Attention must be paid

August 23, 2019

I read Matthew B. Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction .when it first came out in 2015 and reviewed it favorably.  I read it again recently as part of a reading group hosted by my friend Paul Mitacek and found it well worth re-reading.

Crawford’s basic idea is that we are what we pay attention to, so we should be careful what we pay attention to.  He wrote that there is a moral imperative to attend to the real world and not retreat to a world inside your head.

But attention is a limited resource.  You can’t focus on everything all at once, and your ability to focus is depleted over the course of a day.

The book has two themes.  One is the challenge of engaging with reality—the realities of tangible things, of other people and also of tradition—because reality can be frustrating.  It is what it is, regardless of your wishes..  The temptation is to buffer yourself by use of technology

The other theme is the danger of letting your attention be hijacked by people and organizations that want to manipulate you for their own purpose.  Attention comes in two kinds, purpose-driven and stimulus-driven.   The more you are forced to respond to stimuli, the less you are able to focus on your own purposes.

In the contemporary USA, there are billion-dollar industries devoted to capturing your attention and manipulating your perceptions.  It’s almost impossible to get away from this, as Crawford noted.  Silence has become a luxury good.

All this may seem abstract, but The World Beyond Your Head isn’t an abstract book.  Crawford filled the book with reports of skilled practitioners, including carpenters, short-order cooks, ice hockey players, martial arts fighters and motorcycle racers, and how they train themselves to focus their minds and hone their skills.

Crawford himself, at the time he wrote this book, had a job making components for custom-made motorcycles.  There is no postmodern way of making motorcycle parts.  The component is real.  It either functions or it doesn’t.

He said he felt validated every time he presented his bill to a satisfied customer.  But he added that the public are not the best judges of craft work.  The only true judge of a skilled carpenter is another skilled carpenter.

Skilled manual work is devalued.  A good auto mechanic is just as intelligent as, say, a good pharmacist or librarian, but the mechanic is not respected because he gets his hands dirty.

Factory workers are deskilled by design.  Customers also are deskilled by design.  An example of this is the battle over the right of farmers to repair farm machinery, rather than sending it back to the manufacturer for a replacement.

Technology buffers us from the physical world.  It also buffers us from other people.  It’s much less risky to relate to people on social media than it is face-to-face.   There are many anecdotes about college students today demanding to be protected from the discomfort and even fear that they feel when someone expresses a hostile opinion.

Big institutions have rules for how their employees are supposed to behave, all of which involve not expressing personal feelings and opinions and not exercising individual judgment, no matter what the situation, so that they never give offense.  Instead they’re supposed to face the world with a bland, smiling neutrality.

The last chapter of the book is a report on a firm of pipe organ builders.  They’re the inheritors of a centuries-old tradition of organ building.  They’re the masters of an age-old craft.  But they are more than that.  They can’t just be historic preservationists.  The organs they build have to be fit for use not just now but for a long time to come.  They express their individuality not be rebelling against a tradition, but by enriching and adding to it.

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What if Hitler had been assassinated in 1930?

August 21, 2019

What if Adolf Hitler had been assassinated in 1930?  How would history have been changed?

I believe there would have been no Second World War in Europe.  The more than 20 million troops who died in battle and more than 20 million civilians who were killed would have lived out their natural lives.  But the consequences after that?  A mixture of both good and bad..

Some say history might not have been changed all that much.  They say some other Nazi, such as Goebbels or Goering, would have stepped into Hitler’s shoes.   And that leader, they add, might not have made Hitler’s mistakes.  A more capable leader might have won the war.

Adolf Hitler

I don’t think so.  The Nazi party was organized around the cult of Hitler’s personality.  It wouldn’t have been so easy to find a substitute with his charisma.  I don’t think any of the others would have had his ability to maneuver his way into the chancellorship, then leverage that power into absolute dictatorship and lead a reluctant German officer corps into war.

In the absence of Hitler, Germany might well have become an anti-semitic right-wing dictatorship anyhow, like Poland, Hungary and other European countries.  The German government might have included a few Nazis.  Germany certainly would have re-armed and resumed its place among the great European powers.

But the German generals did not want to go to war with Britain and France.  We now know they would have attempted a coup if the Allies had resisted the remilitarization of the Rhineland or the annexation of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia.  If Hitler had not tamed them, they would not have consented to starting a general war in Europe.

After the war, the German generals claimed they might have won if Hitler had not rejected their advice on strategy and tactics.  But Hitler had a better strategic sense than they did.  He recognized that without a dependable source of oil, the blitzkrieg tactic would have stalled, because it depended on large numbers of motorized vehicles moving quickly.  He prioritized the invasion of Ukraine and the Caucasus, but the main objective of his tradition-bound generals was Moscow, the enemy capital.

 No Hitler, no Second World War in Europe.  What follows from that?

There would have been no atomic bomb in 1945 or perhaps.  Without a Hitler, there would have been no reason to undertake such a project.

Only the United States had the wealth and industrial power to undertake the Manhattan Project, and even then, the project would not have succeeded without the help of European refugee scientists.

There probably would still have been a Pacific War between the United States and Japan.  The cause of that conflict was the U.S. oil embargo against Japan to enforce a demand that Japan withdraw its forces from China.

Rather than comply with that demand, Japan seized the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), the only important source of oil in the Far East.  The Japanese attempted to neutralize British and American forces by conquering the Philippines, capturing Britain’s Singapore base and bombing the American fleet at Pearl Harbor.

