Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Putin's Question, Syria and the future of the Middle East

"Instead of the triumph of democracy and progress, we got violence, poverty and social disaster — and nobody cares a bit about human rights, including the right to life, I cannot help asking those who have forced that situation: Do you realize what you have done?" Vladimir Putin - UN

There is a general consensus in the "West" that Vladimir Putin is a thug: however, in a manner reminiscent of Vito Corleone, he is thug whose plans and his way of carrying them out make sense. By making sense I mean that it is easy to understand what his goals are and his ways of achieving them. I think it is perfectly evident that for good or for bad, Putin "realizes what he is doing".

Many sour-grape-ish commentators say that Russia is entering a "quagmire" in Syria like the USA did in Vietnam and Iraq. I beg to disagree. Syria's army is nothing like the "client armies" of South Vietnam or Afghanistan. 

Assad's Alawite community, a minority which controls the Syrian army and state, are literally fighting for their lives, because if they lose to the radicals of the Sunni majority, they will, minimally, be ethnically cleansed and quite possibly, (if ISIS stays true to form) be literally "put to the sword"... So given superior (Russian/Iranian) leadership, air-support, equipment, intelligence etc, they can be counted on as a motivated, effective force. They are joined by Hezbollah, the only military force in the world that has ever defeated Israel on the battlefield and by elements of the crack Iranian Revolutionary Guard

I think that given this support, they and their allies should be able to quickly roll back the al-Nusra Front of Al-Qaeda favored by the Arab powers and the ragtag "moderates" that Washington favors... before turning their attention to the ISIS.

What has Putin achieved by this?
  • He has guaranteed the survival of his Mediterranean naval base in Tartus, the only military base that Russia has outside the former Soviet Union.
  • Russia is again the most influential foreign power in Iraq, just as it was in the day of Saddam Hussein.
  • Russia is now the most influential foreign power in Iran.
  • In short, in only a few, relatively inexpensive,  moves, Russia is now again a major player in the Middle East chessboard, just as it was during the height of the Cold War. What does this mean?
  • It means that Russia is now in position to put a lot of pressure on Saudi Arabia.
Why should they want to put pressure on Saudi Arabia?

Chercher le pétrole.
Putin – who, as a former member of the KGB, is a product of the Cold War – is today faced with the same dilemma as his Soviet forebears. The collapse in oil prices, which has been engineered by America’s major allies in the region – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait – is crippling the Russian economy.(my emphasis) The Telegraph
It must be said that the initial reason for lowering oil prices by over-producing was to break the American fracking industry by making it unprofitable... it has had other, perhaps underestimated consequences:
Russia’s currency and economy, already squeezed by Western sanctions, have been sent into virtual free fall by slumping oil prices. The International Monetary Fund predicted in July that Russia’s economy would shrink 3.4% this year, the most of any major emerging market. Wall Street Journal

Chercher le pétrole
Thus, hoist by their own petard, low oil prices are also threatening the stability of the Saudi Monarchy.
The Saudi government has banned official purchases of cars and furniture and slashed travel budgets and infrastructure spending as it faces its gravest fiscal crisis for years because of low oil prices.(...)Saudi Arabia had been hit by the “unfortunate coincidence of a royal succession and a sudden precipitous decline in oil revenue”, Hertog said, adding that the cost of public-sector bonuses, the war in Yemen and aid to regional states such as Egypt had pushed up the estimated break-even oil price to $110 a barrel. The Guardian
To top it off, as you can see below, Saudi Arabia's oil and gas infrastructures are extremely vulnerable to any hostile action coming from Iraq, Iran or Syria, any of which would surely lead to a big jump in the world oil price, which would restart the Russian economy... and probably cause a recession everywhere else.
Saudi Arabia's vulnerable oil infrastructure 
Hat Danil Parker
Russia's pressure seems to be having some effect:
Oil prices are on course for one of the biggest weekly gains in six years as rising geopolitical tensions and signs of slowing output brought buyers back to the market. Financial Times

The greatest danger in all of this, would be that too much austerity and subsequent unrest in Saudi Arabia could easily lead to the fall of the Saudi monarchy, considered by most pious Muslims as a brood of degenerate libertines. This family, and certainly not the people of Saudi Arabia, are the ones who have a "special relationship" with the USA since the days of FDR. Their fall would certainly not lead to any "Arab Spring" with Saudi ladies ripping off their veils and donning miniskirts... quite the contrary. An "Islamic Republic of the Holy Places" would be the natural location for the Caliphate that ISIS dreams of, and if Daesh took over, the "Meccan in the Street", would hardly notice the difference.

