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Describing Trump

This one has been making the rounds on social media, and which merits reposting on AWAV. Someone on the popular question-and-answer website Quora asked, “Why do some British people not like Donald Trump?” A witty and insightful writer from England named Nate White wrote the response below, which is as spot-on a description of Trump-the-man as one will find:

A few things spring to mind.

Trump lacks certain qualities which the British traditionally esteem.

For instance, he has no class, no charm, no coolness, no credibility, no compassion, no wit, no warmth, no wisdom, no subtlety, no sensitivity, no self-awareness, no humility, no honour and no grace – all qualities, funnily enough, with which his predecessor Mr. Obama was generously blessed.

So for us, the stark contrast does rather throw Trump’s limitations into embarrassingly sharp relief.

Plus, we like a laugh. And while Trump may be laughable, he has never once said anything wry, witty or even faintly amusing – not once, ever.

I don’t say that rhetorically, I mean it quite literally: not once, not ever. And that fact is particularly disturbing to the British sensibility – for us, to lack humour is almost inhuman.

But with Trump, it’s a fact. He doesn’t even seem to understand what a joke is – his idea of a joke is a crass comment, an illiterate insult, a casual act of cruelty.

Trump is a troll. And like all trolls, he is never funny and he never laughs; he only crows or jeers.

And scarily, he doesn’t just talk in crude, witless insults – he actually thinks in them. His mind is a simple bot-like algorithm of petty prejudices and knee-jerk nastiness.

There is never any under-layer of irony, complexity, nuance or depth. It’s all surface.

Some Americans might see this as refreshingly upfront.

Well, we don’t. We see it as having no inner world, no soul.

And in Britain we traditionally side with David, not Goliath. All our heroes are plucky underdogs: Robin Hood, Dick Whittington, Oliver Twist.

Trump is neither plucky, nor an underdog. He is the exact opposite of that.

He’s not even a spoiled rich-boy, or a greedy fat-cat.

He’s more a fat white slug. A Jabba the Hutt of privilege.

And worse, he is that most unforgivable of all things to the British: a bully.

That is, except when he is among bullies; then he suddenly transforms into a snivelling sidekick instead.

There are unspoken rules to this stuff – the Queensberry rules of basic decency – and he breaks them all. He punches downwards – which a gentleman should, would, could never do – and every blow he aims is below the belt. He particularly likes to kick the vulnerable or voiceless – and he kicks them when they are down.

So the fact that a significant minority – perhaps a third – of Americans look at what he does, listen to what he says, and then think ‘Yeah, he seems like my kind of guy’ is a matter of some confusion and no little distress to British people, given that:

  • Americans are supposed to be nicer than us, and mostly are.
  • You don’t need a particularly keen eye for detail to spot a few flaws in the man.

This last point is what especially confuses and dismays British people, and many other people too; his faults seem pretty bloody hard to miss.

After all, it’s impossible to read a single tweet, or hear him speak a sentence or two, without staring deep into the abyss. He turns being artless into an art form; he is a Picasso of pettiness; a Shakespeare of shit. His faults are fractal: even his flaws have flaws, and so on ad infinitum.

God knows there have always been stupid people in the world, and plenty of nasty people too. But rarely has stupidity been so nasty, or nastiness so stupid.

He makes Nixon look trustworthy and George W look smart.

In fact, if Frankenstein decided to make a monster assembled entirely from human flaws – he would make a Trump.

And a remorseful Doctor Frankenstein would clutch out big clumpfuls of hair and scream in anguish:

‘My God… what… have… I… created?

If being a twat was a TV show, Trump would be the boxed set.’

Brilliant.

On a somewhat sobering note, Peter Beinart’s latest, typically insightful piece in The Atlantic is entitled, “The two psychological tricks Trump is using to get away with everything: His brazen attempts to redefine the norms of acceptable conduct work for a reason.”

IMHO Trump will not get away with this, i.e. what he will be impeached for. His luck will run out. Inshallah.

The impeachment inquiry

I was going to offer my initial thoughts on the impeachment inquiry ten days ago but got distracted by Jacques Chirac (see previous post). Two immediate comments. First, it’s about time. Finally. Second, the (flawed) arguments by pundits and skittish Democrats against trying to impeach Trump—that it would be opposed by a majority of the public, surely fail in the Senate, and end up reinforcing the Mad King and his reelection chances—are now obsolete. They have been overtaken by events. One thing is certain: like Brexit, we have no idea how this thing is going to play out. But one other thing is also certain, which is that there will necessarily be a succession of revelations during the House inquiry that are highly damaging to Trump—as a sociopath and lifelong con man who should have been sent to the slammer many years ago, how will it be otherwise?—making impeachment an all but foregone conclusion. And does anyone seriously believe even at this early stage—with support for impeachment spiking in the polls and Trump melting down daily and flailing hysterically—that even in the event that the Senate does not vote to convict—which looks like the probable outcome at present but who knows?—that Trump will come out of the process politically strengthened? And moreover, given that he is piling on the provocations and manifest illegality daily, is certainly clinically psychotic—and likely in the early stages of dementia—and with a staff of bootlickers, lickspittles, and lackeys; in short, people who are, objectively speaking, not very smart? Or, as they would say over here, qui ne sont pas des fins stratèges ou des flèches? Come on.

It is now well understood by erstwhile impeachment skeptics that, with the revelation of the Trump-Zelensky telephone conversation, Nancy Pelosi had no choice but to finally open an impeachment inquiry. And all the more so as even non-Never Trump conservatives suggested that the Ukraine affair has pushed Trump into impeachment territory. The consequences of a Democratic failure to act would have been disastrous, signaling to Trump that he could commit unconstitutional or illegal acts with impunity—and with the Democrats looking like castrated eunuchs and Trump’s fanaticized supporters exulting. As Will Wilkinson—the very smart vice-president of the libertarian Niskanen Center think tank—put it in an excellent NYT op-ed, impeachment simply became “imperative.”

In one of the best essays of the past week, the conservative lawyer George T. Conway III (husband of Trump spinmeistresse Kellyanne, if one didn’t know), writing in The Atlantic, submitted quite simply that Trump is “unfit for office” and with his malignant “narcissism mak[ing] it impossible for him to carry out the duties of the presidency in the way the Constitution requires.” Conway’s piece is long but essential reading.

On how the impeachment inquiry endgame may play out, writer and ex-SCOTUS clerk Dean Gloster, who represented two “high-functioning narcissistic sociopaths” in his former career as a lawyer—who describes himself as “the guy the awful people came to after they’d screwed up so badly in front of federal judges with their first lawyers and wanted saving”—offered some experience-based thoughts in a must-read Twitter storm, and with some pointers for Trump’s flunkies and henchmen whom Adam Schiff will be serving with subpoenas. In his view, it will be sauve qui peut.

