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One notable aspect of contemporary US politics is the re-emergence of so-called culture wars. Orchestrated by Steve Bannon, assorted alt-Right platforms and Murdoch media outlets in response to what could be called the de-WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant)-ification of US society, the conflict is centered on symbols and messaging. The regression into appeals to tradition, “culture” and “values” (read: white privilege) is a modern version backlash against what author and sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) called “good Negro government” after the Reconstruction Era in US history (1863-1877). The theme that today’s culture wars hark to the backlash against “good Negro government”  has been picked up by the writer Ta Nehisi Coates in his latest book “We Were Eight Years in Power,” where he argues that Trump’s electoral victory in 2016 was in large part due to white voters fears that Barack Obama had conclusively proved that people of color could run the federal government competently and that whites could no longer claim that colored people were ill-suited, emotionally, tempermentally, intellectually and culturally, to govern. It is one thing to have “good” Negros portrayed as equals on TV shows. It is quite another for them to actually wield power over whites.

Du Bois outlined his thoughts on “good Negro government” by watching the sequels to post Civil War reconstruction in the South, in South Carolina in particular. After the civil war US authorities mandated a period of social reconstruction in the defeated Confederacy in which free slaves were, by federal mandate, integrated into municipal and state governments and other social institutions. This forced intervention was designed to lay the foundations of a more egalitarian Southern society, and in many instances free Negros took up managerial positions in a variety of public and private agencies. However, after Reconstruction and federal government intervention ended (along with the withdrawal of federal troops), Southern states set about undoing the social changes that it had wrought. In 1895 South Carolina held a state constitutional convention in which most of the gains made by blacks were reversed and they were legally reduced to second class citizens prohibited from holding political offices and purged from public and private bureaucracies. This was also the time when the Klu Klux Klan was founded (as an extrajudicial enforcement arm of the socially revanchist South), the period of building monuments to heroes of the Confederacy was begun and the foundations of Jim Crow were laid.

For Du Bois, this backlash demonstrated that what White Southerners feared most was not a “bad Negro government” rife with incompetence and corruption, something that was already evident in pre-war Southern white governments. Instead, the greatest fear of Southern whites was of “good Negro government” that did the things that only whites were purportedly capable of doing due to their supposedly superior attributes. To that was added the battlefield record of black Union troops, who Southerners thought would be cowards and run from battle but who instead proved to be very competent soldiers, and the fact that instead of rioting, raping and pillaging once they were freed, former slaves went about peacefully rebuilding the South without major problems of their own (in fact, the majority of violence during the Reconstruction was white-on-black as white Southerners resisted treating recently freed slaves as equals).

This combination of factors destroyed the myth of white supremacy that Southerners clung to, so legislative reforms such as the 1895 South Carolina constitution were enacted in order to restore and enshrine the “proper” racial hierarchy under slave-free conditions. In effect, although unable to return to slavery, post-reconstruction legal reforms that restricted the citizenship and human rights of free slaves amounted to an early American version of apartheid, the origins of which were rooted in the fear of usurpation of white privilege.

Coates sees the Trump phenomenon as a repetition of the fear of “good Negro government.” The election of Barack Obama and the success of his administration in the face of disloyal opposition by Congressional Republicans and the Right-wing media was a nightmare for white (mostly working-class male) social revanchists who had been forced to suppress their racism and bigotry since the 1960s, when the Civil Right Act (1964), opposition to the Vietnam War and the adoption of anti-status quo and “countercultural” lifestyles upended traditional hierarchies. In the ensuing 40 years the white wage labouring classes have seen their social status eroded along with their jobs vis a vis competitors, most of them people of colour, emanating from home as well as abroad.

Objective explanations for white working class decline offer no relief to those suffering within it. It is bad enough for them to have to compete on US wages with undocumented immigrants and foreign wage slaves. It is particularly bad for them to have to compete with robotics and other aspects of computer generated productive automation. They have to find explanation for their plight in something other than the inevitable progression of US capitalism in a globalised system of production, communication and exchange. For the white demographic in decline, the answer to their plight lies in no fault of their own under conditions of capitalist competition, but in the social changes occuring corollary to it. That is, the explanation for white decline has to be socio-cultural rather than structurally capitalist in nature, specifically seen in the decline of WASP “values” and emergence of non-WASP perspectives as dominant influences in contemporary US society.

In that light the election of Barack  Obama to the presidency and his subsequent success at mastering the art of governance compounded white social revanchist fears by promoting and celebrating Hispanics, Asians, gays and other minorities in leadership roles in government, business, academia and communities, and by openly embracing minority cultures as part of the mainstream of US society.

Steve Bannon has seized on this to lead the cultural charge in support of “tradition” and against “unAmerican” values, which are now open code words for a return to white supremacy. He and his political acolytes have been successful in orchestrating a pushback that has prompted a regression in US social development, with a white backlash against the gains made by minorities of all persuasions now growing stronger than in the previous three decades. The cultural wars are between an ascendant multicultural, multi-ethnic, poly-religious yet increasingly secular, pro-choice, pro-gun control, pacifist, sexually diverse and egalitarian-minded, “keep your hands off unless invited,” post-modern demographic with a rationalist and normatively relative global perspective, on the one hand, and a monocultural, white dominant, Judeo (but mostly) Christian, heterosexist, patriarchical, sexually aggressive hands -on, pro-gun, militarist, anti-choice, anti-science, industrial, xenophobic, normatively absolutist and economically insular demographic on the other. For the moment, the struggle is even but the numbers do not lie: given current and projected birth rates, the Bannon target demographic is in decline.

The last time there was a cultural clash in the US anywhere similar in scope was in the mid-60s. Until the early 60s the US was run in the image that Bannon and Trump supporters now hark back to: Dad at a good paying manufacturing job that allowed him to own his own home, Mom happily tending to the domestic front, both regularly attending a Christian church with 2.2 kids and a car in every garage (or, for those who may remember such things, basically operating as Ozzie and Harriet of 1950s TV fame).

