an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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

Posts Tagged ‘politics

what do we do with a problem like the US?

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Canto: So with covid19 continuing its destruction throughout the USA, abetted by blundering blustering bragging bully-boy in a china-shop, what do you think will happen next year, and what do you think should happen?

Jacinta: Well, that’s a huge question, or pair of questions. I think our interest in science, and all the smart people who do science, has made us, or me, tend to think in rather elite terms, for better or worse. For example, my very first impressions of Trump made me think, or be aware, that there was something very wrong with him. And I mean very wrong. And everything I’ve observed since has confirmed this. 

Canto: Yes, and this sciencey bent has made us particularly alert to what the relevant scientists, i.e. neurologists, might have to say about him. 

Jacinta: Exactly – though what science would have to say about such a neurologically damaged and deficient person managing to become the most powerful person in a country that prides itself on being the most advanced, sophisticated country on the planet – well, I would love to know.

Canto: Of course, the claim to great sophistication is worth contesting – it’s a nation full of the crooked timber of humanity, like any other – but my initial questions are, I suppose, based on the assumption that Trump, at some time or other in the next few months, will admit electoral defeat.

Jacinta: I’m not sure even of that. I don’t think he has any real chance of winning the election fairly and squarely, but, I suspect like most onlookers, I have no idea how far he will go to cling to power. It will probably depend on how much he thinks he has to lose by having submitted his lifetime of corrupt dealings to public and legal scrutiny. I think he knows the danger he’s in, and will be working behind the scenes to build a shield against taking responsibility for his crimes, while still hoping to bluster his way to victory, by any means available. That includes fomenting violence while denying responsibility for it. So I think the next few months will be fascinating, in a ghoulish way, and well worth watching from a very safe distance. But as to the questions, once the dust has settled, I doubt very much that the things that need to happen will happen. Nobody’s talking much over there about the reforms required to stop a phenomenon like Trump ever happening again.

Canto: Such as brain scans for presidential candidates? 

Jacinta: Seriously, yes of course. There has to be something more than voting for one person or another based on whatever bullshit they decide to promulgate. Trump’s accession is an indication of the poor judgment of millions of people, and it could happen everywhere, and already has. In Brazil, in Italy, in many places. An effective democracy depends on an informed, educated electorate. Desperate, angry people who feel deprived of hope, and who’ve lacked enrichment in many more ways than one, will follow anyone who offers them a way out. Or maybe I’m getting it wrong. I honestly don’t know why people would follow Trump – apart from anti-state anarchists and some of the super-rich, and they’re hardly a majority, or even a substantial minority. 

Canto: Well, as we speak, this is becoming even more topical, as Trump is telegraphing that he won’t go quietly, and I’ve just read Barton Gellman’s article ‘the election that could break America’, in The Atlantic, which is a useful companion to the recently read book Will he go? by Lawrence Douglas. Again, much is made of the Electoral College, an absurd institution that I’ve given up trying to comprehend. Quantum chromodynamics is a cinch by comparison. 

Jacinta: I’m sure most Americans are in that boat, but yes, it’s going to be messy, and bloody, at the end of the year, something we’ve been forecasting for a long time, but I’m looking to the period after the bloodshed. Will the country have the gumption, and the self-critical capacity, to institute root and branch reform to its disastrous federal system? Again I hear Pelosi and others utter almost teary-eyed, and certainly bleary-eyed, devotion to their clearly outmoded and inadequate constitution, and castigating those that don’t recognise and follow its ‘spirit’. 

Canto: Yes, typical response from such a ‘spiritual’ country I suppose, but they need far more than vague, well-meaning wording, they need L-A-W. They need laws about emoluments. They need laws about presidential accountability. They need laws limiting political interference in the judiciary. They need tighter laws around tax evasion. They need laws that more clearly define the separation of powers and the specific branches of government. But laws aren’t really enough. I would scrap the superhero-worshipping presidential system entirely. They even remember their Presidents by numbers, it’s just so childish. They’re so keen to have a Big Daddy looking after them. And the money they waste on electioneering, not to mention the corrupt lobbying….

Jacinta: Well there’s no sense getting het up, they’re never going to listen to us. We could go into detail about the failings of our Australian system, after all. But I think it’s true that outsiders can see more clearly what many insiders are blind to, which makes watching all this so frustrating, as well as giving us that lovely smug feeling. 

Canto: So let’s get back to my question – assuming that the Democrats have a decisive victory in the polls, what do you think will and should happen? 

Jacinta: Well there’s a fair chance that they’ll gain control of both houses, but they’ll be inheriting a mess, and the pandemic will still be raging, perhaps worse than it is now, though there’s a good chance of a vaccine early in the year. They may try to do something about the Supreme Court, but that’s all up in the air at the moment. There will undoubtedly be a lot of turmoil, or much worse, having been stirred up by Trump’s antics, and I really think that quelling civil unrest will be a time- and energy-consuming task, what with the madness of their second amendment. So I think the Democrats are likely to go softly softly for a while, trying to heal the country, with good old ‘Uncle Joe’ being as placatory as possible. That’s on the domestic front. Internationally, I think they’ll move swiftly to repair Trump’s damage, fixing alliances, reconnecting with international bodies and so forth.

Canto: Well I’ve heard that there’s an article out in the Guardian – I’ve not read it – arguing that this might be the end of the US. Talk of California seceding, and such things. 

Jacinta: Haha – it’s an understandable reaction. In fact I had that kind of thought-bubble years ago, before Trump slimed to the top. It was probably during the ‘tea party’ years, early in the Obama administration. It seemed to me that the country was so rabidly partisan, and so uncompromising was the air of certitude on both sides, that they would be best to split in two on something like civil war lines – the states could decide which nation to be a part of, and see where that leads the states that chose to turn their backs on the east and west coasts, which had all the money and most of the smarts – but then how could such a division work? There’d be plenty of states stuck in the middle, what they now call the purple or swing states, and how could you create a nation out of the east and west coast states, with all that territory between? 

Canto: Not to worry, it’ll never happen, it’s too much like hard work. And that’s not an anti-American remark, it’s just a human observation. Starting more or less from scratch after all that work trying to create a united states, it would be an admission of failure – think of the sunken cost fallacy…

Jacinta: You’re right, they have too much pride to admit such failure to the world. But it’s an interesting thought, they could at last ditch their super-brilliant eighteenth century constitution with a couple of shiny 21st century versions, and whole batches of new laws for the digital and post-digital age. They could make the Americas great again. 