As to how Adam Schiff’s committee should pursue the hearings, Trump-loathing onetime Republican operative Rick Wilson, who’s always a pleasure to read, has these recommendations in his September 25th Daily Beast column, entitled “Five simple rules for impeaching our president: Battle on and for TV, ignore the old rules, expect the worst from Republicans, cause pain, and let the pros work.”

Rule 1: This is a battle by, for, and of television.

Donald Trump is a reality-TV star. It’s all he understands. It’s the only thing that penetrates that gigantic bone dome concealing his tiny lizard brain. The hearings must be public, televised, media-friendly, and done in a way that emphasizes the scope and intensity of this investigation. Remember, America elected this orange jackhole in large measure because they saw him pretending to be a CEO on a reality-TV show. If Congress provides moments of critical gravity on-air, preferably live, Trump’s brain will melt.

Rule 2: Ignore the old rules. Trump certainly will.

The first rule of Trump Fight Club is that there are no rules. The real battle to come is one of spectacle, drama, loud noises, and made-for-TV confrontations, not careful legal proceedings and meticulous fact-finding. Democrats shouldn’t be trying to make an air-tight legal case; they should be making a vivid, powerful, political and public case against Trump’s lawbreaking, greed, and sleaze. Don’t get caught up in the petty details; work the big, brash picture.

Trump is playing to his strength. As a man without shame, his only goal is to create a larger explosion, a bigger shock, a more powerful emotional response. He’s playing to his base; if Democrats are playing to the New York Times editorial board, they’re fucked.

Rule 3: Expect fuckery from the Republicans.

Play back every hearing in the past year where Fredo Nunes, Jim Jordan, Matt Gaetz, Mark Meadows, or any other member of the Deep State Douche Caucus rolled out some bizarre attack utterly unrelated to the actual investigation.

They’re going to ramp this up by a factor of a million, using every procedural trick in the book to blow up every hearing. The chairmen of these hearings need to drop the goddamn hammer on these jerkoffs, and hard. Suspend rules, crack skulls, cut corners—just keep the conversation and the camera on the Trump scumbags in the dock for questioning.

Don’t expect any heroes from the GOP; Republican members view him with more fear than loathing, and that’s the ballgame. Some true believers will be there to detonate themselves in service to the Dear Leader; they’re the Trumphadi caucus, and guys like Gym Jordan are one televised hissy fit from strapping on a bomb vest and charging the gate at Chappaqua. Once the filing deadlines for the GOP primaries have passed, you might have a little more luck but, until then, expect nothing but trouble.

Rule 4: Cause pain.

So far, no one from Trump’s world has felt the slightest bit of pressure or pain from contempt, lying, withholding information, evading subpoenas or being a Trumpian cocknozzle. When sinister Trump-world shitbird Corey Lewandowski lied his ass off before the House Judiciary Committee and verbally abused members of Congress, he did everything but take a dump on Jerry Nadler’s desk, and still walked away scot-free. If the shoe was on the other partisan foot, Lewandowski would have been perp-walked out of the room and strip-searched in the Rotunda.

If “inherent contempt” isn’t in the Democrats’ playbook right now, then forget impeachment and plan for a season of stonewalling. So what if the law is vague or there’s going to be a big old habeas corpus fight? You’re looking for the video clip of some Trump fuckwit being heaved off his feet and dragged out of the hearing room in contempt, not a legal-eagle panel on MSNBC nodding sagely.

You have to attack Trump’s weak spots; his money, his taxes, and his kids. Raise the stakes for all of them. Press harder. Be more cruel and more determined, because the other side most certainly has decided to lie and stonewall until you lose patience. Drag all of them, even the most tangential characters in Trumpworld.

Rule 5: Let the professionals work.

I know every member of Congress wants to be the star of the impeachment hearings. That’s not how this game works. They need to treat this like a televised trial, not like a goddamn press availability at the East Bumfuck Rotary Club.

The Democrats need to get professional, outside prosecutors to serve as the lead interrogators for every Trump witness. Pipe-swinging attorneys asking meaningful and high-risk questions to the Trump witnesses is better television, better lawyering, and better at wrecking Trump’s headspace than the five-minute-rule boredom of normal hearings.

And one more rule, mostly for the press: Stop taking the bait.

The president of the United States of America is, as you may have noticed by now, a lying liar who lies. The people around him are more of the same.

You’re not required to edit his word salad into coherent video or quotes. You’re not required to cover every one of his lunatic accusations as if it were gospel fact. If Trump makes an outrageous claim, he depends on the reporters around him to merely amplify what he said and not to call bullshit. This is how Trump has hacked the media system to his advantage. Even his lies, when reported, are believed as truth.

It’s past time for the press to call bullshit. No one is required to report verbatim the details of the president’s outrageous lies, only that he told them.

Those are the new roles, to win a fight that is going to be long, bloody, and painful. We’re still at the beginning of the beginning, as much as we may wish otherwise.

Trump deserves impeachment. America deserves a Democratic Party that has the strength, discipline, focus, and determination to carry it off.

In his follow-up October 2nd column, “Trump is going to burn down everything and everyone, and Republicans, that means you,” Wilson begins:

Donald Trump’s Oval Office performance-art masterpiece Wednesday was one for the ages, a pity-party, stompy-foot screech session by President Snowflake von Pissypants, the most put-upon man ever to hold the highest office in the land. If you watched his nationally televised press conference, Trump’s shrill, eye-popping hissy fit scanned like the end of a long, coke-fueled bender where the itchy, frenzied paranoia is dry-humping the last ragged gasps of the earlier party-powder fun.

Between calling Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) a panoply of Trumpish insults (and for the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee to be held for treason), engaging in his usual hatred of the press, talking about Mike Pompeo’s intimate undergarments, and quite obviously scaring the shit out of Finnish President Sauli Niinisto—who looked like he was the very unwilling star of an ISIS hostage video—Trump spent the day rapidly decompensating, and it was a hideous spectacle. All the Maximum Leader pronunciamentos won’t change the reality that Donald John Trump, 45th president of the United States, has lost his shit.

In private, Republicans are in the deepest despair of the Trump era. They’ve got that hang-dog, dick-in-the-dirt fatalism of men destined to die in a meaningless battle in a pointless war. They’ve abandoned all pretense of recapturing the House, their political fortunes in the states are crashing and burning, and the stock-market bubble they kept up as a shield against the downsides of Trump—“but muh 401(k)!”—is popping.

You want to know why so few Republicans have held town-hall meetings since early 2017? Because Trump is the cancer they deny is consuming them from the inside out. They see the political grave markers of 42 of their GOP House colleagues—and several hundred down-ballot Republicans—booted from office since 2017 and know that outside of the deepest red enclaves, they’re salesmen for a brand no one is buying.

How I wish I could write with such flair. To read the rest of Wilson’s column, you’ll have to plunk down $29/year or whatever it is to get behind The Daily Beast’s paywall (it’s worth it).

