an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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Archive for the ‘USA’ Category

Will the USA ever reform its federal system? I wouldn’t hold my breath.

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the USA is flagging

So I’m writing this on the last day of the Trump ‘administration’, and I don’t know if I’ll finish it today, and currently I don’t know if Trump will come out with the hundred or so pardons that some reporters are predicting, or if there will be one final attempt at insurrection, or if any more lives will be lost etc etc.

Whenever I write about Trump I feel as if I’m repeating myself for the nth time, and of course I know that virtually nobody reads my blog and I basically get no feedback on it. Still I feel compelled…

Robert Sapolsky begins his book Behave (and he presents this orally on a video available on Youtube) with a fantasy about what he would do with Hitler if he could’ve gotten hold of him at the end of the war. It isn’t nice. As he points out, he’s a liberal fellow, and opposed to capital punishment, but – humans are complex and contradictory. I’ve had similar fantasies about Trump, among others – in fact I might blame Sapolsky for giving me permission. But seriously, I’ve had fantasies about doing horrible things to horrible people long before I read Behave. I’ve long had a kind of visceral loathing of bullies and thugs, whether they’re world leaders or in the local neighbourhood, possibly because I was bullied quite a bit at school, being the smallest kid in my class for about ten years. When in the morning I read or listen to the latest horror story about Trump, or Putin, or some other apparently unpunishable tyrant, I get so mad that my dog, who regularly sleeps on my bed, starts shaking and looking at me with either fear or, I like to think, reproach. 

I think I’ve been following the Trump debacle, or what I’ve called the slo-mo train wreck, because I’ve been wanting it to end like the movies, with the villain crashing and burning. And again to emphasise our complex and contradictory impulses, I’ve been hoping, and am still hoping, that Trump ends in gaol, but I’ve also been convinced, since before he decided to claim that he was a politician, that he wasn’t a ‘normal’ person, that there was something fundamentally wrong with him, and that he’s been this way for his entire adult life, and more. And I’ve become convinced, over the years, that free will is a myth, and that this has major implications for our systems of punishment, incarceration and the like. So what should be done with Trump? My feeling is that anyone with an average degree of intelligence and psychological insight should be able to see that this man should be kept away from any position of public responsibility. He’s an extremely, narcissistic, tantrumming pre-adolescent, and has been for 60 years. This is someone who couldn’t manage a public toilet, let alone the government of an uninhabited island. And yet he was put in charge of the most militarily and economically powerful nation on the planet. I don’t blame Trump for this, I blame the USA, and its federal political system. 

The USA is, as I’ve written before, exceptional in two things, its religiosity and its jingoism. As a non-believing non-American, a dual citizen of the UK and Australia, where I’ve lived since the age of five, I struggle with my lack of sympathy for these American features. I’ve never waved a national flag or sung a national anthem in my life, and I never will. I feel a kind of emotional aversion to nationalism, and I suspect any explanation will simply be post-hoc rationalisation. So Trump’s patriotism, which is as fake as his religion, his complexion and his business acumen, naturally gets my goat, but it isn’t Trump I want to write about here. 

Since realising that Trump was being taken seriously as a contender for US President, I’ve been following US politics like never before, and what I’ve learned has frankly horrified me, and continues to do so. Their federal system and their presidential system are real shockers, and frankly seem to be a disaster waiting to happen. There are plenty of pundits happy to dump on Trump of course, but hardly any are willing to dump on a system that allowed Trump to manipulate it so effectively (though it was more like bull-in-a-china-shop behaviour than calculated manipulation). I would cite Fareed Zakaria as an honourable exception, but his obvious Indian accent suggests that he hasn’t been fully infected by the native jingoism that his colleagues appear to suffer from. 

So here – again, but with additions – are some of the glaring problems of a political system, and some political beliefs, that no nation in its right collective mind would want to emulate. 

1. The ‘constitutional president’ becomes so as a result of a popularity contest between one superhero and another, in keeping, apparently, with ‘American individualism’. The ultimate recipe for demagoguery. These superheroes are either worshipped or reviled, and remembered by their numbers!

2. The Presidential candidate gets to choose his own running mate, plucked from the general population.

3. The President gets to choose a whole suite of personnel, or courtiers, to effectively run the country for the next four years, with only limited vetting, and has minimal contact with the parliament – living, during incumbency, in a White Palace.

4. Major elections occur every two years, last far too long, and involve obscene amounts of money, inevitably leading to corruption.

5. The political system is based on a much-worshipped, brief, vague and out-dated constitution, written for a small semi-democratic former British colony, and hopelessly inadequate for the needs of the third most populous country in the world. This urgently needs to be supported or replaced by laws, and lots of them.

