Monday, December 30, 2019

Attorney General William Barr acting on behalf of (Judeo-)Christian Nationalism

Religious nationalism—be it Zionist (at least most of its forms, the exceptions being rather unpopular if not existing only on paper), Judeo-Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, what have you—is extremely dangerous wherever it rears its hydra-headed individual and group pathologies, and thus not only, say, in Israel, Iran, India, Myanmar, or Poland, but in the U.S. as well. This is a regressive, anti-Liberal, and anti-democratic ideology that refuses to comes to grip with the values of institutional secularism and genuine political pluralism for democratic societies, while denying the fact that non-religious worldviews are perfectly capable of finding adherents who abide by moral principles and are capable of being as ethical—and sometimes far more ethical—than any avowed religious believer (as M.K. Gandhi well understood). This form of toxic nationalism is extremely simple-minded in its putative diagnosis of what ails contemporary societies, and its prescriptive phantasies, when not messianic or apocalyptic in intent, are messianic or apocalyptic by default, in any case, they envision an irrational, impossible, and purely regressive return to a world that never existed. 

From The New York Times (Dec. 29, 2019), “Bill Barr Thinks America Is Going to HellAnd he’s on a mission to use the ‘authority’ of the executive branch to stop it. By Katherine Stewart and  

[….] “ … [A]t least since Mr. Barr’s infamous speech at the University of Notre Dame Law School, in which he blamed ‘secularists’ for ‘moral chaos’ and ‘immense suffering, wreckage and misery,’ it has become clear that no understanding of William Barr can be complete without taking into account his views on the role of religion in society. For that, it is illuminating to review how Mr. Barr has directed his Justice Department on matters concerning the First Amendment clause forbidding the establishment of a state religion. 

Mr. Barr has embraced wholesale the ‘religious liberty’ rhetoric of today’s Christian nationalist movement. When religious nationalists invoke ‘religious freedom,’ it is typically code for religious privilege. The freedom they have in mind is the freedom of people of certain conservative and authoritarian varieties of religion to discriminate against those of whom they disapprove or over whom they wish to exert power.

This form of ‘religious liberty’ seeks to foment the sense of persecution and paranoia of a collection of conservative religious groups that see themselves as on the cusp of losing their rightful position of dominance over American culture. It always singles out groups that can be blamed for society’s ills, and that may be subject to state-sanctioned discrimination and belittlement — L.G.B.T. Americans, secularists and Muslims are the favored targets, but others are available. The purpose of this ’religious liberty’ rhetoric is not just to secure a place of privilege, but also to justify public funding for the right kind of religion. [….] 

This form of ‘religious liberty’ is not a mere side issue for Mr. Barr, or for the other religious nationalists who have come to dominate the Republican Party. Mr. Barr has made this clear. All the problems of modernity — ‘the wreckage of the family,’ ‘record levels of depression and mental illness,’ ‘drug addiction’ and ‘senseless violence’ — stem from the loss of a strict interpretation of the Christian religion.

The great evildoers in the Notre Dame speech are nonbelievers who are apparently out on the streets ransacking everything that is good and holy. The solutions to society’s ills, Mr. Barr declared, come from faith. ‘Judeo-Christian moral standards are the ultimate utilitarian rules for human conduct,’ he said. ‘Religion helps frame moral culture within society that instills and reinforces moral discipline.’ He added, ‘The fact is that no secular creed has emerged capable of performing the role of religion.’ 

Within this ideological framework, the ends justify the means. In this light, Mr. Barr’s hyper-partisanship is the symptom, not the malady. At Christian nationalist gatherings and strategy meetings, the Democratic Party and its supporters are routinely described as ‘demonic’ and associated with ‘rulers of the darkness.’ If you know that society is under dire existential threat from secularists, and you know that they have all found a home in the other party, every conceivable compromise with principles, every ethical breach, every back-room deal is not only justifiable but imperative. And as the vicious reaction to Christianity Today’s anti-Trump editorial demonstrates, any break with this partisan alignment will be instantly denounced as heresy.

It is equally clear that Mr. Barr’s maximalist interpretation of executive power in the Constitution is just an effect, rather than a cause, of his ideological commitments. In fact, it isn’t really an interpretation. It is simply an unfounded assertion that the president has what amount to monarchical powers. [….] Mr. Barr’s constitutional interpretation is simply window dressing on his commitment to religious authoritarianism. And that, really, gets to the heart of the matter. If you know anything about America’s founders, you know they were passionately opposed to the idea of a religious monarchy. And this is the key to understanding the question, ‘What does Bill Barr want?’ 

The answer is that America’s conservative movement, having morphed into a religious nationalist movement, is on a collision course with the American constitutional system. Though conservatives have long claimed to be the true champions of the Constitution — remember all that chatter during previous Republican administrations about ‘originalism’ and ‘judicial restraint’ — the movement that now controls the Republican Party is committed to a suite of ideas that are fundamentally incompatible with the Constitution and the Republic that the founders created under its auspices

Mr. Trump’s presidency was not the cause of this anti-democratic movement in American politics. It was the consequence. He is the chosen instrument, not of God, but of today’s Christian nationalists, their political allies and funders, and the movement’s legal apparatus.” [….] The entire piece is here.

Friday, December 20, 2019

“Bah! Humbug!”?

Please don’t hear me mumbling (or shouting!) “Bah! Humbug!” or see me as the Grinch who stole Christmas (or the holiday spirit, for that matter) in reading what follows. 

I have arrived at the arguable belief (a ’conviction’ from the outside looking in?) that, owing to several loosely related causes and reasons, some more discernible than others, denial, self-deception, wishful thinking, myopia, insecurity, anxiety if not depression (or at least the symptoms of same), fear, nastiness, dispositional anger or resentment, willful ignorance, procrastination, and weakness of will have become ubiquitous psychological and epistemic phenomena (there being no hard and fast boundary here) in our country (and seemingly in more than a few other countries around our planet). I confess to succumbing on occasion to at least some of these mental states and conditions. This is a personal judgment and generalization (and symptomatic diagnosis), for which exceptions can be cited, but these only serve to distinguish and highlight the rule in this case. I welcome attempts to convince me otherwise, should you find the time and stamina! (Contentedly cultivating one’s garden or imagining yourself above the fray, as it were, are not postures from which counter-arguments or sentimental expressions of solace—however well-intended—should be made).

