Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Expressions of and Responses to Authoritarian Populism

"The greatest threat to liberal democracies does not come from immigrants and refugees but from the backlash against them by those on the inside who exploit fears of outsiders to chip away at the values and institutions that make our societies liberal."
— Sasha Polakov-Suransky, Go Back to Where You Came From: The Backlash Against Immigration and the Fate of Western Democracy, 2017

“The point of modern propaganda isn’t to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.”
— Garry Kasparov 

"Populists in power tend to undermine countervailing powers which are the courts, which are the media, which are other parties."
— Cas Mudde, Populism: A Very Short Introduction, 2017

“Every age has its own fascism.”
— Primo Levi

"In  the CBC program The Fifth Estate,  Trump is shown as a bellowing demagogue, a purveyor of personal insults and a panderer to his supporters by reviling Mexicans and Muslims as the racial other. The former are equated with rapists and drug dealers, and the latter are associated with terrorists. Trump's bumptious vitriol even suggests that the vast majority of American Muslims are complicit to the acts perpetrated by a tiny number when he says, 'they know where the bad ones are.' His simplistic solutions to these hot-button issues are bombastic promises to build a wall to keep out the Mexicans, calling for a ban on Muslims entering America and rounding up and deporting eleven million undocumented immigrants. That he has retained a raucous and unthinking cohort of loyal supporters is evidence that he has tapped into an existing cache of psychosis and he’s exploiting it for political gain. Todd Gitlin has perceptively written: “the dog whistles have been superseded. What we hear now is the raw thing itself, the old-time irreligion, the rock-bottom roar of a sewage stream that always lay beneath the surface but now has erupted.” More recently, Trump has tried to equate immigration in general and free trade with fear of both homegrown terror and the new global economy. What this rank demagogue has made unambiguously clear is that he will transgress any boundary of decency or truth to win power."
— Robert Douglas, "Through the Mirror DarklyCritics at Large 

“The Trump show is all about toughness and cruelty. The administration adopted a zero-tolerance policy that was supposed to deter potential immigrants. It failed miserably. Roughly 103,000 unauthorized immigrants reached the U.S.-Mexico border in March, twice as many as in March 2018.

Aside from baring his fangs, Trump is uninterested in processing the extra refugees. The facilities are overwhelmed. Over 800,000 people already have their cases pending. New asylum seekers are held for a couple of weeks, dumped out on the streets, and most will wait until 2021 to get their formal hearings.” 
— David Brooks, New York Times 

"Populist authoritarianism can best be explained as a cultural backlash in Western societies against long-term, ongoing social change.
Over recent decades, the World Values Survey shows that Western societies have been getting gradually more liberal on many social issues, especially among the younger generation and well-educated middle class. That includes egalitarian attitudes toward sex roles, tolerance of fluid gender identities and LGBT rights, support for same-sex marriage, tolerance of diversity, and more secular values, as well as what political scientists call emancipative values, engagement in directly assertive forms of democratic participation, and cosmopolitan support for agencies of global governance.
This long-term generational shift threatens many traditionalists’ cultural values. Less educated and older citizens fear becoming marginalized and left behind within their own countries.
In the United States, evidence from the World Values Survey perfectly illustrates the education gap in these types of cultural values. Well before Trump, a substantial and striking education gap can be observed in American approval of authoritarian leaders. The WVS asked whether Americans approved of “having a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with congress or elections.” The figure below shows a consistent education gap and growing support for this statement since 2005.
Most remarkably, by the most recent wave in 2011, almost half — 44 percent — of U.S. non-college graduates approved of having a strong leader unchecked by elections and Congress.
This deeply disturbing finding reflects attitudes usually observed in states such as Russia."

— Pippa Norris,"It’s not just Trump. Authoritarian populism is rising across the West. Here’s why"Washington Post, March 11, 2016 
 A powerful November 2017 ) op-ed in The New York Times about public ignorance that  explains why a large percentage of people do not have the tools to distinguish truth from falsehood. 
— Paul Krugman in The New York Times writes about how democracy can slowly die in America

One of the most insightful comments made during the summer 2019 Democratic debates from a candidate that had no chance of winning the Presidential nomination:

Marianne Williamson
“This is part of the dark underbelly of American society: the racism, the bigotry and the entire conversation that we’re having here tonight. If you think any of this wonkiness is going to deal with this dark psychic force of the collectivized hatred that this president is bringing up in this country, then I’m afraid that the Democrats are going to see some very dark days.”

