Friday, October 20, 2017

Relative Depravity

"The Republican Party has gone from Abraham Lincoln to Sarah Palin to Donald Trump.  No wonder they don't believe in evolution."

Andy Borowitz
New Yorker satirist, in this short speech

Apart from the common mistake of equating Darwinian evolution with progress (and of course this great joke depends on that), Borowitz is keying on a major reason for our collective cognitive dissonance: the bar for what's normal in Washington and national politics has dropped so far so fast that we're continually thrown into disorientation.

There is also the problem of quantity.  There were usually a few cabinet members, a few congressional leaders, who stood out for being especially atrocious. But the current administration is uniformly atrocious, you might even say super-atrocious, though in a completely dull way, as is the current congressional leadership.  Particularly with the cabinet this obscures any difference among them, except in the specific ways they've illegally wasted taxpayer money and wrecked whatever they touch.

Among the results for observers are scandal fatigue and outrage exhaustion.  Another indicator I've noticed lately is in the inevitable characterizing of two people in a dispute, one as the relative bad guy, the other as the relative good guy.  The bad guy is usually pretty bad.  But the relative good guy is maybe getting too much of a pass.

It's a human reaction to a binary consideration, familiar to some of us around this time of the year when we inevitably choose our favorite between two teams in the World Series, both of which in the regular season we loathe, or are at least scornfully indifferent towards.  (Yankees or Dodgers anyone?)

But it does make us forget just how loathsome the relative good guy in any story actually is in the real world.  Senator Mitch McConnell may be less offensive by some criteria than Steve Bannon, but McConnell has been as destructive to this country and the future as any human on the face of the earth during the past nine years.

His complete cynicism began by deliberating opposing everything that President Obama proposed regardless of its merits, subverting the Constitution by refusing to consider a Supreme Court nominee, and finally refusing to cooperate in a bipartisan warning that the Russians were trying to interfere in the 2016 elections and threatening to characterize any such statement by the Obama administration as partisan politics against the Republican candidate.

Senator Bob Corker has been getting good media and kudos for courage as he attacks our apprentice dictator in the White House.  He may be due credit for that, and he may play an important role, but his record in the Senate is obstructionist and rabid rightist.  He opposed the stimulus that got us out of the Great Recession, and voted against efforts to curb greenhouse gases, among other objectionable positions.  But he does look good in a suit.

One of Corker's big objections to the White House is its insane foreign policy, particularly involving North Korea, so full marks for that.  But his eloquent sanity on this gives him credibility to boost Secretary of State Tillerson as a good guy v. Homemade Hitler.

Talk about a low bar--there are few individual creatures on the planet who on balance isn't preferable to Homemade Hitler.  Tillerson has indeed opposed and perhaps restrained HH on North Korea and perhaps other flashpoints, and he interestingly not only called HH a moron but refuses to say he didn't.

  But Tillerson has practically destroyed the State Department, which as much as HH's bluster, could be decisive in getting this country into a war, killing our troops and citizens and costing us billions, not to mention the suffering of others.  As the ex-Exxon CEO he is also among the cabinet members turning over government decision-making to the oil companies for their profit.

Media reports also prime us to root for WH chief of staff General John Kelly, the "adult in the room" restraining the romper president from his world-threatening tantrums. Day after day Kelly is lionized, and his possible dismissal or rumored dissatisfaction to the point of resigning, are breathless big news.

But Kelly is a blunt far rightist and partisan all the way, as he proved with his statements Thursday absolving the apprentice dictator from his hamfisted comments to a grieving widow on the way to accept the remains of her fallen husband (comments which seem now to be awkwardly based on what Kelly told him to say.)  Kelly conveniently forgot that this entire episode began with the a.d. deflecting a question about why neither he nor his administration had anything to say about the extraordinary action in Niger that killed four soldiers, and instead gratuitously and of course inaccurately suggesting that other presidents didn't call the families of the fallen.

Instead Kelly went after the Democratic Member of Congress who heard the phone call, not because she was listening in but because it was on speakers, and she was in the car going to meet the plane because she had personally mentored the man whose body was arriving--something Kelly left out of his attack on her.

And even after that, Kelly gratuitously and inaccurately accused this Democrat of something she didn't do, his equivalent of an a.d. tweet.  Sad.

Update Fri.: The Kelly muckfest got worse on Friday, as video surfaced that proved what he said about Congresswoman Wilson was completely inaccurate.  The story took a racial turn as reported by the NY Times.  Even before the video, Kelly was criticized for other inaccuracies.  The White House responded by doubling down on the original lie about Wilson, just as it insisted that she had inaccurately reported the a.d.'s conversation with the grieving widow, to the point of the a.d. himself calling her a liar and saying he had proof she was--until Kelly himself confirmed that her description was accurate.  Then the White House press secretary said that getting into a debate with a four-star Marine general was itself "highly inappropriate."  Just another small reveal on the way to dictatorship.

Update Sat.: At the New Yorker, Masha Gessen's devastating essay entitled "John Kelly and the Language of the Military Coup."

Also on Thursday there was President George W. Bush, perhaps the luckiest man in America in that he can no longer be called the worst president in U.S. history. He emerged as a good guy because he made an eloquent speech--full of stirring alliteration-- denouncing the policies and attitudes of You Know Who, without naming him.

He is perhaps the most amazing of all, because in most respects, he is actually a cut above the current incumbent.  Further, I am open to being persuaded that he's learned a lot in his 8 years away from Washington.  And Michelle seems to like him.

