Roundup: Historian's Take
This is where we place excerpts by historians writing about the news. On occasion this page also includes political scientists, economists, and law professors who write about history. We may from time to time even include English profs.
SOURCE: Open Democracy (10-7-08)
When commentators contrast the current situation of the People's Republic of China (PRC) with that of earlier periods in its history, they typically use a straightforward "then and now" schema that takes the Mao Zedong era (1949-76) as the key reference-point. They note, for example, that:
* Mao denounced capitalists and consumerism, but the Communist Party he led now lets entrepreneurs join and China's cities have mega-malls
* Mao reviled Confucian thought, but Hu Jintao and company have founded Confucius Institutes around the world and regularly quote the sage with approval
* Mao was convinced that China could stand apart from the international order - so much so that when a massive earthquake hit Tangshan six weeks before his death, his immediate successors (already effectively in charge) kept foreign observers out and insisted that "Mao Zedong thought" rather than international aid would help the country recover; but after the devastating Sichuan earthquake in May 2008, foreign journalists were allowed to report live from the scene and aid from abroad was welcomed
* Mao aspired to national greatness and technological achievement, but it is a later generation of Chinese leaders who have succeeded in organising technologically sophisticated operations such as the Olympic games and the manned Shenzhou-7 space-flight.
All of these contrasts are real and important - as are less often noted ones, such as that promoting male-female equality was often touted as a key revolutionary goal under Mao but gets little attention now. However, it is not necessary to go back to the cultural-revolution decade (1966-76) to highlight China's transformations. In fact, equally stark contrasts with the era that marks the second half of the PRC's existence - the one that began when Deng Xiaoping launched his economic reforms in December 1978 - can be found.
A thirty-year frame
The approaching thirtieth anniversary of the start of the reform era underscores the fact that this era has now exceeded in length the years of revolutionary zeal, strenuous effort and isolation that preceded it. It is now itself, in other words, a historical as well as ongoing contemporary reality. The distance China has travelled in these years is reflected in the big "China question" on many minds three decades ago: "would the PRC be able to modernise?"
The answer was far from clear at the time. Deng Xiaoping, architect of the new direction, presented himself as a pragmatic problem-solver; made achievement of the "four modernisations" his priority; insisted that to "get rich" was "glorious"; and called for China to quadruple its GDP by 2000, partly by increasing foreign trade and making use of western ideas. Many foreign observers admired him for all this and wished him well. Yet there were many doubts and fears - some of which, such as that Deng might end up changing his country's economy and place in the global order too little, look strange today.
It is hard too to recall the scale and breadth of Deng's impact in the west, particularly in the United States. Time magazine - which in the 1930s and 1940s ran multiple cover-stories praising an authoritarian moderniser of that period, Chiang Kai-shek - did the same for Deng early in the reform era, and twice named him "man of the year". Many prominent western individuals wished him success; just one curious example, the then-famous musician John Denver greeted the visiting Chinese leader thus at a 1979 Kennedy Center gala in his honour: "Mr. Vice-Premier, it is with great joy that we welcome you to our country, and it is with true love that we extend our very best wishes to you and your people, on your ‘New Long March Toward Modernization In This Century.'"
At home, even some of Deng's critics - among them, leaders of the "Democracy Wall Movement" (1978-79) - accepted the notion that China's ability to modernise was vital to its future. Wei Jingsheng, for example, wrote in a famous manifesto in 1978 that China needed a "fifth modernisation" to add to Deng's four: democracy. What is often forgotten is that Wei presented political reform not just as an abstract good but as a pragmatic necessity. Without such reform, he claimed, "economic growth [would] confront insurmountable obstacles."
The Tiananmen upheaval that broke out soon after the tenth anniversary of the reform era differed from the democracy-wall movement in many ways, including the fact that it involved massive marches by students and workers. But the protest leaders of 1989 did echo Wei Jingsheng's claim that one reason the regime's corruption and lack of transparency was so troubling was that it was holding China back.
But in fast-forwarding to 2008, the association between economic and political reform seems frayed as well as buried. Deng is remembered in the west as much for his role in brutally crushing the Tiananmen protests as for his economic reforms; Wei Jingsheng and 1989 leaders such as Wang Dan live in exile; the Dalai Lama is more likely than any Beijing leader to be lionised in Time; and at least some of John Denver's celebrity (and political) successors have less interest in wishing China luck on its new "long march" than in ruminating on the old adage, "be careful what you wish for".
It's true that domestic and international critics of China's government continue to express concern about corruption and lack of transparency. But even here, the ground has shifted. After years of record-breaking growth-rates, few claim now that these flaws are "insurmountable obstacles" to material development.
It's certainly true that China still has impoverished areas that the modernisation drives of these three decades have left almost untouched. It is also a place where cultural and social practices either persist or arise anew that may strike western observers as pre-modern (the increase in women offering their services as wet nurses in the wake of the tainted milk-formula scandal is but one example). But China's supercharged growth in the reform years remains an impressive achievement, to the extent that many inside and outside the country agree that it will soon outgrow the "developing country" category. After all, "developing countries" don't have a state-of-the-art space lab and space station of the kind Beijing plans to build by 2020.
One effect of such enormous changes, visible in the skyline and the streetscape of every major Chinese city, is that international criticism and concern about China have been reframed. These now tend to focus not (as before) on China's isolation and inwardness, but on the environmental, social and diplomatic costs of its bursting forward onto the global stage and becoming an active global player.
A new reality
Three events in China in 2008 illustrate this change, and show how different are the perspectives brought to bear on the country today compared to the beginning of the reform era. The first is the Beijing Olympics itself (at several levels - the lead-up, the high-tech opening ceremony, and the everyday organisation). The approach of the games, for example, heard voices raised against the destruction of homes or neighbourhoods that accompanied some of the vast building projects.
This was a concern with modernisation moving too swiftly and going too far, rather than being held back. (And Thomas Friedman, reflecting after the Olympics, even mused that China's most modern cities can make their American counterparts seem "third world" by comparison, bringing up the notion that China could now be seen as ahead of rather than behind the west in certain ways - something Americans of previous generations would have found it hard to imagine ever happening.)
The second event is the protests that broke out in Shanghai in January 2008, when local residents organised non-violent "strolls" to show their displeasure over a planned extension of the city's super-fast but also noisy "Maglev" (magnetic levitation) train-line (see "One, two or many Chinas?", 19 Februsry 2008).
Many of Shanghai's anti-Maglev protestors were members of the middle class who had benefited from the city's economic take-off. When interviewed by reporters, they sometimes expressed general satisfaction with recent changes in Shanghai's cityscape, taking pride in the degree to which their metropolis had reclaimed its former status as one of the world's great modern urban centres.
But they had a quite specific concern, namely the lack of any opportunity to voice their doubts about modernisation plans that might be detrimental to their health and would decrease the value of their homes. As people who had recently been given many more choices about what products to buy and begun to take pride in owning property, they felt they should have been consulted about a project that could radically alter their quality of life.
The third event is the problems in Tibet, which erupted in the protests of March 2008. These go deep, and involve a complex combination of grievances that include a desire for greater religious freedom and fear that local cultural traditions are under threat. A further relevant factor, though, is anger at the impact that projects designed to "modernise" the region have on the local population. Here, as in Shanghai, a train became an important symbol. Tibetans insisted that the economic benefits brought by the high-altitude rail-line linking Beijing to Lhasa that opened in 2007 were primarily flowing not to them but to members of other ethnic groups, including very recent Han immigrants.
These three events are different in character as well as location. But they do have a connecting thread that reminds us of something important: the discontent that efforts to modernise a locale can provoke when groups directly affected by it feel they have no say in the process. They are thus both a measure of the distance China has travelled in the years since 1978 and of a challenge still to be met.
The images of the new Beijing in architectural magazines and broadcast media, of the packed Bird's Nest stadium on 8 August 2008, of the engineering marvel that is the Beijing-to-Lhasa railway, and of Shanghai's Maglev - all confirm that the big "China question" of 1978 has been answered. Yes, China was able to modernise - and become a global player into the bargain.
Now, as the extraordinary year of 2008 moves into its last phase - passing the reform era's thirtieth anniversary as it does so - the concern over China is what kind of local and global impact this even-newer "new China" will have. The tests for Hu Jintao and his colleagues in the coming period may be as great as those faced by Deng Xiaoping in 1978. But none surely will be as great as reconnecting the themes of economic and political reform. The crucial step on their "long march" will be to give China's people a bigger say in how the country will move forward.
Posted on: Friday, October 10, 2008 - 20:44
SOURCE: Chronicle of Higher Ed (10-10-08)
... Consider a tale of two politicians:
One, married to the same woman for 31 years, has a brief affair, which he confesses to his wife, a cancer survivor. She is furious, then forgives him, and together they try their best to keep the affair private. Two years later, after losing his campaign for the presidency of the United States, he is outed by The National Enquirer and is forced to fully admit his guilt. He is decried as a "scumbag" and a traitor to his wife, whose disease has by then recurred. He remains with his wife and family, but is exiled from public life. Although he was once a likely candidate for a cabinet position or possibly even vice president, commentators generally acknowledge that his public career is over.
The other, on his return from military service, finds that the wife he left behind, a former swimsuit model, has been in a horrendous auto accident, requiring 23 operations and leaving her limping and disfigured, a full five inches shorter than she had been when he left. After five years of casual affairs, he meets a beautiful young heiress, whom he secretly pursues for six months and eventually obtains a license to marry while still legally married to and living with his first wife. He remarries five weeks after his divorce is granted. Thirty years later, he becomes his party's candidate for president. During his campaign, few articles or media reports mention the first wife or the circumstances of his remarriage. It's as though she never existed.