Even though the United States would have lacked an atomic bomb, there would have been no need for an American invasion of the Japanese islands.  U.S. forces could have bombed and starved the Japanese into submission without an invasion and without nuclear weapons, probably with as much or more loss of Japanese lives than in the actual war.

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If you had your life to live over…

August 19, 2019

Sometimes I like awake in bed going over the many times in my life when I’ve been foolish, weak or blindly selfish, and rewriting the script so that I behaved as I wish had I behaved.

What would it be like to actually have the chance to live your life over?  Life After Life by Kate Atkinson is about a women who had that chance, not just once, but many times.

Her heroine, Ursula Todd, dies or is killed at least 15 times, including once in childbirth in 1910, four times in the influenza epidemic of 1918 and three times in the London Blitz in 1940.  On each new iteration of her life, she has a dim memory of having lived before.

She learns to survive the ‘flu epidemic by pushing a family servant girl, Bridget, down a flight of stairs and making her break her arm the night before she would have gone into town and gotten inflected.

In later lives, she achieves the same result by telling Bridget lies that cause her to break up with her boyfriend, thus depriving her of the reason to go into town.

But no matter how many times she lives, she can never realize all possibilities.

During one iteration of her life during the Blitz, a man sitting next to her on the Tube (subway) notices she is good at working crossword puzzles, gives her his business card and says he is recruiting “clever girls.”  She decides to follow up on this, but loses the card.

We the readers know, as she does not, that she has lost a chance to be a codebreaker at Bletchley Park.  That chance does not come again.

The Blitz is the “dark beating heart” of the book, Atkinson wrote in an afterword.  She was born in 1951.  “During the war we were weighed in the balance and not found wanting.  The more I read about the war, the more I think that … we really were at our best then, and I would have liked to have known that.”

The book is “about being English,” she wrote.  “Not just the reality of being English, but also what we are in our own imagination,” she wrote.   Yet Ursula lives one of her lives in Germany and dies in Berlin in 1945.

Ursula decides to change history by assassinating Hitler.  In the following life, she learns German and marksmanship, makes the acquaintance of Eva Braun in 1930 and is introduced to Hitler.  She pulls a gun out of her handbag and gets off one shot, because being shot down by his bodyguards.

This is the end of the book. It is where I, as a long-time reader of science fiction, would expect the novel to begin.

What does she do next?  Will she do the same thing in all her subsequent lives—devote herself to preparing to kill Hitler, dying in a hail of bullets at the age of 20, and never knowing for sure what effect her sacrifice had? Or perhaps, in repeated lives, perfect her technique so that she can kill Hitler and get away with it?

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Oil paintings that are both abstract and realistic

August 17, 2019

How abstract can a painting be and still depict something that is recognizably real?  And still not be grotesque?

Jason Kottke posted these paintings by Jason Anderson on his kottke.org web log.

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The hour of maximum danger for U.S. democracy

August 16, 2019

The hour of maximum danger for U.S. democracy, or what will be left of it, will be when other nations rebel against the power of the U.S. dollar.   That will be when the United States is most in danger of a would-be Hitler or Mussolini.

The power of the U.S. dollar is what gives Washington the means to be a great economic power despite huge trade deficits and a hollowing out of American manufacturing.  It provides the means to maintain the world’s most expensive military.

It gives Washington the means to wage economic warfare against nations such as Iran, Venezuela and Russia, and to force poor nations to sacrifice the well-being of their people to foreign creditors.

But the power of the U.S. dollar is a legacy of a past when the U.S. was the world’s leading industrial nation, leading creditor nation and leading exporting nation.   Now the dominance of the dollar rests on the fact no nation’s leaders are both brave enough, and lead a nation that is strong enough, to defy the dollar system.

Benjamin Carter Hett wrote in The Death of Democracy that many European nations turned to fascist and right-wing dictatorships as a result of military defeat, which discredited the established governments, and strong Communist and revolutionary movements, which caused the middle classes to look for protectors.

German democracy survived for a time, but was pushed over the brink by onset of the Great Depression, which the established government was unable to cope with.

The conditions will exist in the United States following the crash of the U.S. dollar.  The U.S. government will no longer be able to raise money by borrowing in foreign markets.  Lack of borrowing power will mean it no longer will be able to pay for a world-wide network of military bases.

At the same time, the military will have to pay more for imported electronics components, imported oil and other supplies, including uniforms.  The fall in value of the U.S. dollar will make U.S. manufacturing costs cheaper in relation other currencies, but it won’t be able to fix the lack of manufacturing capacity.  And it will make investment in new manufacturing capacity more expensive.

The sudden collapse of U.S. military power without a military defeat would open the way to a “stab in the back” myth, comparable to the one about Germany’s defeat in World War One.

The buying power of U.S. workers will fall and the prices of merchandise, so much of which is directly or indirectly dependent on foreign supply chains, will fall.  There will be a crash in the U.S. financial markets and real estate markets.  Many workers will strike.  Many citizens will turn to the streets in protest—probably very few that are explicitly Communist, but who knows?

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An ABC of gerrymandered congressional districts

August 14, 2019

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LINK

The Gerrymandered Font posted by Jason Kottke.

An elite that dare not call themselves elite

August 12, 2019

Natalia Dashan attended Yale University on a scholarship.  She was one of the 2 percent of Yale undergraduates whose parents are in the bottom fifth of American income earners.

She recently wrote an essay about something that struck her about some of her well-to-do classmates..

They lived and acted as if they in fact were poor.   They looked for reasons to think of themselves as oppressed.  They were in a near-constant state of rebellion.

