isolated sphere, has veto powers, pardoning powers, special executive powers, emergency powers, power to shut down the government, power to appoint members of the judiciary, power to appoint a host of unelected and very powerful officials and to hire and fire at will, with limited oversight. The President is, apparently, not legally required to announce conflicts of interest, or present any account of his finances, and is at liberty, or certainly appears to be at liberty, to enrich himself and his family by virtue of holding the office of President. The President, by virtue of his office, is immune from prosecution, during his time in office, for any crime committed before, during, or in order to obtain, his Presidency – or such is the view held by a substantial proportion of the legal profession.

And yet the vast majority of American citizens don’t believe they’re living in a Banana Republic. On the contrary, they believe they’re living in the Greatest Democracy on Earth, the Greatest Nation on Earth, the Leader of the Free World, the Shining Light on the Hill, etc, etc, etc – and of course it’s this jingoism, this lack of self-critical insight (with many, but not enough, honourable exceptions) that will make it so hard to effect change when Trump is dumped..

So, let’s start with direct election. It doesn’t happen under the Westminster system. In Australia we have general elections every three years. We vote for a local member in our electorate (in the US they’re called districts) as well as for the party of our choice federally. That’s to say, our general elections are the equivalent of the US mid-terms, only more important, as we don’t have a Presidential election. So, if the US had a similar system to us, their recent election would be the general election, the Democrats would have won government from the Republicans in a landslide, and the new Prime Minister, the leader of the Dems in the House, would be Nancy Pelosi, taking over from the retiring PM, Paul Ryan. Chuck Schumer, the leader in the Senate, would probably take up the position of Deputy PM, and the positions of Treasurer, Attorney-General, Foreign Minister etc, would have already been decided before the election, as they would have been the opposition spokespersons for those positions (aka shadow Attorney-General, shadow Treasurer, etc). The Prime Minister would have the power to swap those positions around and introduce new blood (called a Cabinet reshuffle), but of course all of these persons would have won their local electorates in the elections. Most would be experienced in the parliamentary system.

Under the US Presidential system, the whole nation is asked to choose between two candidates, usually a leftist or a rightist. There are of course caucuses and primaries, which basically ‘weed out’ the less popular candidates until only two are left standing. But this system is so separate from Congress that it’s possible for anyone to run, and to win, regardless of political experience, historical knowledge or any other sort of nous – though having a lot of money, or a lot of rich backers, is virtually essential to success. In the case of Trump, his relentless branding of himself as a successful businessman and super-smart outsider was enough to fool many of the least thoughtful and most disadvantaged Americans, as well as to convince many of the crooked rich that he might prove a useful tool. And so Trump, in spite of being super-incompetent, ethically moribund and a total financial fraud, won the election… or, rather, won the electoral college, probably with the assistance of foreign agents.

The major flaw of this kind of direct democracy was pointed out almost 2,500 years ago by the ancient Greek philosophers, who were unabashed anti-democratic elitists. They’d seen how ‘the mob’ could be swayed by windy orators who promised to fix problems and to bring great success and richesse at little cost. One of them, Creon, persuaded the Athenians to embark on a disastrous campaign against the city-state of Syracuse, which so depleted Athenian resources that they were overrun by the Spartans, which ended the Peloponnesian War and the Athenian ascendancy once and for all.

Trump won’t do that kind of damage to the USA, but he’s already damaged America’s reputation for decades to come, as well as selling out his base, endangering the lives of immigrants, massively neglecting the business of running his country in all its essential minutiae, and filling the swamp to overflowing.

So what’s the solution to this direct election process? It doesn’t need to be jettisoned, but it can be improved (though I’m for ditching the Presidential system entirely). You can replace the electoral college with a first past the post (or winner takes all) system. Of course, if that system were in place in 2016, Hillary Clinton would be President. More importantly, though, the electoral college system is easier for interfering agents to manipulate, by focusing attention on ‘purple’ electorates, as was done in 2016. A more centralised system would be easier to keep ‘clean’ , and would require a very sophisticated, equally centralised hacking and propaganda campaign to manipulate. Besides that, it is obviously fairer. The person who wins most votes nationwide should surely be the nation’s President.

