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the boy in the white palace 3: the GASP v the Westminster system

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I don’t care if they respect me, so long as they fear me.

Caligula

Canto: Here’s a thing, I recently heard a politico-legal pundit – I think it was Chuck Rosenberg, but I may be wrong, I’m trying to track it down – say on MSNBC, a favourite site of mine these days, that ‘we’ (i.e. the American people) ‘don’t get rid of our Leader lightly, unlike the UK, who can dispose of theirs by a simple vote of no-confidence by the Leader’s party’. That was the gist of what he said – it’s a summary, not a direct transcript – and it made me fall off my chair laughing and crying. It was very clear to me that the notion that you shouldn’t be able to dump the boy-king easily was an advantage of the Great American System of the Presidency (GASP), was Total Effing Bullshit (TFB). It took me quite some to get over this piece of tomfoolery.

Jacinta: Ah yes, well that requires a bit of explanation and comparison of the two systems. It’s amusing that the Westminster system of government, derived of course from the UK but utilised with variants in Australia, New Zealand and Canada, and with even more variants in other major nations such as India, Japan, Israel and Malaysia, was actually the basis of the GASP. But in some ways that 18th century Westminster system has since moved way ahead of the GASP, in that the parliament has become far more powerful, and the constitutional monarchy, upon which the constitutional presidency was based, has withered away to playing a purely ceremonial role. To me that’s good, as maintaining a monarchy has preserved a lot of history – good and bad – and it’s generally good for tourism, as long as they behave themselves.

Canto: Yes the royal we’s are probably generating more income for the country than what it costs to keep them, as long as they don’t multiply and extend the family too much. 

Jacinta: This is the thing – the difference between the two systems is vast. The Americans talk about Coequal Branches of Government (CBG) as the basis of GASP, whereas under Westminster, it’s all one – the Parliament. And the Prime Minister’s role and general position is nothing like that of the President/King. The key is in the title, prime, or first, minister. Primum inter pares, first among equals, the captain of the team. If the USA adopted a similar system they’d be far better off – their current PM would be Nancy Pelosi, their previous one, Paul Ryan, and there would be no President, unless they wanted a ceremonial one. There’d be half the number of elections, or even less depending on which Westminster system they adopted (the UK holds national elections every five years, the USA every two, at great expense and to the detriment of long-term planning and development). The Senate could act as a brake upon the House, though sometimes one party would hold power in both chambers, for good or ill. The PM would of necessity be a team player – imagine if she said to a journalist ‘don’t talk about them – I’m the team’. Her party would drop her like a hot spud. 

Canto: Yes, the reason dumping the President/King would be so traumatic, not to say bothersome, is that he has so much effing power. Power to shut down the government, power to pardon miscreants, special executive powers, veto powers, power to fill dozens of administrative posts with his cronies…

Jacinta: Or to leave them vacant, apparently. And power to select his running mate, who will automatically take over if he gets thrown under a bus or drowns in his own bile – again a vastly inferior situation to that under Westminster, where the ousted PM has no say whatever in deciding her own successor. The team’s the thing, the team the team, whereas with the GASP, it’s the superhero individual, the Great Leader, the Portentous POTUS, the Commander-in-Chief and other vainglorious assininities. It’s so typically macho, and American. 

Canto: And while we’re pouring on the scorn, It’s in all their worst movies – Bruce Willis or Sylvester Stallone defying the odds, fighting corruption, saving the state, getting the gal, etc. In fact, this was the essential campaign message of their swamp-draining princeling, which gained him the Kingdom, with much help from the Russian cyber-army. 

Jacinta: And the funny/sad thing is that even the mainstream media – and the experts they bring in, the lifetime lawyers, the intelligence folk, the career civil servants, the historians and on – are so jingoistic, so unself-critical about the GASP, that they blame everything on the boy-king himself – who’s just a boy after all – and have nothing constructive to say about the horrendous GASP. 

Canto: Yes it’s funny, in a grotesque way, to hear many of them say ‘this isn’t a dictatorship’ and ‘he’s not a king’, which nobody ever has to say under the Westminster system…

Jacinta: Under which it would be impossible for this boy-king to rise to absolute power, because their palaces, those of the Westminster nations, are reserved strictly for ceremonial presidents and governors. No power, just lots of fancy architecture and portraiture…

Canto: And lovely gardens.

