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Posts Tagged ‘democracy

Supporting Hong Kong 3: it’s all about freedom

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shades of Tiananman – tanks on the Hong Kong border

As I begin to write this, I’ve learned that Hong Kong developments and tensions are playing out here in Adelaide too, as well as elsewhere in Australia. Supporters of Hong Kong’s independence and its freedoms have turned out in unexpected numbers, but they’ve met with violent pro-Chinese opposition, chanting ‘Hong Kong belongs to China’, a slogan that, of course, misses the point completely. Hong Kong would be delighted to belong to China if the mainland people enjoyed the freedoms that Hong Kongers have become accustomed to over the years, but that ain’t gonna happen in the foreseeable.

In preparation for this piece I’ve been reading the fulsome Wikipedia article, Human rights in China, and it truly makes the heart sick. I’ve already written about the Uyghur people of the Xinjiang ‘frontier’ (as many as a million of them are in prison), as well as the bullying, and worse, of (pretty mild) feminist activists by the Thugburo, but there’s also virtually no freedom of the press or the internet, limited freedom of movement within China (especially for the poor), regular repression of ethnic minorities (there are over a hundred of them), selective repression of religions (the Falun Gong have been bizarrely targeted, and organ-harvested), imprisonment and torture of political dissidents, application of fake and damaging ‘psychiatric’ treatments to non-conformists, and wide-ranging use of execution – China still executes more of its own citizens than the rest of the world combined (though global rates are thankfully falling, and Iran executes more on a per capita basis).

Of course, as far as Hong Kong is concerned, the one human rights ‘event’ that dominates all others is the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, as tanks are currently taking up positions around Hong Kong. So one has to wonder, considering this grim history, and considering that the controversial extradition bill which set off the protests has been shelved, why Hong Kongers are courting disaster in this way. One reason must surely be the initial success of the movement re extradition. Another is likely to be safety in numbers (illusory or not). Hong Kong is no Tiananmen, it’s far far bigger. Even so, if the PRC acts decisively and brutally, can anybody see the international community responding to save the people of Hong Kong? It’s more likely there will be a great deal of impotent outrage, and a weak round of sanctions before hastening back to business as usual.

And yet. Another huge difference between 2019 and 1989, of course, is the democratisation of recording technology. It’s another difference that has doubtless emboldened Hong Kongers. It’s also playing massively on the minds of a government that has taken media control to an extreme never before seen in human history. The PRC has made a habit of demonising ‘western values’ in recent decades, and it knows full well that a frontal attack on Hong Kong will demolish their claims to moral superiority overnight. Smart Hong Kongers also know this – so it’s a fascinating, frightening stand-off situation. I’ve had a number of Hong Kong students over the years, and many of them are still in Australia pursuing further studies. I can’t imagine what they’re going through at this point.

The hope we should all be holding to is for a peaceful resolution, but there are questions as to who should be negotiating for each side – and particularly for the people of Hong Kong. The protesters have made five ‘formal demands’:

  • the complete withdrawal of the proposed extradition bill
  • the removal of the use of “riot” concerning the protests
  • the release of arrested protesters
  • an inquiry into alleged police brutality, and
  • genuine universal suffrage

All of these demands seem reasonable, prima facie, unless of course there were protesters guilty of brutal acts etc, but in any case it’s highly unlikely that the Grand Poohbahs of the Chinese State would demean themselves by negotiating with mere protesters, especially after labelling them as ‘terrorists’ according to Thugburo convention. Leading protesters are also reluctant to identify themselves, as they know they’ll be immediately targeted by the PRC government. That leaves the Hong Kong administration, and its Chief, Carrie Lam. It’s interesting, and perhaps surprising, that protesters didn’t include her resignation as one of their official demands – though many are unofficially demanding it, and it’s implicit in the universal suffrage demand. She has apparently warned recently that Hong Kong may be on a ‘path of no return’, a comment as frightening as it is vague. Certainly such warnings don’t seem to be working; student demos are being supported by general strikes, and specific actions by lawyers, civil servants, hospital workers and others. Most of these actions have been peaceful, but there have been violent incidents, and the role of the Hong Kong police in suppressing/exacerbating such incidents is crucial, and concerning. Police tactics have become more aggressive, but they don’t seem to be dampening the determination of the protesters, who’ve had enough of increasing PRC interference in Hong Kong affairs. They’ve also developed smart tactics, such as ‘being water’, flowing from place to place, continuous and uniform, without leaders or followers. This and other tactics were born from years of experience of failed and partially successful protest movements of the past. Perceived and documented police brutality has also been harnessed for the cause, as in the photo of a women hit in the eye, apparently by a police ‘bean-bag round’ a non-lethal form of ammunition. Women throughout Hong Kong and Taiwan are now sporting ‘bloodied’ eye-bandages in solidarity.

