Success-iness is next to ugliness (short version)

For those who do not like to read much, here’s a short version of a longer lucubration on the topic of online invective  as it currently stands… :

Uneven battle? Or a new front in the ongoing cold-civil war? Laura Ingraham (54), Fox News pundit strikes, David Hogg (17) , high school student, strikes back….

What drives an adult mother like Laura Ingraham to write ad hominem tweets against a 17-year-old expressing (articulately) his opinion? What drives an adult representative like Ted Nugent of the NRA to hurl very crude and incoherent invective at the same kid? Their argument might be “They did so first…” which is not an argument.

So let’s continue: Why does Lou Dobbs, of Fox News smile glibly when a guest of his literally paints a target on the Parkland students’ back, saying the students are acting “as if they are bulletproof”? By the same token, what drove an adult father of several kids (four, I think), to call retired SC justice David Souter a “goat fucking child molester”? The latter is Erick Erickson, and he was also the author of the following gem:

Erick Erickson (42), dad, apparently family-values guy, known for foul language and obscene metaphors.

“Barack Obama, like Elliott Spitzer, is a creation of the liberal media and, as a result, could be a serial killing transvestite and the media would turn a blind eye.”

The list could fill pages, and you’d be astonished, it is mostly fed by family-values, PTL-ing, “patriotic” so-called conservatives. Their invective is shocking, extreme, and very divisive. And it is meant to be. But it is no longer ideological. Empowered by ratings driven by a critical mass of angry Americans, who can’t stand the inevitable changes* in our society, or who simply hate being told what to do even if it is necessary, these immature, unsavory salvos have become the artillery in the cold civil war dividing the country.

A repulsive attempt at smearing refugees, authored by the son of then candidate Trump.

And those uttering them, or the organization and companies backing them, are making lots of money out of it. Just as they are making money out of silly conspiracy theories. It’s turning into blood money of sorts, as the victim may well be democracy itself. Fighting back against it is tough, because the Internet offers them a bully pulpit with an unbelievably wild reach for their investment, and it protects them from having to listen to counterarguments. The only thing that counts is cash. Amazingly, a 17-year-old kid understood that. His slightly snarky suggestion about puling ads was hard. Advertisers do not want to be associated with such shabby people. It’s bad for brands.

 

*Believe me, I don’t like them at all, but they are there, and we have to learn to live with them. The good ole days are just that, good ole days. Weep and move on.

Trump, wurst and salami

Pulling the Hitler card has become so standard in what passes for debates or discourse, it is even the subject of a kind of law: Godwin’s Law. It dates back to 1990, apparently, but while somewhat reductionist, it does facetiously highlight a reductionist habit: Using Adolf Hitler and the Nazis as a synonym for “you’re a really, really, really awful human being,” or “you’re ideas and argumentation are really, really, awful and I don’t agree with them.” However: The political spectrum of dictatorship and evil doings is wide and quite well-stocked in bad guys and processes aimed at violating individual liberty. And as usual, there are degrees to watch. Is it time to look elsewhere and enrich the conversation?

Anyone goes, but Hitler is a high-flyer

Godwin’s Law is equal opportunity, it affects everyone across the political spectrum, and it seems mostly to spring from, as mentioned, a tendency towards extreme reductionism, or, simply, ignorance: either not knowing, or the inability to go look for, some better historical analogies. Smearing with Hitler and the Nazis was popular among George W. Bush opponents, who felt that the war on Iraq and the agitprop promoting it were Hitlerian, like, maybe the 1939 attack on Poland, or the earlier invasion of Czechoslovakia. Later, almost as revenge for the so-called anti-Bush crowd’s brandishing of Bush-Hitler posters, the newfangled Tea Party decided to let out its trademark anger against Barack (Hussein, always) Obama by giving the new black president a little square mustache for bailing out the banks and trying to prevent the US and the world from falling into economic depression.

Showmen

The amazing Adolf Hitler fits onto anyone you don’t like.

With the Trump administration, the Hitler card is almost brandishing itself, however. Trump revels in autocratic/dictatorial imagery. He loves to sign executive orders (decrees, government by fiat). And I barely need to mention the rallies, the self-adulation (more à la Mussolini), now replete with longings for military parades. Then there is the equivocal reaction to the Tiki-torch march, the constant ad hominem attacks on people of any color or non-evangelical religion, in addition to women, Democrats and generally anyone who doesn’t agree with him or who corrects his lies, errors, obfuscations, notably the free press.

But is it the real thing? No, say quite a few commentators: Tim Molloy of The Wrap – to name one of many – has written cogently about this reductionist problem in other contexts, namely Glenn Beck brandishing Hitler to smear anyone and everyone he didn’t agree with. He also noted Trump’s own antics, like having people pledge to vote for him by raising their right hand, which looks suspiciously like a crowd sieg-heiling. Molloy, in turn, is extensively referred to by Michael Lind, of Politico, who exhorted people to stop comparing Trump and Hitler. In his March 2016 piece, Lind pointed out that the likes of Goldwater were painted with the brown brush, whereby he was in fact a libertarian and would never abide by the state controls applied by the Nazis. He puts some of the blame on the “émigré Marxist intellectuals of the so-called Frankfurt School” and on lazy journalists, or, later, on social scientists, for intentionally or accidentally confusing populism with fascism. There is a lot of truth to it – and to be fair he mentions the absurd right-wing use of the Nazi smear against the left.

Goldwater, libertarian, but also a Hitler in some eyes.

Lind puts Trump in line with many populists in US history, from Andrew Jackson, to Huey Long, and passing by William Jennings Bryan (I’ll be exploring this in a new piece in the coming months). Indeed, for Trump, who is essentially a showman, and a con man in some ways, waving his arms about is the key to success. He does this for his followers as much as for those who oppose him (cf. my post The revolution is permanent noise). Trump is an improviser, he has no real plan, he extemporizes, albeit with certain repetitive riffs. In a New York Magazine article published before the election, former New York Times op-ed writer Frank Rich pointed out correctly that Hitler had a particular personality that Trump does not have: “He has neither the attention span, organizational discipline, nor ideological zeal it takes to be a genocidal dictator. He doesn’t even have the skill set to avoid serial bankruptcies.”

Reality

Fundamentally, one should avoid confusing a historical model with present realities. Humans do not repeat history one-on-one even if some actions may look the same. Yet, while the content may be different, the processes that led up to the model may be similar enough and can serve as a warning sign that something nefarious is afoot. The best example is the Big Lie repeated over and over again, which has worked for Trump, as it worked for Josef Goebbels and, throughout history, for a variegated horde of demagogues, blowsy four-flushers , and even advertising agencies, have employed the Big Lie to get their product sold.

the Big Lie and scapegoating joined forces in condemning “witches” to a terrible death. Witches were blamed for illness and natural disaster.

And this, just to be clear: The Nazis did not invent scapegoating either, a facile technique to hide one’s game. The insane witch hunts of the Middle Ages (and earlier), which cost the lives of tens of thousands of mostly women, are a case in point. Women, mostly poor, and some men, were blamed for all sorts of things, from sick children to hail storms. Personal grudges could be handled by a denunciation. Or, there are the artificially generated “Terreurs” of the French Revolution. History is full of scapegoats, as it is full of self-victimizers who use their synthetic victim status to justify their victimization of others. Here, too, Trump is definitely guilty as charged, as Rich pointed out in his article: “Trump has made himself the supreme leader of an enraged swath of Americans, perhaps some 40 percent of the electorate, as eager to blow up our republic as the Nazis were Weimar. A subset of that Trumpentariat adheres to neo-Nazi values (and in some cases neo-Nazi organizations) defined by a hatred of immigrants, Muslims, Jews, and most other racial and ethnic minorities.”

Democracy: Use it or lose it.

Neither Lind, nor Molloy, nor Rich mention that the reason Hitler is drawn so quickly is the plain fact that many either ignore history’s many villains and iniquitous systems, or they are addressing an audience whose awareness of those villains and systems is extremely limited, at best, or non-existent. The fact that Trump is evidently not a Hitler does not mean that people and lawmakers should just sit back and relax, especially with a fellow who fits into the populist mold.

Because Democracy does not “die in darkness,” but rather in ignorance and complacency, as two Harvard professors, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, have shown. Their main thesis in How Democracies Die is that the threat of an old-fashioned quick-and-dirty attack on democratic institutions à la Hitler, or Pinochet, has receded. This quote comes from a  Guardian excerpt:

“Democratic backsliding today begins at the ballot box. (…)The electoral road to breakdown is dangerously deceptive. (…) There are no tanks in the streets. Constitutions and other nominally democratic institutions remain in place. People still vote. Elected autocrats maintain a veneer of democracy while eviscerating its substance. Many government efforts to subvert democracy are “legal”, in the sense that they are approved by the legislature or accepted by the courts. Because there is no single moment – no coup, declaration of martial law, or suspension of the constitution – in which the regime obviously ‘crosses the line’ into dictatorship, nothing may set off society’s alarm bells. Those who denounce government abuse may be dismissed as exaggerating or crying wolf. Democracy’s erosion is, for many, almost imperceptible.”

Indeed, during the Trump campaign, while many liberals were yelling Hitler, my alarm bell went off with those hysterical “Lock-her-ups” chants, and calls to attack the press. Katy Tur has written about the surreal feeling of being exposed, personally, by name, while in a cage in the midst of rabidly angry Trump fans. This rhetoric was neither justified, nor becoming to a democratic process. And then Trump pushed further, by suggesting that he would get the FBI to arrest Hillary Clinton pronto after reaching the Oval Office I started thinking “Salami!”

Salami?

Salami tactics were a specialty of the Communists in postwar Europe, notably in Hungary. The term was actually coined by the Hungarian Communist leader Màtyàs Ràkosi, who perfected its application. Here’s the Wikipedia definition:

“Salami tactics, also known as the salami-slice strategy or salami attacks[1] , is a divide and conquer process of threats and alliances used to overcome opposition. With it, an aggressor can influence and eventually dominate a landscape, typically political, piece by piece. In this fashion, the opposition is eliminated “slice by slice” until one realizes (too late) that it is gone in its entirety.”

Hitler used brute force, essentially. The Communists in postwar Europe had to be a little more subtle. Few people probably realize that the Soviet Union didn’t just take over Eastern Europe and impose its system after ridding the area of the Wehrmacht in World War Two. There was a process aimed at terminating democratic rule, and in Hungary (and to an extent Poland) the method used was the salami slicing mentioned above.

In brief: The November 1945 elections in the country gave an overwhelming majority (56%) to a center-right party, the Smallholders, some 18% to the Socialists, and 17% to the Communists. When it came to sharing the government, Ràkosi became deputy prime minister and asked for the Ministry of the Interior (like the DOJ), where he created a kind of FBI or KGB, if you will, the AVO, later known as the AHV. This police force coupled with the power of the Ministry was used to attack any opposition to the communists, mostly by linking them to the defunct fascists, or Nazis, or Horthy government. It was all about innuendo, trumped up charges, arbitrary arrests, the construction of outlandish conspiracy theories. It was in many ways quite unlike Hitler’s take-over of Germany.

Màtyàs Rákosi, the boring, brutal dictator in Hungary, 1949-1956

The technique worked well. Within four years, the Communists had sliced up the opposition and become the single party ruling Hungary. Ràkosi then proceeded to purge the Communist ranks of potential rivals, notably the very popular Rajk, and consolidate his power with faithful, obedient Moscow Communists. From 1950 to 1953, anyone complaining or suspected of not liking the government, intellectuals, etc., could be arrested. Hungary even had its own little Gulag, a place called Recsk in the up in the Màtra Mountains.

At any rate, throughout the campaign, I could not help but think of the parallels between Trump and the communist dictators, often noisy populists like Trump, who created their own set of enemies of the people among the peasant classes, the financiers, the industrialists, the intelligentsia. Bannon, former adviser to the president, was quite open about his admiration for Lenin. And Sebastian Gorka, another former White House adviser, is actually Hungarian and would no doubt be familiar with salami tactics.

Looks Hitlerian, smells autocratic, feels like Jacobin rabblerousing.

So every time Trump attacks the judiciary, or muses out loud that he controls the DOJ, or the White House sends down new judges for approval, whose only qualifications seem to be their ultra-conservative convictions, I think salami. The fact is, in a democracy, the judiciary must remain as impartial as possible. There are very few absolutes in law. Time has published several articles on this dangerous court stuffing, for example this one . Indeed, ideology in a judge – which is not the same as political bent, please, no false equivalencies here, the degrees are important – is dangerous, since these people are appointed for life.

Furthermore, Trump and now the entire GOP led by bloviators like Lord HawHaw Hannity of Fox and his new sidekick, Ms Lahren, are promulgating all sorts of bizarre conspiracy theories about the FBI, aimed at discrediting or subverting the agency. They seem to be greasing the rails for the expulsion of the current crop of “Republican” brass. It can be replaced by yes-saying apparatchik, people who will attack democratic institutions with impunity, since the GOP is apparently quite happy with their president… In Communist countries, this was called a purge.

SCOTUS denizen stay for a long time after their appointer has gone. Meanwhile, the press (not the right-wing “press”) is being demonized as “fake” mainly for reporting things that are unpleasant to the president and, often, the GOP itself. And I think again: salami.

No panic, but…

This Communist reference, for lack of a better word, was noticed, not surprisingly, by a Republican first: Jeff Flake of Arizona, member of Trump’s GOP. He pointed out that the attacks on the free press were reminiscent of Stalin. There was some nodding, but not much else. The GOP remains steadfastly behind Trump.