Here is a sample of daily life in Saudi Arabia under the rule of our "special friends" there:
A young Saudi Arabian man is facing crucifixion after beheading for attending an anti-government protest in 2012, when he was 17. The Times
Decapitations are routine in Saudi Arabia, America’s closest Arab ally, for crimes including political dissent—and the international press hardly seems to notice. Newsweek
Saudi authorities have already carried out 90 executions since the beginning of 2015, more than the 88 for all of 2014. Forty-one of the ninety people executed since the start of 2015 were sentenced for non-violent drug offenses. Human Rights Watch - MintPress
And unfortunately, oil is not all Saudi Arabia exports:
Saudi Arabia remains perhaps the most prolific sponsor of international Islamist terrorism, allegedly supporting groups as disparate as the Afghanistan Taliban, Al-Quaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the Al-Nursa Front. Edward Clifford - Brown Political Review
Sunni clerics are mounting increasingly vociferous calls for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states to take action on behalf of Syrian rebel groups targeted by Russian air strikes. The pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood and a group of 55 Saudi clerics this week called for jihad against the Russians in Syria. Saudi Arabia’s highest religious body, the Council of Religious Scholars, has accused Moscow, along with Iran and its Shia Lebanese proxy, Hizbollah, of aiding the regime of Bashar al-Assad “in the killing of the Syrian people and the destruction of their country”. It called on the nation to do all it can to support the “oppressed and mujahideen” of Syria. The growing pressure for action leaves the Saudi ruling family facing a dilemma. Riyadh has long called for Mr Assad’s overthrow and has supported so-called moderate rebels in Syria. But it fears that the clerical calls for action could inflame young Saudis, thousands of whom have traveled to join the fighting in Syria. The Islamist militants Isis have already launched attacks on Saudi Arabia and the government is cracking down on those traveling abroad in an effort to crush the group’s cells in the country. Financial Times
Since America's staunchest allies in the Middle East are Saudi Arabia and Israel, (which unlike Riyadh has about 1,200,000 Russian inhabitants) all of this is rather bad news, to say the least.

Putin certainly went to the heart of the matter with his question, "Do you realize what you have done?".

It is a question I've often asked myself: do Americans really understand what American foreign policy has been doing all these years and its consequences for their prosperity and safety?

Like many of my generation I started wondering if the American  foreign policy establishment realized what it was doing during the war in Vietnam,.. with Pinochet, Iran-Contra, etc to follow.

Just a short list of things, going back some time, with lots left out, that apply to today's situation in the Middle East:

With the help of Saudi Arabian financing, the USA introduced fanatical Wahhabi Islam to Sufi Afghanistan and to nuclear weaponized Pakistan and then literally "invented" Osama Bin Laden. All this was done to bring down a government in Kabul where little girls were allowed/encouraged to go to school and their mothers could even go shopping (without wearing a tent). Then during the First Gulf War the USA stationed pork consuming, American, soldiers in Saudi Arabia, which led to Bin Laden's creating Al Qaeda... Then in the Second Gulf War the USA totally destabilized Iraq leading to the appearance of the ISIS.

I know it's bad form to quote oneself, but only a couple of postings ago I asked:
What is truly impressive, especially in the American case, is that despite being the richest, most powerful country in history, with the most massive military the world has ever seen, with a huge educational establishment boasting the world's most prestigious universities... a country literally overrun with "think tanks", despite all of this, the "indispensable nation" continuously gives the impression of being the Global Village idiot. How to explain this? 
In the case of the Middle East, I like to think it is pure stupidity, because any other explanation leads into the sinister, tinfoil-hat-land's house of mirrors where the great paranoiac conspiracies slither... A very, very, dark and humid, dangerous place, a place where I don't wish to go. DS

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Pope Francis and the "holy cunning"

Francis has repeatedly praised the Jesuit trait of “holy cunning” — that Christians should be “wise as serpents but innocent as doves,” as Jesus put it. - Huffington Post
While the great cathedrals of Europe are still largely empty of worshipers, Francis has prompted many a lapsed Catholic to take a second look. A church that was identified with concealing sexual abuse, a very stratified version of organized crime, and scorning of those living nontraditional lives, is presenting a far different face in the forgiving smile of Pope Francis. Instead of being known for what it’s against, the church is showing what it’s for. Timothy Egan - New York Times
The Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples met with Pope Francis last Thursday during his U.S. visit(...) "He held out his hands and he asked Kim to pray. He thanked her for her courage. He said these words, 'Stay strong,' and they embraced and hugged." The pontiff also gave Davis two rosaries that he personally blessed. USA Today
Before beginning to analyze the strategies of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, AKA Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pope, it might be useful to give a clear operational illustration of that order's version of "holy cunning".

