an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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

Posts Tagged ‘politics

on voting and democracy in the USA: some history and some problems

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Congratulations, Germany wins

I try not to be anti-USA, but it’s hard sometimes. Lately I’ve been hearing that old chestnut, the American Experiment, being promulgated by Joe Biden among others. And the other day I was negatively energised by the lawyer and political pundit Jeremy Bash, who spoke of the US as the greatest democracy the world has ever known, or words to that effect. By ‘greatest democracy’ he also no doubt meant ‘greatest nation’, since we all quote the mantra that democracy is the worst political system apart from all the others. But to describe nation x as the greatest nation in the world is just as puerile as saying that person x is the greatest person in the world. There are no objective measures for such things. Such remarks highlight what I’ve written before about ‘American exceptionalism’. United Staters are exceptional only in their religiosity and their jingoism, which doesn’t augur well for having exceptional self-critical capacities.

But to return to democracy talk. The ‘American experiment’ idea, never quite made explicit, is that modern democracy is a US invention, a form of Enlightenment that they’ve been trying to spread to a largely reluctant world. The facts tell a different story.

The US declared independence from Britain in 1776, but of course the new country was full of British ex-pats and Britain was still a major influence. I’ve heard more than one US pundit speak about their fight against a tyrant king, George III. Not quite true. Britain in 1776 had been a constitutional monarchy for more than 80 years, with a Prime Minister, Frederick North (Lord North), elected under an extremely limited franchise. Britain had executed a tyrant king, Charles I, in the 1640s, and had chased another one out of the country in the 1680s. The country experimented with the first parliamentary system in the 1650s under a Lord Protector (something like a Presidency), Oliver Cromwell. Anyone who has studied the British civil war of the 1640s will be aware of how politically savvy and committed the general populace was at that time.

The War of Independence ended well for the potential new nation, which was undeniably being tyrannised by Britain. Powerful countries or states tend to tyrannise smaller ones. This occurred, obviously, during Britain’s imperial period, and it occurred in the USA’s treatment of the Phillippines, Nicaragua and Vietnam. That is why we need more collaborative international peace-keeping, with no single nation being allowed to consider itself or to behave as the world’s police officer.

So when the potential new nation came to consider its form of government, it looked largely to the ‘mother country’, bad mother though it had turned out to be. Even Magna Carta, seen through an eighteenth century lens, had an influence on the US Constitution and state legislatures. However, the most important British reference was their 1689 Bill of Rights, inspired (to a much-debated degree) by the political philosophy of John Locke. This important document has provided a template for many national constitutions, including that of the USA. The US founding fathers were also much influenced by a contemporary firebrand, Britisher Tom Paine, whose 1776 pamphlet Common Sense became something of a sensation. Pressures against traditional tyrannies, such as absolute monarchies and aristocratic oligarchies, were growing throughout Europe in the late eighteenth century in response to ideas expressed in Rousseau’s The Social Contract and Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws, among other works.

My point here is not to deny the experiment in modern democracy of the founding fathers and their collaborators. My argument is that this wasn’t the first experiment, nor was it by any means an experiment in full democracy. It was just one of many baby steps toward the full adult franchise that many democratic nations enjoy today. The 1789 election which brought George Washington, unopposed, to the presidency gave the vote to white property-owning men only – somewhere between 6% and 7% of the population. Women weren’t given the right to vote nationally until 1920, after decades of struggle. The Snyder Act of 1924 gave Native United Staters the ‘right to vote’, but left the final decision to state legislatures, leading to a fifty-year struggle to have that right fully established nationwide. African-Americans or ‘black’ men (I have serious issues with black-white terminology, which I present elsewhere – see links below) were given the right to vote by the 15th amendment of 1870, though voter suppression was endemic under ‘Jim Crow’ laws until the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. However, as we see today, that act has not prevented contemporary voter suppression by right-wing states.

The US voting and governmental system doesn’t seem to compare favourably with that of Australia, where I live. Australian governments are Westminster-based, as are the governments of the UK, Canada, New Zealand, India and South Africa, with obvious variations. That means the Prime Ministers of those countries are not elected directly by the populace, as occurs in the USA. They’re first elected by their particular parties, on the putative basis that they can best represent and promote that party’s policies to the people. The Prime Minister works in the Parliament – the Westminster version of Congress – and chooses her cabinet from other elected Members of Parliament, as opposed to the directly elected US President’s chief officers, who are personally chosen by the President, with no necessary experience in government. The Prime Minister (primum inter pares – first among equals) works inside the Parliament, shoulder to shoulder with her colleagues and within spitting distance of the opposition, whereas the US president is completely separated from Congress and is surrounded by his own personal staff and decision-makers, and so freed from direct confrontation with political opposition, or from defending his political actions and positions.