But the 1964 Civil Rights Act, opposition to the Vietnam war and counter-cultural lifestyles pushed by rock music broke the consensus on the national myth and prompted a major ideological struggle. In that instance, progressive forces won over the rednecks and defenders of tradition. Now the struggle is being repeated but is sparked, as it were, from the other side–conservative whites are pushing back against the progressive secularization and egalitarianism of US society, as exemplified by Barack Obama and his good Negro government. The champion of these social revanchists is Trump, but it is Bannon who is the puppeteer.

There is a popular saying in the US these days: “Stay in your lane.” It is taken from car culture and references highway traffic dynamics. But it has a subtext of implicit or threatened road rage and it is in fact a substitute for “know your place.”  “Stay in your lane” is now used widely to address stroppy females, uppity Negros, recalcitrant children, surly teens, overly camp gays or butchy lesbians–basically any minority individual or community that dares to challenge WASP conventional wisdom about social hierarchy. For Steve Bannon, who has been doing the rounds of talk shows and conservative conventions this past week, it is all about getting the usurpers of white privilege to either get back into their traditionally prescribed roles or return to hiding.

Bannon believes that his 20-25 percent of the electoral base is homogenous, scared and united through social and corporate media. It is a short term vision, but given the uncertain shadow of the future it is possible that short term political gains based on a socially revanchist ideology could seep into the broader electoral fabric. Whatever their antipathy towards Trump aand the GOP, his opponents are heterogeneous, hopeful and yet fractious and divided. The erosion of horizontal solidarities in an age of ideological individualism is abetted and pushed by adavances in telecommunications technology–the same technology that social revanchists use so effectively.  Bannon has already invited Democrats to continue to play the identity politics game (and there is a lesson for New Zealand here), because that allows him to successfully impose the weight of his demographic against those aligned against it. The Bernie Sanders/versus Hillary Clinton campaigns show one end of the “liberal” internecine division in the US; the feminist arguments about the #metoo hashtag show another. There are many more sources of liberal/progressive cleavage, and in Bannon’s eyes they spell “Achilles Heel.”

The success of the cultural wars pushback is concerning. The Right-wing (including alt-Right) media, both corporate and social, have very much influenced the discourse with their attacks on the Obama legacy (him being “weak” in foreign affairs etc.) and in their support for Trump’s demeanour and his dismantling of that legacy via Executive Orders. The impact is real. Things that one would have thought were done and dusted years ago–arguments about gender differences as they apply to employment and wages, racial differences as they apply to law and order, whether being native born as opposed to foreign born should be a criterion for security clearances, are homosexuals trustworthy with kids, what constitutes patriotism, etc.–are now back in the public domain in a measure not seen in decades.

All of which is to say that things in the US are pretty tetchy at the moment, and the possibility of physical conflict between those who embrace “good Negro government” and those who fear it are quite real.

Let us not think that this is exclusively a US problem. Be it in the “I told you so” comments of white South Africans or Zimbabweans about the bad Negro governments that followed the abolition of white supremacy in those countries, or in the similar comments about poor governance of black-ruled cities like Detroit or the District of Columbia in the US, or those who point to problems with aboriginal self-governance in the Northern Territory, there are many who find comfort in black failure and find threats in black success. That is true for some quarters in Aotearoa, where the possibility of “good Maori government” or “good Pasifika government” is dismissed out of hand not so much because of their outright impossibility due to some instrinsic traits of those involved, but because of Pakeha fear that they could do no worse, and perhaps even better than Pakeha dominated government.

Let’s remember this if there is pushback against the notion of “good Negro government” in New Zealand.

Letters from America, take seven: Dark Irony.

datePosted on 07:50, October 4th, 2017 by Pablo

The fact that a country western concert in the US was the target of yet another mass murder spree by an automatic weapon- toting white man is darkly ironic given that country western fans tend to be ninety percent white, predominantly middle and working class, republican in political orientation and a core demographic of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the Trump support base. They are known for wearing and displaying US (and confederate) flags along with cowboy boots and hats, and indeed many of the victims were clad in patriotic-themed apparel.  The guns used were apparently US-made semi-automatic assault rifles converted to fully automatic by the use of converter kits known as “bump stock” kits (which provide an anti-lock override mechanism attached to a short stock that allows the shooter to hold the trigger down and use the recoil to simulate an automatic setting). The shooter used extra capacity magazines, which are legal in Nevada, as are the conversion kits. In fact, the weapons, ammo and conversion kits can be purchased at the same time in any gun store. Truth be told, a converter kit is not always necessary. A simple file can be used to file down the spot welds that often are the only thing preventing a semi-automatic weapon from becoming fully automatic, especially on older model combat weapons like AK-47s and M-14s.  In any case, semi-automatic weapons are classfied as hunting weapons so purchases do not need to be entered into a federal databank (as some states require automatic weapons to be).

The entire cache of weapons, amunition and acessories stockpiled by the killer were legal. And since he had no prior criminal convictions, so was his possession of them.

With the exception of some rightwing conspiracy types who claimed that the killer was a Muslim convert, and Daesh, which tried to claim credit for the attack, no one in a position of authority is claiming that this was an act of terrorism.

I tend to agree with this assessment even though people in the killing field were clearly terrorized and many more traumatized by what they experienced. Beyond the motivation-versus-effect argument about how to define terrorism, the hard fact is that here again we have another example of a white male getting a pass on the “terrorist” label. Be it in Sandy Hook, Charleston or Colombine, white males who commit mass murders, even when motivated by racial, political or religious animus, are described as mentally ill, insane, maniacs or lunatics. They are not called domestic terrorists.