One big question—and over which there is much disagreement—is the scope of the impeachment inquiry, of whether or not it should be narrowly focused on the Ukraine affair or expanded to take up the countless number of impeachable offenses Trump has committed. I’m undecided, as there are strong arguments for both. Basically I’ll go with whatever it takes to get the SOB out of there (and preferably in handcuffs). Another question, which many had not thought of (myself included), is what will happen in the Senate if Trump is impeached. It has been assumed that the Senate will hold a trial, as it is presumably supposed to under Article II Section 4 of the constitution, but certain analysts have said that Mitch McConnell, as majority leader, could decide to not hold one, to simply ignore the House’s articles of impeachment. McConnell has assured that Senate rules do obligate it to take up impeachment but still, he could try to quickly dispatch with the matter. In a lengthy interview with the excellent Dahlia Lithwick, who writes on courts and the law for Slate, Walter Dellinger—former acting solicitor general and emeritus professor at Duke Law School—specified that the presiding officer at a Senate trial would be Chief Justice John Roberts, not Moscow Mitch, which would engender a different dynamic. And several Republican senators in purple states facing potentially tight reelection races next year—in IA, CO, AZ, ME, NC—may deem it prudent not to go on record as trying to nip in the bud a Senate trial before it has run its course. So what happens in the Senate could be quite interesting.

There’s much more to say about this obviously but I’ll leave it there for now. À suivre.

Map tweeted by Trump and response.

Jacques Chirac, R.I.P.

AFP photo / Patrick Kovarik

I’ve been riveted over the past week to the dramatic, fast-moving developments inside the Beltway—of which I will have things to say soon—but the news here, aux bords de la Seine, has been dominated since Thursday by the death of Jacques Chirac, who was, along with François Mitterrand, the most important French political figure of the post-De Gaulle era. As his four decades at the center stage of political life in this country have been been succinctly and excellently assessed in the Anglophone press by veteran Paris-based reporters John Lichfield in Politico and Christopher Dickey in The Daily Beast—I could have signed both myself—I’ll just add a few thoughts of my own.

As my permanent residence in France began in the early 1990s, I only read episodically about Chirac beforehand,  though had formed a negative view of him in the 1970s—when I spent a semester in Paris, in the run-up to the 1978 legislative elections—as an unsympathetic right-winger and with a nasty streak—a view that was cemented by my French teacher at the Sorbonne—a chic, middle-aged fonctionnaire in l’éducation nationale—who invited the class to her home one evening. As the discussion was informal, I brought up politics; when I mentioned Chirac’s name, she spat out: “C’est un fasciste!” As a youthful gauchiste, that settled the matter for me.

French lefties at the time did indeed call him “facho Chirac.” While he was, in point of fact, nowhere near the extreme right, he was still out there. And he was, as one knows, an early Eurosceptic—and when “Europe” was still merely a common market of nine members and with France the major actor to boot. Chirac’s rightist bent continued to the early 1990s, finding full expression during the 1986-88 cohabitation and his second stint as prime minister, when he adopted Thatcherite neoliberalism in economic policy and a tough law-and-order stance (with tough guy Charles Pasqua at Interior), plus turning the screws on immigration. And then there was his infamous 1991 demagogic outburst on “le bruit et l’odeur” of immigrants—rather obviously African (West and North)—a guaranteed crowd-pleaser for right-wing audiences (akin to Ronald Reagan’s made-up stories about welfare queens driving Cadillacs and buying t-bone steaks with food stamps).

The 1991 dérapage was, it should be said, the exception rather than the rule for Chirac; there were no future commentaries or petites phrases of the sort targeting post-colonial immigrants and the latter mostly did not hold it against him. The racist label was never attached to Chirac. It was around this time that perceptions by those who had long disliked him, notably on the left, began to change. There was indeed a remarkable evolution in his public image, from that of an antipathetic réac to a man more sympathique, with a warm, human touch and less markedly right-wing. He became almost Bill-Clintonian in his glad-handing. He genuinely seemed to enjoy the contact with random citizens (and particularly farmers, who loved him back). It’s been said that Chirac was profoundly affected by his repudiation in the 1988 presidential election—after which his wife Bernadette famously sighed that “the French people don’t like my husband”—and, above all, by the painful family tragedy of his beloved eldest daughter Laurence, about which he never publicly spoke. His traversée du désert seemed to have publicly humanized him, as it were.

He also moved toward the center on a number of fronts, one being Europe. His late call for a ‘oui’ vote during the 1992 Maastricht Treaty campaign was decisive in the referendum’s narrow approval; had Chirac opposed the treaty, as did the majority of the neo-Gaullist party of which he was the founder and leader, it would have surely been rejected by the French electorate, with the consequence being that the European Union would not have seen the light of day and there would have been no single currency (the latter eventuality would have perhaps not been a totally bad thing but that’s another matter). He also abandoned Thatcherite neoliberalism—which he blamed for his 1988 debacle and was never in his political DNA anyway—adopting an almost left-sounding rhetoric in the 1995 presidential campaign with his pledge to tackle the “fracture sociale,” i.e. to do something about widening inequality. And then there was his rejection of any contact with Jean-Marie Le Pen—including refusal of a debate before the 2nd round of the calamitous 2002 presidential election—with Chirac erecting a high wall between his party and the Front National. A sizable minority of his party’s activists wanted to deal with the FN but Chirac was adamant on the question. He was genuinely allergic to the extreme right and what it represented.

So when Chirac was finally elected president in 1995—on his third try in a row—there was no particular fretting or hand-wringing on the left, let alone alarm. It was seen as normal and not the end of the world. His appointment of Alain Juppé—widely respected across the board—as PM was confirmation that France would experience a normal alternation of power. It was around this time that Chirac’s veritable political identity became discernable, as less a man of the classical right than a sort of centrist Third Republic-style Radical (a “rad-soc”), a neo-Gaullist expressing the most centrist, consensual features of that tradition, notably republicanism and adhesion to France’s famous social model (i.e. the welfare state). In the US he would have been a New York-New England liberal Republican (a now extinct political species).

One thing about Chirac, among many others, merits mention. Despite his mec sympa image from the mid ’90s on, he was never very popular during his years in power (Matignon and Élysée). Excepting a stretch in the late ’90s, when the economy was booming and France won the World Cup, and saying no to Bush on Iraq in 2003, his job approval poll numbers were almost always underwater. Moreover, his electoral record was mediocre. In his four presidential elections, he broke 20% of the 1st round vote only once, in 1995 (20.5%). And during his twelve years as president of the Republic (1995-2007), his political camp lost every intermediate election (regional, European, etc) save two: the 2001 municipal elections and 2002 legislatives, the latter happening in the wake of his reelection. And on the 2002 presidential election—which Chirac won with 82% of the vote against a Jean-Marie Le Pen who shocked the world in overtaking the Socialist Lionel Jospin in the 1st round—this was an accident. If Jospin had qualified for the 2nd round, which was expected by all and by all rights should have happened, it is likely that he would have defeated Chirac, as I have extensively explained here. Chirac was unhappy about that election and the way he won it, so one understands. But without the accident of the 1st round, his political career would have probably ended five years earlier than it did.

