Saturday, November 19, 2011

Anti-semitic propaganda then and now (Mick Hartley)

Mick Hartley posted the item below in February 2009, but it remains timely. Hartley begins by quoting from Edward Rothstein's reflections in the New York Times after visiting an exhibition at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, “State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda". Here is one of Rothstein's insights, about the world-shaping power of propaganda in general and of Nazi propaganda in particular, which he elaborates over several paragraphs:
[I]f this is how powerfully these images affect an early-21st-century viewer who would have been a prospective victim, imagine the power they had on believers, flattering their highest vision of themselves while reminding them that endangering this imminent utopia was the conniving Jew, known from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In one 1943 poster a giant hand points accusingly at a corpulent caricature wearing a yellow star, “Jude”: “He is to blame for the war!” This, of course, while Jews were being carried off on trains heading east to feed the crematoriums.

The impact of these images is prerational or antirational; they short-circuit argument. To suggest that perhaps this caricatured figure was not to blame for the war would be like insisting on an alternate universe. [....] Exorcism and murder were not a policy; they were a responsibility. [...]

[We need to grasp] what was so powerful about Nazi propaganda: It didn’t just distort reality to make an argument; it reshaped it. It tapped into mythic beliefs about Jews being genocidal and inhuman, thus spurring retaliation.
And so on. Rothstein asks:
Is anything rhetorically comparable today?
As a matter of fact, yes.

It is unpleasant, but occasionally useful and necessary, to remind ourselves that we live in an era when significant portions of the world are flooded by virulently anti-semitic discourse and propaganda reminiscent of Europe during the 1890s or even the 1930s, which too many people in other parts of the world try to whitewash, ignore, or explain away. And it's not just a question of analogies, as the work of Jeffrey Herf, Matthias Küntzel, and others has made clear. There are also historical links and transmissions. Many of the key themes and images in present-day anti-semitic discourse, not least in the Arab and Muslim worlds, are drawn directly from sources in 19th- and 20th-century European anti-semitism, including that ever-popular forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (a best-seller in the Middle East today) as well as Nazi and fascist propaganda of the 1930s and 1940s. (One implication, by the way, is that many of the most poisonous features of anti-semitic discourse and ideology in the Arab & Islamic worlds over the past half-century or so do not simply have their roots in Islam itself, but involve the importation and appropriation of important elements from European anti-semitism, Christian and post-Christian.) These anti-semitic themes and images been updated, and blended with other elements, religious and racist and otherwise, in a rich variety of ways. But the roots still sometimes show through.

More on all this another time. Meanwhile, read the rest of Mick Hartley's post (below).

—Jeff Weintraub

Mick Hartley (Politics & Culture)
February 26, 2009
The Strongest Contemporary Analogy

Edward Rothstein in the NYT visits a new exhibition at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, “State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda":
As the show, organized by Steven Luckert, winds its way from the beginnings of Nazism in the aftershocks of the First World War to the Allied attempt to eradicate Nazi propaganda after the Second, the effect is overwhelming. Conceptually everything is familiar: the foundering Weimar Republic, the celebrations of Aryan virility, the Jew as embodiment of evil, the mass rallies, the death camps, the defeat. But the effect is not in the facts but in the images and artifacts, many of which have been lent by institutions in Europe for this show.

And if this is how powerfully these images affect an early-21st-century viewer who would have been a prospective victim, imagine the power they had on believers, flattering their highest vision of themselves while reminding them that endangering this imminent utopia was the conniving Jew, known from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In one 1943 poster a giant hand points accusingly at a corpulent caricature wearing a yellow star, “Jude”: “He is to blame for the war!” This, of course, while Jews were being carried off on trains heading east to feed the crematoriums.

The impact of these images is prerational or antirational; they short-circuit argument. To suggest that perhaps this caricatured figure was not to blame for the war would be like insisting on an alternate universe. The accusation could be rejected only if everything were rejected. Exorcism and murder were not a policy; they were a responsibility. They all flowed out of these posters and their associated beliefs. [...]

The museum is developing a curriculum based on the show that will probe the notion of propaganda and examine contemporary implications. But here the slope becomes slippery. How much does the Nazi manipulation of media reveal about propaganda’s misuse in democratic societies? Does the extreme example shed light on the commonplace, without the dangers of the extreme being lessened, the dangers of the commonplace amplified?

Such analogies risk slighting what was so powerful about Nazi propaganda: It didn’t just distort reality to make an argument; it reshaped it. It tapped into mythic beliefs about Jews being genocidal and inhuman, thus spurring retaliation. Is anything rhetorically comparable today?

Perhaps. The exhibition points out that the Nazis financed anti-Semitic broadcasts by Haj Amin al-Husseini, “an Arab nationalist and prominent Muslim religious leader.” Now no sponsorship seems needed. Major Middle East media outlets have asserted that Jews use children’s blood to bake matzos. In recent weeks we have heard that Jews are following the nefarious plot outlined in the Protocols to exterminate all gentiles, this from the poet and former member of the Lebanese Parliament Ghassan Matar. An Egyptian cleric, Safwat Higazi, has described Jews being “as smooth as a viper”: “Dispatch those son of apes and pigs to the Hellfire.”

And an Egyptian cleric with strong ties to the West, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradhawi, has described Jews as “a profligate, cunning arrogant band of people”: “Oh Allah, count their numbers, and kill them, down to the very last one.” [JW: For more from Yusuf al-Qaradawi, widely described as a "moderate" Islamist, see HERE. Incidentally, "Yahud" means "Jews", not "Zionists".]