The case of Trump underlines many of the problems of the US system. United Staters boast that ‘anyone can become President’, but this isn’t such a great idea. There needs to be a basic proficiency test that, at the very least, separates adult contenders from children. Trump took advantage of this complete lack of vetting, and as such, took advantage of the major flaw in democracy that was pointed out nearly 2500 years ago by the likes of Plato and Aristotle. Unabashed anti-democratic elitists, these philosophers personally witnessed the damage that a populist demagogue, a person who promised everything but delivered nothing, could do to their state. The rise of Trump, always an object of contempt to the political elite, whether right or left, essentially repeated this 2500 year-old trick – appeal directly to the people, pretend you are one of them, and don’t stint on vague elaborate claims – drain the swamp, build the wall, make the state great again. The Republican Party was initially very reluctant to embrace Trump, but finally embraced his fanatical popularity among ‘the base’, with disastrous consequences for both the party and the nation.

How will the USA dig itself out of this hole? In the short term, there needs to be consequences for a person who has lived a whole life, from childhood, without consequences. Honestly, this doesn’t seem likely to happen. United Staters blindly worship their Presidential system, and remember their Presidents by number – something which will never be emulated by other nations. Recent events – including two impeachments -have shown that there are no clear laws or procedures for dumping a criminal President. The US President appears, for all intents and purposes, to be above the law, apparently due to the importance of is position. One would think it was self-evident that with great power comes great responsibility, including legal responsibility, but it has now become clear that in the USA, the President can act as a dictator between Presidential elections. I see no serious legislative activity to change this ludicrous situation. Gentleman’s agreements don’t cut it.

Voter suppression just isn’t a thing in Australia, New Zealand and other Westminster-based countries. In Australia, voting is mandatory, all Australian citizens over eighteen must vote in federal and state elections, or incur a fine. This includes all those in prison for sentences of three years or less. All ex-offenders must vote. Very few people object to these requirements. And of course, all voting takes place on a Saturday, to inconvenience as few working people as possible. The USA’s Tuesday voting system harks back to its agrarian past, and also its religious attitude to ‘days of rest’. It’s frankly too depressing to go into further detail. Needless to say, a Tuesday voting system acts against the needs of the working poor. The USA has the lowest minimum wage of any developed country. Australia, incidentally, has the highest. I point this out as a non-nationalist (though not an anti-nationalist).

No voting system is perfect (Australia, like the US, has problems with gerrymandering) but some are more perfect than others. A voting system that has a multitude of state laws for voting in a federal election is clearly disastrous. The USA seems overly governed in this regard. There is also too much voting – major national elections every two years means that the nation is almost perpetually in election mode. There also appears to be little oversight with regard to the vast amounts of funds spent on campaigning and lobbying, which obviously tilts votes in favour of the moneyed class in a nation with the largest rich-poor divide in the world.

I’ve pointed out just some of the problems facing ‘the world’s greatest democracy’. Many of its other problems are social – failures in the basic education system, massive incarceration rates, especially for victimless crimes, the intensification of partisan politics exacerbated by social media and the absence of a multi-party political system, and out-of-control gun and armaments ownership, to name a few. All of this requires root and branch reform, which I don’t see happening. It’s a shame. Europe now seems to be emerging as our best hope for the future.

References

https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/magna-carta-muse-and-mentor/magna-carta-and-the-us-constitution.html

https://edtechbooks.org/democracy/britishinfluence

https://www.history.com/topics/british-history/english-bill-of-rights

https://www.britannica.com/place/United-States/Constitutional-differences-with-Britain

Australia had the highest minimum wage in the world in 2019

https://ussromantics.com/category/race/

Written by stewart henderson

July 18, 2021 at 6:49 pm

getting wee Donny 3: Georgia on his mind

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this list is from 2019, and so the list goes on…

Canto: So several pundits are claiming that Donny’s Georgia antics may pose the most immediate of his problems.

Jacinta: ‘I jes wanna find 11,780 votes, which is more than we have..’ That’s from the January 2 call to Brad Raffensperger, to be used in evidence.

Canto: Yes, the Georgia Secretary of State, a Republican, released this recorded phone call to the public, and has become a hero, and a target, ever since. 

Jacinta: The key word here is ‘find’ – as well as the number, of course. He could no doubt claim that he feels certain some votes were ‘lost’, accidentally or deliberately, by the vote-counters, whom he’d like to claim are opposition plants, but he only wants to find, with the help of the Secretary of State, enough to win the election in Georgia – which still wouldn’t win him the presidency.