Yale University Shield

But the rebellions were not over anybody’s material interests.  They were over whether how things were named or what someone said was appropriate—for example, whether “master” was an appropriate job title for the head of a college or whether a faculty member was out-of-line for scoffing at worries about racial stereotyping in Hallowe’en costumes.

Dashing also was struck by how quickly the faculty and administrators caved in to student protests, no matter how foolish their demands might have seemed to someone outside the academic environment and even in the absence of evidence that the protestors represented anybody but themselves.

The historic role of Yale, Harvard and other Ivy League universities has been to educate upper-class Americans to take on the responsibility of leadership—that is, for being a member of a ruling class.

Dashan concluded that the elite—defining the elite as those who grow up with the expectation that they and their children will attend Yale, Harvard or the equivalent—no longer want to assume the responsibility of leading and ruling.

So young people born to wealth and power look for ways to define themselves as oppressed, and older people, who should be their mentors, fear to appear in the role of oppressor.

The problem is that it is largely a performance—what I like to call psychodrama, but which more accurately could be called live-action role-playing.  It is tolerated because it is no threat to anybody, except the unlucky individuals who get caught in the crossfire.

Why this loss of confidence?  Dashan thinks it is fear of responsibility.  I think that is a large part of it.  But I think the more important part is a decline in belief in the values that gave confidence to earlier generations of elite Americans.

When I read Edmund Morris’s The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, I was struck by how different the Harvard he attended was from the Harvard of today.

The goal of Harvard University in the 1870s was not only to provide an intellectual education, but to shape students’ character based on ideals of patriotism, Protestantism and manliness.

Young men were expected to participate in footfall and other contact sports to toughen them up, but also to teach ideals of sportsmanship—doing your best, but obeying the rules and not whining if you lose.  Attendance at morning prayers at Appleton Chapel was compulsory.

It is true that these ideals excluded a lot of people—Catholics, Jews, freethinkers and women, not to mention un-athletic men.  I would have felt this morality very restrictive if I had lived then.  Evidently many others over the years felt the same.

The unanswered question was:  What do you put in the place of these ideals?  Young people need to believe in something.

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Why so many suicidal mass gun killings?

August 11, 2019

Vigil for mass shooting victims in Las Vegas in 2017. Source: VOA.

The mass shootings that regularly occur in the United States are mostly also suicides.

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They are the ultimate “deaths of despair.”

The killers do their shooting in public places and are almost guaranteed to be gunned down in their turn, if they don’t kill themselves first.

They are comparable to the suicide bombers in the Middle East and elsewhere, except that the jihadist killers are sometimes trying to achieve a specific military objective, like the Japanese kamikaze pilots during World War Two.

Among all the rich Western nations, the United States is the only one in which mass shootings occur on a regular basis.

That is not to say that ordinary Americans, and visitors to the United States, are in grave danger.  As a risk factor, mass shootings rank far below traffic accidents.

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But the fact that they occur says something about our society.  For every man (the shooters are almost all men) who kills others and then himself out of rage and despair, there must be a hundred others who feel the same rage and despair and don’t act it out.

Some people blame availability of guns, and I agree it would be better if the government restricted sales of rapid-firing firearms with large ammunition clips and magazines.  Casualties from mass killings were fewer during the assault weapons ban, but they still occurred.

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Some people blame ideologies based on hatred of black people or hatred of immigrants or hatred of women.  But the mass shooters can be of any race, and the percentage of white mass shooters is slightly less than the percentage of whites in the general population.

The killers profess all kinds of professed political and social motives and some profess no motives at all.  The only common denominator is that the killers are almost all suicidal men.

Hatred and bigotry have long been motives for killing.  The new thing is that the killers are suicidal.

There are ways to commit murder without sacrificing your life in the process.  (The methods are obvious, but if you can’t think of them, I see no benefit to society in helping you out.)

I think the root cause of mass killings are feelings of powerlessness and feelings of meaninglessness.  Your life is meaningless, so you give it up.  But you take others with you, so you do have some power after all.

I don’t have a good answer for this.  Calling for a greater sense of community or a stronger sense of values isn’t going to bring these things about.  Greater availability of mental health counseling probably would help some, but it won’t in itself empower people or make their lives meaningful.

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George Alfred Townsend’s The Entailed Hat

August 10, 2019

Time for something a little lighter!  I recently finished reading a literary curiosity, THE ENTAILED HAT, or Patty Cannon’s Times: a romance by George Alfred Townsend.  It was published in 1884 but is long out of print.  

Set on the Eastern Shore of Maryland around 1830, It has two plots.  One is a beauty-and-the-beast story about how circumstances cause a beautiful young woman to wed an ugly man who wears a very ugly hat.  The other is an action-adventure story, which graduallly takes over the novel, about an attempted rescue of victims of a criminal gang that kidnaps and sells black people, both enslaved and free.

George Alfred Townsend

The author was a best-selling writer of his time.  He was reportedly the youngest correspondent to cover the Civil War and achieved fame for his reporting of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the pursuit of John Wilkes Booth.

Later he become one of the first syndicated newspaper columnists and a fiction writer.  He used the pen name Gath, based on the Biblical version, “Tell it not in Gath, publish it not on the streets of Askalon.”

The Entailed Hat is considered his best novel.  His character Meshach Milburn of Princess Anne, Somerset County, wears a hat passed down by his family through the eldest sons since the 17th century.  It is extremely ugly and makes him an object of ridicule, but he stubbornly continues to wear it out of family pride.

One day a pretty little girl, Vesta Custis, gives him a rose to put in his hat.  He is so touched that he falls in love with her and waits for her to grow up  so her can marry her.  

Although an uneducated backwoodsman (a “forester”) low on the social scale, Milburn quietly builds up a fortune over the years.   

