Saturday, July 21, 2018

The Brain Is Much More Important

They say the infamous gangster Al Capone had the mind of a seven-year-old child when he was paroled. Syphilis had eaten away his mental capacities to the point where he spent the last years obsessed with imagined menaces--Communists, as well as his old rival Bugs Moran, who he became convinced was trying to kill him--even though Moran was holed up in some Ohio prison by that point. Yes, the deterioration of the human mind can be a fascinating thing to behold. Instead of quietly burning out like a dying fire, it can spin out of control before one final, irreversible implosion. There is a reason that madness has fascinated playwrights, philosophers and other thinkers for many generations.

Mark Wilson/Zuma Press
So now we come to the president. Speculation about his mental state is certainly nothing new, and we have no need to try to figure out the causes. Dementia? Alzheimer's, like Reagan before him? Just stress from being the most powerful man on the planet? Leave it to the experts to try to figure that out, but the point is something is up with the man. He has always been a sickening boil on the American Dream, a man who represents everything twisted and evil in the national spirit. But now he's a bloated self-parody, so lacking in awareness of his own stupidity that he's more comical than diabolical. And it's only been getting worse and worse. At one of his rallies last month, he started talking about Elton John and got sidetracked, vomiting up this word salad:
I have broken more Elton John records. He seems to have a lot of records. And I, by the way, I don’t have a musical instrument. I don’t have a guitar or an organ. No organ. Elton has an organ. And lots of other people helping. No, we’ve broken a lot of records. We’ve broken virtually every record. Because you know, look, I only need this space. They need much more room. For basketball, for hockey and all of the sports, they need a lot of room. We don’t need it. We have people in that space. So we break all of these records. Really, we do it without, like, the musical instruments. This is the only musical – the mouth. And hopefully the brain attached to the mouth, right? The brain. More important than the mouth is the brain. The brain is much more important.
Yes, the brain is much more important. It reads more like a passage from some long-lost James Joyce work than it does the product of a normal human mind. Even Trump's Neanderthal supporters must have been wondering if he was having a stroke onstage, right in front of their eyes.

Around the same time that that rally was held, we got a new report that was startling even by Trump standards: he'd wanted to invade Venezuela last year. He clung onto the idea even after his own advisors tried to dissuade him. He even mentioned it to other Latin American leaders. I don't know if even a dumb frat boy like George W. Bush would cling to such a Gen. Jack D. Ripper-esque notion so tenaciously. A full-on invasion of a major country in our own hemisphere, with no remotely justifiable cause--not even so much as a phony pretense about Weapons of Mass Destruction--just some deranged notion of taking out Our Enemies.

And we can't forget the Mueller investigation. So far, it's unearthed nothing too damaging for Trump--maybe it never will. And certainly his supporters won't care if he colluded with Russia. The congressional Republicans are sure to protect him against removal from office even if the wildest allegations turn out to be true. But that hasn't kept Trump from focusing on the investigation compulsively, barely ever going a week without tweeting about the "Witch Hunt" since the beginning of the year. Sometimes he's barely comprehensible. Take this from July 7: "The Rigged Witch Hunt, originally headed by FBI lover boy Peter S (for one year) & now, 13 Angry Democrats, should look into the missing DNC Server, Crooked Hillary’s illegally deleted Emails, the Pakistani Fraudster, Uranium One, Podesta & so much more. It’s a Democrat Con Job!" The output of a late-stage syphilitic brain if I've ever seen it.

And of course there was last month's press conference with Putin. We don't have to agree with the more hysterical accusations--that it constituted treason, that it shows he's Putin's puppet, etc.--to recognize it was a bizarre performance. He babbled about the Democrats, the investigation, and the DNC server, while seeming to put his trust in the Russian president. It's the sort of behavior that's hard to imagine even from Trump's nauseating predecessors--Nixon, Reagan, the Bushes. You could pull someone off the street and make them president for a day and anyone with half a brain would put on a better performance than that.

And now he's admitted on Twitter that Don Jr.'s meeting with Russians was intended to dig up dirt on Clinton--contradicting the earlier claim that it was about adoption laws, for no apparent reason. This comes after he attacked LeBron James for daring to utter mild criticisms of the Dealmaker-In-Chief. Even a fiend like Nixon had better self-control than this--and he really did have something to hide. We have yet to figure out if Trump does. It may be that Mueller is his Bugs Moran--someone his decaying brain has unshakably decided poses a threat and has it in for him.