Canto: Which raises the question – so obvious to investigators – as to whether he leaned on other close jurisdictions (Arizona from memory was one) to find other votes, considering that his target wasn’t just Georgia.

Jacinta: Must be hard on wee Donny, having to think of more than one problem state at a time. 

Canto: Apparently a new Georgia DA, Fani Willis, is looking to make a name for herself – and all power to her – by launching an investigation into the nappy-clad buffoon that United Staters, in their infinite wisdom, chose – or actually didn’t choose by some 3 million votes – as their numero 45. 

Jacinta: She’s been in the job for six weeks, and is destined to become quite the historical figure. Already the case might involve Lindsey Graham, Joker Giuliani and other trumpets trying to carry out wee Donny’s agenda. The key statute is ‘criminal solicitation to commit election fraud’, a phrase that plays in my ears like the music of the spheres.

Canto: Mmmm, sounds a bit clunky to me. ‘Conspiracy to commit treason’ sounds sweeter. 

Jacinta: Come on, he doesn’t want to betray his nation, he just wants to own it. 

Canto: True enough.

Jacinta: So this is a felony requiring at least a year in prison, and it’s surely as strong a case as can be had, and there may be more, including racketeering and conspiracy charges. But according to the NYT, Willis is a centrist who feels she has an obligation to follow the law in these matters. 

Canto: Actually she’s the Fulton County DA. How many DAs do they have in that country? 

Jacinta: One for every district presumably. That’s 94, according to the DoJ. Almost two per state, but presumably a state like Alaska would have one, and California several. But I’m looking at these districts, and Fulton County isn’t on there, and Fani Willis isn’t mentioned. Georgia apparently has three districts – northern, middle and southern – but it also has county DAs, and dog knows how many of them there are throughout the country. Anyway, Fulton County covers much of Atlanta, the state’s capital, so it’s pretty central. 

Canto: So, in this infamous phone call, wee Donny also issued threats – first, that he’d refuse to support the Georgia candidates for the Senate, who both went on to lose their elections.

Jacinta: Though I wouldn’t blame wee Donny for that – great grassroots work by the Democrats was, I prefer to think, the principal reason for Warnock’s and Ossoff’s wins. 

Canto: And secondly, Donny actually threatened Raffensperger with criminal charges if he didn’t comply with his orders. I’m reading this Slate article, which says, inter alia:

As election law expert Rick Hasen noted at the time, there is no question that Trump was asking Raffensperger to manufacture enough votes to overturn the Georgia election on the basis of paranoid delusions.

But I’d object to the term ‘paranoid delusions’. Donny’s just a manipulating windbag, it’s his only way of being. That means never ever losing, as he’s not adult enough – to put it mildly – to take it. Anyway, the Slate article lays out the law:

Any person who “solicits, requests, commands, importunes, or otherwise attempts to cause the other person” to falsify voting records is guilty of “criminal solicitation to commit election fraud in the first degree.” The crime is a felony offense, punishable by up to three years in prison (and no less than one year). An individual is culpable even if they failed to induce fraud.

Jacinta: So that seems pretty straightforward, but what with the role of money and dodgy lawyers and such, it doesn’t seem that anything to do with crime is straightforward in that country. Anyway, as mentioned, there’s a possibility that Lindsey Graham might be in trouble too, due to his ‘enquiries’ about maybe tossing out some mail-in ballots, and Joker Giuliani for promoting conspiracies about the election. 

Canto: But the Georgia republicans are making a desperate attempt to change the rules so that a ‘grand jury’ (United Staters love their ‘grand’ shite) would have to be drawn from the whole state rather than Fulton County, which is a Democrat stronghold. But they don’t have the numbers, apparently. But it’s an indication that republicans are still keen to go along with wee Donny and his government-stuffing ways to hell and back.  

Jacinta: So, lots to look forward to. We might turn our attention to the new administration’s Department of Justice next. Merrick Garland has a senate confirmation hearing on February 21, and no doubt republicans will throw dumb partisan questions at him, but he’ll be confirmed, and I don’t think he’ll be able to avoid all the corruption that clearly went on at the behest of wee Donny. 

Canto: I’ve heard he’s also going to make domestic terrorism a major focus – so look out Antifa, or something…

Jacinta: Yes, on that matter, I’m wondering if wee Donny will actually get caught up in all the charges resulting from the January 6 events, since so many seem to be now saying Donny made us do it, if it weren’t for wee Donny, etc etc. 

