an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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Posts Tagged ‘politics

Lessons from the Trump travesty?

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Consider this passage from The moral landscape, by Sam Harris:

As we better understand the brain, we will increasingly understand all of the forces – kindness, reciprocity, trust, openness to argument, respect for evidence, intuitions of fairness, impulse control, the mitigation of aggression, etc – that allow friends and strangers to collaborate successfully on the common projects of civilisation…

These are indeed, and surely, the forces, or traits, we should want in order to have the best social lives. And they involve a richly interactive relationship between the social milieu – the village, the tribe, the family, the state – and the individual brain, or person. They are also, IMHO, the sorts of traits we would hope to find in our best people – for example, our political leaders, regardless of which political faction they represent.

Now consider those traits in respect of one Donald Trump. It should be obvious to any reasoning observer that he is deficient in all of them. And I mean deficient to a jaw-dropping, head-scratching degree. So there are two questions worth posing here.

  1. How could a person, so obviously deficient in all of the traits we would consider vital to the project of civilisation, have been created in a country that prides itself on being a leader of the free, democratic, civilised world?
  2. How could such a person rise to become the President of that country – which, whether or not you agree with its self-description of its own moral worth, is undoubtedly the world’s most economically and militarily powerful nation, and a world-wide promoter of democracy (in theory if not always in practice)?

I feel for Harris, whose book was published in 2010, well before anyone really had an inkling of what was to come. In The moral landscape he argues for objective moral values, or moral realism, but you don’t have to agree with his general philosophical position to acknowledge that the advancement of civilisation is largely dependent on the above-quoted traits. But of course, not everyone acknowledges this, or has ever given a thought to the matter. It’s probably true that most people, in the USA and elsewhere, don’t give a tinker’s cuss about the advancement of civilisation.

So the general answer to question one is easy enough, even if the answer in any particular case requires detailed knowledge. I don’t have such knowledge of the family background, childhood and even pre-natal influences that formed Trump’s profoundly problematic character, but reasonable inferences can be made, I think. For example, one of Trump’s most obvious traits is his complete disregard for the truth. To give one trivial example among thousands, he recently described Meghan Markle, now the Duchess of Sussex, as ‘nasty’, in a televised interview. In another televised interview, very shortly afterwards, he denied saying what he was clearly recorded as saying. This regular pattern of bare-faced lying, without any concern about being found out, confronted by his behaviour, or suffering consequences, says something. It says that he has rarely if ever been ‘corrected’ for breaking this commandment, and, very likely, has been rewarded for it from earliest childhood – this reward being likely in the form of amusement, acclamation, and encouragement in this practice. Since, as we know, Trump was a millionaire before he was old enough to pronounce the word, the son of a self-possessed, single-minded property shark, who bestowed on the child a thousand indications of his own importance, it’s more than likely that he grew up in a bubble-world in which self-interest and duplicity were constantly encouraged and rewarded, a world of extreme materialism, devoid of any intellectual stimulation. This is the classic ‘spoilt child’ I’ve already referred to. Often, when a child like this has to stand up on his own feet, his penchant for lying, his contempt for the law and his endless attention-seeking will get him into legal trouble, but Trump appears to have stayed under the wing of his father for much longer than average. His father bailed him out time and time again when he engaged in dumb business deals, until he learned a little more of the slyness of white-collar crime (including learning how to steal from his father). His father’s cronies in the crooked business and legal world would also have taught him much.

Trump is surely a clear-cut case of stunted moral development, the darling child who was encouraged, either directly or though observation of the perverse world of white-collar crime that surrounded him, to listen to no advice but his own, to have devotees rather than friends, and to study and master every possible form of exploitation available to him. Over time, he also realised that his habit of self-aggrandisement could be turned to advantage, and that it would continue to win people, in ever greater numbers, if effectively directed. Very little of this, of course, was the result of what psychologists describe as system 2 thinking – and it would be fascinating to study Trump’s brain for signs of activity in the prefrontal cortex – it was more about highly developed intuitions about what he could get away with, and who he could impress with his bluster.

Now, I admit, all of this is somewhat speculative. Given Trump’s current fame, there will doubtless be detailed biographies written about his childhood and formative years, if they haven’t been written already. My point here is that, given the environment of absurd and dodgy wealth to be found in small pockets of US society, and given the ‘greed is good’ mantra that many Americans (and of course non-Americans) swallow like the proverbial kool-aid, it isn’t so surprising that white-collar crime isn’t dealt with remotely adequately, and that characters like Trump dot the landscape, like pus-oozing pimples on human skin. In fact there are plenty of people, rich and poor alike, who would argue that tax evasion shouldn’t even be a crime… while also arguing that the USA, unlike every other western democracy, can’t afford universal medicare.

So that’s a rough-and-ready answer to question one. Question two has actually been addressed in a number of previous posts, but I’ll address it a little differently here.

The USA is, I think, overly obsessed with the individual. It’s a hotbed of libertarianism, an ideology entirely based on the myth of individualism and ‘individual freedom’, and it’s no surprise that Superman, Batman and most other super-heroes were American products. It’s probable that a sizeable section of Trump’s base see him in ‘superhero’ terms, someone not cut in the mould of Washington politicians, someone larger than life, someone almost from outer space in that he talks and acts differently from normal human beings let alone politicians. This makes him exciting and enlivening – like a comic book. And they’re happy to go along for the ride regardless of whether their lives are improved.

