Archive for October, 2018

Still the Evil Kingdom

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]

I labelled Saudi Arabia the “evil kingdom” in two posts here and here some five-and-a-half years ago. It had long gone without saying, in North America and Europe at least, that the Baathist regime in Iraq—followed by its cousin in Syria—was the bloodiest, cruelest, and all-around most repressive in the MENA region. I had thought such myself through the 1990s, giving the palmarès for overall awfulness to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. And Saddam was indeed everything one could say about him. But looking into the matter more closely in the last decade, I determined that—when it came to internal repression—Libya’s Muammar Qadhafi was every bit as bad as Saddam—and was a greater destabilizing force regionally to boot. And then looking just a little more closely, it became manifest that Saudi Arabia was hardly a nicer place than Saddam’s Iraq when it came to domestic repression, and was, in fact, far worse outside its borders, with its aggressive promotion of Wahhabism across the planet—wherever Muslims were to be found—the Saudi roots of Al-Qaida, ISIS, et on en passe. So why weren’t the Saudis taken to task on all this. Because they were allies of the US and other Western powers, duh.

But with the rise last year of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, a.k.a. MBS, who was touted as a reformer and modernizer by high-profile US pundits, I thought—briefly—that maybe my view of Saudi Arabia needed revising. LOL. Between the criminal, near genocidal, Saudi-led destruction of Yemen, the unhinged campaign against Qatar, the brutal crackdown on domestic dissent, and the now certain murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul—the grisly details of which everyone has read; if not, see the coverage in Middle East Eye—MBS looks to be, as analyst Rula Jebreal put it on Al Jazeera today, a Qadhafi “on steroids.” Far from being a reformer, MBS is establishing a Bonapartist dictatorship far more repressive than its predecessor—though without Napoleon Bonaparte’s brilliance as a military strategist or state modernizer.

If one is going to read just two pieces today on the Jamal Khashoggi affair, I highly recommend these, both by Washington insiders:

Jamal Khashoggi’s long road to the doors of the Saudi consulate,” by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, which I found most informative—and which cites the brilliant political scientist Barnett Rubin, who knows more about Afghanistan than just about anyone.

A fatal abandonment of American leadership: The disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi drives home the consequences of the Trump administration’s refusal to champion democratic values around the globe,” by Ben Rhodes—former deputy national-security adviser to Barack Obama–writing in The Atlantic.

À suivre.


2nd UPDATE: The gauchiste webzine Jadaliyya has usefully compiled its articles and documents on dissent in Saudi Arabia in one piece (October 17th): “Outrage overdue: Saudi Arabia’s long history of dictatorship and opposition.”

3rd UPDATE: See Rula Jebreal’s posthumous “secret interview” with Jamal Khashoggi in Newsweek (October 19th), “The Saudi journalist’s views of Islam, America and the ‘reformist’ prince implicated in his murder.”

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[update below]

Continuing from yesterday’s post, the question is what should Democrats do now, now that the far right-wing Republican Party has a lock on the SCOTUS for years to come, until one of the five majority justices drops dead—and assuming that happens when the Democrats control the White House and Senate (and that Trump hasn’t had the opportunity to add a sixth or even seventh hard-right justice in the meantime). An ultra-conservative SCOTUS majority has been a specter that all Democrats and progressives—myself included—have dreaded, and now it’s reality.

The principal focus has been on Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges, of these being repealed, which would of course be terrible, though perhaps not as calamitous as one may fear, as abortions are already difficult-to-impossible to obtain in many red states but will remain legal in blue states (and maybe some red as well) in the absence of Roe. The real danger is in further gutting the Voting Rights Act, upholding extreme partisan gerrymandering, striking down remaining campaign finance laws, and, above all, turning the clock back to the Lochner era in economic legislation and collective bargaining—thus rendering unconstitutional legislation passed by a future Democratic congress and signed by a Democratic president. The specter of this is truly nightmarish.

But I am not in a state of despair or depressed. Not that I’m serene: Kavanaugh’s confirmation is indeed a dark day in American history, but it’s not the end of the world. It’s not over for the Democrats—provided, of course, that they win elections, beginning next month and continuing in 2020. The Dems do have options. For starters, the Kavanaugh confirmation, so Matthew Yglesias submitted in Vox three days ago, “will delegitimize the Supreme Court — and that’s a good thing,” continuing that “it’s time America woke up to the radical right that’s run the Court for years.” In a similar vein, Paul Starr of The American Prospect wrote:

…Democrats should [certainly not] have ducked this fight. There’s no way to win in politics or in anything else if you give up in advance. And the Kavanaugh battle may bring about one good result, though it’s nothing to cheer about.

