an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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

Posts Tagged ‘USA

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

covid19: sensible testing, mostly

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Canto: So we’re looking at medcram coronavirus update 98 now, and it’s a fascinating one entitled ‘Rapid COVID 19 Antigen Testing at Home – A Possible Breakthrough’, though it comes with the clear proviso – this would require co-ordinated political action, and that won’t happen in the USA, not just under Trump, but at any time.

Jacinta: Well, but especially under Trump. But the issue is one of trying to get much more testing done, with far less emphasis on the sensitivity of the test, because rapid-fire, fast turnaround testing is far more useful than expensive, hard-to-evaluate slow-turnaround testing, which puts a premium on sensitivity. But before we get to all that, Dr Seheult looks at a paper on viral loads vis-à-vis covid19 patients. They looked at nasal and throat swabs, and then checked the Ct values over time. 

Canto: The Ct values are a measure of viral load and it works inversely – a 3.32 reduction in Ct value means a ten-fold-increase in viral load. 

Jacinta: Yes, so a low Ct value means a high viral load, and of course viral replication works exponentially, at least during the early infection period, so your viral load can be massively different from one day to the next – think about that for testing, and delayed results. 

Canto: A Ct value of 40 is close to undetectable, depending of course on the sensitivity of the test. And the value can go down as low as 5, all approximately of course. The course of the virus is generally, exponential growth, then a tapering off of the growth rate, reaching a peak, then a descent to finally a remnant population of largely disabled viral scraps, with of course mortality intervening along the way in the worst cases. 

Jacinta: Far from the majority of cases, thankfully. So the ‘gold standard’ test is the reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (rt-PCR) test – also called real-time PCR, I’ve just found out. It’s relatively expensive at around $US100, with turnaround times – and this might depend on demand and other factors – of between 3 and 9 days. There aren’t enough of these tests to go round, but they are very sensitive, detecting the virus reliably from a Ct value of about 35, or maybe even 40 (for argument’s sake, Seheult says). But there are other, cheaper, less sensitive tests, called paper tests, that can be rolled out more easily to the general public. The paper is coated with monoclonal antibodies that can detect antigens – substances that evoke an immune response. These paper tests cost at most a couple of dollars each, and would be sensitive to a viral load measured at a Ct value of around 32. These figures aren’t exact but this would make the test around 50-55% sensitive. 

Canto: But there’s this issue called the ‘threshold of transmissibility’, which is important in all this, and a virologist, Dr Michael Mina, shown speaking on this update, explains:

So people who are transmitting probably have Ct values that are below 30 and the vast majority probably have them below 25 or so.

As Seheult explains, people may be testing positive at that range above 30 (i.e. low viral load) but not transmitting the virus. This is especially so if they’re on the downward trajectory, as described above, and what the rt-PCR test (or assay) is detecting are those remaining viral fragments. And as Dr Mina points out, it’s the downward trajectory that’s being picked up for the most part, because the initial upward trajectory is exponential. Here’s what he says:

A lot of people are saying, ‘we need the really sensitive tests to be able to detect people early on in their infection’, but almost all the time that people spend with this virus near the limit of detection of PCR is on the tail end of their infection. This is a virus that, once it hits PCR positivity levels, it’s growing well in its exponential phase and it’s probably a matter of hours, not days, before it passes the threshold to be detected on some of these slightly lower sensitivity assays. And then it may persist for weeks or possibly months even in some cases at very low RNA levels. So it’s after people are well beyond their transmissible period that we’re actually seeing the loss in sensitivity of these assays. It’s very rare that you actually detect somebody with a Ct value 0f 39 in that window on their way up, because they’re only sitting there for a few hours before they get down to a 33, so if you’re missing Ct values of 39… it’s really not that important..

Jacinta: Not that important, but the point Dr Mina is making is really important – if the threshold of transmissibility is at 33 or below vis-à-vis Ct values, then a high-sensitivity test may even be a barrier to focussing on getting at the most transmissible subjects. 

Canto: Yes, especially when you have an alternative test that can be applied much more regularly with a quick turnaround – results on these paper tests take ten minutes! And being cheap, you can test as often as you feel you need to. If you’re positive, you quarantine yourself for a while, keep testing, find yourself negative, wait for a few more days, considering the low sensitivity of the test, keep testing in case there’s a recurrence, and when it’s still ok after a few days you can resume your life, go back to work or school, whatever, being pretty sure you’re past the infectious phase. 