Yes, it may be that on some level Trump believes his own talk of Witch Hunts. And maybe he's also deluded enough to believe there's a "red wave" coming this November, as he keeps insisting. One thing is clear: he is unstable and it is only getting worse, if anything. The idea of our billionaire president being deranged and stupid enough to start World War Three has become decidedly less hypothetical with the news about Venezuela. He is a literal madman with his Finger On The Button, and we can only hope that the depraved goons surrounding him have the marginal amount of sanity, and the power of persuasion, required to keep him from doing something catastrophic. We will be lucky to make it to the end of his tenure without things getting much worse than they already are.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

In Defense of Socialism: A Response to Bret Stephens

It's no surprise that the media has been focused, for the past couple weeks, on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's exhilarating victory over Joe Crowley. The story of a political newcomer easily picking off a long-time incumbent who holds a leadership role in the Democratic Party is indeed a significant one, and one that we can hope means the beginning of a change of direction for the Democrats. Of course, as is generally the case, we've seen quite a lot of stupidity from the media in their coverage and commentary in their coverage of Ocasio-Cortez's victory, and today we'll be looking at a piece of it, from Bret Stephens at the New York Times, whose first column, just to give an introduction to what we're dealing with, was focused on trying to plant seeds of doubt in the reader's mind about the realities of climate change as agreed on by the scientific community.

Stephens' new column, entitled "Democratic Socialism is Dem Doom," begins:
A political novice who calls herself a “democratic socialist” wins an unexpected Democratic Party primary victory, and now political taxonomists are racing to explain just what the term means. Here’s my definition: political hemlock for the Democratic Party.
Congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (photo credit: Scott Heins/Getty Images)

Interesting claim. One of the most well-known democratic socialists in the country, Bernie Sanders, went on to become a widely popular figure after he dramatically outperformed most expectations in the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries. Polls have demonstrated that young voters particularly are open, and even friendly, to the idea of socialism. Stephens repeats his odd claim a few paragraphs later:
“Democratic socialism” is awful as a slogan and catastrophic as a policy. And “social democracy” — a term that better fits the belief of more ordinary liberals who want, say, Medicare for all — is a politically dying force. Democrats who aren’t yet sick of all their losing should feel free to embrace them both.
Social democracy is a politically dying force? Then why, one wonders, was the Medicare for All bill in 2017 cosponsored by relatively mainstream Democrats such as Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Tammy Baldwin? Why did a poll from earlier this year find almost six in ten Americans support Medicare for All? And again, why did Bernie Sanders do so unexpectedly well in the 2016 primaries, and why did he become one of the more popular figures in American politics? These are questions that, unsurprisingly, Stephens does not answer.
Start with democratic socialism. The Democratic Socialists of America, of which Ocasio-Cortez is a member, believe in economies defined by state-owned enterprises and worker-owned cooperatives. Versions of this have been tried to varying degrees before: Israel in its first decades; post-independence India; Sweden in the 1960s and ’70s.
It always led to crisis: hyperinflation for Israel in 1980s; an I.M.F. bailout for India in 1991; a banking meltdown for Sweden in 1992. It’s usually a recipe for corruption: State-owned enterprises such as Pemex in Mexico or Eskom in South Africa are local bywords for graft and mismanagement. It frequently leads to dictatorship. Hugo Chávez was also a democratic socialist.
Someone should tell that to Bolivia, headed by president Evo Morales, who has implemented similar reforms and yet continues to preside over a healthy economy and has achieved laudable feats in poverty reduction. I think it would also be fair to ask Mr. Stephens to present some actual evidence that socialism in Israel, India, and Sweden inevitably led to the economic problems those countries faced. Of course, he presents none.
What about social democracy? Isn’t it the norm in Europe, and isn’t it working pretty well? You wouldn’t know it by the way Europeans are voting. France’s Socialists ran a left-wing candidate in last year’s presidential election, and crawled away with barely 6 percent of the vote. Germany’s Social Democrats had their worst electoral result since 1933. Italy’s center-left was trounced by a combination of populists and right-wingers in March.
This is extremely misleading. In the first round of voting in France's presidential election, the outspokenly leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon took almost 20% of the vote (to put that in perspective, the winner of the first round (who would also go on win the second round), Emmanuel Macron, received 24%). According to Ipsos France, he received 30% of the votes from votes 18 to 24, more than any other candidate.

