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Pandemic lockdown: week 1

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

We’re still in the first week of confinement here in the Hexagon, which went into effect on Tuesday at noon. One can still go out but only with this form issued by the Ministry of Interior (printed out or copied by hand), checking the box of one of five authorized reasons: to go to work (if you can’t telework from home, and with a certificate from your employer), go food shopping or to the pharmacy (and close to home), for health reasons (to see a doctor or veterinarian; we’ve already had to do the latter), for “imperative” family reasons (to aid elderly or infirm family members or take children to a sitter), or to engage in solitary physical activity close to home (or walk a dog). My wife and I are teleworking (me teaching my classes via the Moodle platform, to students who are now mainly back in the US), as is my daughter (now 26) and her bf in their small one-bedroom apartment in Paris. As I already had my own personal lockdown seven years back—not stepping outside for five weeks—this is not a new experience for me.

I’m not going to linger on my own situation or thoughts, as everyone is in the same boat and thinking largely the same things. As for my worries and fears—for the economy (local and global), family and friends, and my own situation and future (not rosy)—they are shared by several billion people across the planet (the news today says that one billion are presently on lockdown). This is the biggest black swan event of the lifetime of everyone reading this. However the pandemic plays out, it is a certainty that the world will not be the same afterward.

Speculating on what the post-pandemic world may look like, the very smart and always interesting intellectual and writer Pankaj Mishra had a must-read two-part column in Bloomberg Opinion earlier this week: “Get ready, a bigger disruption is coming: The Covid-19 pandemic reflects a systemic crisis akin to the seminal crashes of the 20th century” & “Coronavirus will revive an all-powerful state: Much maligned in recent years, big government will come back—and with it, the potential for both greater good and evil.” If one can’t open the links to Mishra’s important piece, please let me know and I’ll copy-and-paste the text in the comments thread below.

Historian Adam Tooze, who is equally very smart and always interesting, has an equally must-read op-ed in The Guardian, “Coronavirus has shattered the myth that the economy must come first.” The lede: “Since the 1990s, faith in ‘the market’ has gone unchallenged. Now even public shopping has become a crime against society.”

Journalist and Politico founding editor John F. Harris—who is also smart—had a good column the other day, which spoke in particular to the current generation of university students, “The pandemic is the end of Trumpism: For a rising generation, a crisis fueled by frightening science foreshadows the coming conflicts.”

In Politico also see the forum, “Coronavirus will change the world permanently. Here’s how.” The lede: “A crisis on this scale can reorder society in dramatic ways, for better or worse. Here are 34 big thinkers’ predictions for what’s to come.”

Shifting gears to the here and now, one has perhaps read about the 180° flip this past week of Trump State Television, a.k.a. Fox News, in its coverage of the coronavirus (watch here). As to the chutzpah of Fox’s propagandists, of them doing this 180° with straight faces, David Frum, in his latest column in The Atlantic, drew an apt historical parallel with the American Communist party (and other Comintern affiliates) during the Stalin era changing the party line 180° from one day to the next on WWII following the June 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union (and, prior to that, in 1935 with the call to form anti-fascist ‘popular fronts’ with social democratic parties—heretofore tarred as “social fascists”—and in August 1939 with the proclamation of neutrality toward Nazi Germany following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact). Moscow-line CPs never felt it necessary to explain, or even acknowledge, their revirements, let alone apologize for their past positions. The party line had changed and that was that. Likewise in Trump World.

Haaretz’s excellent US editor Chemi Shalev, in an analysis of Benjamin Netanyahu’s brazen power grab presently underway, speculated on the possible action of Bibi’s American alter ego, “Americans beware: Trump could emulate Netanyahu’s coronavirus coup.” The lede: “The United States is facing greater coronavirus upheavals than Israel, led by a president who has less respect for democracy and the rule of law.” Money quote:

But even if someone other than Trump was president, and he or she had not wasted precious weeks preparing for the coronavirus onslaught, the United States would still be facing an uphill battle, compared to Israel, in containing the plague. It is an immeasurably larger country with a far more dispersed and diverse population. Its public health system is a sham and a shame.

