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Saying Is Doing

2017 June 2
by Mandos


So. Trump has just announced his pullout from the Paris accords.

It doesn’t really matter whether the Paris accords actually did anything material or did anything material that was significant against climate change. What matters is that the Paris accords were the unifying symbol of public agreement that climate change was a thing. Trump’s move defaces that symbol. What he said does something. Insofar as that symbol is defaced, the probability of doing material things that might have an effect on the physical world is reduced, including saving whatever of human civilization can be saved, in extremis. If not reduced, then optimistically, changed — if it actually creates a galvanizing moment. Which it probably won’t, but we’ll see.

Saying is doing, symbols are at least as important as what is material, politics has limits as constricting as those of “nature,” assuming you believe in a false dualism and hierarchy between politics and the “natural” world.

The Real Threat To Europe Is Neither America Nor Russia

2017 May 29
by Ian Welsh

So, much hysteria over Donald Trump’s disdain for NATO and his dislike of Germany.

Angela Merkel said that Germany no longer has a reliable US partner.

Oh dear. Oh dear.

Let us lay out the simple facts:

..the EU’s population is 508 million. When the UK leaves, it will be 447 million.

Russia’s population is 143 million.

Minus Britain, the EU has a GDP of 18.1 trillion (purchasing power parity), Russia has an economy of 3.5 trillion (ppp). Germany alone has a GDP (ppp) of four trillion.

So, if NATO dissolves, Europe should be perfectly capable of defending itself. It it cannot, it is because it refuses to actually allocate resources for defense against an opponent it outweighs.

Europe does not need NATO to defend itself from Russia.

Now, let us be even more brutally frank: Since WWII, Europe has been an American protectorate. It is that simple. Some commenters will probably disagree, but I’m not going to waste time proving the obvious. Indeed, “protectorate” is a kind way of putting it.

The truth is that the US withdrawing is no danger to Europe. Europe has all the resources it needs to defend itself and care for its own affairs: people, a large economy, and technology. What specific technologies it does not have, it is completely capable of developing or buying.

Furthermore, NATO expansion is one of the major causes for enmity between Europe and Russia; Russians note that NATO is far, far more powerful than they are, and they see its expansion (especially as George Bush Sr. promised NATO wouldn’t expand) as offensive. (I agree with them. You may be foolish, and disagree, but US foreign policy bobbleheads and “thinkers” have been quite clear about their intent.)

The real threat to Europe is not Russia, nor US disengagement, but, as it has been since German unification under Bismarck, Germany.

Germany is already integrating the units of smaller European countries into its own military.

Germany (and, yes, Germany WAS the prime mover) already destroyed an entire European country, Greece, to bail out its own bankers.

Germany’s industrial policy and clout has impoverished the European “South” through enforced austerity and the imposition of the Euro, which makes German exports cheaper than they should be and the exports of Southern European more expensive than they should be.

Germany essentially runs the EU’s monetary policy at this point, a policy which has been in the self-perceived interests of Germany, and only in any other country’s interest by coincidence. (Something the French should get around to noticing, and stop kneepadding for the next German annexation of France, even it is in name only.)

Germany is the actual threat to other European countries’ sovereignty. This might be acceptable if a German hegemony had a record of caring about what happens to non-German countries, but the record is clear and visible that it is not, and this is on the ground in Italy, Portugal, Spain, Greece and even France.

It is entirely true that the entire Eurocrat class is implicated, and that every European country has collaborators, including France (Macron is merely the latest to take the throne, and there is no question of his complicity, as he ran Hollande’s austerity program).

Nonetheless, and weirdly, the policies they promote are the ones that rebound to the benefit of Germany, and it is Germany who is widely understood, as in the case of Greece, to have the deciding vote.

Europeans should decide if a further federalized European Union, run by the Germans, for the Germans, is what they want, because that is what is on offer.

Trump should be a sideshow issue for Europeans. He is not a significant danger to them, except in the sense that he may be unleashing the Germans even further.

As is often the case, the politicians Europeans should be most scared of are their own: the collaborators who run their governments, and the German politicans who are sure that what is best for other Europeans countries is, coincidentally, identical with what they are sure is best for Germany.

(And anyone who thinks that Merkel is not essentially malign simply has not paid attention. If an evil person opposes a more evil person they do not become “good.” This is not to deny, that like many evil people, she has not done some good things.)

Look to your own house for the person who will beat, abuse, and likely kill you. This is true at every level.

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Open Thread

2017 May 29
by Ian Welsh

Due to the lack of posts about current events, comments are piling up in older posts. Feel free to comment here on current politics and off-topic items.

