Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

22 April 2017

Women versus Fox


[For comment on our weak Yankee defense against information warfare, click here. For some popular recent posts, click on the links below:
While our homeland remains mired in the greatest division since Vietnam, our future prospects and the nation’s politics are at the mercy of the law of unintended consequences. Likewise when our supreme leader is as inconsistent and erratic as Donald J. Trump—when war and peace depend on the fortuity of his daughter showing him appalling photos of gassed Syrian children—the laws of chance rear their unpredictable heads.

We Yanks now live in Nate Silver’s world: the world of probabilities, not certainties. Because of our durable importance as a nation, so does the rest of our species. All of us inhabit a globe whose daily life, and most of whose anxieties, depend on the whim of one man.

But like the Roman god Janus, Chance is a two-headed deity. And so it is with Fox’ dismissal of Bill O’Reilly as its chief ratings-maker.

O’Reilly’s well-deserved fall—if you can call a $25 million golden parachute a “fall”—could be just a blip in Fox’ Orwellian march toward its current status as human history’s most perniciously effective propaganda machine. Or O’Reilly’s fall could spell the beginning of the end of Fox’ death grip on our national culture and politics.

Fox’ fall in ratings could mean the salvation of our traditional Yankee “live and let live” way of life. It could presage a return to the inclusive, pragmatic, optimistic ethos of our Founding. In the long run, you don’t mess with the more-than-half of our species primarily responsible for love, practical living and procreation.

It would be impossible to imagine Trump as President without Fox. Sure, Fox was late to endorse him, primarily because no one expected him to win. But isn’t Trump’s style a precise reflection of the style of so-called “newspeople” at Fox?

Reactive, bigoted, opinionated, ignorant and loud: these are the traits of virtually all of Fox’ so-called “newspeople,” with O’Reilly the epitome. If Archie Bunker the TV character came to life and somehow secured a job in TV reporting, they are what you would expect him to be like.

There is, however, one point of difference. The character Archie Bunker, as drawn by creator and writer Norman Lear and played by actor Carroll O’Connor, was bigoted, testy and opinionated. But underneath his reflexive, unexamined bigotry, he often hid a heart of gold. Sometimes his prejudice and bigotry melted into sympathy, just a bit, when he actually met a real human being from a minority group in person. That’s one of the things that made him such an enduringly popular fictional character: he was not entirely bad or unidimensional.

Not so for Fox’ so-called “newspeople.” They are paid to make noise and trouble, because that’s what makes Fox’ ratings. Sensationalism, exaggeration and conflict are their tools. “News” as entertainment, seen through the eyes of prototypical Archie, is their stock in trade. Their ability to see current events through Archie’s eyes pays their salaries. And as author Sinclair Lewis once observed, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

So it was with Bill O’Reilly. He was paid to act, speak and think like a bully. He became rich and famous by becoming a human pit bull. Despite millions paid out in secret settlements with harassed and bullied women, it was too hard for him to unlearn the behavior that had made him rich and famous in the first place. And maybe he was so good at it because being a bully was and is his natural character.

As Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan wrote, “The times they are a changin’.” Bullying women is no longer in vogue. There are numerous laws against it, at least in the workplace, and numerous lawsuits. As women become more numerous—and more prevalent—in our many workplaces, it is becoming unfashionable.

Even men are coming to realize that there’s nothing sexy or flirtatious about it. Bullying is bullying; it just works differently when men bully women. Men can confuse their bullying with sex or romance, but not for long, and not when they think of their wives, sweethearts, daughters or mothers.

Now, with women occupying nearly 20% of the seats in Congress, there are enough women in power who understand these points from personal experience to turn the tide. A long-delayed tipping point is coming soon, if not already on us.

If you squint your eyes and put on blinders, you might be able to convince yourself that Fox will survive all this. If you credit the Orwellian notion that Fox’ virulent, macho-based right-wing propaganda is actually “fair and balanced,” you might see a still-glorious future for Fox.

But another probable truth is that the jig is up. Fox’ “secret sauce” was and remains bullying. Its so-called “pundits” bully their “guests” and each other. They bring token progressives on their shows to bully and harrass, like the early Christians thrown to lions in ancient Rome. They bully putatively powerless minorities. In their so-called “analysis,” they even bully major foreign powers like China and Russia, thereby fulfilling the teenage fantasies of much of their audience. They overemphasize military force and underemphasize subtlety and understanding, every time.

All this fulfills the secret fantasies of uneducated, lower-middle-class men who lead Thoreau’s “lives of quiet desperation.” They see themselves as pawns of fate, including globalization. They grasp at the straws of chance to achieve power and influence through bullying, if only vicariously. Isn’t that what built Fox’ media house of cards and put Trump in the White House?

If the truth be told, Fox’ vile culture of bullying has dominated American politics for a generation. But that dominance has been something of an accident. Rupert Murdoch didn’t set out to create human history’s most vilely effective propaganda machine, let alone by the apotheosis of bullying. He just set out to make himself rich and powerful. Like our Northern Yankee industrialists in the last century, who stumbled upon bigotry and division as a way of fighting the labor movement, Murdoch just stumbled upon bigotry and bullying as means of making money in the “news” business.

After all, prejudice is nearly universal, and most of us have been bullied at some point in our lives. So bigotry and bullying can be entertaining: that was Archie Bunker’s secret. Murdoch just parlayed that unfortunate human truth into a media empire and an accidental right-wing propaganda machine. It didn’t hurt at all that the machine he built gave him and his social class a powerful way to lower their taxes, lessen their regulation, and increase the burdens on everyone else.

But now the jig may really be up. It’s not just the overwhelming support, by men as well as women, for bullied women against O’Reilly. It’s also the coincidental reductio ad absurdum in the culture of bullying and selfishness that Fox has so effectively (if coincidentally) instilled in us Yanks.