As for an assessment of Chirac’s action, particularly as president of the Republic, here’s my bilan. First, the positive things he did:

  • The obvious number 1 is standing up to Bush on Iraq, of refusing to participate in the US’s “coalition of the willing” or allowing the UNSC to endorse the unprovoked US invasion. As I wrote on the tenth anniversary of the Iraq war, Chirac’s opposition to US policy was well-considered and based on principle. Chirac did not, in fact, exclude the possibility of joining the US in Iraq and told his military to prepare for it. But it became obvious to the French that the Bush-Cheney administration’s “evidence” of WMDs was bogus, that there was no casus belli. France needed the proof from Washington and never got it. After Colin Powell’s infamous presentation to the UNSC—which so impressed US pundits—analysts in France pronounced Powell’s photos and vials of powder impossible to interpret. So Chirac could not but declare that France would vote against a UNSC resolution authorizing war. If the Americans and Brits wanted to wage an unprovoked war in Iraq, they would have to do it without the green light from the United Nations. The French position was impeccable, ironclad, and irreproachable. As for Chirac’s cultivating of Iraq and Saddam Hussein in the 1970s—during his first stint as PM (1974-76)—which has been held against him, this was before Saddam had consolidated power and the Ba’athist regime had attained the degree of awfulness it did under his total rule. France was engaging in realpolitik at the time, as was the US and every other state on the planet, so Chirac is not to be reproached for this. And he was not identified with the informal Iraq lobby in Paris in the 1980s-90s.
  • The wars in Yugoslavia: when Chirac’s presidency began in May 1995 he quickly steered French policy away from his predecessor François Mitterrand’s backhanded pro-Serb stance, adopting one favoring the Bosnians and Croats, and, with the US in the lead (naturally), forcing the Serbs to the negotiating table and to end the siege of Sarajevo. And in 1999, Chirac, along with Tony Blair, was out front in supporting an intervention—i.e. pulling in the Americans—against the Serbs in Kosovo. Things in Kosovo may not have worked out so well since then but Chirac’s position at the time was the right one.
  • Expressing solidarity with the US immediately after 9/11 and joining the intervention in Afghanistan. Again, however that one has turned out, it was the right thing to do at the time.
  • His July 16, 1995, speech on the anniversary of the Rafle du Vel d’Hiv, recognizing the responsibility of the French state in the roundup and deportation of Jews during the Nazi occupation. No French president over the previous fifty years faced up to the specific French responsibility in this dark episode in recent French history. Chirac, to his great credit, did.
  • Not a political action, policy, or speech, but Chirac’s private passion for art premier, or tribal art, from cultures across Asia, Africa, the Americas, and Oceania. Chirac was a bona fide authority on the subject, with the product of his passion being his sponsorship of the Quai Branly museum, his specific contribution to Paris’s cultural patrimony. He also had a deep interest in and knowledge of Chinese and Japanese civilization, visiting the two countries numerous times (some 40 times to Japan). Chirac’s interest in and respect for other cultures spoke to a cosmopolitanism and ouverture d’esprit that is not common for professional politicians (in any country).

Now for the negative side of his bilan, or just of him as a person:

  • Corruption. One lost track of the affaires in which Chirac was implicated, mainly from his years as mayor of Paris (1977-95), though he only finally stood trial for one, in 2011 (verdict: two year suspended sentence). Chirac, whose salary during his entire working life was drawn from the public treasury (i.e. the taxpayer), lived the opulent life, which was, ça va de soi, not wholly paid for by his monthly earnings.
  • Rank opportunism and insincerity. Chirac’s periodic lurches leftward, then back to the right, suggested a lack of core principles—of a man who was willing to do or say whatever it took to further his ambitions. The post-1995 view of him as a “rad-soc” did not jibe with his political persona of the previous three decades, not to mention his political entourage (decidedly right-wing) and the base of his party (definitely right-wing). And his 1995 campaign rhetoric on the fracture sociale was quickly forgotten once he took office, witness the Plan Juppé, the most ambitious reform effort involving public spending that happened on his watch, which had nothing to do with reducing inequality. There were also lingering suspicions that Chirac’s back-slapping mec sympa image—the kind of guy with whom you could kick back and have a beer (Corona was his brand)—was all a facade, that the only thing that interested him (art premier apart) was the conquest of power, and that people were only interesting to him if they aided in advancing his ambitions. (On all this, see the incendiary 2005 réquisitoire—some would say hatchet job—by the well-known right-leaning journalist and editor Denis Jeambar).
  • Immobilism. It is commonplace, even among those sympathetic to Chirac, that while he was obsessed with attaining power, he didn’t know what to do with it once acquired. Apart from the aborted 1995 Juppé plan—which was to a large extent imposed on him by France’s obligations under the Maastricht Treaty (itself, one must not forget, largely a French initiative)—and the 2003 pension reform, Chirac’s policy agenda was thin to non-existent. He was reduced to domestic policy impotence in the last five years (1997-2002) of his first term—which was just as well, as he had no agenda to begin with—following his ill-considered dissolution of the National Assembly and consequent victory of the Gauche plurielle. And the watchword for his second term (2002-07) was drift. Politically speaking, the summit of the French state was brain dead. Chirac was the “Roi fainéant,” his court consumed with the battle between Nicolas Sarkozy and Dominique de Villepin for his succession. His presidency did not end a day too soon.
  • Chirac was, of course, determined to win a second term, even though he had no record to run on or anything to propose to the French people. So in the 2002 campaign he cooked up the issue of “insécurité,” i.e. petty crime, which he argued had worsened under PM Jospin’s Gauche plurielle government. Crime was, objectively speaking, not a big problem in France but it became Chirac’s centerpiece issue—with the subtext being immigration, as “insécurité” was a political code word for youthful lower class males of North and West African immigrant origin who snatched purses and behaved poorly on public transportation. The ideal issue to stoke the fears of elderly conservatives. It was pure demagoguery, the consequence of which was Le Pen’s vote spiking to an unprecedented 17%—as when it comes to demagoguing any issue having to do with swarthy and dark-skinned persons of recent immigrant stock, voters will, as Le Pen justly put it, always prefer the original to the copy. And the rest was history.
  • In mid 2003, Chirac decided, for no compelling reason, that France’s hallowed laïcité was under threat from young Muslim women wearing headscarves, so, with trumpets blaring, he convened a commission to ponder the question. Brilliant issue to distract the public, with unemployment increasing and his poll numbers sliding. So the commission submitted its report to Chirac, which he then referred to his government, which in turn took a single one of its recommendations and enacted a law proscribing the wearing of “ostentatious religious symbols” (read: Islamic headscarves) by students in public schools. The law was overwhelmingly approved by public opinion—including a sizable minority of France’s Muslims—and is uncontroversial today, but it further politicized a non-issue that did not need further politicization. The whole debate, which was so heavily skewed, contributed moreover to the transformation in the understanding—by the larger public, politicians, and intellectuals—of what laïcité means, from a law defining the relationship between the state and organized religion (the correct understanding) to a principle concerning itself with the comportment of private individuals (the incorrect understanding). This is most unfortunate and regrettable.
  • Chirac was beloved across the Arab world for his 1996 outburst at the Israeli police in the Old City of Jerusalem and, of course, for saying no to the Americans on Iraq. And many in France vaunted his return to de Gaulle’s famous “politique arabe,” of cultivating good relations with Arab states and peoples. But it was a myth and mirage. Chirac’s “politique arabe” consisted mainly of supporting Gulf emirates and other dictatorships—Qatar and Ben Ali’s Tunisia, among others—and selling them weapons, and in return for not much, as Arab regimes, knowing where the real power lay, privileged their relations with Washington over Paris. And in sub-Saharan Africa, it was business as usual under Chirac, with the “Françafrique” and support of dictatorships. While Chirac may have been the toast of the “Arab street,” he was not on the streets of Dakar or Abidjan. He may have had a passion for the art of “primitive” peoples but did not think them meritorious of democracy.
  • Organizing the 2005 referendum on the European Constitutional Treaty, which he both didn’t need to do and was then incapable of defending or explaining. The treaty would have failed anyway in view of the negative vote in the Netherlands three days later, but still. The rejection in France—confirming that referendums are almost always a bad idea—reinforced the Euroscepticism of a growing portion of the electorate.
  • Following the failure of the 2005 referendum, appointing the gasbag and poète à ses heures Dominique de Villepin, who had never stood for election in his life, as prime minister. Talk about an erreur de casting.