Then there is vetting. Here’s where I display my elitism. Every candidate for President should have to submit to testing, regarding the nation’s politico-judicial system, its constitution, its history, its network of foreign and trade relations, and, a hobby-horse of mine, its science and technology sector (since achievements in this sector have changed lives far far more than any political achievements). You don’t want an ignoramus to be your President ever again.

Of course there’s also financial and legal vetting. The Emoluments Clause appears to lack claws. This should be turned into solid, unequivocal law.

The legal position of the President should also be clarified. As the Chief Law Officer of the nation he should never be considered above the law. Having said that, the Attorney-General should be the first law officer, not the President. Other powers of the President need to be reassessed in a root-and-branch fashion – pardoning powers, veto powers, special executive powers and so-called emergency powers. Clearly, to accord vast and manifold powers to one person, and then to consider him immune from prosecution because of the powers so accorded, is a recipe for dictatorship. I mean – duh!

But there’s another reason why this Presidential system is seriously flawed. Under the Westminster system, if the Prime Minister is found to have engaged in criminal activities, such as serious campaign finance violations, conspiracy with foreign powers to influence their own election, obstruction of justice, directing foreign policy on the basis of self-enrichment, and other egregious antics, s/he would be charged and forced to stand down. The party in power would then vote on a new leader – who may or may not be the Deputy PM. This would of course be somewhat traumatic for the body politic, but certainly not fatal. Changing Prime Ministers between elections is quite common, and has happened recently in Britain and Australia. Not so in the USA, where the Vice President, a personal choice of the now discredited Prez, is necessarily the next in line. Think of Mike Pence as President – or think of Sarah Palin taking over from John McCain. Why should the electorate have to suffer being presided over by the bad choice of a bad (or good) President? This is a question Americans will be asking themselves quite shortly, I reckon.

So why is the system unlikely to change? I’ve mentioned American jingoism. Even those media outlets, such as MSNBC and CNN, that spend much of their time exposing Trump’s lies and poor decisions and general worthlessness, seem never to question the system that allowed him to gain a position so entirely unsuited to him. It just astonishes me that the idea that a person in his position might be immune from prosecution can be taken seriously by anyone with an adult mind. The fourth estate should be hammering this obvious point home on a daily, if not hourly basis. Trump should now be in custody. His ‘fixer’, Michael Cohen, is currently on bail for campaign finance felonies, among other things. He will serve three years in jail. Trump was the Mr Big in those campaign finance felonies, and should serve more time than Cohen, as a matter of basic logic. Why has he not been charged? There is absolutely no excuse. And he shouldn’t be allowed out on bail, due to his known habit of obstructing justice and witness tampering. How can anyone respect a justice system that hasn’t acted on this? The world is watching incredulously.

As I see it, the Presidential system is a kind of sop to American individualism. The USA is a hotbed of libertarians, who see ‘universal’ education and health-care systems as ‘socialism’, while the rest of the western world just calls it government. Many of their worst movies feature one machismo guy – male or female – sorting out the bad guys and setting the country to rights. That’s another reason why they won’t want to muzzle their Presidents – after all, if they had much of this concentrated power removed from them, why have a President at all? Why indeed. The Westminster system is more distributed in terms of power. The Prime Minister is ‘primus inter pares’, first among equals, the captain of the team. S/he can always be replaced if injured or out of form or is no longer representing the team adequately, for whatever reason. The team, though, is the thing. Us, rather than me. But the USA is full of screaming mes. And now they have a screaming me as their President. It’s the ultimate self-fulfilment. I watch from afar with guilty fascination, not unmixed with schadenfreude – but with a particular interest in what will happen post-Trump. My bet is that there will be some changes, but nowhere near enough – they’re too wedded to romantic and adventure-laden fantasies of individualism. So the USA with its wild-west hangover of a Presidential system will always be worth watching, but never worth emulating.