It’s now increasingly apparent to the dimmest-witted voter that the core of GOP policy is to lower taxes on the rich at the expense of poorer health-care for the middle class and increased pollution of the air, water and ground in places where the rich don’t live. No one is fooled by the reported GOP ploy to keep Obamacare’s popular requirement for including pre-existing conditions in health insurance but to allow insurance companies to charge more for it. With increased premiums pricing many consumers out of the market already, most can see that charging more for pre-existing conditions will condemn many who have them to no or useless insurance, and thereby to suffering and death.

By their acts ye shall know them. The GOP-controlled Congress now may actually pass, and President Trump actually may sign, bills to redistribute wealth upward to the rich through lower taxes on them and their corporations. It may actually pass so-called “Obamacare reform” that will leave millions without effective health insurance and pass the governmental savings on to their rich bosses through tax cuts.

But women, at least, will not be fooled. They know what bullying and bossism mean. Bill O’Reilly and Fox have taught them, up close and personal. They will teach the rest of us, not by bullying, but with the love, patience and understanding that are their evolutionary heritage. And we men will learn, if only through the ancient Greek aphorism that “the suffered is the learned.”

Slowly but surely, Fox will lose its cachet and its influence over our American culture. Slowly but surely, bullying and selfishness will lose their prominence among American cultural values. Fox will become just another alleged “news” medium, lost in the sea of facile instant “analysis” and gut reaction that passes for intelligence on TV today. Our youth will turn increasingly to other sources, mostly cooler “print” media, scattered around the Internet—albeit spiced with Russian propaganda and everyone’s “fake news.” And slowly but surely, Rupert Murdoch and his bastard media will fade into oblivion on the list of history’s most effective and subtle villains.

Although a consummation devoutly to be wished, this outcome is now only a probability. But if it happens, we men should never forget that we will have owed it all to women, as much as to the inevitable overreaching and extremism that eventually bring all bullies down.

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16 April 2017

Decaying Empire


[For comment on our weak Yankee defense against information warfare, click here. For some popular recent posts, click on the links below:
    “This is the way the world ends This is the way the world ends This is the way the world ends Not with a bang but a whimper.” — T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men,” 1925
[Note to readers: I’m publishing the following post on Easter Sunday because its message is appropriate to this day. Christianity is the dominant religion in America, and Christians believe this day to be the day of Jesus’ resurrection. But if Christians in America abandon the cultural diversity that has always been our nation’s earmark, they can retard our nation’s cultural and economic resurrection and accelerate our national decline. Jesus himself would understand.]

Introduction
Corruption
Abusing the troops
Abusing minorities
Declining promise
Conclusion

Introduction

Like the proverbial old soldier, great empires don’t die. They just fade away.

So it was with ancient Rome. You might have thought it was done when Alaric sacked the “Eternal City” on August 24, 410 A.D. But not exactly. The capital of the Western Roman Empire had already moved, first to Mediolanum in 286 A.D., then the Ravenna in 402. And Rome’s eastern successor, the Holy Roman Empire, lasted until 1806, when its last emperor, Francis II, aka Francis I of Austria, abdicated.

That’s over 1,400 years from the Visigoths’ sacking of the eternal city to Rome’s final demise—almost a millennium and a half! A slow denouement, wouldn’t you say?

But ancient history is, well, ancient history. What concerns us today is the fate of our own great empire, the United States of America. Are there analogies? Let’s take a look.

The first thing to note is what we say about ourselves. The truth will out, if nowhere else in popular speech. Even campaign slogans tell a tale.

Donald Trump became our supreme leader using the slogan “Make American Great Again.” What about that little word “again”? Isn’t it a secret confession?

What are the main symptoms of a decaying society? For ancient Rome, I think there were four: corruption, abusing the troops, abusing minorities, and declining promise. Let’s examine each in term.

Corruption

The English word “corruption” does double duty. Not only does it signify the type of casual mingling of public welfare and private profit that has become the hallmark of the Trump Administration after only two months. It also describes physical decomposition, as of a corpse.

Remember the marvelous line from Handel’s Messiah, “He did not suffer his holy one to see corruption”? (emphasis added) In modern terms it means that God, by resurrecting Jesus, did not permit worms and maggots to gnaw, and bacteria to decompose, Jesus’ corpse.

The juxtaposition of these two concepts in a single word is a brilliant invention of the English language. For in the long run corruption of the financial/economic sort will do to a society what worms, maggots and bacteria do to an unprotected individual corpse. They change its character. They dissolve its structure. Eventually, they render it an unrecognizable mass of putrefaction.

Just like Tolstoy’s dysfunctional families—each unhappy in its own way—so each corrupted society decays in its own way. In ancient Rome, the businesses of its distinguished senators had accumulated massive debt. The good senators used their political power to get the state to pay down that debt, in the process neglecting the needs of ordinary people, including the troops. This was an early form of “corporate welfare.”

The Roman senators’ feathering their own business nests undermined the state’s fiscal foundation, including its ability to wage war. They also destroyed the social cohesion of Rome’s people, which, like ours today, was one of the most diverse ever in the ancient world.

Is something similar happening here and now? For the answer, we must wait and see. At present, the process of corruption is more subtle and may be reversible.

In present-day America, we do not have massive corporate debt like ancient Rome. Our biggest and best corporations are earning record profits. They are getting so powerful that they are subsuming many of the functions that government used to perform.

But if you look more closely, the picture doesn’t seem so simple. Our American corporate prosperity comes at a massive cost, much of which government pays. For the many corporations that are part of the military-industrial complex, those costs include the world’s overwhelmingly largest defense budget. For those that do not, the costs include massive subsidies and tax breaks, for example, for corporations that provide energy or build infrastructure.

There is nothing wrong, in principle, with a strong defense or government financing of vital infrastructure. But problems occur in the medium term, when interests, technologies and private owners become entrenched, their snouts snugly and permanently embedded in the public trough.

Do we still need to build to build and maintain a world-destroying arsenal of several thousand nuclear weapons, now that the Cold War is over? Do we still need depletion allowances and sweetheart land deals for the fossil fuel industries, which are inevitably on their way out as our species exhausts the supplies of fossil fuels at accessible places in the Earth’s crust?

