How advertisers make food look appetizing

December 19, 2018

 

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Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South

December 18, 2018

England during the reign of Queen Victoria was the world’s first and greatest industrial power and the center of a global empire that governed a quarter of the world’s population.

Yet you would hardly know this from reading most Victorian novels.  They’re typically set in London or in rural southern England, often the most backward parts.  Industry and empire are offstage.

One exception to this is Elisabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855), which I recently read as part of a novel-reading group hosted by my friends Linda and David White.

Mrs. Gaskell did not just lament slums and poverty.  She took the trouble to try to understand newly-industrializing England—how the textile mills operated, the economics of the textile industry and the Issues at stake in the conflict between capital and labor.

Her viewpoint character is 20-year-old Margaret Hale, who is forced to relocate with her family from the sunny agricultural and aristocratic South of England to the grimy, slum-ridden town of Milton (Manchester) in Darkshire (Lancashire) in the North.

There she encounters John Thornton, a self-made industrialist who, at the age of 30, has risen from low-paid employment as a draper’s assistant to the owner of a manufacturing business that does business worldwide, and Nicholas Higgins, a worker in Thornton’s factory, who is driven by poverty and need to organize a strike.

Thornton is handsome, energetic and articulate.  He could easily be a character in an Ayn Rand novel.  He feels beholden to no one, asks nothing of anyone and refuses to accept dictation or advice from anyone, including the workers in his factory, whom he regards as antagonists.

Competition from American factories causes him to cut wages—but he does not feel he needs to justify this to his workers or anybody else.

Inspired by Nicholas Higgins, the workers go on strike.  Most of the major strikes in the 19th century UK and US were, like this one, in response to wage cuts, not demands for wage increases.

Thornton imports strikebreakers from Ireland, with a priest to keep them under control and guards to prevent them from communicating with the strikers.

The strikers probably would have lost anyway, but some of the workers disregard Higgins’ advice to remain nonviolent and stage a riot in front of Thornton’s house, which gives him an excuse to call in the police.

The textile mill owners hire the strikers back, if they pledge not to join a union.  Higgins refuses to do this.

He asks Margaret to help him move to the South and get a job as an agricultural labor.  But she tells him this is not realistic.  Bad as conditions in the factories are, the plight of agricultural workers is worse.  They do nothing but eat, sleep and work, she says; they are incapable of the comradeship of the workers in the North.

The same is true of the servant class in the South.  The Hales find it difficult to hire servants in Milton.  Factory girls would rather work 10 hours a day and have the rest of their time free than endure the life of a servant, which means being on duty 24/7 with maybe one Saturday afternoon off every couple of weeks.

In the South, some servants find this endurable because they regard themselves as members of their families.  But this is not the spirit of the go-getting North, where everyone is out for themselves.

So far, so realistic.

But Mrs. Gaskell then veers from her realism in order to bring about a happy ending.

Read the rest of this entry »

A fly-through of the International Space Station

December 15, 2018

This is a great relaxation video.

The Yellow Vest revolt in France

December 12, 2018

I’m not well-informed about French politics, but I think the “Yellow Vest” revolt is (1) important and (2) an example of ordinary people rising up against a government and political system that does not represent them.

LINKS

Yellow Fever in France by Bernard Dreano for openDemocracy.

The Indiscreet Charm of the Gilets Jaunes by C.J. Hopkins for The Unz Review.

Le Giles Jaunes – A Bright Yellow Sign of Distress by Diana Johnstone for Global Research.

Two Roads for the New French Right by Mark Lilla for the New York Review of Books.  Not directly related to the protests, but interesting.

U.S. claims jurisdiction over Chinese biz exec

December 11, 2018

Meng Wenzhou, chief financial officer of Huawei, a giant Chinese telecommunications company, was arrested while passing through Vancouver on charges related to U.S. economic sanctions against Iran.

Meng Wenzhou

She is the daughter of Ren Zhengfei, the company’s founder.

She reportedly is accused of concealing the fact that a company called Skycom, which does business with Iran, is a subsidiary of Huawei, and thereby causing Huawei clients to unknowingly violate U.S. sanctions against Iran.

In other words, a foreign business executive has been arrested on foreign soil for breaking U.S. domestic law.  This is a power grab that the U.S. would not tolerate if a foreign government did it to a U.S. executive.

It is a slap in the face at China as a time when Presidents Trump and Xi were trying to resolve trade disputes.  It could raise hostilities between China and the U.S. to a new level.