Written by stewart henderson

January 3, 2019 at 10:28 am

The bandwagon of macho thuggery rolls on

leave a comment »

it’s reignin’ men!

Brazil has just elected a macho thug to lead its country down the descent to demagogic doom. So now, just off the top of my head, we have the USA, Russia, China, North Korea, Cambodia, the Philippines, Poland, Turkey, Syria, Israel, Belarus, Iran, Saudia Arabia, all full of shit leaders.

Tears of rage, tears of grief. Women, women, we need you to save us! Rise up, flush these scumbags down the toilet, and never never let a man run your country again! Never!

Written by stewart henderson

October 30, 2018 at 4:13 pm

some thoughts on the importance of nations

leave a comment »

America – the most important country in the world (Fareed Zacharia)

There have been many most important countries in the world throughout human history. Usually self-styled. They become important through economic and military success. And they think, everyone of them, that this success gives them moral authority. This is the fundamental error of every powerful state in history, so tedious to relate. The fact is that Americans are no way morally superior to Mexicans, Australians or Koreans, or whoever. Every country, or state, or tribe, is full of individual humans striving equally to thrive – like every other life form.

If you believe, however, that you’re a member of the most important country in the world, that may play on your mind a little. It may move you, just a little, to believe, just a little, that you’re just a little more important than people from less important countries.

What does it mean though, to be more important? Is it about power? We can think of an elephant being a more powerful animal than a squirrel, but does that make her more important?

Maybe importance can be measured by imagining the country, or animal, not existing. If the USA, and all its people, disappeared tomorrow, that would have a much bigger impact than if, say, Fiji and all its people disappeared, and presumably not just because this compares 325 million with less than one million. A better comparison would be between the USA and China or India. Both these countries have more people than the USA but are less important, according to Zacharia. 

I’m guessing that Zacharia’s presumably offhand description of US importance has mostly to do with that country’s impact on the world. This surely gets to the nub of the matter. But this surely has no moral dimension. I’m not sure whether Zacharia meant to suggest a moral dimension to the USA’s importance. 

My view is that nations are like animals. Large animals tend to leave a larger footprint, metaphorically speaking. The main focus of any animal or nation is to sustain itself, and more. Other nations, or animals, are seen as a means to that end. So nations will see other nations as either exploitable (prey), helpful in the exploitation of others, dangerous (predators), or simply irrelevant. True, there are symbiotic relationships, and exploitation is perhaps a loaded word, but the world of the living goes on living by consuming other living beings. At least, that’s how it has gone on so far. 

Important countries consume more. Maybe that’s a negative, but they may do so by being smarter, or by hitting upon some clever and effective ruses before anyone else. So size isn’t everything, though it helps. Also, their cleverness or effectiveness teaches others – their prey as well as interested observers. They make the world wise up, quicken up. Remember the Mongols, an important nation of the past, or Hannibal, an important general. 

But I feel I’m being too male, thinking too much on destruction and aggression. The importance of nations today should be, and generally is, based on a different kind of cleverness, ingenuity, innovation. Yet we find this everywhere, as ideas spread more quickly than ever before. A young African boy generates wind energy for his village through internet-based DIY. This is important, and a great leveller. 

The internet is still largely American, and so on that basis alone, the USA should rightly view itself as the most important nation in the information age. Or is it simply the English language that has become most important? Science and technology are international, of course, but must be translated into English, if required, for best effect. This has been so for some time – think Mendel’s 1865 paper on the laws of segregation and independent assortment. It didn’t appear in English until 1901, years after Mendel’s death, as a result of some pioneers finally lighting upon it. English is surely an important language. 

So what would happen if the USA suddenly disappeared under the waves, with all its people, its weaponry and other technology, its industry? This would be a terrible tragedy, of course, for those loved and loving ones left behind. And yet, in the information age, surprisingly little, if any, of the technology and industry would be lost. The internet would survive, and with it the means for making bombs, multiple examples of beautiful or other people having orgiastic fun for the tutelage of our youth, the Khan Academy’s video lessons on physics, chemistry and assorted other subjects, and an endless variety of examples of dog, cat, bird, elephant, octopus and other cleverness, or silliness. In short, the human world would certainly progress, or continue, more or less unabated, proving that, however important the USA is, it isn’t indispensable.

