an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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

Posts Tagged ‘US failure

Americans need to stop blaming Trump, and take responsibility for their broken system

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So there was a Presidential debate the other day, and it went as expected, by all accounts. I didn’t watch it, and never had any intention to. I’ve taken a strong interest in US federal politics in the past 4-5 years or so, with the advent of Trump, but in watching cable news I’ve always had the remote handy so as not to have to hear anything coming out of Trump’s mouth, or the mouth of some of his acolytes. Trump’s presence and position makes me feel enraged, a feeling of actual violent loathing which has always come over me when I encounter bullies. This has nothing to do with politics, or at least political ideology. Of course bullying is a feature of politics. The term ‘authoritarian leader’ is generally a euphemism for a bully, and we all know who the current ones are. 

However, as a person who, if not philosophical, has read a fair amount on philosophy and psychology over the years, I try to use those insights to calm and divert. For example, there’s the issue of free will, which I won’t go into in detail here, but we’ve learned – from the Dunedin longitudinal study, for example – that early childhood shapes our character far more than most of us are willing to admit. This often goes unnoticed because most of us have had relatively normal childhoods within the broader social milieu, which also shapes us to a large degree. However, as a person who has been in fairly close contact with highly dysfunctional families and the children born of them, the long-term or permanent effects are clear enough. In the case of Trump I don’t want to speculate too much, but it’s clear from family members, long-term witnesses, and psychological and neurological professionals, that Trump’s seriously damaged persona was in place from a very early age. Many of those who’ve known him longest say things to the effect that you have to think of him as an eight-year-old, or ten-year-old, or pre-adolescent, and it would indeed be worthwhile if neurologists could gain access to his pre-frontal cortex, which of course will never happen now. Some argue that he has deteriorated in recent years, and of course I can’t respond to that in any professional way, but I’m certainly skeptical. The bluster, the attention-seeking, the endless repetitions, the perverse doubling down, and the complete inability to say anything insightful or thought-provoking, these all represent a pattern of speech and behaviour that hasn’t changed in the couple of decades since I first encountered him. Of course this behaviour is exacerbated when he’s under pressure, and it’s this pressure and scrutiny, rather than his age, that gives the impression of deterioration, IMHO. 

I’ve described Trump, only half-jokingly, as a pre-teen spoilt brat turned crime machine, but whatever descriptor you choose to use, it should be clear to any reasonably sane and insightful observer that he’s not normal – and that this abnormality has entirely negative features, such as extreme selfishness, vanity, incuriosity, vindictiveness, blame-shifting and solipsism, which tend to damage others far more than himself, and which explains the title of Republican strategist Rick Wilson’s book Everything Trump touches dies. But of course Trump himself bustles and blunders on, and on. Indeed in some business and political environments, these ‘qualities’ can be very beneficial to the individual endowed with them, as Trump’s business career, however ‘fake’, has shown. 

 It’s this environment that needs to be analysed with a view to cleaning it up, so that those people like Trump, and the greatest influence on his life, his father, are unable to thrive. Think of Vibrio cholerae in faecally contaminated water. Draining the swamp indeed. 

I have written before about the political reforms that are urgently required, though I recognise that many of them will never be instituted, until it’s too late. Business and judicial reform are also urgently required, and perhaps the silver lining to the Trump debacle will be some long overdue attention to these areas, when and if the nation survives this crisis. I’m reluctant to make suggestions in fields in which I have little or no expertise, but I’ll make some anyway. In doing so, I’ll claim the benefit of being an outsider, as I note that very few American pundits, in spite of their obvious intelligence and wealth of knowledge, make mention of them.

  1. Vetting

Americans love to boast that, in the land of opportunity, anyone can become the nation’s President. It’s great for inspiring schoolkids, but have they really thought this idea through? The USA, as many of its inhabitants love to tell us, is the most powerful country, militarily and economically, in the world. It surely follows that any candidate for the highest office in that exalted nation, that of actually leading it, in the manner of a CEO,  should be fully versed in its operations, alliances, strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats – as would be expected of any other potential CEO. Herein lies a major problem of democracy – populist demagoguery. Because of America’s direct election system, Trump could bring his circus cavalcade directly to the people, in the teeth of scorn from Republican stalwarts, most of whom fell in line with him over time. Trump had had no experience in any form of government, and the business cognoscenti knew very that Trump’s businesses were shambolic. So the warning signs were clear and obvious from the beginning of his candidacy.

