Sunday, May 21, 2017

A Milestone

The first post of this blog went online ten years ago today.  Just saying.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

These Snowflakes Don't Melt!

There was a TV tuned to CNN while I was standing in line at Subway yesterday, and I noticed that Van Jones was on.  I see that Jones is now a CNN commentator, the role he was born to play, which means that somewhere along the line this "grassroots insider," who was briefly a "White House insider" and became a grassroots outsider again, is now a corporate insider.  Only in America!

Thanks to closed-captioning I could follow what Jones was saying.  HuffPost provides a partial transcript:
“When he ran he was this tough guy,” Jones said Thursday night on “Anderson Cooper 360.” “This guy who’s going to get things done, this great negotiator.”

He continued:

“He was Trumpzilla. He was going to make Washington bow down. He was going to drain the swamp. Now he’s President Snowflake. Everything he says, ‘Oh, they’re mean to me, and they don’t like me, and I just don’t understand it and it’s not fair.’”

Jones said that kind of talk might appeal to Trump’s base, but to everyone else, “he looks increasingly bizarre.”

“It turns out you don’t have Trumpzilla,” he concluded. “You’ve got President Snowflake."
Jones is still cute, and still dumb.  I doubt that he remembers his own snowflake moments of a few years back (via):
What you saw going on was a right wing in sheer panic mode. They threw out the rule book. And you had provocateurs like Glenn Beck, Breitbart, Andrew Breitbart, now the late, stepping forward and basically taking a relatively advanced information system and firing into it lies, smears, viruses, for which we had no antibodies. So they bug-zapped me. They bug-zapped ACORN, and knock out the entire Democratic Party "get out the vote" operation with one video. They go after Shirley Sherrod. And for several months, the body politic does not know how to react to this virus. Finally, with Shirley Sherrod, a line gets drawn, and people begin to realize, "Wait a minute, it turns out you can have people on national television saying crazy stuff like that and getting away with it." And eventually, with the advertising boycott, he gets pushed off the air. But there was a moment when the White House itself was rocked back on its heels, because we had an information system that was very advanced, but a wisdom system that had not yet caught up to what tricksters like Beck and Breitbart could do. And so, that’s the moment that we were in.
As I remarked at the time, the Obama administration's failure to anticipate and recognize right-wing hostility (which began as soon as Obama became a national figure, long before he became President) was a crucial failure of competence: they just didn't understand it and it wasn't fair. What Jones calls "panic mode" was also typical of right-wing media during the Clinton administration and earlier; but this sort of convenient tactical amnesia is common in mainstream political discourse: whatever happened to civility?  Of course that kind of talk appealed to Obama's base, so he didn't have to indulge in it himself very much; his devotees took this line and ran with it.  Since Obama threw Jones and Shirley Sherrod to the sharks, the Democrats have largely decided that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em, and moved into full-blown panic mode themselves.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Well Done, Thou Good and Faithful Servant!

An excellent article on XPOTUS Barack Obama's legacy.
You can usually judge a person pretty well by their friends, and nobody who voluntarily spends his free time with Bono should be trusted.
Sorry, I couldn't resist quoting that; the Devil made me do it.  Ahem:
The most important aspect of the story is not that Obama accepted Cantor Fitzgerald’s offer, but that the offer was made in the first place. Indeed, it’s hard to escape the impression that certain powerful interests are now rewarding the former president with a gracious thanks for a job well done. Rather than asking whether Obama should have turned down the gig, we can ask: if his administration had taken aggressive legal and regulatory action against Wall Street firms following the financial crisis, would they be clamouring for him to speak and offering lucrative compensation mere weeks after his leaving office? It’s hard to think they would, and if a Democratic president has done their job properly, nobody on Wall Street should want to pay them a red cent in retirement. Obama’s decision to take Cantor Fitzgerald’s cash isn’t, therefore, some pivotal moment in which he betrayed his principles in the pursuit of lucre. It’s simply additional confirmation he has never posed a serious challenge to Wall Street’s outsized economic power.
Of course it's too early to pronounce on the legacy of the new POTROK, Moon Jae-In, but his beginning has been promising.
It has only been five days since the presidential election, but the government has already agreed to convert irregular workers at Incheon International Airport to regular status before the end of the year, lifted the ban on sing-alongs of “March for the Beloved” (a song associated with the Gwangju Democratization Movement), recognized the short-term teachers who died on the Sewol Ferry as having lost their lives in the line of duty, and temporarily shut down aging coal plants to deal with fine particle dust air pollution. These are some of President Moon Jae-in’s swift actions. President Moon is attracting attention by carrying out the promises he made during the campaign one after another, making personal visits and starting with the promises that only require an executive order or the revision to an enforcement order.
Once it was clear he'd won the election, Moon made an appearance in Gwanghamun, the site of the candlelight vigils in Seoul, showing solidarity with the popular movement that agitated for the removal of former president Park Geun-Hye from office. (He'd participated in the vigils almost every week for months, in fact.)  No wonder there's so much concern about Moon in American elite media. And of course it's important not to exaggerate his liberalism. (You want cynicism? That article is cynical.) I remember all too well the dashed hopes among my Korean friends over Roh (or Noh) Mu-hyun, also a former human rights lawyer who became president of South Korea.  (Moon worked in Roh's election campaign.  It's a small country.)  The extraordinarily corrupt Park Geun-hye was an easy act to follow; Moon is going to have to do more than coast on not being Park.  But hey, he has a hot bodyguard; that should keep criticism at bay for a while.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

