Pondering the palimpsest and panoply of the planet.

Archive for the category “Politics”

Dispatch from Greece: Myth, Tragedy, Resistance, and Hope


(revised from an article published originally at Wrath-Bearing Tree July 2015)

Herodotus begins his great work by tracing the historical origins of the Persian War to myths involving conflict between Europe and Asia, such as the rape of Io and Europa by Zeus, the story of Jason and Medea, and the abduction of Helen by Paris (which sparked the Trojan War). Thus, the first recording of history in the Western tradition begins in myth. History has been called past politics and politics present history; from a certain perspective the origins of many modern political relations and events are rooted in myth. The myths we choose to believe or not believe have real world consequences – they are of critical importance in shaping popular opinions and current events. Nowhere is this clearer than the current situation between Greece and its European creditors.

If Herodotus were to write an account of the current Greek debt crisis, he might well begin where he left off in his Persian Wars, far in the antiquity of Classical Greece, that time when Athens was at the height of its powers, the time most people envision today when (or if) they think about Greek culture. Invaded by the Persians and its wooden Acropolis burned down by the Great King Xerxes, Athens emerged as the victor and rebuilt the Acropolis in marble, an eternal symbol of the potential for human perfection. Athens and Greece were relegated to secondary political status after their subjection by the Macedonians and then the Romans, but any student of the Classics knows those immortal lines of Horace: Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit et artis intulit agresti Latio — “Greece, being captured, captured her savage conqueror, and brought the arts to rustic Latium”. For centuries after, Roman armies and laws ruled their mighty empire, alongside with Greek language (in the eastern half), culture, art, and philosophy. At Rome’s height in the second century AD, the emperors spoke better Greek than Latin; Hadrian was a famous philhellene who rebuilt Greece and Athens on an enormous scale (most of the ruins and remnants we see today date from Hadrian, not from Pericles), and Marcus Aurelius was a philosopher of the Stoic school (who take their name from the porch in the Athenian market where they met).

That same century also witnessed an unparalleled Greek cultural renaissance called the Second Sophistic, which featured a colorful and entertaining cast of literary and rhetorical geniuses. One example was Polemo of Laodicea who was so learned and so arrogant that Philostratus describes in his Lives of the Sophists how “he was said to converse with cities as his inferiors, Emperors as not his superiors, and the gods as his equals”. Another relevant personality from this period is the eminent sophist Herodes Atticus–who was one of the wealthiest private citizens in the history of the Roman Empire and also one of the foremost exemplars of the old but now lost tradition of evergetism–roughly “doing good deeds”. This was a system by which rich patrons gave back to their communities by financing new public buildings (theaters and baths, for example; the Odeon next to the Acropolis is one of Herodes Atticus’ many legacies) and large festivals and games (bread and circuses). This philanthropic practice that placed priority on civic duty declined concurrently with that of the Roman Empire as a whole, and was never to be practiced again by the rich excepting a few rare outliers such as Andrew Carnegie.

Even after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Eastern Byzantine Empire continued for another full millennium as a fully Greek institution. And after the fall of that empire in 1453 to the Ottomans, Greeks fled West with their books and set off the revival of classical learning which we call the Renaissance. Those singular founders of America were so steeped in Greek history and culture as to base their new country on the best of classical models. The architecture and symbolism of this new country was classical Greek. Most of our political vocabulary is Greek–Aristotle captured the spirit of the Greek idea of politics as a citizen’s public duty with his line “Man is, by nature, a political animal”. Indeed it is the ideal of democracy for all citizens to be aware and involved in politics.

All through the various military conquests of Athens, the Acropolis stood proud and undisturbed, even by the Ottomans who merely declared it a mosque. The extensive damage that it shows today was brought about by a great Western power, the Venetians, in 1687. The name of the Venetian admiral who ordered his cannons to fire on the Parthenon was Francesco Morosini, who was later made doge and still bears monuments to his name, including the horribly ugly central fountain in Heraklion, Crete. It should serve as a lesson in the stupidity of war that such wanton and sacrilegious destruction resulted in only a single year of control of Athens by the Venetians, whence the Ottomans regained and held it for another 150 years. After the locus of European power moved north, to France and Germany after Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire, even for an time to the small island of Britain, Greek and Roman models continued to be the normative political, cultural, and legal models. The somewhat arbitrary gateway to the British civil service was knowledge of classical Greek and Latin, and merely to know those languages allowed one entrance into a cultural and often political elite. Today’s British leaders in the Conservative Party, David Cameron and Boris Johnson, both received private elite classical education, and Johnson in particular is a noted enthusiast of the Classics. Our very idea of education itself is Greek, from the ancient tradition of paideia, which was based on learning grammar, rhetoric, and philosophy, primarily following Homer (and later Plato).

Despite the theft of the surviving friezes of the Parthenon known as the Elgin marbles, which Britain stubbornly refuses to return to Athens, Greeks have generally been Anglophiles at least since the Greek War of Independence (Lord Byron is still a Romantic hero to the Greeks), continuing during the Cretan War of Independence, and especially after the Second World War. It is thus somewhat ironic that Britain is now one of the countries that supports the failed economic policy known as austerity, to the detriment of more publicly-minded countries such as Greece. Meanwhile, those two countries both have very doubtful futures as members of the European Union–Greece because of the short-sighted preference of some of its northern counterparts, Britain because of the short-sighted preference of some of its Conservative politicians.