I must admit, though, that I’m mystified when I hear Trump supporters still saying ‘he’s done so much for our country’, when it’s fairly clear to me that, apart from cruelly mistreating asylum-seekers, he’s done little other than tweet insults and inanities and cheat at golf. The massive neglect of every aspect of federal government under his ‘watch’ will take decades to repair, and the question of whether the USA will ever recover from the tragi-comedy of this presidency is hard to answer.

But as to how Trump was ever allowed to become President, it’s all about a dangerously flawed political system, one that has too few safeguards against the simplistic populism that the ancient Greek philosophers railed against 2500 years ago. Unabashed elitists, they were deeply concerned that ‘the mob’ would be persuaded by a charismatic blowhard who promised everything and delivered nothing – or, worse than nothing, disaster. They were concerned because they witnessed it in their lifetime.

The USA today is sadly lacking in those safeguards. It probably thought the safeguards were adequate, until Trump came along. For example, it was expected – among gentlemen, so to speak – that successful candidates would present their tax returns, refuse to turn the Presidency to their own profit, support their own intelligence services and justice department, treat long-time allies as allies and long-time adversaries as adversaries, and, in short, display at least some of the qualities I’ve quoted from Harris at the top of this post.

The safeguards, however, need to go much further than this, IMHO. The power of the Presidency needs to be sharply curtailed. A more distributed, collaborative and accountable system needs to be developed, a team-based system (having far more women in leadership positions would help with this), not a system which separates the President/King and his courtiers/administration from congress/parliament. Pardoning powers, veto powers, special executive powers, power to select unelected officials to high office, power to appoint people to the judiciary – all of these need to be reined in drastically.

Of course, none of this is likely to happen in the near future – and I still believe blood will flow before Trump is heaved out of office. But I do hope that the silver lining to the cloud of this presidency is that, in the long term, a less partisan, less individual-based federal system will be the outcome of this Dark Age.

Written by stewart henderson

June 14, 2019 at 5:00 pm

situation USA 3: the right i word

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Nancy Pelosi – trying to make the best of a bad system

I’ve been saying from the start that impeachment – thankfully not a part of the Westminster system – is a hopelessly politicised process, and that someone like Trump should be dealt with by straightforward, clear-cut law. Unfortunately, when it comes to white-collar crime – which is far from being victimless – the USA doesn’t set a great example. Though of course it’s not the only democratic nation to fail in this regard. However, Trump has pushed white-collar crime about as far as it can go without consequences. Just about all he has going for him presently is Presidential immunity. That’s why his principal aim right now is to extend that present as far into the future as possible, and that’s why I’m predicting that things will get worse. He won’t give up the presidency without a very ugly fight.

Nancy Pelosi has been in a friendly-fire fight with Jerry Nadler over the right i word. She says it’s imprisonment, and of course I agree with her. The USA needs to create clear law wiping out presidential immunity ASAP if it’s to regain the respect of the international community, but of course this won’t be possible until 2021. In the meantime, the House should continue to build its case against Trump, just as law officials are doing outside of Congress.

CNN ‘Editor-at-large’ (what does that mean? Editor who should be in prison?) Chris Cillizza has written a strange and quite silly piece, saying Trump’s imprisonment is ‘not likely’. His first point is that Pelosi, by bringing up the right i word, is trying to show Nadler and others that, by opposing the rush to impeachment, she’s not being soft, but realistic. It’s indeed an incredible thing that the Senate Republicans are largely choosing to stand by their flim-flam man, but it’s a fact, and proof of the tainted, politicised process that impeachment is. But Cillizza then describes this word as a ‘rhetorical grenade’. Rubbish, I say. The fact that Trump is still President-at-large is a disgrace. For a start, he’s not an ‘unindicted co-conspirator’ in the SDNY case which saw his fixer plead guilty on two felony counts. I realise this a term of legal art, but it completely misrepresents the situation, in which Trump was the boss and Cohen merely the gofer. And of course the campaign violation stuff is just the tip of the iceberg.

Cillizza then instructs his readers with this gem of wisdom:

Remember that impeachment and indictment are two very different things. The first is a political process, the second is a legal one.

Wow. Is he addressing 10 year-olds or is he one himself? Anyway, he goes on rather long-windedly to point out that impeachment won’t work due to the GOP Senate majority and the two thirds rule. I’d be even more brief. Impeachment is gobshite. Only in America (ok – also in South Korea, Taiwan, Brazil and any other country fool enough to follow the US system).

Cillizza goes on to ‘examine’ the possibility of imprisonment. It’s more of a glossing over, however, than an examination. The Mueller Report itself evaluates ten cases of obstruction of justice, some of which are strong enough to have over 700 federal prosecutors (as of a month ago – the number keeps rising) sign a letter baldly stating that Trump would face ‘multiple felony charges’ on obstruction alone if he was not President. What this says about the totally stuffed federal political system of the USA should indeed be clear to any wide-awake 10 year-old. Then there are the 16 or so criminal probes involving Trump, his foundation, his taxes, his inauguration, his emoluments violations, his anti-immigration horrors (his worst crimes while in office), his links with Russia and the Middle East, the Deutsche Bank money laundering scandals etc etc. It’s abundantly clear that Trump is a pre-teen spoilt brat turned career criminal – because, given his background, he couldn’t succeed at anything else. But a spoilt child, like a spoilt dinner, doesn’t spoil itself. It’s spoilt by its ‘makers’, and I’m not talking about gods. I’m talking about parents and environment and other early influences. So Trump isn’t to blame for becoming the US President, and making the US Presidency the object of global scorn and opprobrium. The fault lies with the US political system itself. The USA allowed this fainéant to become its President (not forgetting Russia’s sly assistance), because it takes pride in allowing anyone to become President. No screening for party allegiance, no screening for legal or political or historical literacy, no screening for business integrity or acumen, no screening for any kind of competence whatsoever. And instead of assuring the world – noting that we’re talking of the world’s most powerful nation, economically and militarily – that with great power comes great responsibility – it teaches us that, in the US at least, with great power comes great immunity.