At the same time, Vesta’s father, Judge Custis, invests the family fortune in a failed enterprise to smelt iron from low-grade “swamp ore.”   He finally gets to the point where he uses the same property twice for security on different loans, which means that he is in jeopardy of criminal charges as well as bankruptcy.

Milburn buys up all the judge’s IOUs and offers an exchange—a write-off of all his debts in exchange for his daughter’s hand in marriage.  The judge refuses.

Here the novel takes an unexpected turn.  Vesta interviews Milburn, evaluates the situation and concludes that he would be an adequate, non-abusive husband and that the benefits of marriage would exceed the costs.

Soon after the marriage, Milburn falls ill with fever and Vesta takes charge of his affairs.  She also takes charge of her father’s affairs.  Her example causes her father to reform and give up his bad habits.  She teaches Milburn social graces to make him acceptable in polite society—although she can’t persuade him to give up his hat.

About this time some of Vesta’s slaves and Milburn’s free black employee, Samson Hat, are kidnaped by members of Patty Cannon’s gang.  Patty Cannon was a real person, and her gang, operating near the Maryland-Delaware border, was once the terror of the Delmarva Peninsula.

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White nationalists aren’t the only mass shooters

August 8, 2019

I deplore the way President Trump inflames racial antagonism, and I think it would be a good idea to restrict the sale of rapid-firing rifles that use large ammunition clips and magazines.  But I don’t think either of these things is a root cause of the mass shootings that plague the U.S.A.

The root cause of mass shootings is deeper than any particular ideology, whether that be white nationalism, Islamic jihadism or something else.  The fact that it is not just due to white nationalism is shown by the racial diversity of the shooters.

And no, we don’t need a renewed “war on terror,” this one aimed at white nationalists.   [Added 8/9/2019]

LINKS

The War on White Supremacist Terror by C.J. Hopkins for The Consent Factory.  [Added 8/9/2019]  Good article.

Mass shootings aren’t growing more common—and evidence contradicts common stereotypes about the killers by Charles J. Ferguson for The Conversation.

Five things to know about mass shootings in America by Frederic Lemieux for The Conversation.

Why Do We Have Mass Killers? by Rod Dreher for The American Conservative [Added 8/9/2019]

A handy list of black mass murderers who were taken alive (for people who think that being taken alive for mass murder is a ‘white privilege’) by Will Shetterly for it’s all one thing.  [Added 8/11/2019]

I added the text, changed the headline and added links the morning after I posted the chart.

We got Donald Trump, they got Boris Johnson

August 7, 2019

Boris Johnson

A friend of mine thinks that Donald Trump would never have been elected President if the United States had the British parliamentary system instead of the 18th century U.S. Constitution, with its Electoral College and fixed terms of office.  Well, the British parliamentary system produced Boris Johnson.  I think we’re even.

LINK

The Ham of Fate by Fintan O’Toole for the New York Review of Books.

Lessons from Hitler’s rise to power

August 6, 2019

Benjamin Carter Hett’s THE DEATH OF DEMOCRACY: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic is a month-by-month account of the politics of the years leading up to the Nazi conquest of power in Germany.

Hett described how Hitler went from 2.8 percent of the popular vote in the 1928 elections to 37.6 percent in 1932,  how he leveraged Nazi voting strength to make himself chancellor by legal means in 1933 and how all pretense of legality ended in the “night of the long knives” in 1934.

That was when Hitler destroyed all remnants of legality by simply ordering the execution-style murder of his opponents, including dissidents in the Nazi party.

Adolph Reed Jr. said in an Interview that Hett’s book is not only good in itself, but it throws light on contemporary U.S. politics.  In fact it does have lessons for the present-day United States, although not in a straightforward or obvious way.

A number of European countries, following defeat in World War One and with middle classes threatened by powerful Communist movements, became right-wing dictatorships.  Fascist Italy led the way.

Germany followed a different path.  A Communist revolution was crushed by a government supported by Social Democrats.   Socialists then joined forces with the Catholic Center Party and moderate conservative parties to form a democratic government.

The democratic coalition worked for a number of years.  The economy recovered.  Inflation was curbed.

Germany became a model for democratic socialism.  Labor unions were powerful.  The government provided compulsory wage arbitration and a strong social safety net.  Homosexuality and abortion were legal.

But, like today’s USA, Weimar Germany struggled with the issue of globalization vs. economic nationalism.

One big issue Weimar Germany had in common with the present-day USA was the question of globalization vs. economic nationalism.

The governing coalition accepted the need to pay reparations for Germany’s supposed guilt for starting World War One and to back their currency with gold.  Both were seen as the price of participating in the world economy.

The right-wing nationalists, including the Nazis, objected to these policies because they denied Germany the means to pay for rearmament and a large army.  They also objected to globalization on principle.  The Nazis wanted to end reparations, abrogate international trade treaties, limit foreign trade and make Germany as self-sufficient as possible.

The refugee crisis was another big issue.  An estimated 1.5 million refugees entered Germany between 1918 and 1922.  Most of them were Germans from former German territory in France and Poland, and many were refugees from Bolshevik Russia, but a lot of them were Jews.

Many Germans worried about their country’s inability to secure its borders. The Nazi position was to expel all refugees and also all Jews, refugees or not.

Weimar Germany had its own version of identity politics, which however was based on social class and religion rather than race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.  By identity politics, I mean politics based on an affirmation that your own group is good and other groups are bad, rather than politics based on getting what you and your group want.