6. The American people’s attitude to government, from the outset, has been disturbingly negative, so that interventionist government of any kind, to improve healthcare, education, race relations and so forth, is branded as socialism – the dirtiest word in the American language. And that’s something, considering the country’s religiosity, where the most lively and fun ‘curse-words’ aren’t even allowed on TV!

7. The popularity contest for the nation’s presidency is interfered with by an ‘electoral college’, which is state-based and regularly prevents the winner, based on popularity, from actually winning! 

8. The President has exceptional pardoning powers, veto powers, government shut-down powers, power to select members of the judiciary and heads of innumerable government departments, as well as, apparently, total immunity  from committing offences, however grave, while in office. 

9. It follows from the above that the political process known as impeachment would be surplus to requirements, and all politicians’ wrong-doing, up to and including the President, would be dealt with by the judiciary on the basis of law. 

 

The USA should look to the government of its neighbour, Canada, which has a far better political system, but it is of course prevented from doing so by its pathological jingoism. My hope is that the USA might be pressured by the international community to be more reformist in its approach to its national government. It’s a faint hope, of course, but the wreckery of the Trump period has, at least, exposed many glaring deficiencies. Gentlemen’s agreements aren’t anywhere near sufficient to keep ‘commanders-in-chief’, in a nation bristling with nuclear weaponry, with an at times disturbing superiority complex, in check. 

Written by stewart henderson

January 21, 2021 at 1:50 pm

19: the USA – an anti-bonobo state?

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Of course it would be ridiculous to compare the complex, diverse collection of human apes – some 330 million of them – who call the USA home, to the few thousand bonobos who make their home in the forests of the Congo. So call me ridiculous.

Bonobos appear to be an egalitarian lot. They have fun together, sexually and otherwise, they share responsibilities, they look after each other’s kids, and they generally nip disagreements, which do occur, in the bud, either with sexual healing or with female group force. Unfortunately they don’t read, write or do much in the way of science, but you can’t have everything.

They don’t kill each other, which their close rellies the chimps occasionally do. And it’s the male chimps who tend to do this, just like male human apes. 

Now, Americans. They like to think they’re exceptional, many of them, but to an outsider like me they seem exceptional in only two respects – their religiosity and their jingoism, neither of which I have much time for. The nation’s foundational religiosity has been well dealt with by Sam Harris and many others, and the backlash to their writings, as well the more recent kowtowing by so-called evangelical Christians to the mendacious messianic misanthrope whose presidency has effectively destroyed the nation’s reputation for the foreseeable, indicates that they still have a lot of growing up to do. Their jingoism seems another form of infantilism, and I suspect they get it drummed into them from kindergarten on up. That’s why even their best cable news pundits and politicians carried on a ‘how has the mighty fallen’ narrative over the four years of the misanthrope’s reign, without seeming to realise that the problem wasn’t Trump but their massively flawed federal political (and legal) system. It’s also why they’ll never engage in the root and branch reform of that system, the failings of which Trump has done them the great favour of exposing.

However, in comparing Americans unfavourably to bonobos, it’s not their lack of modesty and self-awareness that I want to focus on, but their violence. The violence of the state, and states, towards individuals, the violence, or violent feelings, of individuals towards the state, the violence of partisanship, and ordinary violence between individuals. And of course the gun culture. 

Incarceration is a form of violence, let’s be blunt. The USA, with less than 5% of the world’s population, has some 22% of the world’s prisoners, making the nation’s incarceration rate the highest in the world. It was up at nearly 25% twelve years ago, and declined slightly during the Obama administration, but no doubt has been rising again under Trump. State authorities have also played a role in rising or declining rates of course.

The nation tries to delude itself by calling their prisons correctional institutions, but very little in the way of formal correction is attempted. The tragedy is exacerbated by prison privatisation, which first occurred under Reagan in the eighties. A for-profit prison system, fairly obviously, benefits from a high prison population, and from skimping on counselling, training, facilities, and even basic needs, covering all of Maslow’s hierarchy. 

 As is well known, US prisons are top-heavy with those people designated as black (I’ve always been uncomfortable with black-white terminology). So much so that a 2004 study reported that ‘almost one-third of black men in their twenties are either on parole, on probation, or in prison’. So it would surely be correct to say that every person ‘of colour’ is touched by the prison system, either personally or via friends and family. I won’t go into the reasons why here, except to mention the obvious issues of poverty, disadvantage and endemic despair, exacerbated by the imbecilic war on drugs, but clearly imprisonment is itself violently punitive and rarely leads to human betterment. It appears to be a ‘sweeping under the carpet’ response to all these issues. People are free to do whatever they like, but if they make a nuisance of themselves in the street, and make the place look bad, best to put them out of the way for a while, until such time as they clean themselves up. But the sad fact is that very few if any of those incarcerated blacks have done anywhere near as much damage to the nation as has their outgoing President. 