But let’s get back to Cillizza’s piece. Here are his concluding remarks.

To be clear: Neither impeachment nor arrest is a sure thing. In fact, neither are even long shots. We are deliberating between something that is very, very, very, very unlikely to happen and something that is very, very, very, very, very unlikely to happen. But between impeachment and imprisonment, the former is the far more viable option. No matter what Pelosi wants.

As I’ve made clear, I have no interest in impeachment, but Cillizza is arguing – or, rather, stating, that imprisonment is a virtual impossibility for this career criminal, in spite of all the evidence piling up against him – which will always amount to a mere fraction of his wrong-doing. And yet, my impression is that Cillizza’s as jingoistic about ‘the leader of the free world’ and ‘the light on the hill’ as most Americans. The proverbial frog in the slowly boiling water comes to mind. If Trump escapes imprisonment, then surely that frog is doomed.


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Written by stewart henderson

June 9, 2019 at 3:33 pm

situation USA 2: reflections on the Mueller Report and more recent events

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I’m listening with moderate interest to Sam Harris’s recent interview with a legal journalist, Benjamin Wittes of Lawfare, about the Mueller Report. Harris and I share a total abhorrence of Trump, but Harris gives the appearance of being apologetic about it, presumably because he’s an American and a Big Name with a large following, a percentage of whom are Trumpets, who either follow Harris because of his castigations of the Left and identity politics, or just like trolling and giving him a hard time. So it’s no surprise that he’s been avoiding the Trump disaster over the last year or so, and focusing largely on more positive stuff.

However, with the Mueller Report all done, and Trump so far from done, he’s found an expert to dive into the report’s findings and implications. I’m not a lawyer of course, but I’ve read the report and, no doubt like many other such readers, I feel smugly annoyed at the way it has been misrepresented by both sides of politics.

I’m broadly in agreement with Wittes’s analysis of the report, even if I find the legalistic tone a little obfuscating at times, given the nature of the crisis created by Trump’s advent. One thing, though, I continue to be disappointed about – and this is common to most legal analyses I’ve heard, is a kind of dithering or a throwing up of the hands vis-a-vis ‘the indictment of a sitting President’.

Trump should now be in prison for the campaign finance violations he directed Michael Cohen to commit (and would be if he had lost the election). It seems to me grossly unjust that Cohen – though he did commit other crimes – should go to prison for two felonies related to payments Trump arranged to be made to women he had secret relations with, and one crime of lying to Congress about Trump’s financial dealings in Russia, without Trump also being charged and convicted. Cohen was sentenced to 3 years’ prison all up, and it appears impossible to separate the sentences for crimes directed by Trump from other sentences, but it’s certain that Trump, as the ‘Mr Big’ who hired Cohen, should receive longer sentences than Cohen for those particular offences. Presumably he will be charged and imprisoned when he leaves office – for these any many other crimes. If he isn’t, this will simply add to the USA’s well-deserved global disgrace. 

Anyway, the interview takes the Mueller Report’s findings in order, first its release and the behaviour of Barr, then volume one and collusion/conspiracy, and then volume two and obstruction. 

Wittes first defends Barr regarding the delayed, redacted release of the report. He describes the redaction process as ‘labour-intensive’ and time consuming, so that the near 4-week lag from the completion of the 400-plus page document to its release was justified. He also feels that the redactions themselves were by and large reasonable (something that can’t really be determined until we get to read the unredacted version). My essential quibble with this claim is that everything I’ve learned about Mueller, through reading the report itself and through listening to those who know him and have worked with him, is that he is meticulous and thorough in all legal matters. So it seems to me more or less certain that he would not have handed the report over in unredacted form. Of course Barr would’ve received the unredacted report as Mueller’s boss, but Mueller surely would’ve given detailed indications of what the redactions should be, and why those redactions should be made. Had Barr accepted those indications holus-bolus the report could’ve been handed over to Congress and the public almost immediately. There are two other reasons why Barr may have wanted to delay. First, to intrude further into the redaction process (in Trump’s favour), and second, to delay for the sake of delay, hoping that the commotion might die down, that ardour might cool even slightly, and even to delay the inevitable (as the Trump administration has been doing since). 

Wittes next talks about the letter Barr wrote soon after receiving the report, and its distortion of the report’s content. This of course relates to the delay in the release of the report, because Barr’s summary, which he later tried to argue wasn’t a summary, seemed to exonerate Trump of all crimes, allowing Trump and his administration to claim complete innocence. The duplicitous ‘summary’, which Mueller himself criticised severely in a letter to Barr, seems further evidence that Barr’s delayed release of the redacted report was strategic. The duplicity is revealed, as Wittes points out, in an analysis of Barr’s selective quotes from the report, published in the New York Times. Having just read the letter myself, I find this quote particularly disturbing: 

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and I have concluded that the evidence developed during the Special Counsel’s investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.