The identity group to which the Nazis and other right-wing nationalists appealed were the rural and middle-class German Protestants.  The American and British image of Weimar Germany is based on Berlin, but more than a third of Germans lived in villages of fewer than 2,000 people.  Rural Protestants tended to be highly religious, respectful of authority and nostalgic for the Germany of Kaiser Wilhelm.

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Storm clouds

August 3, 2019

These time-lapse photos were taken by Mike Olbinski.  Hat tip to kottke.org.  Best viewed on full screen.

Considering the case for white nationalism

August 1, 2019

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I read The White Nationalist Manifesto by Greg Johnson partly because I am annoyed at the casual way the word “racist” is thrown around, and I thought it would be interesting to discuss the ideas of an actual unapologetic racist.

I read it partly because I can remember when white racist ideas such as his were acceptable, and I see nothing in the nature of things to prevent them from becoming acceptable again.

And I read it partly because, as John Stuart Mill once said, “he who knows only his own side of a case knows little of that.”  If I believe in equal rights for all, I should be willing to confront the strongest arguments of someone who believes the opposite.

I take Greg Johnson’s arguments seriously and will respond to them in a civil manner.  I hope nobody accuses me of being an apologist for white nationalism because I do not use abusive language..  An insult is not an argument..

Greg Johnson starts out with the assumption that there is a genetic difference between white and non-white people that is so fundamental that they cannot live together in peace.  He then goes on to point out two facts.

  • The birth rate in majority-white countries, including the USA, is below the replacement rate (an average of 2.1 per woman).
  • All the countries in which the birth rate is above the replacement rate are non-white.  These are the countries that would be the predominant sources of immigration.

If non-white immigration and the declining birth rate continue indefinitely, white people will in time become minorities in their homelands and possibly be replaced altogether.  That’s a matter of logic.  Johnson calls this “white genocide.”

He mentioned the recent rise in “deaths of despair”  (suicide, drug overdoses, alcohol-related liver disease) among the American white population, which he attributed to the stress of living in a multi-racial society.

He believes that two things are necessary to prevent this:

  • White women of child-bearing age must have at least three children.  To ensure this happens, feminism must be rejected, abortion and birth control outlawed and LGBT persons not tolerated—at least among white people.  Men should be protectors and providers, women should be wives and mothers.
  • Immigration from non-white countries must cease and, over time, non-white immigrants and their children be returned to their homelands.  Jews should be sent to Israel.  In majority-white countries outside Europe, separate territories should be provided for indigenous peoples and “perhaps” for descendants of non-white slaves.  Aside from this, the long-range goal is to get rid of the non-white people.

Johnson distinguished white nationalism from white supremacy.  He did not advocate that white people subjugate and rule people of color, as in the pre-Civil War American South or apartheid South Africa.  He rather wants to exclude people of color as much as possible.

He also distinguished white nationalism from German Naziism and Italian Fascism, but here he had to tread carefully because neo-Nazis are part of his constituency.  He praised the Nazis and Fascists, whom he calls the Old Right, for their racism and anti-semitism, but added that white nationalism does not require a totalitarian police state or wars of extermination.

But while while nationalism is not totalitarian, neither is it a philosophy of individual freedom.  Johnson wrote:

White nationalism by its very nature is statist rather than libertarian, collectivist rather than individualist, illiberal rather than liberal.  We believe there is a common good—the survival and flourishing of our people—which can only be promoted by government policy, and we believe that whenever private interests conflict with the common good, the common good should win out.

Johnson endorsed the basic idea of identity politics as he sees it—that you should stick up for members of your own ethnic and racial group, regardless of merit or the facts of the individual case..  White nationalism is identity politics for white people.

The last thing he wants is a colorblind society, in which African-Americans, Hispanics and other non-whites assimilate and intermarry with the majority population.

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A fresh look at the ‘alternative right’

July 29, 2019

Matthew N. Lyons is author of INSURGENT SUPREMACISTS: The U.S. Far Right’s Challenge to State and Empire and principal author of CRTL-ALT-DELETE: An Antifascist Report on the Alternative Right.

His two books give me a framework for understanding the “alternative right” movement.  What makes the movement “alternative”, according to Lyons, is that, unlike right-wing movements of the past, its leaders are revolutionaries.

The right-wing extremists of the past, such as the Klan, used extreme and sometimes violent movements to suppress threats to the status quo, such as labor unions or black people who wanted voting rights.  The alternative right is not a defender of the existing system.  They want to repeal and replace it.

While they are small in numbers, the nomination and election of Donald Trump is an indication that many people are fed up with the existing governmental and corporate system, including the leadership of both political parties.

The “alternative right” movement is diverse.  It is not led by any particular individual or organization, and there are exceptions to almost any general statement one could make about it.  Lyons sees three main strains:

  • White nationalists.   Nowadays they tend more to white separatism than to old-time white supremacy.  They are anti-semitic, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim as well as anti-black.  They include long-time racist organizations such as the Klan, neo-Nazis and Aryan Nations, but the highest-profile leader is Richard Spencer, founder of the National Policy Institute.
  • Theocrats.  Their aim is to enact their idea of Christian doctrine and morality into law.  They oppose feminism, abortion, gay rights and separation of religion and government.  One of the driving forces is the Christian Reconstructionist movement, which advocates a theocracy based on Old Testament law in order to hasten the Second Coming of Christ.
  • The ‘Patriot’ movement.  Their aim is to arm themselves to prepare for a breakdown in social  order or a totalitarian government takeover.  They believe they have a right to resist illegitimate federal authority with armed force, but also to enforce order when the authorities fail to do so.  Examples are the Posse Comitatus and Oath Keepers movements.

