Friday, August 19, 2016

Two Candidates, same story???

I am not a big supporter of Hillary Clinton, but I believe that most of the ferocious, mainstream attacks on her are (whether consciously or not) motivated by sexism. The reason I say this is simple: Clinton is not only probably the most qualified candidate in recent memory (if not ever), but her stances and policies are completely in line with the Democratic candidates over the past thirty or forty years. It is easy and fair to criticize Clinton from a leftist point of view, and some of the public criticisms of her have been just this, something that is, I believe, a result of a rising tide of leftist politics in the millennial generation. But from the mainstream Democrats criticisms of her have been deeply hypocritical since her policies are not significantly different from Obama, Bill Clinton, Al Gore (when he was in the running), Dukakis, or even Mondale. Hillary Clinton is, in policy terms, simply an extension of the Democratic Party, a party that grew out of the Reagan years, a largely neo-liberal party (in economic terms) with a social liberal bent, that pays lip service to traditional left of centre issues. (Much like the Liberal Party here in Canada).

Now some people criticize Hillary Clinton by pointing to her scandals and alleged dishonesty. I am not going to take issue with every one of these issues because that would necessitate a longer blog than I have time for. But let me say this - for anyone who has been in public life as long, and at the high level that she has, her alleged offenses seem pretty much par for the course. I take it as read that Hillary Clinton is corrupt and dishonest to a degree, simply because I take it that the rich and powerful in capitalism are almost universally so. That is how the system works. It favours corruption and rewards dishonesty.

However, I find it hypocritical (or naive) in the extreme for people to portray Hillary as deeply flawed and dishonest and then go out and support Trump as though they are somehow doing something different. First of all, let's be clear, Trump has been a long time supporter of the same economic agenda that Hillary Clinton represents. That is a simple matter of record. But more importantly, to imagine that Trump is somehow outside of the establishment that Clinton represents is pure folly. Trump is a typically dishonest, wealthy businessman in a system that favours the rich and powerful. If he lived in a system that didn't economically and judicially favour wealth and power, Trump would be broke or maybe in jail. Like so many of the rich and powerful, Trump uses a corrupt system to shield him from prosecution, much like Clinton does. Trump uses his wealth to keep himself rich and to take wealth from smaller, more honest business people. (One simply has to examine his business history to understand this) It is simply ridiculous to think of a billionaire like Trump as somehow outside of the establishment of a capitalist nation. And his record of dishonesty is no less public, and arguably much worse, than Clinton's. But even if you think Clinton is uniquely dishonest as mainstream presidential candidates have been, it is ridiculous and blind to see Trump as any more honest or any less part of the establishment.

If someone was reluctant to vote for Clinton because she is too fiscally rightwing or too much of a foriegn policy hawk, I think that is fair enough. However, for someone to support Trump because they think Clinton is dishonest and too much part of the establishment would be as absurd as someone voting for the Neo-nazis because they think Trump is too racist and misogynistic. It is absurd. Trump's dishonesty is self-evident and obvious even without the huge amount of testimony from those he has cheated, his business failures are startling, and his support for the trade practices that he now criticizes has a long history.

So here's the thing - if I were an American voter and I was set on voting either Democrat or Republican, I would be choosing between the two generally dishonest, rich and powerful, neo-liberal candidates. Well, I would choose the one who isn't blatantly racist, misogynist, and hasn't been endorsed by the white supremacists. That seems pretty straightforward to me.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Where are the American Political Parties Going?

Wow! It's hard to believe a presidential campaign having a worse couple of days than what has happened to Trump in the past couple 48 hour. Yelling at babies, bad-mouthing the grieving parents of a fallen soldier, going after other prominent Republicans, joking about getting a Purple Heart the day after the NYT does a cover story on Trump's draft dodging, publicly musing about the election being rigged, repeatedly asking advisors why it's not ok to use nuclear weapons, etc., etc. NBC has an interesting article on the chaos here.