In my opinion the example most relevant to what Francis is doing now in the arena of progressive politics would be the order's nearly successful attempt to convert the imperial court of China, and all China with it, to Catholicism led by the legendary Father Matteo Ricci S.J. 

Imagine Mao Tse Tung as an alter boy.

Absurd? Well, you may remember that Fidel Castro was educated by the Jesuits.

Here is how Wikipedia tells the story of Matteo Ricci's chameleonic effort to convert China:
Matteo Ricci SJ in Chinese Dress
Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.
During his research (Ricci) discovered that, in contrast to the cultures of South Asia, Chinese culture was strongly intertwined with Confucian values and therefore decided to use existing Chinese concepts to explain Christianity. He did not explain the Catholic faith as entirely foreign or new; instead, he said that the Chinese culture and people always believed in God, and that Christianity is simply the completion of their faith. He borrowed an unusual Chinese term, Lord of Heaven (Chinese: 天主; pinyin: Tiānzhǔ) which is based on the theistic Zhou term "Heaven", to use as the Catholic name for God. (Though he also cited many synonyms from the Confucian Classics.) He supported Chinese traditions by agreeing with the veneration of the dead. Dominican and Franciscan missionaries felt he went too far in accommodation and convinced the Vatican to outlaw Ricci's approach. Wikipedia

Things are not going all that well for the church these days.

In Spain, where I live, arguably history's most fanatical "defender of the faith", the churches now are mostly empty except at Christmas and Easter, divorce and abortion are legal; there are more civil marriages than religious ones and not only is gay marriage legal, Spain's conservative prime minister, who officially opposes gay weddings, recently even attended one... And unthinkable as it might seem to many Irish-Americans, ultra-Catholic Ireland recently held a referendum that legalized gay marriage on the Emerald Isle.
Since his election, the modest Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio has earned praise for his warnings about climate change and criticism of unbridled capitalism that causes the enrichment of the few and the impoverishment of many.(...) In Britain, Jeremy Corbyn, an old-school leftist, has been elected to head the opposition Labour Party.(...) In the United States, Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist and one of only two Independents in the Senate, has been filling stadiums with young, enthusiastic supporters.(...) we may be seeing not only a retreat from the right-wing ideology and free-market dogmas that have dominated political discourse in the West over the past three decades, but the makings of a left-of-center counterrevolution. Alexei Bayer: "Get Ready for a Leftist Revolution" - The Globalist
As many analysts such as the one above have observed, there is a growing populist movement that is mobilizing masses of idealistic young people, who march, volunteer and vote.

Even as recently as the 1950s, idealistic young people from Catholic families in developed nations, the sort of young people that today march against global warming or occupy Wall Street, would often become priests or nuns.

Nowadays, convents, monasteries and seminaries are nearly empty. The sort of young men and women who once were drawn to the religious life have drifted away or have turned their back on the Church.

I believe that Pope Francis is trying to keep this estrangement and indifference from hardening  permanently and that these young people don't grow into maturity considering the Church their natural enemy... in the hope of someday bringing them back into the fold. The very survival of the Church is at stake.

He certainly has his work cut out for him.
As Maureen Dowd recently pointed out in her New York Time's column:
His magnetic, magnanimous personality is making the church, so stained by the vile sex abuse scandal, more attractive to people — even though the Vatican stubbornly clings to its archaic practice of treating women as a lower caste. Pope Francis would be the perfect pontiff — if he lived in the 19th century. But how, in 2015, can he continue to condone the idea that women should have no voice in church decisions?
The fact is that with Pope Francis there have been no changes in the Church's moral teachings on birth control, divorce, abortion, homosexuality, women priests etc. But, by taking a strong, progressive stand on such issues as global warming, refugees, inequality, poverty and even unregulated capitalism itself, Pope Francis has turned the Catholic Church from being viewed a retrograde and reactionary knee-jerk enemy of the left into a valuable and powerful ally of all progressives... someone you are happy to have fighting alongside you and not against you.

