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Washington’s governing elites think we’re all morons

Monday, October 3rd, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — a study in the mighty and their lowly, knowledge and ignorance, truth and falsehood ]
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all-morons

Vice News, Washington’s governing elites think we’re all morons

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First, if you’ll permit, the simple truth:

Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them.

That’s Laurence J Peter, and it’s a quote so succinct and powerful that Jeff Conklin puts it, in large print, above the title of his pamphlet on wicked problems:

conklin-cover-wicked-problems

The simple truth is that the truth is complex, beyond the minds of elites and morons, deplorables and desirables alike.

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Next, the untruth:

The untruth is in a view down the nose from one human person at another, or at a group, a crowd, a mob — a diversity of others.

Clinton:

You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the ‘basket of deplorables’. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic – you name it.

Romney:

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. .. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect. .. And so my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

Such sentiments remind me irresistably of the Magnificat — given here in my own version:

He is not one who is ashamed to show his strength,
and buffets proud folk about like leaves in a gale.
He upsets those that hold themselves high and mighty
and rescues the least one of us.
He feeds the hungry,
and tells the rich they can go fetch their own food.

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And then the nuance..

Let’s start with the fact that I’m a snob. I’m an almost equal-opportunity despiser. I prefer not to act on my snobbery, except when choosing which sorts of books and music I wish to consume, but it’s there in me, like an undertow, like an unrest.

Now we’ve gotten that out of the way, here’s the setup, as described in What Washington Gets Wrong:

73 percent of government officials think the public knows little or nothing about programs aimed at helping the poor, 71 percent of them think the public knows little or nothing about science and technology policy, and 61 percent of them think the public knows almost nothing about childcare. In fact, when it comes to fundamental policy areas like social security, public schools, crime, defense and the environment, it was hard to find government officials who thought the public knew “a great deal.”

Assuming Americans know so little, government officials tend to use their own judgment rather than the people’s when making policy decisions. With issues of science and defense, more than half of officials think they should “always” or “mostly” heed their own opinions. With crime, welfare and the environment, at least 42 percent of officials who felt the same way.

Okay, first off, government officials — how well do they stack up?

This is from Counterpunch — it’s a succinct summary of a Jeff Stein piece from the New York Times:

There are very few people in the U.S. government who understand basic Islamic history or even regard it as important. In 2002 Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.), the incoming chairman of the House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, was asked by a reporter whether al-Qaeda was Sunni or Shiite. “Predominantly — probably Shiite,” he responded stupidly. And what about Lebanon’s Hizbollah? “Hizbollah. Uh, Hizbollah . . . Why do you ask me these questions at 5 o’clock?” He later added, “Speaking only for myself, it’s hard to keep things in perspective and in the categories.” Obviously the Intelligence Committee chairman was unaware that Hizbollah is a Shiite organization aligned with Shiite Iran and Shiite-led Syria against al-Qaeda-type Sunni Islamist forces.

Jeff Stein, the national security editor of Congressional Quarterly, wrote a New York Times op-ed in 2002 highlighting the (bipartisan) ignorance among Washington “counterterrorism officials” including key Congressional committee members about the divisions within Islam. He had asked many of them the fundamental question, “What’s the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?” and was shocked by their responses. “Most American officials I’ve interviewed,” he concluded, “don’t have a clue.” Rep. Jo Ann Davis, Republican Congresswoman from Virginia then heading the subcommittee overseeing much of the CIA’s work with Muslim assets, told Stein, “The Sunni are more radical than the Shia. Or vice versa.” (In other words, all Muslims are radical; it’s just a question of degree. Talk about Islamophobia. And talk about ignorance!)

Alabama Republican Congressman Terry Everett, head of a subcommittee on tactical intelligence, told Stein after some briefing, “I thought it was differences in their religion, different families or something. Now that you’ve explained it to me, what occurs to me is that it makes what we’re doing over there extremely difficult.” In 2001, after FBI counterterrorism chief Gary Bald had publicly revealed his ignorance about Islam, FBI spokesman John Miller declared such knowledge to be unnecessary, and indeed made it a point to belittle it. “A leader needs to drive the organization forward,” he told Stein. “If he is the executive in a counterterrorism operation in the post-9/11 world, he does not need to memorize the collected statements of Osama bin Laden, or be able to read Urdu to be effective. … Playing ‘Islamic Trivial Pursuit’ was a cheap shot for the lawyers and a cheaper shot for the journalist. It’s just a gimmick.”