One common theme uniting all the groups is an ideal of masculinity and warrior brotherhood.  Woman are honored mainly for their role as wives and mothers, although women do exercise leadership roles in some alt-right organizations.

White people and Christians are declining as a percentage of the population, so white nationalists and Christian theocrats think it’s important for whites and Christians to reproduce.

Lyons thinks the alt-right, the radical left and the corporate and governmental elite are engaged in a three-way fight that only one of them can win.

There is overlap between the alt-right and the radical left.  Both oppose globalization, both regard the corporate elite as enemies and both think the Republican and Democratic parties are corrupt, all of which I agree with.

The alt-right, like the radical left, is anti-imperialist.  Alt-rightists oppose military intervention in foreign wars, and want to wind down the existing wars, as do I.  Many admire Vladimir Putin and other authoritarian foreign leaders as examples of masculine strength and conservative nationalist values.

Lyons argued that the alt-right is not fascist.  Rather than trying to set up a totalitarian police state modeled in Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy, they seek to decentralize power.

In the United States, right-wing whites and Christians have never needed a central authority to enforce racial or religious domination.  In fact, the federal government has sometimes been a liberator, as during the Civil War and the civil rights era.

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Kurt Vonnegut on the shapes of stories

July 27, 2019

Double click to enlarge.

Kurt Vonnegut Diagrams the Shape of All Stories in a Master’s Thesis Rejected by the University of Chicago by Open Culture.  Hat tip to Lambert Strether.

What Hillary Clinton actually said

July 26, 2019

These are remarks that Hillary Clinton made at an LGBT fund-raising event in New York City on Sept. 9, 2016

You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. (Laughter/applause) Right?  (Laughter/applause) They’re racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic – Islamophobic – you name it.

Hillary Clinton

And unfortunately, there are people like that. And he has lifted them up.  He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people – now have 11 million.  He tweets and retweets their offensive hateful mean-spirited rhetoric.  Now, some of those folks – they are irredeemable, but thankfully, they are not America.

But the “other” basket – the other basket – and I know because I look at this crowd I see friends from all over America here: I see friends from Florida and Georgia and South Carolina and Texas and — as well as, you know, New York and California — but that “other” basket of people are people who feel the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures; and they’re just desperate for change.  It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from.

They don’t buy everything he says, but — he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead-end.  Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.

— Hillary Clinton, CBS News[9]

Source: Basket of deplorables – Wikipedia

Was she wrong?

Hat tip to Bill Elwell.

Sanders victory would spark a political crisis

July 25, 2019

Bernie Sanders

If Bernie Sanders actually were elected President in 2020, it would ignite a major and continuing political crisis.

Neither the Wall Street financial establishment nor the pro-war intelligence establishment (aka the “deep state”) would accept his victory as legitimate.

The Washington press corps would be against him.  Nor could he count on the support of leaders of his own party.  He threatens their sources of wealth and power by showing it is possible to be elected without big donations from rich and powerful interests.

We saw a taste of what could happen with the election of Donald Trump in 2016.  Democrats and liberals refused to accept his victory as legitimate.  A few of them proposed a silly plan to have the Electoral College disregard the instructions of voters.  I think we could expect a revival of this idea, this time on a bipartisan basis.

Then Democratic leaders and their sympathizers in the CIA put forth the idea that Trump’s victory was due to Russian agents hacking the Democratic National Committee and manipulating the voters via the Internet—the so-called Russiagate conspiracy.  Democrats still haven’t given up on using this to drive Trump from office.

(I think Donald Trump is a bad president, but I think he should be attacked for the things he actually did and I don’t think it is possible to undo the 2016 election.)

Some Russiagaters said the Russians also backed Bernie Sanders.  We’ll hear a lot more of this if Sanders ia nominated, and we’d probably get a new Russiagate investigation if he ia elected.

The Wall Street banking establishment has their own method of dealing with populist presidents.  It is to “lose confidence” in the administration, which pushes up bond interest rates, which in turn pushes the federal government budget out of balance.

Bill Clinton complained about being subject to the will of bond traders.  His friend and adviser, James Carville, said that if he died, he would like to be reincarnated as the bond market, because he would be all powerful.

Going further back in American history, Nicholas Biddle, president of the then Bank of the United States, deliberately induced a financial crisis by tightening credit in order to discredit his enemy, President Andrew Jackson.

Barack Obama was thwarted in enacting his very moderate political program by the intransigent opposition of Republicans in Congress.  In a Sanders presidency, we could expect the same thing not only from Republicans, but also from pro-corporate Democrats.

Maybe you think I’m alarmist.  I hope I am.  But I’m not predicting anything that hasn’t happened before.

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Elizabeth Warren on the next recession

July 23, 2019

Elizabeth Warren wrote a good article about how another recession is on the way, and it will be as bad as the previous one because U.S. policymakers didn’t learn the lessons of 2008.

The economic cycle of growth and recession seems to be inherent in a capitalist economy that uses financial markets.  There are many theories as to why this should be so.

Elizabeth Warren

But the 2008 recession was much worse than the ones that came before because the economic expansion was based on debt that could not be repaid.  I give myself credit for foreseeing this.

My foresight, however, was of little value because I could not foresee when the crash would come.   When it happened, it was as big a surprise to me as it was to everybody else I knew.

The problem of debt overhang has not been fixed.  Nobody has really tried—neither Presidents Obama and Trump, the Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress or the supposedly nonpartisan Federal Reserve Board.

Instead public policy has been concentrating on propping up the financial markets, mainly by holding down interest rates.  People with savings are forced into the risky financial markets if they want to keep their savings from being eroded by inflation.