The Flying Trees

2017 May 29
by Ian Welsh

A long, long time ago, when the world was young, the gods had children.

Gods can fly, but their children cannot.

So the elder Goddess of Joy created the flying trees.

The trees, themselves, didn’t fly–except when young, when every spring they would fly for weeks, looking for perfect soil and the laughter of children, but any child who ate one of their fruit could fly, for three days.

And the trees spread across the world; their seeds spread and were fertilized by the laughter of the children of the Gods.

Gods are not as we, and their children are children for an Age.

But eventually the children of the Gods grew up, and left their nursery.

The trees remained in their millions. They no longer spread, for they could not without the laughter of divine children, but also they were immortal and never died. So when, some Ages later, the Gods, feeling the cradle needed someone to nurture, created humanity, breathing in life and the most dangerous of gifts, free will, humans grew up among the flying trees and for their children, too, the fruit allowed flight.

For Ages it remained so, the delight of childhood, the freedom of flight.

Then someone, who is not known, discovered that flying suits could be made from the wood of flying trees. And that adults could use them to fly.

The Gods thundered and sent oracles, and the Goddess of Joy wept, but nothing stopped the mortals, and the Gods kept to their law of respect for human free will.

So the trees were cut down, and because no more could grow, in time there were no more flying trees.

Some time after that, a long time, there were also no flying suits, as they were destroyed in accident, or fire, or from simple wear and tear. Wars were fought over the remaining suits, scraps were used for repairs, great prayers were sent to the gods, but nothing availed. Finally no adults soared the skies.

And so, today, neither children nor adults fly, and the Gods, clustered about a sorrowful Joy, have turned their faces from the world.

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My Friend Peter

2017 May 28
by Ian Welsh

Peter was the kindest man I ever met. I moved into his old house one winter in the early nineties. Rent was $235/month, there was a shared kitchen and showers and seven tenants. On the ground floor lived the landlord — Peter, and his Japanese wife.

I lived there three years. They were thin, cold years for me. Sometimes I was employed—as a bike courier, a dispatcher, a mover, a baker, a painter, or anything else I could find. Other times I scrabbled from day job to day job, helping anyone who needed it for cash on the barrelhead. There were some grim months on welfare, some trips to the food bank, even a few meals at the soup kitchen. I was rousted a couple times by rent-a-cops as “undesirable” (read: looking like a bum).

My clothes were threadbare, and I would look in the mirror and I could already see myself at fifty, living the same hand to mouth, job-to-job life.

Through it all, two people helped me, two people stuck by me and never made me feel worthless. One of them was Peter. Peter let me work a lot of my rent off with jobs around the house. I painted this or that, under careful supervision I did plumbing work, I shoveled snow, and I laid bricks. Peter taught me how to learn — he’d show me how to do something, tell me to, “Do it right, and take your time, because if you do it fast first, you’ll never ever do it right.” And those months when I was late on rent, those months when I was mortified to be on welfare – he cut me slack and he never made me feel small.

Peter was old. He had been born in Germany. And he had fought for Hitler.

He liked to talk about his life — and quite a life it had been. He’d been a spy for the CIA after the fall, until the day his handler cut him loose when he was fleeing from what would become East Germany, pursued by Soviet troops. “Not willing to risk an incident,” said his handler. “Not willing to keep spying for you,” said Peter. He had been a stage manager, had been Volkswagen’s chief North American tester, had been a translator and had broken codes, among many, many other things.

Peter said, and I believed, that his family had been opposed to the Nazis. His father had been a VP at Siemens and when Peter was caught, at a youth camp, listening to Allied broadcasts, he was able to save his son and have him assigned to a prison camp (no, not that type of prison camp) commandant as an aide. While there, Peter got himself in more trouble and wound up in the camp jail for a couple of days. The cells in that camp faced each other, with a row of bars in between. The prisoner across from him was a gypsy man and they spent two days playing cards and talking. At the end of it, the prisoner said, “Today I will be hung as a partisan. You seem like a good man, so I want to ask you if after the war you will go tell my people.”

Peter agreed, and the gypsy continued. “They think I am a partisan leader – someone other than I am. I haven’t told them they’re wrong. What I want you to do, after the war, is go tell my people that I died for this man.”

As the war ground on, the Germans began to run into severe manpower shortages. Other young teenagers Peter’s age were drafted and sent into occupation duties, where they served alongside older veterans. Peter was drafted and sent to France.

He said there was very little real resistance in his district; or, as far as he could tell, most of France – just one sniper they chased in desultory fashion and never caught – the chasing mostly involving staying absolutely silent and still at night while waiting for a muzzle flash at which to aim.