Canto: Oh let me count the many many ways to get wee Donny…

References

Donald Trump may be charged in Georgia court for election fraud, conspiracy (video)

https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2021/02/trump-raffensperger-election-fraud-criminal-charges.html

Georgia Republicans Are Trying to Change the Rules for Fani Willis’s Prosecution of Donald Trump for Election Crimes

 

 

Written by stewart henderson

February 20, 2021 at 12:13 am

getting wee Donny 1: 2016 campaign finance violations

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one of wee Donny’s ‘reimbursement’ cheques – a smoking gun?

Canto: So we both agree that free will is a myth, and that this has major implications for crime and punishment, but we’re also both human – at least I am – and we want to see nasties being punished, and in fact we delight in it. As a person with a lifelong loathing of bullies, I’ve too often fantasised about bullying those bullies, even torturing them endlessly. And I do wonder if my sudden interest in US politics from the time wee Donny looked like he might bullshit his way into their presidency has more to do with gunning for his downfall than anything else.

Jacinta: Yes we think similarly but we have the capacity also to step back and be more analytical and curious about a system that allows such an obvious scammer to take up the very top position in what so many ‘Americans’ – and I put that in quotes coz I’ve heard quite a few inhabitants of that double continent getting annoyed that these ‘Americans’ refer to themselves in that exclusivist way…

Canto: But what should we call them? Yanks? Uessians? United Staters?

Jacinta: Yeah, good, let’s call them United Staters from now on. So many United Staters think they have the world’s greatest nation…

Canto: As the Brits did in their days of glory in the 19th century…

Jacinta: True, the myth of economic power entailing moral superiority dies hard, and jingoism is a major barrier to national self-analysis. So we, as outsiders and non-nationalists might be better equipped to examine why it is that wee Donny, with his so obvious incompetencies, manipulations and deceptions, has gotten so far and damaged so much, with so few consequences. What does it say about the USA, are these deficiencies shared by other nations (leaving aside the out-and-out dictatorships and undemocratic oligarchies), and can the USA redeem itself by imposing some sort of justice on this character, for the first time in a long lifetime?

Canto: Yes, so this series, ‘getting wee Donny’ will look at his crimes, at the system that allowed them, and how the system might reform itself, or transform itself into something more respectable, so that nothing like wee Donny can arise again. And this means not only looking at their criminal justice system, but the anti-government ideologies that have supported wee Donny’s destruction of responsible and effective government. There’s a malaise in that country, which might prevent wee Donny from facing justice, for fear that the malaise turn into a pandemic of self-slaughter. Are we facing the downfall of the USA?

Jacinta: Unlikely. Too many WMD for a start. And the nation has a lot of smarts, in spite of all the morons.

Canto: Morons with guns, and lots of them. And enough brains to make plans…

Jacinta: Yes, there are a lot of obstacles to getting wee Donny, but first I want to look at the plans to get him, now he’s unprotected by infamous and absurd claims to presidential immunity, unworthy of any decent nation.

Canto: Actually, I’d like to look at how Australia and other Westminster-based nations, and other democracies in general, deal with crimes committed by political leaders while in office. I agree with you that immunity for those in the highest political office is absurd, they’re the last people to be given immunity, and should have a whole panoply of laws applied to them, but look at Israel, where Netanyahu appears to be getting away with all sorts of dodgy behaviour. We can’t go blaming the US without checking out any possible beams in the eyes of others, including ourselves.

Jacinta: Haha well I wouldn’t describe the USA as having nothing more than a mote in its political eye, but point taken. We’ll look at the legal accountability for Australian and other political leaders as we go along, but wee Donny is now a private citizen, and I recall that one of his first crimes in relation to the whole presidency thing occurred when he was a candidate, and he paid off a couple of women to remain silent during his campaign. His then lawyer and ‘fixer’ Michael Cohen was sentenced and imprisoned for a range of crimes, including campaign finance violations at the behest of ‘individual one’, known to be wee Donny. This was confirmed by Cohen in congressional testimony, and two cheques signed by Donny, reimbursing Cohen, were presented as part of that testimony. Six other reimbursement cheques were shown to the New York Times, but it seems none of these cheques provide details of what these reimbursement were for, if indeed they were reimbursements at all.

Canto: Mmm, so far, so weak. It would be worth having a closer look at that part of Cohen’s charge sheet that includes, from memory, two charges of campaign finance violations. Also, did his sentencing go into detail about what part of it was specifically for those violations? Clearly the fact that he was convicted of of campaign finance violations makes some sort of evidence in itself. Cohen wasn’t the one running for office, he did it for Donny, as the charge sheet presumably states…

Jacinta: There’s a press release from the Southern District of New York from August 2018 stating that Cohen pleaded guilty to, among other things, one count of ‘Causing an unlawful corporate contribution’ and one count of ‘Making an excessive campaign contribution’, each of which could incur a maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment. But here’s the thing – Cohen pleaded guilty, and wee Donny would never do that. And another problem is that, according to Stephen Weissman, writing in the Washington Post, there’s a legal requirement for campaign finance violations to be ‘wilful’, that is, done with knowledge that they’re illegal.