I needed no excuse to go back to Greece, because like the Emperor Hadrian (who was also the first Emperor to wear a beard), I am a philhellene. I feel vitality in Greece more deeply than anywhere I’ve been, a feeling I could never describe as sublimely as Henry Miller in The Colossus of Maroussi. The sea, the mountains, the enormously ancient and gnarled olive trees, Athena’s gift to her eponymous denizens, dotting the inhospitable macchia landscape combine with a historical and archaeological record so profoundly ubiquitous that nearly every footstep could be footnoted. It’s not for nothing that Xenophon’s cry “The Sea, the Sea!” still has so much resonance for Greeks. Greece feels like a place pulled directly out of the sea by the Titans, but whose Olympian successors could not be bothered to smooth the salty jagged rocks or tame the prickly country, and so left it like that for a hardy race of men to emerge from the stones and dragon’s blood. Perhaps such capriciousness of their gods in some ways led the Greeks to their search for scientific and philosophic knowledge of the world as it is, and their sense of irony and paradox.

In Greece, I have witnessed no signs of defeat about the economic situation–but when they are asked about politics their ready smiles and good-humor palpably give way to various emotions including betrayal, anger, and confusion. At any time of the day, every ATM I have seen since I have been here has unfailingly had a line of people waiting to withdraw the daily minimum allotment of 50 euro in cash. Otherwise, I see little physical difference here than from my previous visits. Admittedly, I am intentionally avoiding a visit to Athens, where protests and rebellion may be more apparent, in favor of a more low-key and touristy part of the southern Peloponnese (incidentally, northern Europeans, mostly Germans with some British, French, and others, make up almost all of the tourists I have observed around me; it is not unusual to be surrounded by hordes of Germans everywhere else in Europe, which is one of many ways to see that Germans have benefitted more than anyone from the EU). I am exploring the Mani peninsula on this trip–the southern-most part of continental Europe which seems like a long finger extending southward down middle of the swollen hand of the Peloponnese. It was described evocatively in a book by the great travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor called Mani, in which he recounts a walking tour of this land detailing its rich history and culture. He designed and built his villa overlooking the sea in the village I am staying in, Kardamyli, though it is now degraded and forgotten four years after his death. In fact, the Mani is an area of Greece that has never been conquered, which was fiercely independent and from where the Greek War of Independence began, and whose people still maintain this love of freedom. Most people told me they would rather leave Europe than become slaves to more austerity and selling off of their public land and assets.

Traveling through Greece provides evidence of a relative economic poverty compared to northern Europe and even northern Italy, where I live, but this apparent financial scarcity is augmented by a richness of life that is mostly unchanged since the Mysteries of Eleusis celebrated the sacred cycle of life and death. Compare the public spirit here (where entire villages eat and drink outside in the cool night air) with the tradition of quiet privacy of the Germans and Anglo-Saxons. The image of poverty and public debt in Greece is belied by a strong social cohesion and private wealth that still ranks it among the richer countries of the world. One of the Greek government’s main problems is that private wealth is either moved out of the country or hidden–tax evasion is almost universal here.

There is something both provincial and cosmopolitan about Greeks–a traditional and insular yet fully realized and worldly human society with a long-standing world-wide diaspora. Maybe “universal” is a better word. “Catholic” means “universal”–a Greek word for a church based in Rome that split from the Greek church over the phrase “filioque”–Latin for “and son”. In the middle of the day the sun burns so hot that few people venture outside of the shade, and yet I see Greek Orthodox priests walking in full-length black wool cassocks and long, flowing beards. The current government formed by the leftist Syriza party is the first one ever to refuse the blessing of the Greek Orthodox church before taking office. Despite this, the government has refused calls to open church property to taxation.

The general terms of the recent agreement between Greece and Germany (obviously, Germany is not negotiating alone but as a member of the European Union, along with the unelected and ominously named Troika of the European Commission, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund, but for narrative reasons I prefer to follow the dominant media trend and reduce the situation to two parties–Greeks and Germans. Germany is, for reasons I will explain shortly, by far the most powerful member of all the European parties), stipulate a raise in taxes, pension and public service cuts, and a massive privatization push that would make Margaret Thatcher blush.

Does Greece have fiscal problems? Yes. Are these problems which have real present effects or are they just numbers in bankers’ ledgers? That answer is not so clear. The amount of public debt in Greece is always cited as the highest in Europe, but it is very low in absolute terms. Much lower than Germany or many other countries, who have also all flouted European Union rules as they have seen fit but never been punished let alone humiliated along the lines of the Greeks. Maybe a more appropriate question could also be “Does debt matter?” In America, there is a debt that dwarfs anything else seen in the world today, created by wars, bad tax policy, and the otherwise harmless realities of modern finance. Does it make a difference to our daily lives, or does anyone really care? No. It is used an economic excuse for a political ideology that calls for privatizing public assets and slashing public expenditures, while simultaneously and counter-intuitively cutting taxes only on huge corporations and the rich. This is called neoliberal economics, and its extreme form is called austerity. It is all a hoax with no economic justification as has been empirically proven and as most professional economists readily admit (apart from the followers of Milton Friedman, who must be either overly stubborn in the face of reality or sponsored with corporate money). What it amounts to is greed, as another economic, John Kenneth Galbraith said, “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness”.