You know who these guys are. I bet, however, that at least some of you didn't know about Carol McCain, wife No. 1, and with good reason. It's as though there is some anachronistic collusion — or mass delusion — sustaining the myth that the perfectly coiffed blonde, as primly glamorous as a Hitchcock heroine, is all there is and ever was. But you only have to count up the children, whose numbers rival Brad and Angelina's, to see how unlikely that is. Yet most journalists, while they frothed in indignation over John Edwards's dalliance with self-described party-girl Rielle Hunter, seem to have reverted in dutiful obedience to the JFK playbook in dealing with John McCain's truly shabby treatment of his ex-wife. The September 8 issue of Time, in 17 reverential pages devoted to Mr. and "Mrs. Maverick," mention the break-up, in a sidebar on "The Clan McCain," in one euphemistically constructed sentence: "After John returned from the war their marriage ended because of his infidelity." Oh, and it was "the marriage" that filed for divorce? (McCain exploited the same passive construction when describing his "greatest moral failure" — to evangelist Rick Warren, during his televised Saddlebrook faith forum — as "the failure of my first marriage.")
Perhaps Elizabeth Edwards's life-threatening cancer elicits more sympathetic outrage than Carol McCain's physical ordeal, now long over (although, from the few photos I've seen, the ravages clearly remain). Maybe, as is suggested by the career of Ted Kennedy, who was declared "finished" after Chappaquiddick but is now revered as the conscience of the U.S. Senate, there is simply a statute of limitations on public condemnation. Or maybe McCain's horrific years as a POW have given him a "get out of jail free" card that seems never to expire. (Maureen Dowd's mother explained it to her daughter matter-of-factly: "A man who lives in a box for five years can do whatever he wants.") On the other hand, there are those who are never allowed to get out of jail. Bill Clinton was stalked by scandal-hungry journalists on a campaign trail that wasn't even his own, but his wife's.
Two fascinating, recently published books offer more theoretically driven explanations as to why scandal sticks to some while sliding off others. ...
Posted on: Friday, October 10, 2008 - 00:04
SOURCE: Atlantic (10-1-08)
"The election that immediately comes to mind is 1968—particularly the negativity aimed at Lyndon Johnson and the direction the country was going in because of the Vietnam War. What most commentators miss is that Johnson’s resignation wasn’t just about the war. He also was facing a serious economic problem that I don’t think he knew how to resolve. Nations were beginning to indicate that they wanted gold for the dollars they were holding, and there was no way the country could pay that off. Johnson’s problem was in thinking that he could finance both the war in Vietnam and the War on Poverty, and it turned out he couldn’t finance both. Already you had the early signs of stagflation setting in that Richard Nixon finally had to deal with.
“Even so, Johnson’s approval ratings then were far higher than Bush’s are today. People were genuinely surprised when Johnson announced he wasn’t running, because he could have conceivably done so.
“All the negativity should have made for an easier victory for Nixon over Hubert Humphrey. When Humphrey started out, the negative attitudes toward him because of Johnson and because of the war were a lot like what John McCain faces today. But the election turned out to be quite close. That’s largely because Johnson—probably too late—halted bombing and initiated negotiations with North Vietnam. He did that in October. Some people believe that had the election occurred three weeks later, Humphrey might have pulled it out. Viewed in that context, there’s still hope for McCain. But his prospects certainly don’t look good.”...
Posted on: Thursday, October 9, 2008 - 23:40
SOURCE: LAT (10-7-08)
A grisly banner was held aloft the other day at a demonstration on Wall Street. Its graphic message advised denizens of the street to "Jump!" It was a frightful reminder of perhaps the most widely believed legend about the Great Depression of the 1930s; that the sudden collapse of the economy filled the sky with the falling bodies of suicidal stockbrokers. As a matter of fact, there were very few such suicides. But the myth captured a deeper truth. Except for the Civil War, no event in American history proved more traumatic. It left scars that are with us today.
During the last few weeks, we've all grown reluctantly accustomed to comparing the current financial meltdown to 1929. Forebodings that this financial crisis may soon enough descend into a more widespread economic disaster are everywhere. Yet almost nobody is willing to use the word "depression." We talk instead of a "slowdown" or "recession," words that somehow fail to do justice to the specter that haunts the nation.
This taboo persists in the face of ominous signs to the contrary: an ever-accelerating rate of unemployment and home foreclosures, a credit freeze that touches everyone from major manufacturers to ordinary consumers, the accordion-like contraction of businesses from automobile plants in Detroit to software makers in Silicon Valley, the rapid erosion of the dollar's value in world money markets, and so on. All of this resembles, at least in broad outline, the liquidity crisis that was prelude to the Great Depression. Still we avoid that word, and for reasons that are all too understandable.
To begin with, there is the profound matter of confidence. A market economy can't function without it. Franklin Roosevelt is perhaps best remembered for gently chiding and reassuring his fellow citizens that they had nothing to fear but fear itself. He was speaking into that interstitial zone of our public life where psychology meets economic policy. Today, too, maintaining or restoring confidence is at a premium. It is a measure of just how bad things are that bankers and public officials whose demeanor is normally professionally upbeat have been as grimly candid as they have been about the seriousness of the situation. Raising the prospect of depression, however, goes too far.
After all, how can anybody be sure just where we're heading? It is worth remembering that when Herbert Hoover tried to cheer people up by telling them that "prosperity is just around the corner," he had at least some reason for believing that. Amazing as it may seem today, the stock market actually experienced a considerable, if temporary, rise after the dark days of October 1929. Not only that, the underlying economy did not show real signs of collapse for nearly a year after Wall Street did; not until the middle of 1930 did it begin to hit the defining marks of 25% employment, with the all-important steel industry operating at only 10% of capacity.
We're not close to that yet (or at least we hope not). Endemic uncertainty acts as an inhibition today, producing a kind of lately discovered humility among savants on and off the street who not very long ago rejected the possibility of anything like what we're witnessing today.
Perhaps the most potent inhibitor, however, is that the Great Depression happened. That is to say, because the Great Depression happened, it is unthinkable today that it could be allowed to happen again.
Since the mid-19th century, depressions had been, if not taken for granted, at least recognized as part of the business cycle, occurring with numbing regularity every 15 or 20 years. No one thought there was much you could do about them. The frankest and certainly cruelest expression of that fatalistic conviction was Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon's advice to President Hoover about how to solve the Depression. "Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmer, liquidate real estate" was Mellon's prescription, according to Hoover's memoir. That's a way of saying do nothing; let the system correct itself. As the Depression deepened into a general social calamity, such sang-froid became intolerable. It has remained so ever since, even under the conservative, free-market regimes of the last quarter of a century.
Finally, there is the irony that the New Deal's response to the Great Depression lends assurance, even among those who otherwise despise what the New Deal wrought, that a second Great Depression can't happen. The "automatic stabilizers," such as unemployment insurance, Social Security and even Keynesian-inspired deficit spending, installed during the Roosevelt years provide some real counter- cyclical weight to prevent a bottomless descent into an economic hell. Or so people believe.
Will the refusal to use the word "depression" be an effective talisman against the real thing? We will know soon enough. But whatever their psychological effectiveness, taboos can't substitute for effective public policy. At the moment, the signs are not encouraging. Those who brought you the first Great Depression and our own current emergency -- the laissez-faire financial establishment and their political enablers -- are still running the show, drafting the bailout legislation, crafting amendments to protect their interests, riding free of most regulatory constraints and scarcely addressing the downturn that is real, no matter what you call it: the rapidly declining fortunes of ordinary Americans.
Posted on: Thursday, October 9, 2008 - 23:29
SOURCE: TomDispatch.com (10-9-08)
It is far clearer now, as American economic power visibly crumbles, that rather than a victor and a vanquished there were two great power losers in the Cold War. The weaker, the Soviet Union, simply imploded first, while the U.S., enwreathed in a rhetoric of triumphalism and self-congratulation, was far more slowly making its way toward the exit. Seldom mentioned here, however, is a grotesque irony: as the U.S. seems to be experiencing the beginning stages of its imperial implosion, it is also -- as the Soviet Union was in the 1980s -- enmired in a war without end in Afghanistan against a ragtag army of Afghan insurgents supported by foreign jihadist volunteers.
One difference, of course: The Soviets were, in part, brought to the edge of bankruptcy and collapse by a war supported to the hilt, and to the tune of billions of dollars as well as massive infusions of weaponry, by the other superpower. The U.S. is heading for its analogous moment without an enemy superpower in sight. If anything, a single man -- Osama bin Laden -- might be said to have filled the former superpower role, which, were the results less grim, would be little short of farcical. That this has come to pass is, of course, partly the result of the Bush administration's many imperial blunders, including its invasion of Iraq and its urge to garrison the oil lands of the planet from the Middle East to Central Asia. Like all historical analogies, the Afghan one may be less than exact, but it does stare us in the face and, eerie as it is, it's hard to account for its absence from discussion here in the U.S.
If you want to grasp just how deeply the United States is now entangled in its own catastrophic Afghan War, you need only read the following report. For obvious reasons, it's rare for TomDispatch to have on-the-spot reporting. So consider this an exceptional exception. Anand Gopal is a superb young journalist who writes regularly for the Christian Science Monitor. Here, he considers the failed U.S. surge in Afghanistan -- yes, there was one back in 2007 -- as well as the costs for Afghan civilians and the increasingly powerful Taliban insurgency that has emerged from it. His report could not be more vivid or more sobering for a country readying itself, under a new president, to pour yet more troops into Afghanistan.
[Click on the SOURCE link to read Gopal's article.]
Posted on: Thursday, October 9, 2008 - 22:52
SOURCE: New York Post (10-9-08)
THE Obama campaign hotly denies the McCain camp's charges that Barack Obama has long ties to Bill Ayers, the 1960s Weather Underground terrorist. I'll leave it to others to discuss most aspects of the relationship - and focus on one damning admission made in Obama's defense.
While denying any other meaningful link between the two, the Obama campaign says that Obama has long respected Ayers' work on education; many press accounts refer to him as a "school reformer." Problem is, those "school reforms" boil down to propagandizing for the very ideas that led Ayers to blow up buildings decades ago.
The Obama defense cites the likes of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, who told The New York Times that Ayers (now a University of Illinois professor) is an educator who has "done a lot of good in this city and nationally." Thus, if Obama sought Ayers' expertise on his chosen field of childhood education, it was hardly anything to be wary of.