And unlike Israeli society, which can be described as permanently mobilized and has experienced national mobilization and country-wide lockdowns in its recent past – weathering Iraqi missiles with no response in the 1991 Gulf War comes to mind – Americans have never experienced such a direct threat to their homeland, not even in World War II. And while Israelis may grumble about their government, they see no alternative. Millions of Americans, on the other hand, truly view the federal authorities as their enemy.

It was enough to hear a Washington Times columnist on Fox News last week praising a coronavirus-inspired rush on guns and ammunition in Midwestern states as a “healthy sign” to realize that while it is Israelis who are seen as unruly and undisciplined, parts of the United States may simply be unmanageable. Corona is bound to come knocking at their door.

Given these two factors – a leader who rejects any check on his presidential authority and a coronavirus crisis that could soon grow out of control – Americans should beware a Trump who decides to emulate Netanyahu. The U.S. president, who now fancies himself a “Wartime President” with all the emergency powers that accompany the title, will go farther and more radical than Netanyahu would ever dare. But if the Israeli prime minister’s flirtation with tyranny inspires Trump, the battle to maintain American democracy and rule of law will be far fiercer than anything Israel is set to experience.

Scary.

Everyone is aware of the labeling of the coronavirus by the Trump regime and its propaganda organs as the “Chinese virus.” Not to diminish or relativize this blatant racism and xenophobia, but one must not ignore the responsibility of the Chinese regime in the coronavirus becoming a global pandemic, as Brookings Institution senior fellow Shadi Hamid writes in The Atlantic, “China is avoiding blame by trolling the world: Beijing is successfully dodging culpability for its role in spreading the coronavirus.”

I’ll write next time about the French state and the pandemic. In the meantime, I recommend the blog of Parisian Claire Berlinski, who lives in the heart of the city and is in lockdown comme tout le monde.

UPDATE: Yuval Noah Harari—whose Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind everyone has read—has a ‘long read’ essay in the FT on “the world after coronavirus” that everyone needs to read. The lede: “This storm will pass. But the choices we make now could change our lives for years to come.” Money quote:

In this time of crisis, we face two particularly important choices. The first is between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment. The second is between nationalist isolation and global solidarity.

 

2nd UPDATE: Sofia-based political scientist Ivan Krastev—who is always worth reading—has a worthwhile essay in the New Statesman, “The seven early lessons of the global coronavirus crisis: Governments will eventually be forced to choose between containing the spread of the pandemic at the cost of destroying the economy, or tolerating a higher human cost to save the economy.”

3rd UPDATE: The Foreign Affairs website has several articles that should be read, one by the well-known economist Branko Milanovic, “The real pandemic danger is social collapse: As the global economy comes apart, societies may, too.”

Another is MIT economist Daron Acemoglu’s “The coronavirus exposed America’s authoritarian turn: Independent expertise always dies first when democracy recedes.”

4th UPDATE: Naomi Klein—whom I have not been a fan of—has a very good 27-minute video in which she “[m]akes the case for transformative change amid [the] coronavirus pandemic.”

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On the coronavirus pandemic

Credit here

If you want to read something that will make your day, take a look at the ‘long-read’ piece in the online magazine spiked (h/t John Judis), by the very smart Princeton University economist Ashoka Mody, “Italy: the crisis that could go viral. Coronavirus threatens to turn Italy’s economic and financial crisis into a global one.”

This coronavirus pandemic is getting quite scary, less for the eventual public health consequences—not to minimize these—than for its impact on the world economy—and on the lives of each and everyone of us.

To this may be added what is looking like an overreaction, albeit inevitable, of the public authorities in France and elsewhere. As my (Paris-based) friend Claire Berlinski tweeted yesterday:

The coronavirus mass hysteria reminds me of the aftermath of 9/11. Wouldn’t it be good to remember that overreactions to real but manageable threats can be far more dangerous than the threat itself?

The (under)reaction of the regime in Washington and its propaganda apparatus is another matter entirely.

The United States will face some particular challenges when the epidemic starts spreading, as The Atlantic’s Amanda Hull explains, “The problem with telling sick workers to stay home: Even with the coronavirus spreading, lax labor laws and little sick leave mean that many people can’t afford to skip work.”