Under variants of the Westminster system, used in every other English-speaking democracy, there’s an informal vetting system that, in a sense, flies below the radar. To become Prime Minister (primum inter pares – first among equals) you need to have already won a local election, and to have impressed your parliamentary colleagues as a worthy, articulate, responsible, collegial leader. It’s not a foolproof system of course, but by its nature it emphasises the team as much as its leader. As with a soccer team, the Prime Minister, the Captain, is just perhaps the most prominent member, and if she loses form, or ‘goes rogue’, she can be replaced without too much fuss. The team may be affected, but not massively disrupted. But consider the US situation, where the presidential candidate, or candidate for Captain of the soccer team, gets elected by the people because of all that she promises, in spite of never having played soccer in her life, knowing nothing of the rules, and after being elected, gets to choose her own team all of whom are just as clueless about soccer as she is. That isn’t far from the current American situation. The President, or Captain, needn’t worry about a revolt from within, no matter how poorly the team is performing, because they owe the captain their highly lucrative jobs, which they would never have gotten without her. 

After the failed impeachment process earlier this year, the American pundit Chuck Rosenberg said something that made my jaw drop. He said that removing a President from office is and should be very difficult. That the US is, fortunately, not like Britain, where the PM can be removed by a simple vote of no confidence by his party. I believe the exact opposite to be true. Of course, there’s a sense in which Rosenberg is right. Under the highly problematic US federal system, removing a President creates a crisis unlike anything created by the removal of a Prime Minister under the Westminster system. Under the US system, this completely unvetted President gets to choose his own running mate, who is likely to be no more competent than the President, a very low bar in Trump’s case. Indeed the President gets to choose a whole team of sycophants to ‘run’ his administration, none of them elected by the people. So, yes, given this autocratic system, dumping the President is indeed a dangerous event. The  Vice-President, barring illness, must take over, in spite of never having been independently elected. Under the Westminster system, however, dumping the Captain allows other elected team members to put their candidacy forward, and the team, the whole membership of the right or left wing party that’s in power, gets to choose a new Prime Minister – again based on the qualities described above.

   2. Power 

Special executive powers, veto powers, power to shut down the government, power to select a team of unelected Secretaries (State, Defence, Treasury etc) – performing the role that previously elected Ministers perform under the Westminster system, as well as extraordinary power over the judiciary, including personally selecting an unelected Attorney-General with apparently unlimited power to over-ride judicial decisions as well as to personally determine the legal liability of the President while in office. These are the gifts bestowed upon the person of the incoming President by virtue of his winning a majority of Electoral College seats. Compare Prime Ministers, who must go to work within the parliament, leading the debates, under the constant scrutiny of his fellow ministers and colleagues, and within spitting distance of the opposing elected representatives. 

It seems obvious to me that an American President’s position, between elections, more closely resembles that of a monarch, only slightly hindered by a sometimes oppositional Congress/Parliament, than does the position of a Prime Minister under the Westminster system. And now we see that the ‘monarch’ can even go a long way to manipulate the forthcoming election in his favour. As many American pundits are finally noticing, a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ Constitution is wholly inadequate for reining in a President who is not in any sense a gentleman, but will Americans ever be self-critical enough to enact clear-cut laws limiting Presidential power, forcing tax disclosure, setting clear and enforceable guidelines on emoluments, and ensuring a uniformly free and fair federal electoral system? Time will tell, but I certainly wouldn’t bet on it. 

3 Hero worship 

Sections 3 and 4 are less about the USA’s political system and more about its political culture, so will I suspect be much more difficult to change. 
Contrary to popular belief, Superman wasn’t born on the planet Krypton, but in Cleveland Ohio. Batman and his boyfriend Robin were born in New York, not Gotham City. Spider-Man, Wonder-woman as well as mere mortal heroes such as Rambo, Indiana Jones and John McClane were all typically American do-goodnicks and swamp-drainers, and no doubt classic presidential material. They seem to me to testify to a somewhat naive national tendency of Americans, a desire to place their trust in heroic individuals rather than teams, programs, policies and processes. Presidents are recalled by their numbers, worshipped by their admirers and reviled by their detractors, whereas in most other democracies, leaders evoke much milder emotions and are soon forgotten once replaced. Presidential elections are hyped to a mind-numbing degree, involving grotesque expenditures and apparently mandatory gladiatorial debates. All of this OTT razzle-dazzle seems almost designed for self-aggrandising con-artists like Trump, and it’s clear that he revels in the circus and the adulation. Much of his Presidency has been nothing more than a punctuated campaign rally. How to dial the nation down from all this hyperventilating claptrap? Possibly the Trump overdose might actually help. Once Trump’s dumped, a look around at how so much of the world is faring very well without American exceptionalism may lead to an extended period of good sense and sobriety – and a unity never before experienced, but which will be necessary to save the country’s reputation. 

