Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Washington Continues to Not Understand Taxation, Because Lobbyists…?

Writing for The New Republic, Danny Vinik takes a scathing look at the new tax deal that appears to have bipartisan support in Congress:

Imagine somebody asked you to imagine the worst possible deal on taxes. It'd probably have the following qualities:

It would be bad for the environment.

It would be bad for the deficit.

It would give short shrift to the working poor.

And it would be a bonanza for corporations.

Unfortunately, you don’t have to conjure up such a package. Congressional Republicans already have. And for some unfathomable reason, Senate Democrats including Harry Reid seem inclined to go along — although the White House has vowed to veto such a deal if Congress goes ahead and passes it.

So, it’s unsurprising that the Republican Party is in step behind this deal. But why are some Democrats, in particular Harry Reid? “Look no further than K Street,” Vinik writes.

As you can tell by their price tag, the tax extenders are very important to Big Business and they spend a lot of money lobbying for them. In March, Americans for Tax Fairness released a report on lobbying of major corporations over tax extenders between January 2011 and September 2013. During that time, General Electric, for instance, employed 48 lobbyists who contacted a member of Congress or their staff about the extenders. Overall, more than 1,300 unique lobbyists were involved in the issue. They spent millions of dollars on them as well.

He ends his piece with:

This deal was built on K Street and in the backroom offices of Congress. It’s everything that’s wrong with Washington and Democrats, in particular, should want nothing to do with it.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Six US Banks Funding Terrorism?

This is a story I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere. One to keep an eye on.

US-China Climate Deal in the US Media… (a handful of links)

A round-up of the coverage of the climate deal President Obama negotiated with Xi Jinping.

“China, U.S. agree to limit greenhouse gases” by David Nakamura & Steven Mufson (Washington Post, November 12, 2014)

This article offers some specifics about the new deal. For example, that China, “the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases,” has pledged to cap its (still growing) carbon emissions by 2030, earlier if possible. China has also “set a daunting goal of increasing the share of non-fossil fuels to 20 percent of the country’s energy mix by 2030.” Certainly an ambitious goal. President Obama, meanwhile, announced a new US emissions target, cutting to 26%-28% below 2005 levels by 2025. This is the first time he has set a goal beyond the existing 2020 target of a 17% cut.

“The scale of construction for China to meet its goals is huge even by Chinese standards. It must add 800 to 1,000 gigawatts of nuclear, wind, solar and other zero-emission generating capacity by 2030 — more than all the coal-fired power plants that exist in China today and close to the total electricity generating capacity of the United States… And to meet its target, the United States will need to double the pace of carbon pollution reduction from 1.2 percent per year on average from 2005 to 2020 to 2.3 to 2.8 percent per year between 2020 and 2025.”

The article also details the progress made on tariffs and military relations. A good, detailed article.

“Republicans Are Furious About Obama’s Climate Breakthrough With China” by Rebecca Leber (The New Republic, November 12, 2014)

“Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell just spent his reelection campaign claiming that China would never curb its emissions, so the U.S. shouldn’t either. Many other Republicans have argued the same. And yet China just proved Republicans wrong by committing to reach a peak level of carbon pollution by 2030 — the first time the world’s largest polluter has set a deadline for lowering emissions.”

Naturally, Leber reports, Republican leaders are opposed to it, as they have no other default: McConnell complained about the president’s continued “ideological War on Coal”, and Boehner says Obama is just “doubl[ing] down on his job-crushing policies no matter how devastating the impact”.

“Even China’s Communist Party Accepts That Climate Change Is Real. Republicans Still Don’t” by Brian Beutler (The New Republic, November 12, 2014)

As the title suggests, this article continues the unsurprising “GOP opposes something Obama is for” angle, and highlights the

“important point that the U.S.-China climate change deal turns the most pragmatic conservative argument against limiting our own greenhouse gas emissions — that it would amount to unilateral economic surrender — on its head.”