Boris Johnson
"Evasiveness” can be a polite term for lying, and it is impossible to understand Johnson without recalling that he has quite literally made a career of mendacity. At the end of that fateful weekend in February 2016, the Telegraph, which pays him £275,000 a year for a weekly column, dutifully spiked his sincere plea to Remain and published his anti-EU column. It cited as the main reason for Brexit that “the more the EU does, the less room there is for national decision-making. Sometimes these EU rules sound simply ludicrous, like the rule that you can’t recycle a teabag, or that children under eight cannot blow up balloons.” The truth is that some local councils in Britain itself had introduced rules against recycling teabags, which have nothing to do with the EU. As for children under eight not being allowed to blow up balloons, EU safety rules simply say that packets of balloons should carry the words 'Warning: children under eight can choke or suffocate.'
But Johnson has always understood that a vivid lie is much more memorable than a dull truth."
— Fintan O' Toole, New York Review of Books August 15, 2019

To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most  blinding lights.”
“The symbols of today enable the reality of tomorrow. Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away, and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.”
— Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from The Twentieth Century
Justice Rosalie Abella
Abella said that commitment has been "shattered by narcissistic populism, an unhealthy tolerance for intolerance, a cavalier indifference to equality, a deliberate amnesia about the instruments and values of democracy that are no less crucial than elections and a shocking disrespect for the borders between power and its independent adjudicators like the press and the courts.”
Supreme Court Justice, Rosalie Abella May 22, 2017

“The goal of liberal education should always be to make us acutely aware of illiberal acts….One need only to compare this process with that of all authoritarian states [where] all criticism, including minimal empirical feedback, is forbidden or minimalized to see why the liberal state can confront and, sometimes correct its own injustices more rapidly than any other society on the fully historical record.”

— Adam Gopnik, A Thousand Small Insanities: The Moral Adventure of  Liberalism, 2019

Dr. Shafique Virani
 With shocking evidence, hilarious anecdotes, heart-wrenching personal stories, and brilliant insights into world events, Dr. Shafique Virani urges us to confront the Clash of Ignorance between the West and the Muslim World, replacing walls of misinformation with bridges of understanding. Appealing to the best in human nature, Dr. Virani presents a visionary path forward, and inspires hope for a better future.

Demonstrators in Santiago Chile
"The populist backlash came in different forms in different parts of the world. In Central and Eastern Europe it came in the form of nationalist strongmen — Victor Orban, Vladimir Putin, the Law and Justice party in Poland. In Latin America it came in the form of the Pink Tide — a group of left-wing economic populists like Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro. In the Anglosphere it was white ethnic nationalism of Donald Trump and Brexit. In the Middle East it was Muslim fundamentalism. In China it was the increasing authoritarianism of Xi Jinping. In India it was the Hindu nationalism of Narendra Modi.

In places, the populist wave is still rising. The Yellow Vests in France and the protests in Chile are led by those who feel economically left behind. But it’s also clear that when in power the populists can’t deliver goods. So now in many places we’re seeing a revolt against the revolt, urban middle-class uprisings against the populists themselves....

The populist/authoritarian regimes are losing legitimacy.        The members of the urban  middle class in places like Hong    Kong and Indonesia are rising up to protect the political    social freedoms.

These days, it doesn’t take much to set off a giant wave of anger. In Lebanon it was a proposed tax on WhatsApp. In Saudi Arabia the government raised taxes on hookah restaurants. In France, Zimbabwe, Ecuador and Iran it was rising fuel prices. In Chile it was a proposed 4 percent rise in subway fares.

The world is unsteady and ready to blow. The overall message is that the flaws of liberal globalization are real, but the populist alternative is not working.

The protests in all these places are leaderless, so it’s unrealistic to expect them to have policy agendas. But the big question is, what’s next? What comes after the failure of populism?
— David Brooks,"The Revolt Against Populism New York Times, November 21, 2019.

"For a naturalized American, raised in Britain, I found Fiona Hill’s testimony at impeachment hearings this week to be a powerful reminder of what makes America great and of how President Trump has taken a sledgehammer to “its role as a beacon of hope in the world.”....
Fiona Hill
Hill rose in her adopted country to serve three presidents as an expert on Russia and the former Soviet republics, including Ukraine. She was the top Russia and Europe expert on Trump’s National Security Council until she quit in July. It was devastating to hear her lambaste, without naming them, the shameless Republicans who have embraced a “fictional narrative” propagated “by the Russian security services themselves” under which Ukraine, not Russia, attacked American democratic institutions in 2016. 'It is beyond dispute,' she declared, that Russia was the foreign power that 'systematically' did this.

