Archive for January, 2017

Steve Bannon – Puppetmaster?

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If you thought the January 21st global march was just a flash in the pan, frustrated liberals having trouble accepting the fact they lost, think again.   As the first week of the Trump Presidency unfolded people previously apathetic to politics started to notice – and act.

The latest episode involves a bizarre decision to indefinitely suspend accepting Syrian refugees, to suspend accepting other refugees for 120 days, and to bar any immigrants from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen entrance for 90 days.  Steve Bannon, recently named to the National Security Council (NSC)  by President Trump, personally intervened to assure that even green card holders from those countries could not enter.

The claim is that the US needs to protect itself from terrorism.  Yet the ban did not include Saudi Arabia or Egypt.  Most of the 9-11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia.  The ban on green card holders from entering the countries created turmoil in airports across America as residents from the affected countries were held up.  Only an injunction by a federal judge overruled that part of the Trump order.

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This 1940 cartoon by Dr. Suess to protest the policy of not accepting Jews from Germany is poignant today.

It’s clear this order was drafted without thinking through all the consequences.  No guidance was given to states or airport security.   US military in Iraq were furious; not only does this affect interpreters and Iraqis that have been working with the US, but it increases anger at America and risks their safety.  There are only 5000 soldiers there in advisory roles, but the military was not consulted about the impact of this move.

This points back to Steve Bannon.  The man who pushed Trump to a bombastic, radical campaign style was the head of sensationalist (and not always trustworthy) Breitbart news, a right wing internet source.   He was known for wild claims and headlines, and people were shocked last year when Trump gave him a major role in his campaign.

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At Breitbart Bannon allowed white supremacist articles and ads be shown, advancing the term ‘alt right’ to describe his politics.

Now, though, he’s in the White House alongside Trump.  His elevation to the NSC came alongside a move to make the role of the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff optional rather than required.  Senator John McCain harshly criticized both moves as putting a political operative ahead of the top military man in the White House.   He is a PR man, not an expert on foreign policy.   He has no business on the NSC, especially a larger role than the Chair of the Joint Chiefs!

It’s clear that Trump has put himself in Bannon’s hands.  It was Bannon, not Trump, behind the new executive order.  I suspect Bannon’s been the force advocating the silencing of government workers and agencies, and some of the questionable cabinet picks.  In fact, I think Bannon is the one calling the shots.   He knows how to play on Trump’s insecurities, and Trump likely credits him with his November victory.

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The alt right

This should worry everyone.   Trump isn’t a Hitler, he’s an insecure con man in way over his head.  Bannon, on the other hand, looks to start a global alt right movement, potentially connecting with far right parties in Europe in an effort to undermine the traditional conservatism of past decades.

The Republican party must not let Bannon and Trump hijack their party – he’s rejecting the core beliefs that have guided the GOP for decades.  But more important the protests must continue and turn into on going action.   The people can make sure Bannon/Trump don’t succeed.   This administration is not normal.  It is not conservative.  It does not reflect the values that made America great.

 

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Should Assad Stay?

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On January 26, 2011, around the same time the protests against Mubarak in Egypt began, the Arab Spring spread to Syria, with protests against Bashar Assad.  Assad’s regime is brutal.  It spies on its people, uses torture, and in 1982 Bashar’s father Hafez responded to protests by essentially destroying part of a city, the so-called Hama massacre.  At least 10,000 people were killed, but the Syrian government effectively kept any image or reporting of the incident silent.   You could do that in 1982.

By the end of 2011 the protests spread and Syria became enmeshed in a civil war.  The government had lashed out at the protests with what one analyst has called a “whack a mole” strategy, hoping to prevent the spread of dissent.   It didn’t work.  Instead, organized units of rebel forces emerged, and soon were confronting the Syrian government.   Believing that Assad would suffer the same fate as Qaddafi and Mubarak, the US lead an international call for Assad to step down.  It was only a matter of time, they believed.