Also independent journalist Carl Gibson in The Guardian: “Millions of uninsured Americans like me are a coronavirus timebomb: I haven’t gone to the doctor since 2013. When you multiply my situation by 27.5 million, that’s a scary prospect.”

Medicare-for-all and a labor code à la française anyone?

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Australia had a parliamentary election on Saturday, if one didn’t know, with the outcome a shocker, as the incumbent conservative coalition led by PM Scott Morrison won against all expectations, the polls having unanimously pointed to a decisive Labor Party victory. One does not have to care one way or another about Australian politics to regret this result, as the very conservative Morrison—who’s a Pentecostal (already one strike against him)—is not good on the climate change issue—which is particularly important there (Great Barrier Reef, etc)—and is downright execrable on immigration, which he was in charge of as a government minister in 2013-14, putting in place Australia’s cruel policy of sending asylum seekers (principally from Iran and Afghanistan) to Christmas Island, Nauru, and Papua New Guinea, where they are kept in what are in effect prison camps for years on end, their asylum applications rejected but with repatriation manifestly inadvisable (if one wishes to read about this—and be indignant—see the reportages by Roger Cohen here and here). Scott Morrison is not a good man.

One of the news articles I read about the Australian election referred to “the cut-throat world of politics in Canberra.” As it so happens, I just watched in the past month—on the recommendation of a political science friend—the full two seasons (six episodes each) of the riveting Australian Netflix series Secret City, which is entirely set in and around Canberra (with a few brief scenes in Adelaide in season 2). It’s all about espionage, geopolitics, and just Australian politics, and boy, it sure is cut-throat, both figuratively and [spoiler alert!] literally. Here’s a brief description from IMDb:

Beneath the placid facade of Canberra, amidst rising tension between China and America, senior political journalist Harriet Dunkley uncovers a secret city of interlocked conspiracies, putting innocent lives in danger including her own.

That’s as much as one needs to know. The screenplay is sophisticated—it’s very well written—the pacing impeccable, and the acting first rate. It’s an Aussie answer to the brilliant French series The Bureau (and is, needless to say, on a far higher level than ‘Homeland’). It’s just all around excellent. In the first season the bad guys appear to be China but that’s somewhat of a ruse, as in season 2 [spoiler alert!], a Deep State theme is developed (yes, there is indeed one Down Under). The message, and which holds everywhere: if you want to know where the real threat to your homeland comes from—to your security and freedoms—look at your own state. The threat is at home.

A sub-theme in season 2 [spoiler alert!] is drone warfare, of Australian military drones in action over Afghanistan and Pakistan, as part of the international coalition in that conflict—and of the PTSD-suffering drone pilot having notched 448 kills, so we learn, not all of whom were Taliban and other bad guys. This reminded me of the 2015 Hollywood movie, Good Kill, by director Andrew Niccol, which, to my knowledge, was the first one of its sort to focus on the ethical dilemmas of military drones, here via the états d’âme of the protag drone pilot, played by Ethan Hawke, who kills people in Af-Pak daily—who may or may not be combattants—whom he sees on his console screen at a base in Nevada, after which he goes home to wife and children in his sub-division. The film deals ably with its subject, though is somewhat marred by a Hollywoodish sub-plot about the protag’s marital problems. Reviews were middling, including in France, but the pic may certainly be seen (and Allociné spectateurs liked it more than did the critics).

On drone warfare and the effects it has on the soldiers who wage it via remote control, see the excellent New York Times Magazine article (June 13, 2018) by Eyal Press, “The wounds of the drone warrior.” And going back a few years: “Confessions of a drone warrior,” by Matthew Power, in GQ; “Everything we know so far about drone strikes,” by Cora Currier, in ProPublica; and Jane Mayer’s “The predator war: What are the risks of the C.I.A.’s covert drone program?,” in The New Yorker.

Back to ‘Secret City’, as much as I liked it I hope it doesn’t go to a third season. It achieved closure at the end of season 2. Nothing is left hanging and it said what it needed to say.

