an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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Posts Tagged ‘dictatorship

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

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

The bandwagon of macho thuggery rolls on

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it’s reignin’ men!

Brazil has just elected a macho thug to lead its country down the descent to demagogic doom. So now, just off the top of my head, we have the USA, Russia, China, North Korea, Cambodia, the Philippines, Poland, Turkey, Syria, Israel, Belarus, Iran, Saudia Arabia, all full of shit leaders.

Tears of rage, tears of grief. Women, women, we need you to save us! Rise up, flush these scumbags down the toilet, and never never let a man run your country again! Never!

Written by stewart henderson

October 30, 2018 at 4:13 pm

Putin: a partial portrait of a ruthless barbarian

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a portrait of the small-minded, vindictive, mass-murdering multi-billionaire petty thief as a youngster – who’d have thunk it?

As I lie here, I sense the distinct presence of the angel of death. It is still possible I’ll be able to evade him, but I fear my feet are no longer as fast as they used to be. I think the time has come to say a few words to the man responsible for my current condition.

You may be able to force me to stay quiet, but this silence will come at a price to you. You have now proved that you are exactly the ruthless barbarian your harshest critics made you out to be.

You have demonstrated that you have no respect for human life, liberty, or other values of civilisation.

You have shown that you do not deserve to hold your post, and you do not deserve the trust of civilised people.

You may be able to shut one man up, but the noise of protest all over the world will reverberate in your ears, Mr Putin, to the end of your life. May God forgive you for what you have done, not only to me but to my beloved Russia and her people. 

(Final words dictated by Alexander Litvinenko before his death by polonium poisoning, London, November 2006. A public inquiry concluded in January 2016 that Litvinenko’s murder was an FSB (Russian Federal Security Service) operation, that was probably personally approved by Vladimir Putin).


I seem to have always felt an extreme, visceral loathing for Vladimir Putin, or at least ever since the first reports about his behaviour and attitudes began percolating through to me, and in the following posts, at the risk of raising my blood pressure to dangerous levels, I’m going to examine why it is that with each little tidbit that comes my way I loathe him more.

Of course I know why in general terms. I’ve loathed bullies ever since I was a kid being bullied by parents, teachers and boys (and girls) who were bigger than me – which was almost everyone (I mean everyone was bigger than me, not that they were all bullies!). People seem to characterise me as a leftist, but I’ve never thought of myself that way. My politics springs above all else from anti-authoritarianism, though it doesn’t veer off into the kind of atomistic individualism known as ‘libertarianism’. We need each other, and it’s as a profoundly social species that we’ve achieved what we have on this planet – such as those achievements are. And our best achievements, I think, have been more scientific than political.

So, considering my greater focus on science in recent years, I surprised myself some months ago by buying a book on Putin from a second-hand stall at the market near my work. Even as I bought it I asked myself – why? Why make myself angry and outraged? Or was I wanting to indulge in that holier-than-thou feeling you can get from reading about a truly inferior being?

Probably not, since it took me a while to bring myself to start reading the book, entitled The man without a face: the unlikely rise of Vladimir Putin. It was written by an established journalist, Masha Gessen, and published in 2012. It’s a fast-paced page-turner, though necessarily convoluted given that Putin is the embodiment of KGB deviance and disinformation, and it’s reassuringly skeptical about its own findings given the incredibly murky and profoundly corrupt politics of post-Communist Russia – a mafioso-type situation for which Putin is almost single-handedly responsible.

My impressions: when Putin first became a prominent news figure out of Russia almost two decades ago, I knew nothing about him but I didn’t like what I heard and saw. He was clearly no eloquent reformer in the mold of Gorbachev; he looked cold and shifty and seemed inarticulate. From all I’d heard, Russia had become something of a basket case since the collapse of the USSR, and the transition to democracy was progressing slowly if at all. Insofar as I thought about the country at all, I recognised its Czarist history and its lack of any kinds of democratic institutions, but I couldn’t benefit from the knowledge gained from witnessing the mess of post-war ‘democratic’ Iraq and the largely failed Arab Spring. I imagined wrongly that Russia was a quasi-European nation whose sorry history would make its citizens leap at the chance of developing the sorts of democracies that had been so successful elsewhere. Putin hardly seemed the type to lead the democratic advance, but he was probably just a transitional figure. But when the bits and pieces of info started trickling in, I became – well, not so much alarmed as disgusted. After all, I lived worlds away and wasn’t directly affected by his exploits.

