an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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

Posts Tagged ‘demagogues

the real story of American exceptionalism

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Sorry, God, I haven’t read your book but I’m sure you agree, haha

Canto: So while listening to the commentariat buzzing about the latest Trumpian debacle (you can take your pick), I’ve noticed the term ‘American exceptionalism’ being tossed about, whether in jest or earnest I’m not sure. What do you think it means?

Jacinta: Well we’ve already highlighted American jingoism, which is an across-the-spectrum problem, though more common among those who haven’t travelled much. It worries me more when I hear it from pundits who should know better, because people who think they’re exceptional tend not to be too self-critical. And Americans need to be more critical than ever, of their political system, which has brought them to this pass.

Canto: Yes, we’ve talked about this before but I recall a pundit saying, a few months ago, that America’s founding as a nation was in response to a tyrant – whom he named as the British monarch, George III – so why were they apparently descending into a tyranny now? But this wasn’t quite the story was it?

Jacinta: That’s right. The Brits had executed one of their monarchs a century and a half before the formation of the American state, precisely for being overly intransigent and tyrannical. Then a half-century later they threw out another one for similar reasons. George III was a constitutional monarch, and it was parliament that was making decisions about the American colony. Of course Britain wasn’t a fully representative democracy at the time, but then neither was the new American state – only 6% of the population was allowed to vote in their first Presidential election. It has taken centuries for western countries, including the US, to arrive at full adult suffrage. There are no exceptions in this.

Canto: There’s an article here by a presumably American professor of international relations at Harvard which punctures the American exceptionalism myth, and it says much that we already know, that powerful nations, regardless of their internal politics, are always keen to maintain and expand their sphere of power and influence, and that tends to be the basis of their foreign policy. That explains Britain’s behaviour in the ‘new world’ as much as it explains US behaviour in the Philippines and the Pacific, and in Vietnam and Iraq. The US has been expansionist since the get-go, and it shouldn’t take that much self-critical analysis to understand why so many regions of the world despise the very term “American’. This doesn’t make Americans exceptionally bad, but we should surely have reached a point in our progressive development to realise that foreign lives matter as much as those of our own nation.

Jacinta: Yet again and again, amongst even the liberal commentariat, we get comments like ‘leader of the free world’, ‘the checks and balances that make us stand apart from other nations’, ‘the nation that others look to’, ‘the world’s greatest democracy’ and other thought-free shibboleths. And now more than ever, as their nation has been brought down through allowing a clearly unqualified and inadequate boy-king to become their head of state, with powers far beyond his capacities, Americans need to take a good hard look at themselves and their political system rather than simply moaning about the boy-king and hoping that the system can withstand him. A better system would have dealt with him long before he ever got to this position.

Canto: But really, can you prove this? Can you give examples?

Jacinta: Well no system is perfect but let’s look at the recent meeting of Trump and Putin. Of course it would be silly to compare Australia with the USA in this regard – Putin would have no interest in a meeting with our PM – but any country under the Westminster system – say the UK – would have much the same checks and balances. And this is the thing – a Prime Minister under that system would see her role in very different terms, generally, from the President under the US system. She is first and foremost the leader of her party in Parliament, and is present in Parliament every day that it sits, leading the arguments and being informed, whether she likes it or not, of the dissension and divisions within her own party as well as the contrary views of the opposition. So a meeting with a major and adversarial head of state would inevitably be a matter thrashed out in Parliament, with the PM taking part in the debate. And of course, being closeted together in Parliament House with the Foreign Minister and other relevant ministers is a very different situation for the national leader than being completely separated from Congress and surrounded by mostly hand-picked underlings who are simply paid to do her (or I should now say, his) bidding. A recipe for disaster, if not dictatorship. Not to mention, as I already have elsewhere, the host of privileges and responsibilities vested in the ‘commander-in-chief’ and accorded to no other national leader in a democratic country. The fact that this sort of system is seen, by far too many Americans, as a shining example to all nations is surely proof that the US is exceptional only in its jingoism and its hubris.

Canto: Well that’s pretty strong stuff, and I’m not sure I entirely agree with you, and I’m not sure you answered my question. What’s to prevent a Trump-like figure becoming Prime Minister of Australia?