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

A disturbing focus on birth rates in the poorer nations among climate change scientists (or an alarming exemplum of sullied science in the fight against global warming)

“Scientists suggest fertility control as a way to combat climate change. Now that’s alarming.”
By Kelsey Holt for the Los Angeles Times, Dec, 11, 2019 

“Thousands of scientists around the world joined together last month to label climate change the ‘emergency’ that it is. But one of the main points they make — linking control of women’s reproduction to environmental goals — is problematic. Focusing on what women in poor nations with the highest birth rates can do to curb climate change distracts from holding wealthy countries and corporations accountable for their disproportionate harm to the planet and imperils the right to reproductive autonomy. [….] Reducing population growth is one of six steps the authors say would slow carbon dioxide emissions. They also argue that to decrease the birthrate, family planning services and primary and secondary education need to be more available and accessible.

The group’s website goes a big step further. It says families must be encouraged to have fewer children and sounds the overpopulation alarm. A startling graph shows a dramatic world population spike beginning in the 19th century. The accompanying text refers to people giving birth as ‘adding more carbon emitters to the planet.’ This presents a troubling and unfair picture and promotes the scapegoating of [poor] women. [….] 

The full article is here.

We’ve been down this dead-end road before, including at the birth of the modern environmental movement wherein existing ideas and practices of “conservationism” were transformed into a broader philosophies, political theories and forms of praxis. The singling out of overpopulation and family planning as central to ecological concerns and environmentalist ends is deeply misguided and frequently implicated in the resurrection of Malthusian Social Darwinism or simply various forms of Malthusian (or Malthusian-like) and neo-Malthusian reasoning and arguments (with some historical and ‘scientific’ roots in eugenics) which are often couched in technocratic (with strong statist premises) and scientific rhetoric. 

Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968) exemplifies this genre (the arguments of which were refuted by Barry Commoner, among others), as does, in a more sophisticated manner, the work the late Garrett Hardin (a geneticist by training), whose policy proposals were more drastic and draconian than those of Ehrlich (e.g., selling licenses for reproduction on the open market). Some Malthusian assumptions and premises also animate the Club of Rome’s commissioned report, The Limits to Growth (1972). Hardin’s central concepts, “carrying capacity,” “tragedy of the commons,” and “lifeboat ethics,” combine to create a frightening form of eco-fascism, the ideas and practices of which have not disappeared from academic scientific discourse (in fairness, he did endeavor to expand women’s rights and opportunities, at least in the most affluent countries, and argued against the colonization of outer space as a solution to population ‘problems’).

Perhaps needless to say, the aforementioned arguments take for granted contemporary capitalism and its notions of private property. Eric Ross has aptly described such arguments as embodying the “cardinal qualities of Cold War Malthusian thinking,” which are “anti-socialist, anti-democratic, and eugenic.” 

Essential Reading (in addition to my recent compilation, ‘Toward Red-Green Democratic Socialism’):
  • Fisher, Alec. The Logic of Real Arguments (Cambridge University Press, 1988), in particular, chapter 3, “A first example—from Thomas Malthus,” pp. 29-47.
  • Murdoch, William. The Poverty of Nations: The Political Economy of Hunger and Population (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980).
  • Nussbaum, Martha C. Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach (Cambridge University Press, 2000).
  • Paehhlke, Robert C. Environmentalism and the Future of Progressive Politics (Yale University Press, 1989).
  • Ross, Eric B. The Malthus Factor: Poverty, Politics and Population in Capitalist Development (Zed Books, 1998).

Thursday, December 05, 2019

Possible logical constraints on principles in animal ethics that entail vegetarianism or veganism

Makah canoe
I believe in a strong conception of ethics (in the sense that it borders on the spiritual) on behalf of all non-human animals (hence for this and other reasons, I have a vegan diet) and corresponding forms of legal rights, including a legal conception of “personhood” (which relies on some different and some overlapping criteria for what counts in metaphysical and moral terms as personhood for human beings) for at least some animals (i.e., one that requires a demanding form of legally defined protections, proscriptions, and obligatory actions): dolphins, porpoises, whales, apes, monkeys, elephants, corvids, and some domestic animals (and thus other species), for example. I well realize my values, principles and beliefs on this score are not commonplace and unlikely to be so in the near or perhaps even distant future. That said, I’m unequivocally in favor of the Makah Indian tribe being allowed—in keeping with the federal government’s treaty obligations—to resume the hunting of whales (thus my conception of animal ethics is not ‘absolutist,’ meaning there are possible exceptions to its strictures even if it is, on the whole, comparatively strict).
Makah art
The excerpt below is from the article on the front page of today’s Los Angeles Times: 

“The Makah, who live in the Olympic Peninsula’s northwest corner, Neah Bay, have asked the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for a waiver from the Marine Mammal Protection Act so they can restart their traditional whale hunt, harvesting up to 20 animals over the next 10 years. They are supported by the federal government and tribal communities around the globe, who point to an 1855 treaty specifically granting the Makah the right to hunt whales. In return for $30,000, and the ceding of 300,000 acres, Washington’s then-Gov. Isaac Stevens granted the Makah ‘the right of taking fish and of whaling or sealing.’ [….] 

Government scientists say the hunt, which would grant the tribe roughly 2.5 whales per year, will have an insignificant effect on Eastern Gray Whale populations, which the last census suggested is at a historically high level — about 27,000 whales.”
Another and related instance of an exception or constraint to an animal ethics principle (or principles) involves the North American Indians who’ve come together as the United Tribes of Bristol Bay (UTBB).* These North American Indians are fighting public policy and regulatory decisions that are part of the Trump Administration and Republican Party’s grand political and economic strategy to expand yet further the opportunities for corporate capitalist avarice and destruction of the environment; in this case, avarice and destruction in utter disregard of the lives of fifteen federally recognized Tribes in Southwest Alaska (I suppose this is what is meant by ‘make America great again’): 

“Bristol Bay, its waters, our salmon and our way of life are at risk.  We have been working to protect this place, along with many partners, for nearly 2 decades.  The threat is Pebble Mine—a massive open pit mine proposed to be constructed at the headwaters of Bristol Bay. The mine puts at risk a way of life that has sustained the indigenous people of the region since time immemorial; a commercial fishery that has been going strong for more than 130 years; and habitat that gives birth to the world’s largest wild salmon run. Salmon are a way of life here.”
Bristol Bay
 From the Los Angeles Times: “Will pristine Bristol Bay be the Trump administration’s next sacrifice?” 