As for Germany's Social Democratic Party, since 2013 they've been in a coalition with conservative austerity champion Angela Merkel--not exactly the mark of a bold, progressive agenda. Turning to Italy, as Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi (whose coalition lost the election earlier this year) had introduced 'labor reform' that "made it easier for large companies to fire people and offered fiscal incentives for companies that hired permanent workers on new, less-protected terms," according to Reuters, over the opposition of labor unions. That labor reform is now being challenged by the new governing coalition. So citing the failures of these parties as evidence of European discontent with the welfare state and social services provided by their government is more than a little dubious.

Stephens writes further,
You can argue that the major goals of social democracy — universal health care and other social provisions — were achieved long ago in Europe. But they aren’t so fully realized, and are thus potentially popular, in America, never mind our own robust welfare state. [!]
But that misses the deeper point. Today’s social democracy falls apart on the contradiction between advocating nearly unlimited government largess and nearly unlimited immigration. “Abolish ICE” is a proper rallying cry for hard-core libertarians and Davos globalists, not democratic socialists or social democrats. A federal job guarantee is an intriguing idea — assuming the jobs are for some defined “us” that doesn’t include every immigrant, asylum-seeker or undocumented worker.
ICE didn't exist at the turn of this century. Despite the lies peddled by Trump and the Republican party, abolishing ICE doesn't equate to open borders (regardless of one's opinion of open borders). And given that we're now being warned about a "labor shortage," Stephens' worries about finding enough jobs for everyone seems questionable.

Trump gets this, as does the far right in Europe, which is why they attract such powerful working-class support. Want to preserve the welfare state? Build a wall — or, in Europe’s case, reinstate border controls. Want more immigrants and amnesty? Lower the minimum wage and abolish the closed shop.
But please choose. It’s one or the other.
Again, where is the evidence for this? What economist has said that we either have to have a wall or abandon the welfare state?
It’s possible Democrats will surrender to the illusion that they can have both, puffing the sails of Ocasio-Cortez and her fellow travelers. But a Democratic Party seriously interested in defeating congressional Republicans in the fall and Trump in 2020 isn’t going to win by turning itself into a right-wing caricature of the left, complete with a smug embrace of whatever it conceives to be “socialism.”
Embracing socialism didn't seem to keep Ocasio-Cortez from beating Joe Crowley, nor will it keep her from getting elected in November, as is basically certain to happen.
If Trump is the new Nixon, the right way to oppose him isn’t to summon the ghost of George McGovern. Try some version of Bill Clinton (minus the grossness) for a change: working-class affect, middle-class politics, upper-class aspirations.
Really? The Democrats literally ran Clinton's wife as their presidential candidate in 2016 and lost. The current situation in the US is entirely different than it was in the early '90s, when Clinton got elected. Why on Earth would a renewed embrace of Clintonite centrism be more likely to succeed than an embrace of popular policies like Medicare for All and popular figures like Bernie Sanders?

Stephens wraps up,
I’ve written elsewhere that a chief danger to democracy is a politics in which the center bends toward the fringe instead of the fringe bending toward the center. It’s the way Trump became president. But the antidote to one extreme isn’t another, and Democrats will only win once they reclaim the vital center of American politics.
The center is Dayton and Denver, not Berkeley and Burlington. The center is Harry Truman and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, not Eugene Debs and Michael Harrington. Democrats who want to win should know this.
Fitting that Stephens finishing by citing two long-dead politicians as representatives of centrism. But, realistically, Truman's New Deal liberalism is probably closer to Sanders-style progressivism than Clintonite deregulating, welfare-shredding corporate centrism. So, Stephens has once again gotten it wrong.

In some 800 words, he has failed to make a single good, or even thought-provoking point. This article is truly one of the most dull, uninspired pieces I've read in some time. It reads like the clarion call of a decrepit political and intellectual establishment that bases its worldview on the most wretched and insipid platitudes while turning a blind eye to observable reality. When we look at the facts, we can only conclude that Stephens is ignorant, dishonest, or both.