Jacinta: Yes, as Dr Mina says, 9 out of 10 people go undiagnosed with the virus in the USA, according to the CDC – indicating the inadequacy of testing. And he goes on to say, of the other one out of ten, those that are caught, are mostly post-infectious, at the ‘tail end’. The point is that, because of the woeful lack of testing and the long turnarounds, they’re catching far fewer of the transmissible cases, the ones they want and need to catch, than the pitiful few that they actually find testing positive. 

Canto: The bottom line being that if they tested with a far less sensitive, but cheap and readily available quick-result assay, they would capture far more of the transmissible cases, and save lives. 

Jacinta: Dr Mina and many colleagues have written a paper on this, entitled ‘test sensitivity is secondary to frequency and turnaround time for covid19 surveillance’, and he points out that with this approach they would drive down the ‘r effective’ – the reproduction number – which is the number of people who can be infected by a carrier at any specific time – to well below 1. So if you were to give a significantly high proportion of people in in the worst affected areas these types of tests, you could bring the numbers down very rapidly, and this would eliminate the need for contact tracing. It would have an effect on schools, workplaces and so forth – because if you’re given one of these long-turnaround tests and your results eight days later turn out negative, that may be because you had just contracted the virus when the test was taken, but it didn’t show on the test – so you go back to school and infect people. With regular testing this problem would be eliminated. Hate to belabour the point, but – people are dying. 

Canto: It seems the CDC put a high priority on sensitivity, and so rejected these cheap paper tests, neglecting the obvious problem of turnaround more or less completely. The low sensitivity tests usually miss the subjects that are beyond infectivity. If they were on the upward trajectory they would likely be caught by the next test. It’s this upward trajectory that is the infective period. You would think regulatory organisations like the FDA or the CDC would twig to this, but not so much in the Trump era, when non-scientists are put in charge. Yet another failing of the individualist, anti-collaborative, egotistical destruction of all government agencies…

Jacinta: Or just the unwieldiness, the lack of finesse, of lumbering bureaucracies. Or a mix of both. 

Canto: Anyway, as things deepen and darken in the USA, we might have to skip a number of updates to keep up with the chaos, the failures, the resistance and everything else. It isn’t a great time to be living in the USA, but as outsiders we’re kind of ghoulishly fascinated by the mess they’re making of this pandemic, and much else besides.

Jacinta: But also genuinely sympathetic to those who are trying to make thing work in the teeth of all the craziness. 

Canto: Today, September 16, marks the day that 200,000+ deaths from covid19 have been recorded next to the name of the USA, according to Worldometer’s stats. Taiwan, a country that is separated from the so-called ‘China virus’ only by the narrow Formosa strait, has suffered only seven deaths in the nine months that this virus has raged. It has a population of about 24 million, slightly less than that of Australia, into which we find ourselves thrown. Australia has had 824 deaths thus far, and we’re regarded as something of a model!

Jacinta: Yes, several cheers for Tsai Ing-wen and for female leadership, sans egotism. And a special thanks to Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s digital minister – but she’s actually real, and a life-saver. We need more of her. 

Audrey Tang

Written by stewart henderson

September 17, 2020 at 12:03 am

Posted in covid19, Taiwan, USA

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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

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

the US horror: the beginning of the end?

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right, and I didn’t even talk about education…

So there’s a bit of a crisis going on in the USA right now, and it may or may not be the beginning of the ‘blood in the streets’ scenario that I’ve been predicting and imagining as the end of this farcical, sad, disgusting, more or less unforgivable US Presidency.

The perennial pre-teen spoilt brat in the White Palace knows enough to know he might be nearing the end of the road, and all his crimes might be catching up on him. He has only one thing on his minuscule mind at the moment – winning an election. It’s like the scenario of an unbelievably melodramatic movie, proving that true scenarios are so often stranger than fiction.

I was never hugely engaged in US politics before the befuddled brat emerged as an unlikely candidate for one of the most responsible jobs on the planet. My thoughts then were – how can it be that such an obviously inept buffoon – a bragging, blustering blowhard incapable of ever saying, or thinking, anything remotely interesting – be permitted to be a candidate for such a position? What sort of a country…? Was this an example of American exceptionalism?

It still seems to me that the USA, not the babbling boy-bully, is to blame for this disaster, which cost lives and destroyed childhoods at the southern border, and has now wrought tragedy upon the country in the form of thousands of lost souls. Any reasonable person, examining this clown’s history, would bar him from any position of responsibility anywhere. He’s never worked for anyone in his life, and would be incapable of doing so. I’m totally convinced that if he’d ever been hired as a kitchen or factory hand – jobs that I’ve held in the past – he wouldn’t have lasted till the end of the shift.

