My Weekly Reader 13 October 2018.

Geography—like many other things—is Destiny.  The Middle East has been shaped by its location between the upper mill-stone and the lower millstone.  Greeks fought Persians; Romans fought Hellenistic Greeks, then fought Sassanids; Christians (Byzantine and Latin) fought Muslims (Arab and Turk); and Anglo-Americans fought Russians.

The last of these struggles centered on the region’s place in an increasingly globalized world economy.   Sea routes, then air, routes through the Middle East made it a vital link between Europe and Asia.  The rise of oil as the world’s industrial fuel made the Middle East a vital component of economic growth.  (As always before, the people of the region were disdained, not least because they habitually accommodated themselves to whoever held the whip-hand.  Their leaders “Medized,” “Hellenized,” “Romanized,” “Arabized,” “Ottomanized,” and “Westernized.”[1])

Through the Nineteenth Century, Britain supported the decrepit Ottoman Empire.  The Phil-Hellene British elite held the Ottomans in low regard, but they were determined never to allow Tsarist Russia to advance southward to dominate Britain’s line of communications with India and the China trade.  The opening of the Suez Canal (1869) intensified this determination.[2]  The outcome of the First World War in the Middle East appeared to finally relieve the danger.  Russia collapsed into revolution and emerged as a pariah state pre-occupied with its internal problems.  Britain and France parted-out the Arab territories of the Ottoman Empire.[3]  Liberated from the Russian danger, the British and French fell to bickering among themselves.[4]

Then came the Second World War.  The war wrecked both Britain and France, while elevating the United States and the Soviet Union into global super-powers.  The unwilling Anglo-French retreat from the Middle East coupled with the renewed Russian threat to draw in the Americans.

The British were reluctant to release their grip.[5]  They had, after all, alone fought from the first day of the war to its last without suffering military conquest.  In the last stages of the war, British leaders began to plan new arrangements that would allow them to exert a guiding hand on Middle Eastern developments.  Britain’s lack of money and power quickly undermined these schemes.   Israel’s self-proclamation (1948), the rise of the charismatic Egyptian military dictator Gamal Nasser (1952) in place of the feeble King Farouk (1952), the American supplanting of Britain as the predominant power in Iran after the 1953 coup, Nasser’s seizure of the Suez Canal and America’s brutal intervention to halt the botched Anglo-French-Israeli Suez Campaign (1956) against Nasser, and the beginning of the Iraqi Revolution with the overthrow of the pro-British monarchy (1958) marked some of the Stations of the Cross on Britain’s painful imperial Via Dolorosa.

[1] It might be wondered if a recognition of this endless submissive adaptability on the part of unprincipled leaders is part of what fuels the rage of contemporary radical Islam.

[2] M.S. Anderson, The Eastern Question, 1774-1923: A Study in International Relations (1966).

[3] Under the Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916), France got Syria and Lebanon, while Britain got Iraq, Palestine, and Trans-Jordan.  It also sought a tighter grip on Egypt.

[4] See, most recently, James Barr, A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle that Shaped the Middle East (2011).

[5] James Barr, Lords of the Desert: Britain’s Struggle with America to Dominate the Middle East (2018).

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Of Two Minds.

In 2016, Donald Trump captured the Republican Party.  However, his own base lies—so goes the conventional wisdom—in the “white working class.”[1]  That class feels that they have been abandoned by their own country and by their traditional party—the Democrats.[2]  Almost half (47 percent) of the voters who approve of President Trump feel estranged from the country.[3]  Now, with President Trump in the White House and Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, almost as large a share (44 percent) of those who disapprove of President Trump feel estranged from the country.

Since President Trump’s election, those on the left have “lamented the erosion of values around tolerance and diversity.”  This means, apparently, “a weakening of values around voting rights, abortion rights, [and] L.G.T.B. tolerance.”  This view of the situation is puzzling.  It appears to suggest that what liberals believe is what they think is established orthodoxy for everyone.  What has been emphasized by the election of President Trump is rather that there never existed a national consensus on these matters.