As to a sense of violence towards the state, this is evidenced by paramilitary anti-government groups and the strange sense amongst a huge swathe of the population that if governments try to do anything interventional or ameliorative that in any way affects their lives they’re engaging in socialism, thus leaving the path open for white-collar crime (especially the gleefully celebrated crime of tax evasion), bank banditry and the like, and for real minimum wages to fall well below those of comparable countries such as Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, France, Japan etc. And so, while their fellow-citizens are struggling in poorly paid jobs with inadequate conditions, people placard the streets screaming about their constitutional right to be protected from their Great Enemy, government in all its despicable forms. Ronald Reagan, who seems to have become a doyen of the moderate right, is now celebrated for saying that government is the problem, not the solution, surely one of the most imbecilic utterances of the pre-Trump era. 

So with this eschewing of government oversight and guidance, the USA has devolved into a war of all against all, with rights eclipsing responsibilities, and with parts of the country resembling the worst of so-called third world countries in terms of entrapment, suffering and despair. But of course it’s different for the rich, who protect their own. 

Finally I want to explore another form of violence, which relates to the US military. It’s amusing to note that there are arguments raging online about whether or not the US military is a socialist organisation, since it’s run and massively funded by by the federal government, with congress never delaying and rarely debating such unaudited funding. This is all fun to read since so many Americans become apoplectic when the word socialism comes up, but the fact remains that the Pentagon is, to most outsiders, something like a supermassive black hole sucking in funds that are never to be seen again. 

US military spending is estimated to be close to one trillion dollars over the 2020-21 year, with something like 85% described as discretionary spending, which means essentially that they can spend it any way they choose. Three attempts have been made in the past three years to audit the Pentagon, and they have all ended in failure, but it’s unclear whether the auditor or the Pentagon is the responsible party. Needless, to say, conducting such as audit would be a largely thankless task. Of course defenders of all this expenditure claim that vast sums of money are required to keep safe this exceptional beacon of liberty to the world. Yet much of US military personnel and materiel are deployed outside of the country, and the USA has never been under serious attack from any other nation since its foundation. The fact is that the US uses its military as has every other powerful military state in history, dating back to the Egyptians and before, and including the Romans, the Brits, the Germans and the Japanese, that’s to say, to enhance its power and influence in the world. And the US certainly is exceptional in its military. Its defence budget is ‘more….than China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, the United Kingdom, India, France, and Japan combined’. 

Every powerful nation in history has fallen for the same fallacy, that their economic and military superiority somehow infers moral superiority. Might is right, essentially, and this translates to non-human ape societies too, as they all have their power hierarchies. Bonobos, however, less so than any of the others. In bonobo society, it seems, group power is used to stifle individual power-mongering, so that the group can get back as quickly as it can to the main purpose of their lives, surviving and thriving, exploring and foraging, looking out for each other and having fun. If we could have all this, in our more mind-expanded, scientific, with-knowledge-comes-responsibility sort of way, what a wonderful world this would be. 

References

https://ussromantics.com/category/identity-politics/

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

https://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?DataSetCode=RMW#

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

Written by stewart henderson

January 3, 2021 at 5:08 pm

a bonobo world and other impossibilities 15

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returning to the ‘farm’ in 1919 – 10 million dead, 21 million more mutilated

stuff on aggression and warfare

Warfare has long been a feature of human culture; impossible to say how far back it goes. Of course war requires some unspecified minimum number of participants, otherwise it’s just a fight, and one thing we can be certain of is that there were wars worthy of the name before the first, disputed, war we know of, when the pharoah Menes conquered northern Egypt from the south over 5000 years ago. The city of Jericho, which lays claim to being the oldest, was surrounded by defensive walls some three metres thick, dating back more than 9000 years, and evidence of weapons of war, and of skeletal remains showing clear signs of violent death by such weapons, dates back to 12000 years ago. None of this should surprise us, but our knowledge of early Homo sapiens is minuscule. The earliest skeletal data so far found takes us back nearly 200,000 years to the region now covered by Ethiopia in east Africa. We know next to nothing of the lifestyle and culture of these early humans. There’s plenty of dispute and uncertainty about the evolution of language, for example, which is surely essential to the planning of organised warfare. The most accepted estimates lie in a range from 160,000 to 80,000 years ago, but if it can ever be proven that our cousins the Neanderthals had language, this could take its origins back another hundred thousand years or more. Neanderthals share with us the FOXP2 gene, which plays a role in control of facial muscles which we use in speech, but this gene is regulated differently in humans.

In any case, warfare requires not only language and planning but sufficient numbers to carry out the plan. So just how many humans were roving about the African continent some 100,000 years ago?

The evidence suggests that the numbers were gradually rising, such that the first migrations out of Africa took place around this time, as our ancestors sought out fresh resources and more benign environments. They could also be escaping human enemies, or seeking out undisputed territory. 