But surely, if the USA disappeared, another country would take its turn as the most important country in the world. And what then, and which? 

That’s a very interesting question. The USA won’t, of course, disappear below the waves, and many if not most Americans firmly believe that their country must remain the most important for a long long time into the future. As did the British in their heyday, and the Romans, and the Egyptians, and the Sumerians, no doubt. And yet, our human world goes on, and seems to progress, with all its rises and declines.

They say that China will be the next most important country. I don’t see that happening in my lifetime. I’m skeptical of it happening as long as China retains its current political form. The age of major military conquest is over, I believe, so conquest will have to be of a different type, a much more subtle type, perhaps more subtle than I’m capable of foreseeing at present. Too many nations have sampled, for too long, the flavour of freedom, participation and dissent to be guiled by China’s top-down, controlling approach to administration. China will become more and more of an outlier. In any case, I don’t see the USA relinquishing its prominent position ‘any time soon’, as the Americans like to say. Ever the optimist, I’m hoping that the USA will bounce back from the Trump debacle with a much-reformed political system (especially with respect to presidential power and accountability), a renewed commitment to international relations, and a chastened sense of its failings and fragility, and the limits of its democracy.. 

But it’s important, always, to remember that nations are not people, and that people are always more important than nations. 

Written by stewart henderson

October 21, 2018 at 4:46 pm

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

leave a comment »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by stewart henderson

October 12, 2018 at 4:20 pm

What’s up with Trump’s frontal cortex? – part 1

with one comment

He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity… manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operations, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible. 

Trump, when asked who he consults with on foreign policy

You might be forgiven for thinking the above description is of the current US President, but in fact it’s a 19th century account of the change wrought upon Phineas Gage after his tragically explosive encounter with a railway tamping rod in 1848. It’s taken from neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky’s book Behave. A more fulsome analysis is provided in Antonio Demasio’s landmark work Descartes’ Error. The 19th century account is provided by Gage’s doctor.

Due to an accident with blasting powder the iron tamping rod blew a large hole through a part of Gage’s brain, exited through the top of his skull and landed some eighty feet away ‘along with much of his left frontal cortex’ (Sapolsky). Amazingly, Gage survived, though with great changes to his behaviour, as described above . Before the accident he had earned a reputation as a highly skilled, disciplined and reliable railway team foreman.

I was quite happy to be reacquainted with Gage’s story this morning, because in a recent conversation I was expounding upon Trump’s pre-adolescent nature, his tantrums, his solipsism, his childish name-calling, his limited language skills, his short attention span, his more or less complete ethical delinquency and so forth, about which my companion readily agreed, but when I suggested that this was all about a profoundly underdeveloped frontal cortex, she demurred, feeling I’d gone a bit too far.

Of course, I’m not a neurologist, but…

Any full description of Trump’s apparently missing or severely reduced frontal cortex needs to be evidence-based, but Trump is as likely to submit to any kind of brain scan or analysis as he is to present his tax returns. So the best we can do is compare his behaviour to those we know to have frontal lobe impairment.

Sapolsky tells us about the importance of the frontal lobe in making the tough decisions, the kinds of decisions that separate us from other primates. These are decisions in which our emotions and drives are activated, as well as higher order thinking involving a full understanding of the impact upon others of our actions.

Interestingly, in the case of Gage, his personality transformation meant that he couldn’t continue in his former occupation, so for a time he suffered the humiliation of being an exhibit in P T Barnum’s American Museum. I find this particularly intriguing because Trump has often been compared to Barnum – a showman, a con-man, a self-promoter and so forth. So in some ways – for example in Trump’s rallies, which he clearly loves to engage in – Trump has a dual role, as exhibitor and exhibit.