4 Partisanship and Tribalism 

This, admittedly, is now a global problem. Social media, much of it headquartered in the USA, has led to huge increases in conspiracy theories, vaccine ‘hesitation’ groups, flat-earthers and other mind-numbing activities and belief systems. It’s becoming rare to find people reading old-fashioned newspapers with their diversity of takes on current affairs. The viciousness of Youtube political commentary is there for all to witness. People are throwing verbal bombs at people they’ll never meet, whose human lives of friendship, humiliation, suffering, struggle, anxiety and achievement they seem not even to know how to care about. We tend to see this trend as predominantly American, perhaps because we’re inundated by American media here in Australia and most other far-flung English-speaking countries. We constantly see videos of “ordinary Americans” apparently beset with certainty and contempt, however mask-like and brittle. It does seem like Trump has set this agenda, but many pundits also argue that the country has been polarised in this way for generations. The tragedy for Trump supporters is that they get so little in return for their adulation, and it seems the most disadvantaged and desperate are the most deluded. As I’ve argued from the beginning of this presidency, it’s highly unlikely to end with a whimper. The worst is surely yet to come. I’m certainly not wishing for it, but it may be the only outcome that can shake the country out of its ‘exceptionalism’, and towards a more realistic program of political (and media) reform and cultural healing. 

 

Written by stewart henderson

October 4, 2020 at 11:27 pm

covid-19 – on civil liberties and death in the USA

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Canto: So, in the USA, according to today’s Worldometer figures – and it’s not unreasonable to say that these figures are only as reliable as the reporting agencies, and are probably understated – there have been slightly more than 203,000 deaths from covid19 – that’s almost 250 times the number of deaths in Australia, which has one thirteenth of the US population. This is a stark illustration of the USA’s failure to protect itself against this virus, in comparison to some other countries. Maybe this is an unfair comparison, though I honestly don’t see why it would be, but we can make an even more stark comparison. The liberal democracy that is Taiwan, the world’s gold standard in terms of response to covid19, with its population only slightly smaller than Australia’s, has experienced seven deaths so far. So, to compare with the USA, that’s a fourteenth of the population, but the USA has suffered almost 30,000 times more deaths from the virus. Such are the almost unfathomably various degrees of success in dealing with this pandemic. I’ve chosen these more or less opposite ends of the spectrum – and, to be fair, the USA isn’t the shit standard (in comparison to gold), as Brazil’s performance is even worse – in order to reflect on how best to save lives, which is surely what we want to do above all else, as a matter of common humanity.

Jacinta: And our discussion will be based on a statement made by the US Attorney-General, William Barr, who described the current lockdown in the USA as the greatest erosion of civil liberties in the country since slavery. But maybe, as an outstanding humanist, and a follower of the meek and mild Jesus, a supporter of the downtrodden, who told his followers that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (Matthew 19: 23-26), Barr was speaking positively about the lockdown as a sacrifice that must be made to save lives – especially those of the poor, with whom he so strongly identifies as a follower of the aforementioned Jesus.

Canto: Well, that’s an interesting interpretation, but I think the more straightforward one is that he thinks people should be free to mix and mingle, in spite of the pandemic. In any case I’ve not heard of him wanting to impose any restrictions of any kind, in spite of the covid19 death rate in the country. It would be interesting to know what he makes of the fact that covid19 is disproportionately affecting the poor as well as African-American and Latino communities. He himself is a multi-millionaire, unlike Jesus, and Euro-American, also unlike Jesus. Yet he calls himself a Christian and believes that Judeo-Christian values, whatever they may be, are the basis of civilisation, at least in the USA. I’m not sure if he’s ever sampled any other society. 

Jacinta: Which brings us to Taiwan. What is it that has made Taiwan the gold standard in dealing with this pandemic? Is it Christianity, of a different kind from that which the multi-millionaire Barr espouses, in spite of Jesus’ teachings? Or is it a very different, but equally, or more, effective tradition? Did Taiwan even experience a lockdown, of the type that Barr seems to have such strong feelings about?

Canto: So let’s explore Taiwan. in fact it has had a complex and very turbulent history, especially over the past century or so, one that, I’d say, would have made its citizens value their hard-won freedom rather more than those of most nations, including the US. I can’t imagine that these people, who’ve undertaken rebellion after rebellion, would allow their government to take away their ‘civil liberties’ without good reason. They just wouldn’t stand for it.