One day, he went through a French hospital town. Because it was used to care for injured soldiers, it had never been bombed. While there, he and a comrade saw Allied bombers overhead. The French pointed up and said, “Look, our planes!” Peter screamed at them to get into the bomb shelters, but most of them didn’t. After all, they were their planes. Peter and his friend got in a shelter, then the bombs started falling. A lot of the French who had wondered at those planes didn’t survive that day.

He also went through Dresden the day after the bombing. But he never described what he saw there to me.

I asked Peter why he left Germany and emigrated to Canada. His reply was, “Everyone pretended they didn’t know what had been going on. We all knew. I couldn’t live there anymore.”

I lived with Peter for three years and when I left he told me two things. One was a piece of advice on living life: “Never do the same job for more than five years, Ian, you won’t be happy if you do.” (He was right, as I found out the hard way. Wisdom, they say, is learning from other people’s mistakes. I’ve never been wise.)

The second thing he said was, “My family has a custom where every year we pick out someone to help and do so for the entire year, and sometimes longer. We know we do harm all the time. It’s not balance. But we hope it makes up.”

But it wasn’t just one person. I never saw Peter act meanly or unkindly. I never saw him treat anyone but with dignity. I never saw anyone who needed a kindness Peter could give who didn’t get it.

That man, who fought for Hitler, might have been the best man I’ve ever met.

(Back to the top, as I was thinking of Peter today – Ian.)

(Originally posted April 18, 2010.)

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You Will Never Be Free of Identity Politics

2017 May 25
by Mandos

(MANDOS POST, people who don’t want to read things they disagree with please stop here)

I don’t normally watch horror movies, but I made an exception and recently watched the horror film Get Out. It’s a horror-satire movie that constructs its underlying trope from the concept of racist microaggressions, and it’s one of the best films I’ve seen all year, if not the best, period. It’s a Stepford Wives style of horror, in which a young black man discovers that his well-meaning-seeming white inlaws-to-be believe in human improvement by the literal supplantation of black identities with white ones and the submergence of the black identity into a spiritual void called the “Sunken Place” — a literal sort of black/white solidarity where, of course, the white opinion matters more.

The privileged white horror-family in question is conceived of as stereotypical rich politically-correct liberal Obama voters, but the main character himself is a relatively successful young photographer who had access to that kind of company through his work, starting from less privileged roots and with black friends still living the working-class life, and his working-class black best friend — who correctly names and identifies the microaggressions and where they were leading — is his only lifeline in the entire story. The illustration clearly intended by the director (well-known black comedian Jordan Peele) is that even when a black person in America manages to succeed on white terms, that in itself is not just, not sustainable, not sufficient.

That was a movie, but the point is illustrated periodically in real life — and occasionally in famous, very public rows.  Some of you may remember that a few years ago, there was a row over Oprah Winfrey’s attempted purchase of a very expensive handbag, worth twice or more than what some of her viewers make in a year, from a shop in Switzerland, wherein Oprah believed that she had been discriminated against by the saleswoman for being a black buyer in a fancy store. Many could easily view this as a rich woman publicly bullying an innocent, ordinary-income shop attendant for a social faux pas, possibly based on ignorance of the American media landscape. A class analysis. But for people of colour, the incident is instead evidence that, even if one is doing well economically, one is still one of them, that the incident was no accident even if the saleswoman had no conscious intention of discriminating.

That sense that even under relatively positive overall circumstances, how one is treated in life is nevertheless conditioned on the sufferance of the majority/dominant community unless one erases one’s entire particularity (and even then) is not a trivial feeling. It is a continuous burden, a headwind in life, and one that cannot be erased by exhortations to class solidarty and and one-sided demands to put the material advantages of class solidarity as prior to the domain of conflict called “identity politics.” Class solidarity does not erase those conflicts, does not remedy them, does not alone create a long-term, sustainable basis for rectification of discrimination. Minority groups remain vulnerable even when the dream of a more just economy is realized.

The only way to proceed is to recognize that, while the working-class American black has a cause in common with the working-class American white, she or he also has a cause in common with a rich woman like Oprah Winfrey, one that can be neither ignored, denied, or erased. And the only way that class solidarity can take full precedence over that is when whites agree to disarm their own identity politics without demanding that blacks and other minority politics disarm theirs.

Essential Insanity

2017 May 24
by Ian Welsh
Image by Nesster

Image by Nesster

Walk with me a while and imagine you are mad. Crazy. Insane. It’s an interesting sort of insanity–you see the world as something other than it is. You are dead convinced that people are out to get you, but these people have almost no means to harm you and fear your retaliation greatly, because you’re a powerful person and they are weak.