But his presidency was a civil liberties, hyperpartisan, warmongering catastrophe, and helped lower the bar for the current incumbent, leaving us with the legacy of torture, two intractable wars and the Great Recession.  Or as Adam K. Raymond  noted in his piece dutifully covering the speech, he is "a devoted husband and father and the author of a senseless war that killed more than a million people."

That we have to be so grateful for Bob Corker and G. W. Bush, maybe even Rex Tillerson and John Kelly to some degree (although it stretches a point to include McConnell) tells us something about the Unnameable, this pit of craven lunatics into which too much of our public reality has fallen.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

What Else Can Happen Here

As we watch with half-averted eyes ("Bah, the latest news, the latest news is not the last") the bitter slog of the Unnamable, a moment to note what we are not seeing, that we are no longer seeing...

The news was everywhere in the 1970s and 1980s and well into the 90s of the daily violence and intractable conflict between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland.

It was rebellion, insurrection, guerrilla war, terrorism, ethnic violence, international intrigue and angry political controversy on several continents, all in one.

Known as "The Troubles" it resulted in bombings, shootings and other violence, especially once the UK installed troops in the most violent areas.  Some 3,500 people were killed according to official statistics.

The Catholic minority claimed economic and political oppression, and demanded that the North, which was majority Protestant and part of the United Kingdom, be joined to the Republic of Ireland to the south (majority Catholic) in a single independent state.

Those of us exposed to the news of those days saw these images on TV screens nearly every day.  The Troubles spawned countless movies and TV episodes that dramatized what was clearly intractable conflict on the order of the other great source of violence in those days, the deadly enmity between Arabs and Israelis.

 It was a war of two sides, each demanding absolute loyalty. For those involved it was us against them, with mutually exclusive demands: either/or.  Each took a position that ceded nothing to the other side; each side demanded complete victory.

There were many cease-fires that never seemed to hold.  It all seemed hopeless, especially as it reflected ethnic histories and loyalties.

And then, it vanished.

It vanished off the nightly news, the television and movie screens.  For after talks led to dramatic agreements (that few believed would hold), it entered a long period of undramatic negotiation. Today this intractable conflict is all gone, due to a series of far-reaching agreements that involve a very much changed Republic of Ireland.
Belfast City Hall today
The absolute first thing to notice about this is: a viciously violent conflict between two enemies with roots in history and economics that seemed to have no peaceful solution, has been peacefully solved by the two parties themselves.  And neither side lost, and both sides won.

The second is the how, which involves creativity, complexity and diversity, to solve the underlying problems.  It even involved accepting paradox.

  Britain maintained Northern Ireland is part of the UK, but allowed it to go its own way.  The Republic of Ireland gave up its territorial claims on the North, and entered into agreements with the North that made the two Irelands functionally interdependent.  In a fascinating essay in the New York Review of Books, Fintan O'Toole writes:

"This reciprocal withdrawal of territorial claims has recreated Northern Ireland as a new kind of political space—one that is claimed by nobody. It is not, in effect, a territory at all. Its sovereignty is a matter not of the land but of the mind: it will be whatever its people can agree to make it. And within this space, national identity is to be understood in a radically new way."

"In its most startling paragraph the Belfast Agreement recognizes “the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they may so choose.” It accepts, in other words, that national identity (and the citizenship that flows from it) is a matter of choice. Even more profoundly, it accepts that this choice is not binary. If you’re born in Northern Ireland, you have an unqualified right to hold an Irish passport, a British passport, or each of the two. Those lovely little words “or both” stand as a rebuke to all absolutist ideas of nationalism. Identities are fluid, contingent, and multiple."

Ireland's new Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, son of an
immigrant from India, and openly gay
These agreements were ratified by large majorities in both countries. It helps as well that both countries--particularly the Irish Republic--are much more ethnically diverse than they were.

Today Ireland is in the news for a very different reason (apart from being the absurd target of a hurricane.)  The "Irish problem" in 2017 is prompted by Brexit.  The UK as a whole--though it was mostly Great Britain--voted to leave the European Union.  But Ireland, North and South, doesn't want to leave.  O'Toole:

"Ireland has evolved a complex and fluid sense of what it means to have a national identity while England has reverted to a simplistic and static one. This fault line opens a crack into which the whole Brexit project may stumble."

The nub of the Brexit problem is this:

"When these ideas were framed and overwhelmingly endorsed in referendums on both sides of the Irish border, there was an assumption that there would always be a third identity that was neither Irish nor British but that could be equally shared: membership of the European Union. In the preamble to the agreement, the British and Irish governments evoked “the close co-operation between their countries as friendly neighbours and as partners in the European Union.” The two countries joined the EU together in 1973 and their experience of working within it as equals was crucial in overcoming centuries of animosity."

I'm not going into the Brexit weeds on this--O'Toole is the better guide--but instead I point out a certain resonance, if not model.  I hear it said that the United States is still the most diverse country in the West, and demographically that diversity is growing. Yet we are in the political grip of the either/or, of two sides divided by ideology, world view, economics, education, geography and especially history and its relationship with ethnic and other identities.

 One flashpoint is immigration. There are lurches left and right all over the world prompted by immigration, as either causing real problems or as a hot button distracting from what's really causing the problems, or very likely both.

Sooner or later, a lot of "boths" ("Those lovely little words 'or both'") are going to define themselves beyond the either/ors.  The US may not get to that particular later, but it's possible. It might even come sooner.

We know it's possible because others have arrived there.  Which is why we're not seeing gunfire on the streets of Belfast anymore.