But, as Stanley Kurtz and Sol Stern have pointed out, Obama helped deliver thousands of dollars to fund Ayers' education projects in the Chicago Annenberg Challenge - whose purpose, says Kurtz, is to infuse students "with a radical political commitment."
Ayers makes this very clear in all his writings. K-12 teachers, he has written, must teach "for social justice and liberation" - making classrooms into centers for creating revolutionary change.
Time has only hardened Ayers' views. Consider an interview he gave two years ago to "Revolution," a magazine published by The Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, a self-described "Marxist, Leninist, Maoist" group.
There, Ayers argues that education can't be separated from "the concept of politics and political change." Urban schools are now merely preparing students "for prison, for unemployment and for war."
So, to create a genuine "progressive" education for our children, teachers must work to overturn the repressive, racist and imperialist system that governs the United States; it is imperative to fight "the most reactionary cabal of ideologues" that control the federal government and the media.
Even if the Republicans lose the White House in in 2008, Ayers notes, the ruling class will remain irritated by education - which he proudly proclaims the one area they don't control. To keep it that way, he calls for fighting to stop proposals such as those favoring charter schools and vouchers. (Ayers doesn't seem to realize, or care, that such reforms gain access to good education for precisely the poor whose interests he claims to represents.)
In the interview, Ayers also makes a point of declaring solidarity identifying with perhaps the biggest charlatan in modern American academia - Ward Churchill, who was finally removed from his University of Colorado professorship by the school's president for academic misconduct, including false use of sources, plagiarism and the most extreme politicization of the curriculum conceivable.
As Ayers sees it, Churchill was simply challenging students "with ideas they've never seen before," and with encouraging students "to question things."
In fact, Churchill won his notoriety by saying that the Americans killed in the 9/11 attacks were "busy braying, incessantly and self-importantly, into their cellphones, arranging power lunches and stock transactions, each of which translated, conveniently out of sight, mind and smelling distance, into the starved and rotting flesh of infants.
"If there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting their participation upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers, I'd really be interested in hearing about it."
To Ayers, Churchill was simply "being pilloried . . . for being a leftist, for being a critic of US imperialism."
Consider also Ayers' 1997 book on juvenile justice, which Obama praised in a review as a "searing and timely account" of the issue. Yet, Ayers argued against the very existence of prisons in the United States, compared our country and its incarceration system to apartheid in South Africa and called for drastically softer sentences for juveline murderers. In a panel on the book Obama later even agreed with Ayers that the system is an "industrial-prison complex."
Ayers' policies when Obama worked with him were those of the revolutionary left; his views remain the same today. He refers to himself and his comrades as "revolutionaries" who have to "stand up" and fight for revolution. This is a "school reformer" Barack Obama respects?
Posted on: Thursday, October 9, 2008 - 22:14
SOURCE: Newstatesman (10-9-08)
As the first decade of the third Christian millennium draws to an increasingly troubled close, the verdict of historians on its significance can already be anticipated. Two themes will predominate. The first, exemplified by the present carnage in the financial markets, will be the quickening of the west's decline relative to China and India; the second, not entirely coincidentally, will be the tensions in the relationship between the west and the Muslim world.
A grim irony, that so many of the defining crises of the 21st century should have emerged from a swirl of identities and misunderstandings that reach back ultimately to a distant, medieval past. The attacks of 11 September 2001; the presence in Iraq and Afghanistan of what Osama Bin Laden is certainly not alone in describing as "crusaders"; the rise of anti-immigrant, and specifically anti-Muslim, feeling across Europe: all have combined to foster an agonised consciousness that history might be a nightmare from which we have not, after all, woken up.
And still the resulting culture wars rumble on, heard even above the din of crashing banks. In London, the Islington offices of Gibson Square books (which also serve as the publisher's home) were firebombed by Muslim radicals; in Austria, the next government may contain a party pledged to ban the building of minarets. If the banking system is being menaced by a drying up of credit, then the prospects for multi cultural harmony in Europe appear no less threatened by a dialogue crunch. All too often, people of rival convictions are simply refusing to listen to one another. Even attempts to set up frameworks within which conversations might be held are beset with difficulties. As well they might be, for every attempt to fashion Europe's future seems to stir up any number of ghosts from its distant past.
It might have been thought timely, for instance, that 2008 was designated by the European Union as its official Year of Intercultural Dialogue. Yet the entire jamboree is proving worse than a damp squib. Among the tiny minority who are so much as conscious of its existence, there has been much resentment that the organisers should have sought to promote dialogue that was not merely "intercultural", but "interfaith" as well: as though the truest determinant of identity must ultimately be religious. So for every African or Middle Eastern leader invited to address the European Parliament, there has been a host of what one indignant Swedish Green described as "old men in dresses": an assortment of muftis, patriarchs and lamas. That such a guest list should have provoked indignation is hardly surprising. After all, the con viction that the religious and political spheres should be rigorously ring-fenced - and even more rigorously patrolled - has widespread support in Brussels. As one group of MEPs protested, in an official letter of complaint to the president of the European Parliament: "The EU is of a secular and neutral nature."
It is an opinion, ironically enough, that would not be disputed by the most unyielding and formidable religious leader that Europe has. To Pope Benedict XVI, however, the EU's claim to an identity that transcends religion, whether as an honest broker between rival faiths, or as an institution that should have nothing to do with such faiths at all, is hardly a positive. "Is it not surprising," he demanded last year, in an address given to mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome, "that today's Europe, while hoping to be seen as a community of values, more and more seems to contest that universal and absolute values exist?"
Its militant secularism, in the opinion of the papacy, is doubly a betrayal: first, of the undoubted fact that many of the founding fathers of the European project, men such as Konrad Adenauer or Robert Schuman, were devoutly Catholic; and second, and more profoundly, of the continent's one-time identity as "Christendom". Papal mutterings about this perceived "apostasy" have been increasing in volume for some time now - but what really infuriated the Vatican was the presentation, back in 2003, of the first draft of the ill-fated European constitution. In its preamble, the authors had indulged themselves in a spot of root-tracing. Europe's debt to ancient Greece and Rome was solemnly acknowledged. So, too, were the achievements of the Enlightenment. About the Christian roots of European civilisation, however, there was nothing.
The implication was obvious: everything between Marcus Aurelius and Voltaire was to be reckoned mere backwardness and superstition. No wonder that the papacy was appalled. No wonder either that Pope Benedict, invited by the European Parliament to be its keynote Christian participant in the Year of Intercultural Dialogue, should very pointedly have refused.
So what, many secularists may be tempted to shrug: for when it comes to identifying the traditions that define Europe, there are few more venerable than that of baiting pontiffs. Nevertheless, it is hard not to agree with the Vatican that the desire of the laicist tendency in Brussels to ignore more than a millennium and a half of European history is not altogether a healthy one. As the recent referenda in France, the Netherlands and Ireland all served powerfully to demonstrate, electorates are reluctant to buy in to any vision of the future that seems not to take proper account of the past. Never is an acknowledgement of where we have come from more important than when we are attempting to plot a way ahead. If this is true on a national level, how much more so on a continental? The question of what precisely Europe owes to its Christian past may be neuralgic for many - but that is precisely why it needs to be aired, and not closed down.
As it stands, the current attitude of European secularists towards Christianity is like that of a once openly gay man who has since barricaded himself inside the closet and taken to sneering at homosexuality as something deviant. Secularism, in its western form, derives ultimately not from Greek philosophy, nor Roman law, nor even from Enlightenment anticlericalism, but rather from teachings and presumptions that are specifically Christian. Its fons et origo is to be found in the celebrated retort of Jesus to the Pharisees who had thought to catch him out by asking whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Rome: "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's." This admonition, far from prescribing political quiescence, was rather a reflection of Jesus's presumption that the Kingdom of Heaven was soon to be established on earth, causing Rome and all her works to melt like so much mist in the morning sun. But the centuries passed, the Kingdom of Heaven did not descend from the skies - and in due course Caesar himself ended up a Christian. The resulting upheaval, under Constantine and his successors, was seismic: the enshrining of a division between church and state, and between clergy and laity, that would have been unrecognisable to the pagans of classical antiquity.
Yet still the distinctions were less than fundamental. In particular, Caesar himself, by laying claim to the rule of the world as the lieutenant and complement of the celestial emperor, God, was a figure universally regarded as being quite as implicated in the mysterious dimensions of the heavenly as any priest. His subjects took it for granted that he had not merely a right to intrude upon the business of the Church, but a positive duty. Such a presumption, passing from Constantinople, the second Rome, to Moscow, the third, was destined to outlive the Roman empire itself. Indeed, today in Russia, where Vladimir Putin's nomination of Dmitry Medvedev as president was blessed on national television by the Patriarch, and where proselytising by non-Orthodox churches is increasingly banned by the Kremlin's surrogates out in the provinces, perhaps it has a ghostly afterlife still.
In the west, it expired long ago. One name more than any other stands for the insistence by the Church that spiritual power would not give way to temporal: Canossa. It was here in 1077, amid the bleak snows of an Apennine winter, that the emperor of the west, Henry IV, found himself obliged to beg for absolution from a rival who wore no crown, nor even a sword, but who had revealed himself nevertheless to possess a hitherto unsuspected influence and might. Pope Gregory VII's excommunication of Henry the previous year had left the king's enemies so emboldened, and his friends in such despair, that his entire kingdom had in effect been rendered ungovernable. Only a papal absolution, Henry had come to realise, would enable him to cling on to his throne - and so he had ridden through the winter to Canossa to obtain it.
After leaving the penitent to stand out in the ice and wind for three days, Gregory duly admitted him into the papal presence, and absolved him with a kiss. "The King of Rome, rather than being honoured as a universal monarch, had been treated instead as merely a human being," recorded Henry's grandson Otto of Freising, " a creature moulded out of clay."