That is not the case when people of color engage in similar acts, even though the majority of mass murders with guns in the US are committed by white males. Plus, by definition someone who undertakes such acts has to be at least a little bit mentally out of kilter. So why call some US mass murderers crazy and some cold-blooded terrorist killers? Given the level of planning put into the Las Vegas attack, it can be argued that the perpetrator was much less nuts than many other murderers. Yet the “T” word will not be used on him even though what he did was deliberate, calculated, well-planned and executed and designed to have the maximum lethal effect on what was a carefully chosen mass target.

We shall see what set off him off.  It might be gambling debts, a romantic breakup or a psychopathic meltdown rather than a political or musical grudge. He clearly knew what he was doing, and he acted in premeditated fashion. So the forensics on the event will be interesting. Less so is the tragedy porn now playing 24/7 on US television screens, where tales of human misery and pathos, be it man-made (Las Vegas) or natural in origin (Puerto Rico) are on repeat loops for the morbidly obsessed (I am in the US on an extended sabbatical so am getting to live this in real time).

What is noticeably absent from the official police statements and pretty much all of the hourly “news” coverage is any discussion of gun laws that allow an individual to amass 30 or so automatic firearms, thousands of rounds of combat grade ammunition and precursor chemicals for explosives. Instead, the coverage is all about the shooter, his motivations and the wonderful character and/or heroism and/or sacrifice of all of his victims. Leave it to the “liberal” talk show hosts to address that elephant in the room, and leave it to the rightwing media and politicians to make the discussion about gunowners rights as opposed to the victim’s rights that were so brutally violated.

That is why I have no illusions that anything good will come of this. If nearly 30 kids can be murdered in Sandy Hook and nothing gets done in terms of gun control, and instead rightwing freaks saturate social media with claims that it was a government conspiracy hoax done to take away guns from law abiding people (like the Las Vegas shooter), then there is little hope that the president or Congress are going to do anything to change the status quo just because some good ole boys and girls got the hot lead hose down by a disgruntled accountant. This is especially true since Republican congresspeople and the president have received large sums of campaign (if not other) money from the NRA.

It is, however remotely, possible that because of who he targeted, the Las Vegas killer might have sparked a pang of conscience in the gun lobby and the politicians who pockets are lined by it. If that is the case then the victims will not have suffered and died in vain. But for the moment one can only repeat what has been said many times before: the time for thoughts and prayers for the victims is over. The time for action on gun control is long past due.

This week Mitch Harris and I talked about Trump’s  attacks on the so-called “take a knee movement,” his lack of compassion for the Puerto Rican victims of two hurricans and the increasingly risky rhetoric he uses vis a vis North Korea. It can be found here.

As part of the series of radio interviews I do with Mitch Harris on RadioLive on Wed nights, this week we decided to be a bit more free ranging than usual (since the normal focus of the radio version of the “Letters from America” series tends to concentrate on matters of US politics and society).  The issue of Chinese influence in NZ is getting a fair bit of attention as of late, and the pipe rupture causing shortages in aviation fuel and petrol supplies provides a basis for pondering the down side of N8 wire culture. And then there is Hillary blaming Bernie Sanders and the Russians for her loss last year while taking no responsibility for it, and Drumpf ranting incoherently at his first UN General Assembly speech. There was plenty to talk about. You can find the interview here.

Letters from America: Opioids and Venezuelans.

datePosted on 08:22, August 3rd, 2017 by Pablo

I am on an extended stay in the US that will see me in several states and regions before my return to NZ in December. I decided that this is a good opportunity to write an occasional “Letters from America” series gathering together random thoughts on various aspects of US politics, society and culture. First stop is the East Coast of South Florida.

Late summer in South Florida is hot (over 30C daytime temps), humid (over 80 percent until the PM thunderstorms break the steam bath), and languidly quiet. Tourists are few and far between and the locals alternate hiding from the heat indoors with forays to the beach or pool.

The two items on my mind today are opioids and Venezuela. Since the latter might not seem to be an US relevant subject, let me start with it.

Venezuela is in the middle of a slow burning civil war sparked by deteriorating economic and social conditions caused by the incompetence, corruption and myopic power lust of the Maduro government that succeeded the father of the Boliviarian Revolution, Hugo Chavez, upon his death. Unlike many non-Venezuelan leftist commentators I have no time for Maduro and the petty authoritarian kleptocrats that surround him just because he opposes the US and the US opposes him.  He is just another prop in the endless right-wing arguments about how the Left cannot govern either competently or in a democratic way. As much as I loathe the Venezuelan oligarchy that has always been a disloyal opposition to the Boliviarians, I despair for the Venezuelan poor, working and middle classes who saw hope in the Revolution and have now had their aspirations terminally dashed under a barrage of water cannon, tear gas, sniper fire, rocks and molotovs. The root causes and official responses to the crisis are not just the work of external interference and internal agitators (sound familiar?).

Blame lies everywhere in Venezuela today, but no one will take responsibility and the regime has simply met its end with the last resort of dictators–repression. What comes after may be no better, or worse.

The reason that Venezuela is a social issue in South Florida as well as a political issue in the US is simple: there are over 100,000 Venezuelans living in South Florida, many recent arrivals as “refugees” from the Boliviarian regime. Many moved their capital and as much of their fixed assets to the US as they could (capital flight being a key indicator of political instability), bought property in a climate that is similar to that of their homeland, and struck up political alliances with the long-standing Cuban exile community. Like minds think alike, and the type of Cubans and Venezuelans who inhabit South Florida come from the reactionary-to-troglydite end of the political spectrum.