Unsurprisingly, those of us who’ve been around for a while are hardly sanguine about how this will end, and our greatest hope is that the PRC will see that the cost of engaging in what would certainly be a bloodbath, carried out in front of the world, would be greater than any economic or other foreseeable long-term benefit for a nation whose economy is already the envy of most nations. The Hong Kong and Taiwan protests are undoubtedly a smack in the eye to PRC pride, as, inter alia, they expose the lie about ‘Asian values’ the PRC is keen to promote in its battle with ‘the west’. I suspect that what will happen in the near future is a war of attrition, with the Chinese hoping that some sort of over-reach by the protesters will justify anti-terrorist ‘action’. The noises from the international community thus far haven’t by any means convinced me that the PRC won’t get away with mass slaughter when the time comes.

Written by stewart henderson

August 20, 2019 at 1:49 pm

supporting Hong Kong 2: handover/return

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Hong Kong handover ceremony, July 1997

Terms redolent of significance: in talking yesterday of ancient Egypt to my students, many of whom I tend to assume, after years of experience, are geographically challenged, I mentioned that it was in the north-east corner of Africa, just across the Red Sea and the Suez Canal from Israel. ‘Palestine’, one of my older Saudi students corrected, with a little grin.

I think also of the term ‘nakba’, which the Israeli government has been trying to erase from written records. It’s of course a very significant term for Palestinians everywhere. The Brits refer to 1997 re Hong Kong as the ‘handover’, which fails to refer to the extremely doubtful terms of its original acquisition. The Chinese refer to it as ‘the return’, which fails to refer to the massive value-adding, in human if not in environmental terms, that occurred under British control.

Hong Kong is now a ‘special administrative region’ of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and in relinquishing it, Britain brought its once-mighty empire to a whimpering end.

The twenty years or so before 1997 saw a lot of diplomatic manouevring, principally between the PRC’s main man Deng Xiaoping and Britain’s Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher. At first, the negotiating teams were a long way apart. Deng was insistent that the territory should be handed over unconditionally, and that if necessary it would be taken by force, which, he argued, would be easy-peasy. Thatcher argued that a treaty was a treaty and that Britain always stood by its treaties, cited a ‘Convention for the extension of Hong Kong territory’, signed in 1890, and quibbled about the wording of the old treaties, but it was clear that the PRC had the upper hand. Even so, the economic transformation of the region, especially since the seventies, and the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, encouraged British officials to provide as many democratic safeguards against the Chinese oligarchy as possible, as 1997 drew near. Chris Patten, the last British governor, battled to increase the voting franchise in the early nineties, while the PRC fumed over lack of consultation. A watered-down package of reforms was accepted in 1994. It fell well short of full democracy. So when the big day came, on July 1 1997, the proposed ‘one country, two systems’ future was being much questioned and worreted over.

In the 22 years since, that date has been marked by demonstrations organised by Hong Kong’s Civil Human Rights Front, demanding universal suffrage. They started small, but in 2002-3, anti-PRC activists received a boost of sorts when a proposed law, Article 23, designed to suppress political activity and freedom of speech, especially criticism of the PRC, became a rallying issue. Article 23 was indefinitely shelved when half a million people came out in demonstrations against it in July 2003. Since that time the struggles between pro-democracy and pro-Beijing forces in Hong Kong have been increasingly overt. Since 1997, the PRC has been keen to have the territory controlled by regime puppets. The first was Tung Chee-hwa, a more or less unknown businessman given the title of Chief Executive of Hong Kong at handover. He faced extreme pressure to resign during the 2003 demonstrations, and finally stepped down in March 2005, under some pressure from Beijing for corporate mismanagement. He’s still influential in Hong Kong and recently blamed, at least in part, the introduction of liberal studies (during his administration) for the current unrest. Might be right there.

Tung’s replacement was Donald Tsang, who seems to have been a more able administrator, though his popularity gradually declined during his 7 years in office as he became involved in business scandals as well as mishandling, according to his own admission, a new Political Appointments System, which critics found lacking in transparency, among other things. Clearly with so much at stake, and with so much suspicion of Beijing interference, the Chief Executive role has been anything but an easy ride.

The third Chief Executive was Leung Chun-ying, surprisingly elected in 2012 – the electors being the 1200 or so members of the Election Committee, largely controlled by Beijing. He had a reputation as a reformer, within the extremely narrow confines acceptable to the PRC. During his incumbency social unrest culminated in the umbrella movement of late 2014. Like many similar protest movements over the past few years, this changed nothing in terms of democratisation for the region, even if it proclaimed to the world that Hong Kong was prepared to fight hard for its freedoms. Serious rioting also broke out in late 2016, in response to an attempted government crackdown on street hawkers. Again, Hong Kong residents and business people were showing their spirit for combatting government heavy-handedness. It’s also clear however, that the Beijing thugocracy knows nothing other than heavy-handed control of ‘its’ people. It’s a recipe for major confrontation.