It seems to me (and quite a few prominent Republicans seem to agree), that it doesn't matter that much what your politics are at this point, Trump is coming off looking seriously unstable. And if it wasn't for the so-called Goldwater Rule, I suspect that a lot more people would be actively talking about Trump's mental state at this point. NBC has another interesting article on that issue here.

One might argue, of course, that people who are challenging the political establishment are bound to be labeled by some people as "mentally unhinged." There can be, I think, some merit in this argument in as much as perceived radicals of any stripe are cutting against the grain, so to speak, so the will no doubt be the target of all sorts of criticisms. But we have a pretty contemporary comparison to Trump in Bernie Sanders, and though I heard the occasional wingnut refer to him as crazy, I think Sanders' overall stability and ability for polite and rational discourse, precluded him from being labeled as unstable no matter how radical a few of his policies might be viewed by some.

There is, of course, a lot of time to go on this campaign. And if history teaches us anything it is to expect the unexpected. However, given Trump's behavioural consistency when it comes to saying and doing wildly inappropriate things, it is difficult imagining him suddenly changing his spots, so to speak. It is hardly an insightful prediction that we are in for a wild ride for the next three months. But based upon just how wild the past couple of days have been, people have understandably begun to speculate upon all sorts of possible outcomes. Some pundits have predicted that Trump will drop out or somehow be forced to quit before the election comes. Short of some criminal indictment or some genuinely heinous act, this seems significantly unlikely to me for a couple of reasons, not least of which is Trump's ego. Can you really imagine Trump quitting this race after all that he has done? Others are speculating that even if he were to win he would quit soon after because he really doesn't have the kind of patience and concentration that it takes to do a 20 hour a day job, listening to hours of briefings that aren't just about you. This prospects makes some people plenty nervous because Mike Spence is, arguably, scarier than Trump.

I really can't even vaguely predict what will happen. The thing about someone as unpredictable as Trump is that, well . . . he makes things unpredictable. Some might say that Trump is predictable, in as much as, based on past behaviour, the next thing that he says is bound to be more inflammatory that the last. While that seems to be true, what I think we can't predict is how people will react to Trump. Frankly, it beggars description that I guy who started his campaign telling us that Mexico was sending us their "rapists," and then actively mocking a guy with a disability, could win the nomination. So I am, at the very least, ready for surprises.

But let's say, for the sake of argument, that Trump's campaign continues to unravel and he loses big. What will that mean, not just for the Republicans but for the Democrats also. Will the GOP finally begin to reevaluate those antiquated ideas that seem to be making them a party of the past? Or will they continue on as they did four years ago, and even double down on their old-world notions? Or will they factionalize into more than one party? Frankly this prospect would seem to promise even more chaos since the GOP at the moment seems to be several different parties at once: a traditional Republican party that has been overshadowed for some years, a whacko religious, tea-party Party that is really just a new style of establishment party but with a much bigger corporate agenda, and an angry, old, white-people's party that, in a state of naivety that boggles my mind, actually thinks that Billionaires like Trump will oppose things like NAFTA and will build a wall on the border with Mexico.

But here is a different, but equally important question: if Hillary Clinton were to win big, what will that mean for the Democratic Party? For the past forty years or so the Democrats have transformed themselves into a party of corporate globalism and bit money. It can easily be argued that on many economic issues Hillary Clinton, like her recent predecessors, is really just a neo-liberal in socially liberal clothing. However, the Sanders campaign has demonstrated that there is a large contingent of Americans who want the old Democratic Party back, the party of FDR and Harry Truman, the pro-union party that believed that the State has a significant role to play in making society more just and equal. But will a Clinton victory in this election allow the Democrats to ignore the shifting political winds and the desires of those that they will have to count on for support in the coming decades? This should be a serious concern for the Democrats who are smart enough to see the coming change, because victory has a way of breeding complacency.

I think we can depend on one thing. The next few years, even decades, will be, as the Chinese curse says, very interesting.

Friday, July 29, 2016

When Our Leaders Want to "beat people up," You know we Haven't come Far. . . .