You believe that you are hale and hearty; but in fact you’re ghastly, obese and ill. You think you’re rich, but in fact you’re poor. You think you have the best doctor around, but in fact your doctor is worse than almost every other doctor and charges 50 percent more than them. You think you’re tough, and you certainly haven’t let the fact that two ninety pound weaklings seem to be able to stand up to you get in the way of that.

You think that you have the most advanced technological toys, that what you have is the best, and once you did, but these days everyone else seems to have more advanced stuff.

The illness goes deeper though, a deep decay in your brain. The parts of your brain that make most of the decisions for your body think everything is wonderful. They seem only able to take in sensations from the taste buds these days, and for the last thirty years you’ve been on a rich diet. So they think everything’s great. Your once lean body, packed with muscles, has been replaced by a flaccid one, paunchy and fat, but somehow the key parts of your brain don’t know that. They don’t feel your sore back, they don’t hear the broken down breathing, and they don’t see the gut hanging over your belt.

The you I’m referring to, as I’m sure many have figured out by now, is the US. For years, I’ve been writing for the US and observing it carefully, and I’ve found it one of the most interesting problems I’ve encountered in my life. Because America and Americans are very unpredictable. Now, of course, the first thing I thought was, “It’s me,” and in a sense, that’s true.

But here’s the thing: I have a very good record of predicting what will happen in Somalia, or Afghanistan, or Iraq. And when I get it wrong, I can look back and easily figure out why. Yet, I’ve never visited any of those countries and, really, I know very little about them. On the other hand, I grew up imbibing American media, know American history well, have visited America a number of times and spent eight years in jobs that required me to deal with multiple Americans daily.

Odd. Very odd. And something I’ve discussed with other foreign observers of American society and politics.

The first clue to what was wrong came around the time of the Iraq war. It was obvious, dead obvious, to everyone outside of the US and to US citizens who were spending a lot of time parsing news, that the war was a joke and that Saddam had no nukes and was no threat to the US. Most Americans, however, didn’t get that. The reason, of course, was propaganda.

Fair enough. Every country whips its citizens into war hysteria with propaganda. But what was truly remarkable wasn’t that, it was that somehow the majority of Americans, over 70 percent, thought that Iraq was behind 9/11. Iraq, of course, had nothing to do with 9/11. Nothing.

Remarkable. Americans went along with going to war with Iraq then because they thought Iraq had attacked them and had nukes and could attack them again. A complete propaganda tissue of lies. But if you believe it all, well, of course Iraq needed to be attacked.

What looked to the rest of the world as crazy was entirely logical. It was, however, still insane. If I see a tentacled monster from the fourth dimension attack me and I respond by grabbing a knife and slashing apart my next door neighbour who’s waving at me, well, I had a logical, coherent reason for what I did, but I still murdered him, and I’m still insane.

This is the first type of insanity in the US and it runs deep. I often feel like I spend more time correcting outright lies, outright propaganda, than anything else. Just this week I had to explain to a left-wing blogger (who should know better) that single payer health insurance is cheaper and gives better results than private insurance system. Now in the US, this is somehow still in doubt, but that’s insane–this isn’t in question. Every other western nation that has single payer insurance spends about 1/3 less than the US and has as good health metrics or better either in most or all categories. This isn’t something that’s up in the air, this isn’t something that is unsettled. This is a bloody FACT.

Americans think they are the most technologically advanced society in the world, yet the US does not have the fastest broadband, the fastest trains, the best cellphones, the most advanced consumer electronics (go to Japan and you’ll see what I mean) or the most advanced green energy technology.

In the primary season, Ron Paul was repeatedly cut out of media coverage and John Edwards was hardly covered. The majority of Americans thought that Edwards was running as the most right-wing of the Democratic candidates. Huckabee was constantly called a populist when his signature tax program would gut the middle class and slap the poor onto a fiscal rack.

And, when all is said and done, politicians are still running on slashing taxes and having that make up for itself, while the US runs a balance of payments higher than any other country post World War II has ever done without going into an economic crash.

That’s one type of insanity–thinking the world is something that it isn’t.

The second type is worse, in a sense. When Diamond wrote his book on why societies collapse he came to the conclusion that it occurred when elites weren’t experiencing the same things as the majority of the society–when they were isolated from the problems and challenges the society was facing.

For 30 years, ordinary Americans haven’t had a raise. And despite all the lies, Americans are beginning to get that.