Moscow succeeded, Hill suggested. 'Our nation is being torn apart. Truth is questioned. Our highly professional and expert career foreign service is being undermined.' Russia aims at nothing less than destroying Americans’ faith in their democracy."

— Roger Cohen, "Fiona Hill and the American Idea", New York Times November 22, 2019

Recommended novels, films and television programs:

"The title of Laila Lalami’s fourth novel, The Other Americans, perfectly sums up a unified disunity: an America suspicious of its own body politic. Set in the towns of the Mojave Desert, the novel is narrated by nine different characters. Perhaps surprisingly, all of the novel’s speakers — regardless of race, class, gender, political affiliation, legal status or place of birth — see themselves as outsiders to mainstream American identity.
This is a powerful setup, raising the question of whether anyone feels that today’s America is one to which he or she belongs. In fact, Lalami’s nine speakers have much in common. They all face obstacles to stable employment, are alienated from their neighbors and have a strong sense of being misunderstood not only by society but by their families. They share, too, a deep attachment to the specific landscape of the Mojave Desert."
 Madeleine Thien, The New York Times,  April 19, 2019 

"The plight of African refugees entering Germany is subtly but powerful drawn in Go Went Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck."
— Robert Douglas, Critics at Large 

A strong recommendation for the dystopian television series, Years and Years that can be seen on Crave:
"Give HBO’s latest drama six hours of your time, and it’ll tell you the story of the 21st century.
That’s the promise made by Years and Years... whereby the first episode begins in May 2019, and subsequent installments push deep into the 2020s, far enough to reveal that our future history looks less like an arc towards progress than a whirlpool of entropy. And though Emma Thompson steals scenes as an ambitious nationalist politician whose brashness and ease with the mechanisms of celebrity could generate comparisons to both Brit Boris Johnson or to at least one familiar American figure, it’s not her story. To its credit, Years and Years — among the most emotionally involving, and best, series to air so far this year — keeps its aperture narrow even as the world keeps forcing its way in. This is, above all, the story of a family, one whose ordinariness makes them a powerful vehicle for telling the future."
 Daniel D'Addariol Variety, June 22, 2019

Fire at Sea is the fruit of an extended sojourn on Lampedusa, an island that, while part of Italy, is closer to Tunisia than to Sicily. Recently, it has become the landing spot for boatloads of refugees and other migrants from Africa, Asia and the Middle East....
Pietro Bartolo and Samuele Pucillo
Mr. Rosi does not spare his viewers glimpses of horror and pain. His camera travels with members of the Italian coast guard as they perform acts of rescue and triage, as well as grimmer tasks. Many of the men, women and children packed into the battered vessels that ply the waters near Lampedusa suffer from hunger, exposure and illness. Some of them, who have endured their journeys below decks, have been poisoned by fuel that soaks into their clothing and burns their skin....
When not out on the boats or exploring the shelters and processing centers where refugees are housed, Fire at Sea spends time with some of Lampedusa’s permanent residents, in particular a doctor, Pietro Bartolo, and a boy, Samuele Pucillo.
Samuele is hardly a child of privilege. Life on a small, rocky island is not easy. But he has everything the refugees have lost: a stable daily routine, freedom of movement and a sense of belonging to the place where his family has lived for generations. A home, in short."
 A.O. Scott, The New York Times, October 20, 2016

Benedict Cumberbatch in Brexit
"That (playwright James) Graham has managed to make a functioning drama out of Brexit, let alone such a riveting one, feels a little bit miraculous.

Possibly it’s because he foregrounds a side of the story—and a crucial player—about which remarkably little has been said. Cumberbatch plays Dominic Cummings, the campaign director of Vote Leave (the government-designated official campaign in favor of leaving the EU). A balding, sandy-haired eccentric in a high-visibility cycling vest, Cummings—Brexit argues—is actually a sophisticated architect of chaos, the shadowy Blofeldian author of so much political pain. 'In a different branch of history, I was never here,' Cummings tells the camera early in the film. 'Some of you voted differently and this never happened.' But since it did, he’s here to explain. 'Everyone knows who won, but not everyone knows how.'”
 Sophie Gilbert, The Atlantic January 17, 2019

Thursday, 21 November 2019

The Challenge of Racism in America

“We just need to open our eyes, and our ears, and our hearts to know that this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us.”
— Barack Obama speaking in Selma on March 7 2015 at the fifth anniversary of the famous march

"I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with their pain."
— James Baldwin

“We were eight years in power. We had built schoolhouses, established charitable institutions, built and maintained the penitentiary system, provided for the education of the deaf and dumb, rebuilt the ferries. In short, we had reconstructed the State and placed it upon the road to prosperity.”