Many Americans have an out-of-date view of the Supreme Court as a bulwark of liberalism. In fact, Republican presidents have made 15 out of the last 19 Supreme Court appointments, and the rulings of the most recently appointed justices have increasingly followed partisan lines. The decisions about same-sex marriage and a few other highly publicized cases have even misled many liberals and progressives into thinking the Court is more liberal than it is. Now that Kavanaugh is replacing Anthony Kennedy, they should be disabused of that illusion.

John Judis drove the point home in a spot-on column today in TPM, “What needs to be done in the wake of Kavanaugh’s confirmation,” which begins:

In the wake of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination and confirmation as a Supreme Court justice, several liberals have argued that if the Democrats win a majority again in the White House and Congress, they should consider packing the court and even limiting the tenure of court justices. I agree with these proposals by Paul Starr in The American Prospect and Barry Friedman in The New York Times. But the court’s role as a reactionary institution – one that desperately needs reform – began before Kavanaugh’s nomination.

The court became a reactionary institution – one that has subverted rather than protected American democracy – when it began in 1976 its series of campaign finance rulings. These rulings – from Buckley v. Valeo in 1976 through Citizens United v. FEC in 2010 – have removed any restraint first on candidate spending in campaigns and then on individual and corporate donations to candidates and parties. The result has been that the underlying premise of political democracy – that political equality would trump (sorry to use that word) economic inequality — no longer prevails. Instead, economic inequality subverts political equality by giving the wealthy and economically powerful a greater say in our elections.

And further down, Judis concludes:

There are two conclusions I’d draw from this. First, the problems with the court didn’t start with Kavanaugh this week or even Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. They started in 1976. Secondly, if liberals have any dreams of moving American beyond the New Deal toward a genuine social democracy, they need to find a way to overturn the spate of campaign finance rulings from the court and reinstitute a genuinely democratic reading of the first amendment in their place. If it takes packing (or threatening to pack the court, as Franklin Roosevelt did), that’s fine. It’s within the bounds of the Constitution.

Packing the Court. The idea is in vogue among Dems, as it needs to be. When they’re back in the saddle in 2021 inshallah, they should add two new SCOTUS justices—just do it—and then propose a deal with the Republicans, that they will not add any more if the Repubs agree to a constitutional amendment—though a simple law on this may constitutionally suffice—mandating fixed terms for SCOTUS and all other federal judges. A single 18-year term is being bandied about by most who’ve expressed a view on the question, though I would go for a 12-year renewable. On the matter of SCOTUS term limits, I wrote about this myself some seven years ago. It was not de l’actualité back then but sure is now. Its time has come.

Failing court packing, a Democratic president and Congress could simply decide to go nuclear and ignore SCOTUS rulings—just tell the Court to f*** off and proceed to implement legislation Kavanaugh & Co had ruled unconstitutional—as Slate’s excellent reporter on courts and the law, Mark Joseph Stern, has spelled out. The Democrats would be provoking a major constitutional crisis but with the Court acting as a brazen partisan body and thus illegitimate in the eyes of at least half the American population, what choice would the Dems have short of packing? Charles M. Blow’s NYT column yesterday was aptly entitled, “Liberals, this is war.” Indeed. It is a war launched by the Republicans. On this, there can be no dispute or doubt. And if war is what they want, then war is what they’ll get.

À suivre.

UPDATE: On lifetime terms for SCOTUS and federal judges, author/writer Lawrence Goldstone says in TNR (October 9th) that “The text of the Constitution says no such thing.” A simple law passed by Congress would suffice to set fixed terms.

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[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below]

It’s been a foregone conclusion for days. I had some hope when Jeff Flake pulled his Friday the 28th delaying act that the FBI investigation would turn up something to give him and Susan Collins cover to vote no on Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination. How naïve of me. Given the white-hot rage of the Republican Party base—which hardly needs Trump to channel that rage—there was not a snowball’s chance in hell that Kavanaugh would be rejected, even if the FBI investigation had not been the farce that it was.

On Kavanaugh’s unfitness for the SCOTUS, James Fallows summed it up well:

previously argued that, entirely apart from the allegations of sexual  misbehavior, Kavanaugh had proved himself the wrong person, in three ways:

  • His explosive, angry, non-judicious temperament;
  • His openly embraced partisan outlook;
  • His record of demonstrable equivocations, evasions, and outright lies under oath. (Again, beyond discussions of Deborah Ramirez or Christine Blasey Ford.)