Canto: Right, but which America gets the nuclear weaponry? A minor issue no doubt. Anyway, no succeeding with the seceding, but whatever happens we have the best seats on the planet for viewing – on the other side of the world, not too pandemic-damaged, and neither Trump nor his allies – or his enemies – are blaming us for anything, yet. Australians, let us all rejoice – we’re almost dipshit free!

 

Written by stewart henderson

September 26, 2020 at 6:05 pm

some thoughts on fascism and American exceptionalism

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Fascism isn’t compatible with democracy, that’s the common view. Yet we know that fascism can utilise democracy to get started, and then toss it aside, when it, fascism, gets itself sufficiently established. It happened in Germany, of course, and in modern Russia Putin has trampled upon the seeds of democracy that were just starting to take root after the fall of the Soviet Union. Now his brand of fascism has managed to prevail for the foreseeable.

Also, fascism, though somewhat limited, can occur between democratic elections, if the elected person or party is given too much power, or leeway to increase his power, by a particular political system.

Fascism is a particular type of popularism, generally based on the leadership rhetoric of particular, highly egotistical individuals, almost always male. Other current examples include Bolsonaro in Brazil, Duterte in the Phillippines, Erdogan in Turkey, Kadyrov in Chechnya, Kim Jong-Un in North Korea and Orban in Hungary. There are certain features of this political brand. Ultra-nationalism, militarism, ‘law and order’, control of the media and persecution of opposition are all essential elements.

I note that historians would mostly disagree with the ‘fascist’ moniker being used today – they like to restrict it to the early-to-mid 20th century, generally being quashed as a ‘coherent’ political movement by the second world war. Even the term ‘neo-fascist’ is generally grumbled about. I think this is false and ridiculously so. The elements of fascism described above have been used by states not only in the 21st century but since the origins of the state thousands of years ago, though of course no two fascist states are identical, any more than their leaders have been.

Every state, even the most democratic, is susceptible to fascism. The USA’s susceptibility is worth noting. To me, its ‘soft underbelly’ is its obsession with the individual. Perhaps also an obsession with worship, saviours and superheroes. Of course, Americans like to describe themselves as the most democratic people on earth, and the world’s greatest democracy. In fact, having listened to more US cable news shows since 2016 than is good for my health, I find this declaration of America’s top-class status by news anchors, political pundits, lawyers and public intellectuals to be both nauseating and alarming. It betokens a lack of a self-critical attitude towards the USA’s political system, which lends itself to populist fascism more than most other democratic systems. Few other such nations directly elect their leaders, pitching one heroic individual against another in a kind of gladiatorial contest, two Don Quixotes accompanied by their Sancho Panzas. Their parliament, too – which they refuse to call a parliament – has become very much a two-sided partisan affair, unlike many European parliaments, which feature a variety of parties jostling for popularity, leading to coalitions and compromise – which to be fair also has its problems, such as centrist stagnation and half-arsed mediocrity. There are no perfect or even ‘best’ political systems, IMHO – they change with the personnel at the controls.

It’s unarguable that the current administration which supposedly governs the USA is extremely corrupt, venal and incompetent. It is headed by a pre-teen spoilt brat with an abysmal family history, who has managed to succeed in a 50-odd year life of white-collar crime, due to extraordinarily lax laws pertaining to such crime (the USA is far from being alone amongst first-world nations in that regard), and to be rewarded for that life, and for the mountain of lies he has told about it, by becoming the president of the world’s most economically and militarily powerful country. Unfortunately for him, the extremely high-profile status he now has, and which he revels in, being a lifelong, obsessional attention-seeker, has resulted in detailed scrutiny and exposure. Now, it may be that, even with the laying bare of all the criminality he has dealt in – and no doubt more will be laid bare in the future – the USA’s justice system will still fail the simple test of bringing this crime machine to book after he is thrown out of office. Then again, maybe it will be successful, albeit partially. And the crime machine is well aware of this. And time is running out.

The USA is in the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic, and suffering terribly. On this day, July 24 2020, the country suffered over a thousand Covid-19 deaths in the past 24 hours. The USA has approximately 14 times the population of Australia, where I live, but has suffered more than 1000 times the number of Covid-19 deaths. It is a monumental tragedy, with hubris, indifference, blame-shifting and deceit at the highest government level, and heroism, frustration, exhaustion and determination at many state levels and especially at the level of critical and general healthcare. And there’s a presidential election in the offing, an election that the current incumbent is bound to lose. He hates losing and will never admit to losing, but there is more at stake for him now than for any other previous loss, and he knows this well.

Which brings us back to fascism. It has recently been tested, on a small scale, in Portland, and it’s being threatened elsewhere, but to be fair to the people of the USA, their civil disobedience, so disastrous for getting on top of Covid-19, is a very powerful weapon against fascism. It remains to be seen whether it will be powerful enough. The next few months will certainly absorb my attention, happily from a far-away place. I’m sure it’s going to be very very messy, but I’m also interested in 2021 in that country. How will it ensure that this never happens again? Serious reform needs to occur. Greater restrictions on presidential candidature must be applied. Not financial restrictions – wealth being apparently the only vetting criterion Americans seem to recognise. How is it that a person is allowed to become the leader of such a powerful and dominant country on the world stage without any of the kind of vetting that would be the sine qua non for the position of any mid-level CEO? Without any knowledge of the country’s history, its alliances, its laws, its domestic infrastructure and so forth? To rely entirely on the popular mandate for the filling of such a position is disastrous. This sounds like an anti-democratic statement, and to some extent it is. We don’t decide on our science by popular mandate, nor our judiciary, nor our fourth estate. We have different ways of assessing the value of these essential elements of our society, and necessarily so. The USA now suffers, via this presidency, for many failures. It fails to vet candidates for the highest office. It fails to provide any system of accountability for criminality while in office. It fails to ensure that the candidate with the greatest number of votes wins office. It fails to ensure its electoral system is secure from foreign and/or criminal interference. It permits its elected leader to select a swathe of unelected cronies without relevant experience to positions of high domestic and international significance. It permits its leader to engage in extreme nepotism. It fails in dealing with presidential emoluments. The current incumbent in the ‘white palace’ may not be able to spell fascism, but his instincts are fascist, as shown by his absolutist language, not necessarily the language of an adult, but neither is the language of most fascist leaders, who share the same brattish love of insult, thin-skinned intolerance of opposition, and lack of common humanity. These are precisely the psychological types who need to be vetted out of all political systems. This isn’t 20-20 hindsight. Vast numbers of people, in the USA and around the world, saw Trump as the mentally deficient liar and con-man he’s always been. It’s up to the USA to ensure that such a type can never rise to anything like this position of power and influence again. It requires far more than soul-searching.