Once, back in the heroic early days of European liberalism, this was regarded as one of the totemic episodes of history, a turning point more than fit to be ranked alongside the storming of the Bastille. Perhaps, the times being what they are, it deserves to be so again...
Posted on: Thursday, October 9, 2008 - 10:09
SOURCE: Jerusalem Post (10-8-08)
The recent distribution of some 28 million copies in the United States of the 2005 documentary Obsession has stirred heated debate about its contents. One lightening rod for criticism concerns my on-screen statement that"10 to 15 percent of Muslims worldwide support militant Islam."
"Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West" (2005)
Actually, Pipes did provide answers. He collected and published many numbers at"How Many Islamists?" a weblog entry initiated in May 2005.
First, though, an explanation of what I meant by Muslims who"support militant Islam": these are Islamists, individuals who seek a totalistic, worldwide application of Islamic law, the Shari‘a. In particular, they seek to build an Islamic state in Turkey, replace Israel with an Islamic state and the U.S. constitution with the Koran.
As with any attitudinal estimate, however, several factors impede approximating the percentage of Islamists.
How much fervor: Gallup polled over 50,000 Muslims across 10 countries and found that, if one defines radicals as those who deemed the 9/11 attacks" completely justified," their number constitutes about 7 percent of the total population. But if one includes Muslims who considered the attacks"largely justified," their ranks jump to 13.5 percent. Adding those who deemed the attacks"somewhat justified" boosts the number of radicals to 36.6 percent. Which figure should one adopt?
Gauge voter intentions: Elections measure Islamist sentiment untidily, for Islamist parties erratically win support from non-Islamists. Thus, Turkey's Justice and Development Party (AKP) won 47 percent in 2007 elections, 34 percent of the vote in 2002 elections, and its precursor, the Virtue Party, won just 15 percent in 1999. The Islamic Movement's northern faction won 75 percent of the vote in the Israeli Arab city of Umm el-Fahm in 2003 elections while Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist organization, won 44 percent of the vote in the Palestinian Authority in 2006. Which number does one select?
What to measure: Many polls measure attitudes other than the application of Islamic law. Gallup looks at support for 9/11. The Pew Global Attitudes Project assesses support for suicide bombing. Nawaf Obaid, a Saudi security specialist, focuses on pro-Osama bin Laden views. Germany's domestic security agency, the Verfassungsschutz, counts membership in Islamist organizations. Margaret Nydell of Georgetown University calculates"Islamists who resort to violence."
Inexplicably varying results: A University of Jordan survey revealed that large majorities of Jordanians, Palestinians, and Egyptians wish the Shari‘a to be the only source of Islamic law – but only one-third of Syrians. Indonesian survey and election results led R. William Liddle and Saiful Mujani in 2003 to conclude that the number of Islamists"is no more than 15 percent of the total Indonesian Muslim population." In contrast, a 2008 survey of 8,000 Indonesian Muslims by Roy Morgan Research found 40 percent of Indonesians favoring hadd criminal punishments (such as cutting off the hands of thieves) and 52 per cent favoring some form of Islamic legal code.
The Islamic Supreme Council of America's Hisham Kabbani says 5-10 percent of American Muslims are extremists.
These ambiguous and contradictory percentages lead to no clear, specific count of Islamists. Out of a quantitative mish-mash, I suggested just three days after 9/11 that some 10-15 percent of Muslims are determined Islamists. Subsequent evidence generally confirmed that estimate and suggested, if anything, that the actual numbers might be higher.
Negatively, 10-15 percent suggests that Islamists number about 150 million out of a billion plus Muslims – more than all the fascists and communists who ever lived. Positively, it implies that most Muslims can be swayed against Islamist totalitarianism.
Posted on: Wednesday, October 8, 2008 - 08:53
SOURCE: Asia Times Online (10-3-08)
The clearer the larger implications of Russia’s latest adventure in the Caucasus become, the more the Russian leadership’s actions, in August 2008, look dysfunctional. A growing number of repercussions of Russia’s overreaction to Georgia’s deeds in South Ossetia have, by now, added up to a significant loss in Moscow’s international standing. To be sure, further escalation in Moscow’s already strained relations with the United States had been, most probably, expected and, perhaps, even desired by many politicians and pundits in Moscow. Yet, as becomes more obvious with every week passing, other setbacks in Russia’s relations to various countries are increasingly outweighing any gains that Russia’s leadership may be reaping from its show of military strength, diplomatic stubbornness and political resoluteness with regard to the two small separatist territories in Georgia.
Whether the elites of Western and Eastern Europe, or the leaders of Central and South-East Asia – most international actors of relevance to Russia’s foreign affairs reacted with open or cryptic disapproval. Whereas many European comments have been hardly less critical than American assessments of Russia’s behaviour in the Caucasus, Asia’s leaders followed a line of demonstrative neutrality. The latter even concerns countries like Kazakhstan, Armenia or Uzbekistan that have been among the closest allies of Moscow in the post-Soviet sphere. In Ukraine, as a result of Russian behaviour in the Caucasus, the population’s hitherto low support for NATO membership has markedly risen. As East Europeans are becoming fearful of Russia again, pro-Russian political factions and interest groups in Kyiv, Budapest, Sofia or Warsaw are loosing ground. Moreover, in the Baltics, Ukraine or Central Asia, these countries’ significant Russian diasporas are viewed with growing suspicion that, one day, the minorities may transform into “fifth columns” of Moscow. Instead, Russia gets open support for its actions in Georgia, or for her recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from the leaders of Nicaragua or Venezuela – countries of, at best, secondary relevance to her international affairs and economic interests. Against this background, it looks as if Russia’s political and military leaders made a gross mistake when they first provoked Tbilisi and later reacted to the Georgian attack on Tskhinvali the way they did. Russia’s patriots, it would appear, miscalculated the impact that these actions would have on their nation’s international standing. They were playing against their own interests.
Or did they? Perhaps, the logic of Russian behaviour towards Georgia during the last months was an entirely different one? Could it be that its results are, in fact, not in contradiction to, but in accord with, salient interests of numerous political actors in Moscow? Why did these events happen shortly after Dmitry Medvedev’s election for President, and before he managed to consolidate his new position?
Ever since Medvedev’s nomination as presidential candidate, in both Western countries and pro-Western circles throughout Russia, there have been hopes that Medvedev’s election would usher in a “thaw” in Russian domestic and foreign affairs. Being one of the youngest political leaders in the upper echelons of the Kremlin hierarchy, Medvedev is without a CPSU or KGB background. Having developed a relatively pro-Western profile with his public statements already before his election, Medvedev’s advance into the Kremlin noticeably improved the tone in Russian-Western relations and signalled a re-liberalization of Russian public life. Whereas Putin’s regency was marked by a constant deterioration of Russia’s democratic credentials and relations to the West, Medvedev managed, already in his first weeks as President, to change the mood in Russian public life and quickly set up trustful relationships with various European leaders. Some of his first domestic initiatives, such as his ardent support for small and medium businesses, militant stance against corruption, or repeated calls for action against skinhead violence by Russia’s security services, pointed in the same direction.
While welcomed by many in Russia and the West, these tendencies, however, jeopardized a number of particularistic interests that have come to dominate Russia under Putin. They include legions of security service and army officers now populating the offices of Russia’s state organs and companies, various known politicians who have made themselves names with their support for an authoritarian system and anti-Western policies, as well as a wide array of prolific pundits and theorists who earn their money by providing extravagant interpretations of current Russian and world affairs as well as the devious role of the West in them. It was under Putin’s neo-byzantine political system that these people rose and thrived. With the promotion of Medvedev, Russian public life was under the threat of being normalized. In an outwardly open and domestically democratic country, there would be fewer political opportunities for these actors, and no high positions on the social ladder to occupy left.
After the five-day war against Georgia this August, things are in their place again: Russia and the West are on the brink of a new Cold War. Public discourse is about the need for the Russian state to be strong enough for such a confrontation. Medvedev’s stated initial aims – opening and democratizing the country – appear as dangerous luxury, in this new political context. While the Russian nation looses from being again driven into the position of an international pariah, many influential people in Moscow, especially the constituency of radically anti-American politicians and pundits, win.
In view of the dismal result of Russia’s recent policies in the Caucasus, the question suggests itself whether Medvedev has been indeed shaping them, or whether he was forced to follow a script not written by himself. Once Russian passports were handed out to South Ossetians and Georgia was provoked to attack them, there was little choice for the Russian President than to react the way he did. It looks, moreover, as if Medvedev, at first, hesitated to use force. It was Putin who, being at the Olympic games in Bejing, first commented on the Georgian actions and called them "genocide." On short notice, Putin flew directly to the North Caucasus, to take command.
Perhaps, we will never know for sure to which degree Medvedev either acted or reacted during and after the Russian-Georgian war. However, the dubious prehistory and doubtful gains of Russia’s disproportionate military action in Georgia give reason for thought. They suggest that the causes behind the war in Georgia might have more to do with internal elite struggle’s in Moscow than with Russia’s foreign policy aims, in general, or her interests, on the Caucasus, in particular.
Posted on: Tuesday, October 7, 2008 - 09:44
SOURCE: http://www.feer.com (10-6-08)
Adding to the confusion, a case can be made for all sorts of different domestic and international historical analogies. Contemporary China can seem stuck in old Maoist grooves (the lead-up to the Olympics was sometimes like an old-style political campaign) or returning to the days of Chiang Kai-shek (when Confucius was celebrated, as he certainly wasn’t under Mao, but is again under Hu Jintao). Some commentators see parallels to South Korea and Taiwan circa 1988 in an East Asian authoritarian state going through economic boom times. Others see similarities to the U.S. circa 1900 in a rapidly industrializing nation with an energy that many admire but rough ways that draw criticism from more established powers.