The extent of these visions (chronicled by the Middle East Media Research Institute), the historical distortions they codify and the readiness with which they are taught to children and are secularized into political action suggest that the strongest contemporary analogy to Nazi propaganda may be one the exhibition leaves unmentioned.
And, right on cue as it were, here's the latest item from MEMRI TV: Egyptian cleric Ahmad Abd Al-Salam on the Islamic Al-Nas TV channel, clarifying a point which may have been troubling some of his audience.
The Jews "will not fail to corrupt" the believers. What does it mean? The Jews are never remiss – they invest their utmost efforts, day and night, in conspiring how to corrupt the Islamic nation, the nation led by the Prophet Muhammad. I want you, Muslim viewers, to imagine the Jews sitting around a table, conspiring how to corrupt the Muslims, and how to destroy their worldly and religious affairs. The Jews "will not fail to corrupt you," and this is why we hate them. The Jews conspire day and night to destroy the Muslims' worldly and religious affairs. The Jews conspire to destroy the economy of the Muslims. The Jews conspire to infect the food of the Muslims with cancer. It is the Jews who infect food with cancer and ship it to Muslim countries.

We hate the Jews because they spare no effort in stripping Muslim girls of their clothes. It is the Jews who conspire to have Muslim girls, and even married Muslim women, wear clothes that are tight, short, or see-through, or clothes that are open from the front, or the back, from the right or the left. The Jews "will not fail to corrupt you," and this is why we hate them. The Jews conspire to destroy Muslims. The Jews conspire to bring Muslim youth down to the pit of sexual temptation. The sexual temptations, which are prevalent worldwide, were conspired by the Jews.
Clear enough?

The collapse of financial regulation since 1980 & its consequences — Lawrence Lessig sums it up

I noticed an on-line interview with Lawrence Lessig on the subject of his new book, Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—And a Plan to Stop It, which deals with the pervasive plutocratic corruption of our political system over the past several decades. Some of the ideas in the interview strike me as questionable, but most of them are clearly on-target, and it's worth reading the whole thing.

For the moment, I just want to highlight one very trenchant passage:
Before 2008, the zeitgeist was deregulation, and Wall Street succeeded in getting deregulation. Frank Partnoy calculated for me that in 1980, 98 percent of financial assets traded in our economy were traded subject to the normal rules of transparency, anti-fraud requirements, basic exchange-based rules of the New Deal. By 2008, 90 percent of the assets traded were traded invisibly because they were not subject to any of these basic requirements of transparency and anti-fraud exchange-based obligations.
As I noted a few weeks ago, every discussion about the economic crash of 2007-2009, which was touched off by a massive financial crisis, should begin with the striking fact that there were no serious financial crises in the US between the New Deal and the beginning of the Reagan administration. This was no accident. During the the 1930s a remarkably intelligent set of regulations was enacted to cover banking and the rest of the financial sector, and it worked.

Over time, new types of financial activities developed that evaded or circumvented this regulatory framework, but the system was not revised and extended to cover them. Instead, starting in the 1980s, that whole framework of financial regulation was increasingly dismantled—not sensibly updated and adapted to new conditions, but heedlessly dismantled—in a process that combined free-market-fundamentalist ideological illusions with substantial amounts of irresponsibility, plutocratic muscle, political corruption, and simple greed.

At the same time, in a vicious cycle of mutually reinforcing processes, the financial sector—including a whole "shadow banking system"—metastasized out of control and swallowed up an ever-larger share of the economy. The overflowing funds, increasing political clout, and ideological prestige of the financial system were used, in turn, to promote further deregulation. And it so happens that during the same period, starting in the 1980s, we have once again experienced recurrent financial crises (and massive bailouts), escalating most recently into the great financial crash of 2007-2009 from whose consequences we are still recovering.

(For one very informative picture of how this all worked, by the way, I recommend watching Charles Ferguson's excellent documentary film "Inside Job", a guide for the perplexed which, among other things, does an impressive job of explaining esoteric financial arrangements like securitization, credit default swaps, and collateralized debt obligations in clear and comprehensible ways. If you want to start with a brief but illuminating video clip, Elizabeth Warren boils the story down to its essentials here.)

So what happened next? Lessig continues:
But the really astonishing thing is that after 2008, after we suffered the biggest collapse since the Depression, after every independent analyst had said there was a link between the structure of deregulation and the collapse, after the dean of deregulation—Alan Greenspan—confessed he made a mistake in assuming that the self-interest of the banks would lead them to behave virtuously rather than behave in a way that would drive to their maximum profit, after all of that, even then, Wall Street was able to blackmail the Democrats and the Republicans into handing them essentially a “Get Out of Jail Free” card and effect no fundamental change in the architecture of our financial system. That is, frankly, terrifying.
That formulation is a little too generous to the Republicans, since on the whole they should be seen as perpetrators more than victims. (Along with a lot of Democrats, of course—though it's wrong to simply impute moral equivalence in these matters to the Republican Party and the Democratic Party.) But it's true that Republican politicians have also been caught in a self-reinforcing system that's increasingly hard to break out of even if one wants to. And yes, it is terrifying.