That I, personally, think this doesn’t matter. But it is significant that:

  • 2,400 law professors do;
  • As does a former dean of Kavanaugh’s oft-mentioned alma mater, the Yale Law School (“For as long as Kavanaugh sits on the court, he will remain a symbol of partisan anger, a haunting reminder that behind the smiling face of judicial benevolence lies the force of an urgent will to power”);
  • As does a former Republican-appointed Supreme Court justice, John Paul Stevens;
  • As does The Washington Post’s editorial page, which had supported every Supreme Court nominee since Robert Bork, including Clarence Thomas;
  • As does Ben Wittes, a close friend of Kavanaugh’s, who had supported him before the hearings;
  • As, implicitly, does Kavanaugh’s champion, current White House counsel Don McGahn, who according to The New York Times said that an extended investigation of Kavanaugh could be “potentially disastrous” for Kavanaugh’s confirmation.
  • And as do many people who have known him through his life.

A sample from the Post’s editorial:

Finally, Mr. Kavanaugh raised questions about his candor that, while each on its own is not disqualifying, are worrying in the context of his demand that Ms. Ford and his other accusers be dismissed and disbelieved. These include his role in the nomination of controversial judge Charles Pickering while working for Mr. Bush, his knowledge of the origin of materials stolen from Democratic Senate staff between 2001 and 2003, and his lawyerly obfuscations about his high school and college years….

And what of Mr. Kavanaugh’s political philosophy?… We would not have opposed Mr. Kavanaugh on that basis, just as we did not think GOP senators should have voted against Sonia Sotomayor because they did not like her views. Rather, the reason not to vote for Mr. Kavanaugh is that senators have not been given sufficient information to consider him — and that he has given them ample evidence to believe he is unsuited for the job. The country deserves better.

And from the Politico essay by Robert Post, former dean of Yale Law School:

Each and every Republican who votes for Kavanaugh, therefore, effectively announces that they care more about controlling the Supreme Court than they do about the legitimacy of the court itself. There will be hell to pay …

Judge Kavanaugh cannot have it both ways. He cannot gain confirmation by unleashing partisan fury while simultaneously claiming that he possesses a judicial and impartial temperament.

I watched today on YouTube the complete September 27th questioning, sans interruptions, of Christine Blasey Ford by prosecutor Rachel Mitchell, whose skirt the GOP senators on the Judiciary Committee hid behind. I found Dr. Blasey Ford to be composed and entirely convincing in her replies to Mitchell’s questions, as I did with her testimony on the 27th. The woman is highly intelligent, professionally accomplished, happily married and with a normal life—until proof to the contrary—and sans histoires; she has no reason whatever to be making things up. But the conservative pundit Michael Brendan Dougherty—whom I have found interesting and worth reading in the past—thought the uninterrupted video to be “pretty devastating”—toward Dr. Blasey Ford—as he submitted on Twitter, where he has asserted that he doesn’t believe her testimony, though without explaining why. This is crazy to me, as I simply cannot comprehend how one could think her befuddled, delusional, or an outright liar. But then, a conservative-leaning Never Trumper friend—and who happened to oppose Kavanaugh’s nomination—nonetheless told me the other day that not only was she not convinced by Blasey Ford’s testimony but opined that the good doctor may be “mentally ill”… Huh? WTF? Ça va pas, non?

Maybe there is something to the hypothesis that conservative and liberal brains may be wired differently

Timothy Don, an art editor at Lapham’s Quarterly, writes in The Nation (October 5th) that “I went to Georgetown Prep and knew Mark Judge—and I believe Christine Blasey Ford: There’s no question in my mind that she’s telling the truth.”

If one missed it, psychiatrist Richard A. Friedman—who is also a professor of clinical psychiatry and the director of the psychopharmacology clinic at the Weill Cornell Medical College—had an NYT op-ed on September 19th on “Why sexual assault memories stick.” The lede: “Christine Blasey Ford says she has a vivid memory of an attack that took place when she was 15. That makes sense.”

To this, one may add the piece (October 5th) by The Cut’s senior health writer Katie Heaney, “Almost no one is falsely accused of rape.”

One perhaps salutary effect of the Senate vote was to definitively put paid to lingering Democratic illusions about Susan Collins, whose bad faith speech in support of Kavanaugh was, so Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern writes (October 5th), “an insult to Americans’ intelligence.”

To Collins’s action, one may contrast North Dakota Democratic senator Heidi Heitkamp’s ‘no’ vote, which was an admirable act of political courage in view of her tough reelection fight in that deep red state. Also worth reading is the statement by Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.

One thing is for sure, though, which is that the “Democrats could’ve exposed Kavanaugh’s dodges and deceptions” when he appeared before the Judiciary Committee, but “they blew it,” as Slate’s Ben Mathis-Lilley and Mark Joseph Stern explained at the time. The next time around, the Senate Dems will be well advised not to recidivate.

I have more to say on the subject. À demain.