That was in 2006, ten years after Osama bin Laden’s Decxlaration of War against the United States, and five years after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

In fact, one might say, when it comes to fundamental policy areas like defense.. government officials aren’t necessarily terribly savvy. And I’m relieved to know that by March 2014, at least, the then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Martin Dempsey, knew that ISIS has an “apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision.”

Of course, if Dabiq falls, as it very soon many, that strategic vision may get stretched to breaking point..

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So much for government officials. What of the general population, down on whom those paragons of virtue look?

In November 2002, a year after the 9/11 attacks, according to National Geographic News:

In a nation called the world’s superpower, only 17 percent of young adults in the United States could find Afghanistan on a map, according to a new worldwide survey released today.

Ast forward to 2006, and a National Geographic-Roper Public Affairs Geographic Literacy Study of American youth between ages 18 and 24 finds:

Six in ten (63%) cannot find Iraq on a map of the Middle East, despite near-constant news coverage since the U.S. invasion of March 2003. Three-quarters cannot find Indonesia on a map ñ even after images of the tsunami and the damage it caused to this region of the world played prominently across televisions screens and in the pages of print media over many months in 2005. Three-quarters (75%) of young men and women do not know that a majority of Indonesiaís population is Muslim (making it the largest Muslim country in the world), despite the prominence of this religion in global news today. Neither wars nor natural disasters appear to have compelled majorities of young adults to absorb knowledge about international places in the news.

Of course, that’s young people.

Young people today .. if you want to dismiss these findsings .. or young people are our future .. if you want to let the impact settle in.

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Here, for my convenience, is a map kindly provided by The Washington Post in 2013, in an intriguing Ezra Klein piece aptly titled Most Americans can’t find Syria on a map. So what?

syria-on-the-map

Maybe Firesign Theater had it right when they titled their 1971 album: I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus.

Not China’s Choice but Ours

Sunday, June 5th, 2016

[by Mark Safranski / “zen”]

China’s Blue Water “Coast Guard”

T. Greer of Scholar’s Stage has an outstanding post on the strategic reality of China and American foreign policy. It is a must read:

“China Does Not Want Your Rules Based Order”

…..McCain’s words echo those spoken by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter last week to the graduating midshipman at Annapolis. Read them both. Compare what they say. Behold the quickly crystallizing American narrative on China. This is a bipartisan message. It will be the starting point of a President Clinton’s policy. Whether a President Trump will endorse it is hard to say. In either case, it is a narrative whose momentum is building.

There is much that is good in this narrative. McCain proclaims that “no nation has done as much to contribute to what China calls its “peaceful rise” as the United States of America.” He is right to do so. No nation has done more to enable China’s rise than America has. No country’s citizens have done more for the general prosperity of the Chinese people than the Americans have. This is true in ways that are not widely known or immediately obvious. For example, the role American financiers and investment banks played in creating the architecture of modern Chinese financial markets and corporate structures is little realized, despite the size and importance of their interventions. Behind every great titan of Chinese industryChina Mobile, the world’s largest mobile phone operator, China State Construction Engineering, whose IPO was valued at $7.3 billion, PetroChina, the most profitable company in Asia (well, before last year), to name a few of hundreds–lies an American investment banker. I do not exaggerate when I say Goldman Sachs created modern China. [2] China has much to thank America for.

However, I cannot endorse all that is included in this emerging narrative, for part of it is deeply flawed. The flaw may be by design; if the purpose is to stir cold hearts and gain moral admiration of others, such flaws can be excused–that is how politics works. But this sort of things can only be excused if those delivering the speeches do not take the implications of their own words seriously when it is time to make policy. 

I speak of  China’s “choice.” The thread that runs through all of these talks is that the Chinese have yet to choose whether they aim for order or disruption, the existing regime or the chaos beyond it. The truth is that the Chinese have already chosen their path and no number of speeches on our part will convince them to abandon it. They do not want our rules based order. They have rejected it. They will continue to reject it unless compelled by overwhelming crisis to sleep on sticks and swallow gall and accept the rules we force upon them. 

China has made its choice. The real decision that will determine the contours of the 21st century will not be made in Beijing, but in Washington.

T. Greer, in my opinion is correct but this is not a message Beltway insiders are wont to harken – making strategic choices is for lesser nations. America is so rich, powerful, unipolar, indispensable, exceptional that we can pursue all objectives, in every corner of the globe, without choosing between the vital and the trivial. We can do this even if our goals are contradictory and ill-considered or serve manly as a prop for domestic political disputes, the business interests of political donors or career advancement of apparatchiks and politicians. We can safely delay and indulge in fantasy.

