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Posts Tagged ‘democracy

there’s no such thing as a fair election 2: Australia’s systems, and the real value of democracy

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Canto: So let’s talk about varieties of representative democracy, because I’ve never been clear about them. Looking at the Australian experience, this government website has a summary which starts thus:

The Australian electorate has experienced three types of voting system First Past the Post, Preferential Voting and Proportional Representation (Single Transferable Vote).

The first-past-the-post system hasn’t been used in Australia since the 19th century. All our elections now use forms of preferential and proportional representation voting. Australia, incidentally is one of only three countries in the world that uses preferential voting in major elections. Under full (as opposed to optional) preferential voting, each candidate on the ballot must be given a preference, from first to last. This tends to favour major parties, whose candidates are recognisable, but it can also lead to a local election being won by a candidate with fewer votes than her major opponent.

Jacinta: Yes, this can occur when no candidate gets a majority on the first count. A second count is then held and the candidate with the least votes is excluded. That candidate’s second preferences are distributed amongst the remaining candidates. This may give the second most voted-for candidate the lead, with over 50% of the vote. Or it may put the most-voted-for candidate over the 50% line. Or neither, in which case a third count occurs, until one candidate scores over 50%.

Canto: Yes, as this shows, minor party candidates need to score highly in the first count to have much chance, as second preferences are more often than not directed (by how-to-vote cards, which they may not choose to follow) to the more high-profile major party candidates. This is why minor parties almost never win a seat in the House of Representatives, which, unlike the Senate, uses the preferential voting system. And overall, there can be a problem with this type of voting in single-member electorates, in that one party may win a few seats by large margins, while another wins many seats by a small margin, and so wins more seats while losing the popular vote. That’s of course why governments often engage in pork-barrelling to swing marginal seats.

Jacinta: Some of the concerns raised by full preferential voting can be alleviated somewhat by an optional preferential system, but that brings its own problems which we won’t go into here. Let’s look now at proportional representation, which in the Australian context is described thus on our government website:

Proportional Representation is not a single method of election, for there are a number of variations in use, including the Single Transferable Vote, two variants of which are used in Australia. One is used in Senate elections, and the Hare-Clark version….. is used for elections to the Tasmanian House of Assembly and the ACT Legislative Assembly.

The Senate model for elections is described thus:

Each state and territory acts as a single, multi-member electorate in Senate elections. In half-Senate elections six senators are elected from each state, and two from each territory. In full Senate elections, which follow a dissolution of both houses of the Parliament, 12 senators are elected from each state and two from each territory.

To be elected, a candidate must achieve a quota of votes. Without going into detail, the system provides a greater likelihood of minor parties gaining a Senate seat, and so a greater diversity of voices tends to be heard in that chamber. This also helps the Senate’s function as a ‘house of review’ as the governing party has difficulty in gaining a majority there.

Canto: In ‘Choices’, a chapter of David Deutsch’s book The beginning of infinity, proportional representation is described even more negatively than other options, as it tends to result in watered-down, compromise solutions which end up pleasing nobody and, more importantly, don’t actually solve the problem at hand. But the real issue is broader. We can try to invoke mathematics and social-choice theory to make political systems more representative, but even if this was ‘successful’, which various no-go mathematical theorems show can’t be done, the question arises as to whether the most ‘truly’ representative system will be the fairest and best. As Deutsch points out, all this argy-bargying about voting and representational systems is about input to the system rather than output in the form of good decision-making – the institution of good policy and the removal of bad policy. The creation of pathways to good policy.

Jacinta: Yes, it’s worth quoting what Deutsch, partially channelling Karl Popper, is aiming for here:

The essence of democratic decision-making is not the choice made by the system at elections, but the ideas created between elections. And elections are merely one of the many institutions whose function is to allow such ideas to be created, tested, modified and rejected. The voters are not a fount of wisdom from which the right policies can be empirically ‘derived’. They are attempting, fallibly, to explain the world and thereby to improve it.

Canto: Interesting that Deutsch is careful not to say anything negative about democracy here, but he’s actually underplaying the role of democracy in decision-making, because we all know, I think, that new and important and worthwhile ideas aren’t created by democratic process, but by intellectual elites of one kind or another. These ideas are often carried forward by elected officials who have either helped to create them or have been persuaded by them. It may be that they don’t work or ‘their time hasn’t come’, but if there is a kernel of truth or real benefit to them, as for example with renewable energy and electric vehicles, they will, with modifications and adaptations, succeed in the end.

Jacinta: Yes, and what this sort of progress has to do with democracy is that there really is no political system that nurtures innovation and improvement in the way that democracy does, even if it does so with what sometimes seems frustrating slowness, and with the blockages by vested interests that so often infect politics, democratic or otherwise. Patience, I suppose, is a virtue.

Canto: Yes, democracy is in some ways a politics of persuasion, an invitation to try and discuss and dispute over new ideas, with accepted rules of engagement, trial and error, modification, exchange and respect, grudging or otherwise. And of course, with ongoing elections, it’s also a politics of renewal and revision, and that’s the fairest way of going about things as far as I can see it.


David Deutsch, The beginning of infinity, 2011

Written by stewart henderson

May 31, 2020 at 3:34 pm

there’s no such thing as a fair election 1: the apportionment issue

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Canto: So we’ve been talking about how politics have been interacting with the Covid-19 pandemic, and came to the tentative conclusion that strong centralised governments, collaborationist and respected by their citizens, were faring better at managing the situation than right-wing quasi-dictatorial anti-government governments like Trump’s USA, Putin’s Russia and Bolsonaro’s Brazil…

Jacinta: And those three countries just happen to fill the top three places in Covid-19 cases, though to be fair, they have very large populations. Anyway, the Scandinavian countries we looked at all seemed to have coalition governments of some kind, and from our great distance we preferred to assume that they operated through some kind of more or less happy consensus – but maybe not.