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Credit: Getty Images

Like everyone I read all about last Tuesday’s grotesque farce in Singapore, though as it was so manifestly a publicity stunt, indeed a con job, by the White House dotard—the DPRK regime is to be eternally commended for informing us native speaking Anglophones of the existence of this word in the English language—I avoided watching the TV coverage. It goes without saying that the summit was a clear win for the DPRK and with the US coming away with nothing in particular; this is the consensus among objective observers and commentators (so much so that no references are necessary). How could it be otherwise with an ignorant idiot like Trump, whose sole sources of information are what he sees on television and whatever may be whispered in his ear by one of the lackeys, lickspittles, or whackadoodles in his entourage? He reads nothing, as we know, not even short memos or abbreviated intelligence briefings. The fact that Trump was winging it in Singapore—that the preparatory work of his staff was minimal and that he had no idea what he was doing or talking about—was confirmed—if confirmation were necessary—by his own words at the press conference after the event.

While the reviews of Trump’s performance have been heavily negative, I did note a couple of gauchiste friends on social media who put a positive spin on it, taking liberals and lefties to task while they were at it for not giving Trump credit where credit was due. One of their arguments was that South Koreans in their majority were delighted by what happened in Singapore. Well, of course they would be: when a mentally deranged US dotard president threatens to rain “fire and fury” on the Korean peninsula and then, for reasons known only to himself—and even then—suddenly does a 180° and starts talking peace, then obviously people south of the 38th parallel will be relieved. So no, Trump gets zero credit. None whatever.

One friend who has weighed in publicly on Singapore is Stephen Zunes, a smart engagé political scientist well-known among lefties and peace activists, who posted his take on social media, and on which he invited me to comment. So here’s his commentary followed by my response:

Some thoughts on the Singapore Summit between Trump and Kim:

1) The joint statement is vague and doesn’t amount to much, so I’m dubious it will amount to any treaty or denuclearization or lasting peace, at least while Trump is president

2) Nevertheless, they are talking with each other instead of threatening each other and are at least pretending to move in the right direction, and that is very positive

3) US-South Korean military exercises, while largely defensive in nature, are not really necessary and are seen as provocative by the North Koreans, so their unilateral suspension by Trump as a confidence-building measure is a good thing

4) If Obama had done the same thing Trump has done in recent days regarding North Korea, Democrats would be defending him and Republicans would be mercilessly attacking him. Since it’s Trump, however, it’s largely been the other way around. The summit and the joint statement should be judged on its own merits, not by partisan politics

5) Trump is being totally hypocritical to walk away from a detailed verifiable nuclear agreement with Iran while praising a vague unverifiable set of principles with North Korea.

6) North Korea would be naïve to sign any binding agreement with Trump, since he clearly does not feel obliged to keep the United States’ international commitments

7) The joint statement was NOT one-sided in North Korea’s favor. It was one-sided in the United States’
favor, since it said nothing about the U.S. eventually getting rid of or even reducing its vast nuclear arsenal

8) North Korea is a horrific dictatorship, but that doesn’t mean that the United States shouldn’t engage in respectful diplomatic negotiations in areas of mutual concern. Indeed, the Trump administration provides arms and security assistance to Saudi Arabia and other repressive regimes with bipartisan support in Congress, so it’s ridiculous to claim that meeting with Kim means the United States is suddenly coddling dictators

9) Trump probably took his far more moderate and conciliatory position than many expected because the South Koreans had so strongly objected to his earlier belligerent approach and he realized it would be difficult for a country on the far side of the world to take a more hardline position than the country most affected by North Korea

10) Despite these positive developments, the world should still be concerned about having an unstable impulsive militaristic narcissist with nuclear weapons; we should also be concerned about Kim Jong-un.

I agree with all of these points except 3, 7 and 9, and with a comment on 2. On the latter, jaw-jaw is always better than war-war but in this case, the only serious threat of war—and nuclear at that—has come from Trump. The DPRK may act crazy from time to time but, as I think we understand, it is not actually crazy, and certainly not enough to launch a bolt-out-of-the-blue attack on South Korea or Japan, let alone the US. Sure, it’s a totalitarian regime and behaves horribly toward its own people, plus to unfortunate foreigners who get into trouble there, but it does not behave irrationally in its foreign dealings. And while we have no idea about Kim Jong-un’s mental health state, we do about that of the malignant narcissistic megalomaniac in the White House, who is entirely capable of doing another 180°, tearing up what was signed at Singapore, and once again threatening to rain fire and fury if it dawns on him that he’s being played by Kim. As Emmanuel Macron and countless others have learned, Trump keeps no commitments, respects no rules, and has no friends. So one can only look at what happened in Singapore with a jaundiced eye.