First, there were his KGB connections, and his apparent pride in them. Like most westerners I’d learned to think of the KGB as a kind of sick joke, a caricature of an evil spy agency. Any reasonably humane leader would surely have wiped the Russian slate clean of such an organisation, even if it weren’t guilty of half of what it was notorious for (which seemed to me unlikely).

Second was the apparent closing down of independent media outlets, together with the murder of journalists and other prominent persons critical of government. Elimination of ‘enemies’ seemed a high priority for this government, but I also got a sense of general criminality and corruption, so I couldn’t be sure of Putin’s culpability.

Thirdly, the Pussy Riot fiasco, which again I didn’t look into too deeply, but as an anti-authoritarian I was instinctively on their side. I felt that their over-the top antics were a natural reaction to the over-the top repression of the government, though clearly they were doomed to fail and suffer. It was probably for that reason that I didn’t follow events too closely. I had enough in my life to be depressed about. And by this time I was pretty convinced that Putin himself – Pussy Riot’s polar opposite – was the driving force behind much of the nastiness. And when I later learned that one of his favourite forms of recreation was hanging out with a bikie gang that specialised in bashing gays, the picture of a total scumbag and a walking advertisement for abortion was complete.

So now the very thought of Putin turns me, I’m afraid to admit, into a penis-hacking thug who wants to resurrect Vlad the Impaler and his delicious torture methods. Don’t blame me, blame my testosterone.

Of course, the real solution to Putin isn’t so simple or crass. It’s the creation of a civil, respectful society with institutions that promote its thriving. They include a free press, an independent judiciary, a comprehensive and accessible education system that promotes critical thinking and co-operation, and a system of democratic government that’s as open and participatory as practicable. People like Putin wouldn’t be able to thrive in such a society. More importantly, such a society wouldn’t often create people like him.

Of course there’s another good reason why we might need to focus critically on Putin and the Russia that shaped him and that he is shaping. He is the hero and role model of the current US President. Suddenly this genocidal, democracy-loathing multi-billionaire President of a failed state (oh, I’m talking about Putin, not Trump) has become more important to us all than he deserves to be.

One thing I knew almost nothing about was Chechnya (and nor have I paid much attention to Putin’s Ukrainian adventure, which occurred too recently to be included in Gessen’s book). Chechnya, I’ve just discovered, is a tiny landlocked region between the Caspian and the Black Seas. Fundamentally Islamic, it has been in conflict with its Russian or Soviet overlords for centuries; however, after the death of Stalin, who had many Chechens and other ethnic groups in the region forcibly removed from their homes, things were relatively calm. The collapse of the Soviet Union changed all that, and a war of independence broke out in 1990. By the mid-90s hostilities had subsided, but a second war broke out in 1999, at the time that Putin was consolidating his power. Putin’s response was typically ruthless, and by the end of 2000 the main Chechen city, Grozny, lay in ruins, with no attempt to discriminate between fighters and civilians. Extremely bullish and threatening statements made at the time and since have indicated that Putin is prepared to go to any lengths to maintain and if possible extend the borders of his mafia regime. Unfortunately for him, times have changed since the days of Genghis Khan, or even Hitler. I’ve little doubt that he would invade the Baltic states if it weren’t for their NATO affiliations (which Trump, Putin’s greatest fan, has been seeking to undermine), and he must surely be envious and frustrated in his ambitions by the rise of China. He will no doubt try to use his influence on the man-child in the White House to provide licence for murderous adventures on his western borders, though hopefully current revelations will put a stop to that. Meanwhile, have pity for anyone who flags an independent and principled view within Russia itself. And please, everyone, we should try, with international co-operation, to do everything in our power to bring this monster to justice. (interview with Anne Applebaum)

Gessen, Masha. The man without a face. The unlikely rise of Vladimir Putin. Granta, 2012

Written by stewart henderson

May 22, 2017 at 9:18 am