"Wise as a serpent, innocent as a dove" and unlike Matteo Ricci, who nearly converted China to Catholicism, these days Jorge Borgoglo, Francis the First, is the Pope himself, and  nobody in the Vatican can tell him to stop. DS

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Utopias: one down, one to go... going, going...

While rereading "Cannibals and Kings", one of my old favorite books from way back in the 1970s, I stumbled upon the following prophetic text:

At this very moment we are again passing by slow degrees through a series of "natural, beneficial, and only slightly... extra-legal" changes which will transform social life in ways that few alive today would consciously wish to inflict upon future generations.(...) No one who detests the practice of kowtowing and groveling, who values the pursuit of scientific knowledge of society and culture, who values the right to study, discuss, debate and criticize, or who believes that society is greater than the state can afford to mistake the rise of European and American democracies as the normal product of a march toward freedom. It is equally dangerous to suppose that capitalism represents the end point of cultural evolution. And one cannot ignore the threat which the intensification of the capitalist mode of production now presents to the preservation of those precious rights and freedoms that have hitherto, if briefly, flourished under its auspices. Marvin Harris - "Cannibals and Kings", 1977 
And then, just the other day, I read this, which carried an interesting echo:
The West is suddenly suffused with self-doubt. Centuries of superiority and global influence appeared to reach a new summit with the collapse of the Soviet Union, as the countries, values and civilization of the West appeared to have won the dark, difficult battle with Communism.(...) The history of the last decade is a bracing antidote to such easy thinking. The rise of authoritarian capitalism has been a blow to assumptions, made popular by Francis Fukuyama, that liberal democracy has proved to be the most reliable and lasting political system.(...) It seemed to many in Asia and Africa to be the end of Western ideological supremacy, given that liberalism and Communism are both Western creations with universal ambitions. After all, (...) “both liberalism and Communism were dominated and shaped by the West — but who is the legitimate son of the Enlightenment and who is the bastard one?” Steven Erlanger - New York Times, 2015
The massive European refugee crisis, along with the indescribable suffering of the victims and the clumsy, hypocritical response of the "West" and the "International Community", to a problem that we (especially the USA) have caused, also encloses a meaty metaphor of the strange moment in history that Marvin Harris predicted and in which we (everyone/everywhere) are all now living.

What is truly impressive, especially in the American case, is that despite being the richest, most powerful country in history, with the most massive military the world has ever seen, with a huge educational establishment boasting the world's most prestigious universities... a country literally overrun with "think tanks", despite all of this, the "indispensable nation" continuously gives the impression of being the Global Village idiot. How to explain this?

Here is how a real insider explains it:
Unfortunately, the decline of US democracy has degraded its capacity for clear collective thinking, led to a series of remarkably poor policy decisions on crucially significant issues, and left the global community rudderless. Al Gore - The Future 
It would appear that something like a critical mass of citizens have come individually and then collectively to share Gore's  analysis... something is moving in the grass, there is a drumbeat, the natives are restless. This is happening simultaneously and spontaneously in much of the developed world: the rise of Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn and Podemos are noteworthy examples.

I think that many observers may be underestimating the change that is coming over much of the middle class in much of the developed world, especially those who live in the great financial centers such as the USA and the UK where the evident  causes of the Great Recession are nearer and so more visible.

The cause of this awakening is, of course, the yawning divide between the suffering of the immense majority of people who didn't cause the crisis, and the tiny, conspicuously well off minority of people who actually did cause the crisis, and have had their debts paid with taxpayer's money, while, to top it off, they themselves pay little or no taxes and  whose wealth continues to grow and grow.... Yes, the now famous "1%" and their ability to corrupt and dominate democratic politics.

This awakening is creating a new left, a left that transverses classic class divisions and searches for a common denominator shared by many groups, both economic and cultural that heretofore often opposed each other.  

With the USSR long dead and buried, this new left has been liberated from any taint of belonging to some sinister, "godless", international conspiracy and is thus free to fire at will at all the sacred cows of Reagan/Thatcher, supply-sideNeoliberalism.

But this runs both ways.