An Example to Us All; or, Just Say No

I don't know about you, but I don't need this kind of negativity in my life.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Blood and Pleasure

Glenn Greenwald and a few other malcontents have been poking at the outrage expressed in respectable circles over President Trump's alleged "affection for totalitarian leaders [which] has grown beyond Russia’s president to include strongmen around the globe."

Very entertainingly, the Washington Post article by Philip Rucker I just linked has been altered, adding the words in bold type to make it somewhat less obviously absurd: "Every American president since at least the 1970s has used his office at least occasionally to champion human rights and democratic values around the world."  As Greenwald says, it's still not true.

But then, these claims shouldn't be taken literally.  Nor should most mainstream political discourse.  They are declarations of faith, pledges of allegiance.  In the anthropologist F. G. Bailey's terminology, they are examples of the moral mind at work.  By paying tribute to America's high ideals and practice, one establishes one's bona fides and qualification to participate in serious commentary.

Even non-mainstream commentators feel the need to say such things.  I've often referred to the late Molly Ivins's lament from 2007:
What happened to the nation that never tortured? The nation that wasn't supposed to start wars of choice? The nation that respected human rights and life? A nation that from the beginning was against tyranny? Where have we gone? How did we let these people take us there? How did we let them fool us?
Ivins certainly knew better than this.  (Which probably can't be said for Phillip Rucker.)  I daresay she'd have turned her considerable powers of mockery on any Republican who'd said such things.  But before you can oppose a war, or criticize your President's fondness for dictators, you have to wave the flag.  So too Katha Pollitt felt compelled to assure her readers that she's "never been one to blame the United States for every bad thing that happens in the Third World" before criticizing US policy in Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks.  (This ploy never deflects the criticism from jingoes, of course.)

Glenn Greenwald himself has come a long way, since he wrote in 2008:
Yes, I'm well aware that the U.S, like all countries, was deeply imperfect prior to 9/11, and that many of the systematic excesses of the Bush era have their genesis prior to 2001. The difference (a critical one) is that what had been acts of lawbreaking and violations of our national values have become the norm -- consistent with, rather than violative of, our express values and policies.
And this was in a fine post detailing and condemning Bush-era crimes.  At that time Greenwald still was a bit nervous about going too far out on the political spectrum; he's become much more comfortable since then, following facts and principles where they lead even if it infurates self-styled moderates.  He's posted a good article today on US support of dictators since World War II, though the policy is older than that.

Something else should be remembered, though: mainstream commentators, including (or especially) liberal ones, have always seen human rights as a bargaining chip to be used with "authoritarian" regimes rather than something desirable in themselves.  As Stephen Walt put it early in the Obama administration, "No U.S. President--not even Jimmy Carter--was ever willing to spend a lot of blood or treasure solely to advance human rights, and Obama isn't going to be the first."  This was quoted with approval (via) by Eyal Press, a writer at The Nation.  Notice the bit about "blood and treasure," a virtual Homeric epithet that tends to turn up when someone wants to pretend that doggone it, the US has just been too idealistic about defending human rights at home and abroad, and we can't afford to do it anymore.  Expending blood (of dusky foreigners) and treasure in the service of suppressing human rights, however, is just fine.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Slums of Jerusalem?

I just read Arundhati Roy's new book, The Doctor and the Saint: Caste, Race, and Annihilation of Caste (Haymarket Books, 2017), about the debate on caste in India between Mohandas Gandhi and B. R. Ambedkar, an important Untouchable activist educated at Columbia University and the London School of Economics, who wrote the Indian Constitution. 