Today, perhaps unsurprisingly, Donald Trump went on another one of his almost daily rants. This time he actively advocated violence, saying he wanted to "hit" several of the DNC convention speakers "so hard their heads would spin." (You can see a story in the Huffington Post here)

Personally I am entirely dumfounded by the idea of a presidential candidate in the 21st century who openly talks this way. And not only does he talk this way but his supporters lap it up. The irony of a guy who a few days ago tried to position himself as the "law and order candidate" talking openly about using violence on his opponents is too rich to make up. Comedians and Hollywood screenwriters must just be beside themselves at the professional goldmine that this man provides on an almost daily basis. But a good swath of Americans must surely be irony impaired, because they just aren't getting it. But oligarchs, dictators, and so-called 'strong-armed' leaders have always been this way. They talk about law and order but what they really mean is silence and obedience. Or Else!

In the words of one of my very favourite writers, Kurt Vonnegut, "So it goes."

By way of contrast, I was thinking today about the most popular and, arguably, the most left-leaning president the US has ever seen: Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Like any man, he had his faults. But when you contrast him with Donald Trump he seems almost saint-like. FDR was barely able to walk as a result of polio. And he went to great lengths to hide his disability from the public, a task that was conceivable in the age before television. Hiding his disability was understandable in those days. Even today, it is difficult to imagine a person with a significant disability getting elected president. But I suspect that FDR's disability is, in part, what made him the compassionate and socially conscious leader that he was.

One of the only photos of FDR in a wheelchair.

Trump lives in a world where men are still judged, by many, by their level of masculinity. His supporters, both men and women, like to hear him threaten people with violence because, in their eyes, it makes him manly and a good leader. Trump's popularity demonstrates how little we've really progressed in the past century.

The measure of person should never relate to how loud they speak, how angry they can get, how intimidating they can be. Physical courage can, indeed, be a useful trait. But without a conscience it easily becomes ruthlessness. Lincoln said, "No man is so tall as when he stoops to help a child." How is it that the first Republican president knew this lesson more than a hundred and fifty years ago, but the current Republican nominee has forgotten it entirely?

For some people, great leaders are people who have fought wars,  or did "what they said they would do" (no matter how terrible that act might be). But for those of us who actually want to move into the 21st century, great leaders must be defined by their compassion and their empathy. We know how Trump will be judged on this scale.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid, but for all the wrong reasons.. . .

The Republican National Convention is in full swing and this week's theme appears to be fear. The Grand Old Party ('old' being the operative word here) seems to be channelling the past, harking back to a time when American was mostly white and much of that population was feeling the first real tremors of a changing America. They were scared, and fear, as my dad used to say, makes people stupid.

The face of the Republican party in those days was Richard Nixon, a politician whose savvy and sly abilities existed in equal measure to his corrupt and evil proclivities. Nixon knew that much of mainstream, white America was afraid, and he used it to propel himself to the office of president. The strategy of fear is hardly a new one for the rightwing, but there seems to be times of anxiety-ridden unrest that make it an better, more effective approach than others. With the Vietnam War heating up, the younger generation everywhere in cultural revolt, race-riots bringing violence to the streets of America, it is hardly any wonder that Nixon was able to capitalize on fear.

Cut to modern day Cleveland where the Republicans have once again made fear of chaos the cornerstone of their political raison d'être. Trevor Noah caught the mood beautifully in his Daily Show segment. (It seems that you need an American VPN to watch it but if you have one you can see it here.)

The BBC gives us a glimpse into the fear in a report from yesterday.

Maybe there is not more to be afraid of in 1968 than there is today, but for mainstream white America, whose hold on society has never been more tenuous, the new fears are perhaps more unsettling than the old ones. After all, white Americans are fast being outnumbered by non-whites, America's economic supremacy is quickly disappearing, wages have flatlined for years, and secure, well-paying employment is a thing of the past. For Republicans, someone must be to blame for this state of affairs, and the rightwing mind always looks to the "other" when things look rough.

Four years ago when the Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama, the more astute Republican commentators said that the Grand Old Party was doomed unless it could begin to appeal to people outside it normal purview, to blacks and hispanics, to more women and younger people. Four years later, the Republican Party seems to have decided on the opposite tack; instead they are everywhere intentionally alienating those that four years ago they realized they needed to appeal to. As I said, fear makes people stupid.