The union of Cuban and Venezuelan reactionaries, coupled with the money they bring into local, state and national politics, has been instrumental in turning the Trump administration’s approach to both countries in a backwards direction. The Cuban-Venezuelan lobbying bloc is staunchly pro-Trump. Not surprisingly, the restored relations with Cuba begun by the Obama administration have been partially rolled back, and the US has just announced asset freezes and other punitive sanctions against Maduro and members of his personal entourage wherever US jurisdiction applies. The White House has been at pains to note that Maduro joins Mugabe, Kim Jung-Un and Assad as the only heads of state sanctioned in this way, and the way in which the farcical and rigged constitutional referendum was held in Venezuela this past weekend was likened to assorted atrocities committed under Stalinism, Pol Pot etc. No mention of the US glad-handing the Saudis, Erdogan in Turkey or Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sissi even as they engage in more egregious human rights violations than Maduro on a systematic basis. But hey, as a general rule politics in the US is about hypocrisy loudly masquerading as righteousness or indignation, so in that regard the White House sqwaking about Maduro (who again, is not a fit or suitable ruler for his country) needs to be taken with a grain of comparative salt.

There is a more sinister element in this “Venezuelafication” of South Florida. Although one of my pleasures in returning to SoFl is to have access to many Spanish-speaking radio and TV channels (including the legendary “Escandalo (Scandal) TV”), what pours out of the talk shows is an increasingly violent insurrectionary call to eliminate “traitors,” “dupes” and assorted others who are seen to enable or support the Cuban and Venezuelan regimes both at home as well as in the US. This has meshed with the alt-Right narrative about “libtards” and other usurpers of the White Christian social order because many of the Cuban and Venezuelan exiles are also virulent racists and classists who view the poor brown masses in their homelands as human vermin equivalent to those reviled by the US Right. And because the Cuban and Venezuelan regimes, whatever their faults,have  empowered brown people in their countries and removed some of the deep-seated social and institutional barriers to their success, the White Cubans and Venezuelans see red in more than one way.

What that has done is to compliment and expand the rhetoric of violence surrounding political debate in SoFl. And whereas it may have been true in the past that “an armed crowd is a polite crowd,” that presumed that the crowd in question had some basic shared notion of civility and proper comportment to fall back on when things got heated. Under Trump that is no longer the case and in fact the opposite is now openly encouraged: give no quarter to political opponents, hear, much less heed no argument from them, confront and attack them at all times using all means necessary to silence them.

Then add some Cuban and Venezuelan mouth frothing ranters with money and influence into the mix. The bottom line is that local and state democracy suffers when expat revanchists take center stage in it.

Were it that I was inclined to seek escape in prescription drugs because it would inure me to the dangers inherent in that trend. But others are not as averse as I.  Over 2 million Americans are addicted to prescription opioids (mostly Oxycontin, Vicodin and Methadone). Over 1000 people a day are hospitalised with opioid overdoses, and 100 people a day are dying of them. In 2015, the last year for full records, over 15,000 people died of opioid overdoses, with 183,000 having died between 1999 and 2015. In 2016 the estimated number of opioid overdose deaths jumped to over 59,000 people, the largest increase ever. Even so, the sale of prescription drugs has quadrupled, along with overdose deaths, during the 1999-2015 time frame. Why is this so?

The first cause is the proliferation of shady “pain clinics” in which unethical doctors hand out prescriptions for opioids like lollies. The process if simple: you walk into the clinic complaining of chronic pain of one type or another, you get a script in less than 10 minutes for a $30-40 fee, and the cycle continues after you leave the clinic and enter the pharmacy conveniently located either next door or a few storefronts down from the clinic (usually located in strip malls).  SoFl is awash with these places, and it is not a stretch say that it is easier to get one’s hands on opioids than it is cocaine, cannabis or other illegal drugs.

The second cause is the discounting of opioid prices in states and regions that have an opioid addiction problem. You read that right: pharmaceutical companies sell their drugs at cheaper prices in those regions where addiction rates are highest. What might these regions be? Well, pretty much all of those Red States that voted strongly for Trump, Florida included. Think Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, the Dakotas, West Virgina–if the state went strong for Trump, it is likely that the price of a Vicodin is less than that in a Blue State.

Who are the victims of opioid addiction? Again, the connection with Trump’s voter base is strong: predominantly white working class or unemployed/partially employed males aged 25-54 years (most of the figures used here are from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention–CDC).

In the face of these epidemic-sized addiction figures, the attorney generals of several states in which the problem is concentrated have filed class action suits against the pharmaceutical companies for their price discounting and targeted marketing of vulnerable populations. But resistance has already been met at the federal level, with GOP congress people rebuking those who would seek to interfere with market imperatives and the freedom of choice people have when it comes to self-medication.

The problem does not end there. The rise in addiction has in turn given rise to a thriving “rehab” industry in which addicts enter into so-called “sober homes” in order to detox. Trouble is, these sober homes are often no more than temporary way stations for addicts trying to kick the habit and pain clinics and pushers have been drawn to them like flies to poop. In many cases “sober homes” are nothing more than glorified shooting galleries, with the attendant rise in criminality associated with the phenomenon. Cities throughout the US but especially in SoFl, including the one I am in, have had to redraft zoning and occupancy laws in order to discourage these type of addiction parasites from continuing to profit from human misery.

So there you have it: a country whose internal political polarization is abetted by that imported from abroad, filtering into a society that in many places is awash in guns and prescription drugs unscrupulously  supplied by industries profiting from them. These same places provide the core demographic–the hard 35 percent–of Trump’s support base who are the ones who support his every move, including demands for regime change in Cuba and Venezuela and a turn against the notions of civility and democratic disocurse that previously served as the ideological myth that once bound the nation together.

The trouble for this “Deplorables” core, as well as the Cuban and Venezuelan exiles longing for a return to the pre-revolutionary past, is that Trump’s promises are nothing more than the prescription drug version of a pipe dream.

The problem of US presidentialism.

datePosted on 16:34, February 27th, 2017 by Pablo

Citizens of mature democracies frequently complain about politics and politicians, whether it is the influence of money in politics, the rise of corporate lobbyists, or outright corruption, but they often simultaneously retain a strong faith in the actual political institutions that govern over them. The citizens of the United States are no exception in this regard. More often than not they hold a genuine belief that their system of government itself, framed as it is by a constitution written over two hundred years ago, is fundamentally good.