If this was true once, it is less so today and will be still less twenty years hence.

Greer sharpens his argument:

….Last spring it finally sunk in. Chinese illiberalism not only can endure, it is enduring. The old consensus cracked apart. No new consensus on how to deal with China has yet formed to take its place.

But old habits die hard. We see this at the highest levels of policy, as in the McCain speech, where American policy is justified in terms of giving China a chance to choose the right. The same spirit is invoked further down the line. Ash Carter, for example, recently described American tactics in the South China Sea as a “long campaign of firmness, and gentle but strong pushback… [until] The internal logic of China and its society will eventually dictate a change.” [3] In other words, American policy is a holding action until China sees the light.

What if they never do?

The Chinese believe that our international order is a rigged system set up by the imperial victors of the last round of bloodshed to perpetuate the power of its winners. They use the system, quite cynically, but at its base they find it and its symbols hypocritical, embarrassing, outrageous, and (according to the most strident among them), evil. In their minds it is a system of lies and half-truths. In some cases they have a point. Most of their actions in the East or South China Seas are designed to show just how large a gap exists between the grim realities of great power politics and soaring rhetoric Americans use to describe our role in the region

….In simpler terms, the Chinese equate “rising within a rules based order” with “halting China’s rise to power.” To live by Washington’s rules is to live under its power, and the Chinese have been telling themselves for three decades now that—after two centuries of hardship—they will not live by the dictates of outsiders ever again.

The Chinese will never choose our rules based order. That does not necessarily mean they want to dethrone America and throw down all that she has built. The Chinese do not have global ambitions. What they want is a seat at the table—and they want this seat to be recognized, not earned. That’s the gist of it. Beijing is not willing to accept an order it did not have a hand in creating. Thus all that G-2 talk we heard a few years back. The Chinese would love to found a new order balancing their honor and their interests with the Americans. It is a flattering idea. What they do not want is for the Americans to give them a list of hoops to jump through to gain entry into some pre-determined good-boys club. They feel like their power, wealth, and heritage should be more than enough to qualify for  automatic entrance to any club.

Read the rest here.

Richard Nixon, who was the external strategic architect of China’s rise in order to use China as a counterweight against an increasingly aggressive Soviet Union, faced a similar situation that Greer described above with the Soviets. Nixon’s détente summits with the Russians were diplomatic triumphs where LBJ’s summit at Glassboro with Kosygin had been a failure because Nixon shrewdly understood Soviet psychological insecurity, a deep sense of paranoid inferiority and the hunger for respect as a superpower equal of the United States. Leonid Brezhnev, Kosygin’s ascendant rival was desperate for this American political recognition and Nixon and Kissinger played this card (along with the geostrategic shock of the China opening) to wrest concessions in arms control and restraint (for a time) in Soviet behavior from Brezhnev.

Playing this card is not possible with China.

While there seems some emergent rivalry between China’s prime minister Li Keqiang and China’s President Xi Jinping that loosely mirrors the Kosygin-Brezhnev dynamic, the analogy is otherwise a poor one. Despite sharing Marxist-Leninist DNA in their institutional structure, China is not at all like the Soviet Union in terms of culture, history or ambitions. The Chinese not only lack the national inferiority complex that drives the Russian psyche, they suffer from the opposite condition of a superiority complex that outstrips their actual capacity to project military or even economic power. This has given rise to popular frustration and manic nationalism in China, with bitter recriminations about “small countries” and “hegemonic powers”. It also has created a strategic lacunae where China has in a short span of time gone from enjoying good relations with most of the world to a state of habitually irritating almost all of its neighbors and periodically threatening two great powers – rising India and Japan – and one superpower, the United States.

In short, China already is as T. Greer argued, a committed revisionist power.

We cannot buy off or bribe China. Unlike Brezhnev who needed American credits for his domestic economic program to cement his place as supreme leader, Xi Jinping has carried out a ruthless purge of the party and government under the pretext of an anti-corruption drive. Xi does not need or want our help in his domestic squabbles. Nor would he or another Chinese leader be content with symbolic gestures of Beijing’s “parity” with Washington. “Parity” will not satisfy Chinese leaders unless it comes with attendant symbolic humiliations for America and an American retreat from Asia. Forever.

If American leaders do not wake up to this reality and do so quickly then it is time for a new leadership class with less sentimentality and clearer vision.