Jacinta:  I thought I’d explained. Our national elections are not fought out between Mr Conservative and Ms Liberal, one or other to be head of state. They’re fought on a mixture of local and national interests, essentially in the manner of the US mid-terms. We’re voting, essentially, for the party we want in power, as well as a local member we like (for those few who keenly follow politics) and we give due consideration to the leader of that party, always knowing that if that leader underperforms or is found to be corrupt or whatever, there are other elected representatives that can replace him, as quite often happens…

Canto: But even in Australia a situation could occur that a, shall we say unconventional, but very popular figure emerges, with a populist false-promises agenda that appeals to the masses (in a manner largely incomprehensible, if not reprehensible, to the elites), so the party – and surely it would be the Right – might batten on to her as its principle means of gaining and holding onto power – a Faustian bargain and all that – and vote her into the PM position…

Jacinta: Well everything’s possible in the worst of all possible worlds, but it’s far more unlikely. When Trump first started his bid, his candidacy was hugely unpopular within the Republican Party, so he took his message, such as it was, to the people. That’s to say, he worked out as he went along what his people lapped up most voraciously and he fed it to them. As many pundits over there are saying, he’s transformed most of the Republican party, and even more of the voters, into his lapdogs and willing enablers – ‘the party of Lincoln!’ as the Republican never-Trumpers moan. There’s really no opportunity for that to happen within the Westminster system. We have elections between two established parties, in the main, and they often have two established leaders, who owe their positions to party discipline. They’re not in a position to go rogue like Trump has done. And if one of the parties has a shiny new leader she’ll be more likely to toe the party line because she’s not yet established and because she knows the election is about far more than just her. We don’t have any simple person v person elections, except in small by-elections, and hopefully never will.

Canto: Well, I think you’re right, but it’s notable that, in all the noise from the free press from over there, there’s precious little soul-searching about the political system that has permitted someone so obviously inappropriate to hold an office that gives him so much power. Everyone knows that great power should come with great responsibility. Every sensible person in the USA is raging about Trump’s irresponsibility, but virtually nobody is raging about a political system that enables someone of his type to gain this enormous power without sufficient checking, and nobody seems to have anticipated how he could find means, in his blustering way, to extend a power that is already massive to an almost ridiculous degree.

Jacinta: So yes, that’s the real exceptionalism. The US bangs on about being the greatest democracy, but democracy by itself isn’t enough. Most people who vote – no matter what country they’re in – know precious little about how their government works, about foreign relations and trade, about history, about developments in science and technology, even about systems that protect their own welfare, so they’re susceptible to false-promising demagogues, especially if they feel they’re struggling more than they should. Concerns about democracy and demagoguery have been voiced loudly since the days of Plato and Aristotle. The US seems to have been exceptionally deaf about them. The bulwarks against demagoguery are not, as pundits keeps saying, institutions of democracy, they’re institutions of an open society. The free press is a meritocracy, owing its duty to the facts and the evidence, not to ‘the people’. The same goes for the judiciary, which owe its duty to the law and its judicious interpretation according to precedent and the given facts and evidence. The science and technology sector should be at arm’s length from the government, owing its credibility to the independent interpretation of data and confirmation of hypotheses, always subject to peer review. Now, to some extent, I’m talking about an ideal here – I’m sure no government is perfectly open in this way. But Trump has, in his blunderingly self-serving style, corrupted the free press and the judiciary in the minds of ‘his’ people, turned his nation’s formidable foes into his nation’s friends and vice versa, and made America a kind of monstrous laughing-stock worldwide. And there’s another problem – he will not give up his Presidency. He will not. And it will certainly get worse. So that’s a problem for their country’s responsible adults to deal with. I wish them well.

Written by stewart henderson

July 21, 2018 at 9:46 am

a few words on Donald Trump and democracy

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Phineas T Barnum, a rather more likeable huckster

Phineas T Barnum, a rather more likeable huckster

I’ve never been too much exercised on US domestic politics, but I listened with some interest to an interview on the Point of Inquiry podcast recently with David Cay Johnston, the author of a book on Donald Trump, inter alia, and he effectively explained how such an obviously boorish character functioned, though he didn’t so much explain why he got to where he is today – which would require a different book, one that reads the psyche of a particular type of individual, or ‘mark’.