Jacinta: And garden parties.

Canto: And quaint hats and uniforms. 

Jacinta: And marching bands.

Canto: And many-gun salutes.

Jacinta: And the blowing of purely ceremonial whistles.

Canto: But there are other reasons why this particular princeling, or any other like him, wouldn’t make any headway under Westminster. There are no head-to-head federal elections. Of course, in every particular electorate, there’s usually, but not always, one major candidate of the left pitted against one major candidate of the right, but to get to be Prime Minister, you not only have to win that electorate, you have to win the confidence of the party you’re a member of, by displaying some sort of leadership skills, as well as policy smarts, a certain je ne sais quois charisma, and an ability to unite and inspire a team. And you’ll be expected to sit alongside your team, make speeches in front of your team, while facing the jeers and tough questions of the team sitting directly opposite you, within spitting distance, for every day that parliament sits. No white palace for you, no courtiers, and no immunity. If you go rogue, if you start claiming you’re the team and stuff the rest, you’ll be thrown out the door before you get a chance to open it. 

Jacinta: You might say we can work our political system without a single GASP. 

Canto: Which leaves the question – do you think the American powers-that-be, once they’ve managed to rid themselves of the spoilt boy-king, will ever reform the GASP into a more distributed and effective system?

Jacinta: Very little chance. Will they stop making superhero movies? Very little chance. Will they solve the problem of anti-government fetishism and and fantasies of self-made individualism? Very little chance. Even though the reign of this particular boy-king is likely to end, IMHO, in something memorably horrific – because this boy-king would rather lock himself up in the white palace toilet than go quietly, don’t expect the Americans to come up with a better GASP. They just don’t have it in them, I’m sad to say.

Canto: Well, I want to be more optimistic, but we shall see. We remain watchful ghouls for the foreseeable.

the white palace – watch this space

Written by stewart henderson

November 6, 2019 at 1:29 pm

the boy in the white palace 2: thoughts on Judge Howell’s decision in the Columbia District Court

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Beryl A Howell, Chief Judge, District Court of Columbia

Canto: So I’ve read the decision by the Chief Judge of the District Court of Columbia, which waved away the claims of White Palace lawyers, representing their Department of Justice (DOJ), ‘that existing law bars disclosure to the Congress of grand jury information’. Now, neither of us are lawyers, and I’d never heard of a grand jury before being drawn like a ghoul to the disaster of the bullish boy in the White Palace china shop – so reading this decision has been another of those steep learning thingies.

Jacinta: Yes, the grand jury concept does sound very grand, and a bit Olde Worlde, and I’ve discovered that it’s essentially an obsolete British thing, going back to Magna Carta at least, but now fallen into disuse except in two countries, the Grande Olde US of A, and, would you believe, Liberia. They appear to be a blunt tool of government, and another ‘only in America’ thing, almost. Here’s what an Australian academic blog, the conversation, has to say about it:

The main concerns about the process are that it is run by the prosecutor, no judge is involved, jurors are not screened for bias or suitability, the defendant is not present or represented, the prosecutors and grand jurors are prohibited from revealing what occurred, and transcripts of the proceedings are not made available.

So why does it exist at all? Well, it’s made up of ordinary citizens, rather than uppity legal folks – a grand jury consists of 16 to 23 people, unlike the petit jury made up of the standard dozen – so I suppose they thought it more democratic. They have to decide whether there’s enough evidence to charge someone. It’s like a pre-jury jury. But you can surely see from the above quote that it can be easily manipulated. And has been.

Canto: So this Judge Howell had to decide – but her decision isn’t final because it can be appealed, I believe – whether the DOJ was right in claiming that grand jury info (much of it redacted in the Mueller Report) should be handed over to the House Judiciary Committee (HJC).