W.E.B. Du Bois
— Thomas Miller, South Carolina Congressman, 1895

“If  there was one thing that  South Carolina feared more than bad Negro government, it was good Negro  government."

—W.E.B. Du Bois

“Yet, the harsh fact is that in many places in this country, men and women are kept from voting simply because they are Negroes. Every device of which human ingenuity is capable has been used to deny this right.”

— Lyndon Johnson,Voting Rights Act Address, 1965

Wednesday, 20 November 2019

The Unsilencing of Women

"Beard’s primary subject is female silence; she hopes to take a “long view on the culturally awkward relationship between the voice of women and the public sphere of speech-making, debate and comment”, the better to get beyond “the simple diagnosis of misogyny that we tend a bit lazily to fall back on”. Calling out misogyny isn’t, she understands, the same thing as explaining it, and it’s only by doing the latter that we’re likely ever to find an effective means of combating it. The question is: where should we look for answers? Beard acknowledges that misogyny has multiple sources; its roots are deep and wide. But in this book, she looks mostly (she is a classicist, after all) at Greek and Roman antiquity, a realm that even now, she believes, casts a shadow over our traditions of public speaking, whether we are considering the timbre of a person’s voice, or their authority to pronounce on any given subject.

Personally, I might have found this argument a bit strained a month ago; 3,000 years lie between us and Homer’s Odyssey, which is where she begins, with Telemachus effectively telling his mother Penelope to “shut up”. But reading it in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, it seems utterly, dreadfully convincing. Mute women; brutal men; shame as a mechanism for control; androgyny and avoidance as a strategy for survival. On every page, bells ring too loudly for comfort."

— Rachel Cooke, The Guardian November 5, 2017.

Sunday, 10 November 2019

The Dream of Political Racial and Economic Equality in South Africa

"There's no such thing here (in South Africa). The facts may be correct but the truth they embody is always a lie to someone else. Every inch of our soil is contested, every word in our histories." 
– Rian Malan, The Lion Sleeps Tonight 2012

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
– Nelson Mandela

Truth and Reconciliation Commission
“Having looked the beast in the eye having asked and received forgiveness, let us shut the door on the past and not forget it but to allow it not to imprison us.”
– Archbishop Tutu

Monday, 4 November 2019

Colson Whitehead: The Shredder of Illusions

Colson Whitehead photographed by Chris Close

Most of us do not harbour a benign view of slavery, namely the belief that the owners of slaves were reluctant masters who generally cared for the well being of their human property. There are, however egregious exceptions. In 2016 a curious children's book appeared, A Birthday Cake for George Washington, that portrayed happy slave children baking a cake for the first President, a whitewash of slavery that produced a swift and sharp backlash prompting the publisher to withdraw the book. More disturbing is that Roy Moore, the Republican Senate candidate for Alabama in the 2018 election and subsequently lost in one of the America's reddest states, publicly stated that America was great when slavery prevailed because black families were kept together, a grotesque misrepresentation of the historical reality when families were frequently and viciously torn apart.

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

The Challenge to Maintain one's Humanity during and after the Vietnam War

“The Vietnam War was a tragedy, immeasurable and irredeemable. But meaning can be found in the individual stories of those who lived through it, stories of courage and comradeship and perseverance, of understanding and forgiveness and, ultimately, reconciliation.”
 Peter Coyote, the narrator in The Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick  

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick
“In terms of content, The Vietnam War, written by the historian Geoffrey C. Ward and narrated by Peter Coyote, is rich, revelatory, and scrupulously evenhanded. It succeeds in large part by not being reductive or succinct—by being, in fact, rather overstuffed, a lot to take in…. By dint of its thoroughness, its fairness, and its pedigree, The Vietnam War is as good an occasion as we’ve ever had for a levelheaded national conversation about America’s most divisive foreign war. It deserves to be, and likely will be, the rare kind of television that becomes an event.”
— David Kamp, “Why The Vietnam War Is Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s Most Ambitious Project Yet” Vanity Fair September, 2017.