In recent times Hong Kong has experienced serious housing problems and a growth in the proportion of people living below the poverty line. This and concerns about PRC interference have created growing levels of unrest. The manner in which the Hong Kong Chief Executive is elected has been a sore point, with protest leaders pointing out that it fails to satisfy ‘international standards in relation to universal suffrage’ – this is enshrined, for what it’s worth, in Article 45 of the Basic Law of Hong Kong, which requires ‘selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures’. Of course, this is as likely to be honoured by Beijing as is the UN-directed Palestinian ‘right of return’ by the Israeli government, and no reforms have occurred for the most recent election in 2017, which brought the current Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, to power. All of these CEs have been more or less pro-Beijing puppets.

The most recent unrest was, of course, sparked by a recent bill proposed by Lam, which would allow criminals, and political prisoners, to be extradited from Hong Kong to China. And we all know that political prisoners are to the Thugburo as an Englishman is to the Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum giant. The protests have been massive, causing the bill to be indefinitely shelved. Lam has since stated publicly that ‘the bill is dead’. Interestingly, though, the protest movement has continued…

This obviously inadequate summary of Hong Kong’s history has helped me in coming to a better understanding of current events, which the democratic world in particular is watching with fascination and foreboding. As I may have mentioned, I would’ve been in Kowloon next week but for a health issue (not my own) which caused us to cancel, so that adds to my interest in these tensions and their possible outcomes. In my next post I’ll try to get my head around more of the details of the current situation.

References

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

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

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2019_Hong_Kong_extradition_bill

Written by stewart henderson

August 15, 2019 at 9:08 pm

situation USA 2 – very likely, the worst is yet to come

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The USA, over the past two and a half years, has been the object of a global ridicule and opprobrium never experienced before in its history, and it’s largely deserved. And the reason lies in a flaw in democracy pointed out by Greek philosophers, unabashed anti-democratic elitists, some 2500 years ago. Their concern was that the people could be too easily swayed by populist demagogues, individuals who, either through self-delusion or basic deceit, promised everything and delivered nothing, or worse.

There’s a famous quote, attributed to Churchill, that democracy ‘is the worst system of government, apart from all the others’. That description should be taken seriously. There’s no perfect system of government, in fact far from it. And democracy, in its purest form, is never practised anywhere. I’ve heard it said that a free press and an independent judiciary are two of the ‘pillars of democracy’. This is false. They’re in fact bulwarks against democracy. Both of these institutions are elite meritocracies. Another essential bulwark against democracy is an independent science and technology sector. If we based our acceptance of science on popular vote, we’d almost certainly still be living in caves, subsisting on the most basic requirements for survival. So let’s not worship democracy, but nor should we throw it out with the bathwater.

Democracy’s biggest saving grace is that it is inclusive. Everybody gets to have a say. One possible vote for each adult – assuming there’s no corruption of the process. In this respect, if nothing else, everybody is equal. Yet we know that no two people reflect in an ‘equal’ way, whatever that means, before casting their vote. Some are massively invested in voting, others barely at all, and their investments go in innumerable directions. Some of those directions never change, others zig-zag all over the place. And history shows, as the Greek philosophers knew well, that a licence to vote doesn’t turn anyone into a discerning voter.

The USA, it seems to me, suffers from two problems – too much democracy on the one hand, and too great a concentration of power on the other. They say that in the USA, anyone can become President. This is something Americans like to brag about. It’s not true of course, but even if it were, it wouldn’t be a positive. There appears to be no screening for such candidature. Some Americans are calling for extreme vetting of immigrants, but nobody appears to be calling for the same for Presidential candidates. You might argue that the same goes under the Westminster system of democracy, but in fact there is such a system, albeit informal, for attaining the position of Prime Minister. She must first gain the approval of her party, her team (and she can be dumped by that team at any time). In the 2016 US election, the candidate Trump by-passed the party he claimed to be a member of, and appealed entirely to the people, with a wide range of vague promises and claims about his own brilliance and effectiveness. The business cognoscenti knew well enough that Trump was a buffoon, a blowhard and a flim-flam man, but they also knew that his presidency, in being good for his own business, would be good for other businesses too, especially in the field of taxation. The Republican Party as a whole – with a number of notable exceptions – fell in line. Those who believed in minimal government recognised that Trump’s noisy incompetence would actually bring about minimal government by default, and give the governmental process a bad name, which was all fine by them. The question of ethics rarely entered into it.

As a distant watcher of what I’ve called the slow-motion train wreck of the Trump presidency, I’ve learned more than I ever thought I would know about the US presidential system, and more than I ever wanted to know about Trump himself.

For some time, Trump was nothing more than a funny name to me. My first full-on experience of him must have come from an early showing of ‘The Apprentice’, probably accidentally stumbled on through channel-hopping. I’ve never taken much interest in the business world, mea culpa. Within literally seconds, I was thinking ‘If I didn’t know better, I’d assume this was a black comedy. The host talks total gobshite, and the contestants, all actors, treat him like a deity. His very name is meant as a joke – he trumps everyone else in spite of being tasteless, boorish and pig-ignorant – and the contestants, who are put up in a monument to vulgarity called ‘Trump Tower’, swoon at all the gimcrack opulence. No better caricature of the Ugly American has ever been created’. Yet I knew that this was no caricature. Or rather, Trump was a caricature, but also a real human being.