I can think of four possible explanations for the U.S. action, all of them bad—

  1. President Trump arranged this deliberately as a way of putting pressure on President Xi.
  2. President Trump knew about the charges, but didn’t think they would affect trade negotiations.
  3. American officials proceeded without notifying President Trump because they didn’t understand the significance of their actions.
  4. American officials proceeding without notifying President Trump because they saw Huawei as a security threat or wanted to undermine the Trump-Xi negotiations.

Huawei sells telecommunications equipment and networks.  It reportedly has more than 180,000 employees and does business in more than 100 countries.  It is reportedly the world’s second largest manufacturer of smartphones.

Many Western countries and companies in recent months have stopped doing business with Huawei and ZTE, another Chinese telecom company, because they fear their equipment could be used for cyber-espionage by the Chinese government.  I think that is a reasonable fear.  The arrest of Ms. Meng is not reasonable.

LINKS

The War on Huawei by Jeffrey Sachs for Project Syndicate.

How Huawei’s CFO ended up in a jail in Canada by Julia Horowitz for CNN Business.

What’s going on with Huawei? by BBC News.

Meng’s arrest could plunge US, China into high-tech Cold War by Gordon Watts for Asia Times.

Huawei’s amazing global rise shrouded in controversy by Gordon Watts for Asia Times.

How Meng Wanzhou’s Arrest Might Backfire by Tyler Cowen for Bloomberg Opinion.

The sad legacy of George H.W. Bush

December 10, 2018

George H.W. Bush, the 41st President of the United States, is being mourned as if he were a great and beloved figure.  But when he was in office, and running for office, he was widely mocked as an out-of-touch New England blueblood and as a wimp.

He tried to over-compensate for this and present himself as something he wasn’t.  Matt Taibbi wrote a fine article about this.

George H.W. Bush

He was an Episcopalian, but he tried to re-invent himself as a member of the religious right.  He had been a supporter of Planned Parenthood, but after he ran for national office, he opposed it. He opposed Planned Parenthood, AIDS research and drug legalization.  But the members of the real religious right never trusted him, no matter how well he served their agenda.

There is no reason to think that he personally was a racist, but his henchman Lee Atwater used the image of convicted rapist Willie Horton to stir up racial fears in order to defeat Michael Dukakis.  The political tactics of Atwater and his successor Karl Rove, in the younger George Bush’s administration, set the stage for Donald Trump.

In foreign affairs, the elder Bush’s goal was to end the so-called Vietnam syndrome, which was the reluctance of Americans to go to war with small nations that do not threaten us.  President Reagan took a baby step in this direction with the invasion of the tiny island nation of Grenada.  Bush took it a step further with the invasion of Panama, and then the first Gulf War against Iraq.

The real Vietnam syndrome is the desire of U.S. militarists to fight another Vietnam-like war and this time win.

I admit I was caught up in the propaganda for the first Gulf War.  I only later learned that the U.S. ambassador to Iraq had virtually invited Saddam to invade.  But we Americans learned that is it possible to kill large numbers of foreigners, have the thrill of a victory and not suffer any consequences—no immediate consequences, anyhow.

I can think of at least three good things about the elder George Bush.

He was a gentleman of the old school who treated people around him with courtesy and consideration.  He was famous for hand-written thank-you notes, a small thing, but not nothing.

He was a genuine hero in World War Two—at least as much so as John F. Kennedy.  He flew 58 combat missions and was shot down over the Pacific.

He had the wisdom to stand aside when the Soviet Union was losing control of eastern Europe and then breaking up itself.  If his administration had tried to take advantage of the situation in any obvious way, there might have been war.

I think his vision of a “new world order” was a kind of council of the stronger nations, like Prince Metternich’s Council of Europe after the defeat of Napoleon.  That’s not my ideal, but it is better than the idea of the U.S. be the world’s sole superpower, which took hold in the Clinton administration and after.

I hope that when U.S. hegemony collapses, we have a leader as rational as Gorbachev and leaders of other great powers are as restrained as Bush and Secretary of State James Baker.

That’s not nothing.  And then, in many people’s eyes, Bush had the merit of not being Donald Trump.  But his policies helped pave the way for Trump.

LINKS

George W. Bush’s Wimpy Image Had Consequences by Matt Taibbi for Rolling Stone.

I’m Sorry But This is Sheer Propaganda by Nathan J. Robinson for Current Affairs.

The Ignored Legacy of George H.W. Bush: War Crimes, Racism and Obstruction of Justice by Mehdi Hasan for The Intercept.

Matthew Crawford on cultural “jigs”

December 7, 2018

I’m currently re-reading Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head, this time as part of a reading group.  In the following passage, Crawford compares “jigs” used by skilled craft workers to simplify their tasks to cultural constraints that simplify moral choices.