UPDATE: Following up on Christine Blasey Ford having no reason to recount falsehoods or delusions to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Newsweek reports (October 8th) that she and her family cannot return to their home in California

due to the “unending” death threats she is receiving, according to her lawyer Debra Katz. Ford and her family are getting a continuous stream of death threats, and it may be “quite some time” before they are able to return home, said Katz.

Brett Kavanaugh said during his lachrymose Senate testimony that he had likewise received death threats, but there have been no reports that he and his family have had to relocate and cannot return to their home in Chevy Chase, or wherever they live.

There are death threats, and then there are death threats.

Seriously, anyone who thinks that Dr. Blasey Ford, given what she and her family are going through, is making shit up and seeking to deceive the nation, needs to have his or her head examined.

2nd UPDATE: The very smart and insightful Jamie Mayerfeld, who teaches political science at the University of Washington, posted this comment on Facebook (October 8th), which is well worth the read:

What can memory research tell us about Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations against Kavanaugh? Below I post two articles that address this question. (1) Benedict Carey and Jan Hoffman, “They Say Sexual Assault, Kavanaugh Says It Never Happened: Sifting Truth From Memory,” New York Times, September 25, 2018. (2) Avi Selk, “The junk science Republicans used to undermine Ford and help save Kavanaugh,” Washington Post, October 7, 2018

A few points made in the articles: Research indicates that during traumatic experiences such as assault the brain releases chemicals (including norepinephrine) that accurately sear certain details into the memory. Research also shows that in other contexts human memory is malleable, and people can form false memories. (Which bears emphasis, because our memories insist on their own truth!) Memories about traumatic events are less reliable if they are formed years later, and sometimes people, especially children, can be coached into forming false memories by relatives, professionals, and others. Therapy sessions sometimes induce false memories. The Innocence Project has charted the ways in which witnesses, including rape victims, can be led by police and prosecutors to misidentify perpetrators who are not previously known to them. See this webpage, including the powerful video. Elizabeth Loftus’s book “Eyewitness Testimony” (which I have not read) is a much-cited source. During the “sex panics” of the 1980s and early 1990s, when recovered memories were in vogue, Loftus and others argued that recovered memories were often false. I agree with this. There were some terrible cases of people being convicted on the basis of recovered memories that proved not to be true.

Having spent some time thinking about Ford’s allegations (I watched her Senate testimony twice), I am convinced that they are true. It’s clear that Ford’s memories of having been assaulted by Kavanaugh were present from the start, not formed later. The key moments are remembered vividly, as scientific research on trauma and memory would lead us to expect. Brett Kavanaugh and Mark Judge were not strangers to Ford, but people she knew. What we know of their behavior at the time lends credibility to Ford’s charges. Kavanaugh lied under oath to create a less incriminating picture of his youthful behavior, and he resisted a genuine investigation into Ford’s allegations. I think it is outrageous for Susan Collins to say that she believes Ford was assaulted but that Ford has misidentified her attacker. The evidence simply doesn’t support this view.

3rd UPDATE: Patti Davis—daughter of Ronald and Nancy Reagan—has an open letter (October 8th) in The Washington Post, “Dear Christine Blasey Ford: What a difference you made.”

4th UPDATE: Lara Bazelon and Jennifer Thompson, writing in Slate (October 17th), put paid to the contention that Christine Blasely Ford erred in fingering Brett Kavanaugh as her aggressor on that summer day in 1982: “Christine Blasey Ford’s memory of her assault isn’t a case of mistaken identity.” The lede: “It’s a convenient theory that allows us to believe both the accused and the accuser, but it undermines everything we know about mistaken identity in cases of sexual assault.” This is an important piece. Do read it.

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Charles Aznavour, R.I.P.

His death is, not surprisingly, dominating the news here today. As I didn’t grow up in France, I was not overly familiar with his music until I started living here permanently in the early 1990s. I’ve been a big fan since, needless to say. If there is a Frenchman or woman who is not a fan of Charles Aznavour, I would like to know his or her name. I’ve had Aznavour’s greatest hits double CD, 40 chansons d’or, since it came out and which I’ve listened to countless times. I will state categorically that Charles Aznavour is France’s greatest singer (chanteur) of our era, i.e. of my lifetime—and my wife, who knows French music better than I, entirely agrees (the greatest chanteuse is, of course, Edith Piaf). If I have to choose my three favorite Aznavour songs, they would be Emmenez-moi—depending on my mood, this one can almost bring tears to my eyes; je suis un sentimental, qu’est-ce que vous voulez—Désormais, and La Bohème.

Aznavour did not retire. His last concert was in January, at age 93. Watch him here at Paris-Bercy last November. His last television interview—25 minutes—was three days ago. And he had a concert tour coming up. At age 94. Amazing.

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