Written by stewart henderson

July 25, 2020 at 11:53 am

the USA’s weird Electoral College system

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number of electors per state, favouring rural states

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

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

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

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

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

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

L Douglas, Will he go? p 49.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canto: Please do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jacinta: And as impossible to get rid of.

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

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

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

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

Written by stewart henderson

June 22, 2020 at 11:01 pm

yank jingoism – why is it so?

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

George Bernard Shaw

I believe in American exceptionalism.

Joe Scarborough, MSNBC presenter (born in the USA)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1840

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by stewart henderson

June 16, 2020 at 4:51 pm

Covid-19: lies, damn lies and statistics

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Brazilian President Bolsonaro, explaining how government mismanagement and corruption is a good thing

Canto: So Russia is being described as a ‘late arriver’ with regard to Covid-19. It now has the second-highest number of cases, as everyone knows. Yet the mortality figure is astonishingly low. It’s only natural to be suspicious as there’s surely no obvious epidemiological explanation. It’s worth comparing Russia to Germany, whose figures few would quibble with, given its reputation for efficiency. It’s been treated as the European outlier in terms of its response, but nobody appears to be praising Russia for its tiny mortality rate. Why would that be?

Jacinta: Just looking at some reporting, various reasons have been given. Take this one from Dr. Elena Malinnikova, the chief of infectious diseases in the Russian Ministry of Health:

The low mortality is due to timely detection of infection as well as the fact that that Russians tend to see their doctor soon after symptoms appear.

Canto: Hmmm. Other nationalities don’t see their doctor, when there’s a killer pandemic on the loose? And ‘timely detection of infection’ sounds overly vague to me.

Jacinta: Let’s try another one. ‘Russian journalists have reported that more than 60% of all cases diagnosed in the country have been in Moscow, which has a younger and healthier population than rural areas’.

Canto: Yeah, but in the USA it’s the richer, more heavily populated regions of the north-east that have been hardest hit. The rural regions much less so.

Jacinta: Okay. In the article linked to above, Kent Sepkowicz, a physician and infection control specialist, provides good reasons why Russia’s mortality figures don’t make much sense on their face. And before I report on that, let’s look at rough reported mortality rates of a few countries, for comparison. I’ve just looked at total reported deaths as a percentage of total cases. As of May 20, the USA’s mortality rate is around 6%, the UK’s a horrendous 14%, Germany’s has gradually risen to 4.6%, and Brazil, another latecomer like Russia, and now with the fourth largest number of cases, is at 6.5%. Russia, on the other hand, is at 0.95% mortality. That’s a huge disparity, which we might call ‘Russia’s miracle’. But, as Sepkowicz points out, despite reports that Russia is doing well on testing (more than ten times that of Brazil, and somewhat more than the USA, and they might’ve started earlier too), Russia scores poorly on the comorbidity front, otherwise known as ‘pre-existing conditions’, such as heart disease, chronic lung disease, diabetes and obesity. It has an ageing population, and smoking is far more prevalent there than in European countries and Brazil. The testing regime is definitely not so much better than other countries to account for Russia’s apparent success – both Spain and Italy have done more tests per population.

Canto: Hello, are you saying there’s something shifty in the works? Vlad and and his charming circle would never lie to us, surely?

Jacinta: I don’t know that they’d gain much from fudging the figures…

Canto: Are you kidding? Isn’t that like saying Vlad wouldn’t gain much from rigging his election results? What he loses in international credibility, he might gain on the national scene, and that’s more important for him. But maybe there’s some less nefarious reason for the low mortality – I know they’re counting the numbers differently in some way. But the deaths from Covid-19 are the deaths from Covid-19. It should be a straightforward matter.

Jacinta: What about the deaths from x, y or z, exacerbated by Covid-19 infection?

Canto: I think that’s what they’re doing in Russia. Unless they’re certain that it was Covid-19 directly, they’re not counting it, even if they’ve tested positive for the virus, and then they die. They might be arguing that they were going to die anyway, Covid-19 just hastened the end.

Jacinta: Very dodgy if true. You could say that about anyone who’s a bit peely-wally.

Canto: Anyway let’s look at another country in this very complicated trans-national battle against the virus. Brazil’s an interesting one. I’m noting that countries with right-wing laissez-faire governments tend to be killing their citizens at a faster clip than leftist or centrist governments. Whadyareckon?

Jacinta: That’s a bit crude, but let’s look again at the reported figures and give number of deaths per number of cases as percentages. I’m going to leave out Russia and China, as I don’t trust what they’re reporting – which isn’t to say I entirely trust the other nations, but you have to draw the line somewhere. Britain, as mentioned, is very high at 16%, and has a conservative government. A very interesting country to look at is Belgium, which has the highest death rate per million of population of any major country in Europe. It’s death-to cases percentage is also high, at just over 16%. The country’s political situation is horrendously complex. They’ve had a caretaker PM for a year or so, and there’s basically a caretaker government after messy election results in March, in the middle of the Covid-19 crisis. This interim government is supposedly in place just to manage the crisis. Clearly it’s not going well. It would be reasonable to put their problems down to no strong central government, à la the US. Now, Brazil has a notoriously extreme-right government at present, and I’ve already given its deaths-to-cases ratio, but the number of cases is rising rapidly, as are the number of deaths. Now, let’s have a look at Scandinavian countries, often glorified as models of good government. I’ll include in that vague grouping, in order of population: the Netherlands (17m), Sweden (10m), Denmark (5.8m), Finland (5.5m) and Norway (5.4m), and I’ll exclude Iceland, which has all the advantages of a distant island re isolation (it’s 87th in the world for cases). On deaths-to-cases: The Netherlands 13%, Sweden 12%, Denmark 5%, Finland 4.7% and Norway 2.8%. On those statistics, it seems that the smaller the country, population-wise, the better managed it has been in terms of preventing mortality, which does make some sense.

Canto: Okay so I’ll look at their current governments. the Netherlands is clearly hard-hit, Covid-19-wise. It has a multi-multi-party system (that’s not a typo) and is currently governed by a centre-right or conservative-liberal party, VVD, presumably supported by the next largest party, PVV a right-wing nationalist group. The left appears to be divided amongst a number of smaller parties, and the current government has been in power for ten years. Sweden, also faring badly under Covid-19, currently has a minority government with a social democrat PM after a controversial and inconclusive election in 2018. So it’s a centre-left government relying on centre-right parties. The social democrats have been in power, mostly as a majority, since 1917, but there has been a movement towards the right in recent years. Denmark, doing better than the previous two, but faring much worse than we are here in Australia, where we have a death-to-case ratio of 1.4%, has again a multi-party system – and by the way, all of these Scandinavian countries, except Finland which is a republic, are constitutional monarchies practising parliamentary democracy like Britain, and, in a weird way, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. The leftist social democrats are currently in power in Denmark, and they have a far tougher position on physical distancing than the Swedish government. Finland Has both a President and a Prime Minister, somewhat like France. The Prime Minister, Sanna Marin, made news worldwide as the youngest PM in the world when elected late last year. She’s a social democrat and heads a coalition government, which seems to be the case with most Scandinavian governments.