Jacinta: So it’s a battle between the HJC and the DOJ, and may the best TLA win…

Canto: Judge Howell is in no doubt about the matter. ‘DOJ is wrong’, she writes multiple times in her 75-page judgment, in which she goes back to the findings of the Mueller Report. It’s funny, we’ve read that report but it’s so refreshing to be reminded of all the damning evidence, and the redacted stuff in part 1 which raised so many questions. There’s been so much that’s happened since, or so much that hasn’t happened that should’ve happened, that we’re inclined almost to believe that Mueller’s findings were unable to lay a glove on the White Palace incumbent, when the truth is far more sinister – that the whole US nation seems to have connived in allowing the boy-king to get away with everything, simply because he’s the King.

Jacinta: Well, I’m not sure about the whole nation, but of course you’re right that any nation, or political system I should say, that grants immunity to its all-powerful ruler, elected or not it makes no difference, while he holds the reins of power, is a global disgrace. It’s more or less the definition of a dictatorship. For example, he can’t be held to account if, while in office, he makes an executive decision to declare a state of emergency due to the massive corruption of all his enemies, and to abolish all federal elections forthwith.

Canto: A reductio ad absurdum perhaps, but one probably not far from the boy-king’s mind. In fact, the lad has been ‘joking’ about a third and fifth term. So people need that reductio kind of thinking to see what peril they’re in, seriously. And Judge Howell sees it clearly, as she reminds those who would read her that the boy and his playmates were found to have behaved very naughtily indeed, in a way that undermined the proper functioning of the state in multiple ways, long before the attempted extortion of the Ukrainian Prez.

Jacinta: Judge Howell argued, correctly, that a revisiting of the Mueller Report’s findings were in order for the purpose of deciding about these grand jury redactions. And so, she correctly reminded Americans that the Special Counsel found that links between the Putin dictatorship and the boy-prince’s pre-ascension team were ‘numerous’, and of course there was the Ukraine-Manafort nexus, which is mixed up currently with the lad’s most recent peccadillos. In fact, Her Honour helpfully points out that the then princeling likely knew about Dictator Putin’s assistance toward his ascension, by quoting from the Report:

Manafort, for his part, told the Office that, shortly after WikiLeaks’s July 22 release, Manafort also spoke with candidate Trump [redacted]. Manafort also [redacted] wanted to be kept apprised of any developments with WikiLeaks and separately told Gates to keep in touch [redacted] about future WikiLeaks releases.

According to Gates, by the late summer of 2016, the Trump campaign was planning a press strategy, a communications campaign, and messaging based on the possible release of Clinton emails by Wikileaks. [Redacted] while Trump and Gates were driving to LaGuardia Airport. [Redacted], shortly after the call candidate Trump told Gates that more releases of damaging information would be coming.

Canto: Yes, those redactions seem to indicate that the then princeling and his courtiers knew about, encouraged and accepted foreign interference – hardly surprising news, but under the USA’s highly-worshipped Constitution that there’s a rootin-tootin High Crime and Mister Demenour.

Jacinta: But it doesn’t matter because the boy-king has absolute power and can do whatever he likes, he done said it hisself. And apparently there are some powerful American folks, apart from his courtiers, that pretty much agree. The King just has too many responsibilities to be interfered with while in office by such petty matters as criminal charges – which is a pretty obvious problemo, as the King can simply increase his duties, and make them permanent, in order to make himself more immune, for a lifetime.

Canto: So Judge Howell looked at this too, because this apparent immunity hangs by the slender thread of a view held by the DOJ ‘Office of Legal Counsel’ (OLC). Her Honour quotes from the Mueller Report, and adds her own very interesting comments:

“Given the role of the Special Counsel as an attorney in the Department of Justice and the framework of the Special Counsel regulations,” the Special Counsel “accepted” the DOJ Office of Legal Counsel’s (“OLC”) legal conclusion that “‘the indictment or criminal prosecution of a sitting President would impermissibly undermine the capacity of the executive branch to perform its constitutionally assigned functions’ in violation of ‘the constitutional separation of powers.’” …. This OLC legal conclusion has never been adopted, sanctioned, or in any way approved by a court. 

What I suspect Judge Howell as saying here is, ‘it’s about time a proper court got hold of this OLC ‘legal conclusion’ and subjected it to the proper legal scrutiny it deserves, or very much needs.

Jacinta: She’s also happy to use the term ‘stonewalling’ in describing the DOJ ‘s tactics with regard to these redactions, a stonewalling that continues to this day.