Arthur Goldhammer has a short essay on Chirac on the Tocqueville 21 blog. In it, he links to a remembrance by Libération’s Jean Quatremer, who skewers Chirac’s “catastrophic reign for Europe.” And Mediapart has a lengthy, not-too-positive assessment, “Jacques Chirac, ou l’obsession du pouvoir.”

Sarajevo-Jerusalem

Je recommande la lecture de cette fascinante, étonnante et gratifiante série en six volets, intitulée “Sarajevo-Jérusalem” et publiée dans Le Monde du 13 au 19 août, sur la communauté juive de Sarajevo, présent et passé, de son histoire de bonne entente avec les musulmans bosniaques de la ville – ville où il n’y a jamais eu de ghetto et où l’antisémitisme était quasi inexistant. Il y a eu une douzaine de milliers de juifs à Sarajevo avant la Deuxième guerre mondiale – 20% de sa population, majoritairement séfarade – dont plus de 80% ont été exterminés pendant l’occupation nazie, avec le concours des Oustachis croates. Un certain nombre des rescapés est parti en Israël après 1948, et surtout pendant le siège de Sarajevo par l’armée yougoslave serbe (1992-95) – quoique les juifs de Bosnie-Herzégovine étaient, dans leur majorité, peu pratiquant et pas très sioniste.

Ce qui reste aujourd’hui est une vibrante communauté d’un millier d’âmes qui fait partie intégrante de la ville. L’expérience sarajévienne réfute-t-elle la notion d’une Bosnie historiquement divisée en communautés vivant à couteaux tirés – et s’inscrit en faux plus généralement contre le nationalisme ambiant de notre époque. Comme on peut lire dans le sixième volet, “contrairement au mythe brandi par les nationalistes des trois dernières décennies, la coexistence ne fut pas limitée à une Yougoslavie de Tito condamnée à disparaître après sa mort, mais qu’elle fut ancrée dans l’histoire de la ville durant des siècles, répondant à un sincère besoin de bon voisinage et d’humanité des Sarajéviens.”

L’expérience sarajévienne allait au-delà du bon voisinage. Il y a eu une véritable solidarité entre juifs et musulmans (avec des mariages mixtes). À ce titre, le Jérusalem d’aujourd’hui – l’exacte contraire du vivre-ensemble, où une communauté (en l’occurrence, juive) domine les autres par la force – est implicitement posé en contre-modèle, et pour cause.

L’auteur de cette remarquable série, Rémy Ourdan, connait bien le sujet. Grand reporter au journal Le Monde, il a couvert le siège de Sarajevo durant quatre ans (et a co-réalisé un documentaire dessus) et a fait maints reportages en Israël-Palestine au fil des années.

Voilà les volets de la série:

  1. Juifs de Sarajevo: les héros ordinaires de la ‘Jérusalem de l’Europe’. —— A travers l’histoire des juifs de Sarajevo, voyage dans ces deux villes en quête d’universalité, symboles des peuples du Livre, épicentres des conflits modernes, sur les traces d’une certaine idée, réelle ou imaginaire, de la coexistence…
  2. La saga du sauvetage de la Haggadah de Sarajevo, le manuscrit sépharade le plus précieux au monde. —— Convoité par les nazis en 1942 puis menacé pendant la guerre de Bosnie, le fameux manuscrit enluminé du XIVe siècle a dû être caché à plusieurs reprises.
  3. Les mousquetaires juifs du siège de Sarajevo. —— La communauté juive a, pendant la guerre de Bosnie, lancé une incroyable opération humanitaire, organisant l’évacuation de 2 500 Sarajéviens et portant assistance aux assiégés. Israël a de son côté vu débarquer des centaines de ‘juifs sarajéviens’ très peu juifs…
  4. Les étonnantes coutumes des rabbins sarajéviens. —— A l’instar du dernier rabbin yougoslave, Cadik Danon, c’est toute une lignée de religieux, représentée aujourd’hui par Eliezer Papo et Igor Kozemjakin, qui prend des libertés avec les lois et traditions juives. Une vision du judaïsme proche de l’esprit de Sarajevo.
  5. De l’’éducation sarajévienne’ à la cause palestinienne. —— Fille d’une survivante sarajévienne de Bergen-Belsen, Amira Hass vit depuis vingt-cinq ans en Cisjordanie. Cette reporter et éditorialiste au quotidien ‘Haaretz’ défend sans relâche la cause palestinienne dans les colonnes de son journal.
  6. Sarajevo-Jérusalem, deux villes, deux destins. —— Contrairement à Sarajevo, qui a résisté avec l’énergie du désespoir à la division ethnique de la ville, les habitants de Jérusalem vivent aujourd’hui séparés et la ville sainte est plus fracturée que jamais.

Here’s a related article in Haaretz, dated 19 July 2017, by Sarajevo-based journalist Kate Bartlett: “Why Sarajevo’s tiny Jewish community believes it’s in the safest place in Europe for Jews: In a country where ethnic hatreds run deep, the Jewish community in the ‘Jerusalem of the Balkans’ says it is not subject to anti-Semitic acts and is even enjoying a ‘baby boom’.”