The Democrats, on the other hand, are on to Trump, but are, as usual, fairly tame about it. One who has started punching back hard, by treating Trump like an unruly teenager, is Californian Congressman Adam Schiff. In a recent interview with Bill Maher (a comedy show… amazing) , he referred, probably unknowingly, to salami tactics:

“We do need to be mindful of the much bigger challenge facing the country right now. There is a systematic undermining of our checks and balances. Brick by brick, the walls are being taken down, the wall between the White House and the Justice department, the way we are demeaning the press, and as you say, the way there seems to be no such thing as objective fact anymore, the way the administration says that a judge that rules against us is illegitimate.”

This observation cannot be refuted easily, yet no media has really taken it up. And it should be worrisome, even to the GOP, which likes to see itself as Ur-American, patriotic, flag-waving…. But for what?

Whether this means that our democracy is in danger is another issue. But one thing is certain: Democracy demands a lot of vigilance, and a well-educated electorate. Even Plato knew this nearly 2500 years ago. And in the era of fake news, the 24-hour noise-news cycle, Breitbart and Fox, and bots, being well informed is becoming tough if you don’t have some background in reading serious stuff, in figuring out what is near enough to the truth, and what is simply rubbish.

Of course, when one of the two parties in the USA starts vying for unimpeded power by using the smoke screen of a noisemaking pseudo-autocratic president, it should worry us. Trump may be “refreshingly honest ” for some, but that does not mean that he is genuinely honest or any good at what he does. Speaking your mind does not make you a good leader.

Back to Levitsky and Ziblatt. They offer a recipe to preserve democratic institutions:

“An essential test for democracies is not whether such figures emerge but whether political leaders, and especially political parties, work to prevent them from gaining power in the first place – by keeping them off mainstream party tickets, refusing to endorse or align with them and, when necessary, making common cause with rivals in support of democratic candidates.
Isolating popular extremists requires political courage. But when fear, opportunism or miscalculation leads established parties to bring extremists into the mainstream, democracy is imperiled.
Once a would-be authoritarian makes it to power, democracies face a second critical test: will the autocratic leader subvert democratic institutions or be constrained by them?”

Watch out for that wild Hitler card, it’s not a joker for “I don’t like your ideas….”

The final question by the two authors still remains unanswered, for the moment. Indeed, the courts are still functioning, apparently, and Trump has not yet succeeded in beating democratic institutions into submission, though he does seem to be trying hard. The fourth pillar, the press, is alas, reacting to every nonsensical tweet and thereby failing to pay attention to the important processes taking place that will change the face of the USA and perhaps undermine democracy as we knew it.

To conclude: The Hitler card is pulled all too often as a way to punctuate a debate that is off the rails. And besides diminishing and concealing the crimes of the Nazis, it also tends to be inaccurate. While not denying that the Trump administration is a serious risk to US democracy, the methods employed are closer to infiltration methods of the Hungarian Communists post World War Two. In a country trying to model itself on parliamentary democracy, they were able bit by bit to subvert the existing institutions

I have written to a number of editors about this phenomenon, especially when their publications drew the Hitler card (notably the HuffPo), but none seems ready to shift their focus away from the far more attractive fireworks Trump lights up every Friday afternoon for weekend entertainment. Besides, they’d have to explain who Ràkosi was and, to be honest, his low-octane evil is a lot less attractive than the absolute evil of a Hitler.

Of course, the USA is not war-ravaged Hungary. But the population has been primed, alas, by some very poor news media, including those Trump likes to refer to as “fake news.” For decades, CBS, ABC, NBC and the rest have engaged in some ridiculous whataboutism, which confers the same importance to truth and patent bilge. This has greased the rails for trainloads of nonsense that become the object of long and vituperous “debates” amongst pundits.

This is one of the most worrisome aspects of the Trump presidency, and it has been addressed by Rich and many others. The fact that conspiracy theories once relegated to the mossiest, mustiest areas of the country, are now bandied about by elected officials is shocking. One can only hope that reason once again sweeps the nation, as it did in the 18th century, and that this is the last hurrah for those who exploit the nation’s darkest feelings for their profit and are willing to jeopardize democracy to get their money. And one can definitely hope that Americans get off their haunches, register to vote, and demand that things like gerrymandering be made illegal in the country. One person, one vote, and the electoral college be damned, too.

The revolution is permanent noise

Noisy, noisier, noisiest:…. Trumpism is not new and not about content.

To call Donald Trump a racist, or a bigot, a misogynist, is not an insult. It’s a ticket to the maelstrom of drama he likes to create. My notes on this aspect of Trumpism go back to spring ’16. The noise since has been constant and deafening. When I started the actual writing of this chapter, the US president was still reveling in the ruckus generated by his alleged use of a barnyard expression to describe countries in Africa, or was it just Haiti? Or was it the Russian scandal? The planet joined in the chorus of outrage, legitimately criticizing this crude and undiplomatic generalization, and so the USA took another step into the isolation chamber, which has been ready and waiting since November 2016.

Did he say it? Did he not say it? Did he say something similar? Was there some nefarious goings-on with Russia? Who cares: Writing about Trump is an inevitability. Alas, because he is actually the elephant (well, pun intended) in the room, the bull in the china shop, he is that 12-year-old troublemaker in the classroom who refuses to obey any rules, but whose parents think that he is just great and needs no disciplining whatsoever, because, well, he’s their kid. Nevertheless, he is the president of the USA and the leader of what is supposed to be the most powerful nation on Earth. That image has been seriously tarnished, though for Trump, there is no bad image, apparently.

Summing up

Snapshot: After “shithole” came more honking horns, porn-star pay-offs, with sordid details to excite the plebs and keep the so-called “left” or the #Resistance outraged and very occupied on the Tweet-channel. And then the really exciting theater of the Government Shutdown, with clanging bells and shrieking whistles… All this putting paid to the previous high: Wolfe’s Fast and Furious, the kind-of kiss-and-tell report from behind the scenes that could have used some audio tape to prove itself accurate. I’m a little skeptical. But, as attention waned and fresh salvos of outrage covered up new salvos of bull,  Wolfe came back with some saucier stuff yet, rumors of whoopee in the White House, which these days exudes a sort of pressure-cooker, lugubrious aura, a little like Sara Huckabee Sanders’s delivery.

Messenger without a conscience: Sanders is a key loudspeaker broadcasting for the outrage symphony.

Less there than meets the eye
The huge community of observers and spectators would rather not discuss such sordid stuff, but it’s ubiquitous and inevitable. It gets thrown at us and sticks, at least with a critical mass of audience.  And VIPs are in on the game, with clips that in perfect prurient-puritanical style — always suggesting, never delivering —  come millimeters away from pornography, sort of like Jane Russell’s famous bra designed by Howard Hughes. And now, no one is allowed to criticize without the ochlocracy descending upon them and casting them into a labeling prison. You are X, because you criticized Y.

The tough job of content  verification eludes us all, because of the sheer mass of  material, its information flimsiness, and because as soon as one scandal or absurdity or outrageous comment/tweet breaks and becomes amplified through social and news media, the next one is already in the making. Parsing and dissecting the content of the first no longer makes any sense. In-boxes are full, there are hundreds of post-its stuck on your wall with refuting arguments and esoteric notes, you are exhausted by the need to earn a living in addition to dealing with the tsunami of nonsense. Thankfully, the Internet also provides some relief in clips of cats giving massages, silly accidents people suffer, fake moments of great humanity. It’s real and unreal, it just seems to be real, and that’s enough.

The Big Media, for their part, forced to fill twenty-four hours year-round with content, go the path of least resistance, of course, outrage makes it to the forefront, be it a some blatant lie about voter fraud, or a Kansan candidate insulting working women by calling them “banshees,” or some outrageous statement about alternative facts, the un-word of the year 2017 in my books. It can be the 1/10th of a second of Janet Jackson’s breast, or some evangelical fraud promoting the end of the world on a certain date. And so Trump, by hook or by crook, manages to elbow his way to the top rank of the news cycle, and so the gatekeepers (the editors) feel compelled to fill the airwaves with infantile tweets and the fawning and braying of his surrogates. It’s also an economic issue: This is cheap raw material.

What appears on TV (I’ve watched many clips, meanwhile) and on social media are not debates. They are futile and uninspiring hollering matches. On one side are the talking heads, who are preaching to one choir. On the other side there are the individuals who are quite willing to boost the president’s anti-everything agenda, to defend what appear to be random, spontaneous, incoherent thoughts.

There are rumors out there. Some say he is mad. Some say he is a narcissist. A psychopath. Egocentric and dishonest, yes, there can be no doubt about it, but his cult-like followers don’t care. He is also a liar, but not – crucial distinction – pathological. Because providing content is not the point of Donald Trump’s utterances, be they tweets or strange statements, from the Birther nonsense, to the hallucination about five million fraudulent voters (that created a Lieutenant Kije-like  situation of people chasing after  them, knowing they did not exist…). He is indifferent to the truth, because it’s not the point of his utterances.

Trump right or wrong: For the base, he’s The Man who expresses their deepest, darkest thoughts. For the oppo, he’s a vicious, dumb, ignorant con man, a train wreck in the making you can’t get your eyes off of.
Making spectacle: Trump keeps up a drumfire of sheer bilge with a je ne sais quoi of paranoia..

A look back
At some point in the first half of 2016, while Trump was racing from outrageous statement to outrageous statement and tearing through his rivals for the GOP nomination, I noted that if the eye of the camera or the ear of a microphone would veer away from him, as it should have, Donald Trump would pull down his trousers and defecate on the stage, just to regain the upper ground in the attention-grabbing game. It was only a partially flippant comment, logged anonymously on some forum or other, I believe, but Trump did prove it correct by stating he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue, probably a subliminal thought of his, and not lose any support. And he was right.

Trump has picked up on something fundamental about communication in the USA, and the world of today, something that is not entirely new, but has been boosted by the information rockets. First, there is no negative feedback in media matters. To misquote Marshal McLuhan, the media themselves are the massage. No typos there. Or, as the Germans would say about a great event: Dabei sein ist alles. The main thing is to be there. This is key to understanding how mass communication works. This pattern was set by the likes of Coughlin in the 30s, already, Billy Sunday before that, Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin (a pre-Trump Trump in female), and the unspeakable publicity chihuahua Milo, whose defense of pedophilia checked his rising alt-right star, but paved the way to many Alabaman Evangelicals accepting Roy Moore, I would argue.

The Tin Drum, one of many possible literary references for this administration….

Secondly, people almost expect big and loud stuff, in fact, a diet of Hollywood films and overacted series have literally trained them for it. Loud candidates are a necessity to avoid boredom setting in.  There are many things that lost the 2016 election for the Democrats, but one of them was the lack of real, gut-wrenching fanfares from the Hillary campaign. There was some push-back, but it remained fairly mild, and for good reason. But that is another story (with a stack of notes to work through).

The irresistible vortex
The Trump camp understood and understands its base well. It’s made up in great part of people with little inclination to engage in long and convoluted discussions about policy. “Build the wall,” “Maga,”  “Lock her up.” Fantasies about the old American can-do spirit and the Wild West, hang’em high, and constitutional rights be damned. Except for 2A. It’s understandably  refreshing for many, and probably would be for a majority if Trump had made a genuine effort to bring the country together after such a sordid, acrimonious campaign of conspiracy theories and divisiveness, and having clearly lost the popular vote.  The nation was screaming for healing. But instead, Trump continued campaigning, cutting the nation in two, re-heating the civil war, essentially. He dragged the most abominable anti-administration together, placing total ignoramuses or deep-swamp creatures at the head of government agencies (DeVos? Perry?  Pruitt? Mnuchin? Is he kidding?) and filled the White House with weird ideologues like Miller and Bannon, or bloviating frauds like Dr. Sebastian Gorka.

Forget 1984, the resemblance to Animal Farm, however,  is quite remarkable….

Trump may be a racist, but that is not really important. He doesn’t care enough about others to be a raving KKK member. He does use what I’d call crypto-racism, however, as a tool to needle and divide, and therefore keep everyone on tenterhooks. The immediate impact of this tactic has been devastating and physical. People are screaming and hollering at each other across the information highways more than ever. There is very little space for compromise or reasoned discourse. The exchanges are exhausting, and yet, people are driven over and over again to fora, to Twitter, to Facebook,  Instagram for more of the same. There seems to be some deep-seated pleasure in going to those places, where one can freely talk, shout, snark, retaliate…. The name of the game (and the Trump Team is not the only player): brain-hacking. Anger, pleasure, raw emotion, sentimentality have become an addiction in a cold and lonely digital world, in which 99.999% of people are not heard or really seen. If we do not find our inner self when we’re off line, it’s like being in solitary confinement in the middle of a bustling market.

PART II

The prophets
“People don’t find what they desire, they desire what they find.” This brief quote by French social critic, philosopher and filmmaker, founder of the Situationist movement, Guy Debord, pithily describes the technological alienation combined with the dopamine-driven addiction to the social noise-media.

Guy Debord — the man who opened the curtain on the spectacle.

To call Debord (1931-1994) a prophet is not entirely fair to the densely populated line of thinkers upon whose shoulders he stands, or who were contemporaries in their criticism of society. Let us note Theodor W. Adorno, whose Minima Moralia is structured almost in the same manner as Debord’s seminal work; La société du spectacle (The Society Of Spectacle) is a collection of 221 statements/theses.  The title alone, though, begs for our attention, for everything is spectacle… But it gets worse: The definition of spectacle is not just the visible excitement of the media. According to one commentator, Yann Kerninon, it combines information (propaganda) to maintain the illusion of capitalism as the best and only form of  society (some will say that it is the best we know); advertising that not only makes us consume, but aims to convince people that buying a product or service will make them better than the next (hence, for example, the proliferation of ridiculously aggressive cars in all vehicle classes), and finally entertainment, so that we can forget that this spectacular society is actually boring. The  pop music industry is built upon this premise, but so is the new “populism,” or neo-Fascism, to avoid silly euphemisms.   (Cf. either Debord’s original book, or any number of documents or documentaries like this one in French  on the You Tube).