These unnecessary subsidies are counterproductive not only because they waste money that could be put to better use. They also entrench obsolete technologies and industries and grossly extend their otherwise natural lives. As part of those obsolescent industries, they entrench unimaginative, self-seeking and backward managers and owners in the nation’s economic leadership. They put the least qualified in charge.

Another path to corruption is more subtle still. It’s government-sponsored or government assisted monopoly.

It’s standard, classical economic theory that monopoly, as compared to competition, reduces output and raises prices. The performance of monopoly’s first cousin, oligopoly, is similar. So a subtle way for government to “tax” a people, without their ever catching on, and to apply the tax to corporate welfare, is to encourage or permit private monopolies.

With the aid of government-sponsored or government-permitted monopoly or oligopoly, private corporations can impose supracompetitive pricing, making supranormal profits. But government can still insist it’s imposing no tax. “Look ma, no hands!”

Lest you think this practice is new, recall Queen Elizabeth I. She was one of the greatest leaders in human history, responsible for our practical, business-and-technology oriented Anglo-American culture. But in this respect, she was indeed ahead of her time. She found she could reward her loyal subjects for extraordinary contributions in war and peace, without raising general taxes, by granting them monopolies of common items of commerce. One such monopoly—on playing cards, granted to Lord Darcy—became the subject of a famous lawsuit. The English courts declared it contrary to the common law; and a few years later, in 1623, the English Parliament passed the Statute of Monopolies, prohibiting them generally, except for patents and copyrights.

That statute was the world’s first antitrust law, now almost four centuries old. Today’s American antitrust laws are far more specific, focused and effective—in theory. But they require the Executive Branch to enforce them and the courts to apply them to unforeseen new industries and technologies, such as software and the Internet.

To date our courts and Executive (even under Obama) have been ignorant and lax in suppressing monopolies in these new industries. Today no sentient person supposes that executives in the Trump Administration will do any better. Nor does anyone suppose that Neil Gorsuch will keep our antitrust laws moving forward to encompass the likes of Amazon, Google, Facebook and Twitter, let alone the growing hotel and airline oligopolies and the numerous cable and local-Internet monopolies that drain consumers’ pocketbooks every day.

So, no, unlike ancient Rome, we don’t have much direct payment of private corporate debt with tax money. Not yet. But we do have many ways in which government boosts private profit at its own expense or consumers’, and at the expense of a fairer and more economically efficient society. And now, with Trump as President, we have the unholy spectacle of hotels, lines of clothing, and the president’s own name being marketed internationally out of the White House.

With all these things happening—and while many of us still revere Ronald Reagan as the holy apostle of selfishness as a national credo, can we really say we Yanks are free from debilitating corruption?

Abusing the troops

One of the chief causes of Rome’s fall was abusing its troops. Ancient Rome became a great empire on the backs of its citizen-soldiers. They were free men (all warriors were men in those days), who fought out of patriotism and hope for a better life. If they returned alive and whole after twenty years of foreign wars, they would each get a plot a land, a farm and a home. Their victorious generals, of course, got whole provinces, and sometimes a seat in the Roman Senate.

As ancient Rome became more prosperous, more and more able-bodied citizens became merchants and artisans, who made good money. Fewer and fewer wanted to fight for the homeland. So slaves—mostly former opposing soldiers in foreign wars—became soldiers, on a promise of freedom and Roman citizenship after twenty years of military service.

That was a long time compared to our few years of conscription during our great Yankee wars, including Vietnam. But the ancient bargain worked. For an ordinary person not born to wealth or nobility, or for a conquered enemy left alive but enslaved, becoming a Citizen of Rome was a signal accomplishment, envied throughout the Western World. Its promise motivated hard fighting, and the length of service generated patriotism among newcomers.

Yet Rome’s wealth continued to wax. As it did, fewer and fewer actual Citizens of Rome became soldiers. More and more soldiers came from conquered peoples seeking to earn their spurs as citizens through military service. And then Rome began abusing them by bending the citizenship bargain, sending them into battle ill-equipped and ill-led, and sending them into ill-advised conflicts.

Not only that. Rome’s early form of corporate welfare waxed along with its prosperity. So Rome’s senators became preoccupied with their own financial worries, rather than their people, including soldiers returning home from foreign wars. Julius Caesar became the Rome’s first emperor, and turned Rome from democracy to empire, in part by promising loyal troops returning from foreign wars their traditional plots of land.

As the decades and centuries passed, foreign conscripts came to dominate the military. The land-for-service bargain became twisted and began to lapse. In what is now France and Spain, many of the abused troops were conquered Visigoths. They began to rebel; often they deserted. Eventually, many of them helped fellow Visigoths under Alaric sack Rome.

Are we Yanks marching down that long road to military perdition? Up through humanity’s most horrible war (World War II), we Yanks had citizen soldiers. In that very war we had near-universal conscription. Wealthy people’s sons might get out of service by political influence; but our old Civil-War rule of buying your way out for $300 (a princely sum then) had long been abolished.

Then came the war in Vietnam. It was a war we never should have fought—a war to keep a nation that we barely knew subject to Western colonialism. We fought for an abstraction, “freedom,” and against another abstraction, “Communism,” under a paranoid fantasy, the “Domino theory,” which all our own experts assured us was nonsense.

The war was a bloody, brutal slog in which our troops became cynical, dissolute and sometimes murderous. Morale in our military services was lower than it had ever been. Many educated youth at home took every possible means, including emigrating to Canada, to avoid being drafted. Those who fought and died came largely from minorities and our “lower” classes.

After we lost and withdrew from what had been (then) our longest war ever, our leaders asked the wrong question. They didn’t ask themselves, “How can we avoid getting into unnecessary and unwise wars?” Instead, they asked themselves, “How can we wage wars that our people don’t really want to fight?” Their answer was to abolish the draft and institute our present “all-volunteer” army.

Are you already starting to see a resemblance between that step and what happened in ancient Rome? Of course the troops in Vietnam were not our “slaves.” But African-Americans, mostly the descendants of slaves, were among them in far greater proportions than in the general population. So were white people who couldn’t stay in university, couldn’t find a medical excuse, or couldn’t get a friendly member of Congress to get them safe National-Guard duty like Dubya’s.