The 1619 Project

If one doesn’t know it:

The 1619 Project is a major initiative from The New York Times observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.

I read all the articles this past week—those so far published, 17 by my count (the series is ongoing)—some 100 pages printed out (PDF is here), authored by well-known academics (historians and social scientists) and journalists. It’s an incredible series. Historian, Holocaust specialist, and old friend Marc Masurovsky described it well on his Facebook page:

A must-read, you have to read this special issue of the New York Times magazine…

It’s a shattering assessment of the history of America—white America—built on the blood of African slaves since 1619. A searing indictment of how American economic growth, political machines, and judicial decisions were rooted in the enslavement of millions of men, women and children. Generations of white businessmen, politicians, scholars, scientists, lawyers and judges, breathed and ate and drank segregationist and racist views…up to this day… and shaped and molded Federal and State policies to satisfy the segregationist agenda.

It makes one rethink what being American really means. And it’s simply frightening and appalling.

Oh, I know! We know the story of slavery and racism. But we really don’t. Please read this! You owe it to yourselves, to our African-American brothers and sisters. I am frankly ashamed that we have to bear this legacy. It’s bad to have committed genocide against the first inhabitants of what came to be known as America. If that wasn’t enough, we had to build the foundations of American democracy on the blood, flesh and tears of slaves. It makes you really wonder who the Bill of Rights was really written for and what that Declaration of Independence really means and for whom.

And no, I wasn’t born yesterday.

As Marc indicates, you may think you know the history of slavery and its legacy but, after reading The 1619 Project series, you realize you really don’t, at least not fully. There’s so much you don’t know or haven’t realized. And to call slavery America’s “original sin,” which just about everyone does, is too easy. It’s a throwaway line. Slavery was America’s crime: it was constitutive of the founding of the United States of America and the legacy of which weighs heavily today—and which is incarnated in the world-view of one of America’s two major political parties. As one reads in the series, the nature of American capitalism, the ideological rejection of universal social insurance schemes (a.k.a. the welfare state) by one of the major parties and the on-going battle over voting rights—making the US an outlier among advanced democracies—et on en passe, is a legacy of slavery and the century of apartheid that followed its abolition.

Sure, lots of countries had chattel slavery—Brazil, the islands of the Caribbean, Arabia, large parts of Africa, Thailand, etc—and which profoundly marked their politics and social structure (Brazil today is a big case in point) but we’re talking about the United States of America here, and where slavery and its legacy had some unique features.

Conservatives have unsurprisingly been flipping out over the 1619 series (a few reactions have been measured, though it’s obvious that most of those who are trashing the series have hardly read any of it). In responding to the conservative attacks, the NYT’s excellent columnist Jamelle Bouie (who has an article in the series) argues that “slavery was not a secondary part of our history: in America, liberty and bondage have always been intertwined.” And The Nation’s Jeet Heer observes that “conservatives’ freakout over The 1619 Project reveals their fear of America’s actual past.” Or, we should say, fear of a changing narrative of America’s past. E.g. some of the series authors refer to plantations as “forced-labor camps,” or “slave-labor camps,” and with all calling slave-owners “enslavers.” I will wager that in a generation, say twenty years from now, this nomenclature will be the prevailing one. An old Southern plantation doesn’t look the same if it’s labeled a “slave-labor camp.” This is, needless to say, deeply threatening to the conservative narrative—and largely white Southern—of American history.

On the question of historical narratives, the NYT published an op-ed on August 21st by writer and cultural critic Lewis Hyde, “How nationalism can destroy a nation,” in which he discusses Ernest Renan’s famous 1882 speech at the Sorbonne, “What is a nation?”—which is the classic French republican statement on the question—and whose central idea is that of historical narrative and the will of the members of a nation—the nation being an abstraction—to live together (Renan’s “daily plebiscite”). And central to historical narratives, for Renan, is “forgetting,” of an implicit decision by the gatekeepers of the national narrative to gloss over parts of the past—or bury them altogether—that caused members of the nation to kill one another (Renan’s example for France was the 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, i.e. the 16th century religious wars of Catholics vs. Protestants). In America, this was slavery and the Civil War. As David Blight and other historians have written, the reconciliation of the North and South was predicated on black Americans—the former slaves—being written out of the American national narrative, and of the Southern view of slavery as a benign institution becoming the dominant one—of the North, in effect, being southernized.

This narrative was blown apart by the civil rights movement, the formal end of legal apartheid in the 1960s, and the according of full rights of citizenship—of belonging to the American nation—to Afro-Americans. And with that, America has once again become a deeply divided society—with a reactionary, southernized Republican Party leading the resistance to this change—such as it has not been since, well, the Civil War.

A few months ago, here in a Paris, I was browsing in a recently-opened far right-wing bookstore. One book I leafed through was a paean to the antebellum South, by the late neo-fascist writer-historian Dominique Venner, the title of which translates as ‘The white sun of the defeated: the epic history of the South and the Civil War, 1607-1865’. In the book he explicitly refers to the United States as being comprised of “two nations”: the North and the South. He was certainly not wrong in describing it that way for the period covered in his book and, I dare say, he would not be totally wrong in it today.

Today is the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Paris in WWII by the Free French and United States. Le Monde has a five-minute video on its website entitled ‘Liberation of Paris: why was there not a single black soldier in the military parades?’, even though there were over 3000 African soldiers—principally Senegalese tirailleurs—in General Leclerc’s elite 2nd Armored Division, which spearheaded the liberation of the city. The answer: pressure on the French from the Americans to remove the black soldiers from General Leclerc’s forces.

One of the preoccupations of the US Army during WWII in regard to its black soldiers—as historian Raffael Scheck, interviewed in the above Le Monde video, reminds us—was fraternization with European women—there being no taboo on interracial intimacy in France, Britain, or anywhere on this side of the ocean—and the measures that were taken to prevent this (including court martials and execution of black soldiers for rape, even when more than a few of the accused rapes were, in fact, consensual relationships). The actual consequence of interracial affairs involving black American soldiers was cinematically depicted in the powerful 2017 Netflix film Mudbound, which is set in rural Mississippi in the aftermath of WWII. What happened to the black soldier returning from Europe when his love affair with a woman in Germany was discovered by the local white men was utterly real. Such happened countless times to black men in the South. The excruciating scene toward the end of the film—which is almost unbearable to watch—crystallizes America’s experience with slavery and its legacy. And, one may add, the evil of the white American South.

C’est tout ce que j’ai à dire, pour le moment au moins.

The El Paso massacre

[update below]

Dayton too. The latter one was a garden-variety American massacre, committed by an angry white male, who shot up a crowded place—that may or may not have been chosen at random—and with a legally acquired semi-automatic rifle. If such weapons of war could be as easily procured in, say, France—where there are plenty of angry white males—as they are in the US, does anyone doubt that we would see a dramatic increase in massacres there (and of murder more generally)?