During the course of the Cold War, facing the "godless communism" of totalitarian Soviet power, a fallacious propaganda linkage was constructed between capitalism, democracy, religion and human rights. Without the Soviet threat it would appear that capitalism has no innate relationship to any of these things.

As to the connection of capitalism to religion, here is a juicy quote from a recognized authority:
“[S]ome people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacra­lized workings of the prevailing economic system.” Pope Francis- Fortune
Certainly the Chinese one-percent are able to operate a successful capitalist system without democracy, religion or human rights.

This "capitalism with Chinese characteristics" may be giving other one-percenters around the world food for thought.

The question that arises in my mind is that if capitalism has no real need of democracy and if the one-percent can no longer control democracy, how long will they continue to put up with it?

As Al Gore has observed, America's one-percent has tried to square the circle by corrupting/emasculating democracy, but, I would imagine that, if the natives are restless enough and bent on re-regulating this extractive oligarchy and raising their taxes so that our present system no longer works for them, how long are they prepared to put up with it? How far would they be prepared to go? What sort of crisis would they be prepared to unleash? What sort of situation could justify or enable a suspension or limitation of democracy, of interrupting the present dynamic of growing grassroots demands to bring the one-precenters under democratic control?

War, or a massive terrorist or hacker attack would be the simplest answer to that question.

You are going a bit too far, I said to myself.

And then, I ran into this:
The most dangerous point in the arc of a nation’s power is when the apogee of its greatness is passed but it is not yet resigned to decline. That’s where Trump’s America is. Richard Cohen - New York Times
Without taking Trump himself too seriously, his very popular proposal to locate, detain, hold and expel an estimated eleven million illegal immigrants from the USA, would be a workmanlike template for a nascent police state, because  to succeed, any organization capable of putting this program into effect would de facto resemble certain 20th century regimes that were so famously expert at efficiently rounding up, holding and shipping off millions of people.

Such a huge task would entail a massive bureaucratic organization that would need an enormous network of anonymous, paid informers and a complex, militarized infrastructure for the mass-detentions of millions of elusive immigrants and the holding, processing and transporting of the resulting masses of detainees.  Habeas Corpus and  Due Process for eleven million detainees?

Such an apparatus and its attendant apparatchiks, once it existed, would also be most useful tool to have at hand in any future "national emergency", real or cooked up.

Impossible in the USA, you say?

Using  a supposed emergency to justify suspending democracy has happened countless times in many other countries, American "exceptionalism" can only take you so far.

Alarm bells should be going off at the very mention of this immigration "final solution" and they aren't. That, to me, is the truly most frightening sign of the times.  DS

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Is Donald Trump "The Magic Christian"?

The stare under the hair
The scene Friday night put an exclamation point on an extraordinary run in which the flamboyant mogul has thoroughly disrupted the presidential campaign and kindled a national discussion about not just politics but American culture itself. Washington Post
Like many of us, I have been trying to figure out what The Donald is all about, and most improbably it was none other than Glenn Beck, of all people, that lachrymose and venomous, conspiracy peddler, who put me on the track, with his FB question: "why are big name 'conservatives' supporting Trump?". 
(H)e was very pro abortion until very recently; he still says "don't defund planned parenthood"; he is pro "assault weapon ban"; he is in favor of a wealth tax that would just "take money out of people's bank accounts"; he is for boots on the ground in Iraq and 'taking the oil' from the Iraqi people; he is a progressive 'republican'; he says single payer health care works; he said he would give people more than just Obama care; the First Lady would be the first to have posed nude in lesbian porno shots; he said that he keeps all the bibles he is given in a "special place" outside the city - and he only goes to church on Christmas and Easter; he is generally not a likable guy; he has around 16% favorability with Hispanics and he has gone bankrupt 4 times. This is an honest question. I really want to understand: Why are big name "conservatives" supporting him? Glenn Beck - Facebook
I think it is logical to infer that Beck is insinuating that Trump is paying the "big name conservatives" to support him. I might also infer (Honi soit qui mal y pense) that Beck could be hinting that he'd like his cut too.

I was rolling this idea around in my mind and a tiny memory bell began tinkling at the back of my brain, something in all of this reminded me of a book or a film I had heard or seen or both, long, long ago, in my misspent youth... finally, (to mix metaphors) the penny dropped.