In an Op-Ed in the New York Times in February 2017, Robert Zaretsky, professor of French History at the University of Huston tried to narrow down Debord’s idea of spectacle as being “… everything that men and women once experienced directly — our ties to the natural and social worlds — was being mulched, masticated and made over into images. And the pixels had become the stuff of our very lives, in which we had relegated ourselves to the role of walk-ons.”  Imagine being in a theater as a spectator and actor at the same time. “The spectacle is the uninterrupted discourse that the current order is delivering on itself, its own  monologue of praise,” wrote Debord in his 24th little thesis. “It is the self-portrait of power-that-is at the moment of its totalitarian management of the conditions of existence.”

Tragic or funny, it’s still spectacle…

The real issue, already in Debord’s time, is that the omnipresence of spectacle means that the willing players no longer find refuge in the private sphere. “The spectacle is the nightmare of a fettered modern society, which ultimately is only expressing its longing for sleep,” wrote Debord, nailing one of the core problems of our society, which has gotten far worse: the frenetic pace, the ubiquity of work, with technology that is sold as a way for individuals to be free of the office, for example, by recreating the office on a tropical beach thanks to mobile devices. The technology has literally become a drug. People used to walk and smoke a cigarette, chat with friends, meditate a bit. Today, they walk, cycle, drive while staring at a small rectangular screen, and communication with some distant entity, human or digital, has become the shot, the cocktail, the line of virtual coke keeping us excited whether in anger or joy, in the unsatisfying delight of revenge and schadenfreude. So “debating” has become a cheap, unreal bullfight of sorts, with everyone participating has an “Olé!” to say, even, ironically, when they say nothing, which can be felt as a digital version of passive aggression.

Noise is noise is noise…. There is no longer a left or a right, the Spectacle is all-engulfing.

Donald Trump barged into that field with skillful cloddishness. He plays the part of the boor, because he is one in essence, an uncouth, lazy, lowbrow predator, a TV windbag, who has adopted some rhetorical techniques from televangelists. The more he pretends to be a victim of the MSM that fights back, echoing the plight of hundreds of film heroes winning against absurd odds, the more his base identifies with him, even if they know they are being tricked.  But the #Resistance has also been caught up in the game: love or hate, you’re still connected. (It’s a  topic related to religious yearnings in the USA and needs to be treated at another time, as it would go well beyond the framework of this article).

The Trump Train chugging down the track of history, spreading an unbelievable amount of strange fumes, has become an inevitable element in everyone’s lives. It is like a TV series with very short, absurd episodes (sex issues, racist explosions, conspiracies, even typos!) that fascinate and obfuscate.

Getting back to Debord, though, let me quote a paragraph by Zaretsky in the op-ed mentioned above:
In Debord’s notions of “unanswerable lies,” when “truth has almost everywhere ceased to exist or, at best, has been reduced to pure hypothesis,” and the “outlawing of history,” when knowledge of the past has been submerged under “the ceaseless circulation of information, always returning to the same list of trivialities,” we find keys to the rise of trutherism as well as Trumpism.

Even the fake Trump is in some ways real (hyper-real, even) and contributes to the noise.

This spectacle is made all the more exciting and exhausting by the Internet. Thanks to the reactivity of its denizen and the web’s gift of easy and cheap access to a large audience, the spectacle has gone  into overdrive.  Trump keeps his foot on the pedal, safe in the knowledge that he’ll be tracked by devotees and detractors alike, and that this noise will cover up whatever America’s current powers-that-be have in mind for the country. For the moment, it looks like turning the clock back to pre-FDR days, an old GOP dream.

As for Trump’s own expressed outrage, it is about as real as the rants and raves of an Alex Jones or a Rush Limbaugh, in other words, fake. It must be fake, because either these carnival barkers are imbeciles or they are propagandists who knowingly invent, lie, or reconnect dots in a silly manner that defies logic. It’s always good to remember, though, that they are essentially in a business that sells outrage-causing babble to the public in return for fame and hence advertising dollars. This spectacle earns and earns, and will continue earning as long as people do not switch off and advertisers, who according to Debord and others are liars, who replace a lie with a lie, thus proving the first lie,  keep the funds coming.  The problem is that it only takes a fairly low critical mass of people to legitimize even the most abstruse stuff…

The wrap
So “shithole” is just an episode, and like the entire immigration spectacle, the shutdown, even now as I write, Davos, and maybe even the Mueller probe (a case that could be an extreme form of expectations management), are part of the soundtrack that has accompanied Trump during and after his election. For him, the technique to keep the hollering on full volume is simple: Always deny what was said or “pivot,” to use a new word. Throw ’em a bone of contention. Whether the issue will be solved is irrelevant. The alleged statement – whether it be shithole, shithouse, or simply a heap of unsavory, vulgar prattle, whether he wanted to fire Mueller or not, whether there were five million fraudulent voters, whether Obama tapped Trump Tower, or not,  is irrelevant – drew myriad pens, cameras and keyboards in its wake, including mine, Trump and his administration simply continue implementing an agenda that seems  geared towards the economic wishes of the very few to the long-term detriment of the many, even if that includes isolating the country, ripping into the environment, poisoning rivers with mine slag. Whatever. It’s carpetbaggin’ time.

Zaretsky is an optimist, he sees a solution in the marches, in the “return to local politics and community organizing” as a successful redux of 1968, a time of turmoil that the Situationists were in fact involved in in France.I tend to agree on good days. In the 60s and 70s, there was a return to simpler lives, communal living out in the country, where one could find cheaper and maybe healthier living conditions. The sharing society could go in this direction (without the exodus) and make for a stable society without any upheavals. (There is a very strong cooperative movement in many European towns spawned by excessive rents and greedy, ineffective housing administrators who usually try to extract maximum profits by minimum investments, This coop movement is branching out into many areas of society and could become a powerful “Third Way”).

Another possibility is simply withdrawal and political apathy due to exhaustion. But there is one path with its own dark logic open to this frenetic society that is increasingly in need of dopamine-driven recognition, and it is the kind of spiritual apotheosis one finds in the ultimate spectacle, the spectacular destruction of war, in some ways, the only path to resetting the clocks, to rediscovering the ancient feeling of social cohesion for survival, the way back to the lizard brain, if you will. It is also the reason why we, as audience, tend to be stuck in the exhausting one-way relationship with the Trump’s of today: If the tweets don’t draw the ire or love, war becomes the ultimate attention-getter. Thanks to the Internet and the addiction to the spectacle, we are in a perniciously fusional relationship with power.

Separation and contemplation is lonely …. But it may be the only way out of the spectacle. Just don’t tell anyone.

For the moment, extricating oneself from the spectacle is simply hard. The news media are part of the problem, but by force: Their business and job is to report stuff, so they can hardly avoid talking about the most immediate stuff, even it be a glittering turd. They can’t really pretend Donald Trump is not tweeting nonsense, so they cover and comment, and then get attacked for doing so, which generates more spectacle. Curiously, a few anchors (Jake Tapper, notably, with that bizarre White House creature Stephen Miller) recently had the courage to tell fawning Trump surrogates to stop wasting the viewers’ time with their zero-information rambling and fawning. While it caused a stir, due to more Tweeting episodes, one could almost feel the relief of Tapper (and Don Lemon) for having shut the noise out for a bit. To achieve some form of inner peace and contentment, though, we may have to shut everything down and improve our closest proximity. For after all, that is the only area  in which we, as individuals, can have an impact. And that may come with a return to ancient wisdoms. Voltaire’s Candide saying … Blaise Pascal’s “pensée”: “All of humans’ unhappiness comes from a single thing, namely not being able to stay at rest in a room.”

Thank you for reading this far.

 

 

 

Katzenjammer

According to an article on Salon.com, Roy Moore still hasn’t conceded the race and is angrily pumping his base for contributions. He has now raised another bogus issue: voter fraud, and is insisting on a recount. If this truly infantile behavior is worth noting, it’s because what’s happening in Alabama is similar to what is happening in the USA: Lies, distortions and conspiracy rhetoric are wasting people’s time and energy, and the tax payer’s money, casting a shadow on serious and real issues, and generally degrading democracy and its processes.

Roy Moore: Grieving and grifting go hand in hand.

 

There is nothing surprising here. Moore was sure he could win, even with the strong allegations (from nine different women) of impropriety towards young girls: Deep red Alabama was willing to overlook this “minor” stuff – no pun intended – and go with their evangelical blusterer. And business being business, Moore is now trying to make the best of it. The number of absentee ballots can never make up for the missing votes, so the least he can do is see that the dollars and cents stack up in his favor. What caught my eye in this story is the following paragraph:

“The Confederate-sympathizing Republican claimed that he was “in a struggle to preserve our republic, our civilization and our religion.”
“Today, we no longer recognize the universal truth that God is the author of our life and liberty,” Moore said. “Abortion, sodomy and materialism have taken the place of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

There’s a great deal to deconstruct in these Moorish quotes, trite as they may sound, notably all those lofty words like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

First and foremost, as a run-of-the-mill conspiracist, Moore reframes what is a simple case of losing an election in ever greater contexts. It used to be about Moore and his bizarre and graphic concerns about gay sex (why he thinks about it so much is a mystery, but it would square with his leaning towards the young and inexperienced). Then it was Alabama. Now it’s about civilization itself. Soon, I guess, the galaxy will be somehow threatened.

That people still fall for this stuff is remarkable. I’m all for the simple life, but that does not mean one has to give up thinking altogether. Doesn’t the USA have a very good system of public libraries? Even the Internet, if searched properly, can reveal a few good nuggets of information buried in the alluvium of tripe and nonsense.

Second: There appears to be a glaring contradiction between Moore’s blustery talk of “liberty” and his storming against materialism and sodomy. Abortion is essentially a health issue, any moral aspects are simply too complex to debate here, but they, too, are personal, like the other two targets of Moore-ish ire. All of these issues are essentially personal and require benevolent protection.

Finally, there is this: The one Moore bugaboo that really stands out is materialism. We have to assume that for him, materialism simply means the adoration of material things, like money and consumer goods, instead of some unilateral focus on divine revelations and the collected wisdoms of Roy Moore. But is the acquisition of worldly goods not an integral part of the American experience? Do US citizens strive to live under a bridge, sleep on cardboard, and heal their raspberries with rancid bacon fat from the McDonald’s dumpster? What is Merry Christmas without a rush to spend, or Thanksgiving  without a Black Friday and Cyber-Monday? Buying stuff is part and parcel of the American experience, it is the ultimate proof of some manifest destiny. I buy, therefore God smiled upon me. The entire tax bill, which Roy Moore supports, no doubt, is based on the idea of putting money in people’s pockets, allegedly.

Going a little farther down this road, let us remember that materialism is in reality a philosophy with ancient roots. Basically, it states that life and all existence we perceive is material, which, to simplify, could mean three dimensional. This simplistic reduction becomes far more complex if we account for quantum mechanics, perhaps. But for the purpose of Mr. Moore and his base, it probably suffices. And according to him, focus on the material is sinful. Because it is not “spiritual,” one can only guess.

Here’s the problem. Moore is a fundamentalist, in that he demands that his flock take every word of the Bible to be true as written, no interpretation allowed, no doubt either. You believe it, because it’s there. The word of God needs no salt and pepper, just a lot of rhetorical tabasco, needs no unpacking and preparation. This means two things. First, he and his flock have to seriously cherry-pick the holy book in order to explain his visceral (or profit-oriented) antagonism to anyone and anything that fails to pass the bar of his many prejudices. Secondly, in rejecting any interpretation of the Bible, he and his apostles are in fact performing a highly materialistic act. They are treating words and concepts as reality. And they do this, I suspect, because any form of interpretation or questioning of the Good Book would, in fact, bring their latent doubt about their faith to boiling point and collapse their belief system. So they tend to double down and stay in a small, musty bubble.

Not that this matters much to the true believers.

De bello fatuo: synthetic wars

Hearts fostered a US empire through fake news.

When New York Journal illustrator Frederick Remington contacted his boss, William Randolph Hearst, from Cuba in 1897, it was to inform him, that the insurrection against the Spanish colonial overlords was simply nothing to write home about. “You furnish the pictures,” Hearst telegrammed back, famously, I should add, “I’ll furnish the war.” Hearst, who made his fortune with what used to be called “yellow journalism,” went on to hype up a non-conflict, inflaming public opinion with reports on an American citizen imprisoned by the Spanish authorities and of a female rebel being strip-searched. He went on to lay blame for the sinking of the Maine at the doorstep of the Spaniards, and thereby got what he really wanted: yuuuuge circulation numbers plus the bloody Spanish-American war that further pumped his newspaper’s revenues. Wars are money makers.

Hearst hadn’t spread entirely fake news, but it wasn’t real, either.

Things haven’t changed much since then, it seems. The medium can massage the public into believing some patently absurd stuff. Case in point: A “war” that has been raging for some time now, one made up almost entirely of whole cloth. The conflict in question is just one large and noisy front in a mostly bogus “culture war” that became especially heated as soon as Barack Obama became president in 2008. If you are wondering why, really: It was a skin-deep issue.

I’m talking, of course, of the “War on Christmas.” It is one of those ridiculous non-issues that a cohort of flimflammers on Fox News and points right on the media map ramble on about to the derision of late-night hosts and to the amazement of the millions who say merry Christmas and decorate Christmas trees without being hauled off to some atheistic torture chamber to be beaten to a pulp with tomes by Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins, with a few volumes of Nietzsche thrown in for good measure.