Canto: So we’ve been reading David Deutsch’s book The beginning of infinity, and there’s an interesting chapter, ‘Choices’, which looks at voting systems and what we want from government…

Jacinta: Or perhaps what we need, or should expect. What is objectively best, something which Deutsch, being a progressivist optimist, believes we’re converging upon – what he calls, in the political sphere, ‘advancing from misconception to even better [i.e. less damaging] misconception’. Deutsch considers first the ‘apportionment problem’ in the USA, a problem that many electoral polities have, as they attempt to represent particular electoral regions, with their different populations, fairly within a federal electoral system. The USA, like Australia and many other countries, has a House of Representatives, to indicate the aim of representative government. There are 435 US House seats, and the Constitution requires that these seats be apportioned to the states according to their populations. For example if state x has 5% of the nation’s population, it should get 21.75 House members. This is of course impossible, so the obvious thing to do is round up to 22, right?

Canto: Obvious, maybe, but brimming with controversy, because this rounding up, or down, will affect states’ representation, often rather more than was ever suspected. Deutsch imagines a more simplified House with 10 seats, and 4 states. One state holds a little under 85% of the population, the other three have just over 5% each. Rounding will mean that the large state gets rounded down to 8 seats, the three smaller states get rounded up to 1. This means that you have to add an extra seat, but it also means that the smaller states are over-represented, population-wise, and the large state is under-represented. And if you don’t add an extra seat, and the rule is that all states must be represented, then the larger state is reduced to a grossly unrepresentative 7 seats. You could of course add two seats and allocate them to the large state, giving it 9 out of 12 seats, but that still under-represents that state’s population, while enlarging the House to a questionable degree.

Jacinta: In fact a quick calculation shows that, to provide that large state with 85% representation, while giving the other three states a seat, you’d have to add 10 more seats, but then you’d have to add more seats to make the other states more representative – unless I’m missing something, which I probably am. And so on, the point being that even with a simple model you can’t, just from a mathematical perspective, attain very precise representation.

Canto: You could, on that simple model, take a seat way from the least populated state, and give it to the most populated one, thereby keeping the state to ten seats, but having no representation at all seems grossly unfair, and in fact the US Constitution explicitly states that ‘Each State shall have at least one Representative’. The aim, of course is to have, as near as can be, the right measure of representativeness. Having no representation at all, even in one small region, contravenes the ‘no taxation without representation’ call-to-arms of the revolutionary American colonists and the founding fathers.

Jacinta: Yet all the argy-bargy that went on in the USA in the 19th century over apportionment rules and quotas – and it was often fierce – overlooked the fact that black peoples, native Americans, the poor, oh and of course women, were not entitled to be represented. As Deutsch points out, the founding fathers often bandied about the concept of the ‘will of the people’ in their work on the Constitution, but the only ‘people’ they were really talking about were the voters, a small fraction of the adult population in the early days of the nation.

Canto: Nevertheless the apportionment issue proved the bane of election after election, eminent mathematicians and the National Academy of Sciences were consulted, and various complicated solutions were mooted but none proved to everyone’s satisfaction as the system kept chopping and changing.

Jacinta: Of course this raises the question of whether majority rule is fair in any case, or whether fairness is the right criterion. We don’t decide our science or our judiciary by majority rule – and good science, at least, has nothing to do with fairness. Arguably the most significant weakness of democracy is the faith we place in it. In any case, as Deutsch reports:

… there is a mathematical discovery that has changed forever the nature of the apportionment debate: we now know that the quest for an apportionment rule that is both proportional and free from paradoxes can never succeed. Balinski and Young [presented a theorem which] proved this in 1975.

Deutsch calls this a ‘no-go theorem’, one of the first of which was proved by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Kenneth Arrow more than twenty years before. Arrow set out five basic axioms that a rule defining ‘the will of the people’ should satisfy:

Axiom 1: the rule should define a group’s preferences only in terms of the preferences of that group’s members.

Axiom 2: (the ‘no dictator’ axiom) the rule cannot designate the views of one particular person regardless of what the others want.

Axiom 3: if the members of the group are unanimous in their preference for something, then the rule must deem the group to have that preference.

These 3 axioms are expressions of the principle of representative government.

Axiom 4: If, under a given definition of ‘the preferences of the group’, the rule deems that the group has a particular preference, this remains the group’s preference if some members who previously disagreed with that preference now agree with it.

Axiom 5: If the group has some preference, and then some members change their minds about another matter, then the rule must continue to assign the original preference to the group.

These all seem like unproblematic axioms, but Arrow was able to prove that they were inconsistent, and this turns out to be problematic for social-choice theory in general, not just the apportionment issue. According to Deutsch at least, it reveals the mythical nature of ‘the will of the people’.

Canto: Did we really need to be told that? There is no ‘people’ in that sense. And I’m not talking about the Thatcherite claim that there’s no society, only individuals. I’m talking more literally, that there’s no such thing as an indivisible national entity, ‘the people’, which has made its preference known at an election.

Jacinta: Agreed, but that rhetoric is so ingrained it’s hard for people to let it go. I recall one of our prime ministerial aspirants, after losing the federal election, saying ‘graciously’ that he would bow to the ‘will of the people’ and, what’s more, ‘the people always get it right’. It was essentially meaningless, but no doubt it won him some plaudits.