Of course! It was Terry Southern's 1959, comic novel, "The Magic Christian", which was (mixing metaphors again) tugging at my coat, this hilarious book was made into a hilarious film ten years later, starring Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr and its main character, Guy Grand, the Magic Christian, was "my" Donald Trump.

Read this little description of Guy Grand, the eccentric billionaire and see if my "insight" makes any sense to you:
Guy Grand is an odd billionaire who spends most of his time playing elaborate practical jokes on people. A big spender, he does not mind losing large sums of money to complete strangers if he can have a good laugh. All his escapades are designed to prove his theory that everyone has their price—it just depends on the amount one is prepared to pay them. Wikipedia
More than a practical joker, I would describe Guy Grand's actions as performance art and I am beginning to suspect/hope that Trump's are too.

Grand's most famous "practical joke" and the one that put me on the Donald's "scent" is the following:
Grand buys a huge downtown vacant lot in a major city. He then has a three foot brick wall built around the perimeter and fills it with feces and offal into which bills of all denominations have been mixed. He then takes pleasure watching immaculately dressed people defiling themselves by braving the stench, and ruining their clothing and dignity, by wading through the muck for the bills.Wikipedia
Here is how the pool of excrement plays in the 1969 film starring Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr:

Donald Trump is undressing the conservative movement, the Republican party and even the entire American political system.  I don't know if that is his intention, but in fact, that is exactly what he is doing.  That might be healthy... Unless he is actually serious, but how can  we know? 

Is he a real life Guy Grand or an American Mussolini?

I am not interested right now in Donald Trump's specific positions and policy proposals, because, as Beck points out, taken together they make very little sense. What I am more interested in hearing about now is Trump the person and I don't mean the famous wheeler-dealer Trump, the reality show Trump...

The child is the father of the man: I am interested in hearing from people who went to grammar school with  little Donny Trump, people who knew his family when he was a child, taught him at Sunday school... Did other kids pick on him? Did he bully the other children? I want to hear from people that went to high school with him or taught him there, was he good at sports, was he popular? Who did he date? Who kicked his ass, whose ass did he kick or lick.  all of that.

We know what Trump does, but things have gone far enough for us to urgently need to learn who Donald Trump is. DS

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Sweet 2016 - Sanders + Warren? We can dream!

I wonder if America deserves such a good POTUS as Bernie Sanders would make. Watching his thorough, at length, interview with Ezra Klein, I found myself thinking that I had never heard such a lucid, sensible politician speaking in my entire life. 

Truth to tell, I can't remember ever finding myself in such total agreement with an American (or any other nationality) politician before... and I go back quite a bit by now. I kept thinking as I listened to him talk, "Bernie, where have you been all my life?"

Please take the trouble to watch this video with complete attention and mentally compare it with the steady, endless, diet of bullshit that you are normally being fed.

In my title line I indicate that if, God willing, Bernie Sanders does take the Democratic nomination his running mate should be Senator Elizabeth Warren. Normally the Vice Presidential nominee is chosen to "balance" the ticket, but Bernie is 73 years old, and as someone also in his 70s, let me be frank, people our age have a way of keeling over dead and in my opinion President Sanders' Vice President should be someone that could be trusted to carry out his program and that person has to be Elizabeth Warren.

However, like the famous recipe for stewed rabbit begins... "first catch your rabbit".
In trying to move beyond his white liberal base, Sanders faces a huge challenge, but it would be folly to underestimate him. Thanks to the groundswell of support among progressive activists, young Democrats, and small donors, he has the money, the manpower, and the social-media presence to expand his footprint. And with televised Democratic debates starting in the fall, he will have the opportunity to introduce himself to a broader audience. Based on what we’ve seen so far, it seems likely that more potential Democratic voters will warm to his message. John Cassidy - The New Yorker
But we can dream, because for the first time in a long, long, time a person of truly remarkable lucidity, consistency and seasoning has a slim, but real, chance of being elected President of the United States. DS

Friday, August 07, 2015

Cecil, the dentist and the "Global Village"

Cecil (RIP)
Before going any further, I want to make it clear that Cecil the lion was truly "the king of the beasts" and that I hope his murderer spends a few years filling and extracting his fellow prisoners' teeth deep in the infirmary of some Zimbabwe jail.

Having said that and as much as the hideous, sadistic death of Cecil has shocked and appalled me, I confess to being just as horrified by the social media lynching that the rich, cruel, idiot who murdered him, has undergone. 