Thus, in 2008 President Obama opposed marriage equality.  In 2012, when a bare majority of Americans had come to favor it, he switched to supporting marriage equality.  That still left a large, but declining, share of Americans who had not evolved their position with the same speed as had the president.[4]

Similarly, there has existed substantial opposition to unrestricted right to abortion.  In 2009, 47 percent of Americans thought abortion should be legal in most cases, but 44 percent thought that it should be illegal in most cases.  Since then, the gap has widened, with 57 percent thinking it should be legal in most cases and 40 percent thinking that it should be illegal in most cases in 2017.  Breaking it down by age cohorts, it looks like legalization is the wave of the future.[5]  People don’t vote their future opinions.  They vote their current opinions.

These examples barely scratch the surface.  There are the issues around the Second Amendment, urban policing, capitalism, immigration, affirmative action, and elite cosmopolitanism versus mainstream nationalism.

In a telling quote, one scholar remarked about Trump’s insistence that many of his supporter remain disdained by the elites that “if you’re already primed to feel that way, getting a sort of regular dose of that rhetoric I think would cause you to continue to believe it.”  That makes sense, but it fails to examine the impact of media, entertainment, and Democratic political tropes on Democratic voters.  They, too, have spent years fostering a culture of grievance.  For example, just before the 2016 election, one poll reported that 48 percent of African-Americans felt estranged from their own country.  That was at the end of eight years of President Obama’s administration and in the midst of Hillary Clintons “Stronger Together” campaign.  It is worth asking if Democratic rhetoric played a role in fueling this sense of alienation.

[1] Emily Badger, “Estranged in America: Both Sides Feel Lost and Left Out,” NYT, 7 October 2018.

[2] The white working class long formed the core of the “New Deal” coalition assembled by Franklin d. Roosevelt and bequeathed to his successors.  They were celebrated as the salt-of-the-earth.  See, for example, Norman Rockwell, “Freedom of Speech” and “Homecoming Marine.”

[3] Which isn’t quite the same as approving Donald Trump they human being.

[4] Probably, that is because they were motivated by bigotry or principle, while he was motivated by expedience.

[5] http://www.pewforum.org/fact-sheet/public-opinion-on-abortion/

Amazing Grace.

John Newton (1725-1807) grew up the son of an English merchant ship captain.  From 1736 to 1742 he learned the sailor’s trade on voyages with his father.  In 1743 he was “pressed” into the Royal Navy; when he tried to desert, he got eight dozen from the “cat.”  Later he joined the crew of a slave ship bound for Sierra Leone, but fell out with the captain and was left ashore as a slave for several years.  Finally rescued from slavery himself, he nevertheless returned to working in the slave trade until 1754.

However, he had begun to undergo a long conversion to evangelical Christianity.  In time, Newton became a Protestant minister and then an abolitionist.[1]  In 1779, he published a collection of hymns he had written.  Among them was one now called “Amazing Grace.”  It remains a widely popular hymn,[2] probably because it is a lamentation suitable for funerals.[3]

However, I wonder if we are listening without hearing.  “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound That saved a wretch like me.  I once was lost, but now am found, Was blind but now I see.”  It is, in its bare bones, a story of a deeply flawed human being “saved” by God’s grace.  In Christianity, God’s grace is “the love and mercy given to us by God because God desires us to have it, not necessarily because of anything we have done to earn it.”[4]

Until modern times, redemption stories like that of John Newton abounded.  They signified the liberation of the individual from the evil impulses that had held him or her in captivity.  Many stories celebrated the redemption of sinners.  They begin with Saint Paul, who described himself as having been the “chief of sinners” before his conversion experience.  John Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress (1666) testified to his own redemption in a 17th Century England torn by political strife.  The “Second Great Awakening” (a Protestant religious revival that came at a time when Americans were overwhelmingly Protestant, c. 1790-1850) called people to abandon their sinful past and to live better, more rigorous lives.

