Posts Tagged 'Politics'

Binary Pablum For The Masses

The smoke and mirrors tactics of the 2016 presidential campaign continue with the relentless repetition of empty mantras such as “Make America Great Again”, “Lock Them Up”, and “Fake News”. Venom is being spewed across the country, part and parcel of the same strategy of puerile name-calling, disruption, and confusion as we witnessed in the last election 

This is the fundamental strategy of the non-stop Trump campaign that continues to create and manipulate ressentiment and foment a collapse of civility and faith in government. It is all shuck and jive with some of the mainstream press unwittingly complicit in Trump’s strategy simply by repeating his vile utterances. The press cannot ignore even a bloviating President, of course. They are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. The Joker in Chief deliberately deploys a maelstrom of contradiction with which the entire civilized world must struggle, and that, of course, is the intent. Keep all the rhetorical balls in the air. Keep everyone guessing. When did America stop being great? What isn’t great about America? There aren’t any answers forthcoming because there is no truth to appeal to and none is demanded by his True Believers. It’s true because their Dear Leader says it’s true.

How this came to pass and why it has been so effective are the $64 questions of our time. One answer to consider is a longing by so many people for a world where everything is rendered as simplistic binaries. No subtleties, everything is black and white. A very large proportion of the mainstream public does not want shades of grey, they want certainty. It’s a longing, if not a desperation, for an,“Us against Them”, “Right and Wrong” world. Good guys vs. bad guys. They want it to be like Tom Mix riding to the rescue, blasting the bad guys, and riding away on his white horse with the fair maiden holding on behind him. Destroy the Taliban. Destroy al Qaeda. No big deal! And, while you are at it, why not take down the United Nations? Take all those freeloaders off Social Security, welfare, Medicare, and food stamps. No DREAMERS, no foreigners. Up or down, left or right. With us or against us. Never mind consequences or complexities and nuance. Don’t stop to think that you will be hurting yourself. It’s only a matter of “bada bing”, drop a few small nukes here and there and everything will be back to the way we imagine it. We’ll be “Great Again!”

Trump gives his base a comforting, simplistic conception of the world, a peculiar form of indecipherable clarity. No questions need be asked, he has their backs. He says whatever comes to mind and it’s swallowed whole. “Lock her up!” None of it is realizable, of course, it’s just out there like a gigantic public Binkey. A warm bowl of Mom’s chicken soup, binary pablum for the masses.

    

The use of simplistic binary rhetoric has been the modus operandi of Populist leaders throughout history. Hitler and Mussolini were masters of the tactic to rally and control their true believers by pointing at designated illegitimate members of their society. Today’s undocumented Dreamers and refugees are yesterday’s Jews of the Third Reich. We have a President, a Silvio Berlusconi with bad hair, who will say whatever it takes to maintain the delusions. It’s the confusion and the illusions he creates that hold his polity. What kind of destructive mentality emboldens a person holding the highest office and the highest level of responsibility in our society to publicly denounce people like James Comey as an “untruthful slime ball”? What kind of gall does it take for a five-time draft dodger to insult and threaten Robert Mueller, a retired military officer who has served this country honorably?

What will emerge out of the chaos being spewed out across this country and across the world stage remains to be seen.  And I don’t doubt Putin is having a good laugh at our expense. 

Porcupines And The Social Contract

Porcupines and the Social Contract

Sometime back there was an image on the internet of a snake that had swallowed a porcupine. I didn’t click on the image to see the video of the event as the photo was sufficiently vivid. That image came back to me after seeing photos online of Trump and members of Congress beaming into the camera having reached a happy compromise over the debt limit in order to facilitate hurricane aid to the affected states. The Republican Speaker of the House did his best to make it seem like a good time was being had by all. The Republican party, I think, swallowed a porcupine when they climbed onto the Trump bandwagon and they know it. The daily damage and destruction inflicted on the American social contract by the Trump administration has revealed a number of people who are now realizing they too have swallowed a porcupine.