“Even by the vanishingly low ethical and environmental standards of the Trump administration, the proposed Pebble Mine project in Alaska stands out for its shamelessness. Southwest Alaska’s Bristol Bay region, which would be irrevocably upended if the mine were to be built, is the last major fully functional salmon ecosystem in North America⁠. All the others, on both coasts, have mostly or entirely succumbed to logging, mining, farming, ranching, damming, overfishing and development.
But Bristol Bay is still pristine, and as a result it possesses one of the last great wild salmon fisheries on Earth. It annually produces about half of the world’s sockeye salmon, among the most highly valued salmon types. Although many fisheries throughout the world have crashed, Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game reported a total Bristol Bay salmon run last year of 62.3 million fish — an all-time record. 

Most of Bristol Bay’s 7,000 residents are Alaska Natives who maintain a subsistence economy that has existed for at least 4,000 years; they embody some of the last intact salmon-based cultures in the world. Alannah Hurley, executive director of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, calls Pebble Mine an ‘existential’ threat to the Natives’ way of life. [….]

In response to a petition filed by Bristol Bay Native groups arguing that the mine would violate the Clean Water Act, the Obama-era Environmental Protection Agency conducted a three-year, peer-reviewed scientific assessment published in 2014. It concluded that the mine and its vast infrastructure would “jeopardize the long-term health and sustainability of the Bristol Bay ecosystem,” and proposed rigorous salmon protections that the project couldn’t meet.”

Pebble Bay protest 2
I thus cannot countenance any animal ethics argument on behalf of either vegetarianism or veganism that does now allow these Indians their traditional (Yup’ik, Dena’ina, and Alutiiq) ways of life.  

* “United Tribes of Bristol Bay (UTBB) is a tribal consortium working to protect the traditional Yup’ik, Dena’ina, and Alutiiq ways of life in Southwest Alaska that depend on the pristine Bristol Bay Watershed and all it sustains, most notably Bristol Bay’s wild salmon. UTBB’s membership consists of 15 federally recognized Tribes in Bristol Bay, representing over 80 percent of the region’s population. Bristol Bay Tribes founded UTBB in 2013 after recognizing the need for a united voice in their longtime efforts to protect our way of life.” 

Relevant bibliographies

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

From public to private: the relentless and ruthless capitalist privatization of everything

Immigrant detention 2
This article from ProPublica, “How McKinsey [a consulting firm] Helped the Trump Administration Detain and Deport Immigrants,” co-published at HuffPost and The New York Times, is but one illustration of the insidious, relentless, and ruthless capitalist privatization of everything, the effects of which amount to an utter subversion of both the common and public good: 

“McKinsey & Company, an international consulting firm brought on under the Obama administration to help engineer an ‘organizational transformation’ in the ICE division charged with deporting migrants who are in the United States unlawfully. ICE quickly redirected McKinsey toward helping the agency figure out how to execute the White House’s clampdown on illegal immigration.

But the money-saving recommendations the consultants came up with made some career ICE staff uncomfortable. They proposed cuts in spending on food for migrants, as well as on medical care and supervision of detainees [!], according to interviews with people who worked on the project for both ICE and McKinsey and 1,500 pages of documents obtained from the agency after ProPublica filed a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act. 

McKinsey’s team also looked for ways to accelerate the deportation process, provoking worries among some ICE staff members that the recommendations risked short-circuiting due process protections for migrants fighting removal from the United States. The consultants, three people who worked on the project said, seemed focused solely on cutting costs and speeding up deportations — activities whose success could be measured in numbers — with little acknowledgment that these policies affected thousands of human beings.” [….]
Immigrant detention
Comment: We have here yet another instance of the corrupt, corrosive and, yes, often criminal capitalist privatization of our democratic government’s institutions, agencies, functions, and so forth (this privatization is taking place in both literal* and figurative senses, just one example of the second sense being Trump’s use of his executive power to direct his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to insert the former’s personal political and electoral interests into illegal back channel ‘diplomacy’ or shadow ‘foreign policy’ conduct (including a bribery attempt) in a manner that subverted official governmental diplomacy and foreign policy objectives, including the withholding of Congressionally-mandated security and defense funding for Ukraine; this being a more figurative meaning of ‘private’ interests and ‘privatization,’ although these private interests appear to be also connected to the economic interests of the principal parties). Our Liberal democratic constitutional government has demonstrated its chronic and structural vulnerability to such insidious forces. 

Thus, in conjunction with (i) implementation of a strong conception of the unitary executive branch theory of presidential powers, (ii) the cumulative effects of what Garry Wills memorably identified as the “bomb power” of the presidency that emerged with the National Security State, and (iii) the kleptocratic, plutocratic, authoritarian and pathologically narcissistic presidency of Donald Trump, we have arrived at a point in which unilateral or effectively unchecked and frequently lawless presidential power (at home and abroad) has become routine.

What may be even more unsettling if not frightening, is that almost half of the country appears to be perfectly happy with this state of affairs, suggesting the widespread presence of authoritarian “character structures” liable to the seductions of the “cult of [pathological] personality” and unusually prone to a cognitive dissonance exacerbated by the dispositional taste for denial, self-deception, and wishful thinking or willful ignorance. Our fragile constitutional democracy is imploding from within (unlike Party-State Communism, which was subject to forces of dissolution and decadence from without and within), a stark reminder of the mythic ideological bullshit incarnate in the notion(s) of absolute “American exceptionalism” (as opposed to historically and comparatively contingent examples of same at specific times in history) often invoked by persons and parties across the mainstream political spectrum. 

* A literal example on the foreign policy front is the privatization of war: in 2016, one in four U.S. personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan was a private contractor. And from the domestic front: “a web of [immigration detention] companies … [make up a] multibillion-dollar industry that runs … facilities housing tens of thousands of migrants around the country.”