Meanwhile, anyone who gets their information about the current Great Recession, and about the political economy of the United States more generally, from sources like the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, and the Republican presidential campaign is presented with an alternate universe in which Wall Street and financial deregulation had nothing to do with precipitating the crash. Instead, the fault lay entirely with quasi-governmental institutions like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and with the consequences of the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act (which supposedly forced banks to issue sub-prime mortgages to poor people and minorities). This nonsense was recently summed up, in truly astounding statement that might seem to vindicate the crudest versions of a Marxist theory of class-bound ideology, by none other than New York City's Mayor Michael Bloomberg:
It was not the banks that created the mortgage crisis. It was, plain and simple, Congress, who forced everybody to go and give mortgages to people who were on the cusp [....] But they were the ones who pushed Fannie and Freddie to make a bunch of loans that were imprudent, if you will. They were the ones that pushed the banks to loan to everybody.
I happen to know some intelligent, serious, and well-informed people who have been taken in by this propaganda, and like most propaganda it does contain some grains of truth, but overall it's just a fable. (For a patient explanation of some of the reasons why, see here.) However, this nonsense is far from being harmless, since as long as the real sources of the problem are ignored or obscured or distorted out of recognition, it will be hard to generate the political will to do anything constructive about them.

What we really need is a new New Deal, updated for the conditions of the early 21st century. I think some of Obama's supporters hoped he would deliver this, but obviously he hasn't (and probably never intended to). And prospects for the foreseeable future are not promising. But the first step is to start facing reality.

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub

P.S. Lessig's new book sounds as though it's worth reading, too. I was struck by several other perceptive passages in his interview, including this one:
The actual activity of fundraising is terrible and nobody really likes it. And it would be kind of comical, if it weren't so tragic, to see them running from Capitol Hill to their little cubby hole with their headsets dialing people they’ve never even met and asking them to give money. It’s really just grotesque.

But the other part about it is the way in which it infects what we imagine a Congress would be there for. If you started in 1794 and looked at our Congress, and compared it to the House of Commons, the two would look pretty much the same—you have people sitting in a room for five or six hours a day while they're in session, debating with each other, arguing about the ideas. Not necessarily that it’s the greatest of the arguments but they’re trying to do what you imagine a deliberative body would do—deliberate. Jump ahead to today, the House of Commons doesn’t look that much different, you still have sessions where everybody’s sitting there and debating, and they have question time where there’s real activity. But switch to C-SPAN covering the U.S. Congress and it’s a completely different picture. You can’t see it, because they don’t allow the camera to pan around, but the hall is empty, people coming to speak just to C-SPAN—they’re not speaking to each other—all of the activity of negotiation and deliberation is done outside the chamber; there’s no deliberation, so you just have to ask, “Why did we create a Congress?” The framers didn’t sit down and set up a Congress so they could imagine these 535 independent contractors all arbitraging fundraising opportunities. If that’s what the institution is, then let’s just shut it down.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Whose motto is “In God We Trust”? — History & mythology

One of the more interesting aspects of American exceptionalism has involved the complex and distinctive forms that the interplay between religion and republicanism has taken in the history and politics of the United States. (For some previous discussions, see Religion & republicanism in American political culture; George Washington's Letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island; A Muslim in Congress & the Spirit of the US Constitution; and "Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion" - Some historical perspective on pastors and Presidential candidates.)

A usefully informative piece by the historian Thomas A. Foster, cross-posted at Dissent and at the History News Network, nicely captures one strand in that history. Read the whole thing, but here are some highlights:
Last week [JW: this was posted on November 10, 2011] Congress voted to reaffirm that the national motto of the United States is “In God We Trust.” Representative Randy Forbes (R-VA) introduced the measure and argued that we would be following “our predecessors” by declaring a national trust in God. Last year he and the Congressional Prayer Caucus had criticized President Obama when he “falsely proclaimed” in a speech in Jakarta that “E Pluribus Unum” is the national motto.

The conservatives who criticized Obama and who claim the mantle of the founding fathers are mistaken on both counts. Although “In God We Trust” is the official motto, “E Pluribus Unum” has long been acknowledged as a de facto national motto. After all, it is on the Great Seal of the United States, which was adopted in 1782. Moreover, in the 1770s and ’80s Congress opposed a theistic motto for the nation, and many of the founders worked hard to prevent one from being established.

In July 1776, almost immediately after signing the Declaration of Independence, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson were tasked with designing a seal and motto for the new nation. [....] It would take years and several more committees before Congress would approve the final design, still in use today, of an American bald eagle clutching thirteen arrows in one talon and an olive branch in the other.

Only the motto “E Pluribus Unum” (“from many, one”) survived the committee in which Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin had served. All had agreed on that motto from the beginning [JW: while also considering various alternatives, which were dropped along the way].

The current motto, “In God We Trust,” was developed by a later generation. It was used on some coinage at the height of religious fervor during the upheaval of the Civil War. It was made the official national motto in 1956, at the height of the Cold War, to signal opposition to the feared secularizing ideology of communism. [JW: The phrase "under God" was inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance around the same time.]

In other words, “In God We Trust” is a legacy of founders, but not the founders of the nation. As the official national motto, it is a legacy of the founders of modern American conservatism—a legacy reaffirmed by the current Congress.
I will opt for the aspirational "E Pluribus Unum", of course.

—Jeff Weintraub

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Ballots no, bullets yes

According to an article in last Sunday's New York Times:
Under federal law, people with felony convictions forfeit their right to bear arms. Yet every year, thousands of felons across the country have those rights reinstated, often with little or no review. In several states, they include people convicted of violent crimes, including first-degree murder and manslaughter, an examination by The New York Times has found.

While previously a small number of felons were able to reclaim their gun rights, the process became commonplace in many states in the late 1980s, after Congress started allowing state laws to dictate these reinstatements — part of an overhaul of federal gun laws orchestrated by the National Rifle Association. The restoration movement has gathered force in recent years, as gun rights advocates have sought to capitalize on the 2008 Supreme Court ruling that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to bear arms.