Not long after hurricanes struck Puerto Rico, the President explained that Puerto Rico is an island way out in the ocean, thus making aid difficult. Despite begging from elected officials, prevarication characterized the presidential response to the emergency and attendant tragedy. Puerto Rico was still engaged in an ongoing humanitarian emergency weeks later as well as a verbal duel with the president, who visited the island and demonstrated his concern for the people by throwing packages of paper towels to them. Officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency said the government and its partners were providing only 200,000 meals a day to meet the needs of more than 2 million people. As if the Puerto Rico tragedy were not enough, just a week or so later a gunman, firing from a hotel room 39 floors above street level in Las Vegas, shot and killed 59 people and injured more than 500 who were attending an outdoor concert. The President’s response?  It’s “premature” to discuss guns.

In some respects the porcupine seems to be going down easily. The President is eagerly joined by Congressional Republicans on certain issues. Speaker Paul Ryan in discussing the Republican sponsored tax cuts, explained that the middle class would somehow benefit from those cuts that were mainly for the wealthy. Middle class people would pay more to fund the cuts. Oh, yes, of course. So far the proposal has been stalled and new, sweeter proposals offered. This is the same Paul Ryan who led the Republican assault on Social Security and public education which should also give people a clue to just how destructive his party and this President are intending to be to American society and our limping democracy. The assault on public education, by the way, is the same strategy employed by demagogues and dictators throughout history; control education to control the minds of children and young adults so they become easier to manipulate as a general public. Control information with falsehood or distortion to control the public in general. And, let’s privatize public education to make a profit while we are at it.

  

What we have here is an untethered reality, a president who believes whatever he says is real and true. It is true, of course, that people can believe and not believe the same thing simultaneously. It’s a form of solipsism, the idea that anything outside your own mind doesn’t exist so you can inhabit your own reality simultaneously with inhabiting the outside social world shared with others. This self-defined world is fueled by what is sometimes referred to as “existential fatigue” which has been defined as a personal search for meaning and purpose in a world increasingly bankrupt of both. It isn’t a complicated matter for the people who voted for Trump who know his  background of financial cheating, child molestation, self-admitted sexual assault complete with comments on how to approach that. Yes, good church-going, self-defined “Christians” remain supportive of the President and his agenda. What to make of this? A remarkable fluidity of perception, loose commitment to a social contract, and a fungible belief system. Now, while the porcupine is getting a lot of attention it’s the snakes facilitating the porcupine that we have to watch out for. And the snakes had better understand that once swallowed, the Porcupine has only one path out.

My comment at the NYT today: 11/6/17

Emanuele Corso

Penasco, New Mexico 1 hour ago

“If something is more profoundly wrong with public polling than weighting by education alone can address, it’s hard to see how many public polling firms will be able to do anything about it.”
I think this concluding sentence says it all. I have always been opposed to public polling as it can and most likely does influence low information voters who want to go along with the majority. There is no protection from this real and obvious threat. The term “informed voter” becomes meaningless when people follow what they believe is the majority. The more influential “weight” it seems to me would be informed interest. The survival of a democracy rests on informed voting by people who understand and care about the outcomes.

Notes On A Foreign Country

I don’t very often publish book reviews but in this case I believe this book to be of great value to anyone trying to make sense of where our country is going.

Review – Notes On A Foreign Country

The sub-title of Suzy Hansen’s “Notes On A Foreign Country” is “An American Abroad in a Post-American World” and that is the story in a nut-shell. Having worked abroad myself for several years I was eager to read what someone else had to say about the experience. What I encountered forced me to look back on my time working in Eastern Europe and I didn’t like what I saw. Ms Hansen is unrelenting in her pursuit of the truth and the clarity of her demeanor and expectations. In short, both she and I and no doubt many others, prima fascia, take American superiority in all matters for granted except perhaps cuisine.