People who had wallowed in bad behavior could alter their lives so dramatically that observers could scarcely credit that the same person had lived two so wildly different lives.  Thus, there used to be a way back for sinners.

Now there isn’t.  We live in a society that has become increasingly secularized.  The natural and social sciences have provided more satisfactory answers to many questions that the ones provided by religion.  Religious doctrines don’t have the same bite they once did.[5]  Apparently, that includes grace and redemption.  Then, Newton could offer “a confession, which … comes too late … It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.”  Now, you are for all time your worst words or deeds.  Who would publicly confess and try to make amends for their failings under such circumstances?

[1] He appears in the film recounting the contributions of Evangelical Christians to ending Britain’s role in the slave trade.  See: “Amazing Grace” (dir. Michael Apted, 2006).

[2] Check out the sample of versions available on Youtube.  https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=Amazing+Grace

[3] For an alternative approach, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q6kNHWh_RwY

[4] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grace_in_Christianity

[5] This comes on top of, but is not caused by, the failings of some religious people.  See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Erg09oOpmo

Talking to Myself 1.

Brett Kavanaugh has just been blind-sided at the last moment before the Senate Judiciary Committee votes on whether to approve his nomination to the United States Supreme Court.  He’s been hit by an accusation of “sexual misconduct” that is alleged to have occurred thirty-five years ago, when he was seventeen.  There is no corroborating evidence so far.  Apparently, sixty-five women who knew Kavanaugh at that time say he never mistreated women to their knowledge.

What to do?  It’s difficult to say because there are several different issues that over-lap in this case.

First, we don’t yet have any proof that this event occurred. It’s just “He said-She said.”

Second, if proven, would such behavior thirty-five years ago, followed by unstained behavior since then, disqualify Kavanaugh from the Supreme Court?  In the current environment, it certainly should disqualify him.  By “current climate” I mean that people (myself included) are finally starting to pull their heads out of their “culus” about an age-old problem.  With any luck, this isn’t just a phase that is going to pass.  It will become the new normal.  Certainly that would be unfair to Kavanaugh, whose alleged action would have occurred under a different morals regime.  Thirty-five years ago was, like, 1983.  (In January 1983, the Washington Redskins beat the Miami Dolphins in the Super Bowl.  That’s how long ago it happened.)

Third, Diane Feindstein holding onto the letter, then releasing word of it at the last possible moment is pretty slimy.  However, if you think that Senator Feinstein’s actions are wrong, then you must also think that the Republican majority refusing to hold hearings on Merrick Garland was wrong.  They didn’t have to approve Garland.  The Constitution doesn’t say that “The Senate must approve anyone nominated by the President-Emperor.”  Ask poor Harriet Miers.  The appointment of judges at all ranks has become politicized because people have taken to the courts to obtain what they can’t get through the legislative process.  As Mr. Dooley opined, “politics ain’t bean-bag.”

Fourth, what should happen?  Put the clutch down on the Kavanaugh nomination.  Thoroughly investigate the accusation.  Yes, if the Democrats regain the majority in the Senate before the investigation is completed, then Kavanaugh is toast.  He will lose any vote on a purely party-line vote.  It will not matter what the investigation discovers.  It could acquit him and he would still lose.  Even so, that would be better than having someone appointed to the Supreme Court under a cloud, especially this kind of cloud.

Reasoning by analogy, we’re all in the same boat as the Catholic priesthood.  You can’t solve the problem by saying “Sorry” and promising transparency in the future.  (Yes, there’s a certain comic element in Democrats going “zero tolerance!” on this issue, while rejecting it on other issues.  Hypocrisy is central to American public life.)  On the other hand, I’d be opposed to trying to strip Kavanaugh of his current position as an appellate court judge.  (Like I said, hypocrisy is central to American public life.)

Final thing.  Take a moment to recall the Duke lacrosse and Charlottesville frat cases.  Both were examples of liberal lynch mobs.  We can’t tell yet what is true about the Kavanaugh case.  So, everyone should take a deep breath and think about what is best for th republic.  Here endeth the sermon.