John Musgrave
"There is a family of these witnesses; we never hear the voice of an interviewer. One of the most beguiling is John Musgrave, a Marine so badly wounded in Vietnam that several doctors rated him ‘expected’. He became a drop-out and an alcoholic, a would-be suicide and a protester who is still battling the melodrama of the war and the effects of his wounds. He is now a poet and a spokesman for veterans. We feel his romantic recklessness, as he tries to reconcile what happened to him with what he wished had happened. Another witness, Tim O’Brien (author of Going after Cacciato and The Things They Carried), has been a success in life, but is so anguished still that he has difficulty looking at the camera. Musgrave, on the other hand, stares into the lens as if it were his mirror. He deserves a novel or a movie, and because so many of the witnesses are just as conflicted as he is The Vietnam War acquires the density of a sprawling work of fiction....

This is the point: The Vietnam War isn’t just about the war but the consequences it had for Americans. There is a great deal from the home front here, and while the jukebox of great rock and roll on the soundtrack makes the ordeal seem exciting sometimes, it leaves little doubt that the cultural revolutions of the 1960s – Merrill McPeak’s ‘rivulets’ – were a liberation for a minority and one that left a schism in America still emphatically evident in the 2016 election."
 David Thomson, "Merely an Empire," London Review of Books, September 21, 2017 

Another insightful review can be found in The New York Review of Books  

Perhaps the best drama on Vietnam and the incident that it is based upon that is referenced in Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's The Vietnam War is the 1989 film, Casualties of War.

"Casualties of War is a film based, we are told, on an actual event. A five-man patrol of American soldiers in Vietnam kidnapped a young woman from her village, forced her to march with them, and then raped her and killed her. One of the five refused to participate in the rape and murder, and it was his testimony that eventually brought the others to a military court martial and prison sentences. The movie is not so much about the event as about the atmosphere leading up to it - the dehumanizing reality of combat, the way it justifies brute force and penalizes those who would try to live by a higher standard....
More than most films, it depends on the strength of its performances for its effect - and especially on Penn's performance. If he is not able to convince us of his power, his rage and his contempt for the life of the girl, the movie would not work. He does, in a performance of overwhelming, brutal power. Fox, as his target, plays a character most of us could probably identify with, the person to whom rape or murder is unthinkable, but who has never had to test his values in the crucible of violence. The movie's message, I think, is that in combat human values are lost and animal instincts are reinforced. We knew that already. But the movie makes it inescapable, especially when we reflect that the story is true, and the victim was real."
— Roger Ebert, August 10, 1989 

This memorial is now thought to be the most successful and beloved public work of our time. It is so simple, so elegant, that it makes its statement without even trying. The long arms of marble enclose us. We see the names of the dead. We are left with our thoughts.
The most arresting scenes in the documentary Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision are about the miracle that this memorial was even erected at all—about its opponents, who would have replaced it with something ordinary and mundane.
Today, when the memorial is universally beloved, such men as Pat Buchanan and Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) are not quick to remind you that they fought against it, in ways that do not reflect well on their judgment or taste.... Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, written and directed by Freida Lee Mock, tells the story of how Lin designed the memorial, and how it came to be built. It follows her over the next 14 years, as she matures from an insecure student to a confident professional, and designs other public works, including the Civil Rights Monument in Montgomery, Ala. " 
—Selections from a review by Roger Ebert

"Kathleen Belew’s gripping study of white power, Bring the War Home, as written before the city of Charlottesville became a hashtag, and is largely concerned with activities from the 1970s and ’80s. But it is. Her activists — for indeed, these were activists building a grass-roots movement — consolidated power in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. It is that starting point that hints at the book’s explosive thesis: that the white power movement that reached a culmination with the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing emerged as a radical reaction to the war.
Sit with that for a moment, because it is a breathtaking argument, one
 that treats foreign policy as the impetus for a movement that most people view through the lens of domestic racism. But Belew, an assistant professor of history at the University of Chicago, perceives something more in the white power movement than metastasized racism. She sees the malignant consequence of the war, which, she argues, “comes home in ways bloody and unexpected.”
— From a review by Nicole Hemmer

"Too many people still think of these attacks as single events, rather than interconnected actions carried out by domestic terrorists. We spend too much ink dividing them into anti-immigrant, racist, anti-Muslim or anti-Semitic attacks. True, they are these things. But they are also connected with one another through a broader white power ideology.
Likewise, too many people think that such shootings are the goal of fringe activism. They aren’t. They are planned to incite a much larger slaughter by 'awakening' other people to join the movement.
The El Paso manifesto, if it is verified, ties the attacker into the mainstream of the white power movement, which came together after the Vietnam War and united Klan, neo-Nazi, skinhead and other activists."

Kathleen Belew, “The Right Way to Understand White Nationalist Terrorism," The New York Times August 4, 2019.