In the boom after World War II, the [American] left lost interest in economics and shifted its focus from labor issues to a more wide-ranging project of liberation, to be achieved by unmasking and discrediting various forms of cultural authority.

In retrospect, this seems to have prepared the way for a new right, no less committed to the ideal of the unencumbered self (that ideal actor of the free market), whose freedom could be realized only in a public space cleared of distorting influence—through deregulation.

Few institutions or sites of cultural authority were left untouched by the left’s critiques.  Parents, teachers, priests, elected officials—there was little that seemed defensible.

Looking around in stunned silence, left and right eventually discovered common ground: a neoliberal consensus in which we have agreed to let the market quietly work its solvent action on all impediments to the natural chooser within.

Another way to put this is that the left’s project of liberation led us to dismantle inherited cultural jigs that once imposed a certain coherence (for better or worse) on individual lives.  [snip]

The combined effects of these liberating and deregulating effects of the right and left has been to ratchet up the burden of self-regulation.

Some indication of how well we are bearing this burden can be found in the fact that we [Americans] are now very fat, very much in debt and very prone to divorce.

Marie Colvin and the face of war

December 5, 2018

Marie Colvin was one of the outstanding war correspondents of our time.  She was killed in 2012 while reporting on the Syrian government’s bombardment of the city of Homs.

I never read her work when she was alive, partly because it was behind the paywall of the London Sunday Times, but I got some idea of her work by seeing a docudrama of her life with a couple of friends.  I also read samples of her work collected by the Marie Colvin Center for International Reporting at Stony Brook (NY) State University.

The movie is outstanding in its depiction of the human cost of war. which was the focus of Marie Colvin’s reporting.  It shows her willingness to risk her life to see what was happening first hand.

The first scenes of the movie show her losing her left eye while reporting on the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka in 1999.  Later scenes show her struggling with post-traumatic stress syndrome, and the last scene shows her death.

The movie understandably neglects the other part of her achievement, which was her ability to make contacts and win trust so that she could get to the scene of events and talk to the people.

I have misgivings about docudramas about the lives of contemporary people.  Even when they don’t distort the facts, I feel that I am being invited to invade privacy and learn things that are none of my business

Rosamund Pike gives an outstanding performance, showing Colvin’s compassion, anger, toughness and vulnerability in a convincing way. and it is roughly true to the known facts.  But every time I see a photo of Marie Colvin, I’ll think of the scenes of Pike in the nude.

The movie uses a quote by Marie Colvin that her goal was to make newspaper readers care about the suffering of civilians in war as much as she did.  She wrote once that she was more concerned about the human impact of war and less about the geopolitical implications.

The first episode of the move shows Marie Colvin drawing attention to the suffering of civilians, who were deprived of food and medicine in the Sri Lanka government’s war with the Tamil Tigers separatists.

Well and good, but what could have been done to help the suffering Sri Lankan people?  Air drops of food and medical supplies?  Sanctions against the Sri Lankan government?  Occupation of Sri Lanka by a UN peacekeeping force?

In the American Civil War, the Union forces imposed a blockade of the Southern states and the Union army destroyed crops and livestock.  General Sherman said that war is hell, and the most humane way to wage war is that way that ended it most quickly.

Maybe there was a way to help the Sri Lankan civilians without prolonging the war and the suffering, but it is not obvious to me.

Read the rest of this entry »

Who’s listening?

December 5, 2018

Source: XKCD.

Jill Stein wins a battle for paper ballots

December 3, 2018

Back in 2016, Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein filed lawsuits after complaints that tens of thousands of votes had gone uncounted on touch-screen voting machines in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

She lost in Wisconsin and Michigan, but recently won a decision that Pennsylvania must use paper ballots.  The state government, along with a number of others, already had decided to use paper ballots, so Stein won after all.

Stein is regarded by many as a fringe candidate, but she jumped in at a time the Democratic Party leaders couldn’t be bothered.  Now the nation is coming around to her way of thinking on this one issue.

Never dismiss anybody as unimportant if they happen to be right!

LINKS

Pennsylvania commits to new voting machines, election audits by Marc Levy for the Associated Press.

Jill Stein wins election reform in PA by David Schwab for OpEd News.  [Added 12/4/2018]

Jill Stein Lawsuit Forces Adoption of Paper Ballots and Election Audits in Pennsylvania by Bruce A. Dixon for the Black Agenda Report.