Hansen moved herself to Turkey to experience living full-time in a foreign country following the September 11th attacks. She was then writing for the New York Times Magazine and decided to move to a Muslim populated country to better understand the culture of the Middle East, that country was Turkey. While residing in Turkey she traveled extensively to other countries in that part of the world – Greece, Egypt, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran. She came, by virtue of her travels and unrelenting introspection, to a better understanding of herself and the United States. What she saw clearly were the assumptions many of us make as Americans working and living abroad.

The first challenge that came to mind for this reader is the belief that the United States leads the world in technology, education, military strength, social equity, and in other respects. It came as a great revelation to Ms Hansen that others do not perceive us that way. What she learned is that the influence and reputation of this country is in decline if not bottomed out. One has only to consider the ongoing futility of our military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan to appreciate that assessment. And, not only futility but the mind-boggling waste of American lives and national treasure in ventures that have no realistic purpose or definable conclusion. How, for example, can we consider ourselves superior as a society when ours is virtually the only industrialized free market country in the world that does not provide universal free health care?

Hansen’s descriptions of place and people are vivid and intelligent as are her reflections on herself as an actor in a world different from how she was raised and educated. She discovers the disillusionment with the United States of people in the places she visits. She sees how Americans are generally fully convinced of theirs and their country’s superiority as they fail to understand and respect other countries, their people, and their customs. This attitude engenders resentment and a closing down which stands in the way of meeting as equals. We are international missionaries for our life style, our mores, and our technology. We take our values to those whose own values and methodologies are presumed to be inferior to ours.

All of this brought to mind a Polish aphorism, “Koniec nie vidac!” The end is not seen, cannot be seen. We must wonder if perhaps that is the idea, the ultimate purpose, that there be no end to the pursuit of wars around the globe, they are just too profitable to end. And, as we wonder, you may rest assured that others in other countries are thinking the same thoughts.

This is a personal book well written and valuable. This is also an important book with which to disabuse yourself of U.S. Power, popularity, and influence in a world now made crazy and unstable in the “Time of Trump” who himself probably could not find a majority of the involved countries on a map.  I recommend it highly if, for no other reason, than for perspective on this country. My hat is off to Ms Hansen who now makes her home in Turkey.

NOTES ON A FOREIGN COUNTRY

An American Abroad in a Post-American World

Farrar, Straus  and Giroux

A Pacifier Nation and Governance by Chaos – or – How To Destroy a Social Contract.

This is the first installment of several on the American Social Contract.

Here is a perfect example of the kind of mentality we are dealing with. This is a quotation from Donald Rumsfeld justifying war in Iraq:

Donald Rumsfeld famously argued with regard to the WMD question in Iraq, “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” 

How many times does it have to be said? How much more clearly can it be articulated? But, I’ll  say it once again, this centuries old accumulated wisdom …. – The greatest human problem, the most destructive and most powerful force in the human experiential universe is greed with fear running a close second!  It is fear that is most often exploited by demagogues claiming to speak for the voiceless masses expressing their fears, their anger, and without fail, their prejudices against perceived “enemies” such as all those immigrants “stealing” their good jobs. It would no doubt be sold as “America First”.  … in 1938, a New York Times reporter warned: “When and if fascism comes to America it will not be labelled ‘made in Germany’; it will not be marked with a swastika; it will not even be called fascism; it will be called, of course, ‘Americanism’.” No mention will be made, of course, that those stolen good jobs were actually shipped to countries where wages are low and benefits non-existent. No discussion will ensue about how all of this belies the fact that a once believed in social contract has been dismantled and effectively destroyed. The so-called American Dream has fast become the American Nightmare.

What exactly is a Social Contract and how does a society acquire one? All societies including totalitarian states have a social contract both explicit and implicit, written and unwritten, enforced and unenforced. Social contracts cover anything and everything from attire, to diet, to religious practice, to driving on a particular side of the road. In some societies the origins of their contract provisions are lost in time having evolved without record but are manifest in the present.