What exactly is it that our American friends believe to be good, even superior, about their system of government? It is founded on a division of powers that is supposed to guard against radical or rapid-fire policy-making, an in-built conservatism that is compounded by federalism. Presidential power is checked by Congress, and presidentialism, it is argued, is further superior to parliamentarianism because electoral terms are fixed, meaning that they can’t be messed about with for political purposes. Supporters of the US system will even work to defend the politically appointed nature of the public administration in terms of democratic accountability, cutting across the power of the career bureaucrat who runs rings around members of parliament in an effort to expand his or her own power base.

The Trump presidency has defied those conventions to the point that people are talking about an incremental or “quiet coup” in the US. The concern is that his circumvention of traditional White House practice is designed to consolidate power in the Oval Office at the expense of the legislature and judiciary. But there is more to it than rule by decree: the problem with President Trump’s behavior rests partially with him and partially with the system that allowed him access to power.

Beyond the pernicious influence of corporate money and the venal nature of the Beltway elite, the first two weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency shows that something is rotten about the state of the US political system. Institutions are only as good as the customs, practices, and arguably even the wider political culture in which they are embedded. The rule of law, it turns out, is not as robust as the myth would have it, at least not when it comes to placing restraints of Executive Authority. What many have assumed were legal requirements surrounding the behaviour of a US president are in fact only long-term practices, traditions, and even “understandings” that President Trump has wasted no time ignoring. Add the fact that every other President in modern history was disciplined into exercising political self-limiting behaviour through experience with public service of some kind, which Trump does not have as a personal or professional attribute, and then it is fair to say that the system of government itself is in a state of decay.

The premise upon which the US presidential edifice once stood was the notion of executive self-limitation (or self-restraint). A core tenant of democracy, self-limitation in the presidency means that the president will not stretch or ignore customary norms to advance his own agenda, nor will he put his interests above those of the nation. The assumption is that once president, individuals will subordinate their own interests to those of the nation even if it means refraining from taking advantage of the office for personal or abjectly partisan gain. Even if historical practice has shown that presidents push the margins of this tradition, none have shown such a blatant disregard for it as has Mr. Trump.

This points to a fundamental weakness of the US presidential system. Rather than being constrained by strong institutional boundaries and legally defined limits to what can and cannot be done, the US presidency assumes goodwill and an interest in consensus and compromise in pursuit of collective good on the part of those who occupy the Oval Office. In past practice, that has largely been the case. Those who have taken the oath of presidential office have voluntarily fitted into the strait jacket of institutional weight and national history and have generally conducted themselves within the customary limits of Executive Authority.

The customary limits of US presidential authority rest on horizontal and vertical accountability. The former involves executive accountability to the other branches of government. The latter involves presidential accountability to the electorate, the media and the federal bureaucracy under executive control. The assumption is that presidents will acknowledge their responsibilities on both dimensions and act accordingly when it comes to issues of transparency and oversight.

That is not the case now. President Trump has set out to redefine limits of presidential authority in order to implement his campaign platform unchecked by either form of accountability. He has ignored Congress, challenged (and vilified) the courts and federal agencies when signing executive orders or pushing his version of events and has selectively turned on the media with the full weight of his office (since, among other media-related issues, providing such things as regular and open briefings to the entire White House press corps is a courtesy, not a requirement). He claims that he speaks directly and answers to “the people” alone and that his actions in office are justified by his electoral mandate. This represents an example of what Spanish political sociologist Juan Linz called the “authoritarian temptation” of presidential systems: those in presidential office can, if they wish, use that office to impose by executive fiat unilateral approaches to policy-making while ignoring the conventional trappings of presidential accountability (before dispensing with them altogether). As the first amongst equals, the president can ignore or by-pass Congress when expedient and can seek out judges that will uphold his policy vision under legal challenge (and look to replace replace those that do not). And since it is the president who appoints senior staff throughout the US federal bureaucracy, it is the president’s unvarnished wishes and desires that are channeled first when it comes to translating policy into practice.

In other words, presidential systems facilitate the rise of what is known as “electoral authoritarianism” whereby a freely elected democratic president uses the privileges of office (such as Executive Orders and Decrees) to consolidate power at the expense of the other two branches in order to then unilaterally impose undemocratic policies on society. From Peron to Chavez to Dutarte to Mugabe and Putin, the historical record is replete with cases of presidential systems that started out as freely elected but inevitably turned authoritarian while maintaining a façade of electoral legitimacy and some measure of populist appeal.

This is an inherent flaw of presidential systems as much if not more than that of any one individual.

In the case of president Trump there is a twist, and its name is Steve Bannon, the president’s closest advisor. The former publisher of the white supremacist, anti-Semitic conspiracy web site Breitbart, who was a link between Russian operatives and the Trump camp during the campaign, has been appointed White House chief strategist and made a Principal of the National Security Council at the expense of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Director of National Intelligence (both of whom were demoted). Having previously spoken of “smashing the system” and author of the phrase “draining the swamp,” Bannon sees Trump as an empty vessel into which he can pour his ideological agenda. It was Bannon and another former Breitbart editor, Steve Miller, who wrote both the dark Inaugural Address (“carnage in America”) and the Executive Order banning refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority states. It is Bannon who shapes the Trump worldview and who sets the policy agenda in the West Wing.

Bannon sees the world as immersed in an apocalyptic struggle between traditional Western values and usurpers from Asia and the Middle East. He sees liberal democracies as weak and ineffectual, trying to be all things to all people and masters of none. His vision foresees a final confrontation between the dark forces aligned against the West and the last bastions standing to defend it: the US and Russia. In fact, he has predicted and advocated for US wars with China and Islam on the premise that the US has arrived at its “4th Turning:” a period, like the Revolutionary, Civil and Second World Wars, where the US remakes itself via existential conflict into a new and revitalized state after a period of economic, cultural, social and political decline. Since Bannon believes that the US retains a measure of strategic superiority over both of these perceived rivals at this point in time but is at risk of losing that advantage, his timeline for war is short and his preferred approach is to initiate conflict while the US strategic advantage still holds.