Canto: In fact, voting doesn’t even reveal the will of a single person, let alone the ‘people’. A person might register a vote for person x mistakenly, or with indifference, or with great passion, or under duress etc. Multiply that by the number of voters, and you’ll learn nothing about the soi-disant will of the people.

Jacinta: Okay, we’ve talked about the problems of apportionment under the US multi-state system. Next time we’ll look at the different electoral systems, such as proportional-representation systems and plurality or ‘first past the post’ voting. Is any system more fair than another, and what exactly does ‘fair’ mean? Good government is what we want, but can this be described objectively, and can this be delivered by democracies?

Canto: Well, here’s a clue to that good government question, I think. I walk into my class and I’m faced with twenty students. If I’m asked ‘who’s the tallest person in the class?’ I can come up with an answer soon enough, even if I have to make a measurement. But if I’m asked ‘who’s the best person in the class (not the best student), I’m very likely to be lost for an answer, even if I’ve taught the class all year….

Jacinta: Interesting point, but we’re not talking about the best government. There might be a variety of good governments, and you might be able to point out a variety of students/persons in the class who’ve positively impressed you, for a variety of reasons. Good government is not one.


David Deutsch, The beginning of infinity, 2011

The Institutional Design of Congress

Written by stewart henderson

May 26, 2020 at 10:08 pm

Represent US and ‘US democracy’, part 1

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If there was one decision I would overrule, it would be ‘Citizens United.’ I think the notion that we have all the democracy that money can buy strays so far from what our democracy is supposed to be.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Leaving the weird awfulness of Covid-19 aside for a while, I must thank a good friend for sending this video my way. Jennifer Lawrence is an American actor none of whose films I’ve ever seen, but in this video she and Josh Silver, fellow member of the activist group Represent Us (with presumably a play on the US – and they’ve been making videos for years now), effectively focus on a problem of US politics I’ve largely neglected in my own analyses of the subject since the advent of the most recent incumbent in the white palace.

I’ve referred to it obliquely, for example when writing about the election cycle in that country, and my view that there’s at least one election too many – i.e. the presidential election. It all seems too much of an expenditure of time and energy, but I neglected to focus enough on the most insuperable problem – money.

So in this post I want to look at what Lawrence and Silver claim about the influence of money and wealthy lobbyists on government, especially federal government, and the corresponding lack of influence the relatively disadvantaged generally have, in spite of their vast numbers. Are there claims accurate?

l’ll try to fact check much of this – and their first claim isn’t directly about money, it’s the claim that the last two presidential candidates, Clinton and Trump, were ‘the least popular candidates since they began keeping track of such things’. Australia’s journalistic website The Conversation certainly confirms this about Trump. At election time, he ‘had the highest unfavorability rating in history, with over 61% of Americans having an “unfavorable” or “disapproving” view’. His victory, with fewer votes, says much about the electoral college system and how it favours less populated ‘red’ states, but I won’t go into that here. Clinton, though, was a ‘historically unpopular opponent’, with an unfavourable rating of 52%, the worst rating ever recorded for a losing candidate. So that checks out.

The next claim is that ‘only 4% of Americans have a great deal of confidence in Congress now.’ I imagine that the word ‘great’ is key here, as everything depends on framing. For example the question might be – how much confidence do you have in Congress? (a) no confidence (b) very little confidence (c) a fair amount of confidence (d) a great deal of confidence – or something similar. And how many constituents, anywhere, would say they have a great deal of confidence in their politicians, where there’s space to express skepticism? A quick check shows that the figure comes from a Gallup poll reported in The Atlantic back in 2014, and indeed it was a multiple choice question, but the most interesting/disturbing finding was that the attitude to Congress has suffered a massive downturn in recent decades, as shown by the graph below. So, unless there’s been an uptick in the last few years – and surely there hasn’t – Represent Us is right on this too.

The video next focuses on a Princeton study on ‘how public opinion influences the laws that Congress passes’. Represent Us presents this as a ‘thirty percent rule’. Any law has a 30% chance of being passed by Congress, regardless of its public support (from no support to complete support). The Princeton study concluded, apparently, that ‘the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact on public policy.’

So, the 2014 study, by two professors of politics and decision-making, Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, is self-described as ‘tentative and preliminary’, but they are clear about their findings:

The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.

I’ve just read the study, and, unsurprisingly it’s a lot more nuanced, complex and at times dauntingly technical than the 12-minute video. For example it points out that policies advocated by cashed-up lobby groups may well benefit most of the public in spite of their lack of popular support. However, the economic elites, who have the most influence on Congress through financial, quid pro quo support, favour policies which are generally non-beneficial to the poorer, and far more numerous, sectors of the population. In fact, a lot of the findings remind me of passages in a very different text, Robert Sapolsky’s monumental book Behave, where he examines class-based behaviour (he calls it socio-economic status rather than class, coz we all know that the USA is a classless society haha). Take this example:

… a culture highly unequal in material resources is almost always also unequal in the ability to pull the strings of power, to have efficacy, to be visible. For example, as income inequality grows, the percentage of people who bother voting generally declines.

R Sapolsky, Behave, p292

As Sapolsky also points out, the super-rich, and their children, tend to move in the limited circle of their peers and so reinforce each other in seeking to maintain and enhance their lifestyles. The super-poor, meanwhile, are more often in a battle with each other (and not with the super-rich who are invisible to them) for resources, and tend not to trust government, since it is run by ‘them’. So the more economically unequal the nation, the more political power falls into the hands of the wealthy.