The social standing of women, castes, races, ethnicities, regional inhabitants are all aspects of social contracts as they occur around the world and within nations. Some are decided by vote others by imposition and carried on by secular or religious tradition or custom. The actors assemble under a variety of banners from Marxism to neoliberalism and always with the same objectives – to limit personal freedom and to delimit individual behavior thus defining a contract.

I have been studying the Social Contract for more 30 years out of an interest that evolved from my teaching a course at Madison titled “Schools and Society”. The motivating question at that time was: Why do societies put so much effort and treasure into teaching the young from kindergarten through university and college? And now, why today, has the United States, a country that has had an enviable system of public education since its founding, why now attack public education from all quarters? I recently saw a Gallup poll that found that more than half of those surveyed were dissatisfied with public schools.

(To be continued.)

Sticks, Stones, and Nukes redux again…

I published the essay, “Sticks, Stones, and Nukes”,  several years ago never thinking we would ever have a nightmare Commander In Chief like the present one. Our current President, in my opinion, is a person who has no regard for logic, reason, or personal integrity, nor respect for knowledge. He is pals with Vladimir Putin who has no regard for democracy not even a reduced and damaged one like ours. While I trust the men and women of our military not to do stupid things, a Commander In Chief is the commander. We have never openly tested that position’s authority against the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the simple reason that we have always had Presidents who were generally sentient and responsible adults. Whether we liked their politics or not we could trust their judgement when it came to war and the instruments of war.

I am personally concerned with the volatility posed by the man-child presently holding our highest office and his access to nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. And, when you add China and North Korea to the stew, the international situation is extremely volatile requiring a steady hand and a mature intellect to navigate us through these times. We do not have, except for the Joint Chiefs, a steady hand on the tiller today and that is my motivation for publishing this essay again.

Sticks, Stones, and Nukes

It is thought the atomic weapon dropped on Hiroshima resulted in the deaths of approximately 90,000 to more than 100,000 people most of whom were non-combatants. In Nagasaki, the second target, at least 80,000 casualties resulted. During the Cuban Missile Crisis large Soviet cities were targeted with hydrogen weapons to be delivered mostly by ICBMs with less than 30 minutes of flight time from US silos. Large American population centers were likewise targeted by the Soviets. It is certain that with such little warning millions of people would have been killed on both sides, a zero sum game if there ever was one.

Warfare began with sticks and stones and until modern times, casualties were counted in ones and twos, then hundreds in World War 1, then in World War 2 thousands and those generally involved only actual combatants. Until weapons such as cannons and longbows it was also usually a matter of one-on-one personal combat. Today, however, a crew of two has the power to kill millions of people thousands of miles away on the opposite side of the planet most of whom would be innocents. The power to kill millions of human beings in one fell swoop once unimaginable is  today’s reality. Military personnel in the US, Russia, and China sit around the clock at their underground consoles with exactly that capability.

Atlas F – ICBM

 

When I served as an Atlas F ICBM launch control officer in the Strategic Air Command during the Cuban Missile Crisis, SAC was called to DEFCON 2, one step from launching our weapons. I don’t recall conversations about the ethics or morals involved in expending nuclear weapons then. Our concerns were about lawful orders and technical matters not moral or ethical issues. Philosophical considerations would not have served the purpose of reactive or proactive national defense in the face of what was believed to be an imminent Soviet threat. We were the front lines of deterrence and took that responsibility seriously. It is true, also, that some officers and airmen asked to be relieved of their assignments as launch personnel because of their religious beliefs. I personally assisted a few airmen to find different assignments without prejudice.

I managed to carry out my duties as a launch officer for several years because I believed mutually assured destruction was the deterrent. I trusted the Commander In Chief, John F. Kennedy. Our unhesitating willingness to launch was what kept nuclear war at bay.  Had there been a nuclear exchange I would have  been safe in my underground launch control center while it was certain my family would be annihilated, not an easy circumstance to live with but we all did. Ultimately there would have been no safe place anywhere from the effects of a nuclear exchange. There would have been no escape not even for those of us secured in underground bunkers. Eventually everyone would have to emerge. And, as John Kennedy warned, the planet would be uninhabitable.

