Songs of the Doomed

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Another volume of the so-called “Gonzo Papers”. It’s a grab bag of excerpts, letters, un-published stuff, reminisces, etc.

It’s good. It’s Hunter S. Thompson. But really there has only been one piece in this entire book – an article about the ultra-wealthy in Florida – that was both something I had not read before and was quite, quite good.

I can’t help but feeling that this does a bad job of hiding what it actually is: a fluffed up excuse to cash in on the name and image of The Good Doctor.

Enjoyable for fans, probably not worth it otherwise.

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Is Trump Anti-Establishment?

No he is not.

As the primary season finally gets into the end game and the grim logic of “voting for the lesser of two evils” makes itself ever more felt, its time to be frank. Hilary is politics as usual; she will be competent and middle of the road and will be a Baby Boomer Candidate (as will Trump for that matter). Trump’s peculiar brand of buffoonish, reality-TV style right-wing populism is best thought of in the vein of Barry Goldwater. But here is the thing: Trump is also far more of an “Establishment” candidate then you might think. Since the dawn of time, right wingers have posed as harbingers of “change” or of being “anti-establishment” or some kind of back-to-basics/clear out the riffraff rhetoric. And it’s always a disguise for things getting worse. That’s all. Find me an example of when right-wing populism has led to an era of prosperity and culture.

So I saw roughly this on an online comment section recently: “Sorry, guys, but if Sanders doesn’t get the nomination, I’m voting for Trump. The Establishment just has to be destroyed”. The guy’s icon was one of those V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes masks. This really needs to be addressed.

Let me explain why Trump is not nearly as “anti-Establishment” as you think. I still think that a Trump Presidency would be American Fascism – it really would –  but not on the lines of say of Hitler. No, he’s more like a Mussolini; buffoonish and vicious. Trump represents anti-Establishment change in the same way that chickens represent birds. Yes, it’s a bird, but it doesn’t fly. First of all, he’s a white male billionaire who is playing a winking game with far-right extremism. This isn’t new. It’s not a change. Yes, he has some protectionist, isolationist ideas when it comes to international trade. And yes, he has made some noises that indicate he would be fairly socially liberal. But that is it. There would be no ACTUAL change. This country desperately a re-boot in our participatory democratic process. We desperately need to take action on climate change. We need to overhaul the tax code. We need to reign in a regulate Wall Street. The war industry has to be stopped. Trump would greatly make all of these problems worse.

If you think Trump is “anti-Establishment”, ask yourself: How exactly? The GOP, after some hesitation, has now backed Trump to the hilt. The GOP is now Trump’s party. The big GOP donors? Backing Trump. Big Media love Trump. The Pentagon won’t object to a Trump presidency. Wall Street knows that Trump will look out for the profit margins, same goes for the world of Big Business. So hat part of the Establishment is threatened? You can’t name it because there isn’t one. He’s not a threat to the Establishment.

My favourite philosopher Slavoj Zizek, sees Trump as a fairly typical liberal, centrist candidate. And there is some merit to this view. You see, Zizek has a more European perspective, and view Trump as part of a larger trend in the world of Liberalism (this means First World, Western Capitalist Democracies). In a nutshell, Liberalism has failed, but there is not real alternative. Thus there is a progressive trend, a technocratic Establishment trend, and a far-right trend, which Trump represents. Zizek would see Trump much like Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, England’s Nigel Farage, or even worse, Russia’s Putin.

So you are anti-establishment in some way; you’ve complained about how business as usual isn’t working in one way or another. So what do you do? Who do you vote for?

Sanders is the only candidate who will bring effective change.

But Bernie Sander’s candidacy is has been stifled by the Democratic Establishment. They’ve played the same game that they always play and have stacked the deck (see Eugene McCarthy and Herbert Humphrey). Sander’s supporters are angry and Hillary is having some real trouble getting them on board her campaign. This is no surprise. I suspect that only Hillary’s advisors and Bill Maher think that the Millennials/Progressives will come around. It is hard to escape the conclusion that, as usual, Democrats assume that the Progressive wing of the party will vote for their candidate because, well, it’s better than the other guy…

Americans have expressing their anger and frustration for quite some time now with votes towards the Right; the Tea Party, Trump etc. The American electorate keeps sending people “who hate the government” to congress. It’s a disaster.