Anyway, returning to the video, the next claim is an odd one: ‘politicians are spending up to 70% of their time raising funds for re-election’. The term ‘up to 70%’ could actually mean anything from zero to 70%, so let’s take that with a pinch of salt. Another Represent Us website quotes former Democrat senator Tom Daschle: ‘a typical US senator spends two-thirds of the last two years of their term raising money’. I’m not sure if this is meant literally, but of course time spent isn’t the issue, rather money raised is the issue. The video goes on to make this interesting claim: ‘in order to win a seat in some races, you would have to raise $45,000 every day for six years to raise enough money to win’. I’m not sure how to fact-check such a claim, though ‘in some races’ could be a warning sign of some exaggeration or over-simplification. Then again, the idea of those kinds of dollars being involved in any electoral race is a sure sign of shonkiness. In any case the claim has to be seen in tandem with the next factoid presented, that ‘only .05% of Americans give more than $10,000 to politics’, which suggests that this tiny sector – the super-rich and wealthy special interest groups – are the funders of election campaigns, generally with agendas that the pollies are politely commanded to comply with – with the inevitable result for the increasingly disengaged majority.

So, whether these facts are precisely correct or not, it’s clear enough that money is poisoning democracy in the USA. As the video goes on to say, Americans are leaving the major parties in droves, and some 42% are registered as independent, rather than members of the duopoly of Republicans and Democrats. And since there are virtually no independent candidates, the quote from Sapolsky above becomes all the more relevant.

I’ve only looked at about a third of the video, but I’ll post this lot and present my take on the rest in my next post. Keep well!

Written by stewart henderson

March 30, 2020 at 2:43 pm

the wanker in the white palace 3: the impeachment failure

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words words words

It’s not accurate to say that impeachment was bound to fail in getting rid of the wanker, but it became increasingly obvious that it would fail, because too many politicians feel they owe their livelihood to him, or their prestigious position as ‘lawmakers’ and public personae. And of course there are a few who are too stupid to see what a wanker the wanker is, but they’re a small minority.

In this blog I’ve often stated that impeachment is a piece of shite. It would be nice to imagine that this latest débâcle would be enough for it be entirely expunged from the political system, but of course that won’t happen. This is the USA we’re talking about, after all.

It’s an odd term, derived from empêchement, a ‘prevention’ or ‘impediment’ from the verb empêcher. It’s used in many countries but has always struck me as an inadequate substitute for solid L-A-W law, as has been shown in this recent case. Of course, in order for this substitution to be effective, the administration of the law needs to be entirely separate from government. This is proving to be a problem in ‘the world’s greatest democracy’.

Three Presidents have been impeached. None of them have been removed from office. It all seems to be an expense of spirit in a waste of shame. But getting rid of impeachment, unfortunately, is just the beginning. I’ve already pointed out some of the failings of the Presidential system in general. Massive power, massive immunity. Are Americans really this stupid?

Yes, they are, or maybe it can happen to any state that promotes an uncritical, worshipful attitude towards its constitution, which, in the case of the USA, has created a Constitutional Presidency on the basis of the British Constitution Monarchy. And there’s no doubt that, at the outset, it was an improvement on the British system, which had, and still has, a hereditary monarch, rather than an elected President. However, the Westminster system has evolved since then, with the monarch’s power gradually reducing to, essentially, nothing, and all power being held by the duly elected parliament, a team with a team leader, working within the parliament, not in a white palace surrounded by thuggish hand-picked courtiers, who, unless they’re responsible citizens – the last people the wanker would choose – need know or care little about the workings of congress.

The USA regards itself as the first modern democracy. Not true. The very reason the founding fathers looked to the British system as a model was because of its parliamentary system, which, without doubt, the founding fathers improved upon. But, following the British system, with its minuscule franchise, those founding fathers, fearful of the ‘unenlightened’, made sure that the unpropertied and feeble-minded – the natives, the blacks and the women, were excluded from any say in government. And just to emphasise the woman issue, no country on this planet can call itself a modern democracy that doesn’t allow half its adult population to vote. American women weren’t given the vote till the 1920s, almost 30 years after women in my region were given it.

But really, all questions about democracy in the USA are now up for grabs. Things will get worse. It’s preposterous to imagine that the wanker (and this epithet shouldn’t entail under-estimation – he’s been made an extremely dangerous figure by the US political-economic nexus) will give up power peacefully. He’s been taught that he’s an eternal winner, so fasten your seat belts, it’s gonna be a bumpy year.

Written by stewart henderson

February 15, 2020 at 11:54 pm

On politics and states – some opening remarks

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‘It takes a village to raise a child’ – Andaman Island girls

One of my abiding interests in life is how to organise society effectively for the benefits of its members. It’s so easy to criticise corrupt and incompetent governments and states, but it seems clear to me that, given the crooked timber of humanity, there’s no ideal form of state or anything close to it. In any case I’m a pragmatist rather than an idealogue, so I’m guessing that the posts I write on this topic will be more about what to avoid rather than what constitutes best practice.

Governments can and should play many roles in trying to provide for an effective society, and these roles often seem to be in conflict. For example, I’ve always been keen on government’s regulatory role in protecting the potentially exploited from would-be or actual exploiters. This would seem to conflict with government’s role in promoting economic success and well-being, in which, for example, traders and producers seek to sell products of highly contested worth. 