This gradual pulling back of what many Americans have unquestioningly assumed was a blanket prohibition has drawn relatively little public notice. Indeed, state law enforcement agencies have scant information, if any, on which felons are getting their gun rights back, let alone how many have gone on to commit new crimes.

While many states continue to make it very difficult for felons to get their gun rights back — and federal felons are out of luck without a presidential pardon — many other jurisdictions are far more lenient, The Times found. In some, restoration is automatic for nonviolent felons as soon as they complete their sentences. In others, the decision is left up to judges, but the standards are generally vague, the process often perfunctory. In some states, even violent felons face a relatively low bar, with no waiting period before they can apply. [....]

Even some felons who have regained their firearms rights say the process needs to be more rigorous.

“It’s kind of spooky, isn’t it?” said Beau Krueger, who has two assaults on his record and got his gun rights back last year in Minnesota after only a brief hearing, in which local prosecutors did not even participate. “We could have all kinds of crazy hoodlums out here with guns that shouldn’t have guns.” [....]
Is this nuts? Not necessarily. Kelly Kleiman (at The Reality-Based Community) finds the logic here:
Well, this makes sense–if we make it nearly impossible for felons to regain their right to vote [JW: see here], they’ll surely want to regain their right to fire weapons instead.
—Jeff Weintraub

Spain's stolen babies – More legacies of Franco & the Catholic Church come to light

Another reminder of the massive crimes of the twentieth century and their lingering after-effects. According to a BBC report:
Spanish society has been shaken by allegations of the theft and trafficking of thousands of babies by nuns, priests and doctors, which started under Franco and continued up to the 1990s.
This is startling. These baby-stealings began during the Franco dictatorship of 1936-1975, and represented one aspect of the long-time alliance between Francoism and the Catholic Church. But that part of the story is not surprising. (Nor is it unique. Kidnapped babies were also a specialty of the Argentine military dictatorship of 1976-1983, though on a much smaller scale than in Franco's Spain—and in the Argentine case, as far as I know, the Church didn't play any significant institutional role.) What is startling is that these practices may have continued after the end of the Franco regime.

Less surprising, I'm afraid, is the involvement of the Catholic Church:
The scandal is closely linked to the Catholic Church, which under Franco assumed a prominent role in Spain's social services including hospitals, schools and children's homes.
Some highlights are below. Or you can read the whole thing (including two video clips.

—Jeff Weintraub

BBC News
October 18, 2011
Spain's stolen babies and the families who lived a lie
By Katya Adler

Spanish society has been shaken by allegations of the theft and trafficking of thousands of babies by nuns, priests and doctors, which started under Franco and continued up to the 1990s. [....]

In 1971 Manoli [Pagador], who was 23 at the time and not long married, gave birth to what she was told was a healthy baby boy, but he was immediately taken away for what were called routine tests.

Nine interminable hours passed. "Then, a nun, who was also a nurse, coldly informed me that my baby had died," she says.

They would not let her have her son's body, nor would they tell her when the funeral would be.

Did she not think to question the hospital staff?

"Doctors, nuns?" she says, almost in horror. "I couldn't accuse them of lying. This was Franco's Spain. A dictatorship. Even now we Spaniards tend not to question authority."

The scale of the baby trafficking was unknown until this year, when two men - Antonio Barroso and Juan Luis Moreno, childhood friends from a seaside town near Barcelona - discovered that they had been bought from a nun. Their parents weren't their real parents, and their life had been built on a lie.

Juan Luis Moreno discovered the truth when the man he had been brought to call "father" was on his deathbed. "He said, 'I bought you from a priest in Zaragoza'. He said that Antonio had been bought as well."

The pair were hurt and angry. They say they felt like two dogs that had been bought at a pet shop. An adoption lawyer they turned to for advice said he came across cases like theirs all the time.

The pair went to the press and suddenly the story was everywhere. Mothers began to come forward across Spain with disturbingly similar stories. [....]

After months of requests from the BBC, the Spanish government finally put forward Angel Nunez from the justice ministry to talk to me about Spain's stolen children.

Asked if babies were stolen, Mr Nunez replied: "Without a doubt".

"How many?" I asked.

"I don't dare to come up with figures," he answered carefully. "But from the volume of official investigations I dare to say there were many."

Lawyers believe that up to 300,000 babies were taken.

[JW: I have to say that this mind-boggling figure strikes me as implausibly large, even if one takes into account the huge numbers of people imprisoned and executed during and after the Civil War, many of whom would have left orphans behind or, if they survived, could have lost their children while imprisoned. But what do I know? And even much lower figures would be horrifying.]

The practice of removing children from parents deemed "undesirable" and placing them with "approved" families, began in the 1930s under the dictator General Francisco Franco.

At that time, the motivation may have been ideological. But years later, it seemed to change - babies began to be taken from parents considered morally - or economically - deficient. It became a money-spinner, too.

The scandal is closely linked to the Catholic Church, which under Franco assumed a prominent role in Spain's social services including hospitals, schools and children's homes.

Nuns and priests compiled waiting lists of would-be adoptive parents, while doctors were said to have lied to mothers about the fate of their children.

The name of one doctor, Dr Eduardo Vela, has come up in a number of victim investigations. [....]

In 1981, Civil Registry sources indicate that 70% of births at Dr Vela's San Ramon clinic in Madrid were registered as "mother unknown".