Bannon understands the weakness of presidential systems that rely on self-limiting voluntarism for commonweal governance. He knows that presidential systems allow for much more executive initiative and discretion when pursing policy, including the use of force. He sees a window of opportunity in the form of a Republican controlled Congress with a self-serving leadership and a disorganized Democratic opposition.

In view of these institutional conditions, rather than honor tradition he has moved to exploit it. Trump serves as the perfect vehicle for his shadow agenda and the Republican Party plays along because it feels that it can get something in exchange (such as presidential support for its legislative agenda, including repeal of abortion rights and the Affordable Care Act as well as pro-business tax reform).

Bannon would not have as much influence if he was not operating in a presidential democracy in which custom and tradition rather than legally defined codes of conduct were the norm. In fact, without legally defined institutional constraints, norms are not enforceable when incumbents decline to engage in self-limiting behavior.

In the US presidential system the only real check on executive authority is the court system. Although Congress can pass laws that compel or otherwise restrict aspects of presidential behavior (like the current bill requiring Steve Bannon’s appointment to the NSC be subject to Congressional approval), the highly partisan nature of the US federal legislature, including on the subject of presidential impeachment, makes passage of such legislation difficult and subject to legal challenge and/or reversal. In the unlikely event that Congress orders the president to adopt a specific norm or practice, the matter will inevitably wind up in court.

So the court system has the last say on how US presidents should behave, but that is on a case-by-case basis. Moreover, in truth US courts are more arenas of contestation that determinants of adjudication. The real check on executive behavior comes in the form of litigation (and the threat thereof), but in order to litigate the limits of presidential power, legal challenges must be phenomenally well funded and argued. Even state governments may find themselves unable to sustain legal challenges to executive action in the face of the federal authorities’ determination to defend presidential prerogatives. Public interest groups, law societies, religious,ethnic, business and labour organisations, NGOs and CSOs have even less resources with which to fight the Executive Branch, so the path of legal challenge is institutionally skewed in the president’s favour.

All of which is to say that Donald Trump’s behavior as president is as much due to the nature of the political system into which he is inserted as much as it is due to his sociopathic personality.

This does not mean that parliamentarianism is always the preferred democratic system. Many variables come into play when determining which system of representation is best suited for a given polity. But what is clear is that custom and practice are no substitute for the rule of law when it comes to government institutions as well as citizens, and in that regard, it is the system not the people who have failed when it comes to preventing the excesses now dominating the White House.

This essay began as an exchange of notes with Kate Nicholls, who teaches at AUT.

Darkness at heart.

datePosted on 17:22, January 5th, 2017 by Pablo

Lets consider a hypothetical scenario.

A group of women appear to be well on their way to intoxication at a polite venue on an island known to cater to the affluent. They are not caucasian. A well-heeled older white male patron observes them and decides, perhaps after a few tipples of his own, to take it upon himself to caution them about the perils of drinking and driving in an area that has a heavy police presence over the holidays. He assumes that they are not locals.

His unsolicited advice is not welcome and he is told by one of the women, a 23 year old, that as local born and indigenous to boot, she “can do what she pleases” (according to his account).

His response, according to her, is to say that she needs to acknowledge that it “is also a white people’s island.” He says that it was just joking banter.

My questions at this point are this: even if she was being drunk and dismissive, of all the things he could have said, why that particular line? Could he not have replied in a myriad other ways, such as by telling her that her behaviour was drawing unwanted attention? Was he trying to say that the rule of law applies to everyone regardless of origin, but that the law is made by white folk? Even more to the point, why did he feel the need to go over and caution them? Is he in the habit of approaching strange women in public venues and giving them the benefit of his unsolicited advice? If so, why?

In any event, in the real world the young woman hits social media with her displeasure and the incident becomes a media frenzy. Various celebrities weigh in to defend the old guy, leaning on his good deeds for sport and various charitable contributions. Others are not so charitable.

The scenario gets stickier because he uses as a PR spokesperson a well-known reactionary woman who, in response to the furore over this remarks, at first says that the 23 year old is too fair skinned to have been the subject of racism and then says that she has never heard of the term “casual racism” until today.

The Race Relations Commissioner, herself of disputed background when it comes to issues of racial awareness, at first says that the old white gent is not a racist but then backtracks and introduces the term casual racism that the PR spokeswoman had previously never heard of. The term is certainly not new but it seems that the PR woman travels in insulated circles.

The questions that arise at this point are: seriously, the old white guy uses an even more clueless old white woman with a rightwing track record to defend him against charges of “casual” racism? And she then decides to use the 23 year old’s skin tone as a defense against the charge of racism (because the young woman is light skinned)? And in 2017 she claims to not know what “casual” racism is (perhaps because she casually is one)?

As for the Race Relations Commissioner–was she conflating her personal and official views when she made either or both of her statements?

Anyway, like I said, this is just a hypothetical scenario about race, gender and generational difference referencing current events in a post-truth age.

in a weird way, it reminds me of another (not so) old guy getting into some strife because of his penchant for serial hair-pulling of (sometimes very) young women in public venues or at events. He too claimed that his actions were just playful, joking physical banter that was misconstrued by one recipient of his attentions (and to be fair, none of his other instances of hair pulling were even noted, much less protested until a waitress complained). According to his many defenders, he was not a sexist or a fetishistic creep.