Of course one popular view of government is that it should play a minimal role, allowing markets to flow as freely as possible. However the claim that government is ‘always the problem, never the solution’ strikes me as easily refuted. The hands-off approach from government led to the global financial crisis of 2007, in the minds of all but the most hardened libertarians, and in Australia, a recent Royal Commission into the banking sector, which was fought against vigorously by then Federal Treasurer (and now Prime Minister) Scott Morrison, has revealed banking corruption on a massive scale by all of the major banks in the country. Why would anyone think that self-regulation works, given the lessons of history and what we know of human nature?

So I believe that states – that’s to say governments – should have a major role to play in protecting their citizens from exploitation, while providing incentives for industry and capital enterprises to develop and thrive – with certain provisos. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, for example, that I feel that good science, in industrial and other capital enterprises, should be encouraged by government. So good government necessarily entails scientifically literate government. In this respect I believe that good government should be more interventionist than, say, government is expected to be in the USA, where, apparently, pharmaceutical products of highly dubious efficacy can be advertised. Truth in advertising appears not to be a major concern of government in that country, and I thank that’s a mistake.

Looking around the world and reading history, I find the worst governments, in terms of corruption and disastrous consequences for the governed, are those that have managed to avoid being held to account for their actions by those affected. That’s why democracy, bolstered by a free and informed fourth estate, and of course an independent judicial system, has proved to be more effective than its alternatives. But of course democracy is practiced in many different ways in many different states, and it too has its failings.

There’s also the complex role of culture in many states or governing systems. Nationalists tend to exaggerate or manufacture cultural traits, while humanists like myself tend to underplay them or wish them away, but I think the significant increase in globalisation in recent decades has been a benefit overall. Isolationism sees its most extreme examples in North Korea and the Andaman Islands, two very different cases, requiring us to think of culture, its manipulation or otherwise, in complex ways.

I’m not sure where all this is going, but I’ve been wanting to write about this sort of stuff for a long time. I’m currently reading a political history of Korea (north and south) and Russia, in the lead-up to the Putin dictatorship, and of course I’ve learned a lot about the problematic US presidential system over the past three years or so, so there’s plenty to reflect upon…

Written by stewart henderson

January 24, 2020 at 10:43 am

Trump and the USA’s failure, part 2: effective law and distributed power

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I have established the republic. But today it is not clear whether the form of government is a republic, a dictatorship, or personal rule.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk

Australia’s House of Reps – politics as a team sport – mostly!

Australia has a Constitution, and so does Britain, but we don’t talk about them much – they don’t loom so large over the political system. The Westminster system doesn’t have an impeachment process, for the obvious reason that it is surplus to requirements. Due to its being a political process, impeachment is an unmitigated disaster.

So what happens, under the Westminster system, if a Prime Minister ‘goes rogue’ and either breaks the law or conducts herself in a manner contrary to the nation’s interest?

Well we need to step back a little to answer this question, because, under the US system, an elected President can be a rogue from the start. Trump is a clear case in point. Trump was, of course, far from being regarded as kosher by the Republican powers-that-be when he first suggested himself as a Presidential candidate, so he took his Barnum & Bailey campaign directly to the public, and in doing so highlighted the central problem of democracy, recognised two and a half thousand years ago, by Plato and Aristotle, who were unabashed anti-democratic elitists. The problem being, of course, demagoguery or populism – the notion that the public can be easily swayed by a candidate who promises everything and delivers nothing. The fact that this remains the most central problem of democracy surely says something about humanity in general – something that we may not be able to fix, but which we need to be on our guard against. Democracy is in fact a seriously flawed system – but far better than any other political system we’ve devised to regulate our seriously flawed human nature.

Under the Westminster system it’s far more difficult (though perhaps not impossible) for a ‘rogue from the beginning’ to reach the top of the political tree, because Prime Ministers aren’t directly elected. In fact the Westminster system has no correlate to the US presidential system, its general elections being much more correlated to the US mid-terms. This means, in effect, that under the Westminster system there is one set of general elections to two under the US system. Having two sets of general elections every four years seems a little over-indulgent. It means that you’re always preparing for or recovering from some election or other, and I’m not convinced that this is a good thing for your political health or your economy. And if you were ever to consider dispensing with one of those two sets of elections, clearly the Presidential elections should be the one to go.

Of course, this is sacrilege. Americans are obsessed with their Presidents – they even remember them as numbers – it’s bizarre. But it’s part-and-parcel, of course, with US individualism. It’s not surprising that the superhero is largely a US phenomenon. Many of your worst movies feature a Rambo or Indiana Jones-like character who single-handedly wins out over the baddies, often against a background of official incompetence or corruption. Think again of Trump’s OTT drain-the-swamp campaign rhetoric. And speaking of OTT, let’s not forget the carnivalesque razzamatazz of US Presidential elections, and the oodles of money that candidates are expected to raise, for no reasonable reason as far as I can see.

So, bearing all this in mind, let’s compare the situation and the job description of a Westminster-style Prime Minister with a US President.

Generally the Prime Minister is already an elected member of a party (either of the left or the right) and is chosen by parliamentary members of that party to be leader – much like a captain of a soccer team is already a player in the team and has proven herself to be experienced and knowledgable about playing the game and getting results. She has, in other words, earned the respect of her fellows. The Prime Minister works alongside her fellows, and under the scrutiny of her opponents, in the parliament. The President, on the other hand, is completely separate from parliament and surrounded by his own hand-picked team of very powerful courtiers, who need not have had any previous political experience.