I particularly liked, and agreed, with the following observation:

“The key thing about the "why should we act if China won’t?!” excuse is a failure of moral imagination. You only say something like that if you're extremely confident that the world's developing economies won't turn around and embarrass you by seeking to limit their own emissions — that they share your particular cynicism, nihilism, or denialism.”

After this flurry of surprised and positive coverage, people have started to look deeper into the different parts of the deal, and some are raising concerns and voicing disappointment that the deal isn’t quite as good as originally thought and claimed…

“The U.S.-China Climate Deal Is Mostly Hot Air” by Tim Mak (The Daily Beast, November 12, 2014)

“The Obama administration may be crowing about its ‘historic’ emissions agreement. But China and the U.S. are already on track to meet these targets.”

“Don’t buy the hype. The announcement is largely a restatement of existing American and Chinese carbon emission trajectories, topped with a new red ribbon.”

Mak is not wholly down on the deal, though, and does The U.S.-China agreement on carbon emissions may not be especially ambitions, but this does not mean that it is without symbolic consequence.

“What’s more meaningful is leaders putting their reputations and political weight behind ambitious emissions reduction targets,” Andrew Eil, a former State Department climate change program coordinator, told The Daily Beast. “The fact that Xi and Obama both put a lot on the line to demonstrate that climate is a big priority is very noteworthy… Most importantly, both for the U.S. and China, it’s a commitment to emissions reduction, full stop, that has not been made before.”

“The Faux US-China Climate Deal” by Zachary Keck (The Diplomat, November 12, 2014)

This was the first article I saw that dug into the details and showed that the deal was not quite as momentous as official releases were claiming. Much of the coverage has “greatly exaggerate the significance of the deal”, which “simply reiterates commitments [Beijing] had previously announced”.

“Is the U.S.-China Climate Pact as Big a Deal as It Seems?” by James Fallows (The Atlantic, November 12, 2014)

The Atlantic’s China expert (I think the first China-related Atlantic story I read was by Fallows, back in 2007), Fallows highlights three key things to keep in mind when learning about the deal: for example,

“To have spent any time in China is to recognize that environmental damage of all kinds is the greatest threat to its sustainability—even more than the political corruption and repression to which its pollution problems are related.”

He is hopeful about the future, despite pointing out that the air quality in Beijing is worse now than it was before the CCP shut down the factories and reduced congestion in order to produce clear skies. Any practical steps towards environmental protection is a good thing. He is not entirely optimistic, however:

“China is a big, diverse, churning, and contradictory place, as anyone who's been there can detail for hours. But for the past year-plus, the news out of China has been consistent, and bad. Many people thought, hoped, or dreamt that Xi Jinping would be some kind of reformer… his has been a time of cracking down rather than loosening up. Political enemies and advocates of civil society are in jail or in trouble. Reporters from the rest of the world have problems even getting into China, and reporters from China itself face even worse repression than before.”

Fallows is also concerned about the “nationalistic, spoiling-for-a-fight tone” that has come into China’s diplomatic dealings and engagement. This deal, however, suggests that maybe things are moving in a better direction.

“The Xi-Obama Meeting: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” by Shannon Tiezzi (The Diplomat, November 13, 2014)

This is a good article, offering, as the title suggests a quick run-down of the various results and developments from the meeting. As well as the climate deal, for example:

“… a new visa deal will allow for 10-year, multiple entry visas for businesspeople and five year visas for students. The streamlined visa process is a step forward in promoting people-to-people exchanges, which both governments routinely hold up as a key to improving mutual trust between the U.S. and China.”

However,

“the two sides continue to have divergent visions for the future of the Asia-Pacific region, and despite nods to cooperation, there’s little indication that Beijing and Washington have found concrete ways to cooperate.”

Given Beijing’s promotion of a vision of the Asia-Pacific with reduced US influence, “we’re seeing battle lines drawn instead of cooperative projects” as American officials become wary and concerned about China’s more assertive.

“Ideological tensions sharpened under Xi Jinping, as he has chosen to fight a public battle against Western influence in everything from think tanks to art and literature. Beijing has also repeatedly and openly blamed the current protests in Hong Kong on interference from the West, including the U.S. government.”