Dr Vela stands accused of telling women their babies had died when they had not and handing over those newborn children to other couples for cash. [....]

Babies' graves have been dug up across the country for DNA-testing. Some have revealed nothing but a pile of stones, while others have contained adult remains. [....]

"Can You Support Israel Without Supporting Netanyahu?" – Jeffrey Goldberg gives the obviously correct answer

One advantage of blog posts, in contrast to most articles and opinion pieces in newspapers and newsmagazines, is that the titles or headlines are composed by the writer and not by an editor or sub-editor (who may or may not fully grasp the point).

A discussion posted today by Jeffrey Goldberg is titled, straightforwardly, "Can You Support Israel Without Supporting Netanyahu?". For some time now, John Rentoul has been running a nice series of "Questions to Which the Answer is No". Goldberg's heading makes me wonder whether there shouldn't also be a series of "Questions to Which the Answer is Obviously Yes".

And is there any truth to the charge, made by some people both in the US and in Israel, that Obama and his administration have shown themselves to be hostile towards Israel? Here we are back in the territory of Questions to Which the Answer is No.

Goldberg, who is usually right about most things, is right on both these matters in his postand some others as well. So just read the whole thing (below).

Jeff Weintraub

Jeffrey Goldberg
November 16, 2011
Can You Support Israel Without Supporting Netanyahu?

In response to my Bloomberg View column on the potential consequences of the brittle relationship between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, Jennifer Rubin writes in The Washington Post:
It's time for pro-Israel liberals to be honest: This president's animus toward the Jewish state is so evident that only a foolish prime minister would trust him with the survival of the Jewish state. And Netanyahu is no fool. Surely Goldberg could concede both these points?
Surely Goldberg will not concede both these points. Rubin, like many of her colleagues to my right, believes that Netanyahu is the living embodiment of the State of Israel. Her formula: If you dislike Netanyahu, you dislike Israel. This is absurd. Barack Obama has shown zero animus to the state of Israel or to the idea of Israel. In word and in deed, he has been in Israel's corner; he has spoken eloquently in defense of Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state, and he has provided it with unparalleled defense support.

Obama obviously disagrees with some of the polices of the current Israeli government [JW: and so should any intelligent supporter of Israel, in my humble opinion], and he doesn't seem to like the prime minister on a personal level. But this hasn't seemed to matter, so far. He and his administration have risen to Israel's defense repeatedly, most recently at the United Nations (just ask Susan Rice, his ambassador to the UN, how much time she spends batting back viciously anti-Israel resolutions). And there is no proof at all to suggest that he would not aid Israel in its national defense because he finds its current leader tendentious.

Obama, like the majority of Americans, is broadly sympathetic to Israel. On the question of Iran, I believe that Obama is trying to stop the mullahs from developing nuclear weapons, and I believe he would contemplate the use of force if he believes this to be in America's national interest -- and America's national interest in this case includes the defense of its Middle East allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, most notably. [JW: On this point, I am less sure than Goldberg ... who is pretty conflicted himself on the whole issue.] Do I think this is probable? No. But it is certainly plausible. Obama has made it clear that he wants to stop Iran, and there is nothing in his record to suggest that these are empty words.

I also believe, however, that the lack of trust between Obama and Netanyahu is potentially harmful to both countries (particularly on an issue as dicey as Iran) but unlike Rubin, I believe it is mainly up to the junior partner (defense aid flows in only one direction here) to work harder to repair the relationship.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Herman Cain blows it big-time

... or, is this Herman Cain's Rick Perry moment?

Via Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish, I just happened to see this video clip from a Herman Cain interview which Sullivan is right to call simply "amazing". Asked about Libya, Cain Draws A Blank:

The Daily Dish post includes a roundup of assorted reactions. Here are some of them.

Dan Drezner:
There's a mercy rule in Little League, and I'm applying it here -- unless and until Herman Cain surges back in the polls again, or manages to muster something approaching cogency in his foreign policy statements, there's no point in blogging about him anymore. I can only pick on an ignoramus so many times before it feels sadistic.
Jonathan Chait:

Cain was operating on four hours sleep, his campaign tells Chuck Todd. I have been on four hours sleep before. It has not prevented me from recalling the general outline of recently concluded American military interventions.

Conor Friesdorf:
Like Rick Perry's inability to remember one of the three federal agencies he would eliminate, the moment must be seen to be believed -- do watch above, no description is adequate -- and is damaging not because presidential candidates must know small details like the leader of Uzbekistan, but because Cain clearly hasn't thought at all about a war his country was fighting while he ran for president. Presumably he was briefed on it prior to Saturday's foreign policy debate. [....] The man is not a quick study.
And from the far right corner, Michelle Malkin!:
Sorry, Cain fans. Tried to give him the benefit of the doubt. But like Rick Perry, Herman Cain is just not ready for prime time. The real Cain scandal: He can barely form a coherent thought on Libya when put on the spot and garbles collective bargaining 101 facts. [....] Cain makes Rick Perry look like a Mensa president.
Well, let's see whether any of this actually cuts into Cain's support in the Republican primary electorate. As I've noted before, the whole spectacle of this Republican nomination contest would be funny if its potential implications weren't so terrifying. Stay tuned ...

—Jeff Weintraub

Herman Cain & Ron Paul on torture

I don't feel I have either the time or the inclination to keep watching the seemingly endless series of televised "debates" between the Republican presidential candidates, so I rely on news reports and on trustworthy analysts like Fred Kaplan ("If you like watching something scary, you would have liked Saturday's Republican presidential debate about foreign policy.") and Jonathan Turley. And even if I were watching them, I wouldn't feel moved to try to comment on them in detail. But one set of exchanges from the latest Republican debate does seem worth highlighting.