The Prime Minister is able to choose her own cabinet, but only, of course, from elected members of parliament. All cabinet ministers, and indeed all MPs, are under continual scrutiny from other members of the House or the Senate. If the Prime Minister herself (or any other minister) is thought to be ‘going rogue’ or underperforming, she can be subjected to a no-confidence or censure motion in the House – requiring a simple majority. These have sometimes been successful, resulting in a change of Prime Minister between federal elections. While traumatic, such changes of leadership have nowhere near the impact that a change of President would have, since under the Westminster system the power is far more distributed, the team is far more important than its captain. The ‘great man’ Presidential system is such, however, that the only feasible way of dumping a President is by impeachment – an overly elaborate and highly political procedure that is almost designed to inflict trauma upon the populace.

There is, of course, no provision for impeachment in the Westminster system, and there has never been any need for such a process. A Prime Minister can, of course, be dumped for any number of reasons – most of which fall very far short of high crimes and misdemeanours. However, if a Prime Minister does go that far, she would be dealt with by law. There’s no suggestion under the Westminster system that a Prime Minister or any other minister or government official, would be immune from prosecution while in office. To me, the idea is totally absurd, for it seems far more reasonable that the precise opposite should be the case – that a country’s leader should be held to a higher legal standard than any other citizen. In other words, with great power comes greater legal responsibility, as a matter of course. Any political system that operates otherwise is simply rotten at its very core. It follows that the nation’s body of law, not the constitution, should govern the behaviour of those holding high office in government. For example, gaining a financial benefit from holding high office, other than the official salary and benefits that accrue to that office, should be illegal and cause for immediate dismissal in the most straightforward way. Contravening campaign finance laws should also be dealt with severely and immediately. If this causes a crisis in government, then clearly the system of government needs to be reformed, not the law. The constitution is at best a quasi-legal document, a laying out of the political system and the roles of its component parts. As an eighteenth century document, it can’t possibly be expected to cover the legal responsibilities of 21st century office-holders. That’s the vital role of a living, constantly adjusting body of law, to keep up with the legal responsibilities of a constantly modernising and complexifying political and business sector.

But let me return to the situation of Presidents, and candidates for the Presidency, since it’s unlikely that the US is going to give up on that institution.

You’ve learned the hard way that a rogue from the outset can bypass the traditional party system and win enough popular vote – with the help of a foreign nation – to become the leader of the most militarily and economically powerful nation on earth, despite having no political experience, no understanding of his nation’s history, no understanding of the geopolitical framework within which his nation operates, and no understanding of or interest in the global issues that all nations need to work together to solve. In other words, you’ve learned the hard way that anyone can indeed become your President, no matter how unsuited they are to the position. So how do you stop this from ever happening again?

Well if you insist on maintaining a system which ultimately pits one superhero against another, then you need I’m afraid, to admit to a serious but really rather obvious deficiency of democracy – the attraction of the demagogue (and I leave aside here the inherent problems of a state in which so many people can be hoodwinked). You need to vet all Presidential candidates with a set of questions and problems pertaining to both character and knowledge. Character questions wouldn’t be just of the type “What would you do if…” or ‘Do you think it is right to…’, questions that a sociopathic personality can always find the ‘successful’ answer to (though it’s doubtful that Trump could). They should be in the form of complex moral dilemmas that experimental psychologists have been adept at formulating over the years, requiring essay-type responses. The knowledge questions, by comparison, would be straightforward enough. Such tests should be assessed by professional diplomats and psychologists. This vetting, of course, cuts across the democratic process with a measure of ‘adults in the room’ intellectual, emotional and ethical elitism. Because of course you need a member of the intellectual and ethical elite to hold such a high office.

You might argue that Prime Ministers aren’t formally vetted, and that’s strictly true, but there’s at least an informal vetting system in that leaders have generally to climb from the ranks by impressing colleagues with their communication skills, their understanding of policy, their work ethic and so forth. It’s also the case that Prime Ministers have far less power than US Presidents – who have pardoning powers, special executive powers, power to shut down the government, veto powers, power to select unelected individuals to a range of high offices, power to appoint people to high judicial office and so forth. It’s hardly any wonder that characters like Trump are frustrated that they can’t take the next few steps towards total dictatorship. It’s interesting that I’ve recently heard a number of US pundits saying out loud ‘this isn’t a dictatorship’, as if they need to remind themselves of this fact!

Many will scoff at all this gratuitous advice. But you currently have a self-styled ‘very stable genius’ – a boorish, blustering, bullying, belly-aching buffoon in fact – in barricaded isolation in your White House and due to the multi-faceted failings of your politico-legal system, you can’t get rid of him as easily as you obviously should be able to, and I honestly feel that things will get much much worse before you do get rid of him. You can’t blame Trump for this – he has been exactly the same person for over 60 years. The fault lies with your system. If you don’t change it, you’ll never be able to regain the respect of the rest of the democratic world.

Written by stewart henderson

October 7, 2019 at 1:21 pm

The Israeli horrorshow that our governments pretend isn’t happening

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Canto: We just have to talk about Israel. It’s doing my head in.
Jacinta: I know. So let’s start with the slogan – don’t know if its like some official government position – ‘Jewish and Democratic’ – do you see the problem with that?
Canto: You know I do. Democracy is, at least theoretically, inclusive, while Jewishness is, most practically, exclusive. The two are as immiscible as lipids in water.

Jacinta: Well put. And on that basis, I mean considering the putative inclusiveness of democracy, much-touted Athenian democracy, which never lasted long anyway, was never really democratic, because women weren’t regarded as citizens, in fact they were virtually non-persons.