It seems that nothing will divert Republicans from their chosen path. To chose a new way forward requires a change of heart or a cool and collected mind. It seems that the Republican Party is not going to embrace either of these.

When people are afraid, it is often for the wrong reasons; they are afraid of the wrong things. There is much to fear in today's world. But Republicans are mostly afraid of people with darker skin and people who don't look or think exactly like them. But if we learn anything from history it is that we learn nothing from history. It is hard to say if the Republican campaign of fear will take Trump to power the way it did for Nixon. I suspect that if Trump were to win, fear in the rest of the world, fear of what he would do,  would make white, American fear look like a walk in the park.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Melania Trump's plagiarism and Ersatz politics . . .

Is anyone surprised at Melania Trump's plagiarism of a Michelle Obama's speech?

It was a painful speech to watch. Besides Melania's strange, eerie, almost robotic manner, everything she said seemed forced and empty. Let's not forget that Michelle Obama is a cum laude graduate of Princeton University and, of course, Harvard Law School. She is also a life-long activist, starting notably with her involvement in the Carl A. Fields Center at Princeton. To hear Melania Trump steal Obama's speech is pure farce. Melania Trump, on the other hand, is a model who dropped out of her first year of college who represents little but ostentatious wealth, a wealth that she has because of her marriage to a mean-spirited, racist whose only activism is the effort to make himself richer and more powerful.

To be fair, I suspect that Melania Trump is not directly responsible for the plagiarism of Obama's speech. Mrs. Trump is probably not bright enough to even be aware of Obama's words, let alone steal them. It was probably one of the speech writers who, like some college freshman, thought by changing a word or two here and there he/she would technically not be guilty of plagiarism.

But putting the words of an accomplished woman like Michelle Obama into the mouth of a rich, awkward woman like Melania Trump, is indicative of the entire Trump phenomenon. The Trumps are an empty mockery of everything we should value. There is no content here, only a vacuous self-aggrandizement, a kind of ersatz politics which attempts to take rhetoric devoid of real meaning and turn it into an empty political victory without real goals. It is like something out of a Sinclair Lewis novel. Trump is like Elmer Gantry without the style, craftiness, or charisma.

People without insights of their own are compelled to steal the thoughts of others. And if your only goal is to make yourself richer and/or more powerful then the only content and meaning of your words is the raw ambition which motivates them.

There is no question of plagiarism here; it is too blatant and obvious and is there for everyone to see. It makes sense though. If you are not that smart yourself, if you have no actual accomplishments to build upon, it makes sense to pattern yourself on someone who has the smarts and/or the dedication to actually do something.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Turkey's attack on Democracy is Our problem too. . . .

President Recep Erdogan is arguably the greatest charlatan in European politics at the moment. He is a man who actively courts an image as a populist democrat while he simultaneously makes every attempt to shut down all opposition and carve out for himself a role as absolute dictator of Turkey. From afar Erdogan's attempts can seem almost comical, as when he lobbies foreign governments to indict their own citizens for criticizing him, but at home his strong-arm tactics are frighteningly real for those who chose to dissent from his vision of Turkey.

Of course, as one might expect with any politician who takes advantage of a populist style of public image making, what exactly Erdogan's national vision is is not entirely clear. On the one hand, Erdogan has built an image as an Islamist leader (as described by the New York Times), but on the other hand he has continued the effort among Turkey's recent leaders to bring Turkey into "modern" political mainstream and make the country eligible for membership in the European Union.

The value of EU membership has recently lost a great deal of its cache, which is probably good for Erdogan who seems to have no intention of backing off his rather desperate efforts to become Turkey's dictator. One of Erdogan's draconian responses to the weekend coup attempt in Turkey has been to publicly float the idea of reinstating the death penalty. This brought a swift response from at least one EU member-state as a spokesperson for German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Turkey chance of gaining EU membership would be finished if it returned to using the death penalty. As the Mail Online said today, "Steffen Seibert told reporters that the EU is a 'community of values,' therefore the institution of the death penalty can only mean that such a country could not be a member."