Everything that made the 2008 recession so bad has been left in place

Now there is an inverted yield curve—that is, interest rates on short-term debt are higher than for long-term debt.

Usually rates on long-term debt are higher because of greater risk.  An invested yield curve is almost always a sign that investors think a recession is coming soon.

We need public policy of debt forgiveness for individuals, limits on corporate debt to what’s repayable and investment in the real economy, especially manufacturing.

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Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren?

July 22, 2019

I respect both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.  They are the only two current Presidential candidates, except maybe Tulsi Gabbard, that I’d vote for.  Unfortunately I can’t vote for both.

Warren has a better and deeper understanding of policy.  Sanders’ ideas (for example, the Walmart tax) are sometimes half-baked.

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Via Vox

But Sanders has a better and deeper understanding of public opinion and political power.  When he started campaigning for a $15 an hour minimum wage and Medicare for all, these ideas were regarded as crackpot.  He understands that public opinion is not a given.  It can be changed.

He also understands that it is not enough to have correct ideas or even to have popular ideas.  You have to have a political force behind you that is powerful enough to push these ideas through.

That is why he gives so much support to striking workers and protest demonstrations.  They represent a potential counterforce to the power of big money.

He regards billionaires and CEOs of big corporations as his enemies, and his aim is a political revolution that takes away their power.

Warren’s aim, on the other hand, is to make the system work the way it should.  That’s why Wall Street regards her as the lesser evil.

So even though many of her specific proposals are similar to Sanders’ proposals, the two represent different philosophies.

Warren wants to win an argument.  Sanders wants to win a battle.

My main reservation about the two is that neither Warren nor Sanders are full-fledged peace candidates—although Sanders is closer to being one than Warren is

If both are on the ballot in next year’s New York Democratic primary, I would vote for Sanders.

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American exceptionalism in medical care

July 22, 2019

Click to enlarge.

I’ve often run versions of this chart on my web log.  It shows that we Americans pay more for medical care than do people of other rich countries, and yet our health is worse, and many of our citizens lack good medical year.  Yet a lot of us are afraid to change.

As a writer for The Economist said:

Republican reluctance to embrace health care, despite the president’s best efforts, is understandable.

On the one hand, America’s health-care system is woefully dysfunctional: the country spends about twice as much on health care as other rich countries but has the highest infant-mortality rate and the lowest life expectancy.  Some 30m people, including 6m non-citizens, remain uninsured.

And yet, though costs remain a major concern—out-of-pocket spending on insurance continues to rise—Americans say they are generally satisfied with their own health care. Eight in ten rate the quality of their care as “good” or “excellent”.  Few are in favour of dramatic reform.

Source: Health spending and life expectancy – The Big Picture

I think many Americans are in the same situation I am.  I have medical insurance that I can afford, providing by a company that I don’t think is going to cheat me.  I don’t know what I’d do if I had to pay my medical bills out of pocket—partly because the insurance company can negotiate lower rates than I would have to pay as an individual.

So it is natural to fear any change, and to be skeptical of anybody who promises to take away what I’ve got and replace it with something else that supposedly is just as good.

So these fears lock me into a system in which I’m at the mercy for for-profit insurance companies whose profitability is based on maximizing what they take in as premiums and minimizing what they pay back as benefits.

In the best of cases, the insurer’s need for profit is added to the medical bill.

T.R. Reid, in The Healing of Americawritten 10 years ago, said one of the reasons why American pay more for medical care and get less than people of other rich countries is the for-profit insurance system.  At the time he wrote, only Switzerland had for-profit insurance companies.

The other reason is that the other countries negotiate drug prices on a national basis, which the U.S. government is forbidden by law to do, and that medical professionals in the U.S. get more than in other countries.  I don’t have any reason to think any of these things has changed in 10 years.

The justification for the high fees of American physicians is that they have to pay off their medical school debt.  Medical education in other advanced countries is free or affordable.  If Americans ever wanted to cap physicians’ fees, we should combine that with some kind of medical debt forgiveness.

Reid said that there are three alternatives to the U.S. system: (1) the Canadian Medicare model, in which health insurance is nationalized, (2) the British National Health model, in which medical care is nationalized and (3) the system in Germany and Japan, in which non-profit organizations, accountable to patients, provide health insurance.

I don’t think it is feasible to create a patient-run cooperative insurance system for scratch, and I don’t think we Americans have the administrative capability of duplicating Britain’s National Health, even if we wanted to.

So that leaves Medicare for All as the path forward.  And it’s not Medicare for All unless we get rid of private insurance and regulate drug prices.

LINKS

Why a “Public Option” Isn’t Enough by Benjamin Studebaker and Nathan J. Robinson for Current Affairs. The two writers conflate Britain’s National Health with Medicare for All, which is based on the Canadian system, but otherwise an excellent article.

“Medicare for All” vs “Public Option”: the 2020 Field Is Split, Our Survey Shows by Abby Goodnough and Trip Gabriel for The New York Times.  Where the Democratic Presidential candidates stand.

Sixteen levels of complexity in ‘Happy Birthday’

July 20, 2019

This is from Jason Kottke’s blog.

Watch, listen, and learn as pianist and composer Nahre Sol plays what you might think of as a very simple song, Happy Birthday, in 16 increasing levels of complexity.  She starts out using a single finger and ends by playing an original composition that seemingly requires 12 or 13 fingers to play. This gave me, a musical dunce, a tiny glimpse into what a composer does.

Source: A Demonstration of 16 Levels of Piano Playing Complexity

Wanted: an immigration policy

July 18, 2019

Donald Trump’s immigration policy is to discourage crossings of the southern border by means of deliberate cruelty.