Canto: Right, not to mention slaves, who would’ve been a substantial proportion of the population, and non-citizens like Aristotle, who could never become citizen-voters, despite their contributions to the state. But turning to modern democracies, we’re far more sensitive to the need for inclusiveness if we’re to legitimately describe ourselves as democratic – think of the national shame we feel in Australia about not allowing our indigenous people the right to vote until the early sixties. And of course anyone from overseas who becomes an Australian citizen not only can but must vote here. 

Jacinta: But we don’t think of our country as ‘Australian and democratic’, in spite of some pollies and others trying – unsuccessfully in my view – to characterise typical Australians. And the same with Brits and Americans.

Canto: So that takes us back to Israel and the Jewish obsession with cultural identity, and its association with a particular piece of land, which some Jewish people seem to think is exclusively and eternally theirs. We’ve read a number of texts on the Palestine-Israeli tragedy, or disaster, or whatever you choose to call it, the first one being The case for Palestine, by Australian lawyer Paul Heywood-Smith, which focuses particularly on the legal issues re the creation of the Israeli state, as well as all the hard-headed lobbying of  western politicians by Zionist ideologues in the early twentieth century. It was most educational, but what has most haunted me since reading the book is a less characteristic passage:

What is a secular American Jew? 22% of American Jews now describe themselves as having no religion. That figure rises to 32% for those born after 1980. Is this secular American Jew an American? Is he/she a Jew? Is he/she an Israeli living in the US? Why do Jewish American Organisations regard assimilation as the greatest danger? Religious Jews no doubt have a reason to call themselves Jews. But non-religious American Jews no longer suffer discrimination….. Why can’t they just be American? The answer is – Israel

Paul Heywood-Smith, The case for Palestine, p83.

The reference here is to American Jews but of course it equally applies to Australia, Britain or any other country. It’s strange that Jewishness, which began as a religious rather than a national signifier, should continue to have such significance for non-religious Jews. I think there are two answers rather than one: first, the land of Israel, which was propagandised in Jewish religious writings as ‘the promised land’, upon which was built a magnificent but totally mythical kingdom under David and Solomon, and second, the history of Jewish oppression, throughout Europe in particular, culminating in the holocaust. This has combined to create a heavy sense of culture, associated with a particular stretch of land – which, to be factual, never belonged wholly to the Jews during Old Testament times.

Jacinta: Yet it’s still strange. It does seem, though, that heavy culture – in which one’s culture almost seems to take precedence over one’s humanity – is generally forged in opposition to oppressors. Members of indigenous cultures, for example, who probably took that culture for granted when left to themselves, often develop a fierce pride in it, when it comes under threat from ‘whities’.

Canto: Yes, they dig in and get quite conservative about it. They become preservationists. But returning to Israel – is there any nation now existing on this planet that’s more racist than Israel?

Jacinta: That’s interesting. You might say that because there’s actually no such thing as ‘race’, and I think science backs me up on this, there can be no such thing as racism, but that’s not true. Race is about fact and science, whereas racism is about perception and belief. I’d roughly define racism as a belief in superiority based on a perception of skin colour and/or cultural identity. That saying, I’m inclined to agree with you about Israel, though I haven’t visited that many nations, even in my cyberworld travels…

Canto: No matter, it’s clearly a racist country, by your definition. Add to that sense of superiority the nonsensical idea that the piece of land modern Israel has been built upon (whatever its rather flexible boundaries) has ‘always’ been theirs, and the promotion of a peculiar ‘everyone hates us so we must be super-strong to defend ourselves’ paranoia, and you have a most peculiar and unique form of racism, which is no less vicious for being so.

Jacinta: So clearly Israel is no more a democracy than South Africa was under apartheid. Now, over the past months we’ve been educating ourselves about the situation there via reading – notably four texts. First, The case for Palestine, which is useful for, inter alia, recording the indefensible attitude of successive Australian governments towards Israel’s brutality, of which more later. Second, Tears for Tarshiha, a memoir by Olfat Mahmoud, who was born in Burj Barajneh refugee camp in Beirut, after her family were driven out of their native town, Tarshiha, in what is now the north-west of Israel, as part of the Nakba, or catastrophe, of 1948, which saw some 700,000 Palestinians fleeing or being forced out of the region. Mahmoud is a Palestinian peace activist and director of an international NGO, who represents the resilience of Palestinians amid horrendous suffering. Her story is simply told but sometimes painful to read. Third is The last earth, by Ramzy Baroud, which tells multiple stories from the Palestinian resistance and the Palestinian diaspora, as part of a people’s history of individual voices and perspectives, a rejection of the ‘terrorist’ stereotype. Fourth is Goliath: life and loathing in greater Israel, an enormous piece of on-the-ground reportage by the Jewish-American journalist Max Blumenthal, which identifies some of the main figures in Israeli right-wing politics and presents a stark picture of the cultivated racism of the Israeli military and its education system, and a multi-faceted picture of the resistance movement. Honestly, no words of mine could do justice to this valuable work.

Canto: Yes, so let’s take some choice quotes from these books to discuss. From The case for Palestine:

In the days preceding the September 2013 election, the [Australian] Foreign Minister and deputy leader of the party Julie Bishop, attacked the Greens over its supposed ‘support’ of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement. Bishop demanded that the Greens leader, Senator Milne clarify her party’s stand on ‘the anti-Semitic boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign’. To so describe the BDS campaign demonstrates a remarkable lack of understanding by an incoming foreign minister.

