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Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Sam Webb: Stray thoughts in a dangerous world

Stray thoughts in a dangerous world

Sam Webb



1. The editors of the NYT rightfully condemn Trump and Netanyahu for yesterday's calamitous events that resulted in the loss of so many Palestinian lives and the injury of so many more. The power of the editorial, however, loses some of its potency in the final two paragraphs. It reads:

"Israel has every right to defend its borders, including the boundary with Gaza. But officials are unconvincing when they argue that only live ammunition — rather than tear gas, water cannons and other nonlethal measures — can protect Israel from being overrun.

Led too long by men who were corrupt or violent or both, the Palestinians have failed and failed again to make their own best efforts toward peace. Even now, Gazans are undermining their own cause by resorting to violence, rather than keeping their protests strictly peaceful."

This strikes me as gratuitous, an attempt to protect its flank from attacks from the right. But is that really necessary? Doesn't it take away its main message? Is equivalence of the two sides a reality or an invention that conceals the preponderance of power on the Israeli side and the steady expansion of the Israeli state at the expense of Palestinian lands and rights? And shouldn't the violence of the bully be distinguished from the person or people on the receiving end who resist.

The Times' editors would have served themselves and their readers better had they repeated their condemnation of Trump and Netanyahu, both of whom wrongly operate on the assumption that political power grows out of the barrel of of a gun and can erase the national aspirations of an oppressed people, not to mention insisted on the urgency of a just settlement of the long delayed and just statehood claims of the Palestinian people. There is, after all, no other road to mutual peace and security in that part of the world.

2. In an oped in the NY Times, David Brooks writes,

"There is growing reason to believe that Donald Trump understands the thug mind a whole lot better than the people who attended our prestigious Foreign Service academies.

"The first piece of evidence" Brooks goes on, "is North Korea. When Trump was trading crude, back-alley swipes with 'Little Rocket Man,' Kim Jong-un, about whose nuclear button was bigger, it sounded as if we were heading for a nuclear holocaust led by a pair of overgrown prepubescents."

"In fact," Brooks continues, "Trump's bellicosity seems to have worked. It's impossible to know how things will pan out, but the situation with North Korea today is a lot better than it was six months ago. Hostages are being released, talks are being held. There seems to be a chance for progress unfelt in years."

This claim is mistaken and dangerous. It is mistaken insofar as it fails to account for the role of China, the thawing of relations between the two Koreas, the new political landscape in South Korea, and, not least, the undeniable fact that North Korea has been left behind by its modernizing neighbors in East Asia in nudging Kim Jong-un to discuss de-nuclearization, mutual security, and a new era of relations between the North and South. People forget that East Asia has been the most dynamic center of capital accumulation, economic growth, and social modernization in the world over the past three decades. To think that the North Korean elite wants a piece of the action wouldn't be an outlandish assumption.

It is dangerous insofar as it suggests, even if in a slightly qualified way, that saber-rattling and muscle flexing are the best means of settling disputes not only on the Korean Peninsula, but in other trouble spots in the world as well. And Brooks does so without so much as considering, for even a moment, the potential negative consequences of such a posture.

What happens if Trump's bullying doesn't achieve its expected results. Is Brooks ready to support Trump when he moves from words to weapons, from threats to regime change? Or decides to engulf the world in flames? Or teaches "Rocket Man and other thugs" a harsh lesson?

If Trump understands the mind of a thug, as Brooks says, there is a simple reason for this — Trump himself is a thug and, for that matter, the most dangerous one in the world today. But this inexplicably goes unmentioned by Brooks. Trump is bellicosity, writes Brooks, but his "bellicosity' is making the world a safer place.

Really?

Perhaps I should be surprised by Brooks' take on Trump, but that would be a lie. Many consider him "public intellectual," but he has done little to earn that title in my view. His commentary is filled with empty abstractions and pious moralizing. If his feet are planted anywhere, it is in mid-air and above the fray.

From this perch, he sanctimoniously gives counsel to both sides. His opinions are occasionally interesting, usually vapid, and from time to time, as I've tried to demonstrate above, are irresponsible and dangerous.

3. Trump's decision to opt out of the nuclear agreement with Iran, much like his withdrawal from the Paris climate change accord, does more than isolate the U.S. on the global stage and rupture our alliances internationally. It also — and this point should be emphasized — existentially endangers the well being of the American people, not to mention people worldwide.