On point 3: the US-South Korea military exercises are entirely legitimate and normal in view of the defense treaty between the two countries, the heavy militarization of the DPRK, and the formal state of war that still exists. Trump’s unilateral suspension was not only gratuitous—he did not need to offer Kim any more confidence-building measures than he did by simply meeting with and flattering him—but also a slap in the face to South Korea and president Moon Jae-in, who was not informed about it beforehand. This is the sort of concession to be made as part of a negotiating process, in which the US and South Korea receive something concrete and comparable in return. But such was not the case with the famous deal-maker Trump.

Point 7: The size, let alone existence, of the US nuclear arsenal is not on the table in negotiations with the DPRK. Only the latter’s is. The objection here is irrelevant.

Point 9: This assumes a logic and rationality to Trump’s thinking on foreign policy—indeed his thinking on anything—but also that he cares a whit about what other countries—here, South Korea—think or desire. Trump acts on impulse and follows his gut instinct. He cares about no one and nothing but himself. As for why he took his more moderate and conciliatory position toward the DPRK, again, we have no idea. For all we know, someone in his entourage told him that if he sought a meeting with Kim and talked peace, that he would win the Nobel Peace Prize. And Trump thought: “Great idea! And if Obama can have a Nobel Prize, why not me?” Such would also up his poll numbers and thrill the base to no end. If doesn’t get the Nobel—and he won’t—he may well walk away from his peace process, if he hasn’t already by then.

The fact of the matter is, there will be no deal with the DPRK, at least not one in which the latter denuclearizes and allows foreign inspectors unfettered access to verify that such is taking place. The DPRK would be crazy to sign such an agreement after what happened in Singapore. And they would be doubly crazy to sign any such deal with Trump.

À propos of all this, Slate staff writer Lili Loofbourow has a pertinent essay, dated June 14th, “We are in a linguistic emergency when it comes to Trump: He is getting exactly what he wants.” For those too lazy to click on the link, here’s the whole thing:

In the wake of the horrors currently being done to children in America’s name, here’s one thing we can do: Recognize we’re in a linguistic emergency. We have a president whose single-minded praise for macho might is wearing down even those who refuse to overlook his incompetence. Trump, the only presidential candidate to refer to his penis size during a national debate, wants nothing more than to be seen as powerful and manly, and to align himself with those who project the characteristics he desires. And he’s gotten help—from us. If you’ve ever called Trump “tough” on immigration, note that he just called a dictator “tough” for murdering his citizens. (And “very smart” for staying in power.) That should be a wake-up call to journalists responsible for telling the story of this moment: Stop using the words he routinely chooses to describe himself. And think hard about whether you’re accidentally reinforcing the model of power he’s trying to sell.

That change is task one: Sidestep every attempt he and his allies make to equate treating people badly with being strong, because their efforts to link those concepts are working. Neutral outlets are defaulting to his language for what he does—he’s “cracking down” on unions! He’s taking a “hard line” on the G-7! Driving “hard bargains”! These all position him as powerful, which he loves. The trouble is, it’s wrong. In practice, Trump’s positions slip and slide all over the place. He never got that “hard bargain” he allegedly drove (though he sure got credit for driving it). His deals fall through, his policy shifts depending on whomever he spoke to last. It would be the height of irony if the weakest president on record managed to rebrand himself as the strongman he so badly wants to be.

So: Infectious though his formulations can be, it’s time to break the habit. Don’t use his language outside quotation marks. Take particular care to avoid words that confuse cruelty with strength. Avoid warlike metaphors. No taking aim, no battles, no doubling down. No punching metaphors. No deals. Deny him the framing he wants. There are, after all, other words. Arbitrary. Confused. Crabby. Ignorant.

This is an extraordinarily weak president. Narrate him that way. It’s the truth.