The Democrats don’t deserve to win. They are feckless. They pander to special interests and use that and corporate sponsorship to control the primary; the Democrats have never been progressive. Their track record is sad. I doubt that Hilary or the Democratic party can effect the change this country desperately needs. I’ll vote for Hilary. I think she will make some decent changes, but no where close to what we need. She has no vision for the future; nor does Trump.

Let’s say that Bernie runs as an Independent? Will I still vote for Hilary? No: I think that Bernie can win in a three way election. For the simple reason that the majority of Americans are progressive to some extent. There are as many Millennials as there are Baby Boomers; the problem is getting the Youth and Millennial Vote out. It will come out for Bernie and no other candidate.

Of course, this is fantasy. Bernie is making subtle moves that indicate he at this point is making moves to strengthen the progressive wing of the Democratic party and hopefully move the damn thing towards something an actually liberal policy.

To summarise. Trump is not an “anti-establishment” candidate. Hilary will be OK as president. The Democrats once again have shot themselves in the foot, and Bernie is the man we need to be president.

 

The Death of Socrates

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This is a collection of works by Plato that describe the final days of Socrates. This book is really four separate works: Euthyphro, The Trial of Socrates, Crito, and Pheado.

It’s interesting to consider why Plato chose to write these pieces, especially considering the importance and value placed on rigorous dialouge – known as the dialectic – within the Socratic circle of thinkers. These works take the form of reported dialogue, which by our standards seem quite ponderous. Either Socrates plays question-and-answer with a humouring, adoring philosophical friend, or Socrates launches into an extended monologue which can be read as a densely reasoned argument.

Socrates (it’s hard to draw a clear line between Plato and what Socrates actually thought; as all we know about Socrates essentially comes from Plato’s pen) reasons largely though comparison or via analogies. Sometimes this works quite well, but more often, forces Socrates into rather unwarranted and erroneous conclusions. For example Socrates cites Snow and Fire as opposites (akin to positive and negative). This might have made sense at the time, but to our lights, it’s a comical mistake.

Euthyphro is humorous and I suspect it might have served as some kind of intro to the thinking of Socrates for Plato’s neophytes. Euthyphro is a spiritual, priestly figure, but in a televangelist kind of way. The debate and discussion in this book is about the true meaning of piety. Socrates forces his interlocutor to define piety, then proceeds to poke holes in the definition, eventually forcing the discussion around to a better / his definition of piety. It’s hard for me to say that Socrates says all the can or should be said about piety, but  again, it’s a great introduction to the Socratic method.

The Trial is interesting because it presents Socrates defending himself to the charge of “corrupting the youth” to the citizenry of Athens. It’s a snapshot of philosophy and its complicated relationship with politics; the tension between the lofty philosopher and grimy, cruel reality. Socrates refuses to “play ball” with Athenian politics; he seeks to prove the case against him as nonsense – he does, but in such a way that pretty much ensures that the Athenians vote against him.

Phaedo is the most interesting; its a recount of the final hours of Socrates; it’s his final philosophical message; a closing testament of sorts. Socrates discusses the philosophical proof of the survival of the soul after death – anticipating a sort of reincarnation managed by divine magistrates. This discussion morphs into a fantastic description of the cosmos, entering around Earth and a complex circulation of water, fire and other elements. Tartarus – a sort of Greek hell – is seen as merely a giant cavern at the centre of the earth, where evil people wind up.

Reading Plato is fascinating because you can see it’s influence. You can see how his way of seeing things filters down through the ages. “All western philosophy can be summed up as a series of footnotes to Plato” (I for get who said that) is true.

A Time of Madness

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My wife Ashley found this book in Mobile. We loved the cover – hopelessly over the top title, apocalyptic organs sky and a crazed soldier to top the thing off. It just takes itself so damn seriously. Well, having read the thing, let me just summarise it as a sort of apartheid Tom Clancy.

Published in 1977 in Salisbury – the capital of Southern Rhodesia – this book is predictable and cliche-laden. There are two main characters, reminding me of 1993’s Without Remorse by Clancy; a young violent guy and an older guy who’s a bit brainier and works inside the power establishment.

Rhodesia – now Zimbabwe – was never internationally recognised, but left a legacy of racism and violence. It’s most infamous (all-white) units, the Rhodesian Light Infantry or Gray’s Scouts, was usually at the centre of things.

Robert Early was a trooper for the RLI. Need I say more?