President Trump of late has been making a great deal of hay out of this fake war, tweeting, notoriously this on Christmas Eve:

Great. So he won a non-existent war. And he is proud of it. And his base jumps up and down and hollers “We won,” and starts throwing insults at non-existent enemies of their Merry Christmas wishes. Booster Mike Huckabee, a leading officer in the cult of fatuous ignorance, went so far as to compare Trump to Churchill, I guess for his verbal gesticulations during this  non-conflict. Winston Churchill, why not Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, George Patton, or even Erwin Rommel…. It’s all for The Base (Al Qaeda in Arabic), and it tends to swallow this kind of agitprop hook, line, and sinker: Obama is taking their guns, was born in Kenya, is a Muslim, millions of illegal voters, microwave ovens spying, child porn rings run out of the basement of a cellar-less pizza parlor,  and so on. Let us not dwell too long on this utter bilge coming from this ersatz president.

At the Scopes Trial, science was in the defendant’s chair.

More seriously, we are truly in an Orwellian mind warp, since the alleged war is in fact non-existent, but focuses the attention of so many people, apparently. On December 25, 2017, the Washington Post reported on Linden, TN, where saying Merry Christmas and writing it on any free surface has been elevated to a deeply religious and revolutionary act. Is this for real? Poor Tennessee. 93 years after the embarrassment of the Scopes trial, it is still wallowing in some self-aggrandizing self-stigmatization, a deeply satisfying feeling of finally being recognized for having always accepted the dirty end of the stick, a notion that is spread mostly by their own chosen and much-hailed leaders.

Reality check
Trump hopped aboard the War on Xmas boat for political gain, of course. Most people realize that the man’s interest in spiritual issues or religion itself is near zero, though I would be loath to judge from a distance. His entire career smells oddly of materialism, of gain by stealth, of master bamboozler, though he might at heart be very pious. That, at any rate, is what some evangelicals are willing to believe, in order to be able to support him. But New Yorkers know him well, so he turned his

To each his own: Trump: Happy Holiday. Obama: Merry Christmas

attention to nice people in rural USA (and I mean “nice” without ANY irony, believe me). If Trump has any religious/spiritual impulse, it is probably more Borgia than Cotton Mather. As the Washington Post put it: “During the general election, about 80 percent of evangelicals voted for Trump, even though he rarely attends church and is a cursing, thrice-married former reality television star from Manhattan who has been publicly accused by 13 women of kissing or groping them without their consent.”

O’Reilly, big on Christianity, small on respect for women.

Let it be said loud and clear and once and for all: There is no war on Christmas in the USA. In countries that are not under Christian sway, there are restrictions, or prohibitions (Brunei and Somalia come to mind). But in our thriving consumer-democracies, the answer is a clear NO. If people have been saying happy holidays, or season’s greetings, or something other than Merry Christmas, it has been mostly to be more inclusive of those who do not have Christmas in their cultural baggage, and that might even include themselves. Moreover, Happy Holidays is, after all, just a euphemism of sorts, a little like calling the toilet a bathroom, or powder room. Whichever way one looks, Christmas is always there in word and deed, in the form of Christmas trees, or houses decorated with angels and reindeers and (mostly white) Santa Clauses, bumper stickers, shop windows… all patriotically burning up electrical power.

But the fake warriors in this fake war have managed to blow this fake issue out of proportion by repeatedly screaming it into the ether, and as manure will do when thrown at a wall, some will stick. They are doing this for one reason only: To keep up the outrage ratings, which translate into advertising dollars. If you haven’t picked up on this yet, it’s time to get real.

Fox’s Bolling fostering the birther idiocy: agitprop for the choir.

The down side is that they are trying to reframe the separation of church and state as some kind of punishment for religious groups. In the process, these hollering heads have also made religion a highly political issue, when in fact it should be very private, especially in these multicultural days. This, in turn, has leavened the outrage already fermenting in the minds of their captive audience, people who feel permanently threatened by the shifting mores of a world that has exploded many old-fashioned notions of what makes up a society. In the above-mentioned Post article, one man is quoted as saying the following bit of styrofoam wisdom:  “The government, I think, is trying to oppress Christianity with some of the policies that they come up with. They’re trying to oppress it, force people out of what they believe in.”

This is simply astounding stuff. And the most astounding is that these same people, who, I am sure are really nice, family folk, with jobs and good intentions, are also willing to believe Trump, who is virtually the caricature of a typical city slicker and con-man, a man who’d have been run out of town on a rail, tarred and feathered, by the grandparents of today’s vociferous evangelicals..

Late-night hosts fought back against the fake news from “Bullshit Mountain.”

The War on Christmas commandos, from that painfully obnoxious and oafish Hannity, to the latest bobbing dashboard Barbie, la Lahren, have, to an extent, been ululating against the political correctness extremists, whose tendency towards ornery linguistic fastidiousness can quickly become irritating to anyone trying to speak plainly – as a former radio announcer, yes, I managed to offend some to my left … I think that language has power and we should watch what we say occasionally, it can genuinely offend people. But two wrongs do not make a right, on the contrary, they reinforce each other in a very negative manner. This however is another discussion altogether.

What’s Christmas?

Let me just make note of a few things here. First of all: the real attack on Christmas, in particular as we celebrate it, with massive consumerism, rowdiness and very vocal blessings of everyone, even those who are not interested, is not new. In my recent blogpost about the cardoon here in Geneva, I mentioned in passing the fact that the theocratic government of the city under Calvin – one of the founders of evangelical faith, one could say, and a granddaddy of the Puritans who came to those there United States – prohibited Christmas in the city. It was considered idolatry and far to Roman (Catholic), as it indeed was. Calvin and his successors were not the funnest folk anyway, their view of God was that He (definitely male, definitely white) was a rigid, unforgiving sourpuss, who smites and smote anyone of His creations that were not in His good books.

Public decree against Christmas from mit 17th-century Massachusetts… Were they liberals back then?

At any rate, the American Puritans in Massachusetts maintained that tradition during the 17th century. They found Christmas celebrations were too rowdy and fun (there we go again), which interfered with their need for gravity and serious reflection on infant damnation. Furthermore they found no real biblical basis for it. And if anyone knew the Bible, it was those Puritans.

As for the South, with all its intense and very extroverted evangelicalism, it continued to be opposed to the celebration of Christmas for ages. Writing about the Presbyterians (Trump’s alleged spiritual home) after the Civil War in the South, historian Ernest Trice Thompson noted that there was “no recognition of either Christmas or Easter in any of the Protestant churches, except the Episcopal and Lutheran. For a full generation after the Civil War the religious journals of the South mentioned Christmas only to observe that there was no reason to believe that Jesus was actually born on December 25; it was not recognized as a day of any religious significance in the Presbyterian Church.”

This opposition continues to this day, as theologian and author Kevin Reed points out in his long and fascinating slog through the history of Christmas and the opposition to it. Part of the reason is the fact that the feast is based on “pagan celebrations held in conjunction with the winter solstice,” Reed writes. “Unable to eradicate the heathen celebration of Saturnalia, the Church of Rome, sometime before 336 A.D., designated a Feast of the Nativity to be observed.” So let us join the Vikings in celebrating Yul!

So allow me to quote his conclusion:

“The Protestant Reformers summoned us back to the scriptural law of worship which allows us to admit only those institutions in worship that possess express scriptural warrant. To take a stand in support of Christmas is a repudiation of this legacy of the Reformation [my emphasis]. It is a retreat from a hard-won point of orthodoxy.
A consistent application of Reformed and Presbyterian principles of worship requires the repudiation of Christmas. Answer 109 of the Westminster Larger Catechism forbids “any wise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself.”

 

Fe que no duda es fe muerta

All of this should give food for thought. What is religion? What is spirituality? What does Christmas really mean? Why did the Puritans, Evangelicals, revivalists, in short most Protestant denominations, actually speak out against celebrating Christmas, but today they pretend to love it and want to celebrate it.  What’s this with the vapid political boasting à la Trump? Do people think that yelling Merry Christmas will deliver brownie points for a trip to heaven? Does it make a real difference? Is this what faith is all about? Or is it just a bit of publicity hounding?

Those who came to the New World over the centuries came for religious freedom among other things. In Europe, many were genuinely persecuted for their beliefs. French Protestants suffered heavily at the hands of the Catholic League, the Thirty Years War left a trail of devastation in Central Europe akin to that left by World War Two. So the founding fathers instituted the separation of Church and State as a means to protect that freedom. Governments do not get in the way of religion, and religions can keep out of sinful political business. There is no “erosion of religious freedoms,” that’s a total myth. In fact, in the USA, anyone, apparently, can get behind a pulpit and, abandoning self-respect and given a few improv lessons, can seduce people into sending them money for spiritual perks, including a right to rapture. That’s just the business, and the old saying caveat emptor applies. And it applies to any spiritual direction. Just look at men like Pat Robertson, Young Falwell, Osteen, Hagee, Paula White… the list goes on and on, people who earn some really tall paper praising the Lord and passing around the collection bucket.

Alas, freedom of speech does permit anyone else to get behind a microphone or keyboard, or in front of a camera, and point out the contradictions in your thinking about religion, or politics, or even your choice of jeans and Christmas decoration. It’s a fact of life in a democracy. And I agree: It should be done politely, and the snarkiness of our debates these days has become extremely irritating. But as the Unamuno quote I used as a subhead suggests, doubt is sometimes a good way to keep faith alive. If your faith is threatened by someone saying Happy Holidays, or Season’s Greetings, then I’d revise the faith, not start hurling insults at “Democrats” or “Liberals” or “Communists” or “Muslims.” With a little questioning, the USA might have avoided falling into the hands of an extremely transparent con man.

Merry Christmas, by the way.

Some further reading:

A History of the ‘War on Christmas’

http://www.swrb.com/newslett/actualNLs/Xmas_ch2.htm

 

 

 

 

 

The other side of the dream

Over the years I have avoided wading into politics too deeply. History, my favorite topic, is long and painstaking, but it is a patient art in many ways. Looking back on events gives some perspectives on the present, it tends to relativize things, and it also, ironically, takes time. Daily events may seem new and exciting when pundits are rudely and crudely hollering at each other on-screen, but given a different f-stop, they often lose their edge or even relevance. Hence, one of my favorite quotes has always been “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” uttered by French diplomat and temporary Napoleon adviser Talleyrand.

The hyper-reality show.

Seeing events as part of a continuum is also curiously satisfying. For years now, I have been writing down my thoughts about politics in a kind of running private political diary. Occasionally, I uploaded (what a word!) a piece or two to a blog platform that no longer exists, so I will have to put them back up on Journos-Blotter… At any rate, whenever a clip or quote or article seemed particularly relevant, I took note. For instance, as the Trump campaign gathered steam last year, I jotted down thoughts that appeared pertinent, like his continuous attacks on the press, on the judiciary, on rivals, and his strange rhetorical assemblies, which are reminiscent of preachers in terms of content and syntax, with unfinished, suggestive sentences, extreme imagery (shooting someone on 5th Avenue), rawness and, most notably, trading of substance for a lot of conspiratorial nonsense. These notes, by the way, are a continuation of notes from earlier election campaigns…

What made the Trump run and makes his subsequent presidency special is the dizzying level and frequency of windy swagger, fake news stories, and pure baloney. In fact, the bullshit (please forgive the rude term: I am using the Harry Frankfurt definition, in short: indifference to truth) came and comes at such a rate that there was and is simply no real time to debunk the stuff, before the next wave starts cresting, leaving the nation as a whole exhausted but deeply unsatisfied, much in the way binge-watching series can leave one titillated, but with the sense of having learned strictly nothing of any importance for your life or the future of the planet.

Something to talk about other than serious news….

Some are happy. The MSM always has stuff to report, especially since the White House seems to be very leaky, perhaps by design. Furthermore, these days full-grown adults associated with the administration either as members or surrogates are earning huge salaries to go on television and brazenly lie, obfuscate and invent stuff, and to defend the president’s own lies… It gets very confusing up top. At the other end of the social ladder, during the campaign, you had Trump supporters who were either on the extreme right of the political spectrum (including many Holocaust deniers), dyed-in-the-wool racists, religious extremists, or card-carrying members of the lunatic fringe. I cannot say how many were bots, as I was not that savvy at the time. But one thing is sure: Those people who were “really suffering,” as some condescending journalists like to say, are not feeling any upwind these days, whether they voted for Trump, or not.

Society has a deep neophile streak, of course, and so the general consensus from the talking heads was, and still is, that Trump is something new. And that is what his supporters like. New stuff, disruptive stuff, different stuff. Amazing for people who can go to one Hollywood movie after another and still believe each one is new. Trump is new at the presidential level, true. But as a political and societal phenomenon, he is a standard-issue American wind machine, a blusterous snake-oil salesman, freely mixing Babbitt with Elmer Gantry, some Coughlin with McCarthy. The GOP could have, should have, probably stopped him, but preferred expedience and party first. A wing of the party already tried the lunatic playbook in 2008 with Sarah Palin, who can only be described as a light, female version of Trump. At least she was a genuine provincial, and not such an obvious city-slicker conman. He’s a New Yorker, for crying out loud. In letting Trump through, the GOP played a risky game. The election could have been lost, which would have lt the party dodge a very dangerous bullet. With Trump’s electoral college victory in 2016, the GOP backed itself into a corner they seemed to be trying to escape.

And then came Roy Moore.

What is forcing me in some ways to come out of my opinion closet is the Alabama election. The victory of Doug Jones over Roy Moore has been touted as a major upset for Trump and the GOP and especially for Steve Bannon, a swamp creature in his own right. Much of the GOP started moping because of their loss of a Senate seat, but I’d guess a good number of them are breathing a quiet sigh of relief. Having saddled the country with Donald J. Trump (I’ll get to him in a few weeks), they would have had to contend with another loose cannon and publicity hound extraordinaire, this time in the Senate.