Have the whirlwind developments of China’s all too eventful 2008 clarified the situation? Hardly. If the latest scandal involving tainted milk, for example, has shown us anything it is that several of the different temporal approaches to China just limned has something to offer. And it has also shown that each will mislead us if we go too far in embracing it. This is especially true if we fall into the trap of thinking that China is either impervious to change (as the stuck in its own past analogies suggest) or destined to follow in the evolutionary footsteps of another country, such as our own, with the coming of open elections being just a matter of time (as the “PRC is now like the U.S. once was” parallels, if treated too simplistically, can lead us to fantasize).
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao appeared on CNN on Sunday, Sept. 28, in an open-ended interview with Fareed Zakaria that only confuses the matter further. From his comfort of grieving parents in Sichuan after the May earthquake to his recent call for greater regulation of the food system, Mr. Wen has been unusually engaged this year in public discourse for a national-level CCP politician. So engaged that it seems fair to see 2008 as marking a turning point of sorts for the public relations efforts of the Communist Party. China’s leaders still do not need to stand for re-election, but some of them, most notably Mr. Wen, increasingly look and act like they feel the need to seek the support of ordinary citizens and want to advocate for and, incredibly, explain his country’s policies to the international community. The Premier’s nickname may be “Grandpa Wen,” but there’s more that’s au currant than old fashioned about his style, right down to the fact that he has his own official Facebook page.
Yet during his interview with Mr. Zakaria, Prime Minister Wen followed an old playbook in issuing denials and prevarications about topics that have been sticking points with the international community—such as insisting, ridiculously, that the government monitors the internet “for the overall safety of the country and for the overall freedom of the majority of the people.” That kind of talk sounds very much like the double-speak of earlier Communist leaders.
Similarly, the recent scandal over melamine in milk products resurrects competing notions of China as an anachronistic land of throwbacks. Worries over tainted baby formula have led, for example, to a surge of women offering their services as wet nurses to worried professionals with infants—though, bizarrely, this distinctively “pre-modern” seeming breast-feeding for hire is being advertised through the decidedly “post-modern” medium of the Internet. But above all, the scandal, which has taken a heart-wrenching toll on infants in China (several of whom have died, large numbers of whom are developing kidney stones), makes China seem like belle époque America on steroids. The combination of stories of tainted food coming a year after tales of factories using lead paint to coat toys calls up images of a dangerous land where workers and consumers need to both beware—reminiscent of the America that muckraking journalists like Upton Sinclair exposed and criticized. We are seeing, it seems, the world of “The Jungle” transposed from Chicago to Shenzhen.
* * *
Again and again, this theme has emerged in 2008. China watchers—ourselves included—have made the point, when confronted by claims that the PRC is uniquely unregulated (as in the ongoing melamine scandal), uniquely cruel to ethnic minorities (as during the Tibetan riots earlier this spring), or uniquely polluted (as when discussing Beijing’s efforts to clear the air before the Olympics), that we have seen these situations before…in the U.S.
The rough familiarity of these situations to U.S. history, though, shouldn’t lull us into thinking that China will address those issues in the way that Americans chose to. We’d do well to remember how often in recent decades, there have been efforts to paint China as heading along a familiar course. And each time, these haven’t proved accurate, sometimes leading to an equally important analytical mistake: thinking that China, despite all appearances, just isn’t changing at all....
Posted on: Sunday, October 5, 2008 - 22:44
SOURCE: Newsweek (10-4-08)
Ideas are one of our most important exports, and two fundamentally American ideas have dominated global thinking since the early 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was elected president. The first was a certain vision of capitalism—one that argued low taxes, light regulation and a pared-back government would be the engine for economic growth. Reaganism reversed a century-long trend toward ever-larger government. Deregulation became the order of the day not just in the United States but around the world.
The second big idea was America as a promoter of liberal democracy around the world, which was seen as the best path to a more prosperous and open international order. America's power and influence rested not just on our tanks and dollars, but on the fact that most people found the American form of self-government attractive and wanted to reshape their societies along the same lines—what political scientist Joseph Nye has labeled our "soft power."
It's hard to fathom just how badly these signature features of the American brand have been discredited. Between 2002 and 2007, while the world was enjoying an unprecedented period of growth, it was easy to ignore those European socialists and Latin American populists who denounced the U.S. economic model as "cowboy capitalism." But now the engine of that growth, the American economy, has gone off the rails and threatens to drag the rest of the world down with it. Worse, the culprit is the American model itself: under the mantra of less government, Washington failed to adequately regulate the financial sector and allowed it to do tremendous harm to the rest of the society.
Democracy was tarnished even earlier. Once Saddam was proved not to have WMD, the Bush administration sought to justify the Iraq War by linking it to a broader "freedom agenda"; suddenly the promotion of democracy was a chief weapon in the war against terrorism. To many people around the world, America's rhetoric about democracy sounds a lot like an excuse for furthering U.S. hegemony.
The choice we face now goes well beyond the bailout, or the presidential campaign. The American brand is being sorely tested at a time when other models—whether China's or Russia's—are looking more and more attractive. ...
Posted on: Sunday, October 5, 2008 - 22:35
SOURCE: TomDispatch.com (9-30-08)
In 1932, in the midst of a disastrous economic meltdown, Franklin D. Roosevelt made"the forgotten man" the centerpiece of his presidential election campaign. Far more than we suspect, this year's election may turn not on a forgotten man, but on a forgotten war in a forgotten country.
Even before the present financial meltdown hit the news, the Iraq War had slipped out of the headlines and off the political stage. Now, as investment houses totter and bailout plans fill the headlines, it will be even harder for Iraq to get major media attention. Yet the war remains just beneath the surface of the presidential campaign, and so is sure to affect the outcome in ways too complicated to fully grasp.
Think of that war not as one, but two currents, affecting the coming election all the more powerfully because they are out of sight, out of mind, and -- interacting in unpredictable ways -- out of anyone's control.
Obama's War: The Realistic Disaster
The first current is that of realistic perception. Polls continue to show that at least 60% of prospective voters see the war for what it is: a disastrous mistake. Among Democrats, the percentage is far higher than among Republicans, which may be the main reason that Barack Obama is now the Party's candidate for president.
As the only major candidate in the Democratic primaries who opposed the war from the beginning, his stance proved decisive. It remains a powerful factor in his favor as undecided voters make up their minds, even if they don't fully realize it. Remember, most people's electoral decision-making processes -- like the war in American consciousness at this point -- run largely below the surface.
Widespread opposition to and unhappiness with the war (and its expense) has long fueled a broader feeling that the U.S. is"on the wrong track" and needs change of some kind. About 80% of voters were voicing that feeling even before the recent financial collapse began. Much of it came from frustration over a major Vietnam-like military effort that, somehow, once again went terribly awry. Once again, we tried to save a nation by destroying it. Once again, American treasure was poured into a hopeless, hapless venture abroad. From this, there remains a powerful feeling of disillusionment and mistrust across the political spectrum, largely directed at the party in power.
Until recently, it was the war more than anything else that made George W. Bush such an albatross around the McCain campaign's neck. It was the war (and McCain's ongoing support of it) that let the Obama campaign score so many points with the simple slogan: McCain = Bush's Third Term. There will never be any way to measure just how many votes that anti-Bush feeling will cost McCain, but it will surely be felt on Election Day.
In fact, it's already being felt in the halls of Congress as negotiations over an instantaneous emergency fix of the financial system drag on. If it were not for the web of deceit the administration wove around Iraq, the public might have rolled over and accepted the proposed"bailout" with little question. But having been fooled by one rush to power -- supposedly to save us from Saddam's dreaded WMDs -- the people are sending a message to a president who has a job approval rating in the mid-20% range and, in a recent CBS poll, a 16% approval rating on the economy. That's bound to help the Democrats.
"The forgotten man," now joined by an equally empowered"forgotten woman," is back in American politics. Terrified by a financial system they are assured is beyond anyone's control, they are shouting from Main Street loud enough for Wall Street and K Street to hear. Americans know enough about finance to understand one simple fact: When you're wasting jaw-dropping amounts of public money every day on a disastrous war, you can't be cavalier about spending hundreds of billions more on another self-proclaimed emergency, especially when there's no reason in the world to believe the administration has the answer to either of them. Come Election Day, many may simply say: Let the other guy run the show for a while.
The sense that the other guy -- Obama -- has a better approach to the war is borne out by one powerful fact that most Americans have probably not taken in. The position the senator has espoused all along is now essentially the official Bush administration position: U.S. combat troops must be withdrawn from Iraq by a date certain. In case anyone in Washington misses the point, top Iraqi government officials seem eager to remind them at every opportunity that it's Obama's position which makes sense to them.
Much as they may have given up on the President's war long ago, most voters haven't heard about this because, in one of its few triumphs of the last year, the administration has managed to preside over the tamping down of violence in Iraq just enough to push the whole ongoing story of the war out of the media spotlight. That's why few voters know that Bush has now, however reluctantly and quietly, embraced the basic principle of Obama's withdrawal plan.
Nor do many Americans realize just how little the surge had to do with diminishing the violence in Iraq, or how unstable the post-surge situation actually remains. On that we have the witness of none other than the strategy's main architect, General David Petraeus, who recently doubted that the U.S. could ever claim victory in Iraq and warned that American gains were"not irreversible… Many storm clouds on the horizon could develop into real problems." Yet his warning, like most of the news from and about Iraq, has quietly slipped beneath the surface of our political waters.
The eclipse of the war -- which was supposed to be Obama's winning issue -- is one big reason that he has, until recently, remained stuck in a statistical tie with McCain in the opinion polls.
McCain's War: The Symbolic Victory
Why has the war generally been consigned to the dustbin of news and so largely forgotten? Here's one reason: The realistic American perception of disaster is continually blocked by a powerful countercurrent that runs deep in our political culture in which war is perceived not as a bloody fact but as a web of symbolism and a test of"traditional American values." This countercurrent triggers powerful nationalistic feelings.
On that level, there seems to be no need to dwell on Iraq any more because"the surge worked." In other words -- the war is over… we won (sorta)! Even Sarah Palin says so.
Of course the administration and the media designers of war symbolism don't put it that bluntly. They know that they don't need to. The simple disappearance of scenes of Iraqi carnage from front pages and the TV news does the trick just as well. The public, getting no news and assuming that means good news, hears what it wants to hear.