Jacinta: Yes, They seem designed that way so the parliament is more or less forced to collaborate in order to get things done. It seems a much better way to run a country, a far superior system to that of the USA, much more team-based. Anyway, statistics seem to suggest that, overall, strong central governments that can co-ordinate efforts effectively, and have the support of the people, are doing better at saving lives. It’s not a conclusive finding though, and no doubt each country has its confounding factors.

Canto: Norway, finally, has handled things in much the way you would expect of the nation rated first in the world by the OECD. On March 19 this year, their federal government was granted emergency powers by parliament until December. That’s one way of creating strong central government, albeit temporarily. The current government is essentially right-centrist, within a multiparty system where the balance is usually held by left-centre parties. Clearly, though, this is a nation where people place more faith in government than, say, in the USA. And speaking of libertarianism and such, it’s interesting to look at Brazil more closely. When we began this post a couple of days, ago, Brazil was fourth in the world in terms of confirmed cases. Now it’s up to second, that’s how fast-moving things are.

Jacinta: And it’ll never reach top spot, surely – the USA is way way ahead of the rest of the world.

Canto: So Brazil is a republic, and currently has an extreme right-wing government under Jair Bolsonaro, who, according to this very recent New Yorker report, seems to be doing everything he can to exacerbate the situation. Brazil’s rise in cases has been more recent than most, and the death toll is now rising rapidly, now up to sixth in the world.Bolsonaro is shrugging it off and encouraging defiance of state restrictions in much the manner of Trump, whom he idolises. So it seems that when you get extreme anti-government government – negligence mixed with incompetence – as in the case of Trump and Bolsonaro, the death toll will likely be devastating, and will impact mainly the poor, elderly and disadvantaged. Who would’ve thunk it?

References

https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/

https://edition.cnn.com/2020/05/13/opinions/russia-low-covid-19-mortality-rate-sepkowitz/index.html

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/without-a-government-for-a-year-belgium-shows-what-happens-to-politics-without-politicians/2019/12/19/5c13cb48-20de-11ea-b034-de7dc2b5199b_story.html

https://www.nationsencyclopedia.com/economies/Europe/Belgium-POLITICS-GOVERNMENT-AND-TAXATION.html

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

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

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

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

https://www.forbes.com/sites/carmenniethammer/2019/12/12/finlands-new-government-is-young-and-led-by-women-heres-what-the-country-does-to-promote-diversity/#28236f8835aa

https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/the-coronavirus-hits-brazil-hard-but-jair-bolsonaro-is-unrepentant


Written by stewart henderson

May 23, 2020 at 10:47 am

The empress dowager Cixi – China’s greatest modern politician?

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I’m currently reading Jung Chang’s stunning biography of Cixi, the extraordinary woman who both upheld and manipulated centuries of tradition to become the most powerful political figure in China for over forty years, from the 1860s to her death early in the 20th century. I find Cixi’s character, intelligence and energy so compelling that I can’t wait to finish the book (even though it’s a page turner) to extol her virtues, to defend her supposed failings and to express my dismay that she isn’t as widely recognised and admired as she should be. I presume the Chinese are still taught that Mao was the bee’s knees (strange expression), and I wonder if they know anything much about Cixi, or anything accurate.
Having said that, my natural skepticism makes me wonder if Jung Chang’s bio is overly one-sided. Yet it’s certainly compelling, and convincing, and coherent in terms of her character – and well-documented. Cixi was both a traditionalist and a reformer, who got where she was as a result of tradition, in a country where obsession with ceremony, rank and custom were taken to a level hardly seen anywhere else. The idea that she could have turned her country into a democracy is quite preposterous. However, had she been given more power she would certainly have transformed the country far more than she was able to, and most definitely for the better. And there is no doubt that she had to negotiate a nest of vipers for much of her career, and she mostly handled it all with great aplomb.

The late nineteenth century (not to mention every century before that) was generally a hard time anywhere for smart, politically savvy women to express themselves in public forums, never mind to actually wield power. Cixi’s journey to the top of China’s bizarre hierarchy was a mixture of good fortune and the forcefulness of her personality. As a teenager from an illustrious Manchu family she was entered into one of the regular competitions to become one of the Xianfeng Emperor’s consorts or concubines (the emperor, always male, could choose as many concubines as he liked). Within ten years of her being selected, Xianfeng was dead and Cixi, still in her mid-twenties, had become the most powerful figure on the Chinese political scene.

We don’t know her real name, since women were too unimportant to have them memorialised – Cixi, meaning ‘kindly and joyous’ was the name given as an honorific when she became a part of the emperor’s retinue. What we know of these early years is that she lacked formal education but was bright, energetic and skilful in the arts esteemed in the women of the Forbidden City (later she was responsible for transforming the local operas into a major art form). She also happened to be the only one of the emperor’s women to bear him a healthy male child. This proved to be her entrée to real political power.

I’ll try not to go into too much detail here, though I’d love to. Read Jung Chang’s book. In brief, the Xianfeng emperor died quite young, and Cixi, along with Xianfeng’s young widow, with whom she was on friendly terms, organised a coup of sorts against the ultra-conservative faction who were about to gain control of the government as a protectorate while the new emperor (Cixi’s son) was still a minor. The two women, with Cixi very much the senior partner, were able, rather astonishingly, to rule the nation literally from behind the throne. As women they weren’t allowed to be seen wielding power and making decisions, so they took up a space behind a screen, in front of which sat the child-emperor, and listened to submissions and reports from throughout the empire. Foreign visitors were impressed and many considered Cixi the saviour of the Chinese nation – it’s likely they knew more about what was going on than most of the Chinese people, for the fact is that the Forbidden City lived up to its name and hardly anyone had access to government or knew anything of its leadership.