The candidates were asked whether the US should resume the Bush/Cheney policy of torturing suspected terrorists. Almost all of them said yes with alacrity, but a few of the answers were more bizarre and convoluted than the others.

Herman Cain is opposed to torture, period ... except that he isn't, exactly:
Herman Cain: I believe that following the procedures that have been established by our military, I do not agree with torture, period. However, I will trust the judgment of our military leaders to determine what is torture and what is not torture. That is the critical consideration.

Moderator: Mr. Cain, of course you’re familiar with the long-running debate we’ve had about whether waterboarding constitutes torture [....] In the last campaign, Republican nominee John McCain and Barack Obama agreed that it was torture and should not be allowed legally and that the Army Field Manual should be the methodology used to interrogate enemy combatants. Do you agree with that or do you disagree, sir?

Herman Cain: I agree that it was an enhanced interrogation technique.

Moderator: And then you would support it at present. You would return to that policy.

Herman Cain: Yes, I would return to that policy. I don’t see it as torture. I see it as an enhanced interrogation technique.
Then there's Ron Paul. I happen to consider consider Ron Paul a dangerous crackpot and a poisonously reactionary political troglodyte. I don't share the view, unfortunately too widespread, that he should be treated with sympathetic indulgence merely because his chances of actually becoming President are negligible. However, one should give credit where credit is due. His answer to that question about torture was on-target and commendably straightforward:
Ron Paul: Well, waterboarding is torture. And– and many other– it’s ill– it’s illegal under international law and under our law. It’s also immoral. The– and it’s also very impractical. There’s no evidence that you really get reliable evidence. Why would you accept the position of torturing 100 people because you know one person might have information? And that’s what you do when you accept the principle of a– of– of– of torture. I think it’s– I think it’s uncivilized and prac– and has no practical advantages and is really un-American to accept on principle that we will torture people that we capture.”
Fred Kaplan sums it up:
Only Paul and Huntsman spoke up for the Geneva Conventions and the U.S. Army Field Manual on interrogation. Huntsman noted with a grave expression: “This country has values. I’ve lived overseas four times.… We diminish our standing in the world when we engage in torture. Waterboarding is torture.”

Gingrich wasn’t asked the torture question, but he did say that the nation needs to throw out all the CIA reforms that the Church Committee passed in the 1970s.

Romney wasn’t asked the question (too bad) [....]
By the way, Fred Kaplan's roundup of this debate is worth reading in full. And it's hard to disagree with his overall impression:
God help us if any of these jokers makes it into the White House.
=> And speaking of giving credit where credit is due, here are two examples of John McCain talking about torture and US policy, earlier this year ...

... and as part of a wider conversation in in 2009 ...

One can agree or disagree with McCain on various other issues that come up in these two discussions. But not, in my opinion, on these central points: "Waterboarding is torture". And a policy of torturing prisoners violates the Geneva Convention, US law, elementary decency, America's highest values and traditions, and our genuine national interests.

—Jeff Weintraub

The word from Gaza – Killing Jews is "an act of worship"

To quote the complete sentence:
Praise be to you, our Lord. You have made our killing of the Jews an act of worship, through which we come closer to you.
So why dwell on the negative (as my mother used to say to me sometimes when I was younger)? In a way, this is a boring dog-bites-man story, since in certain parts of the world this kind of rhetoric is routine, not exceptional. But I think it's useful to be reminded of that fact from time to time. Of course, I know some people believe that murderous anti-semitism is no big deal, or at most an "understandable" reaction. I don't feel that way.

Here is a video clip of excerpts from a rally in Gaza, taken from a broadcast on Al-Aqsa TV, the official Hamas-run TV station (via MEMRI). A transcript is below, but I recommend watching the video itself to get the full flavor.

Incidentally, if you listen to the video, you won't have to understand Arabic to know that when the rally organizer thanks God for making "our killing of Jews an act of worship" and promises to "harvest the skulls of Jews", the word he uses is indeed "Jews" ("Yahud") not "Zionists". Yes, he does threaten "Zionists" too, and promises to "uproot" and expel them from Jerusalem, Haifa, Tel Aviv, and the rest of a country whose name he won't utter, Israel. I expect some people will seize on that to try to pretend that this speech is neither murderous nor anti-semitic, but such people are beyond the reach of argument or evidence anyway.

(Thanks to Mick Hartley for the tip.)

—Jeff Weintraub

Islamic Militants in Gaza: Allah's Teachings Are the Fire with Which "We Harvest the Skulls of the Jews"; "We Move Closer to Allah through Blood, Body Parts, and Martyrs"

Following are excerpts from statements made at a rally of the Palestinian Al-Ahrar movement in Gaza, a pro-Hamas group that split from Fatah, which aired on Al-Aqsa TV on November 3, 2011:

Rally organizer: Praise be to you, our Lord. You have made our killing of the Jews an act of worship, through which we come closer to you. [....]

Allah's prayers upon you, our beloved Prophet [Muhammad]. You have made your teachings into constitutions for us – the light with which we dissipate the darkness of the occupation, and the fire with which we harvest the skulls of the Jews. [....]

Yes, our beloved brothers, even though the entire world moves closer to Allah through fasting, through hunger, and through tears, we are a people that moves closer to Allah through blood, through body parts, and through martyrs. [....]