Canto: So in some cases, ignorance of the law is an excuse.

Jacinta: Well, yes, perhaps because some kinds of law, like these, are intricate and complex, and it might be easy to break them in all innocence.

Canto: Innocent wee Donny, sure. I think you could make a case stick here.

Jacinta: Hmmm. We’ll have to wait and see – until after this empêchement shite has failed – if SDNY goes ahead on this front. Meanwhile there are many other trails – and possible trials – to follow.

References

https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/how-michael-cohen-broke-campaign-finance-law

https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2019/03/07/why-trump-probably-wont-get-trouble-campaign-finance-violations/

https://www.vox.com/2019/2/27/18243038/individual-1-cohen-trump-mueller

https://www.justice.gov/usao-sdny/pr/michael-cohen-pleads-guilty-manhattan-federal-court-eight-counts-including-criminal-tax

Written by stewart henderson

February 12, 2021 at 11:09 am

a bonobo world etc 27: male violence and the Myanmar coup

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Myanmar protests, from the safety of Thailand

So the military has staged another coup in Myanmar. Bearing in mind the overwhelming maleness of most militaries, let’s take a closer look. 

A very interesting article was published in the US Army journal Military Review in late 2019 about women in the Myanmar armed forces, which also gave an overview of the role of women in the society as a whole. The article emphasises women’s positive role in trying to establish peace in the country, and at the same time describes in mixed terms the role of women in the military (they make up about 0.2% of the armed forces). Not surprisingly, they want to see more women joining the military, while praising recent increases. Which raises, of course, the idea of a military as a force for peace. Here’s an interesting example of the article’s thinking:

The speed and spread of Myanmar’s peace, prosperity, and progress depends on the elimination of violent conflicts in its border areas. However, bringing peace to these regions has been extremely slow (almost to a stalemate with some of the ethnic armed groups). As the peace process creeps forward at a snail’s pace, the increased participation of Myanmar women should be seriously considered to quicken the stride. According to data from the Center for Foreign Relations, women and civil-society’s participation in the peace negotiations increases the chance of success by 36 percent, and obtained peace is more enduring. In order for Myanmar women to participate effectively in the peace process, they must be given opportunities to upgrade their capability and capacity. Opportunity to serve in the armed forces is one of the ways to elevate their capability, capacity, and experience to participate in the security sector.

This I think speaks to a modern rethinking of the military as essentially a peace-keeping force, which is essentially a good thing, though in the very next sentence the author writes that the purpose of the military is ‘to win the nation’s wars and to prevail against enemies’. Note the lack of any ethical content in the remark. The reason that I would never for a moment consider joining any military is because I’m profoundly anti-authoritarian. I can’t bear to be told by someone else how to stack boxes, let alone who to kill and maim for the apparent benefit of my country. Australia has been involved in two wars since I’ve lived here, in Vietnam and Iraq. Neither of them had anything to do with ‘keeping Australia (or any of its allies) safe’. They had more to do with advantaging the invading countries at the expense of the invaded. Warfare is getting rarer, and more technological, which I suppose means that brute force, and physical strength, is less important, but to me the best effect women would have is in negotiations and mediation to prevent wars, and of course they’re already doing a great job of that worldwide.

Myanmar’s overwhelmingly Buddhist society is very male-dominated – I don’t know if that’s due to Buddhist precepts or because the Buddhism is interpreted through a traditionally patriarchal society – and this will impede any possible transformation of its military. The article has another comment, which can surely be generalised beyond the military:

Research has shown that a critical mass of 30 percent is needed in order to see the full benefits of female integration and gender perspective within the organization and at leadership levels. However, the drop-offs and second-generation bias can impede the attainment of 30 percent.

Yes, aiming for 30% female control of the military, political systems, the business sector, and all wealth and power, just for starters – and by 2050, since the international community loves to set targets – would be a most worthy thing. But watch out for the backlash. 