Now it is 2017.   Assad is still in power, and his forces resurgent in the long civil war, thanks to Russian help.    Syria has become the scene of a human rights tragedy.  Should President Trump forget Assad’s brutality and past US support for the rebels, and work with Putin to at least bring stability?

If Assad stays, the Iranian-Syrian alliance will be strengthened, Iranian influence in the region will grow, and Iraq will be pushed into an even tighter alliance with Iran.   Russia will also have proven itself a regional power, while US influence will wane.   The Kurds will find their effort to expand Kurdistan from its base in Iraq stymied (for all practical purposes the Kurdish areas of Iraq have been self-ruled since 1994), and the Saudis will work with other gulf states to balance Iranian influence.

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Accepting Assad’s rule would mean accepting a regime that has killed more Syrians than ISIS, tortures, and engages in atrocities that are universally condemned.

At the same time, ISIS will certainly be weakened, if not defeated, as Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq oppose ISIS.  Perhaps there could be a modicum of regional stability if Assad could reach some deal with the non-ISIS rebels that allows the bloodshed to end without reprisals.

That certainly looks better than what we see now on the ground.  A tenuous cease fire, along with aid being bottled up.   Assad surviving, Russia and Iran resurgent, and the US losing clout would be yet the latest consequence of decisions made 15 years ago to go to war in Iraq and reshape the region in order to promote US interests and leadership.   That policy remains a complete and utter failure.  Ultimately, though, regimes like Assad’s are anachronisms, they are out of place in the 21st Century and cannot last.  The transformation of the Arab world will take decades, not years.

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Trumping Truth

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Donald Trump claimed 1.5 million people were at his inauguration.   Estimates are almost all in the 200,000 range.   He sent his press secretary out to dispute claims the crowd was smaller than Obama’s.  Sean Spicer claimed that the “grass protecting plastic” made it appear like fewer people were there.

The picture on the left is from January 20, 2017.   On the right is January 20, 2009.   There is no way to deny that Obama’s crowd was massive compared to Trump’s.   When his spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway was asked why the press secretary was sent out to lie, she dodged, weaved, and finally said he was giving “alternate facts.”

If the President is so shameless with his lies over something this easy to verify, this obvious, then how can we trust what he has about threats to the country and other issues where we lack first hand information?

People say all politicians lie.  In reality, all people lie.  But not all the time, and often with a particular reason.  President Trump seems to be in a different class – the truth is irrelevant, whatever “fact” would serve Trump, that fact is posited as truth.

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To be fair to Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, he said he learned his techniques from Madison Avenue – the advertising business.  Truth is most easily subverted if people are being led by emotion.   The desire to believe will overcome the capacity to critically assess.  Those who try to promote truth will be derided as “dividers, traitors, subversives,” or to quote Rush Limbaugh, “Libtards.”

Even those who supported Trump, who believe he’ll do a good job, should be troubled by his lack of scruples.  He doesn’t care if it’s obvious he’s lying, he’ll do so anyway because he knows his supporters want to believe him.   He’s created an emotional connection to his “brand” and that trumps reason.  (Pun intended)

I don’t believe it will work.  The ridicule being heaped on Conway and Trump over these claims shows that the media and the public are ready to fight back.  The Women’s March (which I will write more about) demonstrates the beginning of a global movement.  But it’s essential that all Americans, even those who support Trump be united in demanding truth from our leaders.

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Most of us use a different term for “alternate facts.” We call them “lies.”

When I describe fascism in class, I note that fascism is an anti-intellectual, anti-rational, emotion driven way of thinking.  It is relativistic – truth does not exist, all that exists is different perspectives, and those who power can determine truth.  It might be a claim about crowd size, it might be a claim that Jews are a parasitic people.   The fact that the new President is so shameless in lying about things that are so easy to check is in my opinion they most disturbing thing about the new administration.