***

This is, of course, just a small selection of the articles that have been written in the wake of the summit. It’s not difficult to find many, many more. I just thought I’d highlight these ones as good jumping-off points.

Fox News is “like a horror show”

An interesting segment from Huffington Post TV with Viggo Mortensen, about media consumption, Fox News, and seeking out alternative viewpoints:

Mortensen discusses the difference he sees between right-wing and left-wing radio:

“so-called left-wing radio, it’s generally talking points as well, but I think there’s more of an effort to deal with facts, even if there are sins of omission and so forth on the left as well; but it’s generally not as brazen a form of lying as you get from Fox…”

Interestingly, he was asked the Obama administration. It’s always nice when a celebrity, not known for being politically active, shows that they are engaged with the facts and can articulate their opinions without regurgitating vapid sound-bites they’ve heard or read in the media. Obama, he says, “is as much as a hawk” as every other president, Republican or Democrat…

“Government is working really well… for those with armies of lobbyists”

Elizabeth Warren proving once again that she understands US politics, and is able to clarify it for others (on Late Night with Seth Meyers):

 
“We’ve got to have a government that works not just for the rich and powerful, but for all of our families… A lot of folks are feeling discouraged, and part of that is because government is not working for them. Let’s all be clear: Government does work. It works really well for those who can hire armies of lobbyists. It works really well for those who have armies of lawyers. It works really well for those who can make big campaign contributions. It’s just not working for American families… we have to make it clear in elections whose side you’re fighting on…”

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

MSNBC’s The Cycle on President Obama’s China Trip

A pretty straight forward segment, but worth watching. Isaac Stone Fish is pretty good, and certainly came across best. Although, it wasn’t difficult for him to outshine the four hosts, who offered waffley questions and such vapid offerings as:

“Does President Obama know how to use chopsticks?”

“I bet he’s pretty good with the chopsticks.”

This is what passes for intelligent news discussion of the most populace country, the fastest growing economy, and easily the most important international relationship? Disappointing.

The Song Remains the Same…

Once again, the American media are asking exactly the same questions about a US president’s trip to Asia, and particularly with regards to China: will human rights “overshadow” the trip? No. The answer thus far, and no doubt for the foreseeable future, will be no. The segment below pretty much sums up the status quo:

“We’re not going to stop speaking out on behalf of the things we care about, recognising that we also have significant interests and business to do with China.”

The segment also touches upon Myanmar and North Korea – and he’s not positive about relations with or progress on the latter.

Wagner: “How much leverage at this moment does the American president have with Chinese leadership…?”

Kristof: “I don’t think, frankly, that President Obama does have a great deal of leverage right now…”

When was the last time the US president has had leverage? Maybe during the run up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, but George W. Bush didn’t give any indication of being remotely interested in doing anything – indeed, he gave all indication that he’d checked out, and was leaving everything up to the electoral candidates.

While it is certainly refreshing that a news show is willing to spend much time on human rights, it was disappointing that Kristof didn’t give more – I’m sure he’s more familiar with the issues, especially relating to China and US influence (or lack thereof) there.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

“The Research Cycle”

Here’s yesterday’s PhD Comic:

phd20141107

Certainly the cycle is familiar. But am I one of the only people who enjoys it? I remember, when doing my graduate work, my colleagues across departments would become tense and petrified when meeting with their supervisors or when a chapter/paper was due. However, I never had that fear or tension – I welcomed meetings with my supervisor, who was always able to coax out of my solutions to problems my research was presenting. They were always productive and useful hours.

I enjoy the cyclical nature of researching and writing. I recently finished an article about China’s global resource quest, and while I was finalising the piece, I was already deep into researching my next project – which, admittedly, is linked, but still.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Upcoming: IMITATION GAME by Andrew Hodges (Vintage/Princeton)

The Imitation Game, a movie based on Andrew Hodges’s Alan Turing: The Enigma received rave reviews and a ton of press coverage around the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). I’ve never read the book, sadly, but my interest has never been higher. Recently, the UK and US publishers unveiled their tie-in covers:

HodgesA-AlanTuringTheEnigmaTIG

I find it kind of amusing that the publishers have chosen to pose Benedict Cumberbatch facing different ways. (Although, given his international popularity and stature, I can’t help but think the UK cover will be more likely to shift copies to the actor’s massive fanbase…)

Here’s the book’s synopsis:

Based on the real life story of legendary cryptanalyst Alan Turing, this is the official film tie-in for The Imitation Game, a the nail-biting race against time by Turing and his brilliant team of code-breakers at Britain’s top-secret Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park, during the darkest days of World War II.