Germany has seen its hard-won and much vaunted reputation take a huge hit in the international media during the last agreement with Greece. Why is that? Germany was the loser of both world wars, the first of which led to the second due in large part to the excessive retributive debt commitments imposed by the victorious countries (insisted on mostly by France). After the second war–the worst catastrophe of Western history for which Germany was almost single-handedly responsible–a triumph of diplomacy led by the United States allowed Germany to not only not pay back war reparations but even provided massive economic stimulus to Germany to help rebuild its country and economy. The geopolitic reason for this was to protect the West against the Soviet Union, but the consequence is that the aggressor in that war, like Japan, emerged economically dominant due in larger part to outside circumstances rather than its own natural merits (as they may like to believe). During that war, Germany took over the botched invasion of Greece from its Fascist ally, Italy, and destroyed untold lives and cultural artifacts, plundered resources and forced interest-free “loans”, and caused altogether huge economic losses in Greece that only a full-scale invasion with a sustained resistance can occur. Germany made a paltry payment of $160 million to Greece in 1960 and then closed the book on war reparations. While it is valuable to all parties to move on from the war in the name of the continuing pax Europea, it is disingenuous of Germany to take the harsh line it has on Greece given its own history. This blatant hypocrisy and self-righteousness is one part of the equation that goes beyond money and debt, and touches everyone in an emotional way. Is it right that Germany can squander two or three generations of generally good behavior and thoughtful reckoning with their past history in the matter of a few weeks or months of negotiations? In Europe, old wounds die hard, especially where the Germans are involved.

The debt negotiations with Greece and Germany appear complicated, but in large part it isn’t the finances but rather the uncertainty of political consequences that make the situation seem so labyrinthine. Economically, the amount of money that Greece needs to continue to function properly is relatively small as far as these things go–somewhere around 50 Billion euro from what I can tell. It is a small fraction of the amount of the massive bailouts given by Europe and America to private banks who have profited handsomely with public money. Likewise it is a small fraction of the annual military budget of the NATO countries. The question is not, therefore, economic, but political. I totally agree with many opinions I have read lately, including the recently fired Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, that the goal is not merely repayment of relatively small sums of debt but the humiliation of Greece and a harsh warning to any other country that may rebel and elect a government to challenge the by now entrenched neoliberal consensus. This means especially Spain and Portugal, and to a lesser extent Italy and even France. The European Union and Central Bank have sacrificed democracy and public welfare in the name of authoritative economic control and the guarantee of continued neoliberal policies. For this, they are ready to destroy the economy of one of their members and sell off a large part of its assets at cut-rate prices. It is cruel, and even the IMF has belatedly admitted that it is unrealistic and has no basis in economics

What has the humiliation of Greece caused? Human suffering and resistance. The human spirit cannot be broken by things such as increased taxes and lowered pensions and public services as easily as war and violence, but people’s lives can be made much worse, through little fault of their own, and political apathy and extremism can set in. Meanwhile, the CEO of Goldman-Sachs is fiddling while Europe burns. You see, it was Goldman-Sachs who proposed to the government of Greece a method to hide its debt in return for investments in shady funds, which obviously blew up in the financial crisis. The real criminals are such gambling bankers who exploit and destabilize entire countries and continents while not only avoiding prosecution but actually getting further governmental support and huge bonuses for their work. The problem is not Greek debt. The problem is this system of non-regulated casino banking and the greed of corporate capitalism which puts the interests of shareholders over the interests of the people and the planet and which will most likely be their undoing.

Statistics tell us of widespread unemployment in Greece, but there is little evidence of reduced well-being where I am traveling in the relatively backwoods Peloponnese. My adopted home of Italy is also always cited for its supposed economic woes, but much of it is overblown. Things are far from perfect and serious reforms are deeply needed, but there is a general lifestyle and standard of living that is among the highest in the world. I am obviously a mere amateur observer and by no means an expert in economics and public policy. Greeks all tell me they are proud of their country, as they should be, and for the most part they were ready to leave the European Union if that is what was necessary. This would have been very bad for Greece, but they wanted freedom most of all, especially freedom from humiliation from their ostensible allies. The government of Greece paradoxically chose to agree to the even harsher German-Troika terms immediately after a national referendum voted overwhelmingly against it. For this, Greeks feel betrayed and confused. Now, things will not be any better for them economically than if they had rejected the terms, but now there is an added indignity that they will have no control over their own land.

In Greece today, from my observations, the people are as politically active and involved in their democracy as anyone–at least as much as in Italy where I live, and most certainly more than America. One of the downsides of the debt crisis and increasingly harsh austerity measures is the disengagement from politics from some people and the radicalization of others. It was under such a debt crisis that the conditions arose that allowed the rise of the Nazis. In Greece there is a neo-Nazi party with elected members of Parliament, but which has been outlawed for the time being. With increased desperation and little reason for long-term hope, there is no telling what could happen. For a deeper, more nuanced account of the situation in Greek and the best course of action, I completely concur with Jeffrey Sachs in this article.

The beauty of Greece and the spirit of its people will endure, as they always have, even if economic hard times hang over their future. The future of the European project and the peace and stability it has brought is not so sure, due completely to short-sightedness, greed, and glaring lack of leadership in European countries and its institutions. No one has come out well in this manufactured crisis, including the German coalition led by Merkel, the last four Greek governments (which were Center-Left, Technocratic, Center-Right, and Left), and the small army of European finance ministers and unelected technocrats. The primacy of debt and profit over people (the demos) is today’s foremost myth, and one hopes that this episode reveals this myth for what it is. Greece no longer has the power to overthrow mighty Troy, nor the money to rebuild the Acropolis. Let us hope that somehow a collective spirit emerges as a way out of this fiasco, and the rest of Europe realizes that it is they who are indebted and what it stands to lose.