However, it really appears that capital punishment is only one of many problems now faced by Turkey in its effort to be a modern, Western-approved, democracy. Erdogan has taken advantage of the attempted coup to enact a round-up of hundreds (if not thousands) of people in what he claims is a crackdown on the supporters of the coup, but which, given the raw numbers and generalized targets of the arrests, can only be an attempt to undermine all opposition to his leadership. If one needs a primer on how to marginalize and debilitate political opposition on the road to dictatorship, one only needs to look at what has been happening in Turkey in the past forty-eight hours: use a real event as a smokescreen for the total liquidation of dissent. It is a classic tactic with which even those with only a casual knowledge history will be familiar. And it is a tactic which Erdogan's supporters are whole-heartedly embracing. As Tim Arango and Ceylan Yeginsu wrote in the New York Times: "While secular and liberal Turks generally opposed the coup, it was Mr. Erdogan's supporters who flooded the streets and gathered at Istanbul's airport to push out the occupying army. They mostly yelled religious slogans and chants in support of Mr. Erdogan, not of democracy itself." They go on to make it clear that Erdogan's support of free political expression is extremely one sided. "When other groups, like gay and lesbian organizations or labor unions try to gather in public spaces in central Istanbul," Argano and Yeginsu write, "the streets are sealed off. Armoured vehicles with water cannons suddenly materialize, as do police officers with tear gas canisters."

The story is an old one but the implications are ominous as governments everywhere seem to be using the force of the state to shut down opposition and curtail democratic rights. Turkey after the coup will undoubtably be a less free and more draconian state. But citizens of Western nations should not feel comfortable nor satisfied that Turkey's troubles are distant from us. Democratic rights are everywhere under fire and Republican convention in Cleveland this week should remind us that Erdogan's tactics are by no means a 'foreign' or an 'Islamic' phenomenon.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The American Tipping Point. . . .

I grew up in the States in the turbulent times of the 1960s and early 70s. As a young child I lived in Detroit during the infamous riots there. My family also lived in LA during the Watts riots. Major race riots seem to break out in the US ever twenty years or so. And politicians and activists talk about how important it is to change things, and after the furor dies down nothing seems to change.

Actually, strike that. Looking at what is going on in the US this week, I realize that what has changed is that the police are now more like a paramiltary strike-force than a civilian police force. Take a look at video of protests in Baton Rouge and you can see just how much things have changed. You can find some video at the facebook page of Revolution News here. But this video is even more frightening.

This video lays bare all the hypocrisy of US politicians who are talking about peace and reconciliation. Talk of change, talk of peace, talk of community cooperation is utterly empty while you are using paramilitary forces in the face of peaceful protests! Putting armoured vehicles in communities flanked by military men armed in many cases with assault rifles is a demonstration of the very things against which people are protesting, and will lead to nothing good. There is a terrible and painful irony in the fact that in the face of state violence which is out of control (in the continual killing and violence against blacks), the state's response is to double down and ramp up the very image and nature of the violence. 

One needn't be an expert in political history to understand that this is a "third-world" response. I lived in El Salvador during the 90s just after the civil war there ended. I heard so many stories from regular people who hadn't been active or political but eventually became so as the State's response to protests became more and more violent. This is exactly what is happening the US today. When the state makes it clear that their agenda is military and violent, people who might otherwise watch from afar will understandably begin to question the real goals of the state. Not only has the US government ramped up the violence with their response but they have set in motion an inevitable legitimation crisis in the country as a whole. And sadly, they have also established a precedent that will further divide the country in an already divisive time. 

Looking back on the periodical racial tensions that have divided America over the past century, it seems that this is not just another blip on the screen of American racial problems. Rather, this is finally the moment when the paramilitary nature of the US state has been laid bare and the descent of the most powerful nation in the world into the chaos of a banana-republic-style dictatorship. 

This is, as they say, the tipping point. America and Americans will never be the same.