Fourteen states can’t guarantee accurate election results by Shannon Vavra for Axios (from August 2018)

The younger generation’s new normal

December 3, 2018

No one under the age of 32 has ever experienced a cooler-than-average month on this planet.

LINK

The Earth has been warmer than average for 406 months in a row by Andrew Freedman for Axios.  Hat tip to kottke.org.

Andy Thomas’ portraits of the presidents

December 1, 2018

Andy Thomas is an artist noted for his popular group portraits of Republican and Democratic Presidents.   He makes interesting choices in how he portrays them, which I will discuss.  Read on only if you are interested in political and historical trivia.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge.

The light in the two paintings is from above, and falls on the faces of Donald Trump (white shirt, red tie) and Barack Obama (white shirt, blue tie).

Abraham Lincoln, the first and greatest of the Republican presidents, is shown with his back to the viewer.  Franklin D. Roosevelt, arguably the greatest of the Democratic presidents, is shown likewise.  But Andrew Jackson, the first Democratic president, is shown off to the upper left side and in shadow.

When I was younger, Democrats honored Jackson as one who stood up for the common man, or at least the common white man, against wealthy merchants and powerful bankers.  We overlooked his being a slave owner and respected him for being an Indian fighter.  That’s not how liberals and progressives think today.

Jackson, by the way, was the first President to be nominated at a party convention.  All the previous Presidents were nominated at congressional caucuses.

Notice that Obama is looking away from Jackson and also from Woodrow Wilson at the far right of the painting.  When I was younger, Democrats honored Wilson as a political reformer and overlooked the fact that he was a segregationist.  Not any more!

Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Andrew Jackson are dressed formally.  We can’t see, but I assume that Lincoln’s and FDR’s suit coats are buttoned and they are wearing neckties.  

Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson are shown in ties and vests, as they might do working in an office a century ago.  Donald Trump and Barack Obama also are dressed for office work.  So is Bill Clinton, although Clinton does not appear to have a tie.

Richard Nixon almost always wore a dark suit, but he is shown here with his suit jacket unbuttoned and I’m guessing he’s not wearing a necktie.  The older George H.W. Bush, standing, and the younger George W. Bush, seated, are shown wearing suits, but without neckties.

Harry Truman‘s white shirt and light-colored vest show him also dressed for work.  In one of Thomas’ older paintings, he is shown in the kind of flamboyant Hawaiian shirt he wore during vacations in Key West.

Dwight D. Eisenhower is dressed as if getting ready to play golf.  John F. Kennedy is dressed as if getting ready for a day on his yacht.  

Ronald Reagan and Lyndon Johnson are dressed as if getting ready for a day at their respective ranches.  Gerald Ford is dressed for leisure generically.

Jimmy Carter is dressed as if getting ready for a day’s work in the family peanut warehouse or on a Habitat for Humanity project.  In one of Thomas’ older paintings, he is shown in a cardigan sweater of the kind he wore when giving a TV address on energy conservation.

The choice of beverages for the Presidents also is interesting.  Donald Trump is a non-drinker and is shown with a Coke.  George W. Bush struggled with a drinking problem before he went into politics and has what looks like iced tea.  Abraham Lincoln has a glass of water.

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The dangerous new cold war in cyberspace

November 28, 2018

When President Barack Obama was pondering what to do about Russian interference in the 2016 elections, his intelligence chiefs, according to New York Times reporter David Sanger,  considered the following possibilities for retaliation:

  • Reveal the secret tax haven accounts of Vladimir Putin and his oligarch friends.
  • Shut show the servers of Guccifer 2.0, DCLeaks and WikiLeaks, the web sites that disseminated confidential Democratic National Committee e-mails
  • Attack the computer systems of the GRU, the Russian military intelligence system.
  • Cut off the Russian banking system’s connection with SWIFT, the international clearinghouse for banking transactions.

Those are the kinds of things that are now possible.

None of these options were acted upon or even brought officially to the President’s notice.  The reason is that American computer systems would be virtually defenseless against retaliation.

It would be a new form of mutually assured destruction, less lethal than nuclear weapons, but still capable of destroying an industrial society’s ability to function.

For that reason President Obama chose to use economic and diplomatic sanctions instead.

Sanger in his new book, THE PERFECT WEAPON: War, Sabotage and Fear in the Cyber Age, described this new ongoing cold war and arms race in cyber weapons.

Nations are developing the capability to use the Internet to shut down each others’ electric power grids, financial institutions and other vital public services, as well as engage in espionage and political subversion.

Each country’s cyberwar aims are somewhat different, Sanger wrote.   Russia uses the Internet to spread propaganda and disinformation, but it also has “embeds” in the U.S. electrical grids and voter registration systems.