The term ‘mark’ is used by magicians playing as ‘psychics’ or ‘faith healers’ etc to refer to the easily duped. Johnson, in his book The Making of Donald Trump, describes Trump as a Barnum & Bailey ‘huckster’ type, far more interested in persuasion, usually for the purpose of making money, than truth. What struck Johnston, when he first reported on Trump in relation to his interest in casinos in the late eighties, was his ignorance, even of the business at hand. He tested this himself by asking Trump questions which contained deliberately false information and watching how Trump handled them. And of course got the usual arrogant bluster that we’ve all observed.

So this is the question. Why does anyone takes Trump seriously? I remember my own first experience of Trump, years ago, when he hosted some kind of reality show in which he was interviewing prospective job-seekers. It only took about five minutes to realise that the fellow was a self-important loudmouth and a bullying dirtbag. So it didn’t take long for my feelings of contempt to switch from the oxygen-thief to his ‘victims’. What kind of idiot would put herself in this position? Apparently it had to do with money and the power that it brought…

So the worry I have is not about the huckster Trump, it’s about those who take him seriously, his ‘marks’. And it’s also about the process by which anyone can obtain high political office in a very powerful country – a position of huge responsibility. Arguably, it’s a problem of democracy.

This problem was highlighted some 2,500 years ago, right at the beginning of democracy as a political system, when the sort of populism and demagoguery that Trump utilises so instinctively brought ancient Athens to its knees, and it’s the principle reason why the intellectual elites represented by the likes of Thucydides, Plato and Aristotle were so vehemently opposed to democracy. They’d witnessed the disastrous Sicilian campaign (which precipitated Athenian decline in the region) which they blamed, not entirely fairly, on that system. Certainly they recognised the dangers of such populists as Cleon and Alcibiades, though neither they nor anyone after them were able to come up with a better system. Plato’s Republic, which advocated, perhaps not entirely seriously, rule by an intellectual elite, was hampered by an absurdly static notion of society, a sort of eugenics avant la lettre, as if intellectuals (and warriors, and servants) were born and not made – or, at least, a mixture of both.

Yet if you look at our political system today, you’ll find that we temper the democratic political system with a fair degree of intellectual elitism in the form of our judiciary – the ‘unrepresentative swill’ that preside over our high court and other courts throughout the land, interpreting legislature judiciously and causing grumbling parliamentarians to find new and more thoughtful laws to get round them. And I would advocate another form of ‘elitist’ intervention to ensure more responsible government.

I’ve mentioned this before when I suggested that individuals who want to stand for public office, thus to participate in making laws that influence our citizenry and showcase our nation to the world (and more than this in the case of powerful nations), should have to pass a reasonably stringent scientific literacy test. Of course, such an idea will never get up, so I’m proposing an even broader one.

It’s expected that anybody applying for a job involving considerable responsibility should be submitted to considerable scrutiny regarding their plans for the job, their understanding of the job’s requirements, and their knowledge of the fields covered by the job. In the case of becoming the President of a nation, this scrutiny should surely be imperative. So, a rigorous questioning of the candidate’s knowledge and ideas with respect to that nation’s economic situation, its domestic and foreign policies, as well as a basic understanding of science in relation to national and global issues, should be an absolute minimum requirement.

Compare this requirement to what actually exists today. No scrutiny whatsoever. A complete protection against tough questioning on these matters, with no requirement to justify to the people who they serve – as the ultimate public servant – any remark or decision they make. It’s a problem.

Trump won’t become President, because though he knows how to play to and work a particular crowd, that crowd will continue to shrink as his tactics are exposed by the media and especially by those who otherwise would support the conservative side of politics he’s vaguely aligned himself to, but it’s surely a systemic failure that such an inappropriate and ignorant candidate should ever get to where he is today. If that’s how democracy works, then democracy isn’t enough. Democracy has its limits – it has become far too unquestioned as a political system. Its limits are in fact considerable. We shouldn’t decide scientific matters by democratic process (that sounds obvious, but I’ve heard more than one polly say the exact opposite), and we shouldn’t, in my view allow just anyone to stand for political office, especially at the top level. The consequences might be dire. And we should also do our best, though it’s a hard road to hoe, to make every vote count, by making it as generally informed and reasoned as possible. There’s nothing new about that last statement, but it still holds true. Democracy without education, in the broadest sense, isn’t worth much.

Plus ca change...

Plus ca change…

Written by stewart henderson

August 13, 2016 at 9:55 am