The idea that we're on a path to"victory" -- or at least"success" -- is seductive exactly because it seems to prove that we are still the good guys wearing the white hats. Don't they always win? It's easy to submerge frustration and disillusionment beneath a reassuring feeling that America is still the world's shining beacon of moral hope.
For some voters, that remains crucial. Another military defeat, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan, could raise deeply disturbing questions about moral order, not merely in international affairs but in the cosmos.
So when a white-haired "hero" shows up, crying" country first" and proclaiming America"the only nation I know that really is deeply concerned about adhering to the principle that all of us are created equal," some may follow him, regardless of his policies -- especially if what made him a war hero was five years of Christ-like suffering at the hands of America's enemies.
Who better to lead the forces of virtue in their endless battle against the"me-first crowd"? And where better to do it than on a battlefield far away, where evil seems to hold sway and"victory" remains on the American banner?
Yes, such symbolism is a riptide running against the current of reality. It has an often unassailable logic all its own, which can be very compelling.
For how many voters? No one can say -- especially when these currents of realism and symbolism are colliding largely out of sight in the murky waters of the presidential race, as equally murky poll results have been indicating.
For many months, clear majorities of voters have supported the policy that Obama touts as his own: Get the combat troops (or even all U.S. troops) out of Iraq by a date certain. Yet a majority, even if a slimmer one, has consistently claimed to trust McCain, who wants to stay until we"win," more than Obama when it comes to the handling of the war (as well as other national security issues).
Typically, in the most recent Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll, McCain topped Obama as"best at achieving success in Iraq" by a margin of 50% to 34%. Yet when the same voters were read the positions of the two and asked,"Which do you agree with more?" the outcome was a virtual tie. In other words, fully 14% of those who sided with Obama's Iraq position failed to name him best at handling the issue.
That's puzzling to those who think that voters simply listen to candidate positions and then choose the one closest to their own views. If only it were so. In that same poll, for instance, just about a quarter of the voters said they would base their decision in the polling booth mainly on issues -- and that's typical of other polls that ask the same question. Among that quarter, tellingly, Obama was favored by a whopping margin of 70% to 24%. Among the other three-quarters, the choice went decidedly for McCain.
McCain has stayed competitive, in part, because a significant number of voters remain ready to choose him not for what he would actually do in Iraq, but for what he seems to symbolize in the hall of mirrors that is American politics. On the other hand, at least one poll earlier this year found that a third of those who trusted McCain more on Iraq did not plan to vote for him anyway.
Amid all the confusing crosscurrents, one thing is clear: No wave of symbolism can stop the flow of empirical realities in Iraq. No matter who moves into the Oval Office on January 20, those harsh realities and their fallout around the world will be waiting on his desk, piled high and deep. They may, unfortunately, still be there when that president ends his first (or only) term in office four years later.
That fallout is strongest and most ominous in the Muslim lands to the east of Iraq. Let's just hope the next president is wise enough and open-minded enough to hear us when we point out: One presidency was wrecked in the jungles of Vietnam, another in the sands of Iraq. Don't let a third presidency be destroyed in the mountains of Afghanistan or Pakistan, or over Iran. That danger alone should be more than enough reason to keep the Iraq War in the forefront of our minds as we decide on, and then usher in, a new presidency.
Copyright 2008 Ira Chernus
Posted on: Sunday, October 5, 2008 - 14:41
SOURCE: Special to HNN (10-5-08)
Now that Barack Obama has taken a decisive lead in the Presidential Race, John McCain and Sarah Palin have decided to take a time honored theme out of the playbook of the American Right and attack their opponent's patriotism
We saw that in the debate where Palin, rather than dealing with substantive issues regarding American military strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan called the Obama/ Biden plan of phased withdrawl from Iraq a prescription for"surrender."
Today, Palin and McCain are making headlines by claiming that Obama's connection with Chicago based education professor William Ayers, a member of the Weather Underground in the late 1960's and early 1970's , means Obama" consorts with terrorists."
Though this strategy helped Repubican candidates win elections in the 1940's and 1950's, it will not work now.
First of all, at a time when most Americans are worried whether they keep their jobs, fund their businesses, be able to use their credit cards, retire with dignity or send their children to college,the questioning of Barack Obama's patriotism and"Americanism," will seem like a cynical ploy to divert attention from a discussion of programs and policies which are critical to the average American's future. Some will view it as an insult to their intelligence; others may see it as dangerous attempt to inflame racial, religious and regional prejudice at a time when Americans have to come together to solve some of the most difficult economic problems they have faced in their lifetimes.
But secondly, this strategy will backfire because Sarah Palin, the self described"pit bull" of the McCain campaign, has a history of very questionable associations herself. Sarah Palin's pastor's comments about gays put him at least as far outside the American mainstream as Rev Wright. And Sarah Palin's husband's association with the Alaska Independence Party put him squarely in the company of people whose mindset approaches those who engineered the Oklahoma City Bombing. Scratch people around Sarah Palin and you will find examples of racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia that will not hold up well under public scrutiny. People living in glass houses, even when they are near the Artic Circle, should be careful of throwing stones.
Never has the American public more deserved an intelligent, dispassionate discussion of issues ranging from taxation to economic regulation, to military strategy. Now the Republicans are about to run a campaign of"Fear and Smear"
Do they really think we are that stupid? American voters know that the main issues in this election are economic. This is not 1952 or even 1968. It's more like 1936, when the electorate gave Franklin Roosevelt's policies a ringing endorsement even though Republicans said his admninistration was riddled with Communists.
Because of the current economic crisis, Barack Obama is not as easy a target as Republicans think
They are going to be in for a rude awakening on November 4.
Posted on: Sunday, October 5, 2008 - 13:13
SOURCE: http://www.cepr.net (10-3-08)
This is the first time in the history of the United States that the president has sought to provoke a financial panic to get legislation through Congress. While this has proven to be a successful political strategy, it marks yet another low point in American politics.
It was incredibly irresponsible for President Bush to tell the American people on national television that the country could be facing another Great Depression. By contrast, when we actually were in the Great Depression, President Roosevelt said that, "we have nothing to fear, but fear itself."
It was even more irresponsible for him to seize on the decline in the stock market five days later as evidence that his bailout was needed for the economy. President Bush must surely understand, as all economists know, that the daily swings in the stock market are driven by mass psychology and have almost nothing to do with the underlying strength in the economy.
The scare tactics of President Bush, Secretary Paulson and Federal Reserve Board Chairman Bernanke created sufficient panic, so that by the time of the vote, much of the public believed that the defeat of the bailout may actually have had serious consequences for the economy. Millions of people have changed their behavior because of this fear, with many pulling money out of bank and money market accounts, and in other ways adjusting their financial plans.
This effort to promote panic is especially striking since the country's dire economic situation is almost entirely the result of the Bush Administration's policy failures. First and foremost, the decision of Secretary Paulson and Chairman Bernanke (and previously Alan Greenspan) to ignore the housing bubble, allowed for the growth of an $8 trillion bubble, which is now collapsing.
It is the collapse of this bubble, which has already destroyed more than $4 trillion in housing wealth, and is likely to destroy another $4 trillion over the next year, that is at the root of the economy's problems. While competent economists were warning of the bubble and the dire consequences of its collapse, the top officials in the Bush administration were celebrating the rise in homeownership rates.
The Bush administration made the crisis even worse by deregulating Wall Street. This led to the huge over-leveraging of financial institutions, which has vastly complicated the country's economic policies. It is especially disturbing that Secretary Paulson personally profited from these policies, earning hundreds of millions in compensation from Goldman Sachs during his years there as its CEO.
The collapse of the housing bubble, while falling short of the magnitude of the Great Depression, is likely to lead to the worst recession since World War II. Repairing the damage caused by this bubble will be a long and difficult process. Cleaning up the damage to the political system from President Bush's unprecedented fear campaign may prove to be even more difficult.
Posted on: Sunday, October 5, 2008 - 13:03
SOURCE: Columbia University Press Blog (10-3-08)
What a difference a format makes. In the first Obama-McCain debate the candidates had two minutes for opening responses, followed by a five-minute discussion period on each topic. In practice, thanks to two verbally confident candidates, these periods ran even longer. Biden and Palin had only ninety seconds for their initial responses and two minutes for discussion, in a debate that ran like clockwork. The outcome: a reasonably substantive level of discourse between the presidential contenders and a superficial lightning round for the v-ps.
Four extra minutes per topic may seem a trifle, but on live television it’s a healthy chunk of time—time enough for smart debaters to flesh out their points and critique their opponents. We saw this with the two presidential candidates, who took full advantage of their opportunity to compare and contrast. Voters benefited from hearing the top-of-the-ticket debaters explain their positions, at least to the degree that live television permits.
By contrast, the Biden-Palin debate whipsawed from topic to topic with the velocity of a game show. On the one hand, this tighter format may have had a salutary effect on Biden by forcing him to whittle down his characteristically expansive answers. But the key result of the bite-sized response times was to keep Palin safely tethered to her talking points. Operating at the mercy of the format, moderator Gwen Ifill did what she could to add depth to the candidates’ views, yet the structure of the program made follow-ups nearly impossible. Ifill’s job was further complicated by this extraordinary declaration by Palin: “I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you (Biden) want to hear, but I’m going to talk straight to the American people.” In other words, silly debate rules don’t apply to me, even though the McCain-Palin campaign negotiated and signed off on those rules.
Debate formats will always be subject to tinkering by campaigns, but for the future let us seek structures for presidential debates that (a) provide greater insight into the candidates’ thinking processes and (b) encourage dialogue and interaction between the participants. And in order to hold debaters’ feet to the fire, let’s give the moderator some powers of enforcement.
Formats ought to serve the interests of the citizens first, and those of the candidates secondarily. The 2008 vice presidential debate got this exactly backwards—while the first presidential debate got it right.