When we switched to an all-volunteer army, guess who stayed in and continued to volunteer for service? Pretty much those same people—African-Americans still barred (on a statistical, not individual, basis) from good jobs in the civilian economy and “lower-class” uneducated whites with limited economic prospects. Plus there was a new class of recruits: undocumented or partially documented Hispanic immigrants seeking to earn their spurs as citizens through military service, just as Roman slaves and conquered peoples had done two millennia before.

Of course no historical analogy is perfect, let alone one that tries to tie strings across two millennia. There is an important difference in our immigrant-recruits’ favor: their terms of service can be a few as four years, rather than ancient Rome’s twenty.

But one important point of analogy is unchanged over two millennia. When troops that fight don’t come from the mainstream of society, the temptation of leaders to abuse them can become overwhelming.

The very motivation for an “all-volunteer” army is a source of abuse: the desire to wage war without pushback from citizens. Not all of today’s volunteers join the military for lack of good opportunities elsewhere. But as we enter our sixteenth year fighting in Afghanistan and our fourteenth in Iraq, the risk of every recruit seeing brutal combat and coming home in a coffin or a cast is undiminished. Surely many of those who have other opportunities will take them.

As our “troop base” continues to devolve to those who lack nonmilitary economic opportunity—and whose families consequently lack political influence—the risk of leaders abusing them will only increase. President Trump’s recent decision to keep troop deployments secret only increases the risk: “out of sight, out of mind.”

There is a mound of evidence that abuse of our troops is actually happening. There were the unconscionable delays, early on in Iraq, in providing anti-IED armor for Humvees and simple body armor for our troops—delays that cost many lives and injuries. There was a years-long delay in recognizing the reality of “Gulf War Syndrome” in Gulf I, likely caused by a combination of mandatory nerve-gas antidotes, the depleted uranium used in our anti-tank shells, and the massive oil-fire pollution from Saddam’s scorched-earth retreat from Kuwait. There was the memorable recent scandal of death-causing treatment delays in our Veterans Administration, still not resolved today. And there was and is the failure, until recently, to take seriously the growing phenomenon of PTSD and to research a physical cause and cure.

The rising call of “patriots” to increase the military budget and deploy more troops abroad, at the same time as they shortchange veterans coming home, has become a national scandal. But the simple fact is, when any proposed federal budget gets marked up, the rich, productive and influential always have the upper hand, even if what they are doing is fighting a decades-old “last war” like the Cold War. Thus does corruption lead inevitably to greater abuse of our all-volunteer troops: more foreign wars, less circumspection in entering them, less careful planning of military campaigns and deployments, more of the same-old expensive weapons and equipment, less of the new, and less careful treatment of veterans who need help when they come home.

Abusing minorities

By now, it should be apparent that the themes of this essay are all interlocked like parts of a wooden Chinese puzzle. Corruption feeds abuse of troops by draining money and resources away from their equipment, weapons and proper leadership. At the same time, the primary reason for having an all-volunteer military force—minimizing citizen pushback on decisions to go to war—increases the risk of their unnecessary and even reckless use, and the risks of poor leadership and care during and after deployment.

Yet there is another entire dimension to this interlock: the question of group identity, i.e., race, ethnicity and (mostly for Muslims) religion.

Statistically, disfavored minorities are far out of proportion in our “all-volunteer forces” to their fractions of the overall population. The primary reason is obvious: members of disfavored minorities, having fewer good opportunities in the civilian economy, have a greater incentive than others to volunteer for military duty.

But there is also a more encouraging reason. Our military forces, with a better will and more hierarchical organizations than civilian companies, have done a better job of rooting out racism and bigotry than most civilian institutions. Thus a member of a disfavored minority is more likely to find work free from at least overt prejudice and harassment in the military than outside it. That even appears to be true, or is at least becoming true, for so-called “homophobia” (prejudice against homosexuals) and sexism.

All this only strengthens the interlock between our all-volunteer forces and our treatment of minorities. To the extent we treat minorities fairly and properly in our military but not elsewhere, we strengthen their incentive to fight for us. But if our civilian treatment of minorities gets too rude, we risk alienating the very people who protect us from harm. We risk our own fighting force becoming Visigoths.

Right now, we seem to be far from that terrible tipping point. US citizenship is still so valuable that pregnant Chinese women try to come here to give birth, just to give their babies US passports.

And yet, and yet . . . The spate of recent killings of unarmed African-Americans, mostly children, by our white citizens and city police is a blot on our national reputation and our national morality. So is our president’s and his party’s trying to demonize the Black Lives Matter movement and tar it as anti-police, rather than pro-ordinary people.

Equally outrageous is our president’s and his party’s demonization of Hispanic immigrants, whether legal or illegal, plus Muslims and immigrants from majority-Muslim nations. For many reasons, including a desire to fight terrorism themselves, members of these minorities fight for us in proportions far greater than white, native-born Americans. We do not want to bite the hand that feeds us or disparage the hand that fights for us, lest we make our defenders enemies.

Abusing minorities has much the same effect whether or not it is government-sponsored or influenced. Outside the Deep South and some inner cities, there is little direct government sponsorship involved in abusing minorities today. But there is some government pushback against stopping abuse. One example is the recent effort by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to rescind consent decrees that were hard won by long litigation during the Obama Administration, and that force some city police departments to reform themselves and become less abusive of minorities.

Yet today private abuse of minorities is far more important than governmental abuse. The rate of hate crimes and unprovoked attacks against innocent people has skyrocketed since Trump’s electoral victory. They include an unprovoked murder, and an assault on a senior, of (East) Indian ascent, motivating a sudden reassessment among Indians of the desirability of immigrating into the United States, and even US citizenship.

So much of our American “greatness” has depended, and still depends, on the favorable opinion of people in foreign countries, many of whom are not white, not Christian, or both. Our science and technology depend upon their willingness to immigrate (at least temporarily), take the really hard STEM courses in our universities (which our native-born students are increasingly reluctant to do), and on graduation to join the ranks of our most creative and innovative workers in industry and in academia. And as we have seen, our all-volunteer military forces increasingly depend on immigrants willing to fight for us to secure the blessing of US citizenship.

