No winners

The biggest problem I find I’m having with trying to follow the Michael Flynn story is that it’s hard to distinguish the actual, verifiably crazy parts of the story from the parts that are being overhyped by the press. Because a lot of this story is genuinely ridiculous. A National Security Advisor resigning under a cloud of scandal less than a month into the first term of a presidential administration is a singular event in American history. This White House’s total inability to get ahead of the story, and this president’s inability to speak coherently on this or, really, any other topic, are both unlike anything we’ve ever seen. The implication that the deep state and/or intelligence community is trying to bring down a presidential administration is similarly unprecedented (or nearly unprecedented, if you’re a JFK conspiracy theorist). There’s a lot of wild shit going on right now.

But also, as this “what we know” piece from the New York Times makes clear, this story has blown up into a major scandal with relatively little factual reporting underpinning it. There are suggestions of serious wrongdoing, dossiers full of possibly compromising information, potentially nefarious scheming with Russian agents, and much more, but at this point they’re mostly just theories.

This is all by way of saying that I’m starting to doubt my own ability to digest and consider the various twists and turns this story keeps taking, largely because my brain starts to turn to clay after two or three articles. But it occurred to me this evening that, while there’s obviously no way to tell how this story is going to end, there aren’t really any winners to be found in it. It would be easy to argue that the American people are winning to the extent that this scandal could sink the Trump administration, but at this point we’re still stuck with Trump plus we now have that aforementioned deep state move to undermine an elected government, which is dangerous in principle. And even if Trump is brought down, that leaves us with President Mike Pence, and you’ll forgive me if I’m not prepared to break out the noisemakers and champagne over that possibility.

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What’s it all about then (subscriber post)

A lot of virtual ink has been spilled over the past two and a half weeks–well, longer than that, really–over the issue of what the Trump administration is really on about. The bad things they’re doing are really “head fakes” to cover the really bad things they want to do. They’re laying the groundwork for an executive branch coup by pre-emptively blaming the judiciary for a future terrorist attack. Steve Bannon is really running the country in Trump’s name. They want to give the opposition “protest fatigue” so that they can go about their real agenda in peace. They’re all KGB moles. Etcetera.

I’m guilty of this myself, to some extent. I’ve attributed motives to their early moves on Iran that may be too clever by half. But I’d like to suggest that, while I don’t think it’s wrong to think about the Trump administration’s larger goals–Trump himself may be a massive idiot, but it would be a big mistake to assume his whole administration is just stupid–I also think that, when we’re all trying to discern those larger goals, the key to understanding the Trump administration could be deceptively simple. At least when it comes to Islam and much of their foreign policy, they are, in short, who we thought they were: Islamophobes who don’t care what kind of carnage they leave in their wake as long as they get to have a war with Islam.

I’m trying something new with this post. Periodically I’m going to start writing for my Patreon subscribers only as a way to reward them and (hopefully) raise money. You can find the rest of this post here, and I hope you’ll consider going there and contributing something to the upkeep of this blog. I’m not changing models and I’ll still write plenty of free pieces here, but this is a new wrinkle I’m trying out. Thanks for your support!

ISIS gets involved in Turkish politics

In my opinion (I realize these things are subjective), the biggest/worst story of the past five days has been the New Year’s Eve terror attack on the Reina nightclub in Istanbul. A single gunman reportedly dressed as Santa Claus and armed with a Kalashnikov opened fire in the crowded club, killing 39 people and sending another 69 to the hospital. The shooter is still at large as of the time I’m writing this, but images of him have been circulated and at one point it was believed he was a 28 year old Kyrgyz national who may have actually fought with (and therefore been trained by) ISIS in Syria. However, I’m not sure whether the Kyrgyzstan connection still holds, because the Kyrgyz national who was initially fingered by Turkish authorities seems to have been cleared of any potential involvement. Because this is Turkey, where wide dragnets are the norm (I’m expecting to be picked up in connection with July’s failed coup any day now), 14 people have already been arrested in connection with the attack–though, again, the shooter himself isn’t among them. The Turkish Parliament has responded to the attack by extending a state of emergency that was imposed in July, and then renewed in October, for another three months.

ISIS claimed credit for the attack, saying that it had targeted “Christians” celebrating an “apostate holiday.” The idea that only Christians were celebrating in that nightclub is almost certainly a lie, but while NYE is not a religious holiday per se, on the Islamic/Hijri calendar it’s also not actually the new year. The commemoration of an important date on a different calendar could be painted as apostasy by somebody looking for an excuse to go kill people.

But the real purpose of this attack was to destabilize the Turkish state politically. Continue reading

Just Us

During one of my myriad recent stints sitting around in either an airport gate or a hospital waiting room, I saw this “feel-good story” from CBS:

When a hungry Cameron Nelson walked into a Chick-fil-A in Avon, Indiana, last week he looked toward the counter and couldn’t help but stare — not at the menu, but at the young employee standing in front of it.