I guess offence is taken in the eye of the beholder, but in both cases the offence was taken after an older white male in a position of power decided to unilaterally approach and engage younger women in ways that were unwanted. In each case the older male felt entitled, or privileged, to initiate contact with a younger woman without first ascertaining whether that contact was welcome, and continued the contact after it became apparent that it was not. That others defended their actions as, at worst “misunderstandings,” speaks to a number of things.

What could they be and why, in 2017, should they be?

Social origins of the Politically Absurd.

datePosted on 09:35, November 8th, 2016 by Pablo

The 2016 US presidential election is a an existential crisis of American society politically manifest as a theatre of the absurd. The story line revolves around a clash of visions over what constitutes the preferred America. On one side is what could be called the “old” vision. The vision is “old” not only because it harks to so-called traditional values rooted in nostalgic reimagining of the 1950s, but because those who most ardently adhere to it are lower educated whites aged 45 and over who are or were employed in blue collar, service sector and small business occupations.

This vision privileges the dominance of white heterosexual christian male values. It is both laissez faire and  economically nationalist in orientation, patriarchal and socially insular in perspective, wary of “outsiders,” and believes in a natural order where rules are made to be obeyed without question. It prizes conformity and stability and respect for authority.

On the other side is a “new” vision. This vision is “new” because it is multiracial, multicultural, heteroreligious and secular, plurisexual, post-feminist, economically internationalist, global in orientation and polyarchical when it comes to power distribution, legitimate authority and social hierarchy.

In reality the two visions bleed into each other in specific instances to form a hybrid social orientation in many groups that is not as dichotomous or binary as it otherwise might be. I say “bleed” rather than “blend” into each other because the overlap and cross-fertilisation between the two social perspectives is not uniform or universally applied: Mexican American IT specialists may enjoy rap as much as Norteno music while dutifully practicing their Catholic faith and adhering to its moral codes, while middle aged white professionals  can find identity in the mores and practices of non-traditional cultures and religions while engaging in post-modern leisure pursuits.

The battle between the old and new perspectives began in the 2008 presidential election when a representative of the “new” vision, Barak Obama, took on an old white man, John McCain, for the highest office in the land. That continued in 2012 when Obama confronted another old white man, Mitt Romney, in his re-election bid. It continues today in the form of another “new” candidate, Hillary Clinton, facing yet another old white man, Donald Trump. Clinton may not be the archetypical “new” candidate as described above, but the mere fact that she is female is a break from the traditional mould.

For his part, Trump represents a grotesque caricature of the traditional alpha male, and in the absurdity of his candidacy lies the last gasps of a dying culture. In his sociopathic narcissism, his sexually predatory behaviour, his racism, bigotry and xenophobia, his abject greed, his pathological lying, his thin-skinned obsession with revenge, his insensitivity to others, his ignorance of basic economic, political, military and diplomatic facts, and in his adolescent resort to crude insults and derision as a weapon of last resort, Trump is the antithesis of the self-made, strong and independent straight-talking man on horseback. And yet, because he acts as if he were and the GOP and conservative media enabled his deception, those who embrace the “old” vision see in him a saviour. But they are wrong, for what he is to them and the culture that they cling to is an angel of death.

That culture is dying because over 45 year old lower educated whites have the highest rates of suicide, alcoholism and opiod addiction in the US, so they are quite literally leaving the mortal coil at higher rates than everyone else. That is not a demographic on which to base a presidential campaign and yet Trump and the GOP have dog whistled, incited, pandered and courted it as these people will live forever or at least until the mythical past can become the future once again.

The “old” vision will lose this election but it will not be its death rattle. Its adherents will fight against the king tide of social change with  the fervour of a drowning man, and some of them will become violent. The obstructionists in the GOP will do everything in their power to undermine the Clinton presidency, and they will front another “old” visionary in the 2020 presidential campaign. But regardless of what they do and how much they resist, the hard fact is that demographic, socio-economic and cultural change are irresistible forces that work against them.

They are doomed and within a generation they will be gone.

Note: I write this the day before the election simply to give my brief read on the broader context that explains why Clinton will win. Depending on how poorly the GOP does in the House and Senate races, the bloodletting within the Republican camp could be epic. That will be fun to watch.

“Culture wars” as election year bait trapping.

datePosted on 12:31, May 16th, 2016 by Pablo

One proven strategy for campaigns that have little substantive by the way of policy to offer and which are trailing in the polls is to drop any pretence of having a grounded policy platform and instead turn to populist demagoguery while casting slings and arrows at opponents. The most common is the “sky is falling” approach, whereby the social and political backdrop to the campaign is cast as one of doom and gloom, with armageddon-like results if the opposition wins. Those undertaking this strategy depict the struggle as a fight between good and evil, as a last chance to roll back the hounds of hell bent on devouring what is left of the good ole days and the traditional way of doing things. The key to the strategy is to divert public attention from core policy issues and towards incidental yet highly emotive areas of social exchange where purchase can be made of difference, uncertainty and fear.

In the current US election campaign, that is precisely what the GOP candidates, Donald Trump in particular, have been doing. They frame the contest as if the US was staring at the abyss as a result of the Obama administration, with Hillary Clinton as the lead horsewoman of the apocalypse. This is designed to tap into American’s deep sense of insecurity and pessimism even if the reality of the US condition suggests that many of these concerns–which are held mostly but not exclusively by conservatives–are both exaggerated and unfounded.

The GOP version of the sky is falling approach has twist in that it invokes so-called “culture wars.” The notion that the US is in the midst of “culture wars” started out as an anti-political correctness theme among conservative politicians and media commentators. It has now morphed into an all-encompassing attack on so-called progressive and “secular humanist” socio-economic reform and social changes that may or may not have been pushed by political actors. It is resurrected by the media and political Right every election year. For example, conservatives today rail against the outsourcing of US jobs done supposedly in order to curry favour with foreign trading partners even though in the past they have no issue with the dynamics of globalized production. And yet it is has been advances in robotic technologies rather than politicians that have displaced blue collar shop floor jobs in the US, and the US is not the only place where this has happened. For this crowd abortion is not an individual choice but state-sanctioned murder, and scientific research that uses fetal tissue is part of a vast death machine targeted mainly at (potential) white christians. The so-called “War on Christmas” is really an attack on Christianity and the Judeo-Christian foundations of the Republic. In this appeal, the siren call is that it is time to make a stand and confront the usurpers of the traditional faith, however illusory they may be.