I think that the lynching is as, or even more important, than the hideous crime that provoked it because anyone in our society is much more likely to become the victim of similar electronic, mob-violence, than to ever be laid low by some malignant dentist's bow and arrow.

What has happened?

We now live in the "Global Village", whose birth Marshall McLuhan clairvoyantly prophesied way back in the 1960s, long before the Internet existed.
Today, the term "Global Village" can be used to describe the Internet and World Wide Web. On the Internet, physical distance is even less of a hindrance to the real-time communicative activities of people, and therefore social spheres are greatly expanded by the openness of the web and the ease at which people can search for online communities and interact with others who share the same interests and concerns. Wikipedia
The word, "village", has a generally positive ring, suggesting a rich community life, yet somehow, in most developed countries, the villagers have fled their villages in droves for the "soulless" anonymity of large urban centers.

Many people, never having experienced village life are puzzled by this flight, however, I might be able to clarify this question for them, as I  spent a lot of my childhood in a traditional 1950s, midwestern village, where only a rich neighbor's 100ft antenna could pick up the Chicago TV signals. A time capsule of classic American village life.

My grandmother had been raised in this wide place in the road by her grandfather, a Glaswegian Scots marble carver (tombstones, marble angels and tiny stone lambs). The town was founded by the rock-ribbed, New England diaspora in the 1820s. Anchored on the Illinois side of the Mississippi valley it lies about forty five minutes away from Tom Sawyer's, Hannibal Missouri...

Top that for a deep-American-traditional-village if you can.

For most of my childhood, when summer came, I left Chicago's North Shore to spend at least a month of my school vacation in a red brick house that my great, great, grandfather had built with his own skillful, hands, long years before the American Civil War.

Google Streets has finally gotten around to patrolling the place, and not long ago, through them I was able to revisit my grandmother's hometown and discover that, like so much of the Middle West, the idyllic, Disneyesque, village I knew as a child had been destroyed.

The once vibrant main street, in those days filled with charming, ornate, 19th century, brick store fronts was now a boarded-up, ruin, with weed-filled, gaping vacant lots like so many missing teeth... Devastated and hollowed out.

And with the main street, I imagine, the town's entire shopkeeper middle class has gone too, (the people who always funded and chaired the excellent public school, the churches and the library). Probably all the victims of some nearby, but not too nearby, big-box store that supplies the only (minimum wage) jobs left in the whole county.

I also discovered that the large, lovely, but hard to heat, 19th century houses, that had once lined the quiet streets under the leafy shade of  massive centenarian elm trees, including my great-great-grandfather's, had all been replaced with tacky, little, aluminum-sided horrors... and of course all the elm trees were long gone too.

All the continuity with its past had been broken and as memory is perhaps the most important quality that defines a true village and it is memory itself, or really the desire to leave memory behind that has driven more people to leave their charming home towns than anything else... probably even more than better job opportunities in the cities.

I'll give you some personal examples of traditional villager's memory.

Old men and women in the village, my grandmother's childhood friends, would laugh and tell me that my highly respectable, strait-laced, Victorian grandmother, had once been a spoiled brat who used to ride her big chestnut horse bareback (ladies rode side saddle in those days) and jump it over neighbors' fences with her long red hair flowing in the breeze... like some Maureen O'Hara. Fortunately they couldn't come up with anything worse... But not for want of trying, be sure of that.

In those Eisenhowerland, rural American days,  I was the only kid with divorced parents for leagues around and once when I was about six years old an old crone took me into her kitchen and plying me with homemade peach pie and ice cream got me to spill everything I knew about my parents... That's when my granny took me aside, sat me down and explained what villages were all about.

She told me that gossip is the passion of villages and "old-wives" are its practitioners... that villages are places where neighbors walk right into your house without knocking, where they know everything about you, from your birth (and any rumors connected to it) to your dying day, and everything about your family and your ancestors, is known to everyone and you in turn know everything about all of them too... The flipside to this being that there is a "balance of terror": anonymous, poison pen defamation is practically impossible and consequently the strongest, "everybody is watching", social repression and group conformity is essential and the only way to survive is to be discreet and on polite, even friendly terms, with everyone, all the time.

And now with the Global Village we have "Global Old-Wives"...  But the big difference with our new electronic Global Village and my granny's traditional one is that although some of the global old wives know everything about us, we now know precious little, almost nothing, about most of them. This is perhaps, in many ways, the worst of both worlds: a cruel village of intimate, encyclopedic and mostly anonymous gossip... and now there is no longer any faceless "big city" to run away to.