The teenager, Jakeem Tyler, was counting change on one hand. His other arm was wrapped in a sling and he was wearing a neck brace.

“We sneeze too hard and decide to call in, but he’s workin’ like nothing’s wrong,” Nelson thought to himself.

As soon as Nelson stepped up to the counter and placed his order, he asked Tyler, “What happened?”

Tyler explained he was recently involved in a car accident.

“He [said he] was working cause he needs the money and also wants to feed the homeless for Christmas,” Nelson wrote in a Facebook post that has since gone viral with more than 5,000 shares.

Nelson was impressed.

Jakeem Tyler seems like an impressive human being, so I can understand being impressed by him. But I have to say my immediate reaction to this story was mostly disgust, at CBS, for taking the story of a teenager forced to go right back to work after a car accident and turning it into some uplifting tale of perseverance instead of the absolute indictment of the 2016 United States of America that it actually is. What kind of a nation is this where we deny people the right to heal from a serious injury before they have to go back to work?

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So, uh, is anybody gonna do anything about this?

So I really have no idea what to make of the story that the CIA believes Russia interfered with the election in order to get Donald Trump elected. On the one hand, this is the agency that brought you, among other things, vials of “Iraqi” “anthrax” at the UN, but on the other hand, if there’s one thing the CIA ought to be able to recognize, it’s when one country’s intelligence community is trying to interfere with the democratic process in another country. Also, if I may, fuck any Republican pulling this shit:

If the CIA had evidence that another country (any other country, Malta, who cares) had engaged in active interference in the 2016 election on behalf of Hillary Clinton and Harry Reid had talked the Obama administration out of saying anything about it, you’d find John Cornyn screaming and nude on the White House lawn. But the interference, if there was any, benefited his candidate, so OMG BO-RING, this has been going on for years, I mean my God can you just let it go already? Fuck him.

All I’ll say about the substance of this story for now is this: now what? If these charges are true then, you know, this is kind of a big deal, especially if it’s also true that Moscow compiled a fair amount of material on Trump and the Republicans but didn’t release any of it. So…OK? Are anonymous leaks to The Washington Post and a bunch of hand-wringing on Twitter and cable news really all we’re going to get here? If there’s really evidence that Russia engineered Trump’s election, is somebody going to actually do something about it? If not, then what the hell are we all on about? President Obama has ordered an investigation to be completed before Trump’s inauguration, but, like, what will that mean? Say the agency learns that Donald Trump’s real name is “Jeff Putin” and he’s Vlad’s long lost brother–what happens then? Anything? Nothing? I’d just like to know where this could go and whether anybody in authority is actually willing to put themselves on the line over it, beyond giving quotes to the local newspaper. So far the only thing we can say for sure is that Trump and the intelligence community are going to hate each other, and Trump’s “Russian Order of Friendship”-winning Secretary of State pick isn’t going to help heal the rift.

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What we should talk about when we talk about Castro

Fidel Castro is dead. Maybe you’ve heard.

This blog is not devoted to events in or the history of Latin America, as you’ve presumably figured out by now, and this is for the simple reason that this is a part of the world I just haven’t studied apart from the most perfunctory American and world history courses in college. There are plenty of people who have studied those things, though, and many of them have written excellent pieces in the couple of days since Castro died, with more still to come I’m sure.

One thing I do have more than a passing familiarity with, however, is American foreign policy, particularly its dumb, petty, vindictive aspect. And nothing exemplified that side of US foreign policy over the past half-century or so better than the Cuban embargo, which accomplished nothing apart from deepening the immiseration of the Cuban people, punishing them for the crime of living under an autocrat who picked the wrong Cold War team. Well, that’s not fair–it also bolstered Castro’s authority by giving him a scapegoat for all of Cuba’s economic struggles (more than a scapegoat, since the embargo really did contribute significantly to those struggles).

I also, being familiar with the post-WWII Middle East, know a tyrant when I see one, and Castro was a tyrant. He jailed and killed political opponents, stifled basic civil liberties, was terrible to his country’s LGBT citizens, among his many charming aspects. I understand why Cuban expats reviled him. I don’t think history will “absolve” him, because that’s not how history works and there’s really no absolution for people who do terrible things. You won’t find any lamentations to his passing here.


I also understand why in some communities–the African American community in the US, large parts of post-colonial Africa–many revere Castro’s memory. Granted, those people didn’t have to live under his rule, but people who did live under his rule didn’t simply hate Castro for his brutality. His legacy includes a health-care system that achieves better outcomes at a lower cost than the garbage fire that is the US health care system, and an educational system that exists primarily to educate children instead of to enrich charter school operators. Many Cubans seem to have appreciated those things, go figure. If you believe that education and health care are also human rights, then Castro’s human rights record has to account for those achievements. In other words, I don’t think the “Fidel Is Hell” crowd has the right idea.