Having read volume two of the report, and listened to many legal analysts discussing it, I find this pretty astonishing. You’d have to wonder what could constitute obstruction, according to Barr (though the answer is pretty evident from his 19-page letter on the matter which got him appointed A-G in the first place). As to Rosenstein, his role in the administration is being reassessed in the light of this endorsement.

But now I need to interrupt this analysis in the light of a recent brief press conference held by Mueller. He has used this platform to stress the finding that, due to Department of Justice policy, charging the President with a crime was ‘not an option we could consider’ – that’s to say, it was never on the table from the start. This, presumably, regardless of the crime – murder, rape, grand larceny, treason, no crime is so heinous that it needs to be dealt with pronto. Instead, Mueller refers to his introduction to volume 2 of the report. Here is the essential message from Mueller’s presentation:

If we had confidence that the President clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so. We did not, however, make a determination as to whether the President did commit a crime. The introduction to volume 2 of our report explains that decision. It explains that under long-standing department policy a President cannot be charged with a federal crime while he is in office. That is unconstitutional. Even if the charge is kept under seal and kept from public view, that too is prohibited. The Special Counsel’s office is under the Department of Justice and under the regulation it was bound by that department policy. Charging the President with a crime was therefore not an option we could consider. The department’s written opinion explaining the policy makes several important points that further informed our handling of the obstruction investigation…. First the opinion explicitly permits the investigation of a sitting President because it is important to preserve evidence while memories are fresh and documents available…. And second the opinion says that the Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting President of wrong-doing.

The words in italics are, importantly, Mueller’s emphases. As just about every pundit agrees, Mueller has emphasised this part of the report very deliberately to indicate that, now, that other process should take over. That’s to say, congressional oversight or impeachment.

But what Mueller and almost everyone else in the USA doesn’t get, is that this other process is fundamentally flawed because it is a political process. It is simply wrong to shirk the legal responsibility of dealing with legal issues, for one person only – the POTUS. It is, in fact, corrupt, to a degree that is so screamingly obvious to an outsider like me, that I feel like committing the whole nation to an institution for the criminally insane. And if the US Constitution permits this, so much the worse for that constitution. I must admit to being sick to death of the US Constitution being referred to in reverential and worshipful tones by Americans. It seems to make critical analysis impossible, almost treasonous. In any case, the implication of not being able to charge the President with clear-cut criminal behaviour, is this – with great power comes great immunity.

By not dealing directly with Trump’s criminality, or Presidential criminality in general, for whatever lame historical reasons, the Department of Justice has handed this situation over to partisan players, most of whom are not qualified or educated in law. This is wrong. And I’ve not heard a single US ‘expert’ point this out. To describe this as extremely frustrating is a vast understatement. I note that Mueller uses the weasel term ‘wrong-doing’ instead of crimes, to try to get the DoJ off the hook. It won’t do. Trump has committed crimes. His ‘fixer’ is in jail for some of them, and most lawyers happily say that they would win convictions for others. This whole sorry situation will damage, deservedly, the USA’s reputation for a long time into the future. Permanently, in fact, until it gets it the criminal liability of its all-too powerful leaders sorted out. Currently their President is above the law, and that’s the example they’re setting for heads of state everywhere.

Written by stewart henderson

May 31, 2019 at 8:38 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by stewart henderson

May 13, 2019 at 7:30 pm

situation USA 1: Billy Barr’s memo, etc

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silly Billy

Jacinta: So we can’t get enough of the wacky world of US federal politics, maybe from a schadenfreudish perspective, since we’re not Americans and have no intention of setting foot in that mad bad sad world…

Canto: Fully of lovely people I should add. Very diverse.

Jacinta: Very, let’s leave it at that. But we’re fascinated that Trump is still trumpeting, and that the nation’s better half, actually more than half, has still not found a way to rid themselves of him. I’m very reluctant to attribute any smarts to Trump, because criminal types, in spite of many movie depictions, are rarely smart enough to avoid getting caught. Yet Trump is still at large. He’s obviously done many things right, re self-preservation, and even self-aggrandisement.

Canto: We think of criminals as dumb because they’ve been caught. That’s why we call them criminals.

Jacinta: Good point. Anyway, the slow train crash that’s US federal politics today may not be the Trump crash. He may well walk away from the wreck unscathed. The number of final scenarios from here seems virtually infinite.

Canto: So let’s jump right in. The Mueller team has produced a report, redacted to the public, but mostly available (with almost entirely unredacted summaries of each of the two volumes, on conspiracy and obstruction respectively), which we have read and which we’ve found to be extremely critical of the administration and Trump himself. We’ll be quoting from the report throughout this fun, multi-post analysis.

Jacinta: But first we want to have a look at the role being played by US Attorney-General William Barr, who’s currently standing between the Mueller Report and its reception and treatment, by Congress, by the US justice system, and by the American public.

Canto: Barr hasn’t been the A-G for long, having taken office on Valentine’s Day of 2019.