Of course there may have been as much collaboration as competition. We just don’t know. What I’m trying to get at is, were we always heading in the chimp direction of male dominance and aggression, or were there some bonobo traits that tempered this aggression? Of course, I’m not talking about influence – we haven’t been influenced, in our development, by these cousins of ours in any way. We only came to recognise them as cousins very recently. And with this recognition, it might be worth learning more from family.  

Human warfare has largely been about the expansion or defense of territory, and it was a constant in Europe from the days of the Roman Empire until well into the nineteenth century. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, armaments became far more deadly, and the 1914-18 war changed, hopefully for good, our attitude to this activity, which had previously been seen as a lifetime career and a proof of manliness. This was the first war captured by photography and newsreels, and covered to a substantial degree by journalism. If the Thirty Years’ War had been covered by photojournalists and national newspapers it’s unlikely the 1914-18 disaster would have occurred, but the past is another country. Territory has become more fixed, and warfare more costly in recent times. Global trade has become fashionable, and international, transnational and intergovernmental organisations are monitoring climate change, human rights, health threats and global economic development. Violent crime has been greatly reduced in wealthy countries, and is noticeably much greater in the poorer sectors of those countries. Government definitely pays a role in providing a safety net for the disadvantaged, and in encouraging a sense of possibility through education and effective healthcare. It’s noteworthy that the least crime-ridden countries, such as Iceland, New Zealand, Portugal and Denmark, have relatively small populations, rate highly in terms of health, work-life balance and education, and have experienced long periods of stable government. 

Of course the worry about the future of warfare is its impersonality. This has already begun of course, and the horrific double-whammy of Horishima-Nagasaki was one of the first past steps towards  that future. Japan’s military and ruling class had been on a fantastical master-race slaughter spree for some five decades before the bombs were dropped, but even so the stories of suffering and dying schoolchildren and other innocents in the aftermath of that attack make us all feel ashamed. And then what about Dresden? And Auschwitz? And Nanjing? And it continues, and is most egregious when one party, the perpetrator, has far more power than the other, the victim. Operation Menu, a massive carpet bombing campaign of eastern Cambodia conducted by the US Strategic Air Command in 1969 and 1970, was an escalation of activities first begun during the Johnson administration in 1965, in the hope of winning or at least gaining ground in the Vietnam war. There were all sorts of strategic reasons given for this strategy, of course, but little consideration was given to the villagers and farmers and their families, who just happened to be in the way. Much more recently the Obama administration developed a ‘kill list’, under the name Disposition Matrix, which has since been described as ‘potentially indefinite’ in terms of its ongoing targets. This involved the use of drone strikes, effectively eliminating the possibility of US casualties. Unsurprisingly, details of these strikes have been hard to uncover, but Wikipedia, as always, helps us get to the truth:

… Ben Emmerson, special investigator for the United Nations Human Rights Council, stated that U.S. drone strikes may have violated international humanitarian law. The Intercept reported, “Between January 2012 and February 2013, U.S. special operations airstrikes [in northeastern Afghanistan] killed more than 200 people. Of those, only 35 were the intended targets. During one five-month period of the operation, according to the documents, nearly 90 percent of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets.” 

Cambodians, Afghans, distant peoples, not like us. And of course it’s important to keep America safe. And the world too. That’s why the USA must never become a party to the International Criminal Court. The country is always prepared to justify its violent actions, to itself. And it’s a nation that knows a thing or two about violence. According to the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), the USA is ranked 121st among the most peaceful countries in the world. 

References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drone_strike#United_States_drone_strikes

https://www.gfmag.com/global-data/non-economic-data/most-peaceful-countries

Written by stewart henderson

December 3, 2020 at 12:18 am

Posted in Japan, USA, Vietnam, violence, war

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a bonobo world? 11

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another bitter-sweet reflection on capacities and failures

I was in a half-asleep state, and I don’t know how to describe it neurologically, but subjectively I was hearing or being subjected to a din in my head, a kind of babble, like in an echoing school canteen. Then I heard a knocking sound above the din, then in a transforming whoosh all the din stopped in my head, it became silent apart from the knocking, and then, as a kind of wakening crystallisation clarified things, another sound, of trickling water. I quickly realised this was the sound from the shower above me, and the knocking was of the pipes being affected by the rush of hot water. But what really interested me was what had just happened in my brain. The din, of thought, or inchoate thought, or of confusedly buzzing neural connections, was dampened down instantly when this new sound forced itself into my – consciousness? – at least into a place or a mini-network which commanded attention. It, the din, disappeared as if a door had been slammed on it. 

I can’t describe what happened in my brain better than this, though I’m sure that this concentration of focus, or activity, in one area of my brain, and the concomitant dropping of all other foci or activity, to facilitate that concentration, was something essential to human, and of course other animal, neurology. Something observed but not controlled by ‘me’. Something evolved. I like the way this is shared by mice and men, women and wombats. 