This film tie-in tells the true story behind the nail-biting race against time following Alan Turing (pioneer of modern-day computing and credited with cracking the German Enigma code) and his brilliant team at Britain’s top-secret code-breaking centre, Bletchley Park, during the darkest days of World War II. Turing, whose contributions and genius significantly shortened the war, saving thousands of lives, was the eventual victim of an unenlightened British establishment, but his work and legacy live on.

1954, aged 41, Alan Turing committed suicide and one of Britain’s greatest scientific minds was lost.

Alan Turing: The Enigma is published in the UK by Vintage Books and in the US by Princeton University Press. These editions will be out in November 2014, around the time the movie hits general release.

Here’s the latest trailer for the movie:

John Oliver Nails it…

RS-20140923-JohnOliver… in his Rolling Stone cover feature (October 9th, 2014 issue, p.41):

Digging into bleak corners of the American experience – payday loans, income inequality, the prison system – isn’t exactly leavening Oliver’s natural pessimism. “The more in-depth we go to things here, the darker you start to feel about it,” he says. “When you start following the money in politics, that’s where you start to think, ‘Holy shit, is this thing broken beyond repair?’ When we started looking at stories, even the Dr. Oz dietary-supplement stuff – you start to see how corrupted, at root, things have become. And the fact that there’s this revolving door – that 50 percent of the people that leave the Senate go straight to lobbying positions, that one statistic alone is a dead canary in a coal mine. That is not good. There is something profoundly wrong at the heart of American politics.”

If you haven’t been watching Oliver’s HBO series, Last Week Tonight, I really can’t recommend it enough. It is absolutely superb. Here are a couple of sample clips for you to check out…

… on Ferguson, Missouri and Police Militarization:

… on student debt:

… and the Miss America Pageant:

Jorge Cham’s Piled Higher & Deeper on the Netflix Effect…

Sad to say, I’ve experienced this change on occasion (House of Cards)…

phd20141008

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

John Oliver Nails it on Civil Asset Forfeiture (HBO)

This is a great segment from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Civil Asset Forefeiture – how a number of US police forces line their department pockets to buy… well, in the words of one captain, “toys”…

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Review: THINKING ABOUT IT ONLY MAKES IT WORSE by David Mitchell (Faber)

MitchellD-ThinkingAboutItOnlyMakesItWorseA superb collection of Mitchell’s Observer columns

Why is my jumper depreciating? What’s wrong with calling a burglar brave? Why are people so f***ing hung up about swearing? Why do the asterisks in that sentence make it okay? Why do so many people want to stop other people doing things, and how can they be stopped from stopping them? Why is every film and TV programme a sequel or a remake? Why are we so reliant on perpetual diversion that someone has created chocolate toothpaste? Is there anything to be done about the Internet?

These and many other questions trouble David Mitchell as he delights us with a tour of the absurdities of modern life – from Ryanair to Downton Abbey, sports day to smoking, nuclear weapons to phone etiquette, UKIP to hotdogs made of cats. Funny, provocative and shot through with refreshing amounts of common sense, Thinking About It Only Makes It Worse celebrates and commiserates on the state of things in our not entirely glorious nation.

David Mitchell is a comedian, actor, writer and the polysyllabic member of Mitchell and Webb. He won BAFTAs for Peep Show and That Mitchell and Webb Look, and has also starred in Jam and Jerusalem, The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff and Ambassadors. He writes for the Observer, chairs TheUnbelievable Truth, is a team captain on Would I Lie To You? and has been in two films, neither of which made a profit.