Where did our love go?

First, the Supreme Court’s decision in “Plessy versus Ferguson” was considered settled law from 1896 to 1954.  The Supreme Court’s decision in”Roe versus Wade” has been considered settled law since 1973.

Second, given the politicization of the judiciary since the Warren Court, should the Justices of the Supreme Court be elected officials serving for limited terms, as are the members of the Legislative and Executive branches of government?  The ideal of an impartial and disinterested group of experts regulating the passions of the people currently seems impossible to fulfill.  The spectacle of Court nominees appearing before the Seante’s Judiciary Committee only to evade questions and of potential presidential candidates buffing their profiles in courage could appear equally disgusting.

Trump latest news.

After Russo-American relations soured, the American Justice Department and the F.B.I. came up with the idea of roping-in some Russian “oligarchs” with tight links to Vladimir Putin as sources of information.  Oleg Deripaska is one such “oligarch.”  He is suspected by the United States government of involvement in extortion, bribery, and possibly murder.  From 2014 to 2016, the Justice Department and the F.B.I. hoped to turn him into an informer on Putin and on Russian organized crime.  At first, they were interested in Russian organized crime and its possible connections to Putin; later they added an interest in possible connections between the Russians and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.  So the Americans offered Deripaska help in getting visas to the United States for business purposes.[1]

Bruce Ohr, who had led Department of Justice campaigns against Russian organized crime, and Christopher Steele, the former head of the Russian desk at the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI-6), played roles in this effort.  Steele’s role was to serve as an intermediary between the Americans and Russians.[2]  While the contacts between Ohr and Steele focused largely on the Deripaska case [and the other oligarchs?], they also discussed Steele’s “dossier” during the final months of the 2016 presidential campaign.

On 16 June 2015, Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president.

In July 2016, the F.B.I. began investigating possible contact between members of the Trump presidential campaign and Russians.  Paul Manafort left the Trump campaign in August 2016 after reports surfaced that he had worked for pro-Russians in Ukrainian politics.

The Americans contacted Deripaska in September 2015 and again in September 2016.

In September 2015, the Americans pitched their theories of Kremlin-organized crime links to Deripaska.  He rejected the theories, declined to help them with their inquiries, and quickly informed the Kremlin of the approach.

From mid-summer 2016, the American intelligence had become concerned over the Russian hack of the Democratic National committee’s e-mail and by reports of Russian contact with Trump campaign staff.  In late Summer 2016, Steel began briefing American intelligence officials on his findings.

In September 2016, the Americans over-rode Deripaska’s refusal to hold a second meeting by showing up at his apartment or hotel in New York.  This time, they wanted to explore their theory of Trump campaign collusion with Russia.  In particular, they wanted to know if Paul Manafort had provided a connection between the Russians and the campaign.  Again, Deripaska derided the theories as “preposterous” and doubted that any Trump-Russia connection existed.[3]

With this avenue closed, Steele continued to share his information with American officials and journalists, both before and after the election.

[1] Kenneth Vogel and Matthew Rosenberg, “U.S. Agents Tried to Turn Oligarch into an Informer,” New York Times, 2 September 2018.  Presumably they also assured him that they wouldn’t let word leak to Putin or the “vory” that he was helping a foreign state.  What with their impulse-control issues and all.

[2] After retiring from MI-6, Steele had started a private business intelligence company.  Among his clients was one of Deripaska’s lawyer.  So, was that, perhaps, how the approach was made?

[3] The anonymous sources leak to the NYT apparently did not include a report on the response of the other oligarchs.

The Latest News.

I’m a never-Trump Republican.  I didn’t vote for him the last time and I’m not going to vote for him the next time.  I think, to steal a line from P.J. O’Rourke, that when the Donald Trump Monument is unveiled in Washington, DC, it will consist of a large pit with a donkey at the bottom.  That said, here are my thoughts on “The Latest News.”(Name of an anti-Bolshevik Russian refugee newspaper published in Paris).