Nothing about Roy Moore qualified him for being a senator, really, for almost the same reasons Trump has little business being in the White House. It’s not even his creepy sexual obsessions. “Senator” etymologically suggests age and wisdom combined. Moore is more Disney than Tacitus, a typical fraud who, after years of building up and polishing an image as a kind of latter day Billy Sunday, now actually seems to believe his mind’s eye. He mixes 19th-century Wild West iconography – the horse, the pistol, that corny cowboy hat– and ideas that are fundamentally anti-Enlightenment irrationalism of pre-Revolutionary times.  Those are the physical and intellectual (can one use that word here?) props. And they definitely resonate with people for reasons that would require a lot of copy to explain.

Top: Real fraud.                                                                                                              Bottom: Real cowboy.

 

Suffice to say, his catechumens have been convinced by radio and TV barkers that they are victims, poor, stigmatized members of a class reviled and mocked by a nasty elite. And there is some truth to that. Comedians from Jon Stewart to Bill Maher have enthusiastically strip-mined what Mencken once called the “Sahara of the Bozart” for material. Ridicule is fun, when you’re not the butt of the joke, but it’s not the best way to engage in a dialog, since the victims will prefer to double down on their core beliefs rather than question and revise them when someone outside their bubble points out the absurdity of their world view (we all know that feeling, I suspect).

Assisting them in that doubling down effort  has been the bizarre idea that the Moore-Trump-Bannon-Pence crowd are their liberators from what amounts to a self-imposed plight. The GOP and media outlets like Fox, Breitbart and Co. have been playing to this crowd, feeding it an enormous amount of fake rage and outrage, like the fictitious “War on Christmas.” We’ve all watched that nonsense become mainstream, and suddenly the talking heads (this, by the way is really on both sides of the divide) are saying: “People think,” or “People say…” Naturally, then, when Trump starts ranting about “voter fraud,” or his mouthpiece Conway launches a collective hallucination about microwaves spying on you, a huge group of people is willing to simply disconnect their grey cells and start nodding. The most recent excuse for Roy Moore’s loss in Alabama is that Doug Jones was aided by “Muslims and Marxists.” Moore, at the time of writing, is still fundraising. I.e.: the marks still have some juice in them….

Read that again: Moore is still campaigning. For funds.

The reason why people let themselves be bamboozled like this is complicated. One thread can be found in Kurt Andersen’s book Fantasyland, an excerpt of which was published in The Atlantic. The ability to think outside the box, to dream stuff up and then live it, is a quality that many associate with the USA. It’s why one occasionally finds people mocking gloom-and-doom Europeans, whose dialectical thinking tends to put a damper on American hyper-enthusiasm … But when imagination becomes fantasy, it can turn into a weakness. The idea that you can be whatever you want is what drives a lot of genuine innovation, but there is a delicate and permeable border between imagination and illusion or delusion.

What you can do for your country.
Breaking news: Jesus hates everyone except white Evangelicals.

 

John F. Kennedy fostered a positive imagination, it was forward-looking, exciting for the huge baby-boomer youth, and let young and old dream of great things. In spite of all his foibles, his uncontrolled gonads, his bellicosity, he made people want to go out, get an education and do great things. His dialectical opposite is Donald J. Trump and men like Roy Moore, who are, alas, increasingly becoming mainstream. They revile education, science, rationalism. They generate that exhausting energy of hatred in people. They divide and try to conquer at least enough rhetorical territory to make some difference, and bring nothing to the communities they rule over, except some feeling of belonging. They lead to ruin.

The Moore candidacy revealed again a society torn apart between the future and the past, between urban progressivism and rural regressivism – what else can one call it? – between multiculturalism and aggressive and proud know-nothingism. America is, let’s face it, fighting the civil war again by other means, with other issues, and the media have their role to play as contributors to the dysfunctional dialogue and perpetrators of the hysteria. Whataboutism and its equally evil twin, false equivalencies, have led to some strange fallacies: Apparently, you have to equivocate the conviction that the earth is flat with the hard work of explorers, astronomers and other scientists since the days of Ptolemy and before. Of course, with the Trump presidency, there are some serious threats to democracy in the USA. Let us not kid ourselves, the man and his tribe, including Moore and the like, are not interested in having a viable and corrective opposition around.

Birmingham Alabama, a modern city these days, but it ain’t Alabama.

The Democratic victory in Alabama did boost the morale of what is called “the left” in the USA. The hope from the broad swath of Americans who’ve joined the #Resistance is that it might signal a return to a more mainstream and less risky track by providing another necessary opposition voice in the Senate to counter some of the egregious economic goals of the GOP under Trump – let’s leave it at that for the moment. There is also some hope that the Trumpian rhetoric can be toned down, that US foreign policy can be once again.

There is a big caveat, however. First: Jones won by a very narrow margin and thanks to the investigative work of the Washington Post. Moore, in any “normal” or healthy society, should have lost by a massive landslide even without the uncovering of his liking for very young girls*. Norms these days are not what they used to be. This leads to the second point: expectations management. By positioning themselves as more reasonable versions of Trump and downplaying the real impact of the president, GOP candidates still have a good chance going into 2018, which is why they don’t appear terribly worried. The Democrats should note as well, that the GOP has no scruples when it comes to political fights, they will risk the security of the nation if it has to to win. The Democrats must avoid complacency.

Third, the tax bill is being demonized as a gift to the superrich. And it is. But the real scandal there is how it was passed, the process, the fact that the Democrats were shut out. This could become a lose-lose either party, but the Republicans, together with Fox and radio agitprop, have shown they  are willing to take serious risks. They’re good at the game and bank heavily on the electorate’s notorious fickleness and inability to remember stuff that happened just a few weeks ago. They are already playing the song “They didn’t want it,” leaving the Democrats very vulnerable to any positive effects from the bill. Moral of the story: Never underestimate an opponent without scruples.

*I’d like to add at this point, that I teach kids in the age range that Moore seems to like them. I try to imagine some thirty-plus religious flake trying to seduce them, and it makes me simply furious. They are CHILDREN, no matter what nature has given them in terms of physical maturity. The idea that one go after them sexually is absolutely shocking and the sign that the man is deeply disturbed and extremely immature. This is corroborated by the fantasies about himself he exhibits publicly.

 

 

The Geneva run

L’Escalade: the run of your life

In a confederate system as diverse as Switzerland, it is hardly surprising to find that Cantons and cities occasionally engage in very local celebrations that no one else has ever heard of. There is the Chalandamarz and the Pschuuri in the Grisons, or the Bloch at Mardi Gras in Appenzell. Not to be outdone (especially by its Germanic co-confederates) , Geneva has the “Escalade,” The Climb, which has evolved into one of the main participatory spectacles in town.

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Geneva is Geneva, of course, and stringent logic often seems absent from the organisation of local urban life, so the climb actually involves horizontal rather than upward mobility. Much of the event consists of people running, Marathon-like, through the city on the first Saturday in December or, if Saturday falls on the 11th, then on the second Saturday. In 2014, it was on Saturday December 6. The date, like the hare-brained configuration of the city’s public transportation, needs some clarification.

The event that spawned The Climb took place on a wintry night of 11-12 December 1602, the longest night of the year, since Genevans still used the old Julian calendar at the time. Duke Charles-Emmanuel I of Savoy had coveted the Calvinist city north of the Alps, and was hoping to force it back into the Catholic fold for religious, strategic and economic reasons. On that fateful night, a band of mercenaries managed to scale (escalader) the walls at around 2 a.m. When two sentinels ran into them, all hell broke loose. Reports say that civilians joined in, throwing heavy stuff out of windows, tables, chairs, barrels, stones, and real weapons like halberds.

The Genevans got the better of the attackers. They lost 18 men in the skirmish, 54 of the attackers were killed, 13 taken prisoner, tortured and executed. Ultimately Charles-Emmanuel signed a treaty with the city and peace was restored once and for all at the Treaty of St. Julien (a town just beyond the border in France).

Memories are made of this

A year later, the whole battle and its political setting were set to music to an epic ballad in 68 strophes in Provencal dialect, Cé qu’è lainô. The event was also immortalized in a poem, Genève delivrée, by Samuel Chappuzeau. In 1926, an association called Compagnie de 1602 started a parade to celebrate the victory. Participants come in gaudy period costumes; there are drummers, fife-players, weapons-bearers, a hangman and other period figures. Today, the parade, which is held on Sunday after the races, ends at the door of the Cathedral St. Pierre in the old town with speeches exalting the Republic, freedom, and so on.

The Escalade races were started in 1978. They now last almost all day, with participants broken down into different categories running set courses in a staggered schedule. Ages range from the “Poussins” and “Poussines” (literally chicks, boys and girls born in 2005-6) to Hommes VI or Femmes VI, men and women born before 1942. The length of the run goes from 1.8 km for the youngest runners, to 7.2 km for the older ones. This year drew 32,150 participants. All races begin and end in the Parc des Bastions right under the walls of the old town.The ladies' run

Walking and Nordic Walking have also been introduced for more comfortable sportspeople 10 years of age and above. The 8-km course begins in Veyrier and ends in the Parc des Bastion. The final race is the Course du Duc (the Duke’s Course) and is the toughest, naturally, since the Duke lost the battle: 17.5 km.

There are fees for the runners, and those running the longer itineraries will have to get medical certificates. For more details, please visit www.escalade.ch. The money paid goes to maintaining the costumes and organizing the events.

Marmite74 The final race on Saturday is simply called “Marmite”, or Cauldron and comes in two categories, youth and adult. The runners complete their nearly 3.5-km itinerary in crazy garb. There are no real winners here, but whoever comes first in this fantastical dash, will have their name and pictures published in the local paper, the Tribune de Genève (along with the serious runners).

What’s in a cauldron?

The chaudron is ubiquitous in Escalade season. Throughout the festivities, spectators and participants are regaled with vegetable soup cooked in great cauldrons sometimes on an open fire. It’s a very pleasant and fortifying dish in the damp and frigid days of early December. Escalade parties are held during this time to which children come disguised and singing a ditty that gives a blow-by-blow account of the “battle”. They will occasionally do something resembling trick-or-treating, i.e., knock on people’s door, sing that very same ditty, an request candy or coin. On one evening, children, parents and staff are invited to contribute vegetables to a big cauldron of soup, which is enjoyed usually with bread and some sweets.

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Eat your (marzipan) vegetables for the sake of the Republic

And for a few weeks prior to the Escalade, pastry shops, confectioners and supermarkets sell chocolate cauldrons decorated with the coat-of-arms of the city and filled with marzipan vegetables. The way to eat them is to break the cauldron with a stick or a knife while hollering valiantly: “Ainsi périssent les ennemis de la république!” (”Thus perish the enemies of the Republic!”)

Those raised on Asterix may get the wrong idea. The brave and independent Genevans did not beat back the Savoyards intruders by dint of a magic vegetable soup. Somewhere on the line a story emerged from the mists of history, that one Mère Royaume, living near the city gates was in her kitchen cooking a cauldron of vegetable and rice soup. Hearing the enemy in the streets, she carried the heavy pot to the window and heaved it onto the hapless invaders.

Mère Royaume was a real person. She was Catherine Cheynel, born in Lyon. She and her second husband, a maker of tin pots, were Protestants and escaped to Geneva soon after the massacre of St. Bartholomew (August 1572). By 1602, she was 60 years of age and had given birth to 14 children, few of whom had survived. The idea of her dumping hot soup on an enemy apparently comes from Verse 29 of the epic Cé qu’è lainô mentioned above. But history has many such modest heroes, like the women of Eger in Hungary who threw boiling fat on the attacking Turks.

Let them eat soup

As a journalist, I must wonder: What was she doing cooking vegetables soup at 2 a.m.? And would she, as a Protestant Genevan, waste food that way? Really? It is difficult to imagine. I suspect that on waking and hearing the ruckus, she grabbed the first thing at hand … under, or close to, her bed and hurled that out the window. So whosoever came up with the marmite idea has done us all a great service in Geneva. Imagine thousands of Genevans screaming: “Ainsi périssent les ennemies de la République!” while standing around steaming chamber pots.

Real or not, it’s a nice story, and it gets everyone out and about eating healthy soups. In an interview with Le Temps in 2009,  Catherine Santschi, state archivist pointed out a more reasonable explanation for the victory, one that has repercussions to this day: “It wasn’t Mère Royaume and her cauldron of soup that protected Geneva, but rather the fact that the citizens kept their weapons at home. They woke up in the middle of the night and were able to fight right away. If they had had to go to the arsenal first, the battle would have ended differently.”

Whatever the history, Geneva loves its Escalade, and for good reason. It’s a heart-warming, belly-filling feast, with so many parties, no one has to have a bad conscience for having fun. People from all walks of life have a chance to rub elbows in a congenial atmosphere. In some ways, too, it celebrates the victory over Catholicism in what was then a strictly Protestant-Calvinistic city. Paradoxically, it now serves to conveniently condense and celebrate Carnival, St. Nicholas and other religious/profane festivities that Calvin and his dour and sour successors had wiped off the calendar.

Switzerland’s referendum: the spoils

CH_Flag

 

 

The February 9, 2014, referendum that garnered a “yes” to stop mass immigration into Switzerland and replace it with a system of quotas has sent ripples, even shock waves, throughout Europe. The initiative passed by a slim margin of 50.3% to 49.7%, with participation at just over 55% of eligible voters, and people in both camps are nursing hangovers these days, from different spirits, as it were.