Monday, December 02, 2019

The destruction of “ways of life” from within and from without: Turtle Island, the United States of (North) America, and ….

Crow Indians 14 Crow Indian hide stretching
Crow Indians 18Crow Indian Coup Well Known
Plenty Coups 2Crow Indian mother and child 2

What inter-tribal warfare (quickened with the arrival of Europeans), smallpox, malaria, treaties with the U.S. government, the virtual extinction of American buffalo (bison), confinement to reservations, and white settler colonialism generally did to the Crow Indians* as a nomadic, warrior, and hunting tribe is robustly analogous, I suspect, to what “we” will experience as the cumulative effects of climate change on “our way of life” or ways of living in the coming decades. However, while the Crows, along with other North American Indian peoples who suffered material and cultural devastation if not genocide (loss of their traditional way of life, loss of ‘meaning’ generally and as it constituted the subjectivity of the individual person) at the hands of outside forces (forces from ‘without’), the environmental, material, and cultural devastation we are facing in this country is the direct result of generic and genetic modern industrial civilizational forces and effects internal or intrinsic to our ideologies and the ways of living (and dying), that is, common to both “developing” and affluent capitalist societies. 

The incipient, imminent, and long-term catastrophic ecological and environmental results of what is after all euphemistically termed (in other words, sterile in both senses of the word) “climate change,” are immeasurably worsened by the mind-numbing effects of procrastination and corresponding conspicuous failure to summon and mobilize sufficient political will among both presumably educated or at least literate populations and those elected to represent and lead them in the industrialized and post-industrial (i.e., disproportionately and preposterously affluent) countries. At this juncture, only a social-psychological explanation can begin to account for the obdurate persistence of our individual and collective inability or refusal to explicitly question the premises and character of modern, “Western” civilization.

At the same time, we need to dream of, envision, and construct here and now the alternative models of environmentally sustainable modes of living while drawing upon the necessary and salvageable remnants of the plethora of historic and existing religious and non-religious worldviews so as to continue to provide us with fundamental metaphysical, existential and moral bearings and foci—the motivational or social-psychological structure—essential to such urgent endeavors and formidable struggles. Indeed, it is from these worldviews that we will have to find (or re-discover) and fashion the intellectual, affective, and spiritual instruments capable of combating the widespread and deep denial, self-deception, and wishful thinking that acts in “elective affinity” or collaboration with the conscious and subconscious insecurities and fears that define the core political anxieties and ideologies espoused by the growing number of demagogic, authoritarian and proto-fascist leaders of right-wing populism that have seeped to the surface in both (nominally or not) democratic and non-democratic societies. 

A democratically and spiritually constrained utopian imagination will be necessary if only by way of dialectically sublimating and transcending the darker energies incarnate in the messianic and apocalyptic phantasies that have heretofore proven seductive in pivotal periods of historical transformation.     

* These analogical musings arose as a result of reading afresh a book that brought me to tears: Jonathan Lear’s Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Harvard University Press, 2006). 

Relevant bibliographies
Images: The photos of Crow Indians are from the “Curtis (Edward S.) Collection” at the Library of Congress

Friday, November 22, 2019

November Miscellany: Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors; counting butterflies; pardoning war criminals; U.S. neocolonialism in Bolivia….

I hope the following links, excerpts, comments, and reflections (in no particular order) will prove of interest for one reason or another to our readers.

CIA-Backed Afghan Paramilitaries Behind Unlawful Killing Surge,” by Patricia Grossman for Just Security (Nov. 8, 2019): “Some U.S. officials have called for preserving the CIA’s parallel operations and these strike forces even after a U.S. troop withdrawal, despite overwhelming evidence of their involvement in gross human rights abuses. But the appalling civilian cost of these operations should be ringing alarm bells for those working to see a genuine settlement to the Afghan conflict. For Afghans who have lost loved ones to these raids, and the lack of redress, it adds to a deep sense of grievance that will undermine efforts toward creating a durable peace.”
*           *           *

Fred Krinke, L.A.’s king of the fountain pen, dies at 91,” by Steve Marble for the Los Angeles Times (Nov. 8, 2019):  “The Fountain Pen Shop was a museum, repair shop and retail outlet squeezed into one room, its glass cases filled with curiosities that attracted collectors, investors and those who preferred the free flow of ink. With a ballpoint pen, a user could say something. With a fountain pen, they could sing it. Stylophiles seem to agree on that. ‘The fountain pen slows you down, and makes you think,’ said John C. Maloney, a frequent customer at the Fountain Pen Shop.” [which perhaps explains why the President prefers a Sharpie]

*           *           *

On November 10, 2019, the Los Angeles Times had an insert titled, “Special Report on the Marshall Islands” (most often inserts to the Times are sports-related or advertising supplements or in conjunction with marketing of some sort). The following is the introduction to the Report’s cover page: “Just after the dawn of the Atomic Age and during the height of the Cold War, the United States conducted 67 nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands of the central Pacific. It has since left this island nation with plutonium and other radioactive remnants of those tests buried under a concrete dome on a low-lying atoll. Rising seas now threaten to destroy that dome.”

As one of the previous articles that served as a preface to the series points out, when we “think of the most radioactive landscapes on the planet … the names Chernobyl and Fukushima may come to mind.” Yet recent research (a peer-reviewed study from Columbia University) “suggests that parts of the Marshall Islands in the central Pacific, where the United States conducted 67 nuclear tests during the Cold War, should be added to the list.” What follows is the prefatory material to that article, the second part of which is the abstract:

“From 1946 to 1958, the United States tested 67 nuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands, a remote constellation of atolls in the Pacific Ocean that was then a US trust territory. Two atolls, Bikini and Enewetak, were used as ground zero for the tests, which caused unprecedented environmental contamination and, for the indigenous peoples of the islands, long-term adverse health effects. In addition to the populations of Bikini and   Enewetak, the people of Rongelap and Utirik were also affected by radioactive fallout from the largest nuclear test the United States has ever conducted, the Bravo test held March 1, 1954. This article presents a picture of current radiological conditions by examining external gamma radiation and soil radionuclide activity concentrations.