Continuing to abuse minorities can stop both these salubrious processes dead in their tracks. If a single slip can ruin an individual reputation, think how quickly a thousands slips can bring down our Yankee image abroad. We can slide from the shining city on a hill to just another country full of bigotry and corruption. When and if that happens, our steady steam of eager immigrants, who perpetually renew us, fight for us and give us strength, may slow or come to a halt.

Avoiding and curtailing abuse of minorities ought to be easy. It ought to be job one, for it’s entirely consistent with out national values, including our prime directive: “live and let live.”

Yet Donald Trump and the GOP have made winking and nodding at this abuse, if not actively encouraging it, a central pillar of their electoral campaigns. Now Trump has continued to lean on that shaky pillar in his governance. It’s hard to see what Trump or the GOP could do, save starting a needless war with Russia, that more directly threatens our following the downward path of ancient Rome.

Declining promise

People are strange animals. You can abuse them and neglect them. But as long as they have realistic hope—a promise of something better or of escape from something worse—they will follow you anywhere. They will even fight for you.

In an earlier essay, I noted two extraordinary things that Americans did in the Second World War. Although we treated African-Americans as second-class citizens (and did so openly under “Jim Crow” laws down South), their sons (and a few daughters) risked life and limb to fight in Europe for the nation that was oppressing them.

The same was true of Japanese-Americans. While parents were Interned in concentration camps through the American West, their property confiscated and mostly lost forever, their sons were fighting valiantly for America in Europe. The all-Japanese-American 442d Brigade was one of the bravest and mostly highly decorated in all of World War II. Had General Patton not held it back, it would have be the first to capture Rome from the Nazis.

Why did these two racial minorities, subject to outright bigotry and legalized oppression at home, fight so hard for us abroad? I tried to answer that questions in my previous essay. My conclusion was that it’s not the actual level or kind of treatment that matters, but how real and credible is the promise that it will improve in the future.

In World War II, African-Americans were sorely oppressed at home. But they had won their freedom from slavery in our nation’s bloodiest war, our Civil War. Toward the end of that war, many of them had actually fought for it. They had memories of that fight, and also of the brief period, during and after Reconstruction, of independent black politicians, businesses, newspapers, and universities. They knew what this nation could promise and what its post-Civil-War (amended) Constitution did promise. They fought hard for this nation in humanity’s most terrible war because, despite the terrible treatment they received at the time, they believed in the promise.

Japanese-Americans fought similarly. Many of them, or their parents, had come to our shores seeking opportunities, or fleeing lives in Japan that made them little more than surfs. They or their parents had crossed the world’s largest ocean to seek a new life with us, and they weren’t turning back. The promise of equal and just treatment, which they had read in our schools, gave them courage, even though it still was just a promise and not yet a reality for them.

In contrast, today the opposite has happened to the aging, Rust-Belt portion of our white working class. This was the prime demographic that voted for Trump.

These voters had lived most their lives with a promise that our nation eventually under-delivered. It had several aspects. First, it assured them a good life, without a college education, as long as they worked hard. Second, it promised them lifetime employment with a single firm, a strong and reliable one that, like their state and nation, would last forever, or at least for their lifetimes. Third, it promised them self-respecting work, like making the cars and home appliances that every consumer wanted and that served as emblems of our postwar prosperity. Finally, it promised them a good industrial pension—in lieu of or in addition to Social Security—that would continue their good life well into a comfortable retirement.

None of these promises is credible today. The type of mostly manual labor that these workers had been doing passed on to machines and automation, or to skilled workers on better automated assembly lines. Or it passed to hungrier and lesser-paid foreign workers, once our plutocrats began selling our factories and technology abroad.

The firms that employed these workers turned out not to be so reliable: they got bought, sold, split up, merged and ground up like so much economic sausage. Some of their great trademarks, like RCA, Land Rover and Jaguar, became the property of foreign companies. Instead of the good old jobs making stuff that people used came jobs in a so-called “service” economy—working for others like servants. Finally, as I outlined in my earlier essay, much-vaunted company pensions, for which these poor souls had worked all their adult lives, turned out to be noting more than promises, “downsize-able” or even voidable in bankruptcy.

The results of this vast and relatively sudden decline of promise are far more devastating than Trump’s mere election. We now have an epidemic of opioid abuse in precisely the areas most subject to this decline. There is also, for the first time ever in America among any ethnic group, a decline in life span among this demographic, due partly to increased suicide.

Another cause is plausible, maybe even probable. I call it the “keeping up with the Joneses” hypothesis. The victims of the decline of these particular promises, who are mostly old and white, may be jealous and resentful of non-white and other minorities, who have seemed to receive more attention and more benefits from government than they. (We ignore for the moment that GOP and Fox propaganda have consistently exaggerated both the existence and the extent of these benefits.)

There may be a germ of truth in this hypothesis. But the primary cause of the angst and the decline among this cohort of white, non-college educated, former manual workers is not jealous bigotry. It’s not hate. It’s a real, tangible and distinctly negative change in their lives’ conditions and prospects over the last generation. Their jobs, their factories and their towns have “downsized” or evaporated. Their kids have left home and town to seek better futures in big cities, abroad, or in the military; so the older workers are left with little but memories, vain hopes and regret.

Sometimes, promises simply can’t be kept despite the best intentions. Sometimes people break them. The desperate state of the Trump voters arises from a combination of these two causes. Big firms simply couldn’t avoid the advent of automation or the foreign competition that inevitably arose as nations once devastated in World War II got back on their feet again. But they could have avoided initiating the transfer of American capital and technology to poor foreign countries in order to compete with their own American workers. And they certainly could have avoided downsizing promised pensions through legal maneuvers while, at the same time, adamantly resisting any expansion of Social Security and Medicare to take up the slack.

So the reasons for this declining promise are real. They are neither mental nor imaginary. They are, in fact, the central program of the political party that won the last presidential election and now controls Congress. And they have little to do, directly, with bigotry and inter-ethnic competition.