Jacinta: A loving day for Billy and Donny. Some background to the appointment. Trump nominated Barr for the position on December 7 2018, a month after the resignation of the previous A-G, Jeff Sessions. Trump, as example F of the Mueller Report’s many examples of possible or probable obstruction of justice relates, had been trying to get Sessions to either ‘unrecuse’ himself (a legal nonsense, according to many) from overseeing the Mueller Report, or to resign, throughout Sessions’ tenure in the position. Barr, who held the position of A-G back in the early nineties, was clearly aware of Trump’s frustration with Sessions and his desire for an A-G who would protect him, support him, be on his team, etc, and had sent, unsolicited, a 19-page memo, available online, which is well worth reading. You don’t have to be a lawyer to recognise the many flaws in Barr’s arguments, you simply need a good sense of logic, decency and fairness.

Barr’s memo begins badly, with the title – Re: Mueller’s ‘obstruction’ theory. The scare quotes are meant to imply that obstruction isn’t really a thing in this case, and possibly for Presidents in general. But the most telling word is ‘theory’, because, as we have seen from the report itself, and no doubt this is a feature of Mueller’s legal career, the Special Counsel doesn’t theorise much, he relies on case law and precedent, which he cites at enormous length, to hammer home his findings.

Canto: Yes, just reading the memo, the word ‘theory’ comes up in the second and third paras. I also note the use of scary words like ‘demand’, ‘threat’, ‘interrogation’ and ‘coerce his submission’, all used in reference to Mueller’s behaviour towards Trump, all piled up in the first couple of paras. It’s no wonder that some have surmised that this memo was intended for an audience of one – especially if that person hasn’t the attention span to read more than a page a month.

Jacinta: Well, Barr quickly moves to legalese, using terms like actus rea (actually actus reus) and mens rea – which mean, respectively, a criminal act, and the intent, or knowledge of guilt. What he writes in these next paragraphs is unexceptionable – he agrees that the President is bound by standard obstruction laws, and that Nixon and Bill Clinton were rightly impeached on obstruction in the form of impairment of evidence. But then he goes on to write:

Enforcing these laws against the President in no way infringes on the President’s plenary [absolute] power over law enforcement because exercising this discretion – such as his complete authority to start or stop a law enforcement proceeding – does not involve commission of any of these inherently wrongful, subversive acts.

Barr Memorandum, June 2018, p2

Canto: Hmmm, I think I see what Barr is trying for here. But first, why isn’t it jaw-dropping to grant absolute power to one person over law enforcement? Only in America, surely. The land of the individual super-hero. But what I think Barr is arguing here is that Trump’s attempt to stop a proceeding – the Mueller enquiry – was perfectly legal due to his plenary power. So, even if Putin’s Russia interfered with the 2016 election ‘in sweeping and systematic fashion’, and did so to substantially advantage Trump, and the Trump campaign knew about and welcomed that interference, it was perfectly legitimate for Trump to shut down an investigation into that interference and the Trump campaign’s response. Based on that view, all attempts to get the enquiry stopped or to change its focus were legitimate. End of story.

Jacinta: You’re getting there. And fortunately we don’t have to rely only on our own brilliant minds to critique this memo, as many lawyers have already done so. But let’s continue to go it alone for a while, and then see what others have to say. Barr admits at the outset that he’s ‘in the dark’ about many facts, yet he’s happy to speculate, claiming that ‘as far as I know’, and ‘seemingly’, this is what Mueller is actually doing – for example ‘proposing an unprecedented expansion of obstruction laws’. Again, we’re not lawyers, but I note that Mueller cites precedent many times in his report. And he doesn’t include in his examples of possible/probable obstruction the multitudinous tweets and speeches in which Trump denigrates the Special Counsel’s investigation as a witch-hunt and the Russian interference as a hoax. In a broad sense, this appears to me to be witness tampering – using the bully pulpit in the manner of dictators of the past, repeating a lie over and over until it becomes true. The witnesses here being the American public. But back to the memo. Barr homes in on USC 1512, subsection c2, which Mueller does indeed use in his report, but c2 seems to me clear-cut about obstruction, and covers many acts committed by Trump which Barr glosses over or doesn’t mention. In fact Barr seems to think that the only possibly obstructive act committed by Trump was the firing of Comey. Here is subsection c:

(c) Whoever corruptly (1) alters, destroys, mutilates or conceals a record, document or other object, or attempts to do so, with the attempt to impair the object’s integrity, or availability for use in an official proceeding; or (2) otherwise obstructs, influences, or impedes any official proceeding, or attempts to do so.

Further, Barr states that, as far as he knows, Mueller isn’t accusing Trump of evidence tampering. But how far does Barr know? This is an assumption, and on the basis of that assumption he accuses Mueller of an over-reach which in any case makes no sense on the basis of a straightforward reading of c2.

Canto: Well according to Barr, c2 shouldn’t be read as standing alone, it should somehow be read in the context of 1512 c as a whole. To me, though, it clearly reads as a necessary addition to c1, which doesn’t deal adequately with all the nefarious ways and means of obstruction. Barr describes the use of c2 as allowing an ‘unbounded interpretation’ of obstruction. But the law surely requires a definition of obstruction that captures the myriad ways that obstruction can occur – myriad but at the same time obvious to any well-reasoning witness.

Jacinta: Interesting – Mueller and Barr are friends of at least 30 years’ standing, which is a worry, and this makes me imagine, and perhaps it isn’t just imagination, that Mueller is writing up his report partly in refutation of Barr’s claims. That’s based on reading just three pages of Barr, but we’re often more miffed by the criticism of friends, and blokes are such competitive bulls.