But of course there are big differences too. I’ve described the experience, whatever it is, in such a way that a neurologist, on reading or listening to me, would be able to explain my experience more fully, or, less likely, be inspired to examine it or experiment with its no-doubt miriad causal pathways. I suppose this experience, though more or less everyday and unthreatening, is associated with flight-or-fight. The oddity of the sound, its difference from the background din, or perhaps rather my awareness of its oddity, caused a kind of brain-flip, as all its forces, or most of them, became devoted to identifying it. Which caused me to awaken, to marshall a fuller consciousness. How essential this is, in a world of predators and home intruders, and how much fun it is, and how useful it is, to try for a fuller knowledge of what’s going on. And so we go, adding to our understanding, developing tools for further investigation, finding those tools might just have other uses in expanding other areas of our knowledge, and the world of our ape cousins is left further and further behind. For me, this is a matter of pride, and a worry. I’m torn. The fact that I think the way I do has to do with my reading and my reflections, the habits of a lifetime. Some have nerdiness, if that’s what it is, thrust upon them. I’m fascinated by the human adventure, in its beginnings and its future. Its beginnings are connected to other apes, to old world and new world monkeys, to tarsiers, to tree shrews and rodents and so on, all the way back to archaea and perhaps other forms yet to be discovered. We need to fully recognise this connectivity. Its future, what with our increasing dominance over other species and the earthly landscape, our obsession with growth, our throwaway mindset, but also our ingenious solutions, our capacity for compassion and for global cooperation, that future is and always will be a mystery, just outside of our manipulating grasp, with every new solution creating more problems requiring more solutions. 

A few hundred years ago, indeed right up to the so-called Great War of 1914, human warfare was a much-celebrated way of life. And we still suffer a kind of hero-worship of military adventurism, and tell lies about it. In the USA, many times over the most powerful military nation on earth, the media are always extolling the sacrifice of those who fought to ‘keep America safe’. This is a hackneyed platitude, considering that, notwithstanding the highly anomalous September 11 2001 attack, the country has never had to defend its borders in any war. Military casualties are almost certain to occur in a foreign country, where the USA is seeking to preserve or promote its own interest, generally against the interests of that country. In this respect, the USA, it should be said, is no better or worse than any other powerful country throughout history. The myth of military might entailing moral superiority, which began with the dawn of civilisations, dies hard, as ‘American exceptionalism’ shows. 

But globalism, international trade, travel, communication and co-operation, is making for a safer and less combative human society than ever before. So, as militarism as a way of life recedes, we need to focus on the problems of globalism and economic growth. As many have pointed out, the pursuit of growth and richesse is producing many victims, many ‘left-behind’. It’s dividing families and creating a culture of envy, resentment and often unmitigated hatred of the supposedly threatening ‘other’. The world of the bonobo – that tiny community of a few tens of thousands – tinier than any human nation – a gentle, fun-loving, struggling, sharing world – seems as distant to us as the world of the International Space Station, way out there. And yet…

 

Written by stewart henderson

November 16, 2020 at 12:10 pm

what Americans will never do to save their democracy

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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Written by stewart henderson

October 29, 2020 at 7:33 pm

covid19: sensible testing, mostly

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Canto: So we’re looking at medcram coronavirus update 98 now, and it’s a fascinating one entitled ‘Rapid COVID 19 Antigen Testing at Home – A Possible Breakthrough’, though it comes with the clear proviso – this would require co-ordinated political action, and that won’t happen in the USA, not just under Trump, but at any time.

Jacinta: Well, but especially under Trump. But the issue is one of trying to get much more testing done, with far less emphasis on the sensitivity of the test, because rapid-fire, fast turnaround testing is far more useful than expensive, hard-to-evaluate slow-turnaround testing, which puts a premium on sensitivity. But before we get to all that, Dr Seheult looks at a paper on viral loads vis-à-vis covid19 patients. They looked at nasal and throat swabs, and then checked the Ct values over time. 

Canto: The Ct values are a measure of viral load and it works inversely – a 3.32 reduction in Ct value means a ten-fold-increase in viral load. 

Jacinta: Yes, so a low Ct value means a high viral load, and of course viral replication works exponentially, at least during the early infection period, so your viral load can be massively different from one day to the next – think about that for testing, and delayed results. 

Canto: A Ct value of 40 is close to undetectable, depending of course on the sensitivity of the test. And the value can go down as low as 5, all approximately of course. The course of the virus is generally, exponential growth, then a tapering off of the growth rate, reaching a peak, then a descent to finally a remnant population of largely disabled viral scraps, with of course mortality intervening along the way in the worst cases. 