There's a lot of history and politics to assimilate from Roy's account, and I don't feel I can comment on most of it because I don't know enough about Indian history and culture.  But this paragraph brought me up short:
Perhaps because the Western Christian world was apprehensive about the spreading influence of the Russian Revolution, and was traumatized by the horror of the First World War, Europeans and Americans vied to honour the living avatar of Christ.  It didn't seem to matter that unlike Gandhi, who was from a well-to-do family (his father was the prime minister of the princely state of Porbandar), Jesus was a carpenter from the slums of Jerusalem who stood up against the Roman Empire instead of trying to make friends with it.  And he was sponsored by big business. [location 1243 of the Kindle version]
That last sentence is a swipe at the support Gandhi received from Indian industrialists, especially G. D. Birla, who "paid him a generous monthly retainer to cover the costs of running his ashrams and for his Congress party work [location 1183]."  For now I'm concerned with Roy's characterization of Jesus, which is at best debatable.

Jesus was certainly not "from the slums of Jerusalem," but from the boondocks of Nazareth in Galilee, a week's journey away from Jerusalem.  I wonder where Roy got this; I can't recall ever having seen Jesus assigned to Jerusalem before.  Roy grew up in a Christian community in Kerala and attended something called the Corpus Christi School for part of her schooling, so she must have been exposed to Christian lore.

As for Jesus' social status, it's impossible to say anything sure about it.  The famous Nativity stories set in Bethlehem are absent from Mark, which was probably the first gospel to be written, and from John, which may have been the last of the four canonical gospels.  In Mark, Jesus is known in his hometown of Nazareth as "the carpenter, the son of Mary" (Mark 6:3); his father is unnamed, but he has several brothers and sisters.  Tekt┼Źn, the Greek word translated as "carpenter," refers to a woodworker as opposed to a metalworker or stonemason.  Jesus' neighbors' dismissive reaction to him in that verse indicates that he wasn't anyone very special, certainly not a Torah scholar or scribe, let alone a priest.  But he probably wasn't a slum-dweller either.

The gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy claiming Jesus' adoptive father Joseph as a descendant of King David, but there must have been quite a few of David's descendants around, so I don't know how exalted a status that gave Jesus.  The gospel of Luke has a similar (but different) genealogy for Joseph, and also depicts Jesus' mother Mary as a relative of the wife of a priest in the Jerusalem Temple.  We'll never know whether these stories were meant to boost Jesus' social status; one would think that being the incarnate Son of God would be distinguished enough.  I  don't think they have any historical basis at all, but that's something that will never be settled.  But if they do, Jesus' family compared well to Gandhi's in their class status.

Jesus' stance with regard to the Roman Empire is equally uncertain.  What is certain -- as certain as historical facts can be -- is that he was crucified, which means that he ran afoul of the Roman authorities who controlled Palestine in those days.  According to all four gospels, Jesus' cross bore the legend "King of the Jews," so it is likely he was executed as a political offender.  But from the gospels it's impossible to tell what his offense was.  This, like Matthew and Luke's genealogies, is understandable as an attempt by literate early Christians to make Jesus less scandalous and more respectable.

We also have Jesus' famous saying, "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's."  Asked whether Jews ought to pay taxes to the Roman Empire, Jesus asked his challengers to show him a coin, which bore Caesar's likeness, and delivered that clever, evasive reply.  That it was evasive is shown by the many different interpretations it has inspired.  It wasn't enough to prevent his capture and execution by the Romans, but then according to Christian doctrine it wasn't supposed to. 

All four gospels show Jesus being just as cagey when he was brought before the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate.  It's unlikely, of course, that Jesus' followers had any accurate information about what happened between his arrest and his crucifixion.  These stories were probably invented to show how Christians should behave when they were hauled before Jewish or Roman authorities.  But they don't show Jesus 'standing against' Rome.  Remember that Jesus was, according to the gospels, an end-times preacher, not a political activist.

As for "sponsored by big business," the gospels also agree that Jesus had some well-off followers who supported him financially, such as Joseph of Arimathea and  "Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others who provided for Him from their substance" (Luke 8:3).  Luke also has the story of Zacchaeus, a "chief tax-collector" who was so impressed by Jesus' cold reading of his background that he became a follower and supporter.  This story too may be an invention meant to instruct converts, but we know from Paul's letters that there were some well-to-do Christians in the early churches whose donations helped support the apostles and "the poor."  Like many religious leaders, Jesus' relation to the wealthy and to the state appears to have ambivalent.

This is a sore point with me, that I've written about before: educated, intelligent people who make remarkably misinformed claims about religion.  Jesus' politics are, as I've tried to indicate, open to considerable debate, but placed next to "the slums of Jesusalem," I don't find Roy's comparison of Jesus and Gandhi compelling; it seems to me that they may have been more alike than different.  Since I'm not a fan of either man, this isn't a problem for me.  Nor does it have a big impact on Roy's account of the enduring harm of the caste system.  It's just another of those curious lapses about religion that afflict many politically progressive writers.