Canto: Yes but you could be onto something there. Mueller dwells at length on 1512 c2 as the basis for his obstruction analysis, as well as on the three elements that must be fulfilled to show that obstruction has occurred – obstructive act, intent, and connection to an official proceeding – and towards the end of the report (Vol 2 III. Legal defences to the application of obstruction-of-justice statutes to the President), Mueller directly addresses the issue of 1512 c2, not in response to Barr, but in response to Trump’s personal counsel. These remarks summarise the Special Counsel’s position:

In analyzing counsel ‘s statutory arguments, we concluded that the President’s proposed interpretation of Section 1512(c)(2) is contrary to the litigating position of the Department of Justice and is not supported by principles of statutory construction.

Mueller Report Vol 2, p159

Jacinta: Yes I like the report’s succinctness, with the above summary being followed by a great deal of case law, constitutional argument and so forth. Of course we’re not conversant with all the precedents and the possible constitutional nuances, but we note that these arguments – which may well be directed at rebutting Barr – are detailed and cool, lacking the sense of outrage we find in Barr, regarding over-reach and unprecedented interpretations. And they do seem to confirm our amateur understanding that 1512 c2 is intended to cover acts other than the physical destruction of evidence – and those other acts would be an open-ended set.

Canto: Yes, Barr quibbles a lot on the term ‘otherwise’ in 1512 c2, and Mueller responds to that.

Jacinta: But if we move out from the detailed law into the world of basic ethics, we should be able to recognise that Barr’s position is nothing short of appalling. He tries to argue – and he did so in the senate hearing – that it’s not obstruction if the President ‘thinks’ that the proceeding is corrupt, and so wants to shut it down. So, according to Barr, Trump’s endless claims of a witch-hunt are sufficient justification for him to dismiss the Special Counsel! That’s laughable. I mean Trump would say that, wouldn’t he? Not that this is what Trump thinks. He knows full well that he’s a career criminal. It’s what every career criminal would say when brought to justice. Duh.

Written by stewart henderson

May 4, 2019 at 7:36 pm

a few thoughts on libertarianism

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Libertarianism is like Leninism: a fascinating, internally consistent political theory with some good underlying points that, regrettably, makes prescriptions about how to run human society that can only work if we replace real messy human beings with frictionless spherical humanoids of uniform density (because it relies on simplifying assumptions about human behavior which are unfortunately wrong). I don’t know who wrote this.

not quite

Aren’t libertarians a lovely lot?

I might look more closely at some libertarian philosophy later, but for now I want to critique the kind of standard libertarianism I’ve heard from politicians and bloggers.

Well, okay, I’ll start with a philosopher, Robert Nozick, whose much-vaunted/pilloried book Anarchy, State and Utopia I tried to read in the eighties. I found it pretty indigestible and essentially learned from others that his argument depended rather too much on one principle – the human right of individuals to certain positive and negative freedoms, but especially negative ones, like the right to be left largely alone, to make their own decisions for example about how to contribute to the greater good. The book ended up advocating for a minimalist state, in which everyone gets to create their own communities of kindred spirits, organically grown A cornucopia of utopias. The kind of state that, ummm, like, doesn’t exist anywhere. That’s the problem. Utopia is definable as a society that only exists in fantasy.

And then there’s the exaltation of the individual. This is the problem I’ve encountered with every libertarian I’ve read or viewed – and I’m quite glad I’ve rarely had any personal encounters with them.

If I did, here would be my response. Homo sapiens are the most socially constructed mammals on the planet. Language has massively facilitated this, and in turn has become our most powerful social product. Common languages have created civilisations, and this has allowed us to dominate the planet, for better or worse. And civilisation requires, or just is, organised social structure. That’s to say, a state, that eternal bogey-man of the libertarian.

This entity, the state, has shaped humans for millennia. Today, we owe (largely) to the state the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the education we’re hopefully still having, the jobs we’ve had and lost, the houses we live in, the cars we used to drive, and the good health we increasingly enjoy. That’s why, it seems to me, we owe it to ourselves to make the state we live in as good as we can make it, in terms of health, safety, opportunity, support, pleasure and self-improvement, for all its members.

It seems to me we have to work with what exists instead of trying to invent utopias – because, obviously, one person’s utopia is another’s nightmare. What exists today is a variety of states, some clearly better than others. The minimalist states are among the worst, and they’re understandably called failed states. There is no effectively functioning minimalist state on the planet, a fact that many libertarians blithely ignore. Their emphasis on individual liberty seems to me the product of either beggar-thy-neighbour selfishness or starry-eyed optimism about natural affinities.

Again, I turn to the USA, my favourite whipping-state. This hotbed of libertarians has not blossomed as it could, considering its booming economy. From this distance, it seems a sad and often stomach-turning mixture of white-collar fraudsters and chronically disadvantaged, over-incarcerated victims, and good people who largely accept this as the status quo. The you-can-achieve-anything mantra of the American Dream generally sees individuals as blank slates who can best fulfil their potential when pulled from the rubble of the coercive state. Or State, as many libertarians prefer.

It didn’t take my recent reading of Robert Sapolsky’s Behave, a superb overview of human behaviour and its multifarious and interactive underpinnings, or Steven Pinker’s earlier The Blank Slate, to realise that this was a dangerous myth. It was always screamingly obvious to me, from my observation of the working-class milieu of my childhood, the variety of skills my classmates displayed and the problems they faced from the outset, together with my readings of more privileged worthies and their patrician connections (Bertrand Russell on the knee of William Gladstone always comes irritatingly to mind), that there has never been anything like an even playing field for exhibiting and making the most of whatever qualities we’re gifted with or are motivated to cultivate and improve.