What we have here is an incidence of real and irremediable loss. The question is whether we let it spread, willy-nilly, throughout our society and ultimately let it erase the “American Dream” that sustained our African-Americans and the sons of our Interned Japanese, among many less pressed, through history’s most horrible war.

Conclusion

Like our own and ancient Rome’s, the ruling classes of great empires don’t grow strong from within. If left to themselves, they inbreed intellectually, culturally, and sometimes genetically. And as anyone who has ever studied genetics knows, inbreeding causes weakness and decay.

That’s why our biological evolution gave us two genders and the delights of love. The “randomness” and “surprise” of sexual attraction gives us continuing genetic diversity. If we wanted to inbreed, we could do it more easily by dividing, like amoebae or paramecia. But evolution abandoned that genetic dead end not far beyond the level of single-celled organisms.

The ruling classes of great nations often are like amoebae. They can achieve genetic and cultural diversity only by mutation. As they become rich, prosperous and powerful, they get smug, self-satisfied, self-righteous, fat, lazy and corrupt. And because of their riches and power, they fail to notice their own decay, thinking themselves superior, infallible and even immortal.

As these traits begin to define a dominant culture, it increasingly makes mistakes. It fails to innovate. It fails to stay flexible. It refuses to adopt the best of other cultures, thinking it knows all the answers.

Every great empire in human history found a way to delay, but not avoid, this cultural corruption. It did so by incorporating and assimilating non-dominant races, ethnic groups, and cultures.

The ancient Romans, the Chinese, and the Mongols did so primarily by conquest, and secondarily by immigration. The Romans and Mongols were noted for incorporating foreigners within their social hierarchy, and foreign ideas into their laws and culture. So was the Islamic Empire at its height—it became a magnet for Jews and other minorities, and it promoted them within its social structure. The Mongols and Muslims were also attracted by foreign science and technology; both cultures incorporated them, and their leaders, at the highest levels of their social structure.

History’s worst counterexample, of course, is Nazi Germany. Its philosophy of “Aryan” supremacy and racial purity led it to crush, expel, enslave and ultimately try to exterminate not just its own Jews—a vibrant commercial, artistic and scientific community including Albert Einstein. It also degraded and enslaved members of every foreign culture that it bested in battle, thereby enraging them and neglecting their talents and ingenuity. No wonder the “Third Reich” that Hitler promised would last a thousand years actually survived less than a dozen!

Another counterexample was Renaissance Spain. The Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella had good ideas on consolidating political power and developing political unity on the Iberian Peninsula. They even invented useful concepts of federalism, of which the “Dual Monarchy” of Ferdinand and Isabella themselves was just one example. But they also inbred culturally, mounting the Inquisition that ultimately expelled the vast majority of their Moors (Muslims), Jews and later Protestants. There are several reasons for Spain’s quick decline as the dominant European power, but surely the Inquisition and its ideological purity were two.

Restoring the American Dream and Yankee cultural incorporation will not be an easy matter, at least for now-disaffected segments of American society. It’s a real and present economic and structural problem. It will not yield to political orthodoxy, simplistic ideology, or bumper-sticker mantras like “freedom,” “choice,” “education,” “smaller government” or “America first!” It’s going to require creative and imaginative solutions from people with the ingenuity and tenacity of Elon Musk (an immigrant from South Africa), Jeff Bezos (an American son of a broken home brought up by a Cuban immigrant), and, yes, Steve Jobs (the biological son of a Syrian immigrant).

Walking the path of the Nazis and Spanish Inquisitors toward racial, religious and ethnic purity will not extend the past American Century. On the contrary, it will only accelerate our national decline, just as it has done for every human society that has tried it. We Yanks must learn from the failures and successes of others, or decline and suffer accordingly.

Restoring the American Dream will require the type of political leadership that appears to have vanished from our nation (except for Obama, Sanders and Warren) during the last generation. It’s going to require the type of leadership that Trump’s voters expected of him but so far have not gotten.

Although the inbred decay of a corrupt and self-satisfied ruling class is not easy to fix, it’s very easy to make worse. By emphasizing racial, ethnic and religious differences, and thereby rekindling prejudice and bigotry, our leaders could easily turn a gradual, secular decline into a rout. They could reduce us to the cultural equivalents of amoebae and paramecia.

This is precisely the tack that Trump and the GOP have taken to win our recent elections. It’s perhaps the most dangerous and outrageous political ploy since some America-firsters advocated allying with the Nazis before World War II.

We are a nation of immigrants and a melting pot. Like ancient Rome, we are a nation that has converted slaves into citizens. And many of us are still trying diligently to do so.

That is our nature and our destiny. Those are our values. If we set our diverse groups against each other and continue to incite hatred, disrespect and even violence among them, we can expect to experience a precipitous national decline somewhere between Rome’s after Alaric’s sacking and the Third Reich’s.

As Howard Zinn reports in his must-read People’s History of the United States [at 253-295, 321-357], racism and racial division were never overt policies of our ruling class, except in the Deep South. Our Northern industrialists simply fell into that approach by accident, because it worked to help quell labor unrest early in the last century. It was a desultory, impromptu strategy to fight unions.

But ever since Nixon’s disgraceful “Southern Strategy,” the GOP has quite self-consciously turned to racism and division to win elections. It did so with its fictitious “welfare queen” and Mitt Romney’s reference to “takers”—a veiled reference to minorities on welfare. Even Daddy Bush got into the act, with his infamous “Willie Horton” ad, featuring a released black ex-convict.

Now Trump has won the White House not just by doubling down, but by tripling down. Not only has he dissed African-Americans at his rallies and in his speeches. He’s expanded the scope of bigotry to Mexican immigrants, American Judges of Mexican descent, and Muslims, i.e., members of our entire species’ second largest religious group (after Christianity).

Just as our Northern industrialists stumbled into bigotry as a means of fighting unions in the last century, Trump stumbled into it as a means of winning the presidency. Yet no one knows, for sure, how much it helped him win, or whether it might even have hurt him. Far more likely, as many polls has shown, the groups that nursed grievances over broken promises voted for Trump out of desperation, as a Hail Mary pass, because no one else seemed even to recognize their plight.