Language reshapes relations; even the famous Stanford prison experiment—which ostensibly demonstrated that people with perceived power devolve to treating each other brutally—was recently exposed as having some of its more horrifying results engineered. The “brutal” guards were told to be brutal and how to be brutal. George Lakoff has argued that the metaphors underpinning language do at least as much messaging work as the words themselves do. He’s right. And Trump is good at using hoary old frames about mighty men, of calling losses wins. It doesn’t matter if he lies—the only goal is to convey strength. And it works.

His presidency has not, so far, been described faithfully and consistently for what it is. Take this December Bloomberg story, which describes a speech in which Trump makes it clear he has no idea how the immigration system he’s promised to change works. This is what he said: “They give us their worst people, they put them in a bin, but in his hand when he’s picking him are really the worst of the worst.” That is not, in any way, how America’s immigration functions.

In any other climate, the newsworthy element of the story would be obvious: a president claiming he can fix immigration doesn’t understand, at the most basic level, how the current system works. That’s a scandal. But rather than center that fact, the headline is “Trump Calls Immigrants With Lottery Visas ‘Worst of the Worst.’ ” That Trump got everything wrong doesn’t show up until the seventh paragraph. Not only does this marginalize what really matters—i.e., that the man in charge is so incompetent he can’t even describe the thing he plans to fix—it also concentrates the power of the story on Trump. It suggests that the important takeaway from this speech is what he calls a group of people that he just demonstrated he knows nothing about.

A president’s lack of basic competence is worth accurately reporting on. And it must be reported on when there is nothing else of value worth reporting.

So why doesn’t this happen more? Two reasons: For one, I sense in much of the reporting on Trump a secret fear that maybe we’re missing something. He won, after all. And he keeps insisting that he’s strong despite all the evidence, so maybe there’s something we’re not seeing. This, as many have pointed out, is gaslighting. It’s why he always says he has a plan he won’t describe.

The second reason is that many news organizations still confuse neutrality with accuracy. Better to just report what he says and let the people decide, the thinking goes.

But that’s wrong. And that’s due to the power of language: Simply repeating his fantastical claims makes them seem less fantastical. What a president says usually matters a great deal. But because what Trump says usually bears no relation to the truth (or to what his own policies end up being) it therefore fails to inform the public, and is not worth repeating. He wants to propagate the story of a power he doesn’t have. We shouldn’t help him.

Instead, repeat the valuable news that emanates from this White House: Usually, that will involve showing all the ways this president is wrong, weak, and reactive.

And if you’re stumped on finding the words to do that with, look to misogyny. I’m serious. Just imagine how the past week would have been framed had Trump been a woman—weakness would be the constant subtext. “A shaken Trump tries to shift blame for broken families on nonexistent ‘Democrat bill.’” “At Singapore summit, Trump makes nervous joke over weight.” “Trump catty with Trudeau.”

And then there’s this “Memo to the press, after 18 months of Trump,” posted June 15th by Robert Reich on his Facebook page:

1. Stop treating Trump’s tweets as news.

2. Never believe a single word that comes out of his mouth.

3. Don’t fall for the reality-TV spectacles he creates. (For example, his meeting with Kim Jong-un.) They’re not news, either.

4. Don’t let his churlish thin-skinned vindictive narcissistic rants divert attention from what he’s really doing.

5. Focus on what he’s really doing, and put stories into this context. He’s: (1) undermining democratic institutions, (2) using his office for personal gain, (3) sowing division and hate, (4) cozying up to dictators while antagonizing our democratic allies around the world, (5) violating the rule of law, and (6) enriching America’s wealthy while harming the middle class and the poor. He may also be (7) colluding with Putin.

6. Keep track of what his Cabinet is doing — Sessions’s attacks on civil rights, civil liberties, voting rights, and immigrants; DeVos’s efforts to undermine public education, Pruitt’s and Zinke’s efforts to gut the environment; all their conflicts of interest, and the industry lobbyists they’ve put in high positions.

7. Don’t try to “balance” your coverage of the truth with quotes and arguments from Trump’s enablers and followers. This is not a contest between right and left, Republicans and Democrats. This is between democracy and demagogic authoritarianism.

8. Don’t let him rattle you. Maintain your dignity, confidence, and courage.

À suivre.