But returning to Myanmar today, and the coup. But first, I recommend an excellent background piece on the problems in faction-ridden Myanmar, and the role of women in fighting for minority recognition, written last November for The New Humanitarian. The author wasn’t able to put their name to the piece due to security concerns. The piece was written immediately after Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) scored a landslide victory in a national election, winning over 80% of the vote and increasing its 2015 majority. But, in a familiar refrain, the military-based opposition party, the USDP, claimed fraud and vote-rigging, claims that are apparently as baseless as those of the Trumpets. The apparent villain in all this is military chief Min Aung Hlaing, a corrupt thug who was sanctioned by the US and the UK for his role in the 2017 Rohingya massacres. He is claiming justification due to the ‘failure to act on widespread election corruption’ (I can’t help reflecting that Trump’s clear contempt for the military and everyone involved in it is a clear factor in his never getting to be the dictator he wants to be). However, the massive failure of the USDP in the recent elections may make it difficult for the coup’s long-term success this time around – but the immediate concern now is about violence, suffering and death in an impoverished, heavily factionalised nation. 

The international community will need to play a role in universally condemning the coup – though the Chinese government, well-known for its macho thuggery, is already soft-pedalling its response. China is Myanmar’s principal economic partner.

And I strongly suspect that, with Min Aung Hlaing in charge, that 30% critical mass of female participation in any field of economic, political or military activity will be the last thing his ‘government’ will be thinking about.    

References

https://www.armyupress.army.mil/Journals/Military-Review/English-Edition-Archives/November-December-2019/Byrd-Myanmar-Gender-Armed-Forces/

https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/news-feature/2020/11/18/myanmar-women-army-arakan-rakhine-female-soldiers-peace

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/2/1/who-is-min-aung-hlain

Written by stewart henderson

February 3, 2021 at 5:02 pm

Will the USA ever reform its federal system? I wouldn’t hold my breath.

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the USA is flagging

So I’m writing this on the last day of the Trump ‘administration’, and I don’t know if I’ll finish it today, and currently I don’t know if Trump will come out with the hundred or so pardons that some reporters are predicting, or if there will be one final attempt at insurrection, or if any more lives will be lost etc etc.

Whenever I write about Trump I feel as if I’m repeating myself for the nth time, and of course I know that virtually nobody reads my blog and I basically get no feedback on it. Still I feel compelled…

Robert Sapolsky begins his book Behave (and he presents this orally on a video available on Youtube) with a fantasy about what he would do with Hitler if he could’ve gotten hold of him at the end of the war. It isn’t nice. As he points out, he’s a liberal fellow, and opposed to capital punishment, but – humans are complex and contradictory. I’ve had similar fantasies about Trump, among others – in fact I might blame Sapolsky for giving me permission. But seriously, I’ve had fantasies about doing horrible things to horrible people long before I read Behave. I’ve long had a kind of visceral loathing of bullies and thugs, whether they’re world leaders or in the local neighbourhood, possibly because I was bullied quite a bit at school, being the smallest kid in my class for about ten years. When in the morning I read or listen to the latest horror story about Trump, or Putin, or some other apparently unpunishable tyrant, I get so mad that my dog, who regularly sleeps on my bed, starts shaking and looking at me with either fear or, I like to think, reproach. 

I think I’ve been following the Trump debacle, or what I’ve called the slo-mo train wreck, because I’ve been wanting it to end like the movies, with the villain crashing and burning. And again to emphasise our complex and contradictory impulses, I’ve been hoping, and am still hoping, that Trump ends in gaol, but I’ve also been convinced, since before he decided to claim that he was a politician, that he wasn’t a ‘normal’ person, that there was something fundamentally wrong with him, and that he’s been this way for his entire adult life, and more. And I’ve become convinced, over the years, that free will is a myth, and that this has major implications for our systems of punishment, incarceration and the like. So what should be done with Trump? My feeling is that anyone with an average degree of intelligence and psychological insight should be able to see that this man should be kept away from any position of public responsibility. He’s an extremely, narcissistic, tantrumming pre-adolescent, and has been for 60 years. This is someone who couldn’t manage a public toilet, let alone the government of an uninhabited island. And yet he was put in charge of the most militarily and economically powerful nation on the planet. I don’t blame Trump for this, I blame the USA, and its federal political system. 

The USA is, as I’ve written before, exceptional in two things, its religiosity and its jingoism. As a non-believing non-American, a dual citizen of the UK and Australia, where I’ve lived since the age of five, I struggle with my lack of sympathy for these American features. I’ve never waved a national flag or sung a national anthem in my life, and I never will. I feel a kind of emotional aversion to nationalism, and I suspect any explanation will simply be post-hoc rationalisation. So Trump’s patriotism, which is as fake as his religion, his complexion and his business acumen, naturally gets my goat, but it isn’t Trump I want to write about here. 