Paul Heywood-Smith, The case for Palestine, p111

Jacinta: Yes, and the author goes on to quote from the movement’s website, which makes clear its human rights agenda, its opposition to racism, anti-Semitism, etc. This ‘anti-Semitic’ slur is commonplace from the defenders of the indefensible, but I’m not sure about Bishop’s lack of understanding – I suspect she knew exactly what she was saying re defending Israel at all costs, which is habitual with right-wing politicians (and many left-wing politicians) in Australia. We’ve long been all the way with the Americans on the topic of Israel, as witnessed by our shameful unwillingness to censure Israeli practices at the UN, putting us always in the outlying position along with our Great Ally.

Canto: I have nothing to add. From Tears for Tarshiha I will quote something in the preface, from a speech made by the author Olfat Mahmoud at the UN, to mark the formation of UNRWA:

As a Palestine refugee in Lebanon, I have very limited rights, I am stateless, and I exist but am not recognised… My father and mother and my grandmothers and grandfathers and my children will remain refugees even if they marry Lebanese. For us the phrases ‘human rights’ and ‘the right to be free from statelessness’, and the right to live in safety and dignity’ have lost all their meaning.

Olfat Mahmoud, Tears for Tarshiha, p4

Jacinta: Well, this speaks to so much, it’s hard to know where to start. The beginning of the end came for non-Jewish Palestinians at the turn of the 20th century, in a rather quiet way, when wealthy European Zionists began buying up land in the region, setting up the Jewish National Fund in 1901 and making it a rule that all land that it acquired was ‘to remain inalienable Jewish property that could not be sold or leased to others’ (Heywood-Smith, p25). This dubious ‘law’ still exists, and reflects the exclusivity that has led to today’s horrorshow in Israel.

Canto: Yes and speaking of horrorshows, the horrific treatment of the Jews under nazism meant that, post-war, the Jewish people benefited from a surge of goodwill, more or less worldwide, which helps explain the rush to create the Israeli state and the bowing to Zionist pressure to ‘simplify’ the massively complex politics of the region in order to bring that state about. And so, the Nakba and all that followed, as some of the world’s most powerful nations turned a blind eye.

Jacinta: All of which cemented thinking in the neighbourhood of the region, which didn’t have to be the case. Israel, due to its behaviour, will have to make itself a fortress against all its neighbours, when it isn’t attacking them. It’s astonishing, when reading Olfat’s book, how little bitterness she shows for the tough upbringing she was forced to endure, but it shouldn’t be at all astonishing that many Palestinians, and their supporters, do feel bitter, and vengeful.

Canto: Now to Ramzy Baroud’s The last earth. I won’t quote from it, I’ll briefly mention some of the stories (there are nine in all), to give some semblance of their variety. Marco’s story – a Palestine refugee born in Yarmouk, Syria, he couldn’t help but be caught up in the conflict there, identifying himself with any one of the competing forces he needed to in order to survive, until he realised that flight was the only option. In his struggle to get to Europe he meets with many demoralising setbacks and the story ends with him still trying to reach a destination with some modicum of security. Ahmad al-Haaj’s story tells of his escape, as a teenager, from the siege of Al-Faluja in 1948, where many family members died. The siege itself is described in detail – the hope followed by despair and the sense of betrayal, the sense of being eternally out-gunned and harrassed, the ruthlessness of Moshe Dayan and the Israeli military. The disruption of families is a major feature throughout. Another story tells of life in a Gaza refugee camp – the disappearances, the frustrations, the constant Israeli intrusions, the quasi-mythic heroes and the legends used to maintain morale amid the desolation. Other stories tell of imprisonment, torture, ritual humiliation, martyrdom, starvation, as well as love and humour.

Jacinta: Yes, these are the stories of ‘ordinary’ people in intolerable situations, people who are as smart, thoughtful, hard-working and ambitious as the rest of us to our varying degrees, but who find themselves thrown into a hellhole by an unlucky throw of the dice.

Canto: Finally, Goliath, which we can no more do justice to here than to any of the other works. For his reportage, Blumenthal mixed with the new right-wing high-fliers as well as the Palestian-Jewish protest movement, the religious zealots and their trapped victims. This overheard piece of conversation from one Jeremy Gimpel, described as ‘a thirty-two year old Israeli transplant from Atlanta who lived in the settlement of Efrat’ and was an electoral candidate, caught my attention:

‘When was Palestine called Palestine? We’re from Judea… we are the indigenous people of the land of Israel!’ I heard him proclaim in a suburban American accent. ‘How dare they try to kick us out of our homeland!’

Jacinta: Yeah, right, note again the paranoia – who is this ‘they’? But the absurdity here needs to be highlighted. The idea (coming from an American!) seems to be that, assuming that Palestine was never an ‘official’ name, the people of Palestine, apart from the Jews, aren’t ‘official’ human beings. It’s like saying that Australia’s indigenous people (or those of the US) aren’t really people because the land then didn’t have an official name – so the white people who arrived and bestowed a name on the place are the indigenous inhabitants!

Canto: Yes, it’s all very logical. Of course, Judea, a small section of Palestine, is only as old as Judaism – a mere 4000 years, and the region had human inhabitants long before that….

Jacinta: Yes but they were all wiped out by the Israelites coming out of Egypt, remember?

Canto: Haha, oh yes, ethnic cleansing….


The case for Palestine: the perspective of an Australian observer, by Paul Heywood-Smith, 2014

Tears for Tarshiha: a Palestinian refugee’s inspiring tale of her lifelong fight to return home, by Olfat Mahmoud, 2018

The last earth: a Palestinian story, by Ramzy Baroud, 2018

Goliath: life and loathing in greater Israel, by Max Blumenthal, 2014

Written by stewart henderson

September 30, 2019 at 12:23 pm

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.


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