That Bach Chaconne

Sunday, May 8th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — JS Bach in Palmyra, in the DC Metro, and variously on YouTube ]
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I have to applaud Putin and the Russians for bringing the full orchestra of the Mariinsky Theater from St Petersburg to Palmyra now that the Islamic State has departed, with added kudos for choosing Bach‘s towering Chaconne from his Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004 as one of three works to be played there — by the Tchaikovsky Competition winning soloist Pavel Milyukov:

As I say, I applaud the gesture. OTOH, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, according to Breitbart, called the event “a tasteless attempt to distract attention from the continued suffering of millions of Syrians” and said it “shows that there are no depths to which the regime will not sink.”

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This may not be the greatest performance of that work musically, but the work itself is extraordinary. Johannes Brahms said of it:

On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.

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It was famously this Chaconne that violinist Joshua Bell played — twice — with his violin case open to receive tips, in DC’s L’Enfant Plaza metro station, during a 45 minute anonymous session in which he netted $32. $32 and change, for a man whose upcoming performance with the National Symphony Orchestra at DC’s Kennedy Center (February 11, 2017) is ticketed at $216 or $223, depending on how well seated you wish to be…

Here’s the poorly recorded, hidden videocam account of the second of those performances, which starts at about the 30’15” mark:

Gene Weingarten‘s description of the event in the Washington Post, Pearls Before Breakfast, won the Pulitzer..

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For the fullest musical appreciation, here is that same Joshua Bell playing the Chaconne in 2014 in the DeLaMar Theater, Amsterdam:

Hillary Hahn, also superb:

The no less beautiful Hélène Grimaud, playing the Busoni transcription for piano:

And last, violinist Christoph Poppen plays the Chaconne, with added chorale motifs as reconstructed by violinist turned musicologist Helga Thoene sung by the Hilliard Ensemble — the culmination of the group’s celebrated album, Morimur:

Post-modern adaptation, or quintessential Bach? Either way, I find the entire project enthralling.

Sunday surprise: House of Cards meets monks and sexy riot grrls

Sunday, October 11th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — wondering if the same mind (Beau Willimon?) suggested both? ]
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Two very different modes of factual reality found their ways into the fictional world of House of Cards, Season 3, American version, and I found the two choices pretty interesting. I’ve recently found clips relating to both on YouTube, so here they are for your consideration:

Pussy Riot:

and

Tibetan monks:

Taking those two choices together is a bit like juxtaposing Gregorian chant and punk rock — which, come to think of it, is pretty close to what I was getting at in my first ever Riot Grrls post, Pussy Riot, Holy Foolishness and Monk Punk.

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Contemplation and activism — poles apart, or one the mainspring for the other?

An amazing parallelogram of a paragraph

Sunday, May 31st, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — or if not, a single sentence paragraph about politics that Levi-Strauss would have loved to diagram, plus Yikes ]
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Orin Kerr, writing in WaPo today for the Volokh Conspiracy, in a piece titled If I understand the history correctly… wrote:

If I understand the history correctly, in the late 1990s, the President was impeached for lying about a sexual affair by a House of Representatives led by a man who was also then hiding a sexual affair, who was supposed to be replaced by another Congressman who stepped down when forced to reveal that he too was having a sexual affair, which led to the election of a new Speaker of the House who now has been indicted for lying about payments covering up his sexual contact with a boy.

Yikes.

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I’ve provided the full text of the piece so you’ll get the links Prof. Kerr included.

What interests me here, though, is the elegant concision of the piece, with its four parallels and various antitheses or oppositions.

Consider:

It begins with a frame:

If I understand the history correctly,

It then offers its prime example of an errant politician:

in the late 1990s, the President was impeached for lying about a sexual affair

followed by its reversal, as the antagonist takes on the protagonist’s role:

by a House of Representatives led by a man who was also then hiding a sexual affair

followed by a third exemplar of political purity, his ascent to power aborted under parallel circumstances:

who was supposed to be replaced by another Congressman who stepped down when forced to reveal that he too was having a sexual affair,

and a fourth, parallel both by succession and similarity of (alleged) conduct:

which led to the election of a new Speaker of the House who now has been indicted for lying about payments covering up his sexual contact with a boy.

— with the frame closing on the one-word paragraph:

Yikes.

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Between the careful formality of “If I understand the history correctly” and the squeal of “Yikes” we see the distance this recital of, yes, historical events has taken our good professor: from mind to emotion, observation to morality, head to heart.

Bravo!

And the (non-partisan) moral of this story is?


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