The moral of the story boys and girls is that there is nowhere to hide anymore... the world is a small town, but unlike a real village our global village is a paradise for anonymous defamation.

What to do?

Just like in my grandmother's village the only way to survive online today is to be discreet and on polite, even friendly terms, with everyone, all the time. Be careful what photos (nudity, dead lions, etc.) you put up in facebook, what you tweet, what you blog, what you comment... Remember, the Internet's memory is even longer than that of the old crones in my granny's home town. DS

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Ayn, The Donald and the devil's dung

“Part of the beauty of me is that I am very rich.”
Donald Trump  

I'm really smart." 
Donald Trump

Until and unless you discover that money is the root of all good, you ask for your own destruction. When money ceases to become the means by which men deal with one another, then men become the tools of other men. Blood, whips and guns--or dollars. Take your choice--there is no other.  Ayn Rand 
My father used to tell me, "Watch the immigrants son, they will teach you your own country, because where you only see shit, they can see gold"... I can't think of a better example of my old man's dictum than Ayn Rand. Born in Saint Petersburg, Russia in 1905, Rand emigrated to the USA at the age of 21 and probably no one, native or foreign, has ever understood, and exploited, the dark side of the American soul so quickly and as well as Ayn Rand.

From colonial times America was split between the hard scrabble, small farm and workshop, Puritan spirit of the New England colonies, where the ultra-Calvinist Pilgrim Fathers had fled religious persecution in England to found a "shining city on the hill", this in contrast to the "get rich", exploitative ethic of the slavery-based southern colonies, with their lucrative cash crops: tobacco, indigo and cotton.

I'm making no great discovery to note that being inhabited simultaneously by both of these conflicting spirits is what constitutes the roots of the uniquely American personality. The war of these spirits with each other, along with racism, is what constitutes the core of the American malaise.

The conflict is often resolved by a sort of money-grubbing sanctimoniousness which many people (especially the British) consider America's trademark.

To give you an idea of how welcome a liberating relief Ayn Rand's message that money is the "root of all good" has been to many wealth-obsessed Americans raised in our Bible-beating traditions, let's have a quick refresher of the foundational texts:
For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.    1 Timothy 6:10

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. Matthew 6:24
This train of thought has been recently brought up to date, by none other than Pope Francis:
The earth, entire peoples and individual persons are being brutally punished. And behind all this pain, death and destruction there is the stench of what Basil of Caesarea called “the dung of the devil”. An unfettered pursuit of money rules. The service of the common good is left behind. Once capital becomes an idol and guides people’s decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society, it condemns and enslaves men and women, it destroys human fraternity, it sets people against one another and, as we clearly see, it even puts at risk our common home.  Pope Francis: Speech at World Meeting of Popular Movements
His Holiness's reference to "the dung of the devil" brings us to Donald Trump.

The Donald seems almost beyond caricature. Looking for one word to describe him, I came up empty in English, but there is a Spanish word that fits him perfectly: "esperpento".

Originally an esperpento meant something grotesque, an object which you might frighten children or marauding crows with, but esperpento was converted into a term of high art by one of Spain's greatest dramatists, Ramón de la Valle-Inclan

Here is a workmanlike definition of what he created:
Esperpento is a type of theatre developed by Ramón del Valle-Inclán (1869-1936) focusing on characters whose physical and psychological characteristics have been deliberately deformed and warped to the point where they become grotesque caricatures. Valle-Inclán used this esperpento as a vehicle for social and political satire. Span¡shD!ct
To give you an idea how The Donald might fit into all this, let us consider one of Valle-Inclan's most famous characters, the aristocratic, Marqués de Bradomín, who considered that humanity, indeed creation itself, was divided into two different parts, one of them being the Marqués de Bradomín and the other part everything and everyone else.

You can see what fun Valle-Inclan could have had with Donald Trump.

I think that the best way of viewing Donald Trump is to see him as a Rorschach Test  of the American personality, which, if you are American, means your own personality...

Scrutinize (with an intense scrute) the things Trump says and does that resonate with you. What offends you? What amuses you? And why.

This is a very valuable exercise for any American, because an American archetype like Donald Trump to work with doesn't come along every day. DS