China’s interest is in electronic espionage to acquire U.S. intellectual property and trade secrets for its high tech industry.  North Korea and Iran just retaliate against U.S. economic sanctions.

He reported that the United States Cyber Command has the most powerful offensive cyber weapons, yet the United States is vulnerable to cyber retaliation from even as backward a country as North Korea.

One way to defend against this would be to strengthen defenses, by encouraging all American institutions to protect their data by means of secure cryptography.

Sanger reported that the FBI, CIA and NSA are reluctant to do this because they want access to private computer and communications systems themselves.

Cyber surveillance is, as he said, a powerful means to track spies, terrorists and criminals and, I would add, dissidents and protesters.

So we Americans are more vulnerable than we know to cyber attacks, and our government isn’t telling us about our vulnerability.

∞∞∞

The first major act of cyberwarfare, according to Sanger, was the unleashing of the Stuxnet virus against Iran’s nuclear development program in 2010.

The attack, according to Sanger, was planned by the National Security Agency and Israel’s Unit 8300 military cyber unit in order to appease Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, so that he would not order a bombing attack on Iran.

The operation, called Olympic Games, took out about 1,000 of Iran’s 6,000 or so centrifuges, and caused the Iranians to shut down many more out of fear, he wrote.

But a year later, Iran had 18,000 centrifuges in operation.  At best, its nuclear development program was delayed for a year, not stopped permanently.

The Iranians might never have been completely sure what hit them, except the the Stuxnet virus spread beyond Iran into industrial computer systems all over the world.  Computer scientists analyzed the virus and figured out its purpose.

He said the United States developed another plan, called Nitro Zeus, a cyber attack that, in case of war, would shut down all of Iran’s electrical and electronic systems.

 The significance, Sanger pointed out, was that it set a precedent, like the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

Read the rest of this entry »

2018: Year of the Democratic woman

November 25, 2018

American women did very well in the 2018 elections for themselves, and also for the Democratic Party.  The results aren’t all in, but here’s a preliminary tally.

At least 102 women were elected to the House of Representatives, including 89 Democrats and just 13 Republicans.  Among the 36 newcomers, only one was a Republican.

The makeup of the Senate stayed the same, with 17 Democratic and six Republican women.  There’s a runoff election in Mississippi on Tuesday, in which a white Republican woman is running against a black Democratic man, so there’s a possibility of one more Republican woman.

A record 43 women of color were elected to Congress.  Only one was a Republican.

The number of women governors increased from six (two Democrats, four Republicans) to nine (six Democrats, three Republicans).  The number of women serving in state legislatures will cross 2,000 for the first time.  I don’t know how many are Democrats, but I bet a lot of them are.

Read the rest of this entry »

What the 2018 results mean for 2020

November 24, 2018

The establishment Democrats won the 2018 primaries and general election.  They could win the 2020 presidential election if the presidential vote mirrors this year’s congressional vote.

By establishment Democrats, I mean the Democrats who, like Nancy Pelosi, seek to strike a balance between the desires of the donor class, who finance campaigns, and working people and racial minorities, who are their core voters.

The establishment Democrats focus on President Trump’s obnoxious personal behavior, the Russiagate investigations and racial and gender issues that don’t affect the power elite.

By progressive Democrats, I mean the Democrats who, like Bernie Sanders, raise money from small donors and regard the Wall Street banks and the billionaire class as enemies.

The progressive Democrats advocate policies such as Medicare for all, a $15 an hour minimum wage and the breakup of the “too big to fail” banks.

The establishment Democrats’ strategy is to win over independents and moderate Republicans who are disgusted with Donald Trump.  They see their mandate as putting things back the way they were before President Trump was elected.

The progressive Democrats’ strategy is to rally labor union members, people of color and other historic Democratic constituencies who’ve grown apathetic because of failure of the Democratic leaders to represent their interests.

Nancy Pelosi, who is almost certain to become Speaker of the House of Representatives in 2019, said she will pursue a policy of fiscal responsibility, which rules out much of the progressive agenda.

She will insist all new spending be on a pay-as-you-go basis—that is, every new appropriation be accompanied by a tax increase or a spending cut elsewhere.  She also will insist on supermajorities for tax increases on the bottom 80 percent of taxpayers.

This would rule out an ambitious infrastructure program, a Green New Deal jobs program, Medicare for all and most of the other programs of the progressive Democrats. What she will offer instead is strong support for reproductive rights and investigations into Trump administration scandals—although she has ruled out impeachment of the President.