On Plato, Donald Trump, and the Ship of State

(Originally published at Wrath-Bearing Tree)

Plato’s most famous work and the foundational text of political philosophy is the Republic. Written in the form of a dialogue between Socrates and other real-life Athenians, the book opens with a discussion about the nature of justice and then proceeds into Plato’s ideas about what an ideal state and its leader would look like. I will argue how these ideas are still relevant nowadays, especially regarding the disturbing state of American politics in which the American people are considering electing for the first time an openly authoritarian leader who is blatantly unqualified for the job.

Plato, an aristocrat, held a deep antipathy for democracy; he had lived through the defeat of Athens at the hand of Sparta as well as the condemnation of his mentor, Socrates. He blamed democracy for these twin catastrophes. His own ideal state would actually bear strong resemblance to Sparta–a totalitarian state in which a small elite trained for success in battle, the majority were disenfranchised slaves who did all the labor, and all cultural activities were forbidden. Bertrand Russell in his History of Western Philosophy summarized Plato’s Republic as follows:

“When we ask: what will Plato’s Republic achieve? The answer is rather humdrum. It will achieve success in wars against roughly equal populations, and it will secure a livelihood for a certain small number of people. It will almost certainly produce no art or science, because of its rigidity; in this respect, as in others, it will be like Sparta. In spite of all the fine talk, skill in war and enough to eat is all that will be achieved. Plato had lived through famine and defeat in Athens; perhaps, subconsciously, he thought the avoidance of these evils the best that statesmanship could accomplish.”

Russell goes on in his criticism, answering the question of how and why Plato could have achieved such greatness despite having, frankly, mostly terrible ideas:

“Plato possessed the art to dress up illiberal suggestions in such a way that they deceived future ages, which admired the Republic without ever becoming aware of what was involved in its proposals. It has always been correct to praise Plato, but not to understand him. This is the common fate of great men. My object is the opposite. I wish to understand him, but to treat him with as little reverence as if he were a contemporary English or American advocate of totalitarianism.”

Plato’s Non-Ideal Republic in Practice

Indeed, the millennia of admiration for Plato’s Republic came to a sudden end when Russell’s History and Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies were published in the same year–1945. No coincidence that both were written during the Second World War at the height of the destruction wrought by demented dictators and dangerous ideas. Popper’s was perhaps the first, and still most important work, that separates Plato from the humanistic and democratic ideas of Socrates, and shows rather that Plato’s ideal state was a totalitarian one. The overriding theme of the book, which follows the thread of totalitarianism from Plato and Aristotle to Hegel and Marx, is how all these philosophers relied on historicism, a false theory in which history unfolds according the universal laws, to enable dangerous ideas to follow. He accused all of these thinkers of being partially culpable in leading Europe towards the crisis of leadership and war contemporaneous with the book’s publishing. Popper argues instead for a strong defense of the open society, which protects liberal values and institutes reforms without violence. One relevant issue Popper also discusses is the Paradox of Intolerance, which says that for an Open Society to flourish, we must not be tolerant of intolerance (which include the type of hate speech, bigotry, and violent rhetoric that is becoming normalized in Donald Trump’s Republican Party).

The most famous parable from the Republic is that of The Cave, whose premise about Plato’s theory of ideas most undergraduates would be familiar. Much more useful, in my opinion, however, is the parable of the Ship of State. Imagine the state as a ship, whose captain is a skilled stargazing navigator. The citizens are sailors, who may have many various skills but are not qualified to pilot the ship, especially through rough weather. The sailors mock the captain and try to replace him, but ultimately he is the only one with the ability to lead them. In Plato’s view, the captain in a state should be a philosopher-king, wise and trained at birth for his position as total ruler. One sees that democracy and Plato do not mix well–for him, the people were a mob who could not rule themselves.

Let’s bring these analogies into present day America.

As far as I can tell, America is the longest running large democracy in history, though a number of smaller polities, such as Iceland or the old Iroquois Confederation, to name two, are certainly older. For a huge and diverse nation of over 300 million people that has the world’s largest economy and strongest military, the fact that it has survived 240 years and a bloody civil war without ever deviating from a democratic and peaceful transition of power is quite amazing. Unprecedented actually. It was taken for granted when the Founding Fathers drew up the Constitution that Athenian-style democracy could only ever end in manipulation of the mob, or demos, by a demagogue or tyrant. They drew up a system of checks and balances between branches of government in which no person could amass enough power to take over the government, and through which change would necessarily be slow and conservative. This has often frustrated the ability to pass needed reforms, but has also the greater benefit of preserving the system peacefully.

Past American Presidents

Never in American history, discounting the obvious case of the Civil War, has the original political system drawn up in the Constitution come under threat of being radically altered. Likewise, there has never been a single person in American history who has had the power, or even sought the power, to completely control government in anything even resembling a dictatorship. Out of all the 44 presidents (Grover Cleveland served non-consecutive terms and is counted twice), historians typically agree on Andrew Johnson as the worst. It was certainly Abraham Lincoln’s biggest mistake to name him his Vice President for short-sighted and unnecessary electoral reasons before his reelection, and Johnson’s horrible term had awful ramifications for the next century regarding the reconstruction of the South. Even so, it is hard to find any American president who was unqualified to hold the office, in the traditional sense of having the ability and experience to operate an executive organization with delegated tasks and many moving parts. This has nothing to do with ideology, or even effectiveness, but of basic qualifications for the job before taking office. Several highly successful generals had either mostly good, mixed, or awful administrations (Eisenhower, Jackson, and Grant, for example), but their qualifications were never questioned despite their success or lack thereof. Herbert Hoover is generally considered an awful president mostly due to the Great Depression beginning on his watch, but he was highly successful in his private career and as the head of the U.S. Food Administration during WWI and Secretary of Commerce under two presidents before being elected, and was thus very qualified. Even George W. Bush, whom historians will most likely rank closer to Andrew Johnson than Franklin Roosevelt, governed the second largest state before becoming president. Most presidents have been highly educated and experienced men (obviously all men to date) with military backgrounds and terms as senators, congressmen, or governors. Men who understood something about the world and also how government works at various levels. The most successful presidents have also had temperaments suited for the rigorous stressfulness of this unique position as well as the ability to listen to advisors and learn from mistakes. To have a combination of many of these rare skills is what is wanted in a president, as well as a certain degree of other abstract qualities like intellectual curiosity, integrity, and empathy.

