Thursday Thoughts

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He wrote me beautiful letters — then we fell in love!

W.J. Astore

Here are a few random thoughts I’ve had over the last few days.

1. I’m still reeling from Donald Trump confessing how he and Kim Jong-un “fell in love.” Imagine if Barack Obama had gushed about falling in love with a communist dictator? Fox News and the Republicans would have crucified him.

2. Brett Kavanaugh is now a Supreme Court justice. But imagine if he’d been black. Would he have survived sexual assault allegations from three white women?  Or imagine if he’d been a woman and boasted of liking beer, lots of beer, while losing self-control before the Senate judiciary committee.  A female Kavanaugh would have been dismissed as hysterical and unsuited for the pressures of the court, methinks.  In sum, a certain type of privilege still exists for certain types of white males.

3. Last night, Donald Trump accused Hillary Clinton of colluding with the Russians. Trump’s tactics on this issue have run the gamut from denying he colluded, to saying it’s not illegal to collude, to charging his opponent with the (apparent) crime of colluding.  This is not to say I believe Trump colluded with the Russians (though his constant denials make me think he’s got a lot to hide).  While we wait for the Mueller investigation to conclude, it’s worth recalling that candidate Trump asked the Russians to hack Hillary’s server to find her missing emails. Perhaps this was merely a snide remark by an unhinged candidate, but why were Trump campaign staffers meeting with Russians? To help speed adoption of Russian kids by Americans?

But here’s a key point: Trump didn’t win because of Russian “collusion.” He won because Hillary ran a poor campaign. The collusion story (assuming there’s something to it) is a minor issue compared to the real damage Trump does every day as president, e.g. dismissing the perils of climate change as a “Chinese hoax.”

4. At TomDispatch.com, Juan Cole has a fine piece on Islamophobia and how it’s promoted by the Trump administration. It has at least three components.  The first is resentment stemming from 9/11, which embarrassed the Republicans since it happened on their watch.  The second is religion, that old crusading spirit of evangelicals and conservative Catholics.  The third is entitlement/resentment.  You know the saying: Who put America’s oil under the desert sands of the Middle East?  America’s leaders, and so many of their countrymen, believe all that oil should be theirs.

5. There’s an argument that Trump is no worse than other politicians like Obama or the Clintons. Indeed, that in some way his mendacity is refreshing: that he’s torn the mask off American exceptionalism, revealing all the hypocrisy, all the duplicity, all the crimes against humanity, that other politicians work to keep hidden.

It’s tempting to say “they all do it.” But Trump’s dishonesty is constant. He lies just to stay in shape. And his lies are calculated to sow discord — to divide. Divide and rule is his strategy. Reaping profit for himself is his goal.  He’s always been a con man, but now the entire country, indeed the entire world, is his mark.

Because he’s anti-democratic, because he’s a divider, because he loves dictators while mocking people weaker than him, for these and many other reasons, Trump is worse.  Trump is making cruelty normal, even admirable (at least to his followers).  He’s not so much ripping a mask off America as he is reveling in his own nastiness while encouraging likeminded people in America and around the world to join him.

Trump: Making the world nastier again.

A Trumped-Up Space Force

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Space exploration and exploitation isn’t what it used to be

W.J. Astore

Space, the “final frontier,” isn’t what it used to be.  In the 1960s and early 1970s I grew up a fan of NASA as well as Star Trek with Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock.  NASA was (and is) a civilian space agency, even though its corps of astronauts was originally drawn from the ranks of military test pilots.  Star Trek offered a vision of a “federation” of planets in the future, united by a vision “to explore strange new worlds,” venturing forth boldly in the cause of peace.  Within the US military, space itself was considered to be the new “high ground,” admittedly a great place for spy satellites (which helped to keep the peace) but a disastrous place for war.  (Of course, that didn’t prevent the military from proposing crazy ideas, like building a military base on the moon armed with nuclear-tipped missiles.)