What I didn’t know then, and what I’ve learned since his accession to the presidency, was the extent of Trump’s criminality. This has been fully revealed through a couple of New York Times stories, but I first learned about it through Sam Harris podcasts and other outlets, as well as through the words and behaviour of Trump himself, and his thuggish cronies. His use of standover men, fixers and the like has all the markings of organised crime – or somewhat disorganised crime in Trump’s case. The fact that he has gotten away with this behaviour for decades is a testament to the problems of the US justice system.

Trump became President with a minority of votes – this time revealing a problem with the federal electoral system. Claims by pundits such as Niall Ferguson that Putin’s interference in that election had a minimal effect were either naive or politically motivated. The Putin dictatorship’s actions were sophisticated and brilliantly targeted, and the subsequent response of Trump to the clear evidence of that interference should have been enough to have him thrown out of office. Another massive problem with the US federal system.

Sensible Americans are now faced with the problem of getting rid of Trump, and engaging in the root and branch reform of the disastrous system that allowed Trump’s rise to and maintenance of power. It seems, from other pundits I’ve read, that the US Presidency has experienced a kind of ‘dictatorship creep’ over the years, and this now needs to be confronted directly. The judiciary, for example needs to be fully independent, with the highest positions decided upon by judicial peers. Presidential emoluments need to be eliminated through clear, solid law. Presidential pardoning powers need to be sharply restricted, or preferably removed from the President altogether and placed in the hands of senior law officials. The presentation of all available taxation documents must be a sine qua non of presidential candidacy. If Presidents are to be directly elected – not a great idea IMHO – it should be through a first-past-the-post, one-vote-one-value system. Presidential immunity must be jettisoned, and if this interferes with the President’s role, this should scream to the American people that the President’s role is too burdensome, and that governmental power needs to be less concentrated and more distributed.

All of the preceding, and more, seems obvious to an outsider, but among Americans, brought up since infancy to believe they have the best government in the multiverse, self-criticism in this area is hard to come by. Possibly more abuse of the system by Trump and his enablers will wake Americans up to what’s needed, but I remain skeptical.

Which brings us back to the immediate situation. I have to admit, what has surprised me more than anything about this presidency is that Trump’s following hasn’t been reduced substantially since falling to around the 40% mark very early in his term. Clearly, his base, much-despised by Trump himself, has gained nothing from his incumbency, as opposed to the super-rich (small in number but gargantuan in power), who see through Trump but cynically support his lazy, neglectful attitude to government administration. The fact that this base is solid and easily aroused reveals a long-standing problem in America’s individualistic, mistrustful, and massively divided society. Trump is wily enough to try to take advantage of this discontent, especially as the law appears to be closing in on him. He may not have the numbers to win another election, but he is very likely to use those numbers to do as much damage to America’s much-vaunted but clearly very fragile separation of powers as he possibly can. I’m unfortunately quite convinced that the worst of the Trump presidency is yet to come.

Written by stewart henderson

May 13, 2019 at 7:30 pm

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

on the US political & social system in crisis: 1 – the illusory national superiority effect and limits on democracy

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an interesting partial insight from the days before modern democracies – and emanating from my philosophical homeland

Canto: So we’ve sort of promised not to talk so much about Trump, but let’s admit it, we’re still watching with a fair degree of obsession this slow-motion train wreck which might only get uglier and more damaging as the months roll on…

Jacinta: Well, let’s try to take a wider view, and consider how the USA got to this pass, which means examining its whole political/social system, since so many of its own pundits, IMHO, are infected by the strange disease known as American jingoism, and are expressing dismay about how the ‘world’s greatest democracy’, ‘the leader of the free world’, and the ‘model that the world looks to’, etc, should have come to this.

Canto: So they’re not fit to judge their own system?

Jacinta: Well, we have solid psychological evidence that individuals, for good reason, take a slightly rosier-than-true view about how attractive they are, how competent they are in various fields of endeavour, how generous they are, and so forth – it’s called the illusory superiority effect – and it doesn’t seem to me unreasonable that a lot of people, probably a majority, take a similar view of their nation. So it’s generally a better idea, for nations as well as for people, to listen to what others say about them, or simply to observe or monitor their actual behaviour, and make comparative and quantitative analyses.

Canto: There’s also another effect we’ve talked about, which should have a name, but doesn’t. ‘Might is right’ comes close, but doesn’t quite capture it methinks. It’s that sense felt throughout history by every powerful state – that their military-industrial power confers moral authority and a sort of natural leadership, as in ‘the world’s police officer’.

Jacinta: Absolutely, there should be a name for that fallacy, and there probably is, but in this discussion I want us to focus entirely on the USA’s domestic policies and its political system as it effects its own people.

Canto: So that’s where the OECD’s ‘Better Life Index’ (BLI) comes in.