  1. Paul Manafort is convicted of stuff from 2014 and before in Ukraine and Trump is supposed to be worried about what he may say about Russian collusion in 2016?  What if there was no collusion, as Trump has insisted?  So far, but we’re waiting for Robert Mueller’s final report or charges before we know.  We’re also waiting for the Department of Justice Inspector General’s report on the origins of the Russia investigation.  The last one excoriated James Comey in exactly the terms used by Rod Rosenstein to fire him back before Trump admitted that it was about Russia.  The IG also came down hard on Andrew McCabe.  So, he doesn’t look too marshmallow-like to me.  Let’ wait on the reports.  In the meantime, the suspicion might arise that Manafort would fabricate stuff to please Mueller.  Or, if Manafort says “I don’t know anything about what you want to know,” does he get the book thrown at him?
  2. Michael Cohen pleaded to a bunch of stuff he did independently of Trump + he helped pay hush money to a couple of women with whom Trump had had sex.    Similarly, HRC refused to release the text of her secret speech to Wall Street bankers for exactly the same reason as Trump tried to hide the revelations of “Stormy Daniels” and that other one.  People might think less of them during the run-up to an elections.  Did the lawyers and political operatives–if any–for HRC who counseled her on refusing to release the text of the secret speech also violate campaign finance laws?  After all, they got paid money to keep the truth hidden.   For that matter, how many of the Democrats who want to get Trump also said “OK” when Bill Clinton said “Well, we’ll just have to win it”?
  3. Turning to matters of substance, rather than froth and scum (see: Andie Tucher https://www.amazon.com/Froth-Scum-Beauty-Goodness-Americas/dp/0807844721 ),  Mexico is willing to make concessions on NAFTA and Canada will soon join in.  China has resumed talks with the US on tariffs and may yet open its markets to American goods.  The NATO allies are finally starting to meet their long-standing commitments.  North Korea has begun talks with South Korea and the US on nuclear disarmament.  It seems that the North Koreans suddenly figured out how to make (or buy) ICBM rocket engines and the computer technology to prevent US cyber-attacks on missile tests.  Could the CIA offer some insight on how this happened?  Then, huge numbers of ordinary Iranians, according to the New York Times, want their government to talk to the US, given the collapse of the Iranian economy.  The corporate tax is down to international norms.  OK, spending is wayup above international norms.  The unpredictable regulatory environment of the Obama administration has been reined-in.
  4. Yes, Trump identifies with “strong leaders.”  What do people want?  A continuation of the “Empire” as it operated under Clinton, Bush, and Obama?  Bunch of weak elites of both parties are nostalgic for the era of the USA telling everyone else what they had otta do, while getting bent-over on trade and other stuff.  Times up.
  5. Minor social stuff.  A.) Wait, Asia Argento had sex with  a 17 year-old boy and he was “traumatized”?  As opposed to grateful?  You ever see her in “La Reine Margot”?  Was he fighting to keep his virginity?  You know any 17 year old boys who are/were saving it for marriage?  Me neither.  America never was “Up With People.”  Then, how did the stuff come to the NYT?  And why were they in such a hurry to publish it?  To bust on an immigrant woman who may or may not be a little kinky?  Think about that one.  B.)  One little picture in the paper of the activists who pulled down the statue of “Silent Sam” at Chapel Hill.  (S’OK by me.  My great-great grandfather was killed at Nashville commanding the 35th Iowa Volunteer Infantry Regiment.  Picture of him getting knocked backward off his horse by a minie-ball to the head appeared on the front page of Harpers.  Burn the whole place down.)  In that picture, all but one of the people is white.  In the story accompanying the picture, the black people who are interviewed are described as being at the back of the crowd.  Was the crowd truly multi-racial, diverse, and inclusive, or was it a bunch of white activists who appropriated the justifiable anger of African-Americans for their own purposes? I would really appreciate it if people could give me some information or advice here.