So why did the USA commit this fatal error? Why do Americans still proudly proclaim that anyone – even a profoundly underdeveloped malignant narcissist – can become their Prez?

It seems to me that at least one of the problems, perhaps the main one, is that they’ve fallen into the too-much-democracy trap. Democracy – which a lot of Americans seem to imagine was invented in their country – is not a perfect political system. Its most significant weakness – and I’m sick of pointing it out – was described two millennia ago by the ancient, avowedly elitist Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle. And this weakness – populism or demagoguery – was exactly what the ageing brat exploited. Most other democratic countries provide screens against direct democracies though a process either of party discipline (someone applying for high office must prove to others that she can lead a team) or work on the ground (presenting her credentials to a particular electorate, and if successful locally, working herself up from there as an independent or party member). But the current American Prez has been allowed to bypass all that, and to do absolutely nothing but talk his way into high office (with more than a little help from his Russian frenemies). Promising everything works with a lot of people. And because of this, because, as a person who has spent sixty-odd years conning people out of their money and their brains, honing that one spoilt-brat skill of pretending to know what he’s doing and what he’s talking about, of barging about like an impressive-to-some bull in a china shop, he’s taken over a whole country, probably the only democratic country he could ever have taken over. Though, to be fair, he could’ve taken over other, non-democratic countries, with even more disastrous consequences – many dictators throughout history have had personal profiles similar to his.

The USA’s appalling Presidential system, with no vetting, with its ‘superhero fixit-man’ pitted against ‘superhero fixit-man’ elections, its reliance on a vaguely-worded and widely-worshipped Constitution rather than solid, clear L-A-W, its emoluments clause without claws, its White Palace in which the boy-king is able to sit amongst his selected sycophantic courtiers, fuming and tweeting and soiling himself instead of working in the cauldron of Congress or Parliament, proving himself every working day as a team leader and an agile opponent to his no-holds-barred critics… the USA’s system is to blame for this.

It’s long been my view, shared by a few others, but not enough, that this dangerous brattish narcissist will not go quietly, and that lives will be lost, and not his own, before he’s removed. Currently his hopes of ‘legitimate’ re-election are on a downward spiral, which makes him a very dangerous beast indeed. It’s clear that he sees the current riotous situation as an opportunity to create the kind of division he sees, in his strange unclear unerringness, as being to his advantage. It’s impossible to suspend a Presidential election, all the pundits say, but it’s not impossible to try to suspend an election. This bloke has gotten away with so much wrong-doing in his life, he’s been emboldened to try anything. Whatever happens in the next few months, I have a strong feeling that ‘we ain’t seen nothin yet’. I’m just glad I’m over here.

Written by stewart henderson

May 29, 2020 at 11:35 pm

there’s no such thing as a fair election 1: the apportionment issue

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Canto: So we’ve been talking about how politics have been interacting with the Covid-19 pandemic, and came to the tentative conclusion that strong centralised governments, collaborationist and respected by their citizens, were faring better at managing the situation than right-wing quasi-dictatorial anti-government governments like Trump’s USA, Putin’s Russia and Bolsonaro’s Brazil…

Jacinta: And those three countries just happen to fill the top three places in Covid-19 cases, though to be fair, they have very large populations. Anyway, the Scandinavian countries we looked at all seemed to have coalition governments of some kind, and from our great distance we preferred to assume that they operated through some kind of more or less happy consensus – but maybe not.

Canto: So we’ve been reading David Deutsch’s book The beginning of infinity, and there’s an interesting chapter, ‘Choices’, which looks at voting systems and what we want from government…

Jacinta: Or perhaps what we need, or should expect. What is objectively best, something which Deutsch, being a progressivist optimist, believes we’re converging upon – what he calls, in the political sphere, ‘advancing from misconception to even better [i.e. less damaging] misconception’. Deutsch considers first the ‘apportionment problem’ in the USA, a problem that many electoral polities have, as they attempt to represent particular electoral regions, with their different populations, fairly within a federal electoral system. The USA, like Australia and many other countries, has a House of Representatives, to indicate the aim of representative government. There are 435 US House seats, and the Constitution requires that these seats be apportioned to the states according to their populations. For example if state x has 5% of the nation’s population, it should get 21.75 House members. This is of course impossible, so the obvious thing to do is round up to 22, right?