Jacinta: Yes, I’ve talked about quantitative analysis, and I want to find as much quantitative analysis as we can to compare the best countries on the globe in terms of a variety of parameters. I’m hoping to find more than just the BLI figures, because as with the best science we need different teams to conduct studies that might confirm or disconfirm, using different methodologies, so that we can get a deeper and more complex picture.

Canto: But of course the BLI is itself quite complex. It analyses nations in terms of 11 different ‘dimensions’ – housing, jobs, income, community, education, environment, civic engagement, health, life satisfaction, safety, and work-life balance. The intention is to tweak these dimensions and add new ones if necessary over time. For instance there used to be a dimension called ‘governance’, which would’ve been useful for examining the USA as it currently stands, but that has been changed to ‘civic engagement’, which is more individual-focused.

Jacinta: Yes, and we may go into a little more detail about those dimensions, and into the OECD’s methodology, a bit later, but for now let’s look at results. The first BLI was produced in 2011, and it sought to measure quality of life in 35 Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries and 6 ‘partner countries’ – though only 38 countries are presented in the latest BLI ratings for some reason. It’s been regularly seeking to expand its membership. The latest BLI is from 2017 and In those ratings, Australia, where we are, is ranked third, behind Norway and Denmark. Last year, Australia was ranked second, and the year before that, first, so something’s going wrong.

Canto: I believe it’s in the dimensions of education and environment that we’re slipping up.

Jacinta: Meanwhile, the USA ranks eighth, moving up from ninth the previous year. Other western countries ahead of it, besides Norway, Denmark and Australia, are Sweden,Canada, Switzerland and Iceland.

Canto: So the USA isn’t doing badly at all, it just can’t call itself the best in the world, according to these criteria. So let’s look at individual dimensions, such as civic engagement, since we want to look at America’s political system.

Jacinta: Well that dimension is supposed to look at citizens’ involvement in democracy, so they’re sort of assuming that all these countries are democratic. The USA comes off well here, in third place, though I’m rather surprised to find that Australia is solidly in top spot in this field. Where the USA fares worst is in community (23rd), in work-life balance (30th, but Australia comes in at 31st) and safety (22nd, but Australia comes 26th!).

Canto: Interesting – the safety dimension looks at assault and murder rates, so for all the school shooting tragedies and gun violence and the attendant publicity, the USA is safer, overall than Australia. That seems incredible. Maybe we should look more carefully at this methodology. Where do they get their stats from?

Jacinta: That would take time to look into. But just taking this on face value, it provides a corrective to many assumptions, positive or negative, we make about the USA. Essentially though, I just just wanted to use the BLI to point out that the rhetoric about the USA as the greatest democracy – or simply the greatest nation –  should be taken with a heap of salt. And of course there are other surveys of ‘best countries’, such as the US News Best Countries survey, which currently ranks the USA in eighth position (the same as the BLI), behind Switzerland, Canada, Germany,  the UK, Japan, Sweden and Australia (a completely different grouping from the BLI – Norway doesn’t even get a mention). This is supposedly based on a ‘variety of metrics’ which it would be impossible to assess here.

Canto: And also, as you’ve mentioned, it’s not just about democracy. One thing I’ve noticed about the liberal pundits on CNN and MSNBC. They’re always talking about the free press and an independent judiciary as pillars of democracy, under threat from the current bullshitter in their china shop. An independent fourth estate and judiciary are pillars all right but not of democracy. In fact they’re bulwarks against the ever-present threat of democracy and the demagogues that take advantage of that flawed but best-of-a-bad-lot political system. That’s to say, they’re part of what Popper termed an ‘open society’ – and a thoroughly elitist part. This is the point that needs constantly to be made – democracy is dodgy as, but no better political system has ever been invented. However, we don’t practice anything like pure democracy, even setting aside the meritocratic institutions like the judiciary and the fourth estate, which hedge it around. Under the westminster system – used by every English-speaking democracy apart from the US – we have a parliament with more power than the US Congress, a judiciary which is generally more independent than that in the US, and a purely titular head of state instead of the all-too-powerful one sanctioned by the US system. There are no veto powers or pardoning powers to speak of, and nobody within that system ever imagines that they’re above the law in any sense whatever. We don’t have impeachment, which seems to me a disastrous political tool, and we tend to eschew the high-falutin term ‘indictment’, we prefer to just charge people with criminal activity – a far more levelling circumstance.

Jacinta: And it also isn’t a pure democracy in that we don’t just vote for anyone in the Westminster system. We vote for parties, with the occasional independent, who of course will never be able to form a government but might be able to curb some government policy. And the parties select candidates based on merit, more or less. Candidates are vetted, to some degree, even if it’s sometimes a bit ad hoc. Again, something of a meritocracy, an element of elitism.

Canto: And I should also mention, since we’re science advocates, that another thoroughly elitist component of an open, civilised society is an independent and flourishing science and technology sector. Climate science, for example, should be as free from politics as it’s possible to make it, and there certainly should be nothing democratic about it. If we based our science on popular vote, civilisation would never have taken off.