Recently the disaffection of Minuteman missile crews standing alert has been a major scandal. Cheating on tests was apparently rampant as was sleeping on the job. The crews were bored perhaps by inactivity. Minuteman crews have meals prepared for them topside, above ground sleeping quarters, all in all pretty cushy arrangements compared to the Atlas and Titan crews of the 60s. I have no doubt the lack of a clearly defined threat or tangible enemy was also a contributing factor. Of course the Air Force was alarmed and perhaps shocked as more and more questionable behavior was exposed. The immediate remedy was the removal or retraining of the officers involved. Efforts were also made to render the living and work situation more tolerable.

Recently I read in the news crew members being awarded medals apparently not for facing down an enemy but, it would seem, for overcoming ennui. I hope it works. The air and missile crews of the Cuban Missile Crisis received no medals not even a thank you – what we did was nothing less than what was expected. What we got instead was more practice countdowns, more testing and on-site performance evaluations, more classroom work, more alerts – doing exactly what was expected of us. Minimum passing grade on tests remained 100% and some officers and airmen, a few personal friends in fact, were eliminated. That was then – this is now.

Over the years I have found myself thinking more and more about my own thinking during those tense days. I remain secure with the correctness of my decisions and my commitment at that time and, at the same time, I am discomfited by them. On the one hand, how could anyone go along with mutually assured nuclear destruction while on the other, how could we have not?  Several years ago my wife and I wrote a screenplay about that time and its dilemmas titled “Commit” after the name of the last button on the launch control console, a command from which there was no reversal – once pressed the missile was committed to launch, a very large hydrogen warhead would be on its way to target. Detonation was 15 to 20 minutes minutes away or less depending on the target. The screenplay won a prize from the Page International Screenwriting competition in 2011 and was performed as a table read in Santa Fe, New Mexico where the story was well received by most of the audience.

Interestingly, for some, especially the younger crowd, I got the feeling the events described in the screenplay were too abstract and, for them, the likelihood of nuclear war so remote they could have just as easily been listening to a reading of Beowulf. That disconnect I think expresses the crux of the matter. The general awareness of warheads underground in the Northern Plains and under the ocean in submarines attended to by increasingly disaffected and bored crews paints a picture both dangerous and encouraging. The dangers remain real, however, and I have come to understand that for many people nuclear war cannot be imagined. Several years ago I had a personal experience that made my time sitting at an ICBM launch console real.

I worked for several years in North Western Poland, in the beautiful and ancient city of Torun, immediately after the fall of Communism. There were still Soviet soldiers present who had been stranded there selling their gear in the market place  for money to buy food. I arrived in the middle of the night on my first visit and taken from the airport in Warsaw by a company driver. I was dropped at my hotel and went to my room hoping to get a few hours of sleep. I opened the window for fresh air and plopped down on the bed but wasn’t able to sleep. I could hear in the distance what I took to be heavy artillery fire. Looking out the window to the West I could see the sky illuminated with each firing.

In the morning I was met by my tlumacz (my interpreter) and driven to the factory. As we were driving along the Vistula River I asked about the  heavy artillery and was informed that this was a former Soviet base which had been taken over by the Polish army and converted now for artillery training. Converted from what? I asked. It had been throughout the Cold War, I was told, a Soviet medium range missile base generally thought to be targeting most of Western Europe. It took me a moment to continue the conversation as I realized this base had been one of my targets during the Cold War! There would be no city here had we struck that base. Of course I never mentioned this to anyone for as long as I worked in Poland. The wheel turns in amazing ways.