The El Paso massacre was different. As one knows, this one was racially motivated. It was an act of terrorism targeting a particular ethnic group—and a group that has been the target of racism, hatred, and dehumanization by the President of the United States since he announced his candidacy four long years ago. Trump has spoken of Mexicans and Central Americans in the same terms as the Rwandan Hutu Interahamwe did of Tutsis in 1994 (as “cockroaches”) and Nazis did of Jews. Trump’s words are “poison,” as a commentary by a conservative pundit headlined today. Trump is poison. The El Paso Walmart terrorist was morally aided and abetted by Trump. Trump bears moral responsibility for the massacre. And one may be utterly certain that there will be more to come—possibly even more so once the unspeakable SOB is gone. On this, Paul Waldman has a chilling column in The Washington Post (August 5th) on “[h]ow Trump’s biggest broken promise will make white supremacist terrorism even worse.” The angry, heavily-armed white men out there will be even angrier when their man is no longer in the White House—and having failed to build his wall or rid the country of Muslims and others from “shithole countries.” A future President Warren-Biden-Harris-etc needs to start thinking now about how s/he will deal with an inevitable upsurge in domestic terrorism such as the United States has not witnessed in anyone’s lifetime.

On the antecedents of white American nationalist terrorism, historian Thomas Meaney has a must-read review essay in the August 1st London Review of Books, simply entitled “White Power,” in which he discusses two new books, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America, by Kathleen Belew, and Revolutionaries for the Right: Anti-Communist Internationalism and Paramilitary Warfare in the Cold War, by Kyle Burke. One learns in the essay that the armed white nationalist movement in its present form was born with the Cold War and America’s military interventions and other imperialist ventures over the decades, most notably the Vietnam War, and with veterans later freelancing as mercenaries to fight Soviet-backed insurgencies across the globe (one reads about the monthly magazine Soldier of Fortune, which I would periodically look at with morbid curiosity in the 1970s and ’80s). With the end of the Cold War, new generation white warriors acquired experience in Afghanistan and Iraq. In short, there are a lot of violent men out there in the American heartland—and no doubt in big blue cities too—who are racist, like to kill, and possess the heavy weapons to do so on a large scale. Again, El Paso is just the beginning.

Kathleen Belew, who teaches history at the University of Chicago, has an op-ed in The New York Times (August 4th), “The right way to understand white nationalist terrorism.” The lede: “Attacks like that in El Paso are not an end in themselves. They are a call to arms, toward something much more frightening.”

One may also profitably read Slate political editor Thomas Scocca’s commentary (August 4th), “Where taking the concerns of racists seriously has gotten us.”

UPDATE: Brian Beutler, the smart editor-in-chief of Crooked, has a smart comment (August 6th), “Members of the press, WTF indeed!,” in which he takes off from Beto O’Rourke’s impromptu reaction to a clueless journalist’s question. This passage in the piece is particularly noteworthy:

One recent incident that attracted relatively scant attention connects [Trump’s] racist incitement with his other nefarious activities: his unlawful intrusion in the war-crimes case of Eddie Gallagher, the Navy SEAL who fatally stabbed a teenage ISIS fighter, posed with his corpse, then threatened to kill anyone who reported him. Trump helped secure Gallagher’s acquittal, then ordered the Navy to strip the prosecutors who tried him of the achievement medals they were awarded for doing their jobs well. The Gallagher case became a right wing cause célèbre, saturated with jingoism and Islamophobia, which is surely why Trump first took interest in it. But what purpose did he serve by punishing war-crimes prosecutors whose superiors determined they had acted appropriately? Why would the president want to communicate to certain favored, dangerous people that they have his permission to be violent, and that those who stand in their way will be scorned, abused, or purged? It is easier to look away than to connect the dots, because if the president has truly fascistic ambitions—if he has abused his power to recruit violent sympathizers in the military or civilian life with the lure of immunity—then conventional journalism lacks the language to say so.

Read the whole thing here.

The crisis at the border

[update below]

The Democrats are gearing up for their second debate this week, with questions on immigration and the crisis at the border certain to be posed. In informing oneself on the subject, which all concerned citizens should be doing, some advice: ignore the pundits and pay attention to the specialists and practitioners, i.e., to those who know what they’re talking about. A good piece to start with may be found on the Foreign Affairs website (dated July 16th), “Trump’s incendiary rhetoric is only accelerating immigration: The crisis at the border is of Washington’s own making,” by Randy Capps, who is Director of Research for U.S. Programs at the Migration Policy Institute.

See likewise the commentary on the MPI website, co-published with the El Colegio de México, by MPI president Andrew Selee et al, “Strategic solutions for the United States and Mexico to manage the migration crisis,” in which five recommendations are advanced, one of which is increasing pathways for legal migration of Central Americans to both the United States and Mexico. If the US wants to reduce illegal immigration, it must increase legal migration, e.g. circular migration schemes (see my post on ‘the border’ from last March). There is no other way.

Another informative commentary may be found on the Washington Office on Latin America website, “There is a crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, but it’s manageable,” by Adam Isacson et al.

It is well-understood that the majority of migrants trying the enter the US from the southern border are not Mexican but rather from the Northern Triangle of Central America. There has also been an upsurge of Africans, notably from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola, which Randy Capps discusses in his Foreign Affairs article:

These migrants are the leading edge of a trend that will likely preoccupy the United States for years to come. African countries have among the highest birth rates, lowest per capita incomes, and most unstable governments in the world. Demographers project that due to rapid population growth and high poverty rates, Africa will produce more international migrants than any other continent in coming decades. Conflicts in South Sudan, northern Nigeria, and Burundi have already displaced millions of people in recent years. And in the DRC, where 4.5 million people are currently internally displaced (300,000 of whom were uprooted in the last month), a combination of ethnic conflict, political instability, and state repression has the potential to produce as many international migrants as conflicts in the Middle East and Central America.

Even though the vast majority of African migrants remain in neighboring countries, more are seeking to leave the continent. Hundreds of thousands headed to Germany, Sweden, and other European countries during the peak of Europe’s migration and refugee crisis in 2015–16. But their main route across the Mediterranean has been cut off as a result of European policies to thwart boat crossings and increasing violence and insecurity in North Africa, particularly in Libya, the most popular launching point. With this route blocked, migrants from the DRC and other African countries are turning their attention elsewhere, including to the United States. (…)

The flow of migrants from Africa and Asia to the U.S.-Mexican border is unlikely to abate soon. The world is experiencing the greatest humanitarian migration crisis since World War II, and most of the displaced are living on those two continents. Until recently, the United States was largely insulated from these pressures by geography. But with refugees and other migrants finding new routes and adapting to shifting policies, that may not remain true for much longer. (…)

On the African migratory flow to the US, see also this AP dispatch linked to in Capps’ piece.