Jacinta: Far from the majority of cases, thankfully. So the ‘gold standard’ test is the reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (rt-PCR) test – also called real-time PCR, I’ve just found out. It’s relatively expensive at around $US100, with turnaround times – and this might depend on demand and other factors – of between 3 and 9 days. There aren’t enough of these tests to go round, but they are very sensitive, detecting the virus reliably from a Ct value of about 35, or maybe even 40 (for argument’s sake, Seheult says). But there are other, cheaper, less sensitive tests, called paper tests, that can be rolled out more easily to the general public. The paper is coated with monoclonal antibodies that can detect antigens – substances that evoke an immune response. These paper tests cost at most a couple of dollars each, and would be sensitive to a viral load measured at a Ct value of around 32. These figures aren’t exact but this would make the test around 50-55% sensitive. 

Canto: But there’s this issue called the ‘threshold of transmissibility’, which is important in all this, and a virologist, Dr Michael Mina, shown speaking on this update, explains:

So people who are transmitting probably have Ct values that are below 30 and the vast majority probably have them below 25 or so.

As Seheult explains, people may be testing positive at that range above 30 (i.e. low viral load) but not transmitting the virus. This is especially so if they’re on the downward trajectory, as described above, and what the rt-PCR test (or assay) is detecting are those remaining viral fragments. And as Dr Mina points out, it’s the downward trajectory that’s being picked up for the most part, because the initial upward trajectory is exponential. Here’s what he says:

A lot of people are saying, ‘we need the really sensitive tests to be able to detect people early on in their infection’, but almost all the time that people spend with this virus near the limit of detection of PCR is on the tail end of their infection. This is a virus that, once it hits PCR positivity levels, it’s growing well in its exponential phase and it’s probably a matter of hours, not days, before it passes the threshold to be detected on some of these slightly lower sensitivity assays. And then it may persist for weeks or possibly months even in some cases at very low RNA levels. So it’s after people are well beyond their transmissible period that we’re actually seeing the loss in sensitivity of these assays. It’s very rare that you actually detect somebody with a Ct value 0f 39 in that window on their way up, because they’re only sitting there for a few hours before they get down to a 33, so if you’re missing Ct values of 39… it’s really not that important..

Jacinta: Not that important, but the point Dr Mina is making is really important – if the threshold of transmissibility is at 33 or below vis-à-vis Ct values, then a high-sensitivity test may even be a barrier to focussing on getting at the most transmissible subjects. 

Canto: Yes, especially when you have an alternative test that can be applied much more regularly with a quick turnaround – results on these paper tests take ten minutes! And being cheap, you can test as often as you feel you need to. If you’re positive, you quarantine yourself for a while, keep testing, find yourself negative, wait for a few more days, considering the low sensitivity of the test, keep testing in case there’s a recurrence, and when it’s still ok after a few days you can resume your life, go back to work or school, whatever, being pretty sure you’re past the infectious phase. 

Jacinta: Yes, as Dr Mina says, 9 out of 10 people go undiagnosed with the virus in the USA, according to the CDC – indicating the inadequacy of testing. And he goes on to say, of the other one out of ten, those that are caught, are mostly post-infectious, at the ‘tail end’. The point is that, because of the woeful lack of testing and the long turnarounds, they’re catching far fewer of the transmissible cases, the ones they want and need to catch, than the pitiful few that they actually find testing positive. 

Canto: The bottom line being that if they tested with a far less sensitive, but cheap and readily available quick-result assay, they would capture far more of the transmissible cases, and save lives. 

Jacinta: Dr Mina and many colleagues have written a paper on this, entitled ‘test sensitivity is secondary to frequency and turnaround time for covid19 surveillance’, and he points out that with this approach they would drive down the ‘r effective’ – the reproduction number – which is the number of people who can be infected by a carrier at any specific time – to well below 1. So if you were to give a significantly high proportion of people in in the worst affected areas these types of tests, you could bring the numbers down very rapidly, and this would eliminate the need for contact tracing. It would have an effect on schools, workplaces and so forth – because if you’re given one of these long-turnaround tests and your results eight days later turn out negative, that may be because you had just contracted the virus when the test was taken, but it didn’t show on the test – so you go back to school and infect people. With regular testing this problem would be eliminated. Hate to belabour the point, but – people are dying. 

Canto: It seems the CDC put a high priority on sensitivity, and so rejected these cheap paper tests, neglecting the obvious problem of turnaround more or less completely. The low sensitivity tests usually miss the subjects that are beyond infectivity. If they were on the upward trajectory they would likely be caught by the next test. It’s this upward trajectory that is the infective period. You would think regulatory organisations like the FDA or the CDC would twig to this, but not so much in the Trump era, when non-scientists are put in charge. Yet another failing of the individualist, anti-collaborative, egotistical destruction of all government agencies…

Jacinta: Or just the unwieldiness, the lack of finesse, of lumbering bureaucracies. Or a mix of both. 