It’s violent, sexist, and racist, but in a way that you would not really notice. It’s a crappy book, not really any more crappy then any pulp fiction book anywhere.

Interesting if interpreted as a historical document; a certain time and place. Terrible as a book.

The 2016 Election So Far…

Now that Trump seems to have the Republican nomination wrapped up, the real question becomes what will become of Bernie Sanders, and will the Republican party implode into a Paul Ryan/Romney faction and a Trump faction?

I think the supreme irony of this 2016 Election is that the overwhelmingly likely winner – Hillary Clinton – represents fairly traditional American politics. She represents a baby-boomer presidency (as opposed to Obama’s very much a Millennial’s presidency). She’s a traditional democrat (i.e., not as liberal as you might think at all). She represents, really, the only candidate of “normalcy”. She represents the generation of politics that got rolling with Reagan and should have ended with Obama. In practice, a Clinton Administration would probably resemble Obama’s.

For all the bluster and craziness then, really we are going to elect a typical Democrat.

My personal hope is that Hillary Clinton takes note of Bernie Sanders success and chooses to lead a truly progressive administration which has the courage to confront global warming, the banks, and generally go about making real change in this country – over hauling it (if you will) for the 21st century. Otherwise, if she behaves as typical democrats do and fail to make any real changes, just sort of make the country a little bit more liveable but in actuality achieve little, the pressures building in this country might actually explode in a very real and dangerous way.

With all this hoopla over Donald Trump and the explosion of the GOP – and frankly we should not be surprised by the whole damn thing – we have lost sight of what actually matters. What sort of changes and leadership do American really need? What sort of country do we want to live in? What sort of world? And who is the best leader to lead us there?

For me, it’s the Economy, Global Warming. I cannot avoid feeling that from these two issues, everything else follows. Obviously, I am cramming a lot of things underneath “Economy”, such as properly regulating Wall Street and the Banks, unwinding the Military-Industrial Complex, wealth inequality, and campaign finance reform (ending Citizens United). And Global Warming is big and amorphous – but linked to everything. I can’t help but thinking that building wind farms and building electric cars will be just as good for the economy (it’s actual growth!) rather than propping up the way the economy is now.

And so in a weird way I kinda support Trump. I don’t actually support him. I think his presidency would truly be American Fascism. But he represents, like Bernie Sanders, the utter failure of neoliberalism. Here’s what I mean. Trump is a buffoon; but he is addressing this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y3ttxGMQOrY. This is a video of fourteen hundred people being told that they will loose their jobs – the manufacturing is being moved to Mexico. The gist is that an upper manager – following HR policies no doubt  and borrowing abstract economic language – blows what can only be described as corporate BS on to employees who are screwed.

Neither the GOP or the Democrats have addressed this frustration or anger. In fact, since Reagan, both parties have pursued neoliberal economic policies. The result has been the 2008 Recession – caused primarily by repealing regulation on Wall Street and the systemic pursuit of profit maximisation.

So, no, Trump doesn’t scare me too much. He won’t get elected; he’s the Barry Goldwater of our time (just like Eugene McCarthy is our Bernie Sanders and Herbert Humphrey is our Hilary Clinton). This means it’s what he signals in American politics; the man himself means nothing.

I am already more interested in Paul Ryan, perhaps the only man who can actually unite Republican party in the traditional, Southern Strategy sense. Ryan, who is clearly planning on running in about eight years, has a choice to make: run as the candidate of his own personal party, or try to keep the Republican party, essentially forged by Nixon, together. If he warms up to Trump, then he’s opted for the later.

I’ve enjoyed Trump’s victory. It’s forced a lot of soul searching. It’s forced a lot of people who reckoned themselves “thoughtful Republicans” to consider what they actual believe and what they actually support. I hope we are watching the Republican party destroying itself; they certainly have had it coming for a long time. Ever since Nixon, the Republicans have been playing a winking game with racism and mob politics and that’s clearly come home to roost. People who vote Republican can no longer pose as being “thoughtful” or “realistic” or “sensible, hard-nosed, common-sense businesspeople”.

It will be pleasant – in a vicious and sad way – to watch as the various republicans and conservatives line up behind Trump. People who ranged against the man will start to fall in line. Hopefully people will notice. I do want the Republicans to split, but if Trump runs the thing into the ground, that wouldn’t be too bad either.