Democrats got 8.9 million more total votes than Republicans in elections for the House of Representatives.  Their margin of victory in the popular vote was 8 percent, versus 2.3 percent for Hillary Clinton against Donald Trump.

Democrats raised much more money than Republicans, according to OpenSecrets.  The average Democratic Senatorial candidate raised $3.5 million; the average Republican, $1.5 million.   The average Democratic House candidate raised $612,203; the average Republican, $502,805.

Catalyst reported that 56 percent of voters lived in suburban census tracts, versus 26 percent in rural tracts and 18 percent in urban tracts.  The voters were 76 percent white and 63 percent age 50 or older.

The influence of big donations and the nature of the electorate explains why establishment Democrats did so well.  But progressives made gains.  Democrats gained compared to 2014 among their historic core supporters as well as independents and moderate Republicans.

∞∞∞

Democrats have good reason to be hopeful for 2020.  Right now President Trump has a 40 percent approval rating, compared to 46 percent for Barack Obama and 45 percent for Bill Clinton at this point in their presidencies.

The Republican loss of 39 or more Congressional seats is above average for an incumbent party in a mid-term election, but it is less than the 63 lost by Democrats two years into the Obama presidency and 54 lost two years into the Clinton presidency.

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From the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

November 24, 2018

From the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.

Who’s in charge of the U.S. government?

November 23, 2018

Kevin Drum, writing for Mother Jones, defended President Obama against charges of being too supportive of the Saudi Arabian royal family.

Obama, like all US presidents, was heavily constrained by our foreign policy establishment, but in the end he did provide Saudi Arabia with less support than any previous president—and the Saudis made no secret of their intense dislike of Obama over this.  

I think [Glenn] Greenwald underrates just how hard this is in real life, and how much credit Obama deserves for taking even baby steps against the virtually unanimous opposition of the entire US government.

Notice what Drum is saying here.  The elected President of the United States is one thing.  The unelected actual government of the United States is another.  The first can influence, but not control, the second.

I think this is all too true, like Senator Schumer’s warning to Donald Trump to not mess with the intelligence agencies.  What does this say about American democracy?

LINKS

Trump’s Amoral Saudi Statement is a Pure Expression of Decades-Old “U.S. Values” and Foreign Policy Orthodoxies by Glenn Greenwald for The Intercept.

Donald Trump’s Statement on Saudi Arabia is a Lot Worse Than Just Removing a Mask by Kevin Drum for Mother Jones.

Kurt Vonnegut’s takedown of heroism

November 21, 2018

Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s only play, Happy Birthday, Wanda June, is about the homecoming of Harold Ryan, an adventurer, war hero and big game hunter, after having been lost on the Amazon rain forest for eight years, and how his wi.

The play was first produced in 1970 and revived many times, including this year.  I read it early this month as part of a play-reading group organized by my friend Walter Uhrman.

Ryan’s only moral values are competence, physical courage and strength of will.  He validates himself by killing and risking death on the battlefield and hunting ground, and by dominating women and weaker men.

Vonnegut’s play is a savage and hilariously funny critique of those values, which are now called toxic masculinity.

The wife’s name is Penelope, which is a reference to the homecoming scene in the Odyssey.  Odysseus has spent 10 years at the Siege of Troy and 10 more years wandering the Mediterranean, including several years marooned on an island having sex with a beautiful nymph.

He is the prototype of the action hero—brave, strong and resourceful.  He is able to deal with any situation no matter how perilous.  Homer gives no evidence, though, that he cares for anyone or anything but himself, his rights and his reputation.  All the men under his command perish.

When he arrives home, he expects to resume his role as patriarch as if he had never left.  He expects and gets deference from his wife, son and old servants, and, without mercy, kills not only the unwelcome suitors for his wife’s hand. but also the servants who had given him up for dead.

The Ryan character, fought in the Spanish Civil War and World War Two and was a big game hunter in Africa, is also based on Ernest Hemingway.  A quotation attributed to Hemingway goes, “There is no hunting like the hunting of men, and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never care for anything else thereafter.”

Hemingway was not actually a hunter of men.  He was an ambulance driver on the Italian front during World War One, and a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War and World War Two.  There is no questioning his physical courage.  He was seriously wounded during World War One, and seriously injured in two successive plane crashes while on safari in Africa, leaving him in physical pain for the remainder of his life.  He was married four times, and was not a home body.

One recurring theme in Hemingway’s fiction is manliness and honor in a world that doesn’t value them.  Many men from the 1920s through the 1950s looked to him as role model of masculinity.