Canto: Anyway, as things deepen and darken in the USA, we might have to skip a number of updates to keep up with the chaos, the failures, the resistance and everything else. It isn’t a great time to be living in the USA, but as outsiders we’re kind of ghoulishly fascinated by the mess they’re making of this pandemic, and much else besides.

Jacinta: But also genuinely sympathetic to those who are trying to make thing work in the teeth of all the craziness. 

Canto: Today, September 16, marks the day that 200,000+ deaths from covid19 have been recorded next to the name of the USA, according to Worldometer’s stats. Taiwan, a country that is separated from the so-called ‘China virus’ only by the narrow Formosa strait, has suffered only seven deaths in the nine months that this virus has raged. It has a population of about 24 million, slightly less than that of Australia, into which we find ourselves thrown. Australia has had 824 deaths thus far, and we’re regarded as something of a model!

Jacinta: Yes, several cheers for Tsai Ing-wen and for female leadership, sans egotism. And a special thanks to Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s digital minister – but she’s actually real, and a life-saver. We need more of her. 

Audrey Tang

Written by stewart henderson

September 17, 2020 at 12:03 am

Posted in covid19, Taiwan, USA

Tagged with , , ,

covid-19, more on fructose, vitamin D, treatments and the vagaries of testing

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Canto: Ok, so note that in the graphic from the previous post, Australia is third highest in the group of 31 countries studied for caloric intake from sweeteners, but we don’t use HFCS much at all.

Jacinta: It might be a misleading graphic too. You might be forgiven for thinking that it somehow shows the USA as the most unhealthy, sweet-toothy country on the list, and Australia in third position, but since we’re more concerned here with links between fructose and covid-19 co-morbidities such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular problems and oxidative stress, the graphic doesn’t tell us much.

Canto: Yes so I found on this indexmundi site a list of 195 countries – and that’s all of them – showing prevalence of diabetes 1 and 2. That’s to say, the percentage of the adult population (from 20 to 79) that is diabetic. The USA ranks 43rd on that list, and Australia is down at 137th, level with Finland and Japan. But the site doesn’t name sources, and provides an end-note on the unreliability of much evidence: ‘National health authorities differ widely in capacity and willingness to collect or report information’. I should also add that though the USA is 43rd, the only other major nations above them are just about every Middle Eastern country, Pakistan, South Africa, Egypt, Sudan and Mexico. Make of that what you will.

Jacinta: Let’s avoid that rabbit hole, and return to medcram update 83, which briefly describes vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) metabolism. This may involve a bit of repetition but that’s rarely a bad thing for us. So the D3 that we absorb or ingest goes to the liver and is hydroxylased at the 25th position (25-OH), but it doesn’t become activated until it’s again hydroxylased at the first position by the kidney (1,25-diOH, aka 1,25 dihydroxy vitamin D). And there’s another enzyme that can convert the vitamin to inactive forms. 

Canto: With that, Dr Seheult looks at another article from 2013 which describes a rat study that indicates that if fed on a high fructose diet, lactating rats suffered reduced rates of active intestinal calcium transport and active vitamin D. Or, more, accurately I think, they didn’t get the increased rates and levels that would be expected during lactation. So, because calcium is essential for skeletal growth, the study says ‘our discovery may explain findings that excessive consumption of sweeteners compromises bone integrity in children’.

Jacinta: Interesting, and I presume that means consumption by the mother during pregnancy. Anyway, in more detail, what they found was that increased fructose intake inhibited the enzyme that converted vitamin D into the active form in the kidney, and promoted the enzyme responsible for the inactive forms. Disturbing, as Seheult says, for the excessive fructose in American diets, which may consequently affect calcium and vitamin D levels, though that would surely require more research. 

Canto: Well, the same group released more research in 2014 which found that chronic high fructose intake in calcium-sufficient rodents (rats and mice) reduced their active vitamin D levels. And a 2015 study from Iran looked at something different but again having to do with effects on enzymes and metabolism. They looked at S-methyl cysteine (SMC), and this recalls the investigation of N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) a few updates ago. Found naturally in garlic and onions, SMC is described as a hydrophilic cysteine-containing compound, which they investigated for its putative effects against oxidative stress and inflammation. So they induced oxidative stress in rats via a high-fructose diet over 8 weeks and then dosed them with SMC. Results from the high fructose diet were – here goes – increased blood levels of glucose, insulin, malondialdehyde, and tumour necrosis factor-alpha.

Jacinta: Okay so the increased insulin is presumably a reaction to the increased glucose. Its role is to absorb excess blood glucose, and too much of it can result in hypoglycaemia, low serum glucose levels. Malondialdehyde (MDA) is described as a marker for oxidative stress, so it’s not good. Tumour necrosis factor (TNF or TNFα) is a ‘multifunctional cytokine’, and although cytokines (types of proteins) perform many vital functions, the cytokine storm that appears to be associated with oxidative stress and covid-19 is a bad thing. 