Canto: Obvious, maybe, but brimming with controversy, because this rounding up, or down, will affect states’ representation, often rather more than was ever suspected. Deutsch imagines a more simplified House with 10 seats, and 4 states. One state holds a little under 85% of the population, the other three have just over 5% each. Rounding will mean that the large state gets rounded down to 8 seats, the three smaller states get rounded up to 1. This means that you have to add an extra seat, but it also means that the smaller states are over-represented, population-wise, and the large state is under-represented. And if you don’t add an extra seat, and the rule is that all states must be represented, then the larger state is reduced to a grossly unrepresentative 7 seats. You could of course add two seats and allocate them to the large state, giving it 9 out of 12 seats, but that still under-represents that state’s population, while enlarging the House to a questionable degree.

Jacinta: In fact a quick calculation shows that, to provide that large state with 85% representation, while giving the other three states a seat, you’d have to add 10 more seats, but then you’d have to add more seats to make the other states more representative – unless I’m missing something, which I probably am. And so on, the point being that even with a simple model you can’t, just from a mathematical perspective, attain very precise representation.

Canto: You could, on that simple model, take a seat way from the least populated state, and give it to the most populated one, thereby keeping the state to ten seats, but having no representation at all seems grossly unfair, and in fact the US Constitution explicitly states that ‘Each State shall have at least one Representative’. The aim, of course is to have, as near as can be, the right measure of representativeness. Having no representation at all, even in one small region, contravenes the ‘no taxation without representation’ call-to-arms of the revolutionary American colonists and the founding fathers.

Jacinta: Yet all the argy-bargy that went on in the USA in the 19th century over apportionment rules and quotas – and it was often fierce – overlooked the fact that black peoples, native Americans, the poor, oh and of course women, were not entitled to be represented. As Deutsch points out, the founding fathers often bandied about the concept of the ‘will of the people’ in their work on the Constitution, but the only ‘people’ they were really talking about were the voters, a small fraction of the adult population in the early days of the nation.

Canto: Nevertheless the apportionment issue proved the bane of election after election, eminent mathematicians and the National Academy of Sciences were consulted, and various complicated solutions were mooted but none proved to everyone’s satisfaction as the system kept chopping and changing.

Jacinta: Of course this raises the question of whether majority rule is fair in any case, or whether fairness is the right criterion. We don’t decide our science or our judiciary by majority rule – and good science, at least, has nothing to do with fairness. Arguably the most significant weakness of democracy is the faith we place in it. In any case, as Deutsch reports:

… there is a mathematical discovery that has changed forever the nature of the apportionment debate: we now know that the quest for an apportionment rule that is both proportional and free from paradoxes can never succeed. Balinski and Young [presented a theorem which] proved this in 1975.

Deutsch calls this a ‘no-go theorem’, one of the first of which was proved by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Kenneth Arrow more than twenty years before. Arrow set out five basic axioms that a rule defining ‘the will of the people’ should satisfy:

Axiom 1: the rule should define a group’s preferences only in terms of the preferences of that group’s members.

Axiom 2: (the ‘no dictator’ axiom) the rule cannot designate the views of one particular person regardless of what the others want.

Axiom 3: if the members of the group are unanimous in their preference for something, then the rule must deem the group to have that preference.

These 3 axioms are expressions of the principle of representative government.

Axiom 4: If, under a given definition of ‘the preferences of the group’, the rule deems that the group has a particular preference, this remains the group’s preference if some members who previously disagreed with that preference now agree with it.

Axiom 5: If the group has some preference, and then some members change their minds about another matter, then the rule must continue to assign the original preference to the group.

These all seem like unproblematic axioms, but Arrow was able to prove that they were inconsistent, and this turns out to be problematic for social-choice theory in general, not just the apportionment issue. According to Deutsch at least, it reveals the mythical nature of ‘the will of the people’.

Canto: Did we really need to be told that? There is no ‘people’ in that sense. And I’m not talking about the Thatcherite claim that there’s no society, only individuals. I’m talking more literally, that there’s no such thing as an indivisible national entity, ‘the people’, which has made its preference known at an election.

Jacinta: Agreed, but that rhetoric is so ingrained it’s hard for people to let it go. I recall one of our prime ministerial aspirants, after losing the federal election, saying ‘graciously’ that he would bow to the ‘will of the people’ and, what’s more, ‘the people always get it right’. It was essentially meaningless, but no doubt it won him some plaudits.