Ryan’s opponent in the play is the pacifist physician, Norbert Woodley, one of Penelope’s suitors.  He loves his mother and doesn’t believe in fighting.  His basic decency is contrasted with Ryan’s bullying.

He confronts Ryan in the final scene, and I understand there are different versions of what happens next.  In the version I read with my friend Walter, Woodley punctures Ryan’s ego by convincing him that people think his heroics are comical.

A synopsis I read on-line gives a more believable ending.  Ryan throws Woodley out the window while Penelope and Ryan’s son Paul walk out on him.

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Migratory birds hitch rides on merchant ships

November 17, 2018

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Moon

November 16, 2018

Kim Stanley Robinson is one of my three or four favorite science fiction writers.  Red Moon, which just came out, is not his best, but I like it. 

The action takes place in 2047 in China and on China’s future colony on the moon. The main viewpoint character is a young American named Fred Fredericks, who seems to be on the autism spectrum.  

He goes to the moon to deliver a secure two-way communication device based on quantum entanglement, and is framed for murder by mysterious Chinese political conspirators.

He becomes involved with a pregnant young Chinese woman, Chan Qi, who is both the spoiled, proud daughter of a powerful member of the Politburo and the figurehead leader of a vast Chinese protest movement.

They escape capture, flee, are captured again, escape again and flee again back down in China and up on the moon again. 

The growing relationship of these two characters, so very different in personality and cultural background, is the emotional core of the novel.

The second most important viewpoint character is Ta Shu, an elderly poet and celebrity Chinese poet, who takes a liking to Fred and tries to befriend him.  He engages in conversations with various old friends that provide the reader with background information on Chinese history, culture and current and future problems.

Ta Shu sees Chinese history and culture as continuous. and the Communist regime as the latest Chinese ruling dynasty, not as a revolutionary break with the past.

Then there is a rogue agent within the Chinese Great Firewall surveillance network, who is trying to track Qi and Fred while trying to teach an artificial intelligence program, nicknamed Little Eyeball, to think autonomously.

Robinson’s future China has benefitted from Xi Jinping’s reforms, of which the most important he sees not as  the Belt and Road Initiative (aka the New Silk Road), but landscape renewal and restoration.  The benefit is not only repair of the environmental damage created by China’s rapid industrialization, but in reduction in the amount of poverty and improvement in public health.

China in 2047 is the world’s foremost economic and technological power, and has used its new wealth and knowledge to colonize the southern hemisphere of the Moon, leaving the northern hemisphere to late-comers—the USA, the European Union, Brazil and other great powers.

But many problems remain.  First and foremost among these problems is a vast underclass, comparable to unauthorized immigrants in the USA, consisting of 500 million poor peasants who have left their villages without authorization to seek a better life in the cities, but who are mercilessly exploited because they are outside the protection of the law.

The goals of the protest movement are to abolish the hukuo system, which forbids Chinese to change residences without permission, to restore the “iron rice bowl” (guaranteed job security) and to establish the rule of law.  None of the characters wants to overthrow Communism, only to make the Party live up to its ideals.

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What’s so great about democracy?

November 14, 2018

My core political beliefs are the ideals of American freedom and democracy I was taught as a schoolboy.  My belief in freedom as a political ideal was challenged by a book I read recently, Why Liberalism Failed, by Patrick J. Deneen (2018).

Now I have read another, Breaking Democracy’s Spell  by John Dunn (2014), a gift from an old friend of mine, which questions democracy as a political ideal.

Dunn believes that the idea of democracy—especially as understood by 21st century Americans—is incoherent.  Unlike Deneen with liberalism, he does not have a theory of democracy; he just criticizes the shallowness of American thinking on the topic.  Oddly, he deals with the experience of only three countries, the USA, India and China.

He maintains that most Americans fail to realize that—

  1. Democracy does not guarantee good government.
  2. Democracy does not guarantee human rights or the rule of law.
  3. Voting affects governmental decisions but little.  Its main purpose is to give the public the impression they are in control.
  4. Democracy has been in bad repute through most of Western history.  
  5. Democracy’s current popularity is a product of specific circumstances in the past few centuries and may not last.
  6. China’s authoritarian system may prove to be more lasting than democracy as practiced in the USA or India.

Here are my thoughts.

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The geography gap

November 14, 2018

The difference between Republican and Democratic voting in urban and rural areas has grown to the point where it is almost as great as the difference between non-white and white voters

In 2018, Democrats swept the cities by a huge majority, carried the suburbs by a small majority and were wiped out in the rural areas.  Even though the rural areas are smaller in population, the Democrats will have to figure out ways to carry them if they want to win the Senate and be sure of winning the Electoral College.