Attracted to the space mission, my first assignment as a military officer was to Air Force Space Command.  I helped to support the Space Surveillance Center in Cheyenne Mountain Complex, which kept track of all objects in earth orbit, from satellites to space junk.  (You don’t want a lost hammer or other space junk colliding with your billion-dollar satellite at a speed of roughly 17,000 miles per hour.)  In the mid-1980s, when I was in AFSPACECOM, an offensive space force to “dominate” space was a vision shared by very few people.  I had a small role to play in supporting tests of an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile launched from F-15s, but those tests were curtailed and later cancelled as the Soviet Union, considered as America’s main rival for control of space, began to collapse in the late 1980s.

But that was then, and this is now, and the “now” of the moment is a new US military service, an offensive space force, proposed by the Trump administration as essential to US national security.  At TomDispatch.com, William Hartung provides the details of Trump’s new space force in this fine article.  As I read Hartung’s article, a thought flashed through my mind: We’re not the peaceful Federation of Star Trek.  We’re much more like the Klingon Empire.

In the original Star Trek, the Klingons were a highly aggressive and thoroughly militaristic species that was dedicated to dominating space.  They were proudly imperial and driven by conquest.  Trump, who with his bombast and barking and boasting would make a great Klingon, sees a “space force” that’s all military: that’s all about domination through aggressive action and better offensive weaponry.

Perhaps you’ve heard the saying: Everywhere we go, there we are.  Increasingly for America, that saying means: Everywhere we go, there our military and weapons are.  Even in space.

The “final frontier” of space, which in my youth was largely a realm of peaceful exploration, whether by NASA in the real-world or in the imaginary future of Star Trek, is now under Trump an increasingly militarized place.  This is so because our minds, perhaps humanity’s true “final frontier,” have also been thoroughly militarized.

A war-driven people will bring war with them wherever they go.  If the Vulcans (like Mr. Spock, who was half-Vulcan) are smart, they won’t reach out to humans if and when we find a “warp” drive that allows us to travel much faster than the speed of light.  Logical and peaceful beings that they are, perhaps they’ll quarantine earth and humanity instead.  Maybe with the Vulcan equivalent of a big, fat, beautiful wall?

The Case of Brett Kavanaugh

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W.J. Astore

President Trump’s latest nominee for the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, has been accused of sexual assault as a teenager.  Of course, I have no idea if Kavanaugh is guilty of this charge, and I doubt if such a charge could be proved beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.  Kavanaugh’s accuser (her name is Christine Blasey Ford) says he was “stumbling drunk” when he assaulted her; Kavanaugh denies the accusation.  Indeed, he claims he wasn’t even at the party when the alleged assault occurred.

Supporters of Kavanaugh are already dismissive of the accuser and disparage her motives for coming forward (consider this mocking and reprehensible post by Donald Trump Jr.).  Naturally, those who are opposed to Kavanaugh are motivated by their animosity against him to believe the accuser even before she’s testified.  So it goes in hyper-partisan America.

A hearing is scheduled for Monday, September 24th; both Kavanaugh and his accuser will testify.  I imagine both will seem credible.  And people watching will probably see what they already believe.

I’m opposed to Kavanaugh’s nomination, but I was opposed before this assault accusation was revealed.  My opposition is idiosyncratic.  To me, Kavanaugh comes across as a toady to men in power.  He praised Trump for the allegedly exhaustive process that led to his nomination.  He’s led a life of insularity and privilege, from expensive private prep schools to the Ivy League (Yale and Yale Law School) to the usual clerkships and appointments.  Strong political partisanship in favor of Republicans has characterized much of his career in the law.  From his Wiki biography:

As an attorney working for Ken Starr, Kavanaugh played a lead role in drafting the Starr Report, which urged the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. Kavanaugh led the investigation into the suicide of Clinton aide Vince Foster. After the 2000 U.S. presidential election (in which Kavanaugh worked for the George W. Bush campaign in the Florida recount), Kavanaugh joined the administration as White House Staff Secretary and was a central figure in its efforts to identify and confirm judicial nominees.