The issue on the table was by no means new. Societies the world round are occasionally gripped by nativist impulses that target foreigners, and Switzerland is no exception. In the 1970s, one James (sic) Schwarzenbach launched an initiative against “over-foreignization,” turning what appeared to be a groundswell of backing from several Swiss cantons into a political party. But the initiative failed and the party ultimately fizzled.

schwarzenbach1

The current initiative was put to the Swiss people via the Swiss People’s Party (SVP/UDC), which is a lot more savvy than the late Schwarzenbach, and, of course, operating in a different era. It has produced a number of rhetorically noisy and cunning campaigns in the past already, mostly designed to elicit a knee-jerk reaction to anything foreign. One recalls the famous anti-minaret campaign of 2009, which drew the ire of the EU, or the “black sheep” campaign of 2010 to throw out foreigners who had committed felonies.

At first glance

Both earlier initiatives won, thanks in part to the ruckus raised by the posters whose communication boiled down to crude demagogery. Simple colors, simplistic icons, oafish but graspable message. And effective. In fact, the People’s Party’s “black sheep” poster even found use by the Neo-Nazi NPD party in the German state of Hessen, by Italy’s Neo-Fascist Lega Nord, and by some other extremists in the Czech Republic. The poster in Switzerland showed three white sheep kicking a black sheep off the Swiss flag, and it raised hackles all the way to the UnMassenEinw_Jaited Nations.

 

The present referendum’s artwork also grabbed the headlines but for other reasons: the apple tree whose roots are crushing Switzerland with an inscription proclaiming the damage of mass immigration was actually borrowed from Economiesuisse, the Swiss Business Federation, which opposed the initiative together with syndicates and other industrial associations. Its apple tree – used in campaigns since 2000, no less – was intended to show how relations and treaties with European Union were benefiting Switzerland (the apples). What this had to do with the concerns of the Swiss people about immigration was not immediately clear and either confued or alienated potential voters. “I was against the initiative,” said a friend of mine, who is very engaged in Switzerland’s political debates, “but I couldn’t vote for the Economiesuisse proposal, because they seemed to be supporting the kind of wage dumping that big business would like to have. But no one is taking the issue of immigration seriously and addressing it, and the SVP/UDC did.”

bilaterale_hodler-d

Battle lines

The People’s Party does choose its issues well. The topic is always a little taboo, hence it attracts lots of attention, which is the cardinal rule in breaking out of websmog. Their initiatives can usually be summed up in a single short phrase and they go to the gut or the jugular, or both, ideal for the 140-character society. And the Party’s strategists have a musician’s gift for timing, they know when to simply let their issues ferment and simmer. The Internet and papers do the rest, especially the comment sections of newspapers and blogs. This permits all kinds of nonsense to be uttered without the higher-ups catching any flak. Vague connections are made between immigration (or any other bugaboo) and the lack of affordable housing, the high price of real estate, the filled trains, traffic jams, failures in schools, crime, noise in the streets, dirt, crooked bankers, ugly architecture, and lost jobs, etc.

On the other hand, countering these gregarious views is inherently difficult and often requires moral, ethical and even legal arguments that most voters are hardly inclined to follow after a hard day’s work, what with all the mesmerizing entertainment provided by our daily screens.

And, finally, perhaps at the core of the issue, there is the subtext of unemployment, which is one of the main Swiss worries, especially, when it comes to immigration. Life here is expensive, and maintaining a high standard of living is not that easy. While the country’s own jobless rate is very low (averaging around 3.1%) and economic growth is high, what people actually perceive is different and they have the proof just beyond Switzerland’s borders.

 

It’s no picnic out there, if we are to believe the media. Europe’s economy is sluggish, unemployment is over 10% for the whole EU, earnings are low (though social benefits excellent). It all seems very threatening, like some Fritz Lang movie of the 1920s. Foreign nationals are needy and greedy and pressing at Switzerland’s gold-strewn shores, or so it seems … And the ghastly conflict in Syria, the unrest in North Africa, the hordes in the East waiting to pounce, the Chinese plagiarists are all giant shadows performing some ghastly economic Totentanz in the background. The result is a fortress mentality, which is aggravated every time the United States IRS puts a gun to the head of the Swiss banking system, or the German or French tax authorities get a hold of a few CDs with the names and account numbers of German tax evaders.

So the immigration issue may well be getting mixed in the minds of many with the whole cluster of other insecurities and uncertainties that have become the electrifying juice of our capitalist system, the Damocles sword held over the Average Joe and Jane to keep them on the straight and narrow, no complaining, please, your job is next on the block. So what some Swiss voters are saying then is: leave us alone, we’ve done our bit, now you do yours and let us get along with our lives, things were better before. The fact that cities like Zurich, Geneva or Basel actually voted against the initiative suggests as much. Geneva! Which is literally overrun by foreigners of all stripe, but could not really survive without them.

After-maths

But vote they did, and now the chickens are fluttering and clucking near the roost. The Nays are disappointed and shocked that the measure, which seemed doomed to failure just a few weeks ago, actually passed. The Ayes, for their part, are gloating but with that slightly sour “I-told-you-so” attitude. Many of their comments in the papers, on television, and even in public, suggest that they did not quite understand the implications of their yes to the no immigration. Or worse yet, they don’t really care either way, since the point was to show the world that the Swiss system of direct democracy still works and that they will not let themselves be subjected to a “dictate” from Europe – a kind of political dog whistle often blown by the right wingers in the country, and one that is sure to garner votes.

No

Unfortunately, though, the laws in place are not that simple. The Swiss government can’t just text or tweet the EU Commissioner and break off the engagement. The CH-EU relationship is far more complex. In the run-up to the referendum already, the EU had been sounding the alarm about Swiss voters deciding to roll back the “free movement of people” across borders, a right written into the first set of Bilateral Agreements that went into force in 2002 and was extended to new EU members in 2005 and 2009 respectively. Negotiations on including Croatia in the Bilaterals (which joined the EU on July 1st, 2013) are now threatened, said Richard Jones, EU Ambassador to Switzerland , and with it a number of research and exchange programs, like Horizon2020 and the Erasmus+ program, which facilitates all sorts of professional and academic exchanges across EU borders. So opportunities for young, talented and ambitious Swiss individuals may have just taken a blow… if, as the Germans would say, the food is eaten as hot as it is cooked…

Referendum-GE-Nov07004-01

The European reaction to the vote was swift and categorical. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Swedish Foreign Minister Brigitta Ohlsson spoke of reconsidering EU-CH relations, Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino said she would put the issue on the table with the EU Council, and Jean Asselborn from Luxembourg warned EU countries of striking separate deals with Switzerland.

The Swiss are an important partner for the EU, said Viviane Reding a few weeks before the vote, “but the EU is also an important partner for Switzerland.”

Talk has been of invoking the “guillotine clause,” which would call into question all the benefits of the Bilateral Treaties that Switzerland managed to negotiate after saying no to membership in the European Economic Area in December 1992 – curiously by a majority of 50.3%. The consequences could be quite drastic in many different areas, including technology, agriculture, education, environment, security and cooperation, even road traffic. In short everything that made CH a virtual member of the EU without having to deal with some of the political shenanigans and without losing its sacred right to direct democracy.

Strom_Schweiz_01

In an interview with the Tages Anzeiger, National Counsellor Christian Wasserfallen from the Free Democrats, a member of the Energy Commission, pointed out that the treaty on electrical power trading with Europe is in jeopardy, and the threat could extend to a variety of other industries, from the chemical – not news Basel wants to hear – to financial services. “Our companies have a lot of value creation in the balance,” he said, “but how the initiative will be implemented is still an open question.”

Theoretical victory

For its part, the populist right wing is in ecstasy. Their feeling was summed up by Markus Somm, Editor-in-Chief of the Basler Zeitung daily. Pride comes before the fall, he remarked, and that he feels led to the incredibly weak argumentation by Economiesuisse and its fellow oppositionists, including the Federal Council, no less: “Something historical happened. By their approval of the mass immigration initiative – against the will of almost all parties, federations, media, syndicates and pundits – the Swiss dared to do something extraordinary. A tectonic shift is happening. For the first time since their rejection of the EEA [European Economic Area] over twenty years ago, our country is taking the risk of muddying the relationship to our most important trading partner, the EU.”

Whether that is the case remains to be seen, the barking at the present time is loud, but whether the bite ever really comes is questionable. When all is said and done, the little Alpine confederacy has gone up against European powers before. And even the most vociferous EU politician knows that the nation is ruled by consensus. Even the anti-European forces will have to recognize that the relationship with the EU is symbiotic and in no way parasitic. And the forces opposing initiative will also have to recognize that not everyone in Switzerland was prepared to take on 80,000 new residents per year.

Leman-riviera002
Paradise…. only for the few Lucky ones (and the rich)

At any rate, the federal government now has three years to put some kind of contingency system in place. That leaves enough time to finagle, argue, twist arms, take names, find carpets to sweep things under, create complications, exceptions, and appease. The country is somewhat divided, of course, with inner-Swiss cantons The president of the Geneva State Council, François Longchamp, told the local Tribune de Genève, that separate conditions will have to be met for the Vaud and Geneva because of the enormous number of international firms and organizations that have settled around Lake Geneva and that require highly qualified personnel. “They [these Cantons] said no to the end of free movement.” So those who shut the door are just going to have to take on the consequences.” His fellow State Councillor of the Canton of Vaud, Pascal Broulis was also clear: “Any regulation will have to take an open and a closed Switzerland into account.” These Cantons, after all, provide the Confederacy with considerable income from the employment they create. Even Schwarzenbach had allowed for a higher percentage of foreigners for Geneva (25%, and 10% for the rest of the country).

And now, with the negotiating table full of shards and loud words, some elasticity may be showing on the part of the Europeans. Richard Jones suggested in the above-mentioned interview: “The ball is in the Swiss court. … The relationship is important for both of us. No one is ready to cut ties, but we must find a viable path.” That sounds conciliatory, in a very oblique manner.

Playing the field

In the end, this all plays perfectly into the hands of the People’s Party. Their anti-European and anti-foreign rhetoric has leavened their shares over the past decade with people who seem disgruntled at a society being transformed by globalization, while reaping the benefits as well. The strategists – including the rather brilliant billionaire Christoph Blocher – have managed to play the victim card over and over again with initiatives that always give off a musty odor of xenophobia couched in reason. That is not good advertising for a country with so much at stake abroad even if “money has no odor,” as the French say. Until now it still has not affected the economy in any tangible manner, hence even people like Mr. Blocher have not suffered any financial setbacks. But it does raise the question: if Switzerland is so timorous with its booming economy, what will it be like when the big bust comes?

Kahn-02
It’s all about trade…. a barge travelng from Basel to Rotterdam on the Rhine

The anti-immigration initiative is serving the SVP/UDC as a kind of test balloon to see if the “foreigners issue” can be used for the parliamentary elections in 2015. The party would like to extend its majority – which recent polls actually suggested was dipping in favour of smaller parties. And Europe continues to serve as an easy target: if it doesn’t react to the populist SVP/UDC, it looks as if it is ignoring Switzerland. If it does react, then it comes across as school-marmisch. And the last thing the Swiss want to hear is a bevy of European officials browbeating them for ur-Swiss values and customs, particularly their sacred direct democracy. On the other hand, not all those who voted yes to the initiative are pro-People’s Party. And at some point the less vociferous and more urbane segments of the electorate may decide that they have done enough for the nativists, and it is time to let Switzerland back into the race.

 

Hype and nonsense: the Osama error

MAY 25, 2011 11:14AM

The death of Osama  bin Laden, like his life, was a noisy affair. Throughout the world, the media finally had something really big to report, because after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the meltdowns at Fukushima and the ongoing “Arab spring,” now brought to us from Libya and Syria, consumers were getting restless for something new, something spicy, something with some extra-strength pizzazz to enliven the daily news. After all, how much leading-bleeding reporting from Misrata can one take before it gets a little repetitive?  Even Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s adventures wear thin after a short while.

So Obama was the one who got Osama, dead, not alive, and that event, carried out was carried out by yet another gang of heroes, accompanied by a cute heroic dog. A delightful picture that sent shock waves throughout the world and generated inordinate amounts of whatever passes for column inches these days. In Washington, New York and other points on the globe, large crowds came out to jubilate, to express their unbounded joy at the demise of one of the most effective bugaboos since Saddam Hussein and Manuel Noriega – who, like Osama  bin Laden, shared the distinction of having been a good friends of the US at some time, and recipients of our tax dollars and military aid in exchange for proxy work. And the media joined in and heated up the frenzy.

Encores and more

Unlike with the handling of budget talks with the GOP, the health insurance debate, or even the bailouts, this time the Obama administration put on a fairly good show, dragging it out with a surprise, gravitas-filled presidential visit to ground zero, keeping everyone on their toes with talk of violent pictures, dumping the body in the sea, lots of praise for the anonymous wet-ops group of Navy SEALs, keeping the mystery going just enough to draw the hype. To this day the information is dripping out in homeopathic doses, mostly silly stuff that feeds the ghoulish need to know what Osama’s personal life was like as he holed up in Pakistan, delighting all the while in the ravages he caused.  It’s all picture perfect, Hollywood and Marvel Comics live and wrapped in one. The message says: “Osama bin Laden, author of the senseless and mindless 9/11 act has now been killed, good triumphs, evil is defeated.” Or in the words of the President “Justice has been done, the world is safer.”

Quick solutions, perhaps too quick 

Has justice been done? Is the world safer? Did the execution of  Osama bin Laden really bring closure, as so many pundits would like to convince themselves it seems? Perhaps at one level yes, because tracking terrorists will undoubtedly be a little easier now with the information from Osama bin Laden’s files. But how that is managed is or should be cloak and dagger stuff. Suffice to say:  any well-organized terrorist network will have set up contingencies.

Closure or safety are another matter.  Osama bin Laden did not exist in a vacuum, nor for a period lasting from  9/11 to 1/5.  It would be naïve to think that ending the Osama episode also concluded the “war on terror” series.