Canto: Yes, and it’ll be interesting to observe the fate of Billy Barr, a principal toadie of the boy-king and Grand Marquis of the DOJ, as these adventures in Toyland play out.

Jacinta: So, overall, Judge Howell’s pretty contemptuous of the DOJ arguments, which she would prefer to call “arguments”, and has been extremely diligent in refuting them from every possible perspective she can think of, with a lot of case law and something of a history lesson regarding the thoughts of James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and others. I’m thinking that not only will we have to bone up on US Federal law (and a lot of other law), we’ll have to read the whole of the US Constitution and the Federalist Papers to get more thrills out of watching this battle between the boy-king and the Constitutionalists (if that’s what it is) play out.

Canto: Yes, and I’ll be even more interested in the aftermath, after the bodies are buried and the blood has been wiped away. Will Americans still want to say that their quasi-dictatorial political system is the greatest in the known universe?

Jacinta: You betcha.

first volume of a collection of papers on the US Constitution, by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, quoted in Judge Howell’s decision

References

http://cdn.cnn.com/cnn/2019/images/10/25/grand.jury.release.opinion.pdf

http://grandjuryresistance.org/grandjuries.html

http://theconversation.com/only-in-america-why-australia-is-right-not-to-have-grand-juries-34695

Written by stewart henderson

November 4, 2019 at 2:14 pm

The boy in the White Palace 1: admiring Rachel Maddow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canto: Ra Ra Rasputin…

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

Canto: Oh shudder, I hate that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

an acolyte of the boy-king nastily evades scrutiny

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

Written by stewart henderson

November 2, 2019 at 1:53 am

Lessons from the Trump travesty?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by stewart henderson

June 14, 2019 at 5:00 pm

random thoughts 1

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Ilhan Omar

Bogus claims of anti-semitism veil the real issue

It seems Ilhan Omar, a new member of the US congress, is getting a lot of stick over there because of some comments she made about the power and wealth of Jewish lobbyists, but she is surely correct. I’ve not followed this in detail, but I know enough to say that the US political process is very much a captive of these lobbyists vis-à-vis the treatment of Israel. I agree with Paul Heyward-Smith, an Australian supporter Of the Palestinian people, that what is happening in Israel today is worse than what was happening in South Africa under the apartheid system. Never did the white minority in that country seek to ethnically cleanse South Africa of its native non-white population. Zionist monoculturalism is contrary to all the humane values of modern western culture.

hard times for feminists in China – their government rarely allows any demonstrations

On speaking the language of hostile foreign powers

As part of their harassment of feminist activists in China, feminists are regularly interrogated by MSS thugs as to what ‘hostile foreign powers’ they are working for or in collaboration with. This regular, automatic conjoining of ‘hostile’ and ‘foreign’ speaks volumes for the mindset of the current political elite. It speaks to the attempted inculcation of a xenophobic nationalism, at a time when the Chinese nouveaux riche are travelling more widely than ever before, and their children are learning English – in China – from the age of 4 or 5. Yet English is virtually never spoken in the country. So why bother to learn a ‘hostile foreign language’? It seems there’s something in the international power and reach of that language that the Chinese, or at least their government, wants to utilise, in its muddled or maybe not so muddled way, for its own expansionist ends.

women, Afghanistan

a world turned upside-down

Currently some 14% of the world’s political leaders are women – or is it 14 out of the 190 or so leaders? No matter, women are vastly in the minority, in politics and in business. Maybe less so in science and academia, but probably not much less so. Men dominate. So what if the world were turned upside-down and men were vastly in the minority in all these fields? It isn’t crazy to consider this counterfactual any more than it’s crazy to see our social world as it is. Would the world be a better place? It would surely be very different. And maybe the time is coming, or has come, for this difference to begin to appear. We’ve achieved dominance of the biosphere, now it’s time for a better collaboration with its other inhabitants. Women are no less smart, inventive and competitive, and it all depends in any case on context and social positioning, the best environment for blossoming. In general, women form groups more naturally and readily, sharing ownership of goals and production. A woman’s world would be calmer, less volatile, more supportive. I feel sad that I’ll never be able to experience it.