So this is the problem: we’re not free to undo what has been ‘done to us’ – the parents we have, the country (or century) we’re born in, the traumas and joys we’ve experienced in the womb, our complex genetic inheritance and so forth. All of these things are connected to a much wider world and a past over which we have no control. They shape us (into go-getting libertarians or bleeding-heart liberals or whatever) much more than we’re generally prepared to admit. And these shaping forces, since the emergence of civilisation and that sometimes messily organised unit called the state, are profoundly social. And even if we’re not talking about western civilisation it’s the same – it takes a village to raise a child.

These shaping forces aren’t necessarily bad or good, they just are. But all in all we should be glad they are. The social brain is the brightest, most complex brain, and such brains wouldn’t have developed if the individual was sacrosanct, in receipt of the right to be ‘left alone’. Civilisation is surely the most impressive achievement of human evolution, and as Ralph Adolphs of Caltech puts it, ‘no component of our civilization would be possible without large-scale collective behavior’. 

The state, of course, has its drawbacks, as do all large-scale multifaceted administrative entities. The ancient Greek city-states produced a host of brilliant contributors to their own esteem as well as to the world history of drama, philosophy, mathematics and history itself, in spite of being built on slavery and denying any equitable role to women, but even there the (probably few) slaves who worked in the most enlightened households would’ve benefitted from the collective, and the women, however officially treated, were surely just as involved and brainy as the men.

As society has grown increasingly complex we as individuals have grown in proportion, as have our individual delusions of grandeur. At least in some cases. What the best of us should have learned, though, is that a rich, diverse, dynamic society, which cannot but be organised, produces the best offerings to its children. Diminishing the state by refusing to contribute to it actually diminishes and impoverishes the self, diminishes connection and the recognition of collective value. This raises the rather large point that the self isn’t what most people think it is – an autonomous, self-actuated entity. Instead, it is driven by complex social inputs from the very start, indeed from long before it came into being. Just as events from long before a crow is born, or even conceived, will go a long way in determining how that adult crow behaves.

Yet the myth of the individual, autonomous self is a live one, and it’s what drives most libertarians. In so far as people see themselves as self-actualising, they will argue the same for others, and absolve themselves from responsibility for others’ failures, mistakes or incapacities. Such attitudes significantly play down disadvantages of background, and even reduce exposure to those differences. Since everyone has the choice to be as successful as me (according to my own measure of success), why should I waste time hanging out with losers? By that measure, to suggest that silver-spoon libertarians would willingly provide support to disadvantaged communities is as unrealistic as expecting Donald Trump to hang out with the construction workers on his trumpy towers.

In some respects, libertarianism represents the opposite pole to communism, on a continuum that stretches into complete delusion at both ends. There have never been any actual, functioning communist or libertarian states. Both are essentially abstract ideologies, which take little account of the science of evolved human behaviour. When we do take account of that science, we find it is fiendishly complex, with the individual as a unit being driven and shaped by social dependencies, connections and responsibilities, which are generally vital to that individual’s well-being. In western democratic societies, apart from family and workplace organisations, we have government, which includes, in Australia, councils, states and a federation of states. It all sound terribly complex and web-like, and some apparently see it as ‘the enemy of individual liberty’ but in fact it’s the web of civilised human life, which we’ve all contributed to creating, and it’s a pretty impressive web – though more impressive in some places than in others. I think the best thing we can try to do is to improve it rather than trying to extricate ourselves from it. In any case, doing so – I mean, removing ourselves from organised society – just won’t work, and fundamentally misunderstands the nature of our evolved humanity.

Written by stewart henderson

April 3, 2019 at 2:32 pm

women and power: China

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Members of the ‘feminist five’ take part in a 2012 protest against domestic violence in Beijing. Photo courtesy of Media Monitor for Women Network.

Jacinta: We missed the boat with International Women’s Day, 10 days ago as we start this post, because of some unfortunate personal events, but of course any time is a good time to write about women and power. I’ve marked the day in a little way by reading a book, Betraying Big Brother, by Leta Hong Fincher, about the uphill struggle feminists face in both defying and positively influencing the increasingly repressive macho dictatorship/oligarchy in China. So I want to talk about events there, and then maybe we can go on to talk about the global picture.

Canto: Yes, am I right in saying there’s never been a woman on the politburo?

Jacinta: Well I won’t go into the details of China’s political system here, but if you’re talking about the Standing Committee of the Politburo, which currently has seven members (the numbers have ranged from five to eleven), you’re right. The Politburo itself is a larger body, but female representation there and in the Communist Party is depressingly small – and it gets worse the further up the tree you climb. But I want to talk about the regular harassment of feminist activists, who by western standards are by no means extreme, and what it says about China’s all-male leaders and their weird attitudes. Betraying Big Brother tells a depressing but also inspiring story which centres around the arrest of five women as a result of events commemorating International Women’s Day (IWD) in 2015. The story gives us a glimpse into the power elite’s obsessions as well as how it tries to maintain power and why.

Canto: I think you mean ‘succeeds in maintaining power’. The ‘power elite’ as you call it seems to have, for the time being, forced down any threat of democratisation, and to have managed a lot of modernisation and a great deal of capitalist enterprise while actually tightening its stranglehold on power.