Canto: But there were also decreased levels of glutathione (GSH), glutathione peroxidase (GPx) and catalase as a result of this fructose diet, and Seheult talked about these enzymes and such as important in reducing oxidative stress. However, the SMC dosing improved antioxidant enzyme activities and reduced levels of glucose, insulin and TNFα. 

Jacinta: So this SNC seems another promising antioxidant treatment. Meanwhile, watch your sugar intake, especially with fructose. More studies required of course, but I suppose there are ethical issues involved in fattening up and inducing oxidative stress on human subjects with a high fructose diet. Okay updates 84 and 85 deal with questions that hospitalised covid-19 patients might want answered, so we’re going to skip those or we’ll never catch up on these updates. With update 86 they’re into the second half of June and noticing a resurgence of the virus. So at the Johns Hopkins site they’ve ‘working to fill the void of publicly accessible covid-19 testing data’, because without testing you obviously can’t work out the numbers.

Canto: But more than testing itself, the turnaround of results is a problem. A young woman was just on the tube saying it took three weeks to get her test results, which renders the test useless. And another person on the tube reported that she’d tested positive, felt generally okay or asymptomatic, then tested negative, after which she came down with a heavy case replete with many of the covid-19 symptoms, and then tested positive again. How can this happen?

Jacinta: It’s still a mysterious virus, but to return to the update and Johns Hopkins, they’re generally looking at US data, but I’m interested in understanding the testing process and how well it maps the prevalence of this virus. The website has a graphic which shows the fairly rapid rise in daily testing from March through to June (with a drop-off from mid-June, when perhaps they thought it was more under control), and the number of positive daily tests, which hasn’t of course risen so much, so that the percentage of positive test results has gradually fallen. The WHO recommends that the percentage of positive tests, the positive percentage rate (PPR), in nations or states where there’s widespread testing, should be under 5% for at least fourteen days before those states can start ‘relaxing’, but I’ve read different, more flexible recommendations elsewhere from health authorities, so it seems still a matter of educated guesswork with an unpredictable pandemic. 

Canto: For the different US states, looking at the figures now in mid-August, the figures are weird. Washington has a PPR of 100% (?!) and are testing 1 in every 10,000, so it seems they’re only testing those they know are positive? That’s top of the list and bottom is North Carolina with a PPR of -13.1, and yes that’s a minus, and they’re testing -.09 in every thousand, and I’ve no idea what that means.

Jacinta: But most states’ figures are clear enough. New York is at 0.8% PPR with over 4 tests per 1000, which is good, but Nevada, Idaho and Florida are at over 16% PPR, each with around 1.5 tests per 1000, and that’s obviously a problem. An indication of the lack of centralised control of the situation – it’s hard to compare data from state to state. Anyway, the key, some say, is to scale the testing to the size of the epidemic in that nation/state, not to the state’s population – but how can you do that when you’re using the testing to determine the size of the epidemic?

Canto: Well presumably if nobody is reporting unusual, covid-like symptoms, as is the case here in South Australia, you don’t need to spend so much time, money and energy on testing. Not the case in the USA. Anyway, in this update, Dr Seheult noted, as we have been, that the case numbers for covid-19 are increasing, but the death rate is decreasing slightly, or at least levelling off. Possibly a result of more testing combined with better treatment. They may also be catching weaker levels of the virus due to measures put in place. But there’s no evidence as yet that the virus itself has become less potent, and this seems unlikely. 

Jacinta: And speaking of treatments, the steroid dexamethasone is apparently reducing mortality by as much as 35% for covid-19 patients on ventilation, according to a WHO preliminary report of work done at Oxford. It’s only good for those with severe hypoxia and associated problems though, but its a cheap, off-patent medication which can be added to the box of tricks for ICUs, once the data is confirmed. 

Canto: Okay, next time….

References

Coronavirus Pandemic Update 83: High Fructose, Vitamin D, & Oxidative Stress in COVID-19

Coronavirus Pandemic Update 86: COVID-19 Testing & Cases Increasing but Daily Deaths Decreasing

https://www.indexmundi.com/facts/indicators/SH.STA.DIAB.ZS/rankings

https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/testing

 

Written by stewart henderson

August 19, 2020 at 1:50 pm

reading matters 3

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

Content hints

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

Written by stewart henderson

June 28, 2020 at 3:01 pm

the USA’s weird Electoral College system

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number of electors per state, favouring rural states

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

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

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

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

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

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

L Douglas, Will he go? p 49.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canto: Please do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jacinta: And as impossible to get rid of.

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

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

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

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

Written by stewart henderson

June 22, 2020 at 11:01 pm

yank jingoism – why is it so?

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

George Bernard Shaw

I believe in American exceptionalism.

Joe Scarborough, MSNBC presenter (born in the USA)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1840

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by stewart henderson

June 16, 2020 at 4:51 pm