Canto: In fact, voting doesn’t even reveal the will of a single person, let alone the ‘people’. A person might register a vote for person x mistakenly, or with indifference, or with great passion, or under duress etc. Multiply that by the number of voters, and you’ll learn nothing about the soi-disant will of the people.

Jacinta: Okay, we’ve talked about the problems of apportionment under the US multi-state system. Next time we’ll look at the different electoral systems, such as proportional-representation systems and plurality or ‘first past the post’ voting. Is any system more fair than another, and what exactly does ‘fair’ mean? Good government is what we want, but can this be described objectively, and can this be delivered by democracies?

Canto: Well, here’s a clue to that good government question, I think. I walk into my class and I’m faced with twenty students. If I’m asked ‘who’s the tallest person in the class?’ I can come up with an answer soon enough, even if I have to make a measurement. But if I’m asked ‘who’s the best person in the class (not the best student), I’m very likely to be lost for an answer, even if I’ve taught the class all year….

Jacinta: Interesting point, but we’re not talking about the best government. There might be a variety of good governments, and you might be able to point out a variety of students/persons in the class who’ve positively impressed you, for a variety of reasons. Good government is not one.

References

David Deutsch, The beginning of infinity, 2011

The Institutional Design of Congress

Written by stewart henderson

May 26, 2020 at 10:08 pm

the wanker in the white palace 1: my position

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I hear comments around me and read reports in the media about how and how not to deal with the wanker in the white palace. My position is straightforward, in its apparent foolishness. Responsible people shouldn’t be dealing with him, they should get rid of him. 

By this I don’t mean putting an end to his life, much as I’m in favour of euthanasia. The wanker can’t stop himself from wanking night and day – there is no free will, but that’s another story. The point is that he’s clearly incapable of holding any position of responsibility, in which he’s expected to work for the good of others. No sensible person, I would argue, disagrees with this, and a number of the USA’s top psychologists have spoken out about the wanker’s mental unfitness for the job he holds. They would also agree with one of their rank, speaking on MSNBC, that the damage which makes it impossible for him to behave like a common and garden adult occurred very early in life and is irreversible. The damage he has done to the role of US President won’t be able to be fully assessed until he’s dumped from office – which may, I believe, involve bloodshed. This wanker won’t go quietly.

So why has the wanker managed to inveigle himself into this extraordinary position, and why is he so hard to get rid of? I’ll be exploring this under two ‘headings’, the ‘American psyche’, and the current Presidential system. The two are very obviously linked.

Why ‘wanker’? Well, I’m essentially Australian (though British-born and a dual citizen), and my first reaction to this bloke after witnessing him briefly on TV years ago was the classic ‘what a wanker’ refrain. If I hadn’t heard his name before I would’ve considered this a badly done black comedy, with the lead actor spouting buffoonish imbecilities, and the other performers pretending to fawn over his oafishness, and appearing dazzled by the kitsch furnishings in ‘Trump’ tower – he trumps over everyone, getit, and yet it’s all trumpery, right?

But it’s no joke, even though it is. Even after all this time, it’s hard to take seriously – but then, I’m not a Kurd, or a Central American refugee. 

The USA is an object of mockery and opprobrium worldwide for its production and promotion of the wanker, and it thoroughly deserves to be. The wanker has trumpeted his wankerdom for the whole of his ‘adult’ life – it’s the USA’s fault that he’s been so successful, and yet even his most vociferous critics trumpet the USA as the leader of the free world, the light on the hill, Guard’s own country, the Greatest Nation on Earth, and other enlightened epithets. There is surely no nation more jingoistic, and unself-critical, than the USA, even allowing for the fallacy that all powerful states have fallen for – Egyptian, Roman, British, Soviet, Chinese and so on, – that economic and military power entail moral superiority. 

In future posts I’ll explore the flaw in the American psyche that has allowed the wanker to swank his way into and perhaps permanently corrupt the most powerful position on the planet (currently) and the many related flaws in a presidential system that fortunately has no equivalent in the so-called free world. 

 

Written by stewart henderson

February 13, 2020 at 5:37 pm

the boy in the white palace 5: empêchement? sûrement pas, and farewell

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Canto: As we ghouls await the kind of ritual massacre in the USA we’ve been primed for by watching Korean historical dramas, we of course recognise that the current laughing-stock status of that once-proud nation – admitted by a number of American analysts – is really serious stuff. However…

Jacinta: Indeed there are many howevers…

Canto: You do it it yourselves, you do, and that’s what really hurts. Take impeachment – a funny word, actually adapted from the French by the English. An empêchement, from the verb empêcher, to prevent, has in modern French a very everyday meaning, i.e. something that stops you from doing something, but it was first used by the English as a (somewhat ill-defined) politico-legal process way back in the 14th century. It remains just as ill-defined to this day, inhabiting a distinctly grey area between politics and the law. 