We report on measurements of external gamma radiation on 9 islands in 4 atolls in the northern Marshall Islands, all of which were affected by the US nuclear testing program from 1946 to 1958 (Enjebi, Ikuren, and Japtan in Enewetak Atoll; Bikini and Enyu in Bikini Atoll; Naen in Rongelap Atoll; and Aon, Elluk, and Utirik in Utirik Atoll). We also report americium-241, cesium-137, plutonium-238, and plutonium-239,240 activity concentrations in the soil samples for 11 islands in 4 northern atolls (Enewetak, Japtan, Medren, and Runit in Enewetak Atoll; Bikini and Enyu in Bikini Atoll; Naen and Rongelap in Rongelap Atoll; and Aon, Elluk, and Utirik in Utirik Atoll) and from Majuro Island, Majuro Atoll in the southern Marshall Islands. Our results show low external gamma radiation levels on some islands in the Enewetak Atoll and Utirik Atoll, and elevated levels on Enjebi Island in the Enewetak Atoll, on Bikini Atoll, and on Naen Island in the Rongelap Atoll. We perform ordinary kriging on external gamma radiation measurements to provide interpolated maps. We find that radionuclides are absent from all Majuro soil samples, and that they are present at highest activity concentrations in samples from Runit and Enjebi islands (Enewetak Atoll), Bikini Island (Bikini Atoll), and Naen Island (Rongelap Atoll). We contextualize all results by making comparisons between islands and to various standards, as well as to regions of the world affected by nuclear accidents. We also discuss implications for informed decision-making by the Marshallese and local atoll governments and their people on issues pertaining to island resettlement.” Here is the online version of the “Special Report on the Marshall Islands.”

*           *           *

Freed Brazilian ex-president Lula speaks to jubilant supporters,” in The Guardian (Nov. 9, 2019).

*           *           *

The Trump Administration, not unsurprisingly, was actively engaged in undercutting democracy in Bolivia. See Mark Weisbrot’s November 8th article for The Nation. The best analysis of what is occurring in Bolivia is provided by Vijay Prashad’s piece for Peoples World, “‘Bolivia does not exist:’ Neocolonial rule reasserted by racist ‘General’s Coup’ (November 15, 2019).

*           *           *

“Trump’s latest anti-immigrant move: Making it far more costly to apply for citizenship, by Manuel Pastor for the Los Angeles Times (November 12, 2019). These proposed new rules are consistent with the President’s racism and his implicit (when not explicit) views and policies in support of targeted xenophobia and White nationalism. Moreover, and relatedly, it is directly a result of long-standing Republican efforts to make it harder for anyone not a mindlessly reflexive supporter of their political party to vote, in this case, “harder to naturalize and vote.” In other words, we have here yet another instance of both blatant and insidious anti-democratic “Republican effort[s] to disenfranchise the changing electorate — consider the spate of voter restrictions supported by the GOP.”

*           *           *

“U.S. Held Nearly 70,000 Migrant Children in Government Custody in 2019,” from AP in HuffPost (November 12, 2019).  Apart from the inexcusable moral abomination, this amounts to a violation of human rights as they apply to children as found in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). It is telling that the U.S. was one of but two countries (the other being Somalia) that failed to ratify (after signing) The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, “the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history.” In any case, it does not change the fact that the U.S. is also in clear and systematic violation of several rights specified in the aforementioned human rights instruments as well as those specified in that Convention on the Rights of the Child.

*           *           *

“Meet the scientist who’s been counting California butterflies for 47 years and has no plans to stop,” by Deborah Netburn for the Los Angeles Times (November 12, 2019). As the late John Ziman* reminds us, “It is popularly supposed that science can be distinguished from other modes of systematic inquiry by a distinctive method. This is not what is observed. The techniques used in scientific research are extraordinarily diverse, from counting sheep and watching birds to detecting quasars and creating quarks. The epistemic methodologies of research are equally varied, from mental introspection to electronic computation, from quantitative measurement to speculative inference.” From Ziman’s indispensable study, Real Science: What it is, and what it means (Cambridge University Press, 2000): 14. Observing (with his own eyes and those of his students who now help him), identifying, counting and collecting are among the methods (later subject to statistical analysis) used by Professor Art Shapiro as mentioned in this article. His findings, alas, are alarming. All the same, we are fortunate to have among us such a dedicated natural scientist (a professor of evolution and ecology) and delightful human being as Professor Shapiro.

* “John Michael Ziman (16 May 1925 – 2 January 2005) was a British-born New Zealand physicist and humanist who worked in the area of condensed matter physics. He was a spokesman for science, as well as a teacher and author.”

*           *           *

“We’re quickly moving toward a world where drone executions are the norm,” by Jennifer Gibson for the Los Angeles Times (November 13, 2019). The erosion, degradation, and outright destruction of democratic principles and practices and corresponding constitutional norms (which extend a bit beyond the law proper) in many capitalist democracies is taking place on the domestic front, but we should not forget how much our foreign policies and military behavior abroad are likewise part of this abandonment of the core values and instruments of Liberal democracy, as we learn below. The deleterious consequences are cumulative and a precipitous tipping point may be reached sooner than we might imagine.

“For more than a decade now, the U.S. and its European allies have pioneered the use of drones to target and kill suspected terrorists far from traditional battlefields. Those drone strikes have killed thousands of innocent civilians far outside combat zones — in places like Yemen and Pakistan where, thanks to the drone program, many people’s first and only engagement with the West is when a missile lands on their doorstep. Sometimes those strikes hit alleged ‘bad’ guys, hundreds of whom are reportedly on a kill list. But nobody outside the U.S. government knows how you get on or off this list. No one on the list is ever charged with a crime or tried in a court of law before they are executed by drone. [….]

Almost two decades into the so-called war on terror, the U.S. and its European allies have abandoned their long-held democratic principles. From torture to rendition to assassinations, fear has driven these governments to bend the rules and their values to the breaking point.”