Of course it wasn’t all plain sailing. Cixi clearly had excellent diplomatic skills in dealing with court councillors and the aristocrats that couldn’t be discounted due to their status. Many of them were extreme traditionalists, though she had her favourite reform-minded princes. She also made tragic ‘mistakes’ including falling in love with a young eunuch to whom she granted ‘forbidden’ favours. The situation of court eunuchs, and eunuchs in general, was truly appalling. They were usually from impoverished backgrounds, their parents giving them up to an agonising operation without anaesthetic, and often fatal, in the hope of allowing them a better life in servitude to the upper classes. Those who survived were more often than not treated as less than human by their masters, the class who came to depend on them, in much the same way as the ancient Greeks and Romans depended on their slaves. Cixi’s mistake was to treat this particular eunuch, known as Little An, recognised for his intelligence and sensitivity, with affection and care and to assign him duties ‘above his station’. This scandalised the conservatives, who managed to have him beheaded for his ‘audacity’. The practice of killing eunuchs for the alleged crimes of their masters, was of course commonplace. Cixi suffered a near-fatal depression at this outcome, for which she understandably blamed herself.

Nevertheless she recovered, and the nation thrived under the first period of her rule, essentially from 1861 to the early 1870s, when her son, the Tongzhi Emperor, reached his mid-teens and it was expected that he would take over. However, he never really did. Tongzhi proved an indolent student who showed very little interest in affairs of state. As his teenage years advanced he spent more time engaging in night-time adventures with his friends outside the walls of the Forbidden City. He was struck down by disease, probably syphilis, and died just short of his eighteenth birthday.

Tongzhi’s unexpected early demise threatened another emergency, as there was no obvious emperor-candidate in the wings. Here again Cixi’s diplomatic skills were fully displayed. Having impressed the inner court with her proven leadership, she convened a meeting in which she suggested that the two women continue to run the country from behind their screen, and behind a new child-emperor, chosen by Cixi herself, her 3-year-old nephew Zaitian, thenceforth known as the Guangxu emperor. The most powerful counsellors, especially the reformers, were happy to comply with the plan, notwithstanding its unconventionality. The plan also effectively sidelined Prince Chun, Zaitian’s father, and one of Cixi’s foremost critics amongst the elite. As father of the emperor he was forced to resign his posts so as not to be seen to be using his influence over his son. Interestingly, Cixi remained solicitous for Prince Chun’s welfare, and eventually he became one of her most ardent supporters.

And so, over the next period, from the mid 1870s to the late 1880s, the period of Guangxu’s minority, reform proceeded apace. Of course there were many tensions and difficulties, especially with regard to foreign relations and the increasing presence of Christian missionaries in the country, tensions and antagonisms that eventually led to the so-called ‘boxer’ uprisings at the turn of the century. I may deal with all that in another post, as I haven’t finished reading that part of Chang’s book.

I’ll end this post, though, by trying to make sense of my amazement and fascination with Cixi’s character. First, I’d never heard of the woman before seeing this book amongst my partner Sarah’s collection a couple of years ago, and I’d fairly describe myself as having an above-average interest and knowledge of history in general. I also note that the general treatment of Cixi in potted ‘youtube’ histories and dramas is condescending if not hostile. The ‘anti-Cixi’ propaganda, which was active in her own lifetime, still shapes much of the world’s view of her today, it seems.

Second, I want to commend Chang’s treatment of Cixi’s life. One of my favourite chapters is titled ‘In retirement and in leisure (1889-94)’, which relates the period after Emperor Guangxu’s coming-of-age, when Cixi was forced, albeit temporarily, to retire, first to the Sea Palace, then to the Summer Palace, a site which she and many other Chinese associated with the destruction of the much-celebrated Old Summer Palace, ‘the Garden of Gardens’, by the British in 1860, an act of wanton vandalism which enraged the Chinese court and public alike, with Cixi being particularly affected. This chapter fascinated me not only for the insight into Cixi’s multifarious interests and her indefatigable energy, but for Chang’s own interest in researching it. This isn’t to say that a male historian would never be interested in these ‘domestic’ details, but it would be a rare male historian that would bring so much attention to it, and bring it so vibrantly to life.

The Summer Palace was redeveloped under Cixi’s guidance during this period of ‘retirement’ (she still had to confirm senior government appointments, and for a time still tried to involve herself in state affairs). In spite of being confined for much of her life to the Forbidden City, she loved the outdoors and developed a great knowledge of plants, flowers, animals and birds. The Summer Palace is a great outdoor area, mostly covered with water, and Cixi loved going on boating trips accompanied by musicians, and singing along with the tunes. Her love of opera and drama helped create a national interest and pride in these art forms. She also loved walking out in the rain, much to the distress of her eunuchs. During the propagation season she would lead the court ladies on expeditions for cuttings, and join them in potting and watering them regularly. Potted plants and flowers were kept everywhere, especially chrysanthemums, and her hair was regularly adorned with blooms. Cixi particularly loved dressing up, and was always immaculately coiffed and ‘done up’, as we can see from the all-too-few photos of her that we have – all, of course, from the last few years of her life.

The gardens provided fruits and vegetables for her retinue as well as the surrounding neighbourhood, and she often tended and gathered from them herself, even cooking herself on occasion. She reared many species of birds and animals and employed an expert to teach her the art of breeding. She learned how to imitate bird-calls so well that birds would land on her outstretched arm and eat from her hand…

There’s much more to relate, but this, I think, gives enough of a glimpse of a full and fascinated life. There was a dark side too, though, and some shocking moments of cruelty, but when we compare her life, and her accomplishments while in power, to that of China’s most famous politician outside of China, Mao Tse Tung, she shines very brightly indeed.

Speaking of Mao, Jung Chang has also written his biography, which I’m sure will be just as interesting, though not in such an uplifting way. I intend to read it. But before that I’ll hopefully write another post on Cixi (so much to write about!), a woman created by her time, but with the strength to change it.

The Summer Palace, Beijing, much restored under the guidance of Cixi

References

Empress Dowager Cixi: the concubine who launched modern China, by Jung Chang, 2013

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

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

Written by stewart henderson

May 14, 2020 at 5:57 pm

progressivism: the no-alternative philosophy

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Canto: So here’s the thing – I’ve occasionally been asked about my politics and I’ve been a little discomfited about having to describe them in a few words, and I’ve even wondered if I could describe them effectively to myself.

Jacinta: Yes I find it easier to be sure of what I’m opposed to, such as bullies or authoritarians, which to me are much the same thing. So that means authoritarian governments, controlling governments and so forth. But I also learned early on that the world was unfair, that some kids were richer than others, smarter than others, better-looking than others, through no fault or effort of their own. I was even able to think through this enough to realise that even the kind kids and the nasty ones, the bullies and the scaredy-cats, didn’t have too much choice in the matter. So I often wondered about a government role in making things a bit fairer for those who lost out in exactly where, or into whose hands, they were thrown into the world.