But whatever the reason he stumbled into it, Trump must now stumble out of bigotry. If it consumes our public life, for the reasons stated above it will undermine our military and our defense no matter what hardware we have. It will shut off the flow of immigrants that keeps us strong and allow the lazy, sly, backward and well-connected among us to grow lazy and corrupt and yet prevail. It will set us against ourselves, so that our greatest effort will be spent in fighting each other, in elections, in the courts and possibly even in the streets. And it will, in time, create the greatest backlash against the Republican Party and its open and closet bigots that this nation has ever seen.

There are many things about President Trump that can lead a good citizen to despair. His administration so far has given new definition to the word “incompetence.” But there is one thing about Trump that can foster hope: his ability to learn and change his mind.

Already he has changed his mind on Michael Flynn, a well-qualified military man who seemed to get crazier and more erratic the higher he rose in authority. Last week Trump also changed his mind, rather abruptly, on Syria, on Steve Bannon at the National Security Council, and on China, as least vis-à-vis North Korea.

Now he must change his mind once again. He must wipe bigotry from his and the GOP’s playbook and bring us all together. He must turn on the tap of immigration that, through continual cultural renewal, is the greatest source of our nation’s strength. He must walk the path of ancient Rome, China and the Mongol and Islamic Empires at their heights and avoid the mistakes of Nazi Germany and the Spanish Inquisition. He must make the GOP a true party of unity, as it was when it began, in Lincoln’s day.

Trump can do this on his own. He owes nothing to Nixon, Reagan, the Bushes, or any of the sixteen GOP opponents he crushed last year. He’s a New Yorker—a man who grew up in one of the greatest melting pots in America and in the world. It’s hard to believe that he really credits, as anything more than useful propaganda, the bigoted remarks the led him to his electoral victory.

If he wants to “Make America Great Again,” and arrest the decline implicit in his own slogan, he must bring us all together and respect and value all of us, including the immigrants who continually renew and extend our strength. Only if he can do that, and do it well, can he have any hope of going down in history as slowing, rather than accelerating, our nation’s decline. The alternative is to appear in future history as an American Nero or Caligula.

Footnote: One small reason why Romney lost was that the “taking,” at least of federal tax money on a statistical basis, had been done largely by the states and people who supported him.

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09 April 2017

Implications of Trump’s Syria Strike


[For comment on our weak Yankee defense against information warfare, click here. For some popular recent posts, click on the links below: President Trump’s surprise cruise-missile strike at Syria on Thursday night was a game changer for both his presidency and geopolitics. Most of its probable consquences have not yet been explored in any depth, at least in mainstream media. So let’s take a look.

First, the strike may have saved Trump’s presidency, at least for now, from sinking in a mire of conflicts of interest, contradictions, ignorance and sheer incompetence. By relying on his experienced military advisers, who are among the most competent and qualified members of his team, Trump began to show signs of becoming more than a showman. At very least, fewer pundits will now suspect him of colluding with Putin now that he has taken a clear and definite swipe at Putin’s interests and Putin’s bestial client Assad.

This obvious political effect may have been one of the chief motivations for the strike, at least on the part of Trump’s political team. There’s nothing like a cruise-missile strike, with explosions and burning buildings, to undermine well-founded suspicions that Trump could have been Putin’s puppy.

But second to this glaringly obvious political point, there was something else. In his public statements before and after the strike, Trump had shown his human side. The videos of innocent children, gasping for breath on their way to certain death, evidently moved him. In just a couple of days, his policy toward Assad’s persistent butchery changed from calculated indifference to righteous indignation and wrath. In that wrath, Trump mirrored the feelings of the vast majority of Americans, indeed the vast majority of human beings on this planet.

The third point is more procedural, but equally important. According to the initial New York Times report on the subject, our military gave Russia’s military warning of the strike beforehand. But we gave no direct warning to Putin or his political apparatus.

The direct, military-to-military warning served to save both Russian and Syrian lives and avoid possible escalation of the strike between the US and Russia. No doubt it was given only a short time before the missiles hit, while they were in the air and unrecallable. In that case the Russian military’s options would have been limited: just get personnel out of harm’s way and worry about the buildings and equipment later.

Warnings like this one—and the fact that this one apparently worked well—have enormous implications for the future of diplomacy and conflict management. Bent supreme leaders like Putin dream airy dreams of strategic advantage on a gigantic global chessboard, without regard to their human cost, let alone to innocent civilians. In contrast, military leaders must and do calculate practical consequences on the ground, in advance.

It’s the military’s job to estimate how many troops and what weapons an attack or defense requires, and how many troops and innocent civilians will die. It’s also their job to calculate probabilities, not just of winning or losing, but of various probable levels of advance, setback, suffering and devastation. They know, far better and in far more detail than their political bosses, what their weapons and defenses can and cannot do.

Without a doubt, it was military men who played a key role in avoiding species self-extinction in October 1962. They had the job of informing US President Jack Kennedy and USSR General Secretary Nikita S. Khrushchev how many cities would become radioactive rubble and how many hundreds of millions of innocent civilians would die in any “total war” between the US and USSR. They had the sad job of reporting to their civilian political leaders the conclusions of many physicists and biologists that such a war, and the “nuclear winter” it would produce, might cause the self-extinction of our human species.

They did their jobs well. Somehow, some way, despite all the suspicion and paranoia of the Cold War, then in full rage, the ultimate in “total war” never came. Maybe the single Soviet sailor who may have saved the world—by refusing to authorize the use of Soviet nuclear-tipped torpedoes—did so because he had higher rank than the two who gave their authorization, and so knew something realistic about the consequences of total nuclear war.

As our species backs down from the insanity of “total war” toward accurate weapons that just take out the bad guys and leave the innocent and useful property alone, this sort of military-to-military cooperation will become more and more essential. Our weapons today are far too powerful, and the consequences of their use far too horrible and unpredictable, for our species to allow any single leader to roll the dice of apocalypse.