*           *           *

“Trump claims Ivanka created 14m jobs. The entire economy only added 6m,” by Luke O’Neil for The Guardian (November 13, 2019). (The following is not from the article.) “Pathological lying, also known as mythomania and pseudologia fantastica, is the chronic behavior of compulsive or habitual lying. [….] A pathological liar is someone who lies compulsively. While there appears to be many possible causes for pathological lying, it’s not yet entirely understood why someone would lie this way. [….] Compulsive lying is also a known trait of some personality disorders, such as antisocial personality disorder. Trauma or head injuries may also play a role in pathological lying, along with an abnormality in hormone-cortisol ratio.” I would argue that in Trump’s case it is directly tied to Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which need not rule out accompanying or complementary causes (in other words, in this instance it may be overdetermined!).

*           *           *

Trump once again fawns over an authoritarian leader, this time inviting him to the White House to kiss his ass, proclaiming he is a “big fan” of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. And this despite the fact that Erdogan “said he returned a letter sent to him last month by President Trump that had implored him not to be a ‘tough guy’ or a ‘fool’ as he embarked on an offensive in northern Syria.” (An understandable reaction from a head of state receiving a letter of this sort, but Trump fails to discern the meaning of the act.)

We should not be surprised to learn that “Trump’s real estate business has extensive interests in Turkey and ties with the Turkish government.” Yet again, Trump puts his own narcissistic desires and economic interests over and above those of the nation (the latter defined by the Constitution and Liberal Democracy). Erdogan calls Kurdish factions/groups once allied with the U.S. in fighting ISIS in Syria “terrorists.” Trump, having already provided us with abundant and persuasive evidence that he is unmoored from both truth and reality, said yesterday that he believes Erdogan has “a great relationship with the Kurds,” adding that “[m]any Kurds live currently in Turkey, and [are] happy and taken care of.” As the LA Times notes this morning,

“A long list of actions by Turkey — a NATO ally — has troubled Congress and human rights organizations. In Syria, Turkish army units and Turkish-backed militias have been accused of possible war crimes in the killing of Kurds, who led the U.S.-backed fight against Islamic State militants. Erdogan sent his troops into Syria last month when Trump abruptly announced the withdrawal of U.S. forces — a decision that was met with unusually fierce opposition from Republicans as well as Democrats.

In Turkey, Erdogan has imprisoned or fired tens of thousands of dissidents, civil servants, police, professors and military officers after a failed coup against him in 2016. The president has manipulated elections to stay in power, according to pro-democracy organizations in Ankara. Turkey is the world’s leading jailer of journalists. Turkey also has turned increasingly toward Russia, recently buying military equipment — the S-400 surface-to-air missile system — from Moscow, which experts say may not be compatible with equipment the North Atlantic Treaty Organization already uses. [….]

Erdogan, in remarks to the press, complained bitterly about a recent declaration by the U.S. House recognizing the mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in the early 1900s as genocide.”

*           *           *

A Note for Republicans: The failure to complete an act of extortion remains an “attempt” in criminal law, and is thus punishable, assuming the requisite intent (the mens rea element of criminal law). As a ground-breaking philosophical examination of the inextricably moral and legal wrong inherent in the punishment of “attempts” in criminal law by Gideon Yaffe* notes,     

“Attempts are worth punishing only because completions are. We do not devise our criminal law, in the first instance, to fight those who attempt crimes, but instead to fight those who complete them. But, still, the adjudication of criminal attempts makes up a large and important part of the criminal law.” An indispensable element of the legal and moral wrong involved in criminal attempts is the intention to complete the crime (‘an intention that commits one to completion’), thus regardless of whether or not one in fact successfully completes the criminal act. This is substance of the analogical response to those Republicans who argue that Trump was not successful in his attempt at extortion (truth be told, the attempt was successful for a time, at least several months). As for the attempted extortion itself together with the larger context and efforts coordinate with that attempt (which license the inference to satisfaction of the requisite conditions for intent), the following is on point:

“First, the transcripts show how Rudy Giuliani pursued objectives in Ukraine for the benefit of his business partners, as well as the political interests of his client, President Trump. These activities lead to the president being fed bad information over a long period of time and they ultimately result in the meritless dismissal of Yovanovitch, as well as to a concerted attack on Deputy Secretary of State George Kent. Second, against the backdrop of the election of a new president in Ukraine, the transcripts show the development of an irregular channel for achieving Trump’s objectives in that country—a channel that was not always playing by the usual rules of diplomacy or bureaucratic lines of communication. The transcripts show the members of both the regular and irregular channels trying to figure out what was really going on and how to navigate the unprecedented situation of Giuliani’s influence on Trump, in order to help the new Ukrainian president solidify a relationship with the United States—a relationship that is crucial for Ukraine’s continued existence as a fully independent sovereign country.

Third, in this broader context, the transcripts tell a specific story of the development of conditionality regarding a White House meeting between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. What began as a mere hostility on the part of Trump toward Ukraine and an unsubstantiated conviction that the Ukrainians had interfered in the 2016 election, came to involve demands to investigate that theory. And it came as well to involve demands that the Ukrainians investigate Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, and his connection to the Ukrainian natural gas company, Burisma, on whose board the younger Biden sat. Those demands, over the course of the summer, came to be linked to the desire of the new Ukrainian government for a White House meeting between Zelensky and Trump.

Finally, the transcripts tell a related story of how the provision of military assistance to Ukraine similarly came to be conditioned on U.S. demands—because what Ukraine ultimately needs is U.S. support in an ongoing military conflict with a more powerful neighbor that is occupying its territory. The narrative is ultimately one of how an irregular actor’s behavior circumventing the normal policy process and feeding bad information and conspiracy theories to a president—led to that president demanding political smears of an embattled, struggling democracy as a condition of U.S. support.” From the article, “The Story the Impeachment Depositions Tell,” by Margaret Taylor and Benjamin Witte online at LAWFARE (12 November, 2019).