The same folk have reacted viscerally to the Black Lives Matter movement, reviving some unhappy ghosts of the past in doing so, by seeing it as a group of self-entitled freeloaders, enablers, opportunists (yes, Al Sharpton is there), plus assorted and occasionally organised thugs who seek to divert responsibility from their collective lack of values as well as the actions of people of colour who have brought lethal police attention upon themselves (in spite of the compelling evidence of epidemic-level police shootings of unarmed black men). They see in Muslims an insidious fifth column bent on imposing Sharia law and usurping the American dream from within. They consider gay marriage as an assault on the sanctity of straight marriage (in a country with a divorce rate of over 50 percent of straight marriages) and the incorporation of openly gay members in the military as a sign of its deliberate weakening. They see universal health care as the imposition of “socialism” and yet another assault on individual freedom of choice. The see attempts at tighter gun control as the antecedent to federal imposition of martial law. The see feminism as the beginning of the end for the traditional family. They take refuge in xenophobia and bigotry as bulwarks against “progressivism” and the inevitable national decline that they believe that it entails.

And, to put it mildly, many of these people see the current US president as representative of all of these maladies. His upcoming trip to Hiroshima encapsulates the view: despite the White House issuing a public statement saying that the president will not apologise for the nuclear attack on the city and will lay a wreath to pay his respects for the innocent civilian dead, conservatives are using this as further evidence of his plan to destroy America while invoking Pearl Harbour as a reason his apology is treasonous (ignoring the fact that senior Japanese government officials have laid wreaths at the Pearl Harbor memorial in the past).

These commentators see progressive brainwashing everywhere, from the “liberal” (yet somehow corporate) media to every level of the educational system. They see indolence and disrespect amongst their youth and expressions of non-Caucasian ethnic pride as the divisive product of political correctness. They basically see the US going to hell in a hand basket.

The entire premise of the sky is falling/cultural wars strategy is defensive. It is designed to prey on people’s fears of losing what they have and their insecurities about keeping or improving on what they have in an uncertain future marked by rapid demographic and social change in an age of global flux. It makes a dark possibility seem like an imminent reality. It is a push-back reaction rather than a forward-looking progression. It plays, ultimately, on ignorance, and in the US there is plenty of ignorance to go around.

The resort to such a strategy would be laughable except for one thing: it works. It diverts people’s attention away from difficult matters of national policy and on to things that have deeply personal resonance and which touch on primitive instincts and desires. Its appeal is unthinking and visceral rather than cerebral and critical. The more raw and emotional the appeal, the more likely the target audience will react spasmodically to it. In doing so, those who invoke that response are able to counter the policy prescriptions of their opponents without really engaging with them.

That is why I am puzzled by the Obama’s decision to push legal action to facilitate transgender use of toilet facilities based on self-identity, not physical traits. Actually, it is not the legal recognition of transgender rights that bothers me but the timing of the push for them. Why could this not have waited until the next presidential term, especially since Hillary looks to win and even Trump is not opposed to the move?  Or is that why the initiative is being made now, as it can be seen as further dividing the GOP base from its presumptive presidential candidate?

If so, I think that it is an unnecessary and counterproductive ploy. By pushing for transgender rights at the particular time the White House has thrown a lifeline to the troglodyte Right, who in turn can pressure the GOP elite and Trump to wage war on such a cultural abomination. Already we hear the clamour about perverts lurking in little girl’s toilets, and The Donald’s penchant for flip flopping on issues is well known, so why on earth start up this particular culture war when a year from now passage of transgender rights legislation would have less electoral impact?

If I was a Democratic strategist I would urge the Party and its candidates to not be baited into culture war debates. That will only trap them in a no-win circular shouting match about science and daily practice grounded in “common” versus “good” sense based on different ideas about ethics and morality–but not intellectually honest or informed  people but with aggregations of the mental equivalent of Trump’s Mexican built Wall.

Instead, I would urge them to laugh at sky is falling arguments and refute them with the facts. The country is getting more colour in its demographic, has become more tolerant of non-traditional lifestyles, has robust religious diversity, has innovative production and entrepreneurship and remains, regardless of what the GOP doomsayers claim, economically strong and relatively secure in spite (rather than because) of its foreign military adventures. It may not be utopia or even the mythological house on the hill, but it sure ain’t a bloated carcass of decadence floating towards oblivion (unless you are referring to the GOP itself, in which case the analogy applies).

The Democrats should focus on what Gramsci referred to as “touching the essential,” that is, the real state of the economy and national affairs, addressing the real problems of average people in proper perspective (and there are plenty to consider), and offer practical (and practicable) solutions to specific policy issues. That will leave the GOP to bark into the wind about girly men, safe spaces and serial adulterers. Because when the dust has settled on November 8, the sky will still be there and the cultural wars of the Right will have been lost yet again.

Media Link: Brussels’ heart of darkness.

datePosted on 19:56, March 23rd, 2016 by Pablo

I wrote a short opinion piece in the Herald outlining some of my thoughts about the Brussels terrorist attacks. Unless the root causes of the problem are addressed, there will be no end to them. Even if they overlap in the form of foreign fighters, those root causes primarily reside in the disaffection and alienation produced by socio-economic and cultural grievances at home rather than in the conflicts of the Middle East. The solution is to be proactive as well as reactive to the threat posed by domestic radicalisation, and that involves social reform as well as better human intelligence collection in the communities from which home-grown jihadists emerge.

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