Oh sons of Palestine, oh sons of the Gaza Strip, oh mujahideen – wage Jihad, wreak destruction, blow up and harvest the heads of the Zionists. Words are useless by now. The lie of peace is gone. Only weapons are of any use – the path of [recently killed] Yousuf and Ali, the path of martyrdom and Jihad. Only our wounds talk on our behalf. We speak nothing but the language of struggle, of Jihad, or rockets, of bombs, of cannons and of martyrdom-seekers. This is the language in which we talk and negotiate with the Zionist enemy. [....]

We say to the Zionists: Like a bad seed, we shall uproot you from our land, so that it can blossom in the light of the everlasting sun of our Jihad, and of our invincible religion. Jerusalem is not yours – get out of it! Haifa is not yours – get out of it! Tel Aviv is not yours – get out of it! Oh Zionists, get out before we expel you. these are the words of the mujahideen. [....]

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Mitt Romney and the new American capitalism

It's by no means a done deal, but it looks increasingly plausible that Mitt Romney will wind up becoming the Republican presidential candidate in 2012. And even those of us who would vote against him should probably hope that he does get the nomination, since he is the only one in the current crop of Republican candidates who isn't an out-and-out loon. (I am overlooking John Huntsman, who is very right-wing but who nevertheless seems relatively sane, because his chances of winning the nomination are so minuscule, and he has no committed base of minority support like Ron Paul.) So we need to get a clearer sense of who Romney is, what his record has been, and what he really represents.

=> For a start, here is one of the central themes running through an interesting and, on the whole, not unsympathetic profile of Romney that Benjamin Wallace-Wells did for New York Magazine, "The Romney Economy":
The political genuflection to businessmen is so gauzy and generic that praise for a candidate’s private-sector acumen can often sound phony. But Mitt Romney is the real thing. He was, by any measure, an astonishingly successful businessman, one who spent his career explaining how business might operate better, and who leveraged his own mind into a personal fortune worth as much as $250 million. But much more significantly, Romney was also a business revolutionary. Our economy went through a remarkable shift during the eighties as Wall Street reclaimed control of American business and sought to remake it in its own image. Romney developed one of the tools that made this possible, pioneering the use of takeovers to change the way a business functioned, remaking it in the name of efficiency. “Whatever you think of his politics, you have to give him credit,” says Steven Kaplan, a professor of finance and entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago. “He came up with a model that was very successful and very innovative and that now everybody uses.”

The protests going on at Zuccotti Park now have raised the question of whether that transition was worth it. What emerged from that long decade of change was a system that is more productive, nimble, and efficient than the one it replaced; it is also less equal, less stable, and more brutal. These evolutions were not inevitable. They were the result, in part, of particular innovations developed by a few businessmen beginning a quarter century ago. Now one of them has a good chance of becoming president.
Romney made most of his money as CEO of Bain Capital.
“These Bain Capital guys,” says Neil Fligstein, an economics-sociology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, “were agents of the shareholder value revolution.” By the mid-nineties, The Business Roundtable had changed its definition of the role of a company, winnowing a broad set of responsibilities down to a single one: increasing shareholder value. [....]

It’s difficult to track the fallout of any one private-equity firm’s work, but scholars have been able to look at the consequences of the industry as a whole. These studies have consistently found that private-equity takeovers improve productivity and shed jobs. But one interesting nineties study, by two academics, Don Siegel at SUNY Stony Brook and Frank Lichtenberg at Columbia, found something surprising: White-collar workers, for the first time, were more vulnerable than blue-collar workers. “Part of what the private-equity firms were doing was replacing office workers with information ­technology—that’s where they were getting some of their gains,” says Siegel, now the dean of the University of Albany’s business school.

Here, too, private equity seemed to provide an early warning of broader changes. In three years during the early nineties, the Princeton economist Henry Farber has found, roughly 10 percent of American white-collar male managers lost their jobs. For the first time, according to data collected through the General Social Survey, white-collar workers were nearly as worried about losing their jobs as blue-collar workers. Those white-collar workers who kept their jobs worked harder, and the compensation that had once been spread through the broader middle ranks of corporations now collected at the top. In 1980, a CEO had earned about 35 times the wages of an average worker; by 1990, it was about 80; and by 2000, it was about 300. The portion of America’s gross national product that ended up in the hands of workers declined by more than 10 percent between 1979 and 1996; the portion that went to investors rose by a similar amount. “What you end up with is a choice between a bigger cake less equally split and a smaller cake equally split,” says Bloom, the Stanford economist. “But that’s a social question.”
Yes, that is "a social question". But it's not absolutely clear that we actually wound up with "a bigger cake" than would otherwise have been the case. Yes, the US economy grew quite a bit between 1980 and the present. But the overall cake grew at a significantly faster rate during the quarter-century after World War II (and not just in the US). Granted, such comparisons are tricky. But it's possible, at least, that as a society we actually wound up with a smaller cake less evenly split. Be that as it may ...
Economists believe there was a clear connection between the labor-market changes in the early nineties and the great profits that soon followed. “Could we have had the productivity boom without displacement? My answer would be no,” says Frank Levy, an MIT economist.

The trouble, Levy believes, was that this new shareholder-value-driven system had no built-in mechanism of regulation, and its incentives geared CEOs toward shortsightedness and recklessness. [....] If you trace the public controversies over Bain Capital over time, you can see how the obsession over shareholder value and efficiency proved not just inequitable but destabilizing. [....]
=>An article in Saturday's New York Times looks back at one of those controversial cases, and in the process helps to flesh out the picture. Some highlights:
By the green-hued yardsticks of Wall Street, the 1990s buyout of an Illinois medical company by Mitt Romney’s private equity firm was a spectacular success.