Written by stewart henderson

March 20, 2019 at 8:41 pm

more on the slo-mo train wreck – just look at the USA

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much truth in this, sadly

What is the greatest weakness of democracy?

The answer has been the same for over 2500 years. The possibility/likelihood of demagoguery and mob rule. It’s one of the reasons why we don’t have direct democracy – though there’s something close to a version of it in the USA. We have representative democracy, which is actually a check on ‘too much democracy’, because the representatives who are then voted on by the people (and I’m talking here about our Westminster system and to a lesser extent the US congressional system) are given their opportunity to serve in parliament/congress by an ‘elite’, or an in-group (of course there are problems with in-groups which I won’t get into here). Often they’re tapped on the shoulder or receive a late night phone call from a party apparatchik and told ‘X is retiring at the next election and I notice you’ve been active in that electorate and have held position A and B for the party, would you be interested in running for the seat?’ It’s likely the apparatchik isn’t operating on her own initiative – party officials have been observing the prospective candidate and how many party boxes she’s been ticking. So there’s this behind-the-scenes selection process going on before anything ‘democratic’ occurs. And this, IMHO, is a good thing. You don’t want just anybody even helping to run the country, let alone running it. I mean, just look at the USA.

Under the Westminster system there no Presidents, Vice Presidents or powerful unelected officials selected by the President. Yes there are chiefs of staff, private secretaries and advisors in official and unofficial capacities, but there is no unelected Secretary of State, Defence, the Treasury and so forth, who all owe their jobs to the President, albeit subject to some review.

Under the Westminster system there is a head of state whose position is entirely ceremonial. Everything she signs is at the direction of the party elected to power. That party has a leader, the Prime Minister, the first minister, primus inter pares, first among equals, the captain of the team. She works in the parliament, sitting alongside her colleagues, opposite her opposite number, consulting, sparring, winning debates, losing debates, triumphing and being humiliated on a daily basis. There’s no separate ‘executive’ space, there are no veto powers, shut-down powers, special executive powers and the like. Pardoning powers are limited, and not granted to the Prime Minister. In Australia, that power is granted to the Attorney-General, in Britain to the Lord Chancellor, but decisions are made in consultation with the whole of government. Power, in short, is more distributed under the Westminster system, and this is surely a good thing. I mean, just look at the USA.

Under the Westminster system there is only one set of national elections, not two. Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – the four primary predominantly English-speaking nations who use the system – all vary as to electoral terms. In Australia, elections are held approximately every 3 years, but on no fixed dates (but elections are always held on a Saturday, and voting is compulsory). These elections are roughly similar to the US mid-term elections. People vote for their local member, based on that member’s campaign, her personal qualities, and the platform of the party she belongs to, if any. There are two major parties, of the right and left, and each party has its leader, elected by elected members of parliament. If that party holds power, she will be the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister therefore holds her position at the behest of the governing party. If the governing (or any) party loses faith in its leader, they can oust her through a vote of no-confidence, after which they will hold an internal round of voting for a new leader. The ousted leader then may or may not hold another cabinet position in government, or go to the ‘back bench’ as an ordinary elected MP. Thus, a Prime Minister may be removed from office between elections, though this is generally inadvisable as it is seen by the public as destabilising. It is a very different case, however, from removing a President from office, about which there appears to be no clear guidelines. The heavy reliance upon a President and his powers and duties appears to have created a degree of paralysis when it becomes clear that the President is manifestly unfit for office and has engaged in criminal activities before becoming President, during his campaign, and while in office. Under the Westminster system such a person would have been removed from office well before now, and it’s unlikely that such a person would ever have been placed in that office in the first place, since her appeal would not be directly to the people but to the party she is a member of. A person with an extremely shady reputation would be unlikely to appeal to a political party obsessed with the lack of rectitude of its opposite number, and therefore with its own rectitude.

A note on the separation of powers. The idea originated with Montesquieu (1748) who separated the duties of government into three, the legislative, the executive and the judicial. However, under the Westminster system, the legislative and executive branches are essentially fused. This may have strengths and weaknesses, which are alleviated through oppositional and bicameral scrutiny, as well as the democratic process. The executive and the legislative forces of government are always in dynamic interaction, so that too much fusion and too much separation can be inimical to good government. In the USA, the physical separation between the legislative and the executive appears to be the source of a wealth of political problems.