The administration and the media seem to revel in the images of Osama bin Laden as a dumpy old man, like Saddam Hussein in his mole hole. One can seriously doubt whether this will be of any relief to the families and friends of 9/11 victims. To get true justice, to understand and integrate the lessons of the past 10 or more years, to finally close the book on Osama  bin Laden would have most probably required at least a proper trial. A trial, though, would have spawned terrorist acts, the officials all said, a flimsy excuse at best, but one that remained unquestioned. If anything, going through the judicial ritual, as was done with the Nazis at Nuremberg, or even Manuel Noriega, would have proven that our democratic rule of law is still strong and functional. Alas, it is not that functional anymore, and thus by getting himself killed, Osama bin Laden once again managed to triumph in a bizarre way.

Whether the killing was an operational necessity or an expedient decision is an open question. The inexorable momentum of the news will allow for no real reflection, just the creation of a kind of consensus that the act was logical and good, and anything else would have been unacceptable. By allowing the publication of a picture depicting the entire cabinet watching the operation unfold, the Obama administration managed to both identify those in charge and hence responsible for the act, while at the same time spreading out the guilt, should anyone dare doubt the legality of it.

Nuremberg did it

In the absence of reality, though, we the observers have to contend with appearance, which has become our reality in a world dominated by advertising, self-promotion and public relations. As long as the message is well crafted and acceptable and fills some emotional gap or desire, it is taken as evidence. Popularity then serves as the yardstick for judgment, doubting the majority is not an option. Democratic processes are governed by mob rule. It would behoove the nation as a whole to stop and think for once, because even though “we got Osama bin Laden,” his strategy and legacy may well have been a degree more subtle and effective than the simpletons cackling away on TV would have us believe.

One challenge would have been to understand why someone would organize such a fiendish attack as 9/11. Was it really “senseless” in Osama bin Laden’s mind (or in the mind of whoever organized the attack, which is now beyond our intelligence)? Was it just to kill Americans for some private reason?

Looking back

Suffice to say, the phenomenal noise those planes made crashing into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon and a remote area of Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, is still echoing in everybody’s ear. In the immediate aftermath, the world was treated to a drumfire of slogan-like platitudes, dead-or-alive, smoke’em-out, terrorists all over the place, our liberties, their hatred, them and us. It was all in convenient bite-sized black and white portions, no fuss, no muss. Anyone who did not agree with the president and his cohorts, like peaceniks and some Democrats, was “them.” Period. No discussions accepted, no cool heads could prevail. Truth and individual liberties, be damned. To say a word against the George Bush strategy was tantamount to treason. Any opposition, as always happens in such cases, was pushed into a rhetorical corner.  Fear and hysteria gripped the nation.

At one level, the noise helped disguise the fact that George Walker Bush had been asleep at the helm in spite of warnings of a serious threat to the nation. So all eyes were immediately refocused on this strange bird,  Osama  bin Laden, now indelibly associated with 9/11, but whom an American Grand Jury had already found guilty of conspiring to attack  US military installations in 1998.  That was during the Clinton years, however, when the World Trade Center was attacked the first time (very soon after George Bush Senior handed over the presidency to Bill Clinton). Clinton was not very successful in convincing the GOP of the need to shore up the national defenses against terrorist attacks. Republican Congressmen were more interested in spreading the president’s dalliances around the globe and making a fool of him and the nation.

Dissembling

The Patriot Act was thus rammed down everyone’s throats. In the Senate, only one lone figure voted No, Russ Feingold:

The first caution was that we must continue to respect our Constitution and protect our civil liberties in the wake of the attacks. As the chairman of the Constitution Subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee, I recognize that this is a different world with different technologies, different issues, and different threats. Yet we must examine every item that is proposed in response to these events to be sure we are not rewarding these terrorists and weakening ourselves by giving up the cherished freedoms that they seek to destroy.

That took courage. The Act, which is scheduled to end on May 29, 2011, was voted in. What followed was deafening cacophony freely mixed with imagery as crazy and perplexing as an Erró, and accompanied by the nightly swatch of color-coded alerts that went up and down, haphazardly, for all intents and purposes, or whenever the Bush people needed some distraction.  The willing accomplices in this grand guignol were the nation’s newsmen and –women, and the astute businesspersons peddling security gadgets. It was like the Fifties all over again, simple stuff in 4/4 and C major, when the USSR was The Enemy and all one needed to do was hide under a desk if an A-bomb went off.

Lots of fearmongering, no substance

(Note to self:  Vociferous patriotism should always get alarm bells ringing, because it usually means that someone in power wants to do something unpopular.) Indeed, the public was served the usual bread and circus and remained thoroughly confused as to what was real and fake. Self-inflating evangelists added the screeching sound of their axes grinding. And in the strange audio-visual haze, the media gave scant attention to the steady chiseling away at civil rights, to the unwieldy and ineffective policies of a government stocked with ideologues and cronies, to the pernicious mixing up of the private sector and government, or even the one-sided economic boom that was heading for bust.

In the months and then years following 9/11, fundamental rights were eroded in the name of national security. The tide of violent rhetoric and unadulterated bilge also generated a mobocracy of superpatriots who began randomly attacking anyone of Muslim faith or suspected thereof, like Sikhs who wear turbans.* (Even today, there is a class of con artists and other frauds willing to sacrifice their self-respect, like pastor Jones, or all those bizarre birthers, to heave themselves into prominence and profit from riding anti-Muslim sentiment.) Wiretapping became commonplace (still is most probably), arrests arbitrary, peace groups were harassed by the FBI, private rights started bending to the point of breaking in the face of alleged national security needs.  A survey showed at one point that a majority felt that free speech had its limits, and reading a book about Islam in a public library could get you flagged. The Valery Plame affair stands out as a notoriously dangerous encroachment on someone’s life by government. It looked like the salami tactic of the Communist parties in Eastern Europe in the post-war era.

Torture(d) logic

The country even engaged in a spurious debate on the whether torture (waterboarding) was effective and whether it was even allowed. A moot debate, since it is notoriously ineffective and no one in their right mind can deny that waterboarding is torture and was always considered such, no matter how much it is called “enhanced interrogation.”* Moreover, waterboarding was not the only means of torture used, notably in Afghanistan and in the countries involved in the extraordinary rendition scheme.  To this came prisoner abuse in many forms (see Abu Ghraib) obviously enabled and supported by ignorant, brutish commanders and sanctioned from farther up the hierarchy. But the US population could not put aside its fear and its differences to unite on upholding the law, and since any reading is for left-wing-elitist-college types, the debate ground on within a cocoon of total ignorance.

Waterboarding, it’s torture and a war crime

At any rate, the disgraceful trampling of human and civil rights culminated in the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which might have shocked Americans into a new revolution 40 years prior. But in 2006, after decades of television news, confusing and equivocating punditism, and a five-year diet of hyper-news, fear-mongering, and sheer propaganda from Washington trickling down through a 24-hour news cycle starving for content, We The People were ready to surrender habeas corpus with barely a whimper. Guantanamo and permanent detention without trial were thus justified, arrests on suspicion as well, and torture under whatever name with it. And whenever anyone complained, they were literally accused of treason (New Yorker journalist Seymour Hersch, for example, who was more or less called a terrorist for reporting on Richard Perle’s wheeling and dealing in the private sector). A majority in both houses voted for the Act. Amazingly, one of the pro crowd, Republican Arlen Specter, pointed out that 900 years of habeas corpus were being undone. Two years later, the Supreme Court came to the rescue and voted (5-4) to restore habeas corpus at least.

Spreading the news

What the USA does within its own borders is its own business. But George Walker Bush and his people (Cheney, Rice, and less visible figures like the old desk-bound Cold Warriors Perle and Wolfowitz) were also hell bent on getting boots on the ground to defend US exceptionalism and spread the neo-conservative tripe. And, one can only suspect, keep the country whipped into shape.

It was all in response to the hysteria they were themselves creating. Oil may also have played a role in the decision-making, but it’s not as relevant as some would believe.  The casus belli: Terror. The Bush administration managed to trigger a permanent war like that in Orwell’s 1984, a war to justify any act no matter how brutal, no matter how un-democratic. The absurdity of the “war on terror” (like the “war on drugs”) is worthy of Kafka. It was never defined, there are no benchmarks, no milestones, no road maps, no goals, no exit strategies, no rules. To this end, however, we lowered the bar even further on democratic ideals and ethics: Alberto Gonzalez, as the White House chief legal advisor, went so far as to call some of the Geneva Convention provisions “quaint and obsolete.” Only one person in the administration, Colin Powell, one of the very tragic, almost Shakespearean, figures on the American political scene, protested. He saw, no doubt, that the nation was lowering it’s standards to those of the “other side.” But the “other side” was indefinable, so in the end, the task of creating the enemy was left up to the noise machine in the USA, which proved short on info and rich in easily swallowed stereotypes. The snake started eating its own tail.

Fighting shadows

In fact the only thing that can be said of the “war on terror” is that it is an admission of defeat. Terrorism has always existed as a form of violent expression of the downtrodden. Even Russia under the Czars was beset by terror, for instance. But in the USA, every pundit, every pol and every fraud with a pulpit compared Osama bin Laden to Hitler or Stalin, probably for no other reason than these are perhaps the only really Big Names in Monstrosity known to the general public. The comparison was totally false. Gavrilo Princip, today considered  something of a hero by the formerly allied powers of World War One, also committed an act of terror and was the member of a secret, terrorist society. His act set off  World War One, we all learn in school. But the real reason for the outbreak of World War One, was the sheer hubris and aggressiveness of the Habsburg government in Austro-Hungary, which was, like the Bush administration, determined to go to war come hell or high water. Twelve million dead later, plus countless casualties including millions of acres of land, the Habsburg Empire was dismantled. And the social and political seed was sewn for the next war. Osama  bin Laden was, I fear, closer to Gavrilo Princip than  Hitler. He understood that the fundamental aim of terrorism is to push a dominant power into destroying itself.

Hitting the neural point: Gavrilo Princip’s assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, 1914

All those allegedly sharp heads in the Bush White House couldn’t figure that out because they were pursuing their own ideological hallucinations and a completely flawed policy of applying military force to police action. Combating terrorism is asymmetrical, and sending a huge and high-tech army to hunt down a few fellows is like trying to swat a fly in a porcelain store with a two-by-four. It does not take a genius to figure this out, and in fact at least one journalist, Robert Fisk, who knew bin Laden, wrote a few days after 9/11:

“[W]hat happened in New York was a crime against humanity. And that means policemen, arrests, justice, a whole new international court at The Hague if necessary. Not cruise missiles and “precision” bombs and Muslim lives lost in revenge for Western lives. But the trap has been sprung. Mr Bush – perhaps we, too – are now walking into it.”

Prophetic words before the wars began. Afghanistan was first, the easiest sell, though it was of questionable legality as well, as Kate Hudson, General  Secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament rightly points out

“To wage war against a whole nation for the crimes of a few was not only wrong but illegal under international law: collective punishment of a people is outlawed. Even assuming bin Laden was guilty and was hiding in Afghanistan — and even if the Taliban government harbored him and his al Qaeda network — that would not make it right or legal to bomb innocent civilians.”

The wave of compassion for New York and the USA, however, drove many countries to join in this coalition of the more-or-less willing. Germany did felt queasy about invading Afghanistan, even though the country finally acquiesced and sent in support. But there was some hemming and hawing about it in the media at the time that Americans may not have understood.

Here is a hint: Ever since the country’s twelve-year psychotic episode under Hitler, Germans take war very seriously, since every village has a cenotaph to the kids the country lost in perfectly senseless wars. And Germans take laws and constitutionality very seriously as well. Hence, the execution of Osama bin Laden has been taken with a feeling of discomfort. Chancellor Angela Merkel did approve, perhaps too quickly even for her own party of Christian Democrats (my emphasis).  While the BBC correspondent Stephen Evans notes this “carping” in Germany, he wrongly attributes it to anti-Americanism. (It is strange, that whenever anyone criticizes Germany, they inevitably make some Nazi reference. But when Germany maintains a staunchly legal argument, the critics suddenly throw a hissy fit.)

Anything goes

In the shadow of Afghanistan, the Bush administration also tried to overthrow Hugo Chavez, but failed – apparently heads of state in Latin America have actually learned to be more careful of their North American neighbors. The issue there was oil. But the real focus of the administration was not Latin America, but rather Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with 9/11. As a target, though, one couldn’t have asked for better: Saddam Hussein was a larger than life dictator, a repulsive man, who dared use the weapons the US sold him on his own people and on Iran.  G.W. Bush, having failed to smoke out Osama bin Laden, was ready to conduct “une bonne petite guerre” to rally the country and keep up the hype.

The war in Iraq was launched following a campaign mixing stupefying theatrics and transparent disinformation. The administration also powered up a massive expectations management campaign, during which the coming conflict and the armies of Saddam Hussein were depicted as invincible killing machines. This made the “victory” seem all the greater, and G. W. Bush made his farcical appearance on an aircraft carrier to the delight of the nodding TV crowd. All pure nonsense, of course.

It was a repeat of the 1991 bull sessions, when the same information management system was in place, a system that simply ignored the fact that Iraq had been engaged in a horrible war of attrition with Iran for eight years, thanks in part to arms sold to both sides. And since 1991, Iraq had been the subject of a brutal embargo and occasional bombings and had no way of resisting. Its airspace was, as far as anyone could see, open for foreign business. .

Iraq was still in the process of exploding and imploding, when the Bush administration turned the heat up on Iran. Another convenient target, too, with a very shoddy human rights record. Iranians, like Iraqis, lived through in a dictatorship. Yet we were willing to bomb them as well, apparently, and if “bomb-bomb-bomb Iran” McCain had won the 2008 elections, thousands of families there, too, would be grieving because of the president we might have voted into power. That is the difference between democracy and dictatorship: we are clearly responsible for the harm our leaders do. Failing to understand that means failing to understand the responsibility we have in a democracy to elect leaders who will uphold the law and the national standards of humanity. We might not expect decency from a Kim Il-Jong, but we should expect it from our government and from our allies.