Thursday it was reportedly a whole roomful of people in the Situation Room who made the decision to strike Syria. Uncharacteristically, President Trump asked a lot of questions. Eventually he chose one of the mildest and least risky options offered by our military.

The fourth and final point of this essay relates to Putin’s perfidy. One of the beneficent effects of military-to-military communication between us Yanks and the Russians was reportedly a very precise one. Apparently additional stockpiles of the very same nerve-gas-filled weapons that killed some 80 innocent civilians in Idlib Province were stored at the Syrian base that our cruise missiles hit. So we aimed our missiles to avoid those stockpiles, in order to save both Russian and Syrian lives from the risk of randomly floating nerve gas.

But how did we know where those stockpiles were? Either our intelligence was picture perfect, or someone on the Russian side told us. So our strike avoided unintended consequences, but the Syrians still have a stockpile of nerve gas that, according to our agreement with the Russians in 2012, should have been exported from Syria and destroyed years ago.

Let’s be clear about the implications of this fact. In 2012, President Obama agreed not to enforce his “red line” after Assad’s prior unprovoked and bestial gas attack on his own civilians. Obama did so in exchange for Russia agreeing to supervise the removal and destruction of all of Assad’s chemical weapons.

At that time, Russia had a minimal military presence in Syria. So we could have taken out most or all of Assad’s murderous air force with little or no losses to ourselves and our international coalition. That alone might have forced Assad to the bargaining table. Or at least it might have slowed the juggernaut of his butchery, which now has turned Syria into rubble, expelled millions of refugees, and destabilized the Middle East and much of Europe.

President Obama, relying on diplomacy and trust, agreed to the exchange. But the Russians didn’t fulfill their side of the bargain. Or they stood idly by while Assad manufactured additional supplies of sarin gas.

At the same time, the Russians used the cover of their diplomacy to fortify Syria’s air defenses with their own advanced ground-to-air missiles and their own advanced warplanes and pilots. They even appear to have participated in attacks on civilian targets, including hospitals. In so doing, they have made Assad’s broken yet still brutal Syria a military colony of Russia, so that any attack by us, the West or the Sunni powers threatens war with Russia. They have bought Assad’s Syria, with all its daily atrocities, and now they own it.

From an eighteenth-century imperial point of view, this may have seemed a daring strategic move on Putin’s part, with consequent geopolitical “success” for Russia—at least if you can call millions displaced, a Middle East in turmoil, and a Europe in crisis and turning toward the right wing a “success.” All these global agonies are direct consequences of Putin’s “strategic” diplomatic deception. Doesn’t Putin recall what Germany’s right wing did to Russia in the last big war?

When you add that to Russia’s recent deployment of a new cruise missile, thereby violating a strategic arms control treaty, and Russia’s near invasion of Eastern Ukraine, thereby provoking a civil war that caused the downing of a whole civilian airliner by Russian stooges with a Russian ground-to-air missile, the whole nasty picture comes into focus. Russia under Vladimir Putin, with at least the world’s second-most-dangerous nuclear technology and second-most-modern “conventional” weapons, has become humanity’s worst nightmare: a rogue great power—a dangerous nation ruled by a man who cannot be trusted.

In the facts of human agony on the ground, Putin has shown, again and again, a tendency to seek every possible “advantage” by means fair or foul, with the consequence of the most vast human suffering, devastation and dislocation of humanity since the Second World War. As if acting out a sick Russian joke, he has repeatedly trampled other people’s gardens rather than tend his own in Russia.

Under these circumstances, we Yanks cannot blame President Trump for raising our military budget. We can, of course, blame him for cannibalizing our civilian budget to pay for it—an expedient that nothing besides sheer meanness toward the unfortunate and GOP ideology demand.

But a return to something like the Cold War, in which Russia has no prayer of matching the steady military innovation and development of a much richer and more powerful nation, is apparently the only thing that Putin and his crew today can understand. The utter devastation of Syria, the chaos of Eastern Ukraine in a civil war that common-sense diplomacy could easily have averted, the destabilizing of the Middle East and Europe, and perhaps Trump’s mostly clueless presidency itself—all stand as monuments to the ends to which Putin will go to achieve his sick views of strategic “advantage” for Mother Russia, no matter how dangerous, risky, tenuous or harmful to others they may be. No sentient Mother, conscious of the likely consequences, would let her man do anything like this.

But Trump’s military investment must be smart and strategic, not haphazard. First and foremost, it must include effective responses to cyberwar and “weaponized” retail cyber-propaganda, to which we as yet have little effective defense.

Paradoxically, such responses should help prevent a reoccurrence of the cyberattacks that seem to have given Trump his presidency. Strengthening our cyber-defenses will also give Trump’s political minions a basis on which to refute claims of Trump’s political collusion with Putin. Whatever the cost, those measures are vital to protect our democracy and way of life against a threat all the more dangerous for being unsuspected until recently and still poorly understood.

Trump’s investment in defense must also include the modernization of our nuclear arsenal that President Obama authorized and started. We must make our nukes smaller, more flexible and more accurate, so that if the dread time for their use ever comes we can erase the bad guys and leave the gleaming cities and their civilian populations intact.

“Total war” is a path to sui-genocide for our species. We can and must find a way to hold rogue leaders—and not their innocent civilian populations—individually accountable for the suffering and dislocation they cause. A future essay will discuss this point in more detail.

In Syria as in Ukraine, Putin has shown by his actions—or at least by his criminal negligence—that the world is and will be a far more dangerous and unhappy place under his leadership of Russia. Unless he acts quickly now to remove Assad and to stabilize Syria as part of a real and effective international coalition, we have no choice but to act accordingly.

We must protect our homeland and the part of our species that shares our values against cyberattacks, “weaponized” retail propaganda, and the ever-widening consequences of Syria’s “strategic” devastation and Eastern Ukraine’s totally gratuitous Russia-caused civil war. And we must goad our allies—with a bit more diplomacy and politesse than Trump has applied so far—to share the burden of that defense. Enough of a twenty-first century Metternichian deceiver and troublemaker is enough.

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