Jacinta: Could it be that they’re just more educated than ‘Americans’, as to their national interest? And even as to what’s required in dealing with a pandemic? It certainly seems that way.

Canto: In fact last month the US federal health secretary (I didn’t know they had one) was over in Taiwan praising the country’s covid19 response. That was a good thing to see. 

Jacinta: Yes and many prominent nations are warming in their relations with Taiwan, not before time, and it’s annoying the Chinese government no end. But on covid19, I suspect many ‘Americans’ will dismiss Taiwan’s success as typical of Asian nations and their collective, ‘sheep-like’ mentality. Clearly, collective pro-community action trumps selfish individualism when it comes to pandemics, but I’m sure Taiwan’s success can’t be explained in such simplistic terms, as the Taiwanese have fought long and hard, against the communists, the Japanese and the Kuomintang, suffering massacre after massacre, to achieve multi-party democracy. So the idea that this is about tough-minded, risk-taking ‘sovereign citizens’ who won’t be pushed around by so-called health experts versus namby-pamby obedient puppets of the state who’re prepared to sacrifice their freedom just for the sake of their lives – well, this is surely a furphy. 

Canto: So what do we make of this Barr character? He attacks ‘lock-downs’ – which are simply a needed response to the refusal by so many to wear masks and to practice physical distancing. Sometimes authorities need to clamp down, when so many lives are being lost. Every government, regardless of their place on the political spectrum, has done something to try to reduce the spread of this virus. As would be expected. And this has necessarily impinged on ‘civil liberties’, because there are obviously other priorities. So, again, what point is Barr trying to make?

Jacinta: I can’t honestly say, but it does appear that he’s opposed to lock-downs, so presumably he has other ideas for saving the lives of ‘Americans’, but I’ve no idea what they may be. He’s also said recently that ‘scientists aren’t seers’ and that ‘free people make their decisions through their elected representatives’, which is a little incoherent, because when it comes to epidemics, sensible people should obviously listen to the advice of epidemiologists, especially those who are expert in the disease, virus or pathogen in question, rather than to politicians. You don’t even have to be an adult to realise that.

Canto: Yes, people are free to decide on their own science by popular vote, but if they did, we’d still be living in caves and believing that the earth is flat. Such are the limits of democracy.

Jacinta: So in times like these, the politicians should work with the experts, which is exactly what’s happening in all those countries that have handled covid19 most successfully. It’s notable that when he talks about these freedoms and civil liberties he makes no mention of all the suffering and the deaths in the USA. It somehow doesn’t seem to be relevant to him. What a bizarre, creepy character. 

Canto: Well, as a multi-millionaire – and I didn’t realise that politics was such a lucrative business – he very likely lives in one of those gated communities (with the emphasis on the gate rather than the community). Covid19 is disproportionately affecting African-Americans, Latinos, the poor, factory workers, prisons, aged-care facilities. Not really the sort of people you associate with gated communities. So I can only suppose he’s out of touch with much of the suffering. Lock-downs affect people universally – though obviously in different ways, depending on whether you’re in a mansion or a hovel – but the financial elites naturally don’t feel equal to the poor, and their ‘inequality’ is a matter of great pride to them. Barr is being a spokesperson for these types, I think. They’re having to suffer lock-downs because the less privileged are dying. It’s just not fair. 

Jacinta: And I just want to add something here about scientists. I’ve met a few of them, and I wish I was one of their number. They don’t pretend to be seers – my experience is that they tend to be nerdy, self-effacing types, not power junkies as many politicians tend to be. They generally tend not to display all the knowledge they have – it often has to be dragged out of them, whereas the worst politicians often claim knowledge they don’t have and like to belittle the knowledge or understanding of their rivals. In this respect, Barr is very much the politician, and little else.

Canto: Yes, and meanwhile the deaths keep piling up in the USA, and at the federal level the scientists are being sidelined by the politicians, the CDC is being stifled, and the world watches on with alarm, disgust and sometimes a smug sense of superiority. It isn’t of course the end of US ascendancy – the states with the most massive weaponry will always be the most powerful – but as to moral authority, that’s fast disappearing. If you leave aside the many non-democracies, which nation is less worthy of respect and emulation than the USA? I can’t think of too many.

Canto: Well, on a more hopeful note, there’s an election coming, and the country may start to redeem itself. But it will take far more than an election to do that, IMHO.

Written by stewart henderson

September 21, 2020 at 10:47 pm

Covid-19: the USA and a bit of ranting

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failed state anyone?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

Gene machine, by Venki Ramakrishnan

Written by stewart henderson

April 22, 2020 at 11:37 pm