I have long been a fan of David Mitchell’s television work – That Mitchell & Webb Look, Peep Show (which I was actually didn’t love at first), the all-too-short Ambassadors mini-series, and his frequent guest spots on QI and Have I Got News For You being my favourites. After I listened to the audio edition of his superb memoir, Back Story, my respect for him grew even more (it’s among my top ten ‘reads’ of the year, easily). I didn’t know how frequently he had been writing for the Observer, however, so I was pleasantly surprised when I received a review copy of Thinking About It Only Makes It Worse. This is a great read.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Upcoming: THE CHINA MIRAGE by James Bradley (Little, Brown)

BradleyJ-ChinaMirageI stumbled across this book recently, and I’m quite looking forward to it. It focuses on a period of history that I’m also researching and writing about, and one I’ve long thought is over-looked for post-World War II US-China relations.

I’m cautiously optimistic, though – I had mixed feelings about Bradley’s The Imperial Cruise, which I found to be a little too strident, to the point of overlooking certain elements of context. The China Mirage is due out in the US in April 2015, published by Little, Brown. Here’s the synopsis:

A spellbinding history of turbulent U.S.-China relations from the 19th century to World War II and Mao’s ascent.

In each of his books, James Bradley has exposed the hidden truths behind America’s engagement in Asia. Now comes his most engrossing work yet. Beginning in the 1850s, Bradley introduces us to the prominent Americans who made their fortunes in the China opium trade. As they – good Christians all – profitably addicted millions, American missionaries arrived, promising salvation for those who adopted Western ways.

And that was just the beginning.

From drug dealer Warren Delano to his grandson Franklin Delano Roosevelt, from the port of Hong Kong to the towers of Princeton University, from the era of Appomattox to the age of the A-Bomb, THE CHINA MIRAGE explores a difficult century that defines U.S.-Chinese relations to this day.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

A Truly Surreal Maddow Segment

I’m just catching up on some of my news programs, and I came across this segment from The Rachel Maddow Show’s August 21st segment. It begins with the story about the man shot in Missouri, after apparently stealing two sodas from a convenience store, placing them on the side of the curb, and then waiting for the cops to arrive. As Maddow mentions – and is clearly visible on the video – “The officers have their guns drawn from the get-go”, and one can just hear the man shout something along the lines of “shoot me!” at the cops; and, within 23 seconds of their arrival, they do just that (nine times).

This whole segment is disturbing and frightening on a number of levels – irrespective of the fact that a fair number of people seemed to know something was about to go down and just watched. The police exited their vehicles, guns-drawn, and the police report/press conference after the fact is not confirmed by this video. I can’t help but echo John Oliver’s sentiment of, “What the f*ck is wrong with your cops?”

Coupled with everything else going on in Missouri (and the States in general, really), the USA is becoming an ever-more frightening, broken state. The militarization of the country has been escalating for years, moving on overdrive since 9/11. It’s becoming dystopian.

It’s very difficult to put into words the impression this video had. Confusion, anger, stunned disbelief (which is probably naïve)…

Speaking of John Oliver, I thought I’d share his brilliant – acerbic, intelligent, spot-on segment from his August 17th episode of Last Week Tonight:

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

International Media: A Most Relevant Image

This is a panel from an (early) issue of Hawkeye, written by Rick Remender. The artwork is by David Aja, and it’s never been more relevant considering today’s international, political, and media environments…

News-EverythingAwfulSomeoneDoSomething(DavidAja)

Friday, 8 August 2014

Upcoming: 935 LIES by Charles Lewis (Public Affairs)

LewisC-935LiesMuch is written and talked about the apparent death of truth in American politics. In his new book, journalist Charles Lewis looks at the ways in which truth has been manipulated and distorted by governments, corporations and individuals; and also how truth is often distorted or diminished by delay. Here’s the publisher’s synopsis:

Facts are and must be the coin of the realm in a democracy, for government “of the people, by the people and for the people,” requires and assumes to some extent an informed citizenry. Unfortunately, for citizens in the United States and throughout the world, distinguishing between fact and fiction has always been a formidable challenge, often with real life and death consequences. But now it is more difficult and confusing than ever. The Internet Age makes comment indistinguishable from fact, and erodes authority. It is liberating but annihilating at the same time.