The Ideal Leader in a Democracy

Basically, I would argue that we want the same thing today as Plato wanted, even if we have different ways of going about it. Even if they will not be philosopher-kings, our leaders should be the best among us, and chosen by an informed electorate. They should be highly skilled at steering the large and unwieldy ship of state even in the rough waters of domestic and international politics. Plato, a member of the hereditary aristocracy and an anti-democrat, thought that these leaders should be bred from birth for the role, with the rest of the people having no say in the matter. There is another meaning of aristocracy, which is merely “rule by the best”, not involving genetics or inheritance but pure merit through earned experience, training, and natural character, and selected for by the majority of citizens. In our democracy, even with the two major political parties nominating candidates for the office of president, there has long been a de facto sorting out of the best qualified candidates. Once again, this has nothing to do with ideology but of basic minimum ability to function in a very complex role. Despite differences in ideas by the parties and the electorate, there has always been a tacit understanding that the winner will uphold the duties of his office and continue to serve in the government for the people.

The Disqualification of Donald Trump

Thus, we have never before in American history been in the position we are currently in–namely, to have a major party candidate for president who is clearly and without any doubt unqualified and unsuited for the office that he seeks. The Republican Party, once a bastion of principled conservatism, respect for law, and personal responsibility, has become so radical and reactionary over the last three decades or so that it has nominated a person who would certainly be the most disastrous, irresponsible, and unqualified president in history, and the closest we have yet come to a dictator, however petty. Trump’s open disregard for the rule of law, free press, and clear lack of basic knowledge of the world and the government he would operate is a disqualification for president. His other temperamental flaws, his proudly open bigotry (the likes of which has not been seen in a major candidate since there was legal slavery), his shocking, world historical level of narcissism and mendacity (unprecedented even for a would-be politician), and other shallow but toxic policy ideas are almost beside the point–any one of these attributes should easily have disqualified Trump from coming anywhere near being an realistic candidate for president, but the ultimate fact that he has none of the necessary tools to meet the minimum standards for piloting the ship of state is the single most important fact. He is not trained or experienced in anything like running the executive branch of the richest and strongest military power on Earth. He has shown no ability to succeed in anything other than making his own name universally known, however he goes about that. He is not a stargazer who can pilot America through bad storms, nor is he someone who should have instant control over soldiers’ lives and nuclear weapons.

The Republican Party, for the first time in American history, has failed in the basic task of nominating a human who is at a basic level of qualification for the office of president. There is no need to get any more into the details of how and why this happened--this article gives a brief summary of how the Republican Party began moving rightward three decades ago and cynically cultivating deep distrust of government itself for its own electoral gain, and this is the result. The most important thing is that Trump be defeated at all costs, and that a strong warning is cried out that never again will We the American people tolerate such a denigration of our hallowed tradition for maintaining a functioning democracy, whatever differences of policy and ideology. I disagree with Plato’s sentiment that democracy is a bad thing. It is not a perfect system; it is merely less bad than every other possible system. Its strength, and also its only flaw, is that it ultimately depends on an electorate that votes in the best interests of the peaceful and prosperous survival of the state, and not on a single tyrant who manipulates the mob with promises to solve all problems on his own. Let’s hope that we can continue for at least another 240 years without such a threat and an affront to our great country.

Republican Senator’s Ill-Conceived Plan to Block Vegetarian Options in the Military

Factory Farming

Factory Farming

Across the United States and most of the developed world, there is a growing awareness of the problems caused by overconsumption of meat, and an attendant growth in vegetarians and vegans. One of the many campaigns to help spread awareness and moderate our diets is Meatless Monday. This program, endorsed by many public and private organizations, encourages people to forego meat at least one day a week in favor of plant-based alternatives. The Department of Defense, one of the largest and resource-heavy organizations in the world, is considering adopting the practice in military dining facilities.

Jodi Ernst, a first-term senator from Iowa and retired lieutenant colonel in the Iowa National Guard, has recently introduced legislation into the United States Senate to actually block the Department of Defense from implementing “meatless Mondays” in military chow halls. She claims that daily meat consumption is necessary to satisfy nutritional needs. This is so facile and disingenuous that only a caveman could defend it. If you actually read the official Dietary Guidelines for Americans, it is suggested to eat less meat and eggs. But for legislators like Ernst, facts and logic cannot get in the way of their gut instinct.

If we dig deeper, it turns out that Iowa is actually the nation’s largest pork- and egg-producing state, and the agribusiness industry contributed at least $200,000 to Ernst’s 2014 Senate campaign. That is a good return investment for an industry whose 2014 sales were $186 billion. Because this isn’t about nutritional needs, obviously–it is about cold, hard cash. Like everything in America. Everyone knows that meat is not necessary for proper nutrition. It has actually been clearly linked to cancer, and the enormous consumption of meat in America has helped create not a healthy and balanced population, but one with an uncontrollable obesity epidemic.