The balance sheet

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were and remain brutal. In spite of sexy videos and lots of hi-tech gadgetry, the fact is that only a minority of bombs delivered were smart bombs, and some of those were quite stupid. In the end, Iraq and Afghanistan have cost the lives of untold numbers of innocent people, so many in fact that there is no clear tally. How many wedding parties in Afghanistan and Iraq became targets? How many children killed by our heroes? How many drones dispatched innocents going about their business to the next world? How many American soldiers dead, how many wounded or now debilitated by PTSD?

In Iraq, hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed, billions upon billions poured into what became a ghastly civil war that the news media refused to recognize as such, because whenever the term was used, a coterie of double-speak specialists and the entire Bush cabinet said it was not so. The issue of proportionality, another of the quaint provisions of the Geneva Conventions, was never even considered apparently, except on the part of real bleeding hearts. The result: When we started in Iraq, there was no Al Qaeda there. Now there is. And there are thousands upon thousands of grieving families, some who probably never heard of the World Trade Center. The country is a mess. Afghanistan is still a war zone, and heroin is still a major export (the big taker is Russia). Do the civilians in these countries not have a right to hear why Osama  bin Laden was pursued with such vigor? And perhaps the American taxpayers should start demanding where all the money they throw at the Pentagon is really going. In the 80s, there were 7000-dollar toilet seats in aircraft carriers and hammers worth more than Maxwell’s. Today no one even bothers asking. The hawks should be wondering how, with a military budget that is way beyond anything anyone spends in the world, we are still incapable of pacifying Afghanistan. As with Vietnam, surely, they will blame the “left-wing media” and “Jane Fonda types.”

Collateral damage

Pressure to react to 9/11 prompted the invasion of Afghanistan, though the results have been fairly disastrous. On the other hand, Iraq was, to paraphrase Talleyrand, “worse than a crime, it was an error.” Besides the pain inflicted on the country, it estranged strong allies. The Europeans for the most part were naturally reluctant to go along with the Bush adventure, especially with extremely flimsy evidence, though it was enough to convince the two houses of Congress.

Tony Blair should have known better, though he is still defending the decision, now as a Catholic, which allows for the cleansing of crimes by confession.  Rather than respect the sovereignty of European countries and their freedom of choice, the American government, backed by Fox News, trash radio and a mainstream media too timorous to uncover the nonsense and educate its consumers, went on an infantile rampage against them. Remember the Liberty Fries, and the demonstrative decanting of French wines in the streets? Such silliness, hardly worthy of a great nation still goes on to this day, because Obama has not felt any real need to cash in his popularity in Europe for support. Did anyone explain to Americans, for example, that European armies are often conscripted and hence using them particularly for illegal wars of aggression is not exactly good marketing?  How about asking the French about their experience with an Arab nation? That might have been very instructive. In fact, once the civil war (insurgency) got going in Iraq, the Pentagon apparently offered itself a screening of Gillo Pontecorvo’s powerful and highly instructive docudrama The Battle Of Algiers.  Perhaps if Americans would have seen it instead of watching inane, repetitive soaps and reality shows, they might have had a more differentiated view of the war, of the Middle East, of the moral dangers of torture, even of terrorism and how it functions.

In the final analysis, any basic performance review of the handling of the whole sorry Osama bin Laden affair should put paid to any idea that in killing him “we won”. It was a Pyrrhic victory at the very best. We won nothing at all. We got distracted, we refused to take a step back and look at the broader picture. The nation fell into paroxysms of fear and hence became malleable as wax in the sun. That is probably why Osama bin Laden could kick back, relax, watch home movies of himself and make a baby or two in the past seven years or so. By touting itself as the sole defender of the free world against a faceless threat, the USA also became an open wallet for any foreign power seeking a little cash for real or imagined services, which is why the sudden dismay at Pakistan’s dubious role seems so silly. The USA simply dissembled of its own accord, becoming more and more obsessed by another attack, by Muslims, by anything that went bump in the night. It sent soldiers to do a policeman’s job, regardless of the collateral damage that may well come back to haunt the nation. In the process, the country lost allies and lost much of its relevance.

Powerful nations, like powerful people, are often offensively narcissistic. They strut about, fascinated by their own glow, oblivious of other nations, other peoples and their desires, needs and customs. The USA, with its doctrinal variations on the theme of manifest destiny, suffers from this obsession of the self.  How is it that the government and the people cannot see that by trampling over the whole planet without the slightest regard for, or curiosity about, other people, other lifestyles, other cultures, most of them far older than theirs, they are making enemies?  Where is the attempt to walk a mile in other’s shoes?  In its quest to hunt  bin Laden the USA has raged around the globe, wiping out innocent people left, right and centre, destroying millions of livelihoods for no better reason than it has the means to do it and seems to believe firmly that something in the eight letters spelling American gives them the right to do so. And then they wonder out loud in all innocence why people “hate them.”

Tough self-love

With all the excitement, Osama bin Laden also became irrelevant, a victim of his own hubris. The world’s great monster, as we now know, sat in a dumpy “mansion,” tanking up on Pakistani Viagra and scribbling his thoughts in his diary. Brendan Greeley of Bloomberg Business News got it partly right when he said in a commentary that Osama bin Laden’s popularity was dwindling in the Arab world simply because he was acting like a rock star and had failed to address the issue of poverty and the lack of opportunity in the Arab world. That was obvious, he was a very rich man who never had to really work in his life. Plus he wanted to turn the clock back to a time when the rich really ruled without any challenges and without even letting the Great Unwashed have fun, say, with the Internet and other cheap techno-distractions. The street, as it were, realized fast enough that this man was not really behind them.

It should be a lesson for the West and especially the USA. The spread of pure capitalism is not putting Lexuses and olive trees all over the place, rather it is reinforcing existing economic structures and hence sealing in poverty. Poverty and lack of opportunity will breed violence. Violence will always breed violence. So powerful nations and powerful organizations will at some point have to decide if short-term profits are really sustainable politically and socially. Kate Hudson secretary general of the September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, expressed this sentiment in a CNN editorial: “It is our hope that the rule of law, underpinned by our Constitution that was so terribly strained in the name of September 11th will again become the guiding light of our policies at home and abroad.”

And the rule of law must be for all and has an economic component as well. William O’Connor over at Counterpunch, a former firefighter and Vietnam vet put it differently, but just as pointedly: “This is no game, no time to rejoice, and no time for partisanship. I encourage you to demonstrate the angels of our better nature, expose America’s compassion.”

Terrorist acts cannot be prevented. The clockwork model of the world is an illusion we have carried since the 18th century, along with the delusion of the invisible hand of the market.  By the same token, Osama bin Laden was not a cause, he was a symptom and the support he received at least for a time, was born of despair, of a sense of injustice, nurtured by frustration and led by individuals seeking power.  To see terror in the Middle East as being a mere product of psychotic imams and ill-tempered Palestinians is stupid at best and grossly negligent at worst. In the article mentioned above, Robert Fisk reminded readers of the obvious fact that “America’s name is literally stamped on to the missiles fired by Israel into Palestinian buildings in Gaza and the West Bank.”  Would that not generate a modicum of frustration and anger, especially since the USA is the most prominent peace broker in the region? Osama bin Laden was just one in a long line of men who tried to channel that despair and he will by no means the last one. The world cannot stop such people, but by dint of teamwork, by sharing resources rather than hoarding them, by shedding racism, xenophobia, and the nationalist impulse to feel superior, we as global citizens, can dry out the abscess of hatred and despair that keeps rejecting peace.

*Waterboarding is plain and simply torture, describing it otherwise is disingenuous at best. Amongst others, it was a technique used against a Jewish editor of the Alger Républicain newspaper named Henri Alleg by the French parachutists in Algiers in 1957, who were trying to put down the insurgency in the city of Algiers. Alleg managed to survive and then escape and publish a book about his experience called La Question (in the Editions de Minuit). He was helped by Jean-Paul Sartre. Though the French government tried to suppress the book, enough copies circulated to begin turning public opinion in France against the Algerian war. Alleg describes how keeping his mouth shut became his only means of resistance. The book also makes the point that using torture reflects darkly upon the whole of a democratic society.

And here is what Françoise Sironi has to say about torture (from an interview with the Swiss newspaper La Liberté). She is co-founder of the Centre Primo Levi in Paris, which cares for victims of torture):

The efficiency of torture is a political lie. It is disinformation, and I can say that as a doctor. First of all it creates confusion: the victims no longer know what they are saying, they will say anything just to get it to stop. We also know that all the movements of organized struggle – secret services, resistance movements – prepare their members to give false information under torture. Finally, the opening of the archives of the French Army showed that at the time of the war in Algeria, already, where torture was frequently used, the army itself considered it that least effective means to obtain accurate information. The most effective means was infiltration.”

Memories from another world

Part I: East Germany

(The Iron Curtain held the world hostage on both sides of the infamous border for decades. For the Germans, the hostage situation was a little different because entire families were divided — as are Korean families, I understand. Many Westerners also experienced the East Bloc and were horrified or fascinated or both. My own experiences were mostly in East Germany and Hungary in the late 80s. The following is a series of memories and comments on the situation back through my own eyes both as a journalist and as a plain citizen visiting my then wife’s family. It is important to be detailed and clear, because this is my tiny contribution to the subject I once studied: History. My only tiny feeling of personal pride was having seen early on that the curtain would break open soon (after my first trip in ’86) and that the break would come in Hungary. No editor at the time was interested, the comment was “too speculative.” One East German colleague I met in Budapest thought I was nuts. I was happy to publish one little piece in the Boston Globe, finally, on November 9, 2009.

I will publish this in several installments and at some time in the future will add some photographs from my own collection (it is in storage far away), so please feel free to check back or subscribe.

Final crossings

On November 13, 1989, I entered East Germany illegally and in full knowledge of what I was doing. It happened on the Glienicker Brücke that connected East and West Berlin over the Havel river. This pretty little cantilever bridge was a neural spot between the then moribund East Bloc and the preening Western Democracies, an almost legendary construction that had been used for spy exchanges between East and West. It was a crisp, cold day, almost blinding. My visa for the German Democratic Republic, GDR, had just been stamped out by a curt border guard who had informed me that in order to return, I needed a new visa. “But I left my belongings in the hotel in Potsdam,” I stated politely. “Well, you’ll have to get a new visa,” he said with finality, punctuating a visible disinterest in an American citizen by turning to the next fellow in a fairly long line of people wanting to cross the bridge.

Glienickerbrücke-Source unknown

I set off as in a daze, my mind crunching the possibilities available to me to get my belongings back and, above all, to complete my job, which was perfectly unpolitical: I was writing an article on the particular baroque style of Frederic the Great of Prussia, whose palaces at that point in time stood on either side of the Wall: Sanssouci in Potsdam, Charlottenburg in West Berlin, with a number of other architectural testaments spread liberally around the area. My mother, Karen Radkai, was doing the photography. It was one of the few times we worked together — alas, for she was a terrific person to work with — and we were freelancing. House & Garden, where she published often, had registered interest in purchasing the article.

A lot has been forgotten over the past decades, a lot has been buried under the more egregious or absurd aspects of the East Bloc in general and East Germany in particular, the Orwellian control mechanisms in place, the prisons, the shoddy manufacturing (not all of it), the inefficient economy, the drab housing. In addition to all the spying, including preposterous attempts to gather people’s odors, the system had generated a few very pedestrian inconveniences. For one, if you wanted a visa as a westerner, for instance, you had to apply at least a month ahead of time and you had to know exactly where you were going to go and when, since the authorities, obsessed as they were with control, did not really take to spontaneous travel. Secondly, to phone the GDR from the West, you needed a healthy dialing finger, plus about a day’s worth of time. A special operator would register your call early in the morning and then connect you at some time during the day, it could be three, eight, or ten hours later. You just waited and waved away any other incoming calls (this was before all the sexy communication systems we have today).

That is the information that shot through my mind as I sauntered towards West Berlin on the Glienicker Bridge. That, and my rather innocent mother and her assistant wandering around Potsdam enjoying the somewhat dreary sights. Even though I had warned her this might happen, as a native German from the unified country, she simply could not conceive that there was this long, spooky, insurmountable wall cutting Germany and the world in two. So I did something inconceivable: I stopped before reaching the West Berlin side of the bridge, turned around and started walking back, trying to look as casual as a 6’3” man with a mop of unruly blond hair and wearing a trench coat (finest spy garb…) might be able to. A pebble on the beach and all that. There was not that much traffic, and what there was, was coming toward me from the east. In my peripheral vision, I caught the border guard dealing with someone’s papers, and I willed him to keep looking away from me at whatever he was doing. “I’m just a little grey mouse, as grey as the tar,” I mantraed to myself, heart beating like a loose wheel on a roller coaster. … I passed under a small East German banner. And suddenly, like a baby out of the womb, I was reborn in the GDR. But without a visa.

As I mentioned above, I knew what I was doing. I had found out the day before that I only had a one-time visa, care of an East German misunderstanding. But in those heady days after the now famous announcement by Günther Schabowski, I could not believe it, even though the opening of the border was only one way at the time, from east to west – and West Berliners were still not permitted to cross the border. And secretly, I did want to beat that bizarre system just once. I guess everyone did at some point, some with more risk than others. My own risk would have probably been a few hours at the custom’s house or police station. Some people I knew risked more. And I hope to unveil some of their stories in the following narrative. They are not the prominent folk, people whose quotes are famous and repeated like gospel. They are just everyday people with their struggles and tribulations. East Germany Part II continues…