Gideon Yaffe, Attempts (in the philosophy of action and criminal law) (Oxford University Press, 2010). Yaffe is the Wesley Newcomb Hohfeld Professor of Jurisprudence, Professor of Philosophy, and Professor of Psychology at Yale.
Read more »

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

The Democratic Virtues of Liberalism: a note for Leftists

Citizenship schools 2
Robert Kuttner, “Blaming Liberalism,” a review of Patrick J. Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed (Yale University Press, 2018; paperback edition, with new preface, 2019), The New York Review of Books, November 21, 2019 (Vol. LXVI, No. 18) 

This, in my judgment, is essential reading for avowed Leftists if only because intellectually feeble, philosophically obtuse, and politically perilous jeremiads against “Liberalism” will not cure what environmentally, socially and economically ails us (one reason I agree with the bulk of this review essay by Kuttner of Patrick J. Deenen’s book). If socialists fail to sufficiently parse the history of Liberalism so as to identify its intrinsic virtues for democratic theory and praxis, we will be left with the post-harvest husk of democracy. There is, no doubt, this and that to criticize in the Liberal tradition (for instance, when its erstwhile defenders stray far from its political soil into the murky waters of metaphysics, culture and messianism) in the works of individual Liberal philosophers from Locke to Rawls, but the core of this tradition is the lifeblood of democracy in our world and, as such, is absolutely essential to any future socialist ordering of states and societies. Several archetypal Liberal philosophers remind us of this fact: John Stuart Mill, John Dewey, and John Rawls. In this respect, they stand apart from the rest of their brothers and sisters in the Liberal tradition; although they hardly exhaust the possible meanings of Liberal Democratic Socialism or Liberal Socialist Democracy, especially to the extent that this has been geopolitically constrained if not determined. In short, they serve as a compelling reminder—for many of us, it appears, are in dire need of reminding—that the historical and contingent ties between capitalism and Liberalism are just that, and thus not necessary (authoritarian capitalist societies are stark and frightening examples of this fact), and so it behooves us not to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.

Friday, October 25, 2019


Miscellaneous material, comments and musings (in no particular order):
  • The Birth of Chicano Studies” by Sandy Banks for California State University Los Angeles Magazine
  • A review in MERIP of Julie Peteet, Space and Mobility in Palestine (Indiana University Press, 2017)
  • Left with nothing.” “On the day Bennie Coleman lost his house, the day armed U.S. marshals came to his door and ordered him off the property, he slumped in a folding chair across the street and watched the vestiges of his 76 years hauled to the curb. Movers carted out his easy chair, his clothes, his television. Next came the things that were closest to his heart: his Marine Corps medals and photographs of his dead wife, Martha. The duplex in Northeast Washington that Coleman bought with cash two decades earlier was emptied and shuttered. By sundown, he had nowhere to go. All because he didn’t pay a $134 property tax bill.”
Comment: That the various responsible (private and public) parties can do this with, so to speak, a “clean conscience,” or at best, rationalize such cruel behavior in legal terms, is further testament to the inherent structural dispositional properties of our “capitalist democracy.” The absence of humane intervention along the points of this abhorrent legal process is yet more glaring evidence of the peculiar vulnerabilities of the “non-rich” people in our society and the peculiar powers possessed by those who are, truly (i.e., without exaggeration), obscenely wealthy (as well as those ruthlessly aspiring to be same), often exploiting such disadvantages and vulnerabilities to accumulate yet more capital … and thus power. It is sickening, disgusting, appalling, inhumane (one seeks in vain proper adjectives to adequately describe such things). We owe it to those so exploited, to ourselves (to our understanding of human dignity, rights, and capabilities…), and to future generations, to do whatever we should and can do to fundamentally transform (involving destruction, dismantling, reconfiguring, and so forth) this socio-economic system. Expressions of sadness, indignation, anger, what have you, are insufficient if they do not lead to an unflagging determination (with the requisite courage) to change this contingent, historical, and abhorrent state of affairs.
Comment: In a world thoroughly saturated with a capitalist ethos and threatened by a corresponding diminution in the value of democratic ideals, processes, and methods, it is not surprising that a spiritual technique or method prominent in Buddhism (but found in other religious worldviews as well), is subject to misuse, ignorance, and commodification, not unlike yoga philosophy and spiritual praxis (which has been more or less reduced to gymnastics and exercise covered by a veneer or patina of New Age religious hodgepodge if not nonsense). From a Buddhist vantage point, this involves a failure to accord due attention to the other (no less indispensable, complementary and mutually reinforcing) two-thirds of the Eightfold Path. See too my earlier post, “The commodification of ‘mindfulness.’”
  • Andrew O’Hagan in The New York Review of Books on a new book about the life and work of Nelson Algren: “Singing the Back Streets.”
  • Verbal hints if not signs and symptoms of pathological narcissism: What follows is a fairly long list of verbal hints if not signs and symptoms of pathological narcissism (I trust you can identify the speaker; there are of course other such signs and symptoms by way of a more or less reliable diagnosis), or what cognitive psychologists term the “Dunning–Kruger effect,” “a cognitive bias in which people mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is. It is related to the cognitive bias of illusory superiority and comes from the inability of people to recognize their lack of ability.”
  • “Nobody knows this stuff better than me.”
  • “Nobody knows more about taxes … and income, than I do.”
  • “Nobody knows more about campaign finance than I do.”
  • “Nobody knows more about technology than I do.”
  • “Nobody knows more about construction than I do.”
  • “I know more about drones than anybody.”
  • “Nobody in the history of this country knows more about infrastructure than I do.”
  • “I know more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me.”
  • “I understand things, I comprehend very better than, I think, almost anybody.”
  • “I know more about courts than anyone else on earth.”
  • “Nobody knows more about banks than I do.”
  • “Nobody knows more about trade than I do.”
  • “I understand the system better than anybody.
  • “Nobody knows politicians better than me.”
  • “I understand money better than anybody.”
  • “I know more about nuclear weapons than he’ll ever know.”
  • “Who knows more about lawsuits than I do?”
  • “You don’t think I get enough promotion? I get more promotion than every human being that has ever lived. I don’t need promotion. It would have been the greatest G-7 ever.”
  • “Because President Obama — it was a mess. And I was told and you were told, and everybody told it would be years before you ever did what I did in about a month and a half after I started. I went over to Iraq, I met with our generals, and we figured out a plan, and it was done within a month and a half. I’m the one that did the capturing. I’m the one that knows more about it than you people or the — or the fake pundits.”
  • Viktor Orbán (Hungary), Rodrigo Duterte (Philippines), Andrzej Duda (Poland), Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil), Kim Jong-un (North Korea), Vladimir Putin (Russia), Benjamin Netanyahu (Israel), Xi Jinping (China), Narendra Modi (India), Shinzō Abe (Japan), and Donald Trump (United States) (a representative thus not exhaustive list). Whatever their specific character and precise political differences, what do these men have in common?
  • Michael Hiltzik in The Los Angeles Times: “Trump proposes denying free school meals to half a million children
Musing: The space of reasons for and in a particular argument (legal, political, what have you, some forms of scientific argument perhaps the foremost exception here) is bounded, even if we cannot predict or spell out in advance the precise boundaries in any given instance. With regard to the arguments against impeachment and sundry other legal proceedings against Trump (I’m assuming familiarity with the specifics of a least some of these, a few of which have to do in the first place with Trump as a private citizen), we’ve seen over time several sets of similar or like-minded arguments from his Republican acolytes in Congress, the sets changing as their rationality, reasonableness, plausibility, or even credibility begins to diminish with fresh evidence or demonstrably better counter-arguments gaining a foothold in public fora of one kind or another especially, of course, in the mass media. 