I was in the US Army for four and a half years and spent two years deployed to Afghanistan. In this time of my life I was still a typical American meat-eater. I ate meat nearly everyday while deployed, and I can attest that the quality of the food was low, and it was in no way necessary to offer meat everyday even to highly active soldiers. In retrospect, I wish there had been more variety of food offered in the chow hall like meatless Mondays that would have given me different options and helped me lower my meat intake earlier.

I became vegetarian and then vegan after leaving the army, and I have not eaten any meat or animal products in over four years. I am light and healthy and energetic, and I practice rock-climbing several times a week with better physical performance than I ever felt during many years of army training with a heavily carnivorous diet. Senator Ernst is either ignorant or willfully lying on this issue. Neither is a good look for an elected politician.

Furthermore, Ernst, like all of her Republican colleagues, loves to completely dismiss either that climate change is happening or that it is caused by humans, saying things like “I’m not a scientist.” On every other issue, they are experts, however. On abortion, they are medical experts; on gay marriage, they have a direct line to God; on guns, they are all enthusiastic hunters and potential freedom fighters. It’s all hypocrisy. Everyone who studies the issue knows that not only is climate change the most urgent crisis humans have faced since the last ice age, but that intense industrial meat production is one of the largest single causes of pollution and climate change (I’ve written about climate change here). Factory farms, like the ones that are concentrated in midwestern states like Iowa, are enormously inefficient and harmful to the environment. And that is to say nothing about the ethical question of raising billions of sentient, emotional creatures to live short brutal lives in cramped metal cages, pumped full of steroids and antibiotics before being slaughtered. It has been said, with no irony or exaggeration, that modern factory farms are humanity’s biggest crime.

Senator Ernst was elected on a platform of freedom and her military experience. She deployed to Kuwait as a combat tour. She has also falsely claimed that National Guard duty is the reason she missed over half of the votes in the Iowa State Senate. She thinks these things make her an expert on military matters, and that all military personnel and veterans will support her no matter her policies. As a veteran myself with two years of deployment on a remote outpost in Afghanistan, I can say that most veterans see through self-serving and corrupt politicians quite easily. That is why Bernie Sanders’ top contributors are active duty military members. This is also important because Ernst is one of the people who will be considered for the Republican Vice President nomination because she is a woman and a veteran. Too bad she is also a corrupt fraud like most of her party’s standard-bearers.

The Republican Party, which has long made “freedom” its watchword, does not seem to understand what it actually means. It often tends to conveniently ignore freedom for people that disagree with them. It does not take a political philosopher to realize that freedom does not count if it only means restricting other people’s freedom. The Republican Party, which claims to want “smaller government” while insisting that government should be able to regulate and block the most personal individual choices in people’s lives, has struck again with an absurd logic-bending proposal about people’s most personal individual choices.

Eating is one of the most personal things we do. Just like religion, sexual preference, whether to have a child or not. In all these cases, the supposed party of individual freedom wants to restrict freedom. In the spirit of 1984, the Republicans would operate a Ministry of Freedom that insures everyone eats what they told to eat and prays how they are told to pray. It is hypocrisy, unmasked, not even trying to be masked, in fact. Like many Americans, I’m tired of it and want to change the system. One important way is to follow political campaigns, be active, and vote. Arguably even more important is to vote with your wallet with the products you buy, and get involved and stay involved in local or personal issues that you are passionate about. That is why I do not take it lightly when I see a hypocrite try to spread lies about meat consumption in order to help prop up a hundred billion dollar industry, or spreading lies that it is necessary to eat meat to be healthy when it is clearly the opposite. Veganism is an idea whose time has come as more and more people are learning that it is better for their health and for the planet (and for the animals). Fortunately, people have more freedom to do as they please than people like Senator Ernst realize.

How to Mock a Dictator (and Get Away With It)


(originally published at The Wrath-Bearing Tree)

The German government, a coalition of Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats and the center-left Social Democrats, has decided to allow prosecution of one of its citizens, a comedian named Jan Böhmermann who read a poem which mocked Tayyip Erdogan, the President of Turkey. This is because there is a law in Germany’s penal code that forbids insulting foreign leaders. The decision was made by Merkel despite protests from her coalition partners. Thomas Oppermann, the leader of the Social Democrats, said: “Prosecution of satire due to lèse-majesté does not fit with modern democracy.” Even Merkel admitted that the law should be changed and that Parliament will do so in the next session. It should be obvious that there are some important issues at stake in this case.

I have previously written about Freedom of Speech here (about the Espionage Act and government secrecy) and here (about Charlie Hebdo and terrorism). I am not an absolutist when it comes to Freedom of Speech; I think that it is not permitted when speech comprises credible threat of violence against a person. Insults and mockery, on the other hand, however offensive they may be, are fair game. Giving offense is not a crime, nor is bad taste; they are both protected by freedom of speech.

I like to think of freedom of speech as the first among equals within the “First Amendment suite” of universal human rights that are the backbone of any free society: Freedom of Speech, Religion, the Press, Free Assembly, and Free Petition of Grievances. Without these most basic protections, no society can be considered free. When these rights are impinged upon, a society becomes less free.