And it’s no use for Democrats to complain about the Constitutional requirement that every state have two Senators, which allows thinly-populated rural states to dominate.  That is the one provision of the Constitution that is un-amendable (Article V).

In theory the Electoral College, which is based on combined Senate and House representation, might be changed, but ratifying an amendment to the Constitution requires approval of three-quarters of the states and even introducing one is extremely difficult (Article V again).

LINK

A Split Decision in a Divided Nation by Bruce Mehlman for Mehlman-Castagnetti business analysts.

Republicans Tighten Their Grip on Farm Country by Tom Philpott for Mother Jones.  [Added 11/19/2018]

To Win Rural America, Dems Must Lean Into Progressive Policies by Matthew Hildreth for Daily Yonder.

Hispanics and Anglos get along just fine

November 12, 2018

Ron Unz, known as a leader of the campaign against bilingual education in California years ago, wrote a sensible article on his web site about Hispanic immigration into California and the United States as a campaign issue.

Hispanics are now about 60 40 percent of the population of California, so that state is an example of what is likely to happen as they become a larger fraction of the overall U.S. population.  Here are some of his main points: –

  • Anglos and Hispanics in California get along just fine.
  • Most American-born Californians have nothing against immigrants.  Sanctuary cities are popular.
  • Hispanics as a group as law-abiding.  The killing by an illegal immigrant used in recent Republican campaign ads was the result of a firearm accident.  There is no Hispanic immigrant crime wave.
  • Most immigrants, including Hispanic immigrants, want their children educated in the language of their new country.
  • Most immigration into the United States is legal immigration.  Increased border security will do little to reduce net immigration.
  • Immigration of unskilled workers does hurt the wages and job opportunities of existing citizens.  The way to deal with this is (1) a higher minimum wage and (2) lower numbers of legal immigrants.
  • Republicans in California condemned themselves to minority status by being anti-Hispanic and anti-immigrant.  The same thing could happen to Republicans in Texas and the nation as a whole.

HIs article is worth reading in its entirety.

LINK

Racial Politics in America and in California by Ron Unz for The Unz Review.

Caterpillars on parade

November 10, 2018

I can’t help but find this funny.

Bernie Sanders wants to crusade for democracy

November 9, 2018

The big weakness of Bernie Sanders as a political leader has been the lack of a consistent peace policy.  His tendency has been to oppose wars launched by Republican Presidents and support wars launched by Democratic Presidents.

Now, according to an article in POLITICO, he is rethinking foreign policy.  His idea is to make American foreign policy a crusade in favor of human rights and democracy.

Bernie Sanders

The problem with that is that all the recent disastrous U.S. military interventions have been justified as a duty to support human rights and democracy.  What would keep Sanders from being led down the same path?

The Clinton administration bombed Serbia supposedly to protect the human rights of the Bosniak Muslims and Kosovar Albanians.  The George W. Bush administration invaded Afghanistan and Iraq supposedly to free the Afghan and Iraqi people from the tyrannies of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein.  The Obama administration engineered the overthrow of Qaddafi and attempted the overthrow of Assad supposedly to protect pro-democracy people.

Economic warfare against Venezuela and Iran, with a goal of reducing their people to destitution and misery, is justified in the name of protecting their human rights.  A ramp-up to military confrontation to Russia, with the risk of triggering nuclear war, is justified as resistance to the tyrant Vladimir Putin.

Here’s what Sanders had to say in a speech last September—

“Today, I say to Mr. Putin: We will not allow you to undermine American democracy or democracies around the world. In fact, our goal is to not only strengthen American democracy, but to work in solidarity with supporters of democracy around the globe, including in Russia.  In the struggle of democracy versus authoritarianism, we intend to win,” Sanders thundered.

He continued: “Inequality, corruption, oligarchy and authoritarianism are inseparable. They must be understood as part of the same system, and fought in the same way … Kleptocrats like Putin in Russia use divisiveness and abuse as a tool for enriching themselves and those loyal to them.”

Source: POLITICO Magazine

What statements like this imply is some kind of support for anti-Putin forces in Russia, continuation of sanctions against Russian oligarchs and possibly attempting to draw Ukraine and Georgia into NATO.

We’d be telling Vladimir Putin that our goal is to drive him from power.  That means it would be a matter of survival for him to interfere in U.S. politics and try to change that goal.

If I were part of the liberal democracy movement in Russia, the last thing I would want is some American politician announcing support for people like me.  It would be poison.

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