Since realising that Trump was being taken seriously as a contender for US President, I’ve been following US politics like never before, and what I’ve learned has frankly horrified me, and continues to do so. Their federal system and their presidential system are real shockers, and frankly seem to be a disaster waiting to happen. There are plenty of pundits happy to dump on Trump of course, but hardly any are willing to dump on a system that allowed Trump to manipulate it so effectively (though it was more like bull-in-a-china-shop behaviour than calculated manipulation). I would cite Fareed Zakaria as an honourable exception, but his obvious Indian accent suggests that he hasn’t been fully infected by the native jingoism that his colleagues appear to suffer from. 

So here – again, but with additions – are some of the glaring problems of a political system, and some political beliefs, that no nation in its right collective mind would want to emulate. 

1. The ‘constitutional president’ becomes so as a result of a popularity contest between one superhero and another, in keeping, apparently, with ‘American individualism’. The ultimate recipe for demagoguery. These superheroes are either worshipped or reviled, and remembered by their numbers!

2. The Presidential candidate gets to choose his own running mate, plucked from the general population.

3. The President gets to choose a whole suite of personnel, or courtiers, to effectively run the country for the next four years, with only limited vetting, and has minimal contact with the parliament – living, during incumbency, in a White Palace.

4. Major elections occur every two years, last far too long, and involve obscene amounts of money, inevitably leading to corruption.

5. The political system is based on a much-worshipped, brief, vague and out-dated constitution, written for a small semi-democratic former British colony, and hopelessly inadequate for the needs of the third most populous country in the world. This urgently needs to be supported or replaced by laws, and lots of them.

6. The American people’s attitude to government, from the outset, has been disturbingly negative, so that interventionist government of any kind, to improve healthcare, education, race relations and so forth, is branded as socialism – the dirtiest word in the American language. And that’s something, considering the country’s religiosity, where the most lively and fun ‘curse-words’ aren’t even allowed on TV!

7. The popularity contest for the nation’s presidency is interfered with by an ‘electoral college’, which is state-based and regularly prevents the winner, based on popularity, from actually winning! 

8. The President has exceptional pardoning powers, veto powers, government shut-down powers, power to select members of the judiciary and heads of innumerable government departments, as well as, apparently, total immunity  from committing offences, however grave, while in office. 

9. It follows from the above that the political process known as impeachment would be surplus to requirements, and all politicians’ wrong-doing, up to and including the President, would be dealt with by the judiciary on the basis of law. 

 

The USA should look to the government of its neighbour, Canada, which has a far better political system, but it is of course prevented from doing so by its pathological jingoism. My hope is that the USA might be pressured by the international community to be more reformist in its approach to its national government. It’s a faint hope, of course, but the wreckery of the Trump period has, at least, exposed many glaring deficiencies. Gentlemen’s agreements aren’t anywhere near sufficient to keep ‘commanders-in-chief’, in a nation bristling with nuclear weaponry, with an at times disturbing superiority complex, in check. 

Written by stewart henderson

January 21, 2021 at 1:50 pm

A bonobo world, etc, 18: gender and aggression in life and sport

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bonobos play-fighting

 

human apes play-fighting?

If anyone, like me, says or thinks that they’d like to be a bonobo, it’s to be presumed they don’t mean they’d like to live in trees, be covered in hair, have a shortened life-span, a brain reduced to a third of its current size, and to never concern themselves with why the sky is blue, how the Earth spins, and whether the universe is finite or infinite. What we’re really interested in is how they deal with particular matters that have bedevilled human societies in their infinite variety – namely sex, violence, effective community and the role of women, vis-a-vis these matters.

While making a broad generalisation about human society, in all its billions, might leave me open to ridicule, we seem to have followed the chimpanzee and gorilla path of male domination, infighting as regards pecking order, and group v group aggression, rising to warfare and nuclear carnage as human apes became more populous and technologically sophisticated. One interesting question is this: had we followed the bonobo path of female group bonding and controlling the larger males by means of those bonds, and of group raising of children causing reduced jealousies and infanticides, would we have reached the heights of civilisation, if that’s the word, and world domination that we have reached today?