The sets themselves can be viewed as assuming points along a spectrum, with one end occupied by the most sound, persuasive, reasonable or rational arguments, the other end by those most implausible, patently irrational or unreasonable, perhaps even “arguments” we might readily conclude symptomatic of denial, wishful thinking, phantasy, and the like, and thus not even worthy of or amenable to counter-argument in the conventional sense (although we might feel compelled to speak to them when they are raised in mass media settings). Of late, we’ve seen such “arguments” come to the fore among Trump’s perfervid supporters and enablers, hence we learn that “abuse of power” is perfectly acceptable and not in the realm of impeachment; or that Trump can shoot someone and not be indicted (a legal inference, by the way, thought to follow from the OLC memos which, broadly and simply, argue that ‘indictment or criminal prosecution of a sitting President would unconstitutionally undermine the capacity of the executive branch to perform its constitutionally assigned functions’); or, as Lindsey  Graham said, in agreement with Trump about the impeachment efforts to date: “This is a lynching, in every sense.” I short, we should expect more “arguments” of this kind until the President has left or been removed from office. In other words, the space of plausible, rational and reasonable arguments has been occupied and exhausted, the other end of the spectrum, not so much (in one sense, it could be said to be ‘inexhaustible’).

Alas, frustration with arguments of any sort to achieve one’s ends can lead to behavior in which one abandons altogether the spectrum of  arguments and space of reasons that should be and often have been the life and blood of elected representatives in constitutional democracies, which by their nature and obligatory delegation arguments fundamentally depend on rhetorical arguments (of legal and political provenance), deliberative and otherwise, hence “Republican lawmakers led by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) on Wednesday stormed into the Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) in the House of Representatives to disrupt the closed-door impeachment inquiry hearings taking place.”
  • From the blog of the London Review of Books, important, probing and succinct reflections from Chris Bertram about the lifeless bodies of 39 people found in a parked lorry container in Essex.
  • Norman J. Ornstein in the LA Times: “Trump’s emoluments transgressions don’t stop with the Doral fiasco
  • Last year the Brazilian fascist president, Jair Bolsonaro, “warned about the danger posed by refugees from Haiti, Africa, and the Middle East, calling them ’the scum of humanity’ and even argued that the army should take care of them.” He is notorious for routinely making racist and misogynistic public statements. Indeed, “a self-confessed ‘admirer’ of Hitler, he and two of his sons … openly support eugenics.” Such patently demagogic rhetoric with fascist pedigree was repeated in Trump’s characterization the other day of “Never Trumper Republicans” as “human scum” (hence they are in ‘certain ways worse and more dangerous for our Country than the Do Nothing Democrats’). Now White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham has defended Trump’s dehumanizing slur: “Asked during an appearance on ‘Fox & Friends’ whether Trump regrets using that phrase, Grisham enthusiastically said no.” “’He shouldn’t,’ she told host Brian Kilmeade. ‘The people who are against him and have been against him and working against him since the day they took office are just that. ... They deserve strong language like that.’”

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

The recurring but no less precarious neo-imperialist geopolitical assertion of productivist ideology on the ground in U.S. foreign policy:

President Trump said Monday that a limited number of U.S. troops will remain in Syria to man a garrison on the southern border with Jordan and ‘to secure the oil’ elsewhere in the country. ‘I don’t think it’s necessary, other than we secure the oil,’ Trump said of the U.S. military presence. ‘We need to secure the oil.’ A ‘small number of troops’ would also remain in southern Syria at the request of Israel and Jordan, he added in remarks to reporters at a meeting of his Cabinet in Washington. The decision to leave more than 20 percent of the U.S. force in Syria behind was the second time in less than a year that Trump announced a complete withdrawal, only to walk it back under heavy bipartisan criticism from lawmakers and disquiet within his own administration.” 

Comment: With regard to what we charitably describe as “foreign policy,” President Trump’s values are in the first place “productivist” (i.e., they pivot on and around an outmoded and ecologically catastrophic model of capitalist industrialism), which is in keeping with his quantitative valuation of virtually everything. Such (crudely extrinsic) values invariably trump (alas, pun intended), as they do in this case, more fundamental and humane values, be they of ethical, legal, or democratic provenance, for example. In the most recent instance, they serve to crowd out our country’s comparatively longstanding military allies in the fight against ISIS (and not only in Syria), the Kurds, the President resorting to all manner of contradictory, incoherent, and implausible rationalizations by way of feebly attempting to justify abandoning them to hostile Turkish, Syrian, and Russian armed forces (hence regimes perfectly willing to achieve their geopolitical goals through ethnic cleansing, torture, and flagrant violations of international humanitarian law*), as well as motley Arab militias in the region, including those of a radically militant “jihadist” motivation. This is the geopolitical triumph of “materialism” of the crassest sort inasmuch as it shamelessly places one of the most important strategic commodities on our planet: crude oil, over and above human beings—the Kurds (but not only them)—thus in effect giving priority, yet again, to capitalist productivism in the expression of U.S. foreign policy interests so as to smother a vivid incarnation of the more generalized concern with human dignity and human rights as these are essential to human welfare and well-being.

Please don’t infer from this that I think the U.S. by contrast is virtuous in this regard!