 

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Trumpism

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It seems a tad surreal.  Working class poor, Christian fundamentalists, all being drawn to Donald Trump as if he were a hero.  Trump, who has lived a life of luxury without much regard to the workers, and whose values are anything but Christian, does not seem a likely choice to play this role.   Yet somehow he inspires devotion from his fans, a devotion that seems to defy logic.

This isn’t normal.  While many people voted for Trump simply because they couldn’t stand Hillary, or decided an outsider might be good, there is a cadre of Trump devotees that see themselves as  part of a movement.  They have faith in the leader, revel in his tweets, attack his opponents, and see themselves as part of a wave that will take back America.

In an airport last month I overheard a conversation.  “Finally, this election brought some common sense back to America.  Things are going to change, they’ll be better.  It’s a great thing.”  She was white, about sixty years old, and appeared well off.  “Maybe,” said a young man in a military uniform, clearly not as enthused, “But if not, we’ll still get the job done.”   She would have none of that, “Oh, it will get better, finally the country has regained it’s senses!”

Right there was the essence of Trumpism.  A passionate belief that Trump has the power to make things different – better, alongside a belief that America is a mess, and the politicians have been unable to change things.

But while such a description could fit Sanders supporters as well, Trump draws a particular group – people who feel alienated by the cultural shifts of the last 20 years, and yearn for things to be “right” again.

This has an economic dimension.  Once worker could earn enough to provide for a household, send the kids to college, and have one spouse (OK, the wife!) stay home, keep house and take care of the kids.  Now often two incomes are required to keep afloat, and the good jobs aren’t there anymore, as factories have closed and the service industry resists unionizing or even hiring people full time with benefits.  The demon is “globalization,” and the response is nationalist.

There is a social dimension.   Gay marriage.   Transgenders coming out in the open.  Marijuana being legalized in state after state, while traditional Christians feel that they are being prejudiced against by politicians who ‘pander to Muslims’ and embrace ever more secular values.  All the change – including having a black President named Barack Hussein Obama – makes America seem like a cesspool to them.  What once was perverse is now normal, the old values of 60s sitcoms seem far away.

To each, Trump seems a savior.  He’s defiance of politically correct communication shows that he is rejecting the social change.  After all, people mock the handicapped all the time, there’s lots of Islamophobia out there, and homophobia is still rampant in much of the country.   While the elites stutter in disbelief when Trump, say, mocks a disabled reporter, his followers love it.   This guy doesn’t follow the rules of the liberal elite, he doesn’t believe in the America they somehow constructed.  He’ll bring back “real America.”

The response to Trump, however, has often been just as myopic.  Liberal elites, who delighted in the cosmopolitan sophistication of the hyper-rational Barack Obama, could not believe that someone like Trump could possibly be elected.  He’s not only not PC, he’s offensive!  He gets support from White Supremacists.  He insults people constantly – anyone who dares criticize him becomes the victim of the next day’s 3:00 AM Twitter rant.  Most recently it was Meryl Streep.  He seems insecure, a con man, who will say whatever  is in his interest, with no regard for the truth.  How can people support him?

The thing is – that’s not the Trump that Trump supporters see.   They see a strong man speaking boldly and defying the expectations of the liberal elite.  They would chant that Mexico would pay for the wall, even though polls show most of his supporters don’t really believe Mexico will.  It doesn’t matter – that’s part of the fun, being thoroughly disdainful of the elite, and shameless in defending even the most absurd claims.  It drives those secular liberals bonkers, after all!

So what then is Trumpism?  On the surface it does look a lot like fascism.  Leader worship, a desire to restore the “true values” of a country, a hatred of intellectualism, and a sense that truth doesn’t really matter.  It has the nationalism, emotion, and relativism associated with fascism.  But while someone like Hitler had a political program (re-fight the first World War without making the mistakes that lost it) diligently followed, Trump seems to have no real political agenda.  He is in it for the spectacle, the show, the attention.

In that, Trumpism is quintessentially American.  It is Jerry Springer, the World Wrestling Federation, and Nascar.  It appeals to emotion, but deep down it is more show than substance.  Trump is no Hitler, he’s a Don King.