And it would be nice, maybe, if Americans could use the occasion of Castro’s passing to try to figure out how his Cuba could manage to educate and care for its citizens better than the Greatest Nation Since God Created The Universe, or whatever, has been able to manage. In general, it would be nice if this were true:

It would be nice if, instead of or in addition to all the attention they give to the way Castro treated his own people, American commentators, mostly but not exclusively on the right, would also pay attention to the way our government has treated people all over the world–to how the wars and sanctions those commentators have largely cheerled have killed and immiserated millions of people, to how the “tough on crime” bullshit that most of them have also cheerled has put more Americans in prison, per capita, than any other country in the world, including Castro’s police state. It would be nice if we could have an honest conversation about what makes Castro so different from the many repressive dictators who have earned America’s support over the past 60 years. It would be nice if we could, as a nation, think critically about how American leaders criticize Castro’s Cuba for its human rights violations while our nation routinely perpetrates human rights violations on Cuban soil.

It would be particularly nice, and timely, if we could use Castro’s death as a pivot to talking about how American policy toward Latin America over the past several decades has affected that part of the world, mostly for the worse. The punitive policies we adopted to punish the Cuban people for…well, who really knows, they’re part of that, but it’s also worth noting that, despite America’s best efforts to ruin Cuba, Cuba wasn’t ruined, especially when compared to other countries in the region that the US actually tried to help. We could talk about the effects of “free trade” and of our support for violent dictators who happened to play for our side. But talking about all of those things would require introspection, a quality that America has never possessed in great abundance and that seems to be running shorter now than ever.


What he said (second in a series)

So the piece I wrote yesterday got a lot of attention, and a lot of positive feedback, for which I’m grateful. When I stray beyond foreign policy and world affairs I’m the first to admit that I’m out of my comfort zone, and I certainly didn’t intend that post to be anything more than a collection of thoughts loosely organized around a particular theme. But some of the reaction I got on Twitter was about the Democratic Party’s policies–aren’t those policies intended to be good for workers? Isn’t the Democratic Party manifestly better on economic issues for anybody outside the top 1% than the Republican Party?

My answer to this is two-fold. First, the fact is that “better than the Republicans” is a low bar, and the Democrats only barely clear it in a lot of cases. “Free” trade, as it’s been fetishized in Washington by the establishments in both parties, hurts people all over the country, and the usual Democratic solution, throwing money at “training” that demonstrably doesn’t help, is arguably worse than doing nothing at all. Obamacare, while a necessary first step compared to what came before, was a grotesque compromise of basic principles that is hurting people all over the country. That compromise was unavoidable given the political constraints that existed in 2010, but the Democratic Party should be talking loudly and often about how much more work needs to be done, and how obstructionist Republicans are blocking any improvements. So no, the policies need work.

Obamacare actually leads me to the second part of my answer, which is that it’s not all about policies. The Democratic Party can have the greatest, most just, most sensible policy platform ever conceived, but we’ve learned over the last several elections that when your default campaign strategy is simply to point at your Republican opponent and say “man, can you believe this guy?” people are going to stop paying attention. It’s not enough to be against things, and it’s not enough to throw a collection of policy ideas up on a website and direct people to it when they have questions. Your political movement, your party, has to stand for something, it has to have a story to tell. And no, that story can’t be “look at how experienced I am,” particularly not in a cycle when many voters are clearly not interested in experience. You have to have some basic principles–and sure, maybe we won’t all agree on how to achieve those principles, which is fine, but we should all be able to agree on what the principles are, shouldn’t we? It seems to work for the other folks.

“Black lives matter,” that’s a principle. “LGBTQ people should have the same rights and protections as the rest of us” is a principle. “We should fight, everyday, for justice–economic, environmental, in our courts, in our foreign policy, everywhere, because we live in a system that, left to its own devices, is manifestly unjust,” that’s a principle too. Whether they’re the “right electoral principles” should matter less than whether they’re the right principles, period. I don’t know what all the principles should be. We’ve already seized on some, but there need to be more, and the political left in this country needs to talk about them, all the time, to everyone. Which means forming a political party that campaigns on them, all the time, in every race, without exception. No more complaining about gerrymandering and leaving dozens of Republicans unopposed every cycle. Gerrymandering is bad, and hard to overcome, I get it, but I’m tired of giving my money and my votes to a party that won’t even try to contest the really tough races.

With only a few quibbles, basically I agree with what President Obama said in his press conference yesterday: Continue reading