The Middle East, European Colonialism and the Result of Blank Checks

February 27, 2018

Steven Pinker, in The Better Angels of our Nature, argued we’ve become less bloody over the centuries. But so many issues involve life and death. For two weeks this country has been discussing how to stop school shootings. This week let’s address life and death in the Middle East. Next week, events permitting, let’s discuss two issues that threaten life worldwide.

I can count on hate mail whenever I speak about the Middle East. But let’s put some things in perspective.

The world’s refugee problem swamps most countries’ willingness to take people in. Our government wants to restrict immigration and we fight over who and why. Reaction to flows of refugees threaten democratic governments across Europe and contributed to the vote for Brexit. In addition to their own disputes, the American military footprint has aggravated war and population displacement in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Palestine among many countries in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Stepping back historically and geographically, most countries are dominated by conquering populations. This country conquered and decimated Native Americans to create our bi-coastal America. A succession of warring populations, Huns, Visigoths, Franks, Saxons, Vikings and more, fought for Europe long before the modern wars.

This has hardly been a good way of solving problems or competition for land. But even more harm lurks in the suggestion that we undo it.

The creation of Israel was plainly the result of European refusal to accept its Jewish population. Historically, the Turks in the Ottoman Empire, and the Moors in Spain, before Ferdinand and Isabella Christianized it, were much more hospitable to Jews. The twentieth century brought the fate of the Jews to a head. Europe could have solved its integration problem. But seeing the handwriting on many walls in the 1930s, people like Justice Brandeis, then on the U.S. Supreme Court, were telling friends in Europe to get out quickly. But where to? Franklin Roosevelt, despite close personal and professional relationships with many Jews, blocked boatloads of Jewish refugees from our shores for political reasons.

So the west solved its problem by exporting it – to Palestine. Everyone was a victim in this process. Jewish refugees were uprooted and they in turn uprooted Palestinians. What to do?

At about the same time, Britain was facilitating the breakup of the Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan. It cost something like a million lives and uprooted many times that. The two countries still find it difficult to get along, but undoing 1948 is not on the table. It cannot be.

It is not true that whatever is, is just. That was proposed by the conservative philosopher Robert Nozick and I most emphatically reject it. But redressing all the wrongs of the past comes at a cost which will involve many who themselves were neither perpetrators nor victims and sometimes both. The argument about who was right and who was wrong in Palestine is not a soluble argument. No one was treated as they should have been. But even more important, fixing those wrongs implies a fight to the death of everyone there. That I cannot wish.

I cannot support complete and utter conquest for either side. We might once have insisted on an enforceable compromise. America once played a role as an honest broker and could have maximized the chance for peace. But we could not continue to play that role while giving Israel a blank check to violate its promises about settlements. The result, I fear, is going to be tragic. It may simply be too late to avert widespread disaster.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 27, 2018.


Threats to Democracy – the Dictator’s Financial Game

January 23, 2018

Many of us have written about the threat to American democracy. Actually that list is extensive and goes back a number of years. When I wrote my own book about the Roberts Court, I drew on that literature and applied it to the behavior of the Supreme Court. My hope was that if enough of us wrote about the problem, it would begin to sink in that something has to be done.

Instead we have Trump and the Republican Party trying to shift as much wealth as possible from the majority of Americans to a small fraction of the wealthiest 1 percent – precisely one of the most powerful causes of the breakdown of democracy. And Trump has been attacking the bulwarks of democracy – a free press, independent judges and prosecutors, an independent FBI and Justice Department, nonpartisan election machinery, and protection against domestic and foreign interference in elections. He does all this in the service of the effort to shift more and more money from the masses to the wealthiest, reflected in massive shifts of money to those who already have most of it and talk of attacking entitlements, Social Security, Medicare and other programs which compensate ever so little for the government’s favoritism toward the rich.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita describes it in The Dictator’s Handbook but so does the story of Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham. The more the dictator takes from the masses the less power they have and the easiest it is to control them. The more the dictator gives to the wealthiest, the more they depend on and support him. In other words, turning democracy into dictatorship is a process of robbing from the poor to pay the rich, weakening the masses and securing the loyalty of the wealthy.