Moreover, what prompted Trump's action was more than his singular desire to undo President Obama's accomplishments in the global theater. It was driven as much by Trump's view that the preponderance of military power in U.S. hands gives him the ability to unilaterally dictate to the rest of the world, and in turn, the world — again in Trump's view — has no other option than to capitulate to his dictates, even if reluctantly. Trump, in effect, believes — and now he is surrounded by advisors of like mind — that there are no limits to the projection of U.S. power, despite much evidence to the contrary..

Indeed, one has to wonder if high on the White House's agenda is regime change in Iran. After all, that is the overweening desire of not only the Trumpists, but also the Saudi and Israeli governments. The latter two, notwithstanding the free pass given to them by the major media, are anything but innocent actors in the Middle East.

4. Here's a tactical conundrum — how to strengthen the progressive current in the Democratic Party, while at the same time helping to build — what is strategically necessary — a common front against Trump and GOP this fall. Not so simple in my view. Any solution, however, must include, among other things, discussions with local Democrats and the other makers and shakers in every congressional district. And we should bear in mind that in many CDs — especially non-urban — that have to be flipped if Democrats are to regain control of Congress, the overall lay of the land is different from what liberals and left thinkers might be familiar with, the best candidates may not have impeccable left credentials, and the strength of the progressive-left is much thinner and loosely organized.

For example, Conor Lamb, who won a House seat in a special election in western Pennsylvania, didn't easily fit into the progressive category. And yet, he gained the support of progressive and left people as well as the full and indispensable support of the labor movement.

All of which leads me to believe that this tactical conundrum will only be solved concretely and in the context of the overriding imperative of electing a Democratic Congressional majority — not by way of some abstract formula like "fight the establishments of both parties." The latter may sound radical, but from a strategic and tactical standpoint it is badly misguided.

In these circumstances, the challenge is to allow for a robust debate over the Democratic Party's direction and internal organization, while at the same time maintaining a united, party-wide approach — which will take compromise, flexibility, and a retreat from political maximalism on all sides — to the central task of this moment: regaining control of Congress in the coming elections. Nothing, it is fair to say, is more important than the latter. If the democratic movement — the resistance — hopes to restrain creeping Trumpist authoritarianism and, at the same time, set the stage for a new period of reform, winning this fall is an absolute necessity.

5. The attitude of the left toward the Putin government is complicated. On the one hand, we oppose the resumption of the Cold War and its attendant dangers — a nuclear confrontation, first of all — but, on the other hand, we can't be silent in the face of Putin's systematic efforts to interfere in our elections — not to mention elections in Western Europe. And in each instance, it's on the side of right wing and authoritarian candidates and parties. Needless to say, threading this needle will take political dexterity.

6. In a wide ranging, insightful interview, Jayati Ghosh, a radical Indian economist, makes this point:

"Another — possibly more powerful — reason (for the decline of Marxism as a framework for thought) is the very political use of Marx to justify particular strategies by those ruling different countries. This meant that particularly over the course of the 20th century, major political movements, dramatic changes in economic strategy, massive socio-political upheavals and drastic attempts at social engineering were all carried out in the name of Marx. As a result, both good and bad elements of such strategies all became identified with Marxism."

"Many people," she adds, "across the world who had little or no knowledge of Marx or his writing nevertheless associated him with not just revolutions but also their aftermath, and with particular social and political systems that operated in his name."

In celebrating Marx's 200th birthday, this should be acknowledged, especially by the communist movement, along with a commitment to a Marxism that is open ended, admits new experience, accents critique, and fearlessly revises its own understandings when life and experience compel them.

7. A meandering thought: In comparing the political ascendancy  of the right against that of the left in recent decades, one has to be mindful of what seems to me an indisputable fact: the right doesn't confront capitalism — its structure, profit making, and power. The left, on the other hand, does, thus making its mission particularly challenging.

8. On a light note: Most of us, I suspect, have to find relief from the madness of Trump. Here's what I do: 1. My daily walk with my dog on the Hudson 2. Swimming, yoga, and spin class 3. Drinking wine and (craft) IPA 4. Getting ready for fall elections 5. Conversations with friends and strangers about Trump and the state of the country 6. Staying engaged in practical politics at the local level 7. Watching the NBA playoffs and Netflix 8. Reading good history books.


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John Case
Harpers Ferry, WV

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