More importantly though, and this story is I think far more important than his injury and humiliation, Gage recovered almost completely over time – a testament to the brain plasticity which has recently been highlighted. On reflection, this shouldn’t be so surprising. Gage had been a person of rectitude and responsibility for decades before the disaster, and the neuronal pathways that his habitual behaviour had laid down, perhaps since early childhood, had only to be recovered through memory. It’s astonishing how this can happen even with subjects with less brain matter than ‘normal’ humans. Different parts of the brain can apparently be harnessed to rebuild the old networks.

The case of Trump, though, is different, as these higher order networks may never have been laid down. This isn’t to say there isn’t something there – it’s not as if there’s just a great hole where his frontal cortex should be. It’s more that his responses would map onto the responses of someone – a teenager or pre-teenager – who reliably behaves in a certain way because of the lack of full development of the frontal cortex, which we know isn’t fully developed in normal adults until their mid-twenties. And when we talk of the frontal cortex, we’re of course talking of something immensely complex with many interacting parts, which respond with great variability to different stimuli among different people.

But before delving into the neurological issues, a few points about the recent New York Times revelations regarding Fred Trump’s businesses, his treatment of young Donald and vice versa. The Hall & Oates refrain keeps playing in my head as I write, and as I read the Times article. What it suggests is a gilded, cosseted life – a millionaire, by current financial standards, at age eight. It seems that right until the end, Fred Trump covered up for his son’s business incompetence by bailing him out time and time again. This adds to a coherent narrative of a spoilt little brat who was rarely ever put in a position where he could learn from his mistakes, or think through complex solutions to complex problems. Trump senior clearly over-indulged his chosen heir-apparent with the near-inevitable result that the spoilt brat heartlessly exploited him in his final years. Fred Trump was a business-obsessed workaholic who lived frugally in a modest home and funnelled masses of money to his children, especially Donald, who basically hoodwinked the old man into thinking he was a chip off the old block. In the usual sibling battle for the parents’ affection and regard, Donald, the second son, saw that his older bother, Fred junior, was exasperating his dad due to his easy-going, unambitious nature (he later became an alcoholic, and died at 42), so Donald presented himself as the opposite – a ruthless, abstemious, hard-driving deal-maker. It worked, and Donald became his pretend right-hand man: his manager, his banker, his advisor, etc. In fact Donald was none of these things – underlings did all the work. Donald was able to talk the talk, but he couldn’t walk the walk – he had none of his father’s business acumen, as the Times article amply proves. In the late eighties, with the stock market crashing and the economy in free-fall, Trump made stupid decision after stupid decision, but his ever-reliable and always-praising dad kept him afloat. He also bequeathed to his son a strong belief in dodging taxes, crushing opposition and exaggerating his assets. The father even encouraged the son’s story that he was a ‘self-made billionaire’, and it’s not surprising that the over-indulged Donald and his siblings eventually took advantage of their ailing father – enriching themselves at his expense through a variety of business dodges described in the Times article. By the time of his death, Fred Trump had been stripped of almost all of his assets, a large swathe of it going to Donald, who was by this time having books ghost-written about how to succeed in business.

Of course it can be argued that Trump has one real talent – for self-promotion. This surely proves that he’s more than just a spoilt, over-grown pre-teen. Or maybe not. It doesn’t take much effort to big-note yourself, especially when, due to the luck of your family background, you can appear to walk the walk, especially in those rallies full of uncritical people desperate to believe in the American Business Hero. Indeed, Trump’s adolescent antics at those rallies tend to convince his base that they too can become rich and successful idiots. You don’t actually have to know anything  or to make much sense. Confidence is the trick.

It’s not likely we’ll ever know about the connections within Trump’s frontal and prefrontal cortices, but we can learn some general things about under-development or pre-development in those regions, and the typical behaviour this produces, and in my next post – because this one’s gone on too long  – I’ll utilise the chapter on adolescence in Sapolsky’s Behave, and perhaps other texts and sources – apparently Michelle Obama brought Trump’s inchoate frontal cortex to the public’s attention during the election – to explore further the confident incompetence of the American president.

Written by stewart henderson

October 7, 2018 at 5:38 pm