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I’ve been travelling the past couple of weeks—mainly in Egypt (Cairo), a little in Turkey (Istanbul)—so have been off AWAV. So as to get something up—and in the same vein as the last post, on Trumpian America being a rogue state (and with the latest declaration of trade war on the country’s closest allies, can anyone seriously deny that it is?)—I offer this recent article by Andrew J. Bacevich in The American Conservative that carries the title of the post, in which it is rhetorically asked “How can you trust an establishment that so easily succumbs to fantasies of global hegemony and go-it-alone militarism?”

Bacevich aims his fire at the Washington neocon/liberal hawk think tank swamp and punditocracy, which is in permanent agitation for America to militarily intervene in some country or countries, but the main takeaway from his piece is that at this point—and given its imperialist history—America has no moral authority to be intervening just about anywhere. This was driven home to me in a review essay I just read by Max Hastings, “The Wrath of the Centurions,” in the London Review of Books, in which he reviews Howard Jones’ My Lai: Vietnam, 1968 and the Descent into Darkness. As Hastings recounts, My Lai was only the biggest massacre of non-combattants committed by American soldiers during the Vietnam War, who, in fact, murdered civilians regularly and with impunity. The number of Vietnamese villagers raped and/or killed in cold blood by American soldiers will likely never be known but it was significant. In point of fact, American soldiers have behaved thusly in every war they’ve ever participated in. Every army does likewise, of course, and a good number have been far worse, but we’re talking about America here.

On that note, here’s a thought by my friend Claire Berlinski, who has believed all her life in America as a force for good but is having second thoughts nowadays.

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The Venerable W.

I am presently riveted newswise to Hurricane Irma, which is heading toward Florida as I write, though am reading about other calamitous events across the globe as well, one being the communal conflict in Burma and campaign of ethnic cleansing there against the Rohingya Muslim minority in the western part of the country. It is a tragedy and a crime against humanity, and which has been in the works for years, indeed decades. On the matter, I saw earlier this summer a bone-chilling documentary that opened theatrically in France, The Venerable W., by the well-known Swiss filmmaker Barbet Schroeder, the subject of which is the fanatical, high-profile (in Burma) Buddhist monk, Ashin Wirathu, who unabashedly preaches hatred against Burma’s Muslims in terms that would put Radovan Karadžić and Pamela Geller to shame. His rhetoric is borderline genocidal, expressed openly to Schroeder and without mincing words. And as one sees in the film, his following in Burma is not insignificant. Buddhism, in stereotyped ways of viewing things, is supposed to be about peace and love, whereas Islam is seen as the opposite, but here the clichés are turned on their heads. The uttarasanga-wearing Burmese monks are as fanaticized as any given bunch of Salafists or alt-rightists outre-Atlantique.

For more on the film, see the reviews by Jay Weissberg in Variety, Jordan Mintzer in The Hollywood Reporter, and Lee Marshall in Screen Daily, all of whom saw it at Cannes. One may also read the 2013 Time magazine cover story on “The face of Buddhist terror.” Trailer is here (where one will, entre autres, see Wirathu praising Trump).

The film, as one reads, completes Schroeder’s “Trilogy of Evil,” the first being the 1974 Général Idi Amin Dada: autoportrait—which I saw in the summer of that year at Le Cinéma Saint-André des Arts, with family and friends—and the second the 2007 L’Avocat de la terreur, on the sulfurous Paris lawyer Jacques Vergès. Of the three, Ashin Wirathu may certainly be considered the most dangerous.

Schroeder’s film touches on the troubled role—or non-role—played by Aung San Suu Kyi in the Burmese communal bloodletting. I am not sufficiently well-informed to have a viewpoint on the question but have the sentiment that she’s not a player in the conflict, that the military and radical Buddhist nationalists are in control of the campaign against the Rohingyas. As a longtime admirer of Aung San Suu Kyi, as everyone else has likewise been, I hope this is the case.

 

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Liu Xiaobo, R.I.P.

My friend Xiaorong Li has a remembrance in The New York Times, “Liu Xiaobo’s Unflappable Optimism.”

Also see the well-known Sinologist Perry Link on “the passion of Liu Xiaobo,” in the NYR Daily.

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