Posted on: Sunday, October 5, 2008 - 02:04
"I did not get this, sorry?" – exclaimed Matvei Ganopolski, moderator of the radio station "Ekho Moskvy" (Moscow's Echo) being on air at the evening of August 8, 2008. Ganopolski was responding to his interview partner, the leader of the so-called International Eurasian Movement Aleksandr Dugin, who had just told him that Georgia's actions in South Ossetia that day were "genocide." Ganopolski could not believe that somebody would use such a loaded word to label the events in Georgia. Notwithstanding Ganopolski's outrage, one day later, on August 9, 2008, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin also called Tiblisi's action "genocide." On August 10, President Dmitry Medvedev, who had earlier commented on the conflict using less dramatic terminology, followed suit and also claimed that what had been happening in South Ossetia for the previous three days is to be classified as "genocide."
It is doubtful that Putin or Medvedev had been inspired directly by Alexander Dugin to use the "g-word" for describing what was happening in Georgia that August. However, the congruence of their hyperbole is indicative of where Russia has been moving during the last years. Dugin has become a prolific political commentator and, some say, influential pundit in Putin's new Russia. A well-known theorist of fascism in the 1990s, Dugin presents himself today as a "radical centrist" and ardent supporter of Russia's authoritarian domestic and anti-Western foreign policies. His impassioned articles in defence of Putin as well as his especially rabid anti-Americanism are, apparently, popular in the Kremlin and in Moscow's "White House" (the seat of the federal government). Otherwise, one cannot explain how Dugin has become such a frequent guest in popular evening shows at Russia's government-controlled TV channels, as well as a regular writer for many Moscow newspapers and websites engaged in hammering into the Russian population the latest Kremlin-line.
Dugin's constant rise, during the last years, has happened in spite of the fact that, in the 1990s, this self-style "neo-Eurasianist" had been joyously welcoming the imminent emergence, in Russia, of a "fascist fascism," and praising the organizer of the Holocaust Reinhard Heydrich for being a "convinced Eurasianist." Back then, Dugin described his ideology as being "conservative revolutionary," and admitted that the core idea of fascism is exactly the "conservative revolution." Throughout the nineties, the "neo-Eurasianist" made a whole number of similar statements including various more or less qualified apologies of the Third Reich.
In recent years, to be sure, Dugin's rhetoric has changed – if not in tone, then in style. He now, oddly, often poses as an outspoken "anti-fascist," and does not hesitate to label his opponents in- and outside Russia "fascists" or "Nazi." Paradoxically, he does so while still admitting that his ideas are close to those of the Strasser brothers of inter-war Germany. Dugin introduces these two German nationalists as "anti-Hitlerites," and forgets to mention that Otto and Gregor Strasser were indeed Hitler's opponents – yet they were opposing the Führer being themselves part and parcel of Germany's emerging fascist movement. The Strasser brothers played a rather significant role in transforming the NSDAP in the late 1920s into a mass party before Hitler expelled them from the Nazi party as two influential leaders who had become politically and ideologically inconvenient rivals.
This is not to say that Dugin's rise already means that Russia is becoming fascist. Yet with every additional year passing, the new century has seen further rapprochement between the rhetoric of Russia's extreme right and her highest power-holders, not the least of Putin himself. Putin's and Medvedev's strange repetition of Dugin's interpretation of Tiblisi's action as "genocide" is merely one of many such signs. Moreover, a whole number of more or less influential actors in Putin's "vertical of power" are, in one way or another, linked to Dugin. For instance, Viktor Cherkesov, one of Putin's closest former KGB buddies, is said to have been acquainted with, and sympathetic (as well as, perhaps, helpful) to, Dugin since the 1990s. The same goes for Mikhail Leont'ev, one of Russia's most well-known TV commentators and, according to some information, Putin's favourite journalist. In 2001, Leont'ev took part in the foundation of Dugin's "Eurasia" movement; subsequently, he was, for some time, a member of that organization's Political Council. In February this year, Ivan Demidov, a popular TV moderator, has been promoted to the office of the head of the Ideology Directorate of the Executive Committee of Putin's United Russia party. This happened in spite of the fact that Demidov, only a few months earlier, had professed to be a pupil of Dugin and announced that he would use his talents as PR manager to spread Dugin's ideas.
The Russian extreme right, including some of its crypto-fascist sections, is becoming an ever more influential part of Moscow mainstream public discourse. Its influence can be felt in Russia's mass media, academia, civil society, arts, and politics. Against this background, the growing estrangement between Russia and the West is hardly surprising. Should Dugin and Co. continue to exert their impact on the Russian elite and population, the currently emerging second Cold War between Moscow and the West will stay with us, for the years to come.
Posted on: Saturday, October 4, 2008 - 22:48
SOURCE: Time Mag. (10-2-08)
On Sept. 29 of this year, as investors and traders reacted to Congress's rejection of the bailout plan presented by Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, the stock market sell-off was dramatic: the Dow fell nearly 7% that day, a one-day drop that has been matched only 17 times since the index's birth in 1896. From its peak last October, the Dow has fallen more than 25%.
Yet the underlying cause of the Great Depression — as Milton Friedman and Anna Jacobson Schwartz argued in their seminal book A Monetary History of the United States: 1867-1960, published in 1963 — was not the stock-market crash but a "great contraction" of credit due to an epidemic of bank failures.
The credit crunch had surfaced several months before the stock-market crash, when commercial banks with combined deposits of more than $80 million suspended payments. It reached critical mass in late 1930, when 608 banks failed — among them the Bank of the United States, which accounted for about a third of the total deposits lost. (The failure of merger talks that might have saved the bank was another critical moment in the history of the Depression.)
As Friedman and Schwartz saw it, the Fed could have mitigated the crisis by cutting rates, making loans and buying bonds (so-called open-market operations). Instead, it made a bad situation worse by reducing its credit to the banking system. This forced more and more banks to sell assets in a frantic dash for liquidity, driving down bond prices and making balance sheets look even worse. The next wave of bank failures, between February and August 1931, saw commercial-bank deposits fall by $2.7 billion — 9% of the total. By January 1932, 1,860 banks had failed.
Only in April 1932, amid heavy political pressure, did the Fed attempt large-scale open-market purchases — its first serious effort to counter the liquidity crisis. Even this did not suffice to avert a final wave of bank failures in late 1932, which precipitated the first state "bank holidays" (temporary statewide closures of all banks).
When rumors that the new Roosevelt Administration would devalue the dollar led to widespread flight from dollars into gold, the Fed raised the discount rate, setting the scene for the nationwide bank holiday proclaimed by President Franklin Roosevelt on March 6, 1933, two days after his Inauguration — a "holiday" from which 2,500 banks never returned.
The obvious difference between then and now is that Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has learned from history — not surprising, given that he once studied the Great Depression intensively. Since the onset of the credit crunch in August 2007, Bernanke has repeatedly cut the federal-funds rate from 5.25% down to an effective rate at one point last week of about 0.25%. He has pumped money into the financial system through a variety of channels: in all, about $1.1 trillion over the past 13 months.
The Treasury is also active in ways it wasn't during the Depression. ...
Posted on: Saturday, October 4, 2008 - 19:50
SOURCE: TPM (Liberal blog) (10-2-08)
True, we're all tethered into the dance: We love our cars -- couldn't imagine reconfiguring our lives to save energy, enhance walking, reduce obesity, end road rage. Yet the car culture is only a sample of what an increasingly manic, drugged, violent, and stupid America of sovereign consumers has been choreographed into "choosing."
Wait till January, they say, and we'll straighten things out. Sorry, but with this package America has lost its legitimacy and morale. Its decline will accelerate, even with an uptick in the markets in which, yes, we are all invested.
Unless the populist indignation is translated into a more thorough reform of the consumer-marketing juggernaut that has dissolved our civic culture, this package, coming atop so much else in the Bush years, will be just another a nail in the coffin of the American republic.Take a minute and consider why.
I've recycled John Adams a few times too many, but you can't be reminded too often that
"[W]hen the people give way, their deceivers, betrayers, and destroyers press upon them so fast, that there is no resisting afterwards. The nature of the encroachment upon the American Constitution is such as to grow every day more and more encroaching. ... The people grow less steady, spirited, and virtuous, the seekers more numerous and more corrupt, and every day increases the circles of their dependants and expectants, until virtue, integrity, public spirit, simplicity, and frugality become the objects of ridicule and scorn, and vanity, luxury, foppery, selfishness, meanness, and downright venality swallow up the whole society." :
Why did he say this in 1787? As soon as King George III was gone, even the most triumphant of the founders took a long look at the American people and found themselves worrying about how a republic ends. History showed them that it can happen not with a coup but a smile, a sweetener, and a friendly swagger -- as soon as the people tire of the burdens of self-government and can be jollied along into servitude, or scared into it, when they've become soft enough to intimidate.
Sound hyperbolic? Even that conservative banker Alexander Hamilton sketched the stakes by writing in the Federalist that history had destined Americans, "by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force."
And Ben Franklin sketched the odds, warning that the Constitution "can only end in Despotism as other Forms have done before it, when the People shall have become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of any other."
How might that happen? "History does not more clearly point out any fact than this, that nations which have lapsed from liberty, to a state of slavish subjection, have been brought to this unhappy condition, by gradual paces," wrote Founder Richard Henry Lee.
The Founders were all reading Edward Gibbon's then-new account of how the Roman republic had slipped, degree by self-deluding degree, into an imperial tyranny. Leaders could bedazzle citizens out of their liberties by titillating, intimidating, and stampeding them into becoming bread-and-circus mobs that "no longer possessed that public courage which is nourished by the love of independence, the sense of national honor, the presence of danger, and the habit of command. They received laws and governors from the will of their sovereign and trusted for their defense to a mercenary army ... ."
Gibbon added pointedly that Augustus, the first real emperor, "wished to deceive the people by an image of civil liberty, and the armies by an image of civil government" and that he knew that "the senate and people would submit to slavery, provided they were respectfully assured that they still enjoyed their ancient freedom."