Canto: Well you could say there’s a natural diversity in all those things, intelligence, appearance, wealth, capability and so forth… I’m not sure if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, it just is. I remember once answering that question, about my politics, by describing myself as a pluralist, and then later being disappointed at my self-description. Of course, I wouldn’t want to favour the opposite – what’s that, singularism? But clearly not all differences are beneficial – extreme poverty for example, or its opposite…

Jacinta: You wouldn’t want to be extremely wealthy?

Canto; Well okay I’ve sometimes fantasised, but mainly in terms of then having more power to make changes in the world. But I’m thinking of the differences that disadvantage us as a group, as a political entity. And here’s one thing I do know about politics. We can’t live without it. We owe our success as a species, for what it’s worth, to our socio-political organisation, something many libertarians seem to be in denial about.

Jacinta: Yes, humans are political animals, if I may improve upon Aristotle. But differences that disadvantage us. Remember eugenics? Perhaps in some ways it’s still with us. Prospective parents might be able to abort their child if they can find out early on that it’s – defective in some way.

Canto: Oh dear, that’s a real can of worms, but those weren’t the kind of differences I was thinking about. Since you raise the subject though, I would say this is a matter of individual choice, but that, overall, ridding the world of those kinds of differences – intellectual disability, dwarfism, intersex, blindness, deafness and so on – wouldn’t be a good thing. But of course that would require a sociopolitical world that would agree with me on that and be supportive of those differences.

Jacinta: So you’re talking about political differences. Or maybe cultural differences?

Canto: Yes but that’s another can of worms. It’s true that multiculturalism can expand our thinking in many ways, but you must admit that there are some heavy cultures, that have attitudes about the ‘place of women’ for example, or about necessary belief in their god…

Jacinta: Or that taurans make better lovers than geminis haha.

Canto: Haha, maybe. Some false beliefs have more serious consequences than others. So multiculturalism has its positives and negatives, but you want the dominant culture, or the mix of cultures that ultimately forms a new kind of ‘creole’ overarching culture, to be positive and open. To be progressive. That’s the key word. There’s no valid alternative to a progressive culture. It’s what has gotten us where we are, and that’s not such a bad place, though it’s far from perfect, and always will be.

Jacinta: So progressiveness good, conservativism bad? Is that it?

Canto: Nothing is ever so simple, but you’re on the right track. Progress is a movement forward. Sometimes it’s a little zigzaggy, sometimes two forward one back. I’m taking my cue from David Deutsch’s book The beginning of infinity, which is crystallising much I’ve thought about politics and culture over the years, and of the role and meaning of science, which as you know has long preoccupied me. Anyway, the opposite of progress is essentially stasis – no change at all. Our former conservative Prime Minister John Howard was fond of sagely saying ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, as a way of avoiding the prospect of change. But it isn’t just about fixing, it’s rather more about improving, or transcending. Landline phones didn’t need fixing, they were a functional, functioning technology. But a new technology came along that improved upon it, and kept improving and added internet technology to its portability. We took a step back in our progress many decades ago, methinks, when we abandoned the promise of electrified modes of travel for the infernal combustion engine, and it’s taking us too long to get back on track, but I’m confident we’ll get there eventually. ..

Jacinta: I get you. Stasis is this safe option, but in fact it doesn’t lead anywhere. We’d be sticking with the ‘old’ way of doing things, which takes us back much further than just the days of landlines, but before any recognisable technology at all. Before using woven cloth, before even using animal skins and fire to improve our chances of survival.

Canto: So it’s not even a safe option. It’s not a viable option at all. You know how there was a drastic drop in the numbers of Homo sapiens some 70,000 years ago – we’ll probably never know how close we came to extinction. I’d bet my life it was some innovation that only our species could have thought of that enabled us to come out of it alive and breeding.

Jacinta: And some of our ancestors would’ve been dragged kicking and screaming towards accepting that innovation. I used to spend time on a forum of topical essays where the comments were dominated by an ‘anti-Enlightenment’ crowd, characters who thought the Enlightenment – presumably the eighteenth century European one (but probably also the British seventeenth century one, the Scottish one, and maybe even the Renaissance to boot) – was the greatest disaster ever suffered by humanity. Needless to say, I soon lost interest. But that’s an extreme example (I think they were religious nutters).

Canto: Deutsch, in a central chapter of The beginning of infinity, compares ancient Athens and Sparta, even employing a Socratic dialogue for local colour. The contrast isn’t just between Athens’ embracing of progress and Sparta’s determination to maintain stasis, but between openness and its opposite. Athens, at its all-too-brief flowering, encouraged philosophical debate and reasoning, rule-breaking artistry, experimentation and general questioning, in the process producing famous dialogues, plays and extraordinary monuments such as the Parthenon. Sparta on the other hand left no legacy to build on or rediscover, and all that we know of its politico-social system comes from non-Spartans, so that if it has been misrepresented it only has itself to blame!

Jacinta: Yet it didn’t last.

Canto: Many instances of that sort of thing. In the case of Athens, its disastrous Syracusan adventure, its ravagement by the plague, or a plague, or a series of plagues, and the Peloponnesian war, all combined to permanently arrest its development. Contingent events. Think too of the Islamic Golden Age, a long period of innovation in mathematics, physics, astronomy, medicine, architecture and much else, brought to an end largely by the Mongol invasions, and the collapse of the Abbasid caliphate but also by a political backlash towards stasis, anti-intellectualism and religiosity, most often associated with the 12th century theologian Abu Hamid al-Ghazali.

Jacinta: Very tragic for our modern world. So how do we guard against the apostles of stasis? By the interminable application of reason? By somehow keeping them off the reins of power, since those apostles will always be with us?

Canto: Not by coercion, no. It has to be a battle of ideas, or maybe I shouldn’t use that sort of male lingo. A demonstration of ideas, in the open market. A demonstration of their effectiveness for improving our world, which means comprehending that world at an ever-deeper, more comprehensive level.

Jacinta: Comprehensively comprehending, that seems commendably comprehensible. But will this improve the world for us all – lift all boats, as Sam Harris likes to say?

Canto: Well, since you mention Harris, I totally agree with him that reason, and science which is so clearly founded on reason, is just as applicable to the moral world, to pointing the way to and developing the best and richest life we all can live, as it is to technology and our deepest understanding of the universe, the multiverse or whatever our fundamental reality happens to be. So we need to keep on developing and building on that science, and communicating it and applying it to the human world and all that it depends upon and influences.

References

The beginning of infinity, by David Deutsch, 2012

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

https://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/why-the-arabic-world-turned-away-from-science

Written by stewart henderson

May 3, 2020 at 4:36 pm

Covid-19: the USA and a bit of ranting

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failed state anyone?