À propos of all this, the latest issue of The New York Review Books (dated August 15th), has an excellent, must-read review essay by Joseph O’Neill on Jill Lepore’s This America: The Case for the Nation, and This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto, by Suketu Mehta, who is a naturalized American citizen from India. The gist of Mehta’s argument is that the rich countries of Europe and North America have no moral right to erect barriers to migration from countries in Africa and Asia that were pillaged over centuries of Western colonialism and imperialism. In this respect, Jason DeParle, in a review essay in the August 16th 2018 NYRB on Lauren Markham’s The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life, reminds the reader that seven of the ten largest immigrant groups in the US—Filipinos, Salvadorans, Vietnamese, Cubans, Dominicans, Koreans, and Guatemalans—come from countries the US invaded or where it had a large military presence—and eight if you go back far enough to count Mexico. Salvadorans—the subject of Markham’s book—are here in the US in part because of what we did there in El Salvador, he says. Quoting Markham: “We have played a major part in creating the problem of what has become of Central America.”

Likewise with a smaller immigrant/refugee population in the US that we’ve been hearing a lot about lately: from Somalia, a country the US sent soldiers to in the early ’90s. The initial motives may have been high-minded and humanitarian but the Americans quickly—and calamitously—involved themselves in Somalia’s civil war, the consequence of which was to worsen what was already a nasty tribal conflict—and which saw the entry of new, Islamist actors (Islamic Courts Union, Al-Shabaab) that were themselves a by-product of Washington’s Global War on Terror. Somalia had never been a country of emigration but, thanks in significant part to the United States, it became one.

Back to Suketu Mehta, while one may not share his view that the US and Europe should institute what would be, in effect, a veritable open borders regime with the rest of the world—and I’m not with him on this, for a couple of specific reasons—his argument merits a respectful, well-considered response.

Hari Sreenivasa interviewed Mehta on CNN’s Amanpour & Co. on May 21st, which may be seen here. I don’t agree with Mehta on all the particulars but think he has the big picture right.

Among other things, Mehta aptly asserts that the US could triple the number of Green Cards handed out, to three million a year, and not only would it have no downside but would make the country better. In this vein—and departing from my above admonishment not to pay attention to media pundits on the immigration issue—the NYT’s Bret Stephens—whom I would normally not quote favorably—began his column dated June 21st 2018 with this:

I prefer the window seat.

I like to idle away time on flights trying to guess where and what I’m flying over, without the benefit of the map. I’m hypnotized by the red-beige-brown carpet of California desert; mesmerized by the unbroken wilderness of northern Maine; awed by the peaks and valleys of the Cascades; calmed by the serenity of the Great Lakes.

And I draw a political conclusion: America is vast, largely empty and often lonely. Roughly 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas, covering just 3 percent of the overall landmass. We have a population density of 35 people per square kilometer — as opposed to 212 for Switzerland and 271 for the U.K.

We could use some more people. Make that a lot more.

Right. If the US population were to double via immigration—to 660 million—the country would still have a lower population density than three-quarters of the member states of the European Union. And like the latter, the US would necessarily have a more elaborate welfare state and greater environmental consciousness—and witness the extinction of the Republican Party in its current form to boot. And what sentient person cannot hope for that!

À suivre.

UPDATE: For those who may have missed it, a polemic was sparked over Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez referring, on June 17th, to the migrant detention centers on the border as “concentration camps,” with Republicans and right-wing media—plus Jewish organizations—denouncing AOC for what they considered to be an obscene use of the term. Following suit, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington released, on June 24th, a “Statement Regarding the Museum’s Position on Holocaust Analogies,” thus aligning the USHMM with the attacks on AOC. This provoked a response by several hundred historians and other scholars, who signed “An Open Letter to the Director of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum,” published in the NYR Daily on July 1st.

One critique of the New York Congresswoman was penned by Robert Rozett, who is Senior Historian in the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem, in The Times of Israel, “What exactly is a concentration camp, AOC? The prison camps the lawmaker referenced were many things, but they were not detention or internment camps in a classic sense.” Holocaust scholar Omer Bartov was asked by friends and associates to respond to Rozett, which he did on his Facebook page on July 16th:

[H]ere is my response. I’ll now opt out of the rest of this debate since I think I have said everything I can say at the moment.

The article by Rozett makes the obvious point that the Nazi concentration camps were not the same as other detention and concentration camps. It evades the issue that most concentration camps were in fact not where Jews were killed, and that most Jews were not killed in concentration camps. About 3 million Jews died in extermination camps, which were indeed a unique feature of the Nazi regime. The other 3 million were mostly shot where they lived or died in ghettos. The Nazis did not invent concentration camps, and if you read about the horrors of such camps under other regimes and at other times you will discover the family resemblance. Even in WWII, Jews were interned in camps, e.g. in France, that were similar to other detention camps in history, before they were handed over to the Germans, so that such detention camps were a link in the chain leading to extermination. Most important, the term “never again,” as it was understood also by the most prominent and articulate survivors of the Holocaust, was specifically intended to make future generations not repeat the process of dehumanization of other groups of people that could eventually lead to violence and mass murder. It was not meant to prevent what had already happened, which could no longer be undone. What people such as Jean Améry and Primo Levi appealed for was to recognize the humanity of others.

What the current inhabitant of the White House is doing is an intentional dissemination of an idea, and implementation of policies, intended to dehumanize others, be they foreigners, minorities, Muslims, or what have you (including Jews). He is opening the gates, both rhetorically and by bureaucratic measures, to an unmooring of the greatest aspect of American society, from which many, including myself, have benefited immeasurably – the acceptance of people from elsewhere and the fundamental rejection of the blood and soil nationalism that was at the root of Nazism and fascism. The brutality toward children on the border is a manifestation of this new worldview, which must be rejected at all cost because it would undo American society and bring out, as it has already begun, the worst demons that inhabit its fringes.

I won’t go here into the reasons for Yad Vashem’s protection of the notion of the uniqueness of the Holocaust, which is an ahistorical concept that hampers the very idea of studying the event, something that can only be done by way of comparison. In this I of course supported the letter of hundreds of historians and other scholars to the USHMM (which has yet to respond) for its bizarre rejection of analogies. The current Israeli government has in fact been utilizing the Holocaust in order to legitimize its insupportable policies viz-à-viz Palestinians. Unfortunately, it too has forgotten nothing and learned nothing from the Holocaust, namely, that dehumanizing others dehumanizes oneself. It is tragic to see this same predilection now threatening to erode American democracy as well. This erosion will harm all minorities, and American Jews who believe that they will be spared it are fooling themselves as Jewish nationalists have done in other places in the past. Allow me not to continue this discussion, I am sure there are those who disagree but these are my views.

Historian Timothy Snyder had a comment in Slate (July 12th), “It can happen here: The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s decision to speak out against Holocaust analogies is a moral threat.”

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