Jacinta: Well yes, but I try to be optimistic and to look to the long term. The Chinese diaspora, from which Betraying Big Brother springs, is one source of hope for the future. The five arrested women, Li Maizi, Wei Tingting, Wu Rongrong, Zheng Churan and Wang Man, were planning to hand out material protesting sexual harassment – on public transport – as part of IWD. They chose this issue – such harassment is apparently a real problem in China – precisely because it seemed less controversial than other issues confronting women. Nevertheless they were arrested – three in Beijing and in two other cities – for ‘creating a disturbance’.

Canto: The same term used by the Israeli government whenever any protests occur about the mistreatment of Palestinians.

Jacinta: However, the timing of these arrests, coinciding with IWD and with ‘preparations for Chinese president Xi Jinping to cohost a UN summit on women’s rights in New York to mark the 20th anniversary of Beijing’s World Conference on Women’*, couldn’t have been worse for the Chinese government. There was an international outcry, suffused with mockery, and we know how macho thugs hate being mocked.

Canto: Even more than they hate being told what to do? By women?

Jacinta: Well they released the women within a month, make of that what you will. It was probably due to international pressure. Saving face. But what I learned most from this story was how the Chinese dictatorship harasses its subjects in subtle and not so subtle ways. These women and many of their associates are now under constant surveillance, and receive regular visits from party sycophants checking their activities. These thugs harass the feminists’ parents, scolding them for not controlling their ‘little girls’. They harass their employers, their teachers, their associates. They insist that they’re the dupes of ‘hostile foreign forces’, a favourite and very telling phrase, worthy of an entire separate post. And yet this clamp-down has backfired, to an extent. The feminist five were unknown before their arrest, now they’re the Famous Five – but only in a small way, and more overseas than in China itself, due to their government’s overwhelming control of social and other media.

Canto: So why is the Chinese government so afraid of feminism? I get that it’s an all-male government, but women’s education is well supported there, and the Chinese women I’ve met – granted that they’re outside of China – seem pretty strong-minded and outspoken, if just as politically naive as their male counterparts (granted that I meet mostly young students). You’d think the government would have other priorities, and if there’s a real problem with sexual harassment, shouldn’t they support these women for highlighting the problem?

Jacinta: The Chinese leadership is obsessed with total control – they’ve sold their soul for it. At the moment, apparently, they’re trying to turn women into breeders. The one-child policy, their once-proud piece of social engineering, is currently seen as disastrous, so they’ve switched to a two-child policy, but women aren’t buying into it. So maybe that’s why there’s a bit of a war on women at present.

Canto: So if ‘sexual harassment’ leads to more women getting pregnant that’s a good thing? Yuk!

Jacinta: Well I don’t think it’s quite that crass, but they hate the idea of any decision coming from below rather than above. So they crush any ‘dissent’, take note of the complaint, and then act on it months or years later if they feel it’s in their interest. For example, last year they enacted a domestic violence law for the first time, and I’d like to think that feminist pressure, no doubt thoroughly suppressed over the years, has influenced that decision.

Canto: Not to mention hostile foreign forces, haha.

Jacinta: But they haven’t actually criminalised DV. It’s treated as a civil offence. Nor do they have any law criminalising marital rape – one of only ten countries in that category. And rape can lead to pregnancy, after all.

Canto: Why are they so obsessed with engineering the nation’s population? Imagine an Australian, or any other western government trying to do that. They’d be instantly ousted.

Jacinta: Maybe, but clearly this kind of social engineering has become more acceptable to the Chinese. Of course they’ve created different rules for the Han Chinese than for the Uyghur of north-west China and other minorities, a not-too subtle form of discrimination. There have been rumours, though, that the government plans to give up on child-control policies. That would be a good thing. Governments need to just deal with the decisions of their citizens. Currently, women are being forced to retire early (in China). This would force them into dependence on their husbands, if they have one. It just doesn’t accord with the fact that women there are more highly educated than ever before, and form an increasing percentage of the workforce. The Chinese are producing more and more of a particular resource – female competence, skill and know-how – and refusing to utilise it effectively. Then again, that doesn’t make China very much different from other countries…

Canto: But getting back to that one child/two child policy stuff, which really intrigues me – they’re trying to get their economy right for the future. Ageing population is bad, that’s the mantra. And yet, modern economies are changing. It’s more brain than brawn nowadays, more geared, arguably, to an older, more experienced and knowledgable population. And people in retirement don’t all sit and watch TV. They’re active members of the community, active within families, they spend money on travel and so forth.

Jacinta: Yes, but this sign that they might give up on social control in one area, the production of children, is a positive. They might recognise that trying to control other things like workforce participation might backfire on them. They don’t want to be blamed for things going wrong. In Australia, it’s not about forced retirement, but availability of the pension – it might be like that for China too. And that has been complicated by the rise of superannuation.

Canto: In any case, I don’t see any great changes, in a more liberal direction, as long as their current dictator holds the reins. And with the government’s firm control over social media, demonstrations like the one pictured above will continue to be sad, solitary affairs.

Jacinta: But they’ll continue to be staged, there will still be brave, self-sacrificing women, and they’ll continue to be supported, in China and overseas, in all sorts of hidden and not so hidden ways. They have right on their side after all.

Written by stewart henderson

March 24, 2019 at 9:54 am