What does that mean for Trumpism?  Trumpism will likely die.   In campaign mode it works, but it is spectacle not substance.  It is circuses, not bread.  In the real world of policy, Trump will be forced to deal with reality, and his supporters will be disappointed that he can’t change the culture or fix economic woes with the magic of his personality.

Will he fail as a President?  I think so.  But perhaps he’ll rely on advisors, make real compromises, and actually be able to confront some fundamental problems that are entrenched in the political establishment.  His believers think he’ll do that – I’m skeptical, but I have no choice but to hope that he rises to the task.  One test is Obamacare.  If he refuses to go along with just repeal, and demands something replace or reform it, that will be a good sign.

In foreign policy, sure – make nice with Russia.   If that’s part of a less aggressive US stance, perhaps that can work.   But at this point, it’s a crapshoot.  We don’t know what Trump truly believes, or how he’ll govern.  His insecure attacks on Meryl Streep cause alarm, but perhaps he won’t let his own demons guide his choices.

In any event, Trump reflects American culture at this point of time.  People want spectacle, they are willing to deny reality if it is unpleasant, and a lot of people don’t like the demographic and cultural changes of the last decades.

But in a ying and yang sense, Barack Obama also reflects American culture.  It is the embrace of cultural change and a desire to confront reality.  The US is divided, and the transfer of power from Obama to Trump represents that.  The future depends on the choices we make.

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Blog Hiatus Ending

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The world is in motion, we are living in an era of crisis and transformation that is dangerous and profound.  The purpose of this blog is to reflect on, document, and and make sense of this very consequential period in world history.   I’m back to my blog!

This blog started on May 9, 2008 with the first post being “Katrina vs. Nargis,” a comparison of the hurricane that hit the US in 2005 with a typhoon that savaged Myanmar that month.   I had dabbled with blogs before.  In 1999 I wrote a daily re-action to the Kosovo war, and in 2004 I started one on the university server as a part of co-teaching a course on children and war.  I continued that one until I decide to move to WordPress and have a blog with a theme and purpose.

For a large chunk of that time, I was prolific, posting an article a day.  Early on I was fascinated by the Obama-Clinton clash in the Democratic primaries, the appalling influence of hyper-consumerism on American society, and then the economic crash and why it happened.

Yet I also touched on spirituality, science, religion and philosophy.  I had some posts that were part of a series, like the game Quantum Life.   I made on line friends, generated followers, and my writing improved as I took more time to re-read and re-write.

So why did I slow down so much in 2016 and cease after the election of Donald Trump?

I found the entire 2016 campaign so mind numbing and appalling that I lacked a desire to follow it or write about it, a far cry from my blogs of 2008 and 2012.   I did not watch any of the Presidential debates, I gave up trying to reprise my “polls” page.  My heart was not in it.

Beyond that, I was busy with other things.  New friends, working out consistently, taking on the role of Faculty President at UMF, and being on the school board.  Mix having a lot to do with not having a drive to write and a blog hiatus emerges.

But I must write.  Especially in these times, if only so my children, now 11 and almost 14 can read what their father was thinking during this time of crisis and transformation.  The world remains in motion.

I’ve had time to reflect on recent events.   There is a lot to write about.

After Trump’s victory John Oliver said “this is not normal.”  True.  But in many ways, this entire era we’re living through is not normal.  The world is going through a period of immense cultural, social and political change.  The world is in motion, and it’s hurling into a vast unknown, in which the political and social structures we know and expect are likely doomed – or at least will be altered to become something quite different.

This is a consequential, dangerous, and turbulent era.    It’s exciting to watch it unfold, both the positives (and there are many) and negatives.  In my blog I’ll continue to try to make sense of it on a multi-dimensional level.   Politics, society, culture, meaning, spirit, economics, religion, and reflection of what it means to be human.  So the blog hiatus is over, starting tomorrow I’ll have regular posts concerning this era of crisis and transformation.

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