Campaigning in an open shirt, as it were, "that artful prince ... humbly solicited their suffrages for himself, for his friends and scrupulously practiced all the duties of an ordinary candidate ... . The emperors ... disdained that pomp and ceremony which might offend their countrymen but could add nothing to their real power....."
And so Rome became what Gibbon called "an absolute monarchy disguised by the forms of a commonwealth," not by conspiracy but thanks to a confluence of deeper currents that had enervated people's republican virtues and beliefs.
But isn't this what Bush and the Republicans vowed to save us from, with the help of God and martial valor? Isn't it big-government liberals who would coddle us into servitude and decadence?
Plenty of liberal big-government folly has reinforced that perception, but so has Americans' reluctance to admit that the propaganda, seductions, and contractual strangleholds of corporations, driven by anomic finance, have become ever more confining, intrusive, and degrading in our work lives, our entertainments, and even our public discourse controlled as so much of it is by conglomerate-hired editors and op-ed savants.
The founders understood that the people can't enhance freedom by handing themselves over from their elected officials to their paymasters. Some onorable American conservatives -- diplomats, retired generals, even some pundits -- want to spare us that fate, but they have found themselves as outnumbered and marginalized as Dennis Kucinich.
So great and justified is the public anger, though, that even the bailout's apologists are scrambling to acknowledge that something better will have to follow. A Los Angeles Times editorial today knocks proponents of the bailout for trying to buy off the rage
"[b]y larding it with tax breaks, handouts and pet projects. ...Others... just seem frivolous. The message, though, was that supporters of the financial industry bailout had given up trying to convince voters that it was in their interests too, and not just Wall Street's. Instead, they coated the bitter bailout pill with a bunch of end-of-session sweeteners to make it easier to swallow."
And the New York Times' Nicholas Kristof acknowledges that ".....[C]ritics of the bailout have reason to be furious. It is profoundly unfair that working-class American families lose their homes, their jobs, their savings, while plutocrats who caused the problem get rescued. If the Congressional critics of the bailout want to do some lasting good, they should come back in January -- after approving the bailout now -- with a series of tough measures to improve governance and inject more fairness in the economy."
But former Clinton labor secretary Robert Reich was more candid, right here in TPM, noting that the bailout
"will be funded by additional federal debt, issued mostly to foreign governments --
especially the Chinese and in the Middle East. And, strictly speaking, it's not even a bailout: The Treasury will buy and hold mortgage-backed securities whose value is now unknown because there's no market for them, until housing prices start rising again.....
"But whatever it's called and however it's financed," Reich continues, "it's still an outrage. America's foreign policy is made no more flexible by going into deeper hock to the Chinese and the Middle East. And the deal still subjects American taxpayers to some risk, especially if the housing market doesn't bounce back for many years. Worse, the bill can't help but prop up the earnings of many Wall Street executives whose malfeasance, greed, and stupidity got us into this mess in the first place. And it does nothing for average Americans except avoid economic calamity. (The provision ostensibly helping distressed homeowners is to be used at the discretion of the Treasury Department, so it's mostly a sham.)"
Writer and editor Paul Bass, whose New Haven Independent is running fascinating stories of how people in that medium-sized city are experiencing and responding to the crisis, notes that "In those precious hours after the House bill defeat," those who had defeated it, including conservative "Republicans, the Congressional Black Caucus, and some progressive white Democrats, should have met for an hour and drawn up the bill they would have supported on commonly agreed upon provisions. It would have been awesome. They had 20 hours or so when they were in the driver's seat."
Would-be builders of a serious coalition against the corporatist-statist consolidation of a post-republican America have not 20 hours, but three months. Let good leaders step forward and help serious republicans convene. Maybe one of those leaders will be Barack Obama -- but only if he elected, the crisis worsens, and populist anger keeps rising and seeking direction.
Posted on: Friday, October 3, 2008 - 01:35
SOURCE: Informed Comment (Blog run by Juan Cole) (10-2-08)
Judging "how the candidates did" is rather like weighing in on the wittiness of the libretto of "Big Brother" or the pace of character development in the latest episode of "Keeping up with the Kardashians." The genre of the political review assumes that both candidates are credible in their roles. It becomes self-parody when one candidate is a ditzy nonentity cynically foisted on the public in the same way a 'reality show' is, based on a targeted demographic and without regard to quality.
It reminded me of the excruciating first episodes every season of "American Idol," when a single candidate is found who has the voice of an angel and then everyone else auditioned sounds like fingernails on a blackboard.
Th e news organizations and civic groups that sponsor political debates have allowed the campaigns to push them around so vigorously that nothing like a debate is any longer possible. The Bushies even tried to force the networks to hide the fact that John Kerry was taller than his rival in 2004. It is not about debating but about how your candidate looks on television.
Not only was there no debate but Sarah Palin was not required actually to answer any of the questions put to her, and she announced before she began that she was just going to throw up on us all the talking points that she had binged on in Arizonafor the past few days.
She mugged for the camera, winked like a bar fly, and just went on talking and talking and talking, oblivious to whatever anyone else said. Not only did she ignore most of Gwen Ifill's questions,she paid no attention to what Joe Biden said. When he choked up over the loss of his family, she did not have the decency to express any kind of condolences. It is almost as though she is autistic and unable to connect with human beings.
Not only was it not a debate and not only did Palin answer virtually none of the questions put to her, but the whole idea of such an event was ridiculous.
Joe Biden has been either the chairman or the ranking minority member on the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee for many years, and is one of our foremost foreign affairs experts and legislators. His acumen and expertise are wide-ranging.
Palin has revealed her real self in the Gibson and Couric interviews, and clearly knows nothing and offers only rubbery expressions and glib repetition, for all the world like a rasping myna bird, of a stream of memorized talking points that sound as though thy were disinterred from a time capsule originally buried in William F. Buckley Jr.'s back yard several decades ago.
It was not a debate, and pretending that it was and judging "performance" is t o fall into the trap set by the campaign spinmeisters and talking point pimps.
Posted on: Friday, October 3, 2008 - 01:23
Vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin may seem at first glance to have much in common with Christian populist William Jennings Bryan: Both present themselves as representatives of the Common Citizen and claim to believe that everything in the Bible is literally true. But is this populism -- or this Christianity -- in fact the same?
I would argue that the right-wing populism represented by Palin -- and, much more importantly, by the political movement that embraced her -- is the inversion of the populism represented by Bryan. Likewise, the Christianity preached by the Christian Right that is so enthralled with Governor Palin is the inversion of the Christianity preached by Bryan (and, at least as I see it, also an inversion of the teachings of Jesus).
On the surface, Sarah Palin appears to be similar to the Great Commoner. Some of the remarks about Bryan made by leading figures of his time who had the benefit of education parallel what similar people are now saying about Palin. Theodore Roosevelt called Bryan "an amiable, windy creature who knows almost nothing." Woodrow Wilson said Bryan was "amiable and charming," but "foolish and dangerous in his theoretical beliefs."
"He was himself the average man of a large part of that country [the West]," journalist Charles Wilson Thompson said of Bryan. "He did not merely resemble that average man, he was that average man." One might be tempted to say something similar about Palin. Nor is it difficult to picture Governor Palin in the dock at the Scopes Trial, having agreed, as Bryan did, to testify as an expert witness on the Bible.
Like the Boy Orator of the Platte, the Girl Orator of the Yukon burst on the national stage overnight, an example of someone arising from the frontier to do battle against the powerful and challenge for national office. Each became enormously popular with a segment of the American populace by delivering a fiery speech at a political party's national convention. But it is with those speeches that the similarity begins to unravel.
"The Interests" whom Bryan denounced in his memorable "Cross of Gold" speech at the 1896 Democratic National Convention in Chicago were a far cry from the people Palin ridiculed in her speech in St. Paul. In right-wing populism's demonology, "The Interests" of Bryan's day have been replaced by "Elites," a switch which makes all the difference. The former (while also a coded nudge to anti-Semitic feelings) located common citizens' problems with Wall Street and corporate tycoons. "The Interests" are corporate bosses and their government collaborators, the rich who get richer as the poor get poorer -- the people who have just brought the nation once again to the brink of where their forebears brought it, in Bryan's era, in 1893 and again in 1929.
The term "Elites," on the other hand, associates with education, the academy, policy think tanks, government professionals, plus the media writ large and "Hollywood" in general. The "Elites" Palin rails against don't work on Wall Street; rather, they are centered in California, Washington, and Cambridge. Attacking them diverts the attention of the hard-hit segments of the population from those on whom Bryan focused his anger.
Bryan's left-wing populists spoke for the oppressed; today's right-wing populists generally side with those who daily press down on the brow of labor a crown of thorns and are in the business of crucifying humankind on a Cross of Greed. Those whom Bryan denounced as "the Interests" had much earlier been denounced by Jesus as "moneychangers". They had no place in Jesus' temple or in the Christianity of Bryan. Therein lies perhaps the most notable difference between the populisms of Bryan and Palin: While both rest on a kind of Biblical literalism, Bryan included Jesus' teachings in what he believed should be literally accepted. Most of today's Christian Right confines its literalism to a few chapters in Genesis and Leviticus, along with selected passages from Paul's epistles, and Revelation. The teachings of Jesus are too often reduced to the "Suggestions on the Mount."
This could be why "Interests" seem welcome in the temples of today's Christian populism. Bryan opposed and Palin opposes biological Darwinism. The Christian populists of Bryan's day also opposed social Darwinism, but today's Christian populists see social Darwinism as the way the world works. Anyone who thinks that Jesus would endorse social Darwinism obviously doesn't understand Biblical literalism in the same way that Bryan did, when he said at the Scopes Trial, "The Christian religion is a religion of helpfulness, of service, embodied in the language of Jesus."
For Bryan and the Christian populists of a century and more ago, populism consisted of an attempt to put the teachings of Jesus into practice by helping "the least of these," but for the Christian populists of today, populism is an attempt to reverse the teachings of Jesus by instead helping the moneychangers themselves.
Posted on: Friday, October 3, 2008 - 01:13