Jacinta: In those countries that have had the misfortune to adopt this horribly tainted and, IMHO, worthless procedure, it’s inevitably bound up with that nation’s Constitution – and considering that most national constitutions are creaky with age, impeachment suffers from the same creakiness. 

Canto: A kind of highly formalised shemozzle. It’s wholly obsolete in the UK, being surplus to requirements, and has never been a thing in Australia. For crimes, of course, we have this thing called law, and if a Prime Minister goes rogue, without quite doing anything he can be arrested for, she gets dropped as the team’s captain, and, depending on how rogue she goes, is either consigned to another place in the team or is dropped from the team altogether. Then the team selects another PM. And it’s not a particularly traumatic event, because the PM isn’t a quasi-king with his own white palace and swathe of courtiers and princeling-in-waiting. 

Jacinta: I don’t know whether there’s any point trying to convince Americans of the rottenness of GASP – the Great American System of the Presidency. I suspect they’re rather brainwashed about the beauty and perfection of it all. Rarely do I hear any American ‘expert’ speak critically about GASP, in spite of their intelligence in other areas. It’s a frog-in-the-heating-pan sort of thing.

Canto: Yes, to do away with impeachment means to do away with the super-powers of the Leader, which have actually, I think, led to the boy-king’s cult following. Do away with the superpowers, distribute the powers, thus diluted into ordinary human powers, throughout the principal players of the team, and sharpen up the laws on emoluments, campaign finances and influence peddling, and you might just start getting back to something like a real democracy.

Jacinta: This boy-king is, very obviously to all outside observers, a crime machine. The financial morass of his self-interest takes us to Russia, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan, Israel, China, Indonesia and twenty-odd other countries large and small, and common garden corruption is to be found in all these dealings, because that’s all he understands, insofar as he understands anything. The cult following of his ‘base’ is all the more tragic when it’s clear that he despises them all and loves them only as dupes. He would immediately have anyone resembling these workers thrown out of his mar-a-lago shangri-la because he’s only ever comfortable with crooked rich people. But his success is, of course, the USA’s failure, and that is a vast thing. I don’t want to see the USA fail, but I would only want it to succeed from this point through a massive, soul-searching transformation. Not only of its presidential system – and I’m not sure if that system deserves to survive at all – but of its economic system and its criminal justice system. Currently, the USA is a global disgrace and deserves to be. And it will get worse – which will perhaps be a blessing in disguise. It may have to get worse for the transformation to be as fulsome as it needs to be. That, I think, is why we’re watching with such gruesome attentiveness. But I’m not confident that too many lessons will have been learned when we examine political America in five years’ time. The country won’t ‘come together’. It won’t start to rank higher on the Better Life Index. The third world poverty, disadvantage and despair in vast regions of the country won’t be alleviated, and it will continue to call itself the greatest nation on Earth, the leader of the free world, home of the brave and other nationalistic twaddle. And it will continue to be at war with itself while it bullies other nations, as powerful nations inevitably do.

Canto: Yes, we’re getting tired of watching, and maybe we should turn to other things, more positive stuff like science and solutions, heros and sheros, nice, positive go-getters who strive to make the world better and shame us, in the best possible way, with their energetic example. Adios little boy-king, may you finally get what you deserve, and may a chastened nation get out from under…

Written by stewart henderson

November 11, 2019 at 12:20 pm

Lessons from the Trump travesty?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by stewart henderson

June 14, 2019 at 5:00 pm

situation USA 3: the right i word

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

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

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

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

Cillizza then instructs his readers with this gem of wisdom:

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

https://edition.cnn.com/2019/06/06/politics/nancy-pelosi-trump-prison/index.html

https://www.washingtonpost.com/powerpost/pelosi-tells-colleagues-she-wants-to-see-trump-in-prison-not-impeached/2019/06/06/afaf004a-8856-11e9-a491-25df61c78dc4_story.html?utm_term=.4907d39b22c7

https://www.wired.com/story/trumps-world-faces-16-known-criminal-probes/

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Written by stewart henderson

June 9, 2019 at 3:33 pm