But, for the people in charge, the last thirty years have been absolutely wonderful. Seriously, things haven’t been this good since the 1890’s and the 1920’s. Everyone they know–their families, their mistresses and toyboys, their friends–is doing well. Wall Street paid even larger bonuses for 2007, the year they ran the ship into the shore, than they did in 2006 when their bonuses equalled the raises of 80 million Americans. Multiple CEOs walked away from companies they had bankrupted with golden parachutes in excess of 50 million. And if you can find a senator who isn’t a millionaire, (except maybe Bernie Sanders) you let me know.

Life has been great. The fact that America is physically unhealthy, falling behind technologically, hemorrhaging good jobs, and that ordinary Americans are in debt up to their eyebrows, haven’t seen a raise in 30 years, and live in mortal fear of getting ill–because even if they have insurance, it doesn’t cover the necessary care–means nothing to the decision-making part of America because it hasn’t experienced it. America’s elites are doing fine, thanks. All they can taste or remember is the caviar and champagne they swill to celebrate how wonderful they are and how much they deserve all the money federal policy has given them.

This is the second insanity of the US: The decision making apparatus in the US is disconnected from the results of their decisions. They make sure they get paid, that they’re wealthy, and let the rest of society go to hell. In the end, of course, most of them will find that the money isn’t theirs, and that what they’ve stolen is worth very little if the US has a real financial crisis.

The third insanity is simpler: It’s the wealth effect. At the end of World War II, the US had about half the world’s economy. Admittedly that’s because Europe had been bombed into oblivion, but even when Europe rebuilt. the US was still far, far ahead. The US was insanely rich and powerful. See, when you’re rich you can do stupid and unproductive things for a long time. There are plenty of examples of this but the two most obvious ones are the US military and the War on Drugs.

The War on Drugs hasn’t reduced the number of junkies or drugs on the street in any noticeable way. It has increased the US’s prison population to the highest per capita level in the world, however. It has cost hundreds of billions of dollars. It has gutted civil liberties (the War on Terror is just the War on Drugs on crack, after all). And after 30 years, does anyone seriously say, “Wait, this doesn’t work, it costs billions of dollars and it makes us a society of prisons?” Of course not, if anything people compete to be “tough on crime.” What’s the definition of insanity, again? Doing the same thing, over and over again, and expecting different results?

Then there’s the US military. It costs, oh, about as much as everyone else in the world’s military combined. It seems to be at best in a stalemate and probably losing two wars against a bunch of rabble whose total budgets probably wouldn’t equal a tenth of one percent of a US appropriations bill. And it is justified as “defending” America even though there is no nation in the entire world which could invade the US if the US had one tenth the military.

But the US could (not can, they are now unaffordable, but could) afford to have a big shiny military and lots of prisons, so it does. Lots of people get rich off of both of them, lots of rural whites get to lock up urban blacks and lots of communities that wouldn’t exist otherwise get to survive courtesy of the unneeded military bases and prisons which should never have been built.

Insane–believing things that aren’t true.

Insane–decision makers are cut off from the consequences of their decisions and in fact are getting reverse feedback, as things get worse for most Americans and as America gets weaker and poorer, they are the richest they’ve ever been.

Insane–so rich that no one will stop doing things that clearly don’t work and are harmful, because people are making money off the insanity.

All of this is what makes predicting the US so surreal. It’s not just about knowing what the facts are and then thinking “Okay, how would people respond to that?” You have to know what the facts are, what the population thinks the facts are, what the elites think the facts are, who’s making money off of it, and then ask yourself if these facts are having any real effect on the elites and if that effect is enough to outweigh the money they’re making off of failure (how many of them have children serving in Iraq? Right, not urgent to fix).

And then you have to go back to the facts and ask yourself, “What effect will these have even if they’re being ignored?” Facts are ugly things, they tend not to go away.

All of which makes the US damn near impenetrable, often enough even to Americans.

But here’s what I do know–you can get away with being nuts as long as enough people are benefiting from you being insane. When the credit cards are all maxed out, when the relatives have stolen even the furniture, suddenly all the enablers go away, and the kneebreakers or the men in white pay you a visit. At that point, you can live in the real world, or you can go to the asylum.

I wonder which way the US will go?

(Originally Posted at FDL January 20, 2008)

(Second repost, last one was May 5, 2009. This is, IMO, one of the more important posts I ever wrote.)

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The Word Terrorism

2017 May 23
by Ian Welsh

This word still means nothing except “violence committed by non-state actors.”

Multiple states routinely target weddings, funerals, and hospitals.

I remain unable to see the difference, except that state actors kill a lot more people.

Oh, and people’s suffering is not less real or worthy of sympathy if they have less or more melanin than you–or are from a different religion or a different culture.

The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.