Jacinta: So I note that, unsurprisingly, there are some Americans protesting about physical distancing and lockdowns, while their nation has proved to us all that their overall handling of this pandemic has been the worst on Earth by a long way. I mean, apologies to all those who are working their arses off on the frontline, and to the innocent victims, and to the governors and other leaders trying their level best, but the sheer size of the US failure compared to just about any other country is a fantastic advert for American exceptionalism.

Canto: Well yes, the USA has failed massively in its handling of Covid-19, though of course the virus has been very patchy in its incidence around the nation, for reasons nobody can quite understand. But here’s an interesting metric in comparing the USA to Australia, and anyone can check this on the Worldometer figures. The USA’s population is approximately 13 times that of Australia, but as of today, April 21, the death toll from Covid-19 in the USA is approximately 600 times that in Australia. Compare also Taiwan, one of the world’s best performed country so far, which has a similar population to Australia. This very close neighbour of China has a death toll so far of 6, compared to the USA’s 42,518.

Jacinta: Yes, yes, so what does this say about the USA when you get so many otherwise intelligent people there still clinging to the bullshit claim that their country is the greatest on the planet? Adam Schiff said it in his otherwise excellent speech at the end of the impeachment process – and today, listening to a Sam Harris interview with Caitlin Flanagan (someone I’ve never heard of but who seemed otherwise perfectly rational), I heard her say exactly the same thing – or not exactly. She said that she really believed (almost as if she wished it were so) that America is the world’s greatest country. As if intensity of belief counted for anything. But I doubt that the USA is ahead of the rest of the world in any field worthy of measuring, apart from military might, and that’s surely a questionable value.

Canto: Hmmm, so why don’t you tell me what you really think? But isn’t this just a bit of harmless patriotism after all? We’re expected to love our country, as a value.

Jacinta: Well, I just don’t. I’ve just never had that feeling. Call me aberrant. Or contrary. I’ve often been described as a contrarian, but on this I agree with Venki Ramakrishnan, the Nobel Prize-winner, whose excellent book Gene Machine we’ve just read. He was inundated with congratulatory calls and honorary awards from India after winning the prize, even though he’d had nowt to do with the country since he was a teenager. It started to annoy him, because as he wrote, we don’t get to choose where we’re born. An obvious truth that seems to escape most people. But I’m also a contrarian in that I often find myself undermining my own responses. For example, I want to respond to patriots by calling myself a humanist, but then I think ‘I didn’t get to choose to be a human, why should I be jingoistic about humanity? Birds are pretty cool too.’ Isn’t that contrarian?

Canto: Hmmm. Ramakrishnan was tragically led astray by the transnational values of science haha. And birds can’t do science. I wonder about the blow to US credibility of this event though. They’ve completely failed in the readiness and collaboration Bill Gates wrote about in that New England Journal of Medicine article back in late February. I mean, they’re advancing with possible treatments no doubt, but testing is a shambles from what I’ve heard, and the federal government is non-existent under the boy-king. What little there is of it just gets in the way.

Jacinta: The irony of it is that the more their government fails, the more the libertarians and the knee-jerk anti-government loons will feel vindicated. And now I hear that our own Dear Leader thinks that we should have a more co-ordinated international response but maybe without the WHO. I mean, wtf? Seems to be trying to crawl up the boy-king’s capacious arse. Wrong side of history, mate.

Canto: So I’ve been avidly watching this series of Medcram videos on the pandemic. They’re informative on the science, on immunology and new types of vaccines and treatments, but they’re also a fascinating look back on the innocent-seeming days of six or seven weeks ago, when there were hardly any deaths outside of China. Watching them only adds to my sense of the unreality of it all, somehow. Anyway, microbiology’s a fun topic to learn about don’t you think?

Jacinta: Along with all the others. It’s certainly a lot more calming and inspiring than politics.

References

https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp2003762

Gene machine, by Venki Ramakrishnan

Written by stewart henderson

April 22, 2020 at 11:37 pm

the politics of Covid-19: the China problem

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the sharp rise, and gradual decline, of active cases in South Korea, from Worldometer

So far we have no treatment for Covid-19, and can only use non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to stop or slow its spread. Evidence from Wuhan has conclusively shown that stringent NPIs have been effective in this regard. Not only did the case rate fall sharply from early February (after rising sharply from December to the end of January), but the proportion of critical cases was substantially reduced over the whole period. While recent very low numbers reported from China are creating an understandable skepticism due to the Chinese government’s tight grip on information, experts generally agree that the Wuhan data is reliable.

Reducing the rate of transmission is the goal of NPIs. Once the transmission rate (Rt) is reduced to less than 1.0, cases will reduce, and this will show in the statistics (while taking account of an incubation period of roughly 5 days and laboratory confirmation). Analysis in this JAMA article of the Wuhan measures, which became increasing stringent over a two-month interval, and which analysts divided into five consecutive periods, suggests that the period 3 measures (strict travel restrictions, including automobile travel, and home quarantine) were the likely determining factors in Rt reduction. This analysis, however, conveniently chimes with the fact that the more severe period 4 and 5 restrictions, involving heavily policed physical distancing measures, central quarantining, and door-to-door, individual-to-individual screening, would not go down well in an open society. I don’t want to cast doubt on the article, but this is China we’re talking about, and there are all sorts of political sensitivities in dealing with this heavy-handed economic giant.

I’ve long been thinking about this, but a Sydney Morning Herald article I found on my twitter feed (I virtually never tweet but it’s a useful resource) has prompted me to explore a bit more. It’s about Taiwan.

Taiwan’s experience re Covid-19 is worth comparing to Australia’s as their overall population is the same as ours. For a while I’ve been perhaps complacently touting Australia’s success in keeping the numbers down – we’re now the world’s 29th in number of cases, compared to 18th a couple of weeks ago. But Taiwan shits on us in this respect – 388 cases compared to our 6313, 6 deaths compared to our 61. It ranks 98th out of the countries and regions on Worldometer’s list.

The SMH article is essentially an interview with Professor Su Ih-Jen, the infectious diseases expert responsible for Taiwan’s response to Covid-19. He explains that this response, probably the most successful of any country, is all about Taiwan’s mistrust of China. The relationship between the two countries is about as bad as it can get, with China using its power internationally to stifle Taiwan’s voice in international forums such as the World Health Organisation. China has never recognised Taiwan’s nationhood, and is seen as an ever-present danger by the Taiwanese. So when word spread about the outbreak in Wuhan in December, Taiwanese experts assumed the worst and acted quickly, imposing quarantines and travel bans from China. The country had learned lessons from the first SARS outbreak, also from China, and substantially increased their numbers of ventilators and hospital beds. And have spent the past 17 years literally rehearsing for this new outbreak.