I realise this is an impossible question to answer, and yet… Human apes, especially in post-religious societies, are recognising the power and abilities of their women more and more. Social evolution has speeded up this process, bringing about changes in single lifetimes. In 1793 Olympe de Gouges, playwright, abolitionist, political activist and author of the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, was guillotined by Robespierre’s disastrous Montagnard faction, as much for being a moderate as for being a woman. Clearly a progressivist, de Gouges opposed the execution of Louis XVI, and capital punishment generally, and favoured a constitutional monarchy, a system which still operates more or less effectively in a number of European nations (it seems better than the US system, though I’m no monarchist). Today, capital punishment generally thrives only in the most brutally governed nations, such as China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, though there are unfortunate outliers such as Japan, Singapore and arguably the USA (none of those last three countries have ever had female leaders – just saying). One hundred years after de Gouges died for promoting female equality and moderation, women were still being denied a university education in every country in the world. However in the last hundred years, and especially in the last fifty, we’ve seen dramatic changes, both in the educational and scientific fields, and in political leadership. The labours of to the Harvard computers, Williamina Fleming, Annie Jump Cannon, Antonia Maury and many others, working for a fraction of male pay, opened up the field of photometric astronomy and proved beyond doubt that women were a valuable and largely untapped intellectual resource. Marie Curie became the most famous female scientist of her day, and inspired women around the world to enter the scientific fray. Today, women such as Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, of CRISPR-Cas9 fame, and Michelle Simmons, Australia’s quantum computing wizard, are becoming more and more commonplace in their uncommon intellect and skills. And in the political arena, we’ve had female leaders in Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Germany, Norway, Finland, Iceland, Denmark, Belgium, France, Portugal, Austria, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Serbia, Croatia, Russia (okay, in the eighteenth century), China (nineteenth century), South Korea, Myanmar, Pakistan, India, Indonesia, the Phillippines, Sri Lanka (the world’s first female PM), Israel, Ethiopia and Liberia, and I may have missed some. This may seem an incredible transformation, but many of these women were brief or stop-gap leaders, and were all massively outnumbered by their male counterparts and generally had to deal with male advisers and business and military heavyweights. 

So it’s a matter of rapid change but never rapid enough for our abysmally short life spans. But then, taking a leaf from the bonobo tree, we should look at the power of female co-operation, not just individual achievement. Think of the suffragist movement of the early 1900s (the term suffragette was coined by a Daily Mail male to belittle the movement’s filletes), which, like the Coalition of Women for Peace (in Israel/Palestine) a century later, was a grassroots movement. They couldn’t be otherwise, as women were then, and to a large extent still are, shut out of the political process. They’re forced into other channels to effect change, which helps explain why approximately 70% of NGO positions are held by women, though the top positions are still dominated by men. 

When I think of teams, and women, and success, two more or less completely unrelated fields come to mind – science and sport. In both fields cooperation and collaboration are essential to success, and more or less friendly competition against others in the field is essential to improve quality. Womens’ team sport is as competitive as that of men but without quite the same bullish, or chimp, aggressiveness, it seems to me, and the research backs this up. Sport, clearly, is a constructed form of play, in which the stakes are sometimes very high in terms of trophies, reputations and bragging rights, but in which the aggression is generally brought to an end by the final whistle. However, those high stakes sometimes result in foul play and overly aggressive attempts to win at all costs – and the same thing can happen in science. Sporting aggression, though, is easier to assess because it’s more physical, and more publicly displayed (and more likely to be caught on camera). To take my favourite sport, soccer, the whole object for each team is to fight to get and maintain possession of the ball for the purpose of scoring goals. This battle mostly involves finesse and teamwork, but when the ball is in open play it often involves a lot of positional jostling and other forms of physicality. Personally, I’ve witnessed many an altercation in the male game, when one player gets pissed off with another’s shirt-tugging and bumping, and confronts him chest-to-chest, nature documentary-style. The female players, when faced with this and other foul play, invariably turn to the referee with a word or a gesture. Why might this be? 

In 1914, the American psychologist E L Thorndike wrote:

The most striking differences in instinctive equipment consists in the strength of the fighting instinct in the male and of the nursing instinct in the female…. The out-and-out physical fighting for the sake of combat is pre-eminently a male instinct, and the resentment at mastery, the zeal to surpass, and the general joy at activity in mental as well as physical matters seem to be closely correlated with it.
Of course, much has changed since those observations. Women in OECD countries aren’t quite so into nursing, with birth rates plummeting and female work-place participation rising, but boys still like to tote guns by and large, and girls still like to dress as fairies and play with dolls. The difference is largely in degree. But my observations of soccer matches tell me that women are far less inclined to fight their own battles regardless of the rules than men, and have an ‘instinctive’ (but it’s all cultural) sense of referring to the referee, the parental figure, when aggression is wrongly applied. The thought comes to mind of a girl running to mum or dad when nasty big brother is tormenting her. It’s the reasonable thing to do. Boys, though, are still half-expected to fight their own battles.
 
References
 
https://pages.uoregon.edu/dluebke/301ModernEurope/GougesRightsofWomen.pdf
 
 
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/229698542_Aggression_Gender_and_Sport_Reflections_on_Sport_as_a_Means_of_Moral_Education
 
 

Written by stewart henderson

December 31, 2020 at 4:37 pm

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