But it is not enough for liberals and progressives to protest President Trump.  They need to come up with a policy of their own.  This they have not done.  Until they do, the present situation will continue, which will be to Trump’s political advantage.

The policy of cruelty did not originate with Trump.  Under the Clinton administration, the U.S. government built walls at key border crossings, so that unauthorized immigrants would be forced into the desert and risk death by thirst.  Under the Obama administration, conditions were terrible in detention centers.

The Trump administration doubled down on all these policies.  And a cynic could make the argument (although I don’t) that control by cruelty is working.  It probably has a deterrent effect, while sufficient unauthorized immigrants make their way into the U.S. to supply employers’ need for low-paid labor.

But what is the alternative?  Is it open borders—no controls on immigration at all?  I know of nobody who has made that argument.  I know of no government that has such a policy.

Julian Castro, Elizabeth Warren and others have proposed repealing a 1929 law that makes it a crime to cross into the United States without authorization.  That wouldn’t be the same as open borders.  Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents could still turn you back.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and others propose abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which is responsible for enforcing immigration laws in the interior of the United States.

This would not necessarily affect the sister Customs and Border Protection agency, which is responsible for controlling entry into the United States.  But AOC and Omar also oppose any additional funding for detention centers or deportations.  Some immigrant rights groups oppose all funding for detention centers or deportations.

In practice, all this means no limit on immigration at all—open borders in all but same.  The alternative to control by cruelty is no control at all.

AOC, Omar and others also call for a “Marshall Plan” to promote economic development in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, the three main countries that asylum-seekers are fleeing.  But the original Marshall Plan was to rebuild democratic nations of western Europe after World War Two, not dictatorship like these three countries.

There is no point in aiding oppressive governments that are creating the problem in the first place.  Far better to aid the democratic governments of Costa Rica, Belize and Panama and the semi-democratic government of Nicaragua, and cut off support for the dictatorships.

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Why ‘the squad’ are under attack

July 17, 2019

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Aylessa Presley are not under attack because they are women of color.

Although they have been attacked on the basis of their ethnicity, that is not the reason why they were attacked.

Reps. Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley (AP)

They are under attack because they threaten the system by which corporate and wealthy donors dominate the legislative process.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proposed a Green New Deal.  Ilhan Omar questioned the power of the Israel lobby.  All four traveled to the border and exposed the cruelty of Immigration and Customs Enforcement to asylum seekers.

If they’d just kept quiet, nobody would care that Ilhan Omar is an immigrant from Somalia, that Rashida Tlaib is the daughter of Palestinian Arab immigrants, that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is of Puerto Rican heritage or that Ayanna Pressley is African-American.

Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer are fond of pointing out that there are only four of them.  But if they are so few and unimportant, why the fuss?

Some time ago Ocasio-Cortez said that the reason she as a freshman representative has been able to make an impact is that she has time to do her job.

And the reason she has time to do her job is that she does not follow the guideline of spending three hours a day on the phone to raise money.

That was a powerful statement.  It was threatening to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top Democrats and Republicans.  Their power depends on fund-raising from powerful interests.

If a congresswoman or a Bernie Sanders shows you can win power in defiance of those interests, this threatens the careers and even the livelihoods of those who depend on the donor class.

It is to Donald Trump’s interest to highlight this division within the Democratic Party, although he and the Republicans, if anything, are worse in this respect.

Top leaders of both political parties must be hoping for Ocasio-Cortez’s defeat.  The same is true of the other three.  I hope they all provide good constituent service.

LINKS

Nancy Pelosi Has Lost Control by Zach Carter for Huffington Post.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the 2020 Presidential Race and Trump’s Crisis at the Border, an interview for the New Yorker magazine

Rashida Tlaib Wants to Tax the Rich, Save Detroit and Free Palestine, an interview for Jacobin magazine..

Once again Trump commands the headlines

July 17, 2019

Donald Trump has a superpower—the ability to keep the attention of the public and the press on himself and his tweets rather than on issues he doesn’t want discussed.

He manifested this superpower in his tweet about whether certain Democratic congresswomen shouldn’t just “go back and fix the crime infested places from which they came.”

Last week Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Presley traveled to the southern border and exposed the terrible conditions under which asylum seekers were forced to live—children forced to sleep on concrete floors under bright lights, ICE staff joking about women having to drink out of toilets.

Press coverage was about these bad conditions, and whether they should be called “concentration camps” or not.

AOC and Trump. CNNNews

All this was wiped off the blackboard.  Now press coverage is once again focused on President Trump’s tweets and whether they are acceptable or not.

Trump wins again, despite the House of Representatives vote condemning him.  He has kept the focus on himself and diverted attention from what is going on in the world.

The kryptonite for Trump’s superpower is for the press and the opposition to not take it more seriously than it deserves.  Respond to tweets with other tweets – not with press conferences and congressional resolutions.

Ocasio-Cortez  and her three friends are not under attack because they are women of color.  This is a red herring.

They are under attack because they threaten the system by which corporate and wealthy donors dominate the legislative process.

Some time ago Ocasio-Cortez said that the reason she as a freshman representative has been able to make an impact is that she has time to do her job because she does not follow the guideline of spending three hours a day on the phone to raise money.

That was a powerful statement.  It was threatening to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top Democrats and Republicans.  Their power depends on fund-raising from powerful interests.

If an Ocasio-Cortez or a Bernie Sanders shows you can win power in defiance of those interests, this threatens the careers and even the livelihoods of those who depend on the donor class.

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