My concern in this case is not for Germany. There is no doubt that Germany is a free, but imperfect, society (there has never existed a perfect society). The fact that the left-wing and right-wing opposition in Germany are in agreement with the Social Democrats that prosecution of Mr. Böhmermann is the wrong decision shows that Germany is not turning into an authoritarian state. Merkel herself clearly said she would try to eliminate the ridiculous law that allows for such prosecution. The problem is not with Germany. The problem is with Turkey.

Turkish President Erdogan has ruled his country for the last 14 years–the first 11 as Prime Minister and the last three as President. For the first few years he was widely praised as a reformer and modernizer who could bridge East and West. Turkey was in discussions with the European Union about potential membership from around 2004-2009. This candidacy stalled ostensibly due to a series of major problems with human rights that were far below EU standards: there was reported to be a lack of freedoms of expression, thought, conscience, religion, assembly, and press; there is also a lack of impartial judiciary, children’s and women’s rights, and trade union’s rights. This does not count to lingering problems of the oppressed Kurdish population, the Cyprus question, and the ongoing official denial of the 1915 Armenian genocide. Since the EU integration process was suspended, there has been a clear move in Turkey even further away from these reforms and more towards authoritarianism.

I have previously written about the legacy of Kemal Atatürk here. While I am highly skeptical of any consolidation of power into the hands of a single person–a dictator or autocrat–there have been historical cases in which the situation called for such a person in order to make otherwise impossible reforms. Atatürk is one such case of the rare benevolent dictator. Other historical examples can be counted on just one or two hands, and the assumption should always be that these necessary dictators give up power as soon as possible (for example, when Garibaldi conquered the Kingdom of Naples in 1860 and began implementing constitutional reforms, before voluntarily and peacefully giving the territory to the newly united Kingdom of Italy six months later). One of the lessons of history is clearly that all power corrupts (another theme I have discussed here). If we look critically at the career of Tayyip Erdogan, we can easily follow the path he has led towards authoritarianism, with no apparent sign of his giving up any power during his lifetime. He has moved away from his early reforms towards crushing all opposition and making laws according to his own personal diktat.

The tragedy of Turkey is that it has the potential to be a great country with a free society. It has no need of a dictator. It is similar to Russia in both these regards. But power corrupts. And when certain men (because it’s always men) hold power for too long, they begin to see conspiracies and threats around every corner, and they tighten their control of state institutions and limit any lingering freedoms already existing in the country. These men are always afraid of armed uprisings or military coups d’état, but what is just as dangerous in their minds is mockery. When a dictator consolidates his power, writers, comedians, artists, poets, and intellectuals of all stripes are immediately placed under surveillance, exiled, imprisoned, or shot. This is because dictators cannot stand the idea of anyone openly making fun of them, even if it’s a joke about their facial hair. Only the dictator sees a real potential threat from a joke by a poor comedian about the dear leader’s whiskers. In this case, Erdogan has followed the dictator’s operating manual to the letter.

It has long been troubling that a law exists in Turkey that forbids criticism of any kind against Kemal Atatürk. The existence of such a law is itself an affront to freedom of speech and historical inquiry. I respect the achievements of Atatürk, but no leader, living or dead, is free from criticism from his subjects or posterity. The danger of such a law has been made manifest in new laws clamping down on criticism against Erdogan, and the complete disregard for freedom of speech and the press that now seems to plague Turkey. Erdogan has ruthlessly pursued prosecution of anyone expressing any criticism of him, such as a Turkish doctor who posted an (admittedly uncanny) comparison between his President and Lord of the Rings villain Gollum.

Erdogan is now taking his game one step further by exploiting a little-known German law to pursue a case against a German comedian who mocked him on German television. This comes at a key time in which European governments are relying on Turkey to stop the influx of refugees through Turkey into Europe so as to appease the growing right-wing xenophobic parties gaining steam around the continent (and the world). Erdogan, always a wily operator, will take advantage of this deal to demand that European governments import his version of press controls in return for cooperation on refugees.

America is by no means a perfect society, but at least it has probably the strongest tradition of freedom of speech and of the press in the world (even if the limits are constantly being tested). In how many other countries in the world can you imagine a comedian not only mocking a sitting president to his face for 20 minutes on live television, but even living to tell about it. That is what happened with Stephen Colbert and President Bush in 2006, and happens everyday of the year with other comedians, writers, or just normal citizens on social media. As I have explained, jokes and speech are allowed to be offensive or in bad taste. My freedom of speech allows me to publicly disagree with what someone said, but not to silence them. The only exception is violence or threat of violence. When America talks about exporting freedom, this is what is meant. It takes a combination of strong leadership and a willing populace to gain such freedoms in the first place. It is unfortunate that the former is lacking in Turkey today, though we can hope that the latter still has a vote in the matter.

A Response to A Defense of Moderate, American Socialism

we the peopleThis essay is a short response to the great recent analysis on Socialism in America by my colleague on Wrath-Bearing Tree, Adrian Bonenberger. I was looking for ways I could critique his points but it is hard on the merits, I guess because we share more political opinions than I might had thought. Here are a few of my comments that variously qualify as minor quibbles, or just my own comments expounding on what he has written.