Under the Westminster system there is no direct election of any person or persons by the whole nation, either through an electoral college or by means of a first-past-the-post nationwide vote. This is a useful if not essential curb to the dangers of demagoguery. Although there is no official screening of candidates (as I believe there should be), by means, for example, of a basic political literacy test, involving an understanding of the nation’s political and legal structures, its political history, the separation of powers and other pertinent matters (scientific literacy might be included), there is at least some screening to ensure party loyalty and understanding of party policies and goals. The Presidential electoral system involves no screening, formal or informal, a fact which some people appear to view with pride.

There is no immunity from criminal prosecution for a Prime Minister in Australia, Britain, Canada or New Zealand. The Queen as titular head of state, and her representatives (the Governor-General in Australia) may be immune, but that’s hardly an issue for government. There are some protections from civil proceedings while in office, but it would be an expectation that criminal acts of politicians would be treated like those of anyone else, or even more expeditiously considering the position of public trust they hold. Although such criminal proceedings would be scandalous, they need not affect government to a debilitating degree because of the distributed nature of political power and the flexibility of government roles under the Westminster system – unless, of course, the criminality was spread throughout government or opposition ranks, which would be a rare thing. In any case, look at the USA for comparison.

Under the Westminster system there is, of course, no such thing as impeachment. That’s because illegal conduct is dealt with by the law, and other ‘conduct unbecoming’ or conduct contrary to party ideology or ethics is dealt with by no-confidence motions. A no-confidence motion needs no external justification other than that the leader has lost the confidence of her party. If the electorate as a whole disagrees with the motion it will make its view clear at the next election, or at by-elections, which can serve to restrict the power of government, or send a message by reducing its majority.

Finally, there appears to be another, perhaps less tangible difference between Westminster system countries and the Presidential system of the USA. It is rare to hear residents of Westminster system countries representing themselves as partakers of the world’s first and greatest democracy, leaders of the free world, the light on the hill and so forth. Nationalism and jingoism appears to permeate US society like no other. Such parochialism isn’t conducive to self-analysis and reform. It needs to be pointed out, if we wish to talk of ‘true democracy’, that no nation was ever anywhere near full democracy until it granted full voting rights to the female half of the population. On that very reasonable basis, New Zealand was the first true democracy. Australia, Britain and Canada all granted women the right to vote before the USA did – though in Australia, Aboriginal people of both genders weren’t granted the vote until 1962, so Australia cannot be considered a true democracy till that date. But the US Presidential system, in its difference, also represents something else – US individualism, as represented in many Hollywood movies in which one quasi-superhero saves the world more or less single-handed in the teeth of official lethargy, incompetence or corruption. It can be argued that nations can be found on an individualist-collectivist spectrum, with the USA somewhat at one end of the spectrum, the individualist end, and a country like Japan close to the collectivist end. The problem with individualism is a lack of trust in government – if not a lack of trust in each other – resulting in poor support for collective action on education, health and other social goods, and also high incarceration rates. Collectivism suffers the opposite problem, lack of willingness to speak out, to criticise, to behave differently, to seek reform when needed, though it also tends to mean reduced crime rates and genuine respect for others.

What this means for the genuine crisis the USA finds itself in is anyone’s guess. Having allowed a person with no moral compass and little understanding of the world to bypass the checks and balances of party allegiance and teamwork by appealing to a sector of the population which he actively despises (people who actually work for a living, or try to) in order to become their all-too-powerful President, the USA has deservedly lost a great deal of standing in the global community. And because of the way their system operates – so very differently from the Westminster system – the slow-motion train wreck which began with this person’s ascension to the Presidency is very far from over, and one really begins to wonder if this is the beginning of the end of the US ascendency. I for one hope not. The USA is a great, flawed nation. It can do better than this. It can recover. It can reform itself. It might look, for starters, at the Westminster system.

Written by stewart henderson

March 3, 2019 at 8:38 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by stewart henderson

October 12, 2018 at 4:20 pm