The danger today, I believe, lies in the existential weariness of nearly 60 years, more or less, facing hypothetical threats as compared to the reality of the Cold War and in the moment an unsteady hand on the nuclear trigger. On the other hand, the encouraging aspect is that we have averted nuclear war for decades and now there is a growing international awareness of the nihilism represented by nuclear warfare and there are actions to eliminate those weapons. There can be no winners in a nuclear war only losers – nothing would be gained, civilization would be lost – we would, without question, be back to sticks and stones. If there is hope for civilization, abolition of nuclear weapons must be the first step. May we live to see that day, it’s the world I want my grandchildren and their grandchildren to live in.

I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but WWIV will be fought with sticks and stones. – Albert Einstein

“Enemies Foreign And Domestic” 

  

Jean Piaget, one of the foremost experts in the field of children’s learning explained that in some “there is an absence of the desire to find logical justification for one’s statements, and … an excess of subjective and affective relations at the expense of genuine logical implications.” This describes the stage of development of children from roughly the age of 2 to 8 which seems to perfectly fit the mentality of Donald Trump. There are people who have been deemed “anti-Copernicans”, people who believe that humans continually create the universe via their own consciousness of it. We are now being hustled into the alternative universe of Trump who creates new realities and new universes on the fly as they suit his purposes. The venom of his ambition pulls on the loose threads of the body politic capitalizing on fear and uncertainty, exploiting ignorance. No matter what Trump says, lost jobs are not coming back to the United States but only the products of those absent industries make overseas where there is cheaper labor to exploit.

The Trump assault on health care, for example, is an attempt to drag life as it is lived by many people into a “new world”, a dystopian world of alternatives to the truth and reality as lived by millions of people who cannot otherwise afford health care — a “Let them take aspirin.” version of health insurance to which some are now belatedly awakening. What we are watching unfold with this administration is a total reversal of social gains made over many years for affordable and universal health care, a better and cleaner environment, and better educational opportunities for all children across the population — in short, a more humane society. It now seems the entire social contract so hard-won since the Great Depression and the Presidency of Franklin Roosevelt is under assault. We have gone from the keen intellect of Jack Kennedy to an incurious narcissistic individual who can barely articulate two consecutive logically related sentences.

In these intervening years since Jack Kennedy, we have not evolved so much as we have begun to devolve politically and morally. We are engaged in unnecessary warfare in countries around the world where there is no demonstrable threat to this country but where there are lucrative opportunities to use and sell advanced weaponry or to provide access to petroleum resources. We have forgotten President Eisenhower’s warnings about the powerful military industrial complex. We are subject to what Francis Fukuyama characterizes as “a rent-seeking elite, who make use of their political connections to capture the state and use state power to enrich themselves.” The Trump cabinet is populated almost exclusively with such types and they are using state power to their own advantage. 

As a nation, as a people, Americans must come to grips with what is underway and decide what kind of country this is and what it is going to become before the dystopian tide overwhelms us. Are the American people ready to surrender their constitutional rights to an authoritarian government just to get even with people they don’t like? Does the public understand what kinds of people the president has surrounded himself with? Do they comprehend the consequences of appointing Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court for the rest of his life? Do people understand the monstrous conceit and sociopathy of this president and how vulnerable that renders him to the manipulation and machinations of his motley crew and others, perhaps not only Americans but foreign actors who would like to control American policy abroad? What do we as a nation stand for?

When I was commissioned as an Air Force officer I swore to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic” for life. I never thought then I would live to see the day when the “domestic” part of that oath would loom in my consciousness. With revelations of Trump’s dealings and behavior in Russia lurking and ready to be disclosed I wonder where it will lead us. With politicians, national and state, assaulting the Constitution daily looking for means to subvert, undermine, or outright override its provisions  we cannot pretend that this is a benign moment in our history. It has been reported that the Koch brothers have commissioned a rewrite of the constitution even as they are meeting with Trump.  The time to stand up and be counted is now lest those who are on a mission to create a different country succeed.


Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 56 other followers

Categories