Jacinta: Okay, so we’ve laid some of the foundation for our critique of the US political and social system, next we’ll get into the nitty-gritty of why the US is currently in the confrontational mess that it’s in and what might be done, if anything to fix the problem. We’ll bring to the issues all the ambition and arrogance we can muster. It should be fun.

Written by stewart henderson

July 2, 2018 at 11:13 am

John Locke, the glorious revolution and the emergence of modern democracy

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Canto: So I’ve heard from various American pundits, who are concerned about the current move toward despotism over there, that their constitution and their war of independence were all for the purpose of breaking away from such despotism, namely the British monarchy. ‘So how in tarnation can this be hapnen in our country’, they mutter half-tearfully. So please explain.

Jacinta: Well, we can explore rather than explain. I’m no expert on the American constitution, but my general feeling without looking at it in detail would be that it was magnificently revolutionary and forward-thinking for its time, but that time was over 200 years ago. Every structure needs to be renovated now and then.

Canto: Also, though of course I accept that their fight for independence was a just one, their description of the British monarchy as a tyranny was a little over-simplified. It doesn’t take into account the fact that, in the century and a half before American independence, the Brits beheaded one king and chased another out of the country and didn’t accept his successors, William and Mary, until they agreed to conditions restricting their power, including a clear separation of powers. And these restrictive conditions have tightened over the years.

Jacinta: Yes but powerful states, such as the Britain of those days, tend to be more despotic over distant territories than over their home territory, where uprisings are more directly threatening.

Canto: Good point. But what’s interesting, when you look at history, is how much the more spectacular movements towards democracy in the late 18th  century, that’s to say the American independence war and its new state, and the revolution in France, owed to the outcome of the ‘Glorious Revolution’ that ousted James II, and to the philosopher of the new approach to governance, John Locke.

Jacinta: And yet the USA today is suffering under the burden of a potential if not actual despot, and they appear uncertain how to deal with him. It just seems unthinkable that such a character would ever achieve this position under the Westminster system, or in any western European polity.

Canto: Yeah, so wha’s hapnen?

Jacinta: Well, when I listen to the pundits on CNN and MSNBC, and on some of Sam Harris’s podcasts, they tend to talk of an increasingly polarised nation, echo-chambers of ideology enabled by social media sites, lack of civil discourse and the like. That’s to say, issues of today, usually with a tone of ‘it’s not like it used to be’. I suspect that this is a little exaggerated, and that a change of system might be in order.

Canto: So what can the Americans learn from the Westminster system, and from Locke?

Jacinta: Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government was published in 1689, significantly just after the ousting of James II, the installing of a constitutional monarchy, and the establishment of the English Bill of Rights – which, admittedly, was more about parliamentary than individual rights. It’s worth noting that absolute monarchy was then at its height in France under Louis XIV, who naturally felt it incumbent on him to support his ‘divine right’ colleague’s bid to regain the throne. In those days political philosophers were rather thin on the ground, and they liked to compare life under some kind of organised state with life in ‘the state of nature’, which was rather a playground for their imaginations. Locke’s predecessor, a generation or two earlier, Thomas Hobbes, described his ‘natural state’ as a war of all against all, which was nasty, brutish but at least mercifully short. People apparently decided one day to substitute this free-for-all for a scenario in which they’d bestow power on some entity, a Leviathan, in return for safety and protection. In giving up their freedom to this absolute authority they would preserve their lives from the depredations of the other, and what they gained would be better than what they lost. This was, of course, an argument for absolute monarchy just at the time it was being directly challenged. Locke’s perspective was very different, having come out of the experience of civil war between the forces pro and con Charles I, and then later James II – a rabid and very unpopular Catholic.

Canto: Yes, this makes me think of the accidents of history. Had James II been more like his older brother – that is, religiously liberal (or indifferent), more wary of the French, and more ‘indulgent’ with parliament, constitutional monarchy would have been delayed for who knows how long.

Jacinta: Yes, and Locke may not have written the political philosophy that later inspired, or partially inspired, the American and French democratic movements.

Canto: Or partially democratic movements.

Jacinta: Yes, democracy has always been partial, it seems to me. Certainly the constitutional monarchy agreed to by William and Mary in 1688 was far from democratic, but interestingly the upheavals of the period, and the more immediate dissemination of information in the form of political pamphlets – a product of the civil war in the 1640s – led to the emergence of radical democratic groups such as the Levellers, who wanted complete adult suffrage and annual parliaments, and also the Diggers, who demanded communal ownership of land so that no-one might starve. Starvation, by the way, was actually happening due to the harsh enclosure system that protected the landed aristocracy from the canaille. 

Canto: Anyway, I’ve never been sure about how much democracy is enough. Recent history suggests that directly electing a single leader, by national popular vote, can be an unmitigated disaster.

Jacinta: Yes, because it seems that, no matter how hard we try, we can’t get a general populace to make an informed decision. Education has always been touted as the answer, but it can’t be imposed on people, and it’s extraordinary how intractable so many people are to the charms of learning… Anyway, returning to Locke and the late seventeenth century, it’s fascinating to read some of the documents being written at this time, envisaging, in what seems to us today to be thoroughly moderate and reasoned language, changes to the political system that would take another two centuries or more to enact.