 

 

 

A Strangeness in My Mind

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Orhan Pamuk is one the most important authors alive today. He’s important not just because he is a great writer, but because he and his corpus straddles that mysterious chasm, the divide between the West and the (Middle) East.

Pamuk’s first book (or the first one to become really popular) was Snow. This book is set in Van, the largest city in eastern Turkey. This is not the Turkey that we know; that is westernised Istanbul. No. Eastern Anatolia is, as events in Syria and Iraq have made clear, a very different place; almost a difference country.

In Snow, a westernised Istanbul journalist travels to Van to investigate the situation. What follows is a razor-taunt mix of political thriller, mystery, and cultural exploration all in the context of a Tolstoy-esque story of personal growth and discovery. There is a distinct sense that Pamuk is trying to explain the West to the East and the East to the West.

You probably anticipated this, but Pamuk’s novels always take place around a culture clash, be it East and West, or in the case of A Strangeness in My Mind, the clash between rural Anatolian immigrants coming of age in Istanbul.

I loved Snow, one of the best books ever. But I’ve had quite a lot of trouble enjoying Pamuk’s other stuff. My Name is Red is tentatively about the murder of an Ottoman miniaturist. I picked this book up eagerly expected some sort of masterpiece that mixes Agatha Christie with John Julius Norwich and some sort of great novelist. Well its not that. It’s a pretty good book; think Umberto Eco.

But it goes downhill from there. Pamuk seems to be writing sadly sweet, thoughtful books about Istanbul these days. A Strangeness in My Mind is just that. Poor immigrants move to Istanbul. They remain fairly poor and uninteresting. The main character is sweet and not terribly bright. I struggled to find a reason to continue reading.

I love Istanbul, but there was just nothing in this book that I found to be of interest, aside from some cultural asides and insights that where nifty to know about. But that’s about it.

 

Black Hawk Down

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This book is riveting. You experience this book rather than read it. This is one of those books that you almost need to read in one sitting. Very absorbing.

So read the book; it’s a war story with some nice touches of human interest and what we might call “current affairs”.

What struck me -after I had finished – was that old adage about “those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it”. And indeed, America’s adventure in Somalia is a great example of this. Really the Battle of Mogadishu is just another episode in American Empire; a dress-rehershal for Iraq.

There was something about the spectacle of helicopter-bourne high-tech American infantry blasting the hell out endless numbers of dirty, poor and ignorant natives; both sides absolutely clueless about why they where there and why they where fighting, that seems sickeningly familiar. The Somalis would say they were defending their homes from heavily armed foreigners; our soldiers would say that we there to “help the Somalis” or to “get rid of the bad guy so democracy and capitalism can take root”. It seems like nobody ever really learns.

It’s a long list: Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Iran, Guatemala, Iraq, Afghanistan, now Yemen, Syria…

I think that the best I can do here is to explain why we went into Somalia; and why it all went wrong.

The short answer is American exceptionalism/neoconservativism. This long and storied trait of ours (neo-conservativism is simply an update for our times; it’s the same implies at root, let’s say) is the justification and fuel for our international adventures. It’s not all bad. It’s idealistic and the soldiers on the ground seem to genuinely believe what they are fighting for. And that’s really something.

There is the political realist’s justification for the interventions: that is that America is the 800 Pound Gorilla and many nations rely on our muscle and relatively pure motiviations when we intervene (as is the case in Somalia). We have massive treaty obligations; someone has to be the Adult In the Room, as it were.

I am not an isolationist. And so, to an extent, I acknowledge and support America’s moral obligations abroad. But the rational of being “the Adult” has been badly abused – from their very beginning in the post-1945 world. First of all, the ideological motivation needed to get men to fight is a heady, dangerous brew. Playing World Police has come with a cost increasing social militarisation. What we tell our people and soldiers to get them to fight and support wars and interventions across the globe is increasingly emotional and disconnected from reality and the complex truth of a given situation.

There is an even darker side; the link between wars and the military-industrial complex. It’s hard to ignore the evidence that points to an American economy that’s dependant on War to keep it going. In the invasion of Iraq, this motivation is at it’s most obvious. The need for cheap oil – this lurks behind most actions of our military in the past few decades. To ignore this is simply naive. War is profitable for a select few and immensely impoverishing for everyone else. War is a racket: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_Is_a_Racket. Our economy is on a permanent/perpetual war footing.