His hyper-partisanship and especially his toadying before Trump make him unsuitable as a Supreme Court justice.  Indeed, Trump seems to have selected him over other conservative candidates because Kavanaugh believes a sitting president can’t or shouldn’t be indicted, a stance that’s quite attractive to Trump, who prefers spineless yes-men.

We need Supreme Court justices who uphold the law without being deferential to the powerful.  We further need justices with more than a measure of compassion for the weak.  From all I’ve read and seen, Kavanaugh won’t be that kind of justice, so I’m opposed to his nomination.

Next Monday’s hearing, and Kavanaugh’s ultimate fate, will likely further divide America along political and gender lines.  Once again, sadly, the Trump administration has found fresh ways to divide rather than to unite us.

Update (9/19): The Monday hearing is in jeopardy as Kavanaugh’s accuser calls for an FBI investigation.  Meanwhile, Kavanaugh’s supporters have come up with a strategy to defuse the sexual assault charge, as reported in the New York Times today:

Mr. Trump’s advisers and Judge Kavanaugh’s allies appeared to be settling on a strategy of defending him by suggesting that this must be a case of mistaken identity. Under the emerging strategy, Judge Kavanaugh’s defenders would accept that Dr. Blasey was in fact assaulted but would insist that it must have been by someone other than Judge Kavanaugh because he denied it.

The approach reflects the shifting reality of the #MeToo movement when it has become politically perilous to directly attack the credibility of women who come forward to tell their stories. By suggesting that perhaps there was confusion after more than 30 years, White House allies said that they could offer wavering Republicans whose votes are critical for his confirmation another explanation for the he-said-she-said conflict without tearing down Dr. Blasey.

You might call this the “It wasn’t me” strategy.

Facecrime!

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W.J. Astore

We’re truly living in Orwellian times.  A 17-year-old high school student, now known as #plaidshirtguy due to his choice of wardrobe, was removed from a Trump rally in Montana because of the faces he was making as Trump spoke.  You can read all about here, and watch an interview with him at CNN.

Not surprisingly, people who stand behind Trump are selected ahead of time and told to clap and cheer.  This young man did that, but he also chose to look quizzical, skeptical, and bemused at times.  This is not allowed!  A Trump staffer eventually intervened to remove him from the audience due to his “face crime.”  To make matters worse, he was then held by the Secret Service for ten minutes, after which he was asked to leave the event.

Leave the event?  For making skeptical and quizzical facial expressions?

You may recall from George Orwell’s “1984” that “Facecrime” existed.  Anyone making skeptical or otherwise unacceptable faces when the Party announced bogus victories, production figures, and so forth opened himself or herself up to serious punishment.

Thanks to plaid shirt guy, we now know that facecrime has come to America.  Just remember, fellow citizens, always to smile and cheer in the presence of Our Dear Leader.  Unless you want to be detained and sent away — perhaps next time to the cornfield.

*From my copy of “1984”: “In any case, to wear an improper expression on your face (to look incredulous when a victory was announced, for example) was itself a punishable offense.  There was even a word for it in Newspeak: facecrime, it was called.” (From the end of Chapter 5.)

The USA and Israel as Big and Little Prussia

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Co-joined Twins?

W.J. Astore

As a kid, I was a big admirer of Israel.*  I kept a scrapbook on the Yom Kippur War in 1973.  Back then, Israel was America’s plucky ally, David against Goliath, helping to keep the Soviet bear at bay, or so it seemed to me.

Through a kid’s eyes, Israel in 1973 was an island seemingly surrounded by a sea of well-armed enemies: Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia. Outnumbered and outgunned.  And now look at today’s reality: Egypt and Iraq have been neutralized.  Syria is devastated.  Jordan is wisely (sort of) neutral.  The Saudis are a quasi-ally.  Outside of the more-or-less manageable threat of terrorism (Hamas and Hezbollah), Israel’s chief enemy today appears to be itself.

What I mean by that is this: Israel, which over the last 70 years has fought several wars for its survival, is now a regional superpower.  Yet the mindset of David versus Goliath persists, even though Goliath is hobbled and defeated.  Meanwhile, as Israel combats terrorism and the legacies of West Bank occupation and isolation of the Gaza Strip, the government prosecutes policies that are considered illiberal and dangerous by many Jewish critics within Israel itself.

A similar David-Goliath mindset exists in the USA, but with far less cause.  Bizarrely, the world’s military superpower envisions itself as being surrounded by enemies.  Its response is something like Israel’s, as if the USA is Israel writ large.  Both countries seek total military dominance over their perceived enemies and rivals; both are led by strong men dogged by claims of corruption; both glorify their militaries; both appear to be spoiling for war with Iran.

Interestingly, both are also obsessed with demographic “enemies within”: many Israelis fear growing Arab/Muslim influence within; many Americans fear minorities will soon constitute the majority (estimates say non-whites will outnumber whites in the year 2045, but some Americans – like Laura Ingraham on Fox News – feel it’s already happened).  The result: the ruling administrations of both countries have doubled down on security and identity politics.  Israel has made Arabs second-class citizens, a form of apartheid; Trump & Co. has vilified immigrants (especially Mexicans) as rapists and murderers.  Both are building walls to keep the “enemy” without.  Both see massive military spending (and nuclear weapons) as the ultimate guarantors of peace.

Israel is little Prussia; the USA is big Prussia.  And like Prussia (and Germany) of the past, they pose as the aggrieved party, surrounded by enemies, hemmed in and oppressed.  It’s never wrong to be strong – that’s their guiding motto.  And by strength they mean hardness: military strength, police strength, the strength of superior weapons technology, embraced by leaders willing to kill or torture or imprison others in the name of preserving a “democratic” way of life.

It’s a mindset conducive to authoritarianism, to militarism, to nationalism, even to kleptocracy disguised as essential spending on national security.  At its root is fear, which generates a “no compromise” attitude toward the Other (whether Palestinian “terrorists” or immigrant “killers” and “animals”).  As the Palestinian activist Bassam Aramin put it in an interview in The Sun (October 2016):

“I think our main enemy is the Israelis’ fear.  It’s part of their consciousness.  When they talk about security, the Holocaust is always in the background.  If I throw a stone at an armored tank, they interpret it as the beginning of a new Holocaust.”

Fear is the mind-killer.  It enables perpetual warfare and a police state – and lots of profit and power to those who facilitate the same.

The original Prussia became consumed by militarism and nationalism and collapsed after two devastating world wars.  What will happen to today’s Big and Little Prussia?  Perhaps a war against Iran, timed to coincide with the 2020 presidential campaign season in the USA?  Such an unnecessary and likely disastrous war can’t be ruled out.

Consider the dynamic between the current leaders of the USA and Israel, each egging the other one on to be tougher, less compromising, more Prussian.  A pacific future is not in the cards for these military “superpowers.”  Not when they’re so busy emulating Prussia.

*Why are Americans, generally speaking, supporters and admirers of Israel?  So much so that politicians ostentatiously wear co-joined US/Israel flag lapel pins?  For several reasons:

1.   The US media is generally pro-Israel.  Meanwhile, the Arab world is often synonymous with terrorism in our media.

2.  Israelis seem more like Americans.  What I mean is this: Israeli spokespeople wear western dress and speak English with a faint accent.  Until recently, Arab spokespeople on TV looked and dressed “foreign” and spoke English with a heavier accent.

3.  The power of pro-Israeli political lobbies such as AIPAC and fear among politicians that criticism of Israel will be construed (and demonized) as anti-Semitism.

4.  The Holocaust.

5.  The Evangelical Context: I remember listening to a talk show on the radio, soon after the Yom Kippur War, in the mid-1970s.  The speaker predicted the Second Coming was near.  That got my attention!  Why was that?  Because, this person said, Israel had gained control over Jerusalem in apparent fulfillment of Biblical prophecy.  Fast forward forty years to today and you hear basically the same evangelical predictions about the Second Coming of Christ being imminent as Israel expands its hegemony over the “holy land” in Palestine.

One cannot underrate the importance of (selective) Biblical prophecy as advanced by fundamentalist Christians nestled within today’s Republican Party.  These evangelicals couldn’t care less about Trump’s sins and transgressions.  Their eyes are on the prize: Armageddon and Christ’s return, which they link to Israel’s domination of the region – which will lead to more wars, a brutal future seen as inevitable, even desirable.

Don’t Give A Hoot — Pollute!

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W.J. Astore

If you’re of a certain age, you probably remember environmental commercials featuring Woodsy the “anti-pollution owl” with the motto: “Give a hoot! Don’t pollute!”

Under the Trump administration, we need to modify that motto: “Don’t give a hoot.  Pollute!”

That’s the message of Trump’s new plan for powerplant emissions.  According to the EPA, this new plan may result in as many as 1,630 additional premature deaths annually by 2030, as reported by Bloomberg:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says its proposal to relax greenhouse gas limits on power plants will cause as many as 1,630 additional premature deaths annually by 2030 from heart and lung disease — an estimate independent experts say may be low.

The projection is contained in a 289-page technical document accompanying the agency’s proposal to replace the Obama-era Clean Power Plan that was released Tuesday.

The new rule would give states more leeway to set limits on greenhouse gas emissions from their power sectors — even though, by the agency’s own admission, that will result in higher levels of particulate matter and ozone being emitted by coal plants than would have occurred under President Barack Obama’s plan. That pollution is linked with respiratory infections, asthma and impaired lung function.

As my wife pointed out to me, Trump & friends aren’t worried about smog and pollution and respiratory discomfort.  They don’t live downwind from coal-fired plants.  Trump can always escape to one of his many resorts and golf courses around the world.

How cynical and callous do you have to be to suggest changes to environmental regulations that you know will kill lots of Americans in the future?

Making America great again?  No — It’s making America polluted again.  Woodsy the Owl is not happy, America.

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Collusion Takes Many Forms

W.J. Astore

Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words:

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The supposed big news here is that Dan Coats, the Director of National Intelligence, didn’t know about President Trump’s invitation to Vladimir Putin to visit the White House this fall.

The real story is in plain sight: all the corporate sponsors of the Aspen Security Forum, including Lockheed Martin, the nation’s leading weapons maker.  I like the way the logo for Lockheed Martin hovers just above Dan Coats’s head.  Who works for whom here?

(Other military contractors with prominent logos included Symantec, which specializes in cybersecurity, and MITRE, which technically is a not-for-profit corporation that works mainly with the Department of Defense; I worked with MITRE engineers when I was in the Air Force.)

The other obvious story: the mainstream media’s cozy relationship to those in power.  Andrea Mitchell’s interview with Coats is downright chummy.  It’s all very polite and non-confrontational, with Mitchell hinting we all should be very concerned and nervous about Trump negotiating alone with Putin.

Perhaps so, perhaps not.  But I am concerned about all those cozy relationships within and across the national security state, and the way our media eagerly joins in on the fun.  Collusion takes many forms; let’s not focus so tightly on alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia that we miss what’s in clear sight in photos and videos such as this.

Update (7/22/18): Is the mainstream media focusing on cozy relationships and possible collusion among the various players at Aspen?  You know, the military-industrial complex, the government and its seventeen intelligence agencies, universities and think tanks and the media, i.e. the usual suspects?  Of course not.  At ABC News, they’re focusing on whether Dan Coats’s chuckle and off-the-cuff remarks about Putin’s proposed visit to the White House were disrespectful to Trump.  And there you have it.