So while Taiwan’s success can’t be measured in any precise way in terms of its relationship to China, it has undoubtedly been a major factor. It’s worth considering in terms of other states influenced by the CCP. Hong Kong, for example, has a population of some 7.5 million, with obviously a very high population density. That’s somewhere between a third and a quarter of Australia’s population, yet it has less than a sixth of our confirmed cases – and we would be one of the most successful countries in containing the outbreak, by any measure. I hardly need to go into Hong Kong’s somewhat perilous relationship to China, but it’s worth comparing Hong Kong, with its 4 deaths so far, to New York State, the USA’s most hard-hit region, which has suffered over 10,000 deaths. That state has about 2.5 times the population of Hong Kong. It’s of course possible that there’s been suppression of data in Hong Kong, but it’s more likely that its preparedness, given its proximity to and intense suspicion of its powerful neighbour, provides a better understanding of its success.

A more complex case is that of South Korea. Having recently read a potted history of Korea, I’m now an expert haha. Korea, like Japan, has been massively influenced historically by Chinese culture, and generally recognises its debt. Of course there have been tensions, and battles, between the two nations, but they have generally been in uneasy alliance for centuries. Koreans adopted a variant of Chinese writing for their language, until the Hangul alphabetic script became popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. China is South Korea’s largest trading partner by far. It’s one of few countries that can boast a surplus in its trade with the economic giant. Tourism both to and from China has always been very popular, though the South Korean government introduced measures to reduce the flow of Chinese tourism in 2017. In the early days of Covid-19 reporting, South Korea was often mentioned as one of the most, if not the most, affected/infected nations outside of China. That has since changed dramatically, with the country receiving sometimes grudging, and certainly qualified, praise for its response. It developed effective testing kits in a matter of days, and is now exporting them to the world. Its rapid mobilisation of all government departments, its widespread testing of asymptomatic subjects, its quarantine measures, have been generally seen as exemplary. It seems South Korea has also learned from the SARS outbreak in 2003, though its late recognition of the dangers has sadly cost lives. Could this be because it was too trusting of China’s first muted reports of the virus? And couldn’t it be said that South Korea’s eventual forceful response, regarded as overly intrusive by some westerners, owed something to that of its largest trading partner?

So neighbourhood politics have definitely played a role in how the response to Covid-19 has played out in Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea, though the details are necessarily fuzzy. It’s also surely the case that complacency, even exceptionalism, in those regions far from what has been deemed the epicentre, has been very costly. In those regions, alertness about, and full preparedness for, the dangers of viral pandemics in general, setting aside China, should be the major lesson.

References

https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2764656

https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/south-korea/

https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/china-hong-kong-sar/

https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/taiwan/

https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/us/

A brief history of Korea, by Michael Seth, 2019

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

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/20/south-korea-rapid-intrusive-measures-covid-19

https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/04/suppress-and-lift-hong-kong-and-singapore-say-they-have-coronavirus-strategy-works

Written by stewart henderson

April 14, 2020 at 12:13 pm

Trumpdagistan: the new fundamentalism

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The legitimate powers of government extend only to such acts as are injurious to others, but it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

Thomas Jefferson

A recent Point of Inquiry podcast has again turned my attention to what I should now call Trumpdagistan, a more or less dictatorial state that borders Canada and Mexico, which for various reasons I shouldn’t really be concerning myself with, as I live very far from the country and have never had any intention of visiting it, even if I had the means. It just seems to be a kind of ghoulishness on my part, my version of addiction to rotten.com, if that website still exists.

As a completely non-religious person, I’m obviously opposed to any interference of the state by religion, that terribly bad explanation of any and all phenomena. Trumpdagistan, even before it was renamed, was the most religious of all the democratic countries. Their national god is Guard, who guards Trumpdagistan against all evils, including secularism, the world’s primary evil, according to Billy Barr, the dictatorship’s chief toady, who believes that all morality derives from the book of Guard.

Whilst the wanker in the white palace (WWP) is very unlikely to believe in Guard (for his self-obsession is all-consuming but exhausting, as it basically consists of constantly puffing hot air into a balloon full of holes), he recognises the usefulness of a national god in much the same way as every previous dictator has. So he’s happy, indeed delighted, to unleash his toady on secularism and more particularly, secularists. Free-thinkers, in the words of Stephen Dedalus.

The WWP and his toadies have made every effort in their few years of control to create a compliant, Guard-worshipping judiciary, especially at the very top, the Supreme Court. As the Point of Inquiry podcast has pointed out, that court is now stacked with Guard-botherers, more or less bent on overturning the separation between politics and religion, through particular interpretations of the country’s much-worshipped Constitution which somehow bestow a kind of second-class citizenship on secularists. It’s unclear, however, how the Constitution can be so interpreted.

In any case, the WWP’s ‘administration’ has managed to promote two more religious right-wingers to the Supreme Court, for a total of five – just another couple of bricks in the wall, so to speak. The much-worshipped constitution of the former USA actually has very little to say on religion. The first amendment to that constitution, as it pertains to religion, says only this:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

That’s it. It’s since been known as the ‘establishment clause’. The rest of that amendment, also quite brief, deals with freedom of speech, without particular reference to religion. The only possible ambiguity in the above clause is ‘respecting’, which could mean ‘having respect for’ or ‘with respect or reference to’. Neither interpretation suggests that the constitution, or the bill of rights, supports any religion; rather it clearly supports keeping out of religion, or maintaining a separation between religion and law-making. And yet, mischief-making religionists, some of them rather powerful, have tried hard to distort the simple meaning. Take the late unlamented Justice Scalia, who in one forgettable judicial opinion came up with this gem:

The establishment clause permits the disregard of polytheists and believers in unconcerned deities, just as it permits the disregard of devout atheists.

Of course the clause has nothing whatever to do with permitting disregard, it simply avoids permission and prohibition equally. Nothing could be clearer. What Scalia seems to be wanting the clause to say is that the law should disregard and so not protect polytheists, atheists and the like. This defies any serious interpretation.

And so we come to the toady. He’s apparently a catholic, and believes that secularism is the principle cause of the ills that Trumpdagistan is suffering from. Those ills don’t, of course, include white collar corruption, which he avidly supports. To their credit, many other catholics are condemning Barr’s evidence-free claims, but in Barr’s Trumpdagistan, a collection of writings penned many centuries ago by scores of individuals of widely varying views and experience, and known today, at least by some, as the bible, is the only source of morality for all humanity, and will no doubt be installed as the basis of all Trumpdagistani law. All of this is making the WWP very popular, if polls are to be believed, so expect much more of it in the future. What would Thomas Jefferson think?

Written by stewart henderson

February 23, 2020 at 5:08 pm