Canto: Because ruling powers or classes are, as a whole, extremely reluctant to give the slightest ground, and always think that the position of power granted to them is for the best or ‘natural’. So change generally needs to be incremental, or less, so as not to scare the aristocratic horses.

Jacinta: Anyway, Locke was no radical, and his Second Treatise was designed to justify what had already taken place in the Glorious Revolution. He begins, like Hobbes, with a state-of-nature ‘theory’, in which everyone has equal status and ‘rights’, especially the right to self-preservation, but nobody has the means to enforce those rights. Also, attached to those rights is the obligation to respect and protect the rights of others, which of course speaks to the means in some sense.

Canto: Suggesting some sort of social contract?

Jacinta: Yes, if you like, or the basis of a civil society, a ‘common-weal’ or commonwealth. Here’s a quote from the Second Treatise:

Having in the state of nature no arbitrary power over the life, liberty or possession of another, but only so much as the law of nature gave him for the preservation of himself, and the rest of mankind; this is all he doth, or can give up to the common-wealth, and by it to the legislative power, so that the legislative can have no more than this. Their power in the utmost bounds of it, is limited to the publick good of the society.

What Locke is pointing to here, notably in that last sentence, is that a government’s legitimacy is tied to the public good, and that an illegitimate government, one that doesn’t contribute to the public good, has lost its right to govern and should be dispensed with, one way or another.

Canto: Basically, this argument would’ve been used as a justification for the overthrow of James II, and as a means of limiting the power of his successor.

Jacinta: Government by the consent of the people, through the parliament (which was then hardly representative of the people, but a little more representative than a single absolute monarch), an idea which, with variations, inspired many figures of the 18th century ‘enlightenment’. The words and ideas of Locke were much employed during the 18th century uprisings against the French ancien regime and the British tyranny in America. But in Britain, they were used to justify the people’s fight against Charles I and later James II, in the 17th century. Of course the democratic process progressed by small steps from there, and it’s still progressing, but the work of Locke certainly helped it along. So I’ll end with some more words from the Second Treatise, on people power:

Who shall be the judge whether the Prince or the Legislative act contrary to their trust?…. The people shall be judge, for who shall be judge whether his trustee or deputy acts well, and according to the trust reposed in him, but he who deputes him, and must, by having deputed him have still a power to discard him, when he fails in his trust?

References

The age of genius: the seventeenth century and the birth of the modern mind, by A C Grayling

The second treatise of civil government, by John Locke

Written by stewart henderson

May 29, 2018 at 1:22 am

more inexpert punditry on the US political scene

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I’m no expert on US politics, or anything else for that matter, but it seems to me that the country’s current political woes, which are only set to get worse, are not so much due to Donald Trump but to a system that allowed him to become the President, and it’s that system that needs drastic reform if you don’t want your history to repeat on you like your foulest meal.

For example, Trump came to power from outside of politics, having never experienced political office under the discipline of a party machine. He was a registered Democrat from 2001 to 2009, and has contributed more to Democrat pollies, including Hillary Clinton, than to Republicans, but it’s fairly obvious that his political allegiances are opportunistic. Of course, his ‘outsider cred’ was a main part of his attraction for dispossessed and disillusioned voters, but this is a problem with all democracies – the appeal of populist demagogues.

But why would someone like Trump have such an appeal in 2016? The Obama administration had left the country in pretty good shape, after having inherited the global financial crisis, which the USA itself largely caused through extremely dubious lending practices by its under-regulated banks in 2007. According to Bloomberg news, the US economy under Obama was second best of  the previous five administrations, behind Clinton. However, it’s obvious that measuring the overall economy of such a diverse nation as the USA doesn’t begin to tell the whole story. A report by CNN Money, published between the election of Trump and his inauguration, adds further detail. The mega-wealthy, the top 1% of the population, are earning triple what they earned in the eighties, while the earnings of the bottom 50% haven’t changed in three decades. And it’s mostly this group (as well as that top percentile who hope to get even more) that Trump has targeted, in his half blundering, half cynical way, as marks for his circus act (though it would be invidious to compare him to P T Barnum, who was a philanthropist). It’s clear that many, probably most, Trump supporters have no interest or knowledge of the political process, in the USA or anywhere else, and their knowledge of Trump himself is limited to the fact that he’s ‘successful’ in ways that they’d like to be. They’re desperately drawn to the brashness, the indifference to rules, the lack of deference, the hatred of experts, the outsiderdom with its whiff of revolution, a re-evaluation of all values, where up is down and they, the forgotten people, will end up being magically up. That’s the hope, it seems, that out of the destruction of a system that has trodden them down for a lifetime, they might just escape with a whole lotta loot. Or something. Something better.