Many scholars have mapped the process as one in which the wealthiest increasingly circle the wagons against the masses, gain control over the election machinery, and corrupt the entire system that used to be democratic. The more wealth becomes concentrated, the more impossible it is to allow anything approaching free and fair elections. The process builds on itself in a corrupt and corrosive way. The economically ordinary people whom Trump and his wealthy supporters have convinced that they should depend on him are the people who will be used, dumped and double-crossed. And their erstwhile support for the fraudulent leader will suppress the rest of us.

The last time the disparity got this bad it led straight into the Great Depression of the 1930s. They are not independent facts. By stripping wealth from the masses, the elites stripped out the consumer economy on which they depended. The situation was sufficiently drastic that many were urging Franklin Roosevelt to assume dictatorial powers, and indeed dictators like Huey Long in Louisiana were poised to make a run for the presidency, while racists commanded the airwaves. We were lucky. Roosevelt was a wealthy patrician who was committed nevertheless to democracy. He saw the threat and worked hard to avert it. The Supreme Court fought him then as it has been fighting to deepen the crisis now.

We were lucky. Scholars have shown that the behavior of elites in crises like this is crucial. We need people in Washington for whom the survival of democracy in America is more important than partisan politics or dreams of turning America into a wasteland of serfs propping up the great ones. That this country had Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt at crucial times is amazing. May our luck survive Trump.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 23, 2018.



The Future of Jobs

April 18, 2017

Automation is changing the workforce. It creates some highly skilled jobs but eliminates many others, from service jobs like taxis to previously professional tasks like document review. Factory jobs are decimated by automation.

The industrial revolution was largely built on repetitive factory production lines, based on physical dexterity, repetition and obedience, not higher education. Automation handles repetitive tasks well. Eliminating them affects people very unequally.

How can we deal with that change? The historic Republican free-market approach, now pushed by Tea Party Republicans who control Congress, is that it’s none of our business.  For them, it’s every man, woman and child for him- or herself. Millions in breaks for big corporations and no security for the workers whose lives and livelihoods are the playthings of  markets, financial institutions and corporate interests. But woe to countries that forget their people, engulfed in power struggles and bloody civil wars with the fate of ordinary, hard-working and decent people as talking points and engines of recruitment.

Some jobs have been divided into a large class of “aids.” In Iran everyone from middle class up had a bagi, their term for servant. It’s a world of dependency, power, and deep social division, a world in which people can be taken advantage of. The market, so sacred to the ideologues, is pushing more and more people to join the service economy as maids, waiters, servants and sometimes as sex workers.  Notice the contrary pressures on the women’s movement, with some vying for the few high-end jobs and others being pressured into demeaning and dangerous activity.

We might share good jobs. Labor unions once looked toward a five-hour day. Or we might create jobs, keeping everyone busy and satisfying more of the community’s needs, from building and repairing bridges, roads, water systems and electric and internet grids, to watching over playgrounds. But actually we’re going the other way. Jobs that can create opportunities are being dropped. The pressures are all on workers to find or create ways to survive. We all feel the taxes but don’t notice the benefits.

I see our separation by wealth, color and origin blinding us to common problems. John Adrian Witt, a Yale historian speaking at Alumni House last week, sees organizational failure, like the 1920s before unions and public service organizations finally jelled, leading toward the New Deal reforms in the 1930s.

The New Deal gave us a powerful administrative state, capable of opposing and controlling corporate greed that demeaned and poisoned workers with dangerous equipment, noxious chemicals and contaminated foods. But that effective administrative state became the Republican target, stated theoretically as “regulation” – regulation everyone can be against unless broken down to the safety and honesty it is designed to protect.

There is also an ideological issue, especially when the unchecked power of the market is pushing the public to turn on each other and itself.

Workers are entitled to security. Graduates of high school, colleges, and universities are entitled to good jobs. Our job should not be to ask workers to justify their lives to the market; it should be to employ people to make a better America, much as the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt founded the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Works Progress Administration and many others. We can support each other, and make a better America for all of us. The market isn’t the answer; the market is the problem. When it doesn’t do what we need, we need to do what it screwed up.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 18, 2017.

Mandela by Comparison

December 10, 2013

 I want to explore an important comparison that has not been addressed about Nelson Mandela.

There have been many great twentieth century leaders. Some like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Aung San Suu Kyi never became presidents or prime ministers. But three did – Mandela in South Africa, Jawaharlal Nehru in India and Franklin Roosevelt here. Nehru and Roosevelt held onto power until they died in office.

In Roosevelt’s case I’m glad he did. Read the rest of this entry »

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