We agree that Bernie Sanders is the best candidate for President, and without ennumerating all the specific reasons why, it is enough to realize that he offers the best policies on basically every pressing issue as well as the most consistently honest and incorruptible character–a rare mix in politicians today or at any time. As a proudly self-identified Democratic Socialist, we can place him in the company of such men as Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela (not to mention other Very Intelligent People such as Pablo Picasso, Bertrand Russell, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Helen Keller, Marie Curie, Jean-Paul Sartre, Noam Chomsky, Charlie Chaplin, John Lennon, and many others–much better overall company than J.P. Morgan or Donald Trump, in my opinion). We also agree that Socialism has long been a highly pejorative word in America, especially since the first Red Scare in 1918, rising in popularity during the Great Depression, and being finally blacklisted and virtually outlawed for good during the Red Scare after WWII for the next six decades. The time has finally come when Socialism is no longer a dirty word, but is increasingly becoming accepted as a positive and possibly essential solution to many of America’s biggest problems.

On Education, I agree that it is more important that education is universally available than who supplies it. I am not against private school, and I actually work at one. I believe, though, that public school should not only be available but free for everyone. In an America where even education and our great university system has been corporatized and privatized, this is an important point. Schools and universities produce our future citizen-voters, our innovative ideas, and our culture. Contra your point, I do not know of any philosophers who have seriously claimed that ignorance is better than knowledge. Ignorance very truly does lead to either dictatorship or, something only slightly less malign, a system of plutocratic control by a tiny fraction of the richest citizens. The great John Dewey, perhaps the most influential American philosopher in the fields of education and democracy, argued that that a working democracy could not exist without an educated populace.

On Regulation, I think you hit the nail on the head. One of the biggest complaints, and weaknesses, of Libertarians is that Government restricts freedom with too many burdensome regulations. Obviously no government is perfect or without corruption, but as you say, the regulations in large part exist because the status quo ante gave us things like child labor, poisoned food (see Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle), poisoned air (compare pictures of 1970’s L.A. to 2016 Beijing), poisoned water (look up Cuyahoga River fire), wage slavery, even real slavery. Socialism fought for and delivered solutions to some of these problems (and some other more minor ones like weekends and public holidays), but many more remain.

On Taxation, I would just like to add that while our tax dollars are often misspent, they also buy things like highways, trains, space exploration, the Internet, a working postal system, a strong military that has kept foreign countries from our soil for 200 years, national parks, and many other things I can’t think of off the top of my head. The thing I’ve never been able to understand is that most people who can afford to pay taxes to support their society do everything they can to avoid paying taxes to help their society. This is due to pure greed and selfishness. It is well-known that the top tax rate during America’s most prosperous decades ever was above 90%, and the economy and the middle-class grew together. As the top tax rate declined to a low point of 28% (with an effective rate much lower for the rich, a large part of whose wealth is not taxable), the middle-class has shrunk and the economy has become unstable. There are different conclusions to be drawn about tax data, which can always be skewed in any direction you want it to go really. The point is that taxes are necessary to guarantee a working society for everyone, so if you accidentally pay a tiny fraction of someone else’s school tuition or hospital bill by mistake then you have to live with that gross unfairness. If you don’t like it, move to a tax-free country like Somalia and see if you like it better. I do not think that raising taxes on the rich is a panacea, but it is a great first step.

On the Free Handouts and Lazy Freeloaders point, I would like to add that this is probably the most pernicious and also most difficult to dispel myth, and the one that keeps many misinformed people voting against their economic interests. It is in the interest of the rich to appeal to people’s innate prejudice or racism in order to pit the middle class against the poor instead of themselves. We all know the myth of the lazy black people, which has caused ignorant white people to blame supposed “welfare queens” and policies such as affirmative action for all their problems. If it weren’t black people, it would be immigrants. There is always someone else to blame rather than the real culprits, even while working-class whites, now deprived of union protections that made the country more prosperous now are increasingly depending on welfare. The fact is that the biggest freeloaders and welfare queens in America for the last 40 years have been Oil companies like Exxon and Shell, Arms producers like Raytheon, Wall Street banks like Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan, multinational corporations like Walmart, Chemical and Agricultural giants like Dow and Monsanto, Airline producers like Boeing, and many other fabulously profitable and destructive companies that enrich shareholders while robbing the people and denuding the planet.

On Socialism as Totalitarianism, I would just like to add a small point about the nature of socialism. It helps to imagine it not as a monolithic idea, but, like Capitalism, a gradable ideology that can become as moderate or as extreme as it is allowed by the political situation. To those who say that it is an unworkable and naive system, it already works well in many countries around the world, including the United States. “Socialist” Norway, for example spends 20% of government revenue on social projects while in the USA its 18%. For the total economy, somewhere around 35% is socialized in the USA while its somewhere around 45% in “Socialist” France. I can tell you, by the way, that life in Norway and France is good, as it is in “Socialist” Italy where I live. Not perfect, but good. Socialism in America today is so appealing especially because we have drifted so far into unregulated and predatory capitalism that socialism becomes a moderate ideology which can bring “balance to the force”, as it were. Life is not “good” for a huge growing number of working poor in America who are being exploited by a capitalist system which cares nothing for them, and where income inequality has grown so extremely out of control that literally the richest 62 individuals in America are worth as much as the bottom 50% (that’s 160 million people, by the way). Socialism in the Soviet Union or China was really not socialism at all, but an extreme totalitarian oligarchy that simply continued the ancient traditions of despotism in those countries after overturning the old regime. Left to its own largely deregulated devices, Capitalism in America and the world has evolved into an extreme neoliberal oligarchy that aspires for even more power and money than the planet’s resources can supply. Like a deadly virus, it must be stopped before killing the host. Whether that happens with relatively mild socializing reforms and limits, or with a more traumatic revolutionary overthrow of the current system, modern capitalism will be brought down. I hope it is something closer to the former, only because the latter brings with it a much higher probability of violence, anarchy, and a worse system than before.

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: