Category Archives: Social democracy

Why waste time talking about Trump?

 

Some have raised many important issues in messages to me as a result of my blogs. I could bore you with a long diatribe. I tend to that to people. So I will bore you with a shorter diatribe. Some will say not short enough. So be it.

To begin with, as has been suggested by others, I don’t think it is useful to waste a lot of time haranguing Donald Trump. Frankly, he is not worth it. Yet he is the American President and as we know, every time the US coughs Canada gets a cold. As well, it scares me just to think he has his finger on the nuclear button. And it is a big one you know. And it works.

More importantly, about 50 million people voted for him and many of those still like him.  This really scares me. Many people just want to see Trump go away. I do. But that will not end much. Who will those 50 million support the next time? Someone even worse? Trump is just a symptom of a disease.

I think Trump is a demagogue with authoritarian tendencies. Similar potential leaders have had significant support all over Europe. This is an international phenomenon.

If you have time, I urge you to read a marvelous (and short!) book by Timothy Snyder called On Tyranny. Snyder is an expert historian who is familiar with how tyrannies have arisen in the last century. Remember that Hitler was elected before he became a dictator. He did that by preying on the fears of people and finding scapegoats.

Part of the reason so many people voted for him, I believe, is that people, particularly in the US, have for more than a hundred years been accustomed to making important decisions without the benefit of reason. They have made decisions on the basis of faith, rather than reason. They are used to doing that.

Kurt Anderson has written a book on the subject called Fantasyland. So far I have just read a brief summary in Atlantic magazine. I am waiting for the paperback. Sometimes it hurts to be a cheap Menno. His thesis is that Americans have spent 500 years making important decisions on the basis of fantasies rather than reason. They believe on the basis of what they want to be true, rather than on the basis of what the evidence supports. Trump is just part of that process. Many people, particularly people who are unemployed or underemployed, believe Trump can help them, even though the evidence does not support that conviction. Yet they believe it. They have abdicated their reason.

A lot of people are in despair. Around the world. That is understandable given how the lot of most people has seriously deteriorated in the last 40 years, while the lot of the elites has risen sharply. Inequality has risen by astonishing amounts. Rich people have done amazingly well while ordinary people have seen their incomes decline.

The people who have not done well and daily see how well others have done, because the modern media makes sure that everyone knows, are filled with resentment. Resentment is an explosively dangerous force. It is blind to reason. Near home a few years ago a dairy farmer was mad at his wife who wanted a divorce and got so angry that he burned his barn down with all of the cows inside. And he did that  after cancelling his fire insurance. If he could not have it all no one else would have any of it. It was totally irrational. People consumed with resentment can do that.

About a year ago, a man in Alberta who was facing a divorce from his wife, murdered her and their children. If he could not have his family no one could. So he killed them all and then killed himself. Again it made no difference how irrational this was. People blinded by resentment can do that.

People in the modern world are not only resentful of their loss of money, and status, they are deeply insecure. Capitalists, as we all know, have been forced in recent recessions to lay off workers. That is hard and it is profoundly unnerving to those laid off. This has happened over and over again. As a result many people, particularly after the most recent recession feel a deep sense of insecurity. Even though capitalism has produced amazing wonders, it is deeply flawed if it needs to create such misery. Such a system is broken.

This has happened all over the world, but particularly in places like Appalachia, in the US. Many there are resentful and desperate. They justifiably gave up on both Obama and Hillary Clinton. Who can blame them? But they turned to an unlikely source for help. Donald Trump. A billionaire that had no empathy for them. As I have said before, “Trump has the empathy of a turnip.” But at least he heard them. Clinton was deaf. No wonder people turned to Trump over Clinton.

I have little doubt that his supporters will be disappointed in Trump. He is no savior. Voting for him was also deeply irrational. Many people in the United States wanted a personal wrecking ball who would destroy the system. I have met such people on my current trip to the United States. There are surprisingly many of such people. It did not matter who would be hurt by Trump’s actions. It did not matter that he would not help them. As we know he has done nothing for them. He has drastically reduced taxes on the wealthy and unsurprisingly very few people still believe that the way to help poor people is to give money to rich people. That is what Trump and many Republicans believe.

I am not trying to create class divisions as one person suggested to me. As Warren Buffet, hardly a leftwing radical, said, ‘for the past few decades we have been in a class war and my class has won. The rich people.’ The class war, if there is one, or was one, is over. Donald Trump is just the culmination of that process.

I fear that rich people in the US in particular have seized the government to their own advantage and are blind to the damage they have done. They have got temporary benefits as a result, but do not see how the resentment is building up and how dangerous that can be. How will the resentful people explode next time? Who will be the next wrecking ball? This is one of the reasons I say that capitalists are the greatest danger for capitalism.

I really think, the rich people have done a massive disservice to everyone–not the least to themselves! And not least to the system that brought them such prosperity. I am not a revolutionary. They are.

Regulations Stink

Many Americans in the west hate government regulations. That is one of the reasons Donald Trump is so popular, he has declared war on government regulations. He said that for everyone added, 2 would have to be removed. He seems to think most of them are bad because they interfere with the God-given right of American businesses to despoil the earth and exploit their workers and everything else in sight.

On a small scale–but a stinky one–that has become an issue in San Tan Valley where we live here in Arizona for 3 months.  Johnson Utilities a corporation I assume is connected to the company that developed much of this area including the community we live in, controls things like water and sewage. Water is an important asset in the desert and it controls it here. They have just announced that they are raising water rates by 23%. What would you do? Would you pay or go without water? They do have a pubic utility board here like we do back in Manitoba, but I am not sure how much clout they have. I will have to wait and see.

There is another related issue however that has many residents riled up, particularly those who live close to the water treatment plant run by Johnson Utilities. The locals can’t stand the smell. They say it is so bad they often have to stay inside. Reminds me of complaints back home about hog farms. It seems though that that the objectors are out of luck even though Johnson Utilities had been found to have violated regulations for emitting hydrogen sulfide more than 100 times. It was fined $20,000. Unfortunately, the people living next to the plant have not been helped, even though as one resident described the situation in a local newspaper, “the stench is like the inside of a porta-potty in the heat of summer at the end of a 3 day music festival.”

It seems that it is not just government regulations that stink. Maybe not all regulations are bad.

A Jazzman in the World of Ideas

 

This is part II of the discussion between Cornell West and Robert George that we heard a Arizona State University. Their topic was truth seeking, democracy, and freedom of thought and expression.

Cornel West said that we should revel in our common humanity even when you think the other is wrong. In my opinion that is the beginning and most important part of respectful (and hence useful) dialogue. Name calling and finger wagging are seldom useful.

To be a fundamental searcher for truth, one must begin with piety. By piety he means we should depend on those who came before us. We should learn from their mistakes, and try to gain wisdom from them. “We should try to be truth seekers together.” We should learn from our spiritual, moral and political teachers of excellence who came before us.

West said he came from a long tradition of a great people who had been subjugated for a long time even though his tradition taught love.   Their anthem, West said, was “Lift every voice.” Every jazzman finds his voice. He did not use this expression today, but I have heard West say that he is “A Jazzman in the world of ideas.” This reminds me a bit of my own views: be a meanderer in the world of ideas. There is no straight line to truth. The search for truth moves by twists and turns, steps forward and backward. There is no laid out map. There is no recipe for truth. It would be convenient if there was.

West says that in his classes he tells his students he wants “to teach them to learn to die.” Plato in his dialogues said much the same thing. He said his philosophy was meditation on how to die. Seneca said “he who learns to die learns to give up slavery.” West wants us to “learn how to die, in order to learn how to live.” In the end it is about living.

West wants us to achieve “Deep education, not cheap schooling.” His mentor, Socrates, urged us to respect the other in dialogue. After that empathy is what comes out of his mouth.”

Cornell West also said, “If the kingdom of God is within you, everywhere you go, you will leave a little of heaven behind.” West was blunt about current conditions in America and the west: “We live in a period of spiritual blackout.”

West also commented on the current President of the United States. “Donald Trump has no monopoly on spiritual blackout. Trump also did not cause the spiritual blackout; he is a symptom of it. Donald Trump is as American as cherry pie.” I found this particularly important at this time in America. About 50 million Americans voted for Trump in the last election and he was clearly a racist and a liar, but they voted for him anyway. Donald Trump did not hide anything about himself. He put it out there and millions of people voted for him. Millions liked what they heard. To many of us that is incomprehensible, but not to millions of Americans. Nearly half the American voters voted for Trump. So what Trump is, America is too.

West, like George, and like John Stuart Mill reminded us all said we had to be wary of our own convictions. Convictions can be the enemy of truth. We had to be willing to expose them to criticism and attack. Like Nietzsche said, we must have the courage to attack our convictions. Each of us is only as strong as our critics.

According to West, with spiritual blackout you end up distrusting people. You adopt the morality of much of 19th century capitalism. Do what ever you want; just don’t get caught. This attitude is widespread across the board in all institutions, he said. Not just capitalism. No democracy can survive when this attitude is rampant. In the west, particularly America, this attitude is rampant. That puts democracy in jeopardy.

Both West and George urged us to consider and adopt civic virtues. These result from recognition that all groups of people are precious and human at the deepest level. It is based on the finding of a common humanity in diverse groups. I would say that we discover this by accessing our innate fellow feeling at a deep level. I think West has a deep appreciation of the commons. This is how West and George connect with each other. They embrace their differences and their common humanity. I wish more of us could do that. This is particularly exemplary in this age of extremes, in which it appears most of us can no longer speak softly with others who disagree with us. West and George exemplified what they preached. You could see one listening intently while the other spoke. They did not interrupt each other. They learned from one another.

West is inspired by jazz music in particular and his favorite is John Coltrane. West treats an intellectual discussion as Coltrane and his friends would “a jam session.” He wants to make music by dialogue. That would be a jam session of ideas. West said that Coltrane and his friends would learn not only from each other, but from the dead, when they jammed. They would listen to the playing of the others in the jam session and then show what they had learned from Louis Armstrong and other jazz greats. The musical ideas would bounce off each other. That is what West wants in intellectual dialogue too. Voices bouncing off each other including voices of the dead like Martin Luther King or William Shakespeare or Friedrich Nietzsche or Jesus Christ. Then we can access something bigger than the parts in the search for truth, whether you are in a jam session or a philosophical discussion.

Even that was not enough, West said. Democracy is exactly this too. Democracy is ideas bouncing off each other when each voice is heard and no voice is shut down. When people respect each other’s voices great things can result. Of course this requires others to want to make music (getting back to the music analogy again). If they are just trying to shut you down you can’t make music. This gets back to freedom of speech.

That does not mean you have the right to say anything at all at any time. You have no right to shout “fire” in a crowded dark theatre. That might cause a stampede and people could get hurt. That does not mean you have the right to defame other people. That causes harm to them. False statements that harm others are not permitted, even though we all want a robust form of freedom of expression. You have no right to walk into a University classroom and call people names, like “the N word,” or other derogatory names. That is not done to engage in free discussion. Such statements are made to end discussion. Therefore they are not permitted. The same goes for hate speech. Hate speech is not made to engage in discussion. If a statement is made for that purpose, I would argue, it is not hate speech. If speech is made to generate hate against others that is not to engage in free thought and discussion either. We do not have the right to make such statements.

West in a very brief comment made a very important point. He said, if you want to make an important argument you have to visit the “chocolate side of town.” You can’t just stay physically and mentally in the comfortable suburbs. You have to visit the ghettos. You have to visit places where poor people hang out; where vulnerable people go. Otherwise your ideas are bound to be inadequate. There is a lot to be learned on the chocolate side of town. For example there is a lot to be learned from jazz, from Black Baptist religion, and from a long tradition of suffering and the enduring of suffering. These were my examples, but I think West would endorse them. We should all learn from that side of town.

How did we get into this Mess?

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George Monbiot is one of my favorite writers. He writes regularly for The Guardian a paper I subscribe to. I find his writing invariably thought-provoking. He often takes positions that are contrary to received opinion from left or right, though he has a serious left wing bent. His latest book is called How did we get into this Mess?

Like me, Monbiot is deeply opposed to plutocratic government. That is government for the rich, not government for the people. It is often nominally democratic. It appears democratic, but the institutions of democracy have been corrupted or usurped by rich people for their own advantage.

It is interesting how some rich and privileged get ordinary people to vote for politicians who so obviously serve their rich masters, rather than ordinary people. How do they do? That is part of what has got us into this mess that we are in?

Monbiot puts it this way,

There are two ways of cutting a deficit: raising taxes or reducing spending. Raising taxes means taking money from the rich. Cutting spending means taking money away from the poor. 

Since there are vastly more poor people than rich people, one would think it would be very difficult for rich people to convince enough poor people to vote for politicians who support the interests of the rich over the interests of the poor, but that is exactly what has been happening in the west for at least the past 30 years. Ever since Saint Ronald Reagan came riding on his horse out of the west. In fact they have been remarkably successful. As Monbiot said,

So the rich, in a nominal democracy, have a struggle on their hands. Somehow they must persuade the other 99 per cent to vote against their own interests: to shrink the state, supporting spending cuts rather than tax rises. In the US they appear to be succeeding.

After Reagan these policies in the US were continued by all Presidents, even the Democrats. As a result taxation of wealthy people is at its lowest in 100 years. As a direct result inequality in the west in general and in the United States in particular has increased astoundingly. As former Republican senator Alan Simpson said, “The little guy is going to get cremated.”

A lot of the work in getting ordinary people to vote against what is good for them and for what is bad, was done by an organization called Americans for Prosperity (‘AFP’). This is one of those organizations supported by Charles and David Koch two of the richest men in America. They have spent hundreds of millions supporting lobby groups that urge politicians to lower taxes on the rich and remove government regulations that they see as interfering with their right to do business as they want, no matter who is harmed in the process. They have been big supporters of Donald Trump among many other right-wing politicians in the US.

Monbiot described their work this way, “AFP mobilised the anger of people who found their condition of life declining, and channelled it into a campaign to make them worse.

The Founding Fathers of the American constitution were worried about mob rule. That’s why they built into the constitution an elaborate system of checks and balances. By and large that system has worked fairly well. But there are new challenges the framers of the constitution were never aware of. As Monbiot said, “The primary threat to the democratic state and its functions comes not from mob rule or leftwing insurrection, but from the very rich and the corporations they run.

The rich in America have created a plutocracy. That is a government designed to work for the benefit of the rich at the expense of everyone else. I am not saying that all rich people have done. Some rich people have done this. And they have been extremely effective at doing precisely that. As Monbiot said, they have done that by

promoting the same dreary agenda of less tax for the rich, less help for the poor and less regulation for business…I see these people as rightwing vanguardists, mobilising first to break and then to capture the political system that is meant to belong to all of us. Like Marxists insurrectionaries, they often talk about smashing things, about ‘creative destruction’, about the breaking of chains and slipping of leashes. But in this case they appear to be trying to free the rich from the constraints of democracy. And at the moment they are winning.

Their crowning achievement came after Monbiot’s book was published–the ascension of King Donald. Now look at what we have got!

I do not hate Rich people

I want to make one thing clear–I do not hate rich people. Some of my best friends are rich. At least I think they are rich. Perhaps this is just jealousy speaking. I do not advocate class war of poor against rich. What I object to though is rich people using their considerable power and influence to bend the minds of our politicians to change everything in their own favor and to their own advantage at the expense of poor people. Poor people by definition don’t have the power that rich people have. As a result they can’t convince politicians to do what is good for them, like rich people can. This is inherently unfair. It is also inherently undemocratic.

This is why I despise plutocracy–i.e. government for the rich. That is what the Americans are moving towards at warp speed. Canadians too but at a slower pace. This is particularly true now that rich people have elected one of their own–Donald Trump–as their personal savior. And he is serving them well, even though he convinced a lot of working class people that he was their personal savior. He is not. He is doing everything he can to help his cronies and he is doing it on a massive scale and it is being done at the expense of everyone else.

What I really object to is rich people who forget that their wealth is not solely the product of their own genius, but more often than not, has been contributed to greatly by ordinary people. Rich people have benefited from the commons–i.e. those things we have created for the benefit of all, or have set aside for the benefit of all. This includes things like an educational system, a financial system, and nature itself.

I despise it when rich people think it is all for them to do with as they please without any thought for those who are less fortunate than they are. These are the vulnerable people who can vote for Donald Trump but can’t really influence him too much after that. For example, when I see rich Americans gleefully take billions in tax breaks at the expense of medical care for poor people, I am disgusted. Is it not disgusting? Poor and vulnerable people are being plucked to the bone at this time particularly in the United States at this time the rich people are doing exactly that. They are reaping what they sowed. For the rest it is just too bad. They can suck socks.

All the Money in the World.

 

 

When we are in Arizona we love to see movies. I am not sure why, but we seem to have much more time for movies out here. We always try to see as many of the movies nominated for best picture as possible. The first movie we saw was All the Money in the World.

This film gained notoriety when Kevin Spacey, who originally played J. Paul Getty, was discharged from the film after it was shot, because of cascading allegations of sexual misconduct. Christopher Plummer was hired to play the role and all the scenes with Spacey were reshot one month before the release date of the film. It is incredible that so much could be done in such a short time. And they did it well.

The movie is based (inspired by it says) real events that occurred in 1973 when Italian kidnappers abducted the grandson of J. Paul Getty, John Paul Getty III. The grandfather, according to the film, was not only the richest man in the world; he was the richest man in the history of the world. Even though the grandson was the most favorite of all of his grandchildren, Getty hardly raised an eyebrow when he heard news of the kidnapping because he was watching the stock market results on the ticker tape. That is sacred of course.

When the media asked Getty how much he would pay to have his grandson released he said, quietly, ominously, and matter-of-factly, “Nothing.” It was shocking.

Only when a cut off ear of the grandson was sent to him in the mail did Getty start to take this seriously and even then, he did it as a business tycoon. He tried to get the best deal he could. He bargained. He bargained for the life of his favorite grandson. Getty said he has no money to spare.

Later when Getty reneges on his promise to pay because the oil embargo has made him more insecure, his chief fixer, Chase, played by Mark Wahlberg, asks Getty, “But no one has ever been richer than you are. What would it take for your to feel secure?” “More,” was the chilling answer. The answer of a true businessman.

There was one more element in the movie I found interesting. Recently I have been thinking a lot about rich people. Rich people and their fears. Some people have criticized me for this saying I sow seeds of class conflict. I disagree but may deal with that issue some time.

The rich seem to have intense fears, not the least when they are most secure. That is what I find most interesting. Why do the most secure seem to feel the most insecurity? In fact, it often seems the richer they are, the more fearful they are. I always think this is a hint that they feel guilt over their wealth. They feel that they don’t deserve it and someone will be coming to take it away, and they had better be prepared.

Peter Bradshaw the movie reviewer in The Guardian had some interesting things to say about Getty in this context. As Bradshaw said, “This film suggests they (the rich) also have more fear of their own children – fear that they will parasitically suck away energy that should be devoted to building up riches and status; that they will fail to be worthy inheritors of it, or waste it, or cause it to be catastrophically mortgaged to their own pampered weakness. This fear is the driving force of Ridley Scott’s raucous pedal-to-the-metal thriller about the ageing and super-rich oil tycoon J. Paul Getty.”[1]

Fear makes the rich do strange things. Things that might not be to their own advantage. Things that reveal a stark lack of fellow feeling. F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “The rich are different from you and me,” to which Ernest Hemingway is famously alleged to have replied: “Yes, they have more money.” Hemingway should have said, “Yes they have more fear.”

Kris Kristofferson wisely said, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” That was true. But he could have said, just as truly, “Fear is just another word for everything left to lose.”

[1] Peter Bradshaw, “All the Money in the World review–raucous crime thriller banishes ghost of Kevin Spacey,” The Guardian (Dec. 19, 2017)

Elites against Elites

 

The elites have many stunning “achievements” to their credit. One that really amazes me is the extent to which they have convinced ordinary people—workers, laborors, government workers and the like—that the neo-liberals represent them against the elites. They constantly criticize the elites, especially the elites in the media, academia, and “the east.”

One of the neo-liberal politicians in the U.S. dwho was most adept at this approach was Newt Gingrich. Just like he could persuade socially conservative voters that too him marriage was a sacred institution on which all of society was based, even though Newt was married 3 times and divorced twice, under morally dubious circumstances.

Gingrich clearly had the abilty to say, with a straight face that black was white and white was black. This was dialectics that the most fervid Marxist would be impressed with.

As a result he could say—convincingly say—that he was a staunch of opponent of those elites from down east. After declaring victory in the South Carolina primary in 2012, he announced that he was separate and apart from the “elites in Washington and New York.” “Those elites,” he declared, have no understanding, no care, no concern, no reliabilituy” and are trying to “force us to quit being American.” What an astonishing statement for him to make.

Such statements are not really that unusual. Especially in the United States such derogatory remarks are common. Richard Nixon often painted himself as an opponent of that same “Eastern establishment” even though he had been a New York lawyer. At least he always had a resentful chip on his shoulder. So did his Vice President, Spiro Agnew who attacked the media elites as the “nattering nabobs of negativity.”

Of course the most astonishing case was Donald Trump. He said he would drain the swamp of Wall Street barons on behalf of working people. After getting elected he decided instead to pick cabinet minsters and advisors from those Wall Streeters. He picked the wealthiest cabinet in the history of the U.S. Is that draining the swamp?

This has also often happened in Canada. We are hardly immune to political hypocricy. Stephen Harper in Canada made similar remarks about “Professor” Michael Ignatieff. Similar attacks were made by the Conservatives against the former Liberal leader, another evil high brow academic, Stephan Dion. After all these people might read books!

Yet it takes a lot of overly ripe gaul for someone like Newt Gingrich to play the role of an anti-elitist. After all he served 10 terms in Congress while rising to its highest position, Speaker of the House where he was 2 heart beats away from the presidency. He was not just near the top of eastern power. He was there. The elite of the elites!

As if that was not enough he receieved a $4.5 million dollar advance for a proposed book which he was compelled to refuse after a political storm that resulted in an ethical investigation of the transaction. Added to that, he wrote numerous books for which he was very well paid. His income always exceeded 1 million each year mainly from books and speaking engagements. If only the common man could do so well in America!

Moreover, Gingrich earned his fortune by giving “strategic advice” to businesses who wanted to learn how to influence government to work in their favor. In that capacity he earned $1.6 million from Freddie Mac, one of of the quasi-governmental companies that was an important force in the financial melt-down of 2008. Of course, Gingrich did not suffer from that financial collapse. The elites don’t suffer. Suffering is for the peasants.

According to federal tax data in the US the average household income of the top one per cent in 2008 was $1.2 million. So Gingrich would fit in. Romeny of course would be in the upper echelons of that. In either case these two political leaders are a very long way indeed from the common man that they claim to represent against those awful elites.

Even though he characterizes himself as an outsider attacking those arrogant elites he also commony brags about how he helped Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton create jobs. How can he be outside the elites and do all that with such elites? The answer of course, is that he can’t. He is the elite! He is the quintessential elite. He has been at the heart of the eastern elite for decades. He is no common man. That is absurd.

Of course his main opponent is not outside those elites either. Mitt Romney’s tax returns, that he divulged only after enornous pressure, showed that he earned $20 million the previous year. His net worth was estimated at $250 million. How rich or how powerful does one have to be to be part of the elite? As the Los Angeles Times said, “Now, a multimillionaire private equity manager whose tax rate is about 15 per cent will compete with a mult-millionaire Washington politician who relishes his access to power. And the two will, amusingly, compete to convince voters that each is an authentic outsider with a common touch.”

If these are the best elite fighters the common people of America can muster they are in for massive oblivion. Deserved obliteration. Or perhaps even worse, Donald Trump.