So why did we go into Somalia? The framework of international relations depends on nation-states. Somalia, a small, poor former colony of Italy lacked the education and modern sets of laws and customs needed for a nation state. After a period of dictatorship – the modern equivalent of kingship – Somalia lapsed into civil war, mass starvation and genocide.

This co-incided with America’s “victory” in the Cold War and in the Gulf War. The triumphalism of the ’90s was in full swing. I do think that our motivations were correct, and I would have support the intervention.

But here’s where it starts to go wrong. A complex situation is presented as black and white. Our ideology traps the very politicians launching the intervention in the name of “being an adult”; the soldiers on the ground is the wrong tool; what started as a mission of mercy turns into an a grotesque masquerade of international cops-and-robbers. Somalia was torn apart by warlords (backed by a complex web of clans). Our ideology makes us think “remove the chief warlord, and a stable democracy and capitalism can thrive”. This is delusional. We keep acting like beneath the burka is a sequinned dress; if it where not for the dictator, there would be democracy. We ignore the true complexity of the issues for our own moral comfort.

We are not learning a lesson from this. As the War in Iraq reaches into it’s dozenth year, we come face to face with Perpetual Warfare; Endemic Warfare against utterly impoverished societies fighting for simply the patch of dirt they happen to inhibit. It’s disgusting and pointless in many ways.

I am tired of images of our high-tech military fighting peasants with AKs. We never seem to learn; we are fighting ancient social structures and systematic poverty and ignorance, not “a bad guy”.

 

 

 

Ecotopia

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Ecotopia. Bask in the fantasy. It’s a vision – albeit a sadly fading one – for what could be.

Written by Ernest Callenbach, Ecotopia, continues a long and proud tradition of Western literature tracing itself back to Plato’s Republic (which I read not too long ago). It’s sit in a Northern California/Pacific Northwest which as succeeded from the Union. For twenty years, this new/ mysterious nation has remained totally isolated from the US. The basic plot is a typical “American” reporter sent on long-term assignment to Ecotopia.

He sees and experiences much and eventually chooses to stay.

Basically, San Fransisco to Seattle manage to secede through a combination of grassroots democracy, a major US financial/economic crisis, and a mysterious threat of somehow mining New York and Washington DC with nuclear bombs. It’s a bit far fetched, but at the same time really not that far-fetched.

And that pretty much sets the tone for the rest of Callenbach’s book. It’s out there. But at the same time it’s not. It makes so much sense. Yes, some of the things seem to be a hangover from the sixties, and yes, the amount of social change in twenty years has been terribly exaggerated; it seems to me that it would take a good two generations to reach the point that Callenbach seems to think is achievable in the ‘90s.

But the majority of it makes complete sense. A twenty hour work week. Loads of small enterprises. Bikes and high-speed trains everywhere. Trees abound. The boundaries between work and play have blurred almost to the point of disappearing altogether, but in a good, collective ownership way, not in a “your-boss-can-call-you-at-any-time-because-you-work-from-home” sort of way.

Ecotopia explores the idea of steady-state economics and the sort of society it would create. More fundamentally, it’s a depiction of society with very different goals and values. They are good values too. Steady-state economics is the idea of a healthy economy which does not grow. It recycles itself. This might seem rather benign at first, but when you dig deep into it, you are looking at an economic program with profound social change.

Think of it like this. Our nation’s and effectively then, our society’s mission is GDP (Gross Domestic Product) growth. Thus expansion is a cornerstone, not just of economics and governmental policy, but a profoundly ingrained assumption and statement about our values and beliefs. These values and beliefs are based on some wild and hasty assumptions. GDP growth only manages to work because it is the only state of economic affairs where, as the saying goes, “a rising tide lifts all boats”; thus politicians and leaders often have no choice but to push the economic gas pedal.

But more than that, it assumes an expanding, almost limitless human population. It depends on unlimited – and therefore cheap – natural resources to exploit. It also anticipates fantastic technologies to emerge which can feed these people and in some way ape or replace the natural resources. These assumptions/beliefs point to others, such as the idea of technological progress and a 40+ hour work week. It assumes that the more stuff you have the better. A good life is effectively measured in our society by how much you own, i. e. TVs, cars, and houses.

But when you change the goals and you stop confusing the ends with the means and realize that the means itself is the end, things really change. Thus sustainability in economics and society has profound implications.

And I think we need to get started. I’m ready. It’s well over due if you ask me.

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