And that’s the sadness of it, because whatever Trump wants from the Presidency, it’s certainly not the chance to give anything away, or provide anyone any assistance. His whole life clearly proves that. But what I’m writing here is nothing new, and that’s the point. If it was only his potential marks and the super-rich who gave him the top job, I’d have different complaints to make, but he got there because many voted for him having no illusions about his character. And he also got there because, as Americans love to proclaim, anyone can become President, regardless of fitness, expertise, or even interest in what the job entails. No extreme vetting, no vetting at all – though money’s a pretty essential requirement. No interview, no test on governance, political history, the nation’s civic and judicial institutions, nothing remotely as rigorous as the test I had to sit a few years ago simply to become a citizen of the country I’d lived in for over fifty years. And yet this job requires you to take control of the world’s most powerful economy and the world’s most powerful military, and to negotiate with some of the most slippery and devious characters on the world stage – as dictators and oligarchs tend to be.

So think about this in terms of democracy. The USA likes to think of itself as the world’s greatest democracy. However, democracy’s greatest flaw was pointed out way back at its inception, two and a half millennia ago, by Plato and Aristotle, both unapologetic anti-democratic elitists. What they feared most was mob rule, fuelled by the limited populist talents of demagogues such as Cleon, a contemporary and opponent of Athens’ greatest statesman, Pericles. So what was their antidote to this poison? Essentially, it was experts and proven tradition. Plato, notoriously or not, thought philosophers would make the best rulers. Aristotle collected constitutions in order to find what institutions and instituted policies would lead to the most fruitful outcomes for city-states. Far apart though they were in many areas, both philosophers understood that knowledge and training were keys to good governance. Trump, on the other hand, has often extolled political ignorance as a virtue. Witness him boastfully introducing a key advisor, Hope Hicks, during a campaign rally, as someone completely ignorant of politics. That was what won her the job, he claimed – though he could have chosen anyone out of scores of millions if that was the criterion.

The USA is now paying a high price for putting its faith in Trump, his family members, and a bunch of hand-picked amateurs. And it provides the country with a lesson on the limits of democracy. We do put limits on democracy. It’s called representative democracy, a system of choosing a person to represent you, a person who usually belongs to one of two or more parties with different philosophies of government, though the philosophies are informal enough to provide a spectrum within them. That candidate has usually risen through the ranks of the party, understands something about party discipline, and has gained the respect of party associates. It’s an informal system rather than a rigorously formal one, and that’s useful as it provides flexibility, when for example an unusually gifted individual joins the team and is able to be fast-tracked into a leadership role. At the same time it’s formal enough to provide testing of team loyalty and respect. Loose and inter-subjective though it is, this is a kind of peer vetting that Trump has avoided and would be unlikely to survive. Could anyone imagine Trump doing the committee work, the political canvassing, the explanatory interviews and such that are essential for open government?

Another problem of democracy, as many have pointed out, is that every adult has an equal vote, regardless of their knowledge or understanding of the political parties they can vote for or how the political system actually works. Many of the less sophisticated might easily become enthused by populist types, especially in times like the present moment in the USA and elsewhere, when they feel they’re ‘outcast from life’s feast’. My recent reading of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was a stark reminder that in the ‘land of opportunity’ whole generations of families live in the direst conditions and struggle to make sense of a social system that offers them so little and treats them with more or less disdain. Trump promises jobs, jobs, jobs and protection from nasty Mexicans and Moslems and says he has a plan to make his country great again. This isn’t a message for middle class establishment types or lefty students. It’s for those who see themselves as disenfranchised and can’t find a way out, and suspect that the problem lies with others whose language and lifestyles and attitudes they don’t understand. Trump’s a rich tough guy who’ll rid his country of all the bad guys so that Real Americans will be set free to follow dreams they haven’t even been able to dream yet because they’re so busy fighting off the lazy blacks and latinos and the Islamic terrorists and the homos and the femocrats and the liberals who spur them on…

But Trump is fast finding that the Real Americans who fall for his bullshit aren’t as numerous as he first thought. And the numbers are falling. However, I’m probably being wildly optimistic. Still, here’s my prediction for 2018 in the USA. Trump won’t be in office by the end of the year. How he gets kicked out I’m not sure. The Special Inquiry into Russian collusion with the US election is an obvious possibility, his increasing unpopularity, which will fall to record lows, is another, the treatment of women as worthy/unworthy sex objects is another, and there will be further scandals not currently on the horizon. Currently Trump’s rating with American women is 24%. The candidates he backs in local elections keep failing. His ‘tax cuts for the rich’ bill is massively unpopular. His tax returns have never been disclosed (and this may be an issue for the Special Inquiry). The Democrats will undoubtedly take over Congress in 2018 and will very likely institute proceedings against Trump. Also,Trump doesn’t respond well to pressure, obviously, and his hitting out will finally become so unpalatable that there will be a general uprising against him, and his cronies, which will probably lead to what the Americans call a ‘constitutional crisis’. The next few months will be, I predict, the most fascinating as well as the most devastating period in modern US history. Glad I’m able to observe from a hopefully safe distance.

Written by stewart henderson

December 13, 2017 at 5:40 pm