Mr. Romney’s company, Bain Capital, sent in a team of 10 turnaround experts from Boston to ferret out waste, motivate executives and study untapped markets.

By the time the Harvard M.B.A.’s from Bain were finished, sales at the medical company, Dade International, had more than doubled. The business acquired two of its rivals. And Mr. Romney’s firm collected $242 million, a return eight times its investment.

But an examination of the Dade deal shows the unintended human costs and messy financial consequences behind the brand of capitalism that Mr. Romney practiced for 15 years.

At Bain Capital’s direction, Dade quadrupled the money it owed creditors and vendors. It took steps that propelled the business toward bankruptcy. And in waves of layoffs, it cut loose 1,700 workers in the United States, including Brian and Christine Shoemaker, who lost their jobs at a plant in Westwood, Mass. Staggered, Mr. Shoemaker wondered, “How can the bean counters just come in here and say, Hey, it’s over?” [....]

Bain and a small group of investors bought Dade in 1994 with mostly borrowed money, limiting their risk. They extracted cash from the company at almost every turn — paying themselves nearly $100 million in fees, first for buying the company and then for helping to run it. Later, just after Mr. Romney stepped down from his role, Bain took $242 million out of the business in a transaction that, according to bankruptcy documents and several former Dade officials, weakened the company.

Even some people who benefited from that payday and found it reasonable at the time now question it. “You would have to say, looking back, that it was too large, because it pushed us into bankruptcy,” said Robert W. Brightfelt, a former Dade president who collected more than $1 million. [....]

Dade emerged from bankruptcy two months later and the stock soon began trading publicly.

Over the next four years, its revenues and share price surged, and in 2007, Siemens, the German conglomerate, paid $7 billion to buy Dade Behring. The Dade name disappeared, but the company survived.

Bain’s strategy, as painful as it was with plant closings and layoffs, had ultimately worked, executives said. The bankruptcy “does muddy the story,” said Mr. Wolsey-Paige, the former Dade executive. “Over all,” he said, “it was very positive.”
I suppose that depends, in part, on your perspective.

As Schumpeter famously pointed out a long time ago, a "perennial gale of creative destruction" is inseparable from the core dynamics of capitalism as a socio-economic system, so it would be unrealistic to imagine that, even in the best-case scenarios, capitalism can ever deliver gain without some pain. (Schumpeter knew that Marx had already made essentially the same point, and made it quite eloquently; but, unlike Marx, Schumpeter loved capitalism.) But that's precisely why capitalism can't be allowed to simply operate unhindered, but always has to be contained, counterbalanced, regulated, and mitigated by other social, political, and cultural forces and institutions. The balance between creation and destruction doesn't automatically come out for the best, and the extent to which is does or doesn't is influenced by public policies and other socio-political factors. And the balance between who gets the gains and who suffers the pains should be, as the man said, "a social question" subject to public consideration, moral assessment, and democratic debate. We need to pay more attention to it.

Meanwhile, both of those pieces about Romney (here & here) are worth reading in full. Whatever one thinks of his record as a businessman and its implications, any claim that Romney has experience as a "job creator" should be taken with a grain of salt.

—Jeff Weintraub

"People Like Us" and the Ohio referendum (Jonathan Chait)

Lots of Americans complain about "government spending" and "government programs", but which government programs do they actually dislike? Here's another shrewd observation from Jonathan Chait:
The conservative movement holds an ideological and generally principled opposition to government. [JW: I think "right-wing" is more accurate than "conservative" here, contrary to the peculiar & misleading terminology of American politics, but let's skip that for the moment.] Most Republican voters don’t share that. They oppose government programs that seem to benefit people other than themselves.

The most relevant piece of work here is a study by Donald Kinder and Cindy Kam, which identified ethnocentrism, or a favoritism for people you identify with racially, culturally, or otherwise, as a driving force of American public opinion. Among whites, ethnocentrism makes you more opposed to welfare and food stamps. That’s conservative, and obviously not very surprising. The surprising thing is that ethnocentric whites are more supportive of Social Security and Medicare. Those are programs for people like themselves.

Republicans successfully mobilized public opposition to health care reform by portraying it as an attempt to take health care away from people like you and give it to the undeserving "them." Conservatives deliriously interpreted this as a triumph of anti-government ideology asserting itself. But as Republicans discovered when they voted for a budget to slash Medicare, the public remains staunchly opposed to cutting programs for people like themselves. [....]

Cops, firefighters, teachers, nurses — people like us. Conservatives have yet to grasp that their successful attempts to rally opposition to government programs seen as benefiting the Other do not translate into opposition to the vast bulk of the government.
This is not simply a matter of individual selfishness (or, to put it more technically, of the "rational" calculation of purely individual self-interest). As Chait's discussion makes clear, the most crucial questions have to do with solidarity and collective identity. Who are "we" (for what purposes), and how do we draw the lines between "us" and "them"? How widely and how strongly does solidarity reach? These questions are always of central importance in politics, and especially for the politics of democratic citizenship.

Senate Bill 5 in Ohio was an attack on public employees' unions, but obviously a large proportion of those who voted to repeal it weren't public employees themselves, or even close relatives of public employees. A pervasive feature of the Republicans' long-term war on unions has been an effort to drive a wedge between private-sector and public-sector workers, to the detriment of both. Too often, that works. This time it didn't.

Solidarity forever!
Jeff Weintraub