For those wielding power, whether in the private or the public sector, the increasingly sophisticated control of information is regarded as utterly essential to achieving success. Internal information is severely limited, including calendars, memoranda, phone logs and emails. History is sculpted by its absence.

Often those in power strictly control the flow of information, corroding and corrupting its content, of course, using newspapers, radio, television and other mass means of communication to carefully consolidate their authority and cover their crimes in a thick veneer of fervent racialism or nationalism. And always with the specter of some kind of imminent public threat, what Hannah Arendt called ‘objective enemies.’”

An epiphanic, public comment about the Bush “war on terror” years was made by an unidentified White House official revealing how information is managed and how the news media and the public itself are regarded by those in power: “[You journalists live] “in what we call the reality-based community. [But] that’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality… we’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” And yet, as aggressive as the Republican Bush administration was in attempting to define reality, the subsequent, Democratic Obama administration may be more so.

Upcoming: TO MAKE MEN FREE by Heather Cox Richardson (Basic Books)

RichardsonHC-ToMakeMenFreeA History of the Republican Party

Richardson, a professor of history at Boston College, takes a look at the paradoxical evolution of the Republican Party in the US, and how it was founded on the principle of equal opportunity, and yet has been hijacked by elite agendas. This sounds like an interesting book. It’s due to be published by Basic Books in September 2014.

When Abraham Lincoln helped create the Republican Party on the eve of the Civil War, his goal was to promote economic opportunity for all Americans, not just the slaveholding Southern planters who steered national politics. Yet while visionary Republicans like Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson shared Lincoln’s egalitarian dream, their attempts to use government to guard against the concentration of wealth have repeatedly been undone by the country’s moneyed interests and by members of their own party.

In To Make Men Free, celebrated historian Heather Cox Richardson traces the shifting ideology of the Grand Old Party from the antebellum era to the Great Recession and details the terrible repercussions of these vacillations for minorities, the middle class, and America at large. Expansive and authoritative, To Make Men Free explains how a relatively young party became America’s greatest political hope – and time and time again, its greatest disappointment.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Bill Clinton On bin Laden, September 10th, 2001…

Found this on MSNBC, in an article by Alex Seitz-Wald. Yet another random comment that takes on considerable historical and (potentially) political significance. The former president was speaking at a company event (J.T. Campbell & Co. Pty. Ltd.) in Melbourne, and one of the attendees had a recording of the event. Here’s what he apparently said, as per Seltz-Waid’s article:

“And I’m just saying, you know, if I were Osama bin Laden — he’s very smart guy, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about him — and I nearly got him once,” Clinton is heard saying. “I nearly got him. And I could have killed him, but I would have to destroy a little town called Kandahar in Afghanistan and kill 300 innocent women and children, and then I would have been no better than him. And so I didn’t do it.”

Pretty interesting.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

To Read: LINCOLN AND THE POWER OF THE PRESS by Harold Holzer (Simon & Schuster)

HolzerH-LincolnAndThePowerOfThePressThe War for Public Opinion

The capacity for American scholars, journalists and authors to produce ever more titles about the lives of their presidents is quite astonishing. Some books focus on extremely narrow events or themes from specific presidencies, while just as many try to offer comprehensive or concise biographies. In this book, Harold Holzer takes a look at one of the most popular presidents and his relationship with the news media. I have very high hopes for this book. (The relationships between presidents and government institutions as a whole and the press has long been a passion and interest of mine.) Here’s the synopsis:

From his earliest days, Lincoln devoured newspapers. As he started out in politics he wrote editorials and letters to argue his case. He spoke to the public directly through the press. He even bought a German-language newspaper to appeal to that growing electorate in his state. Lincoln alternately pampered, battled, and manipulated the three most powerful publishers of the day: Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune, James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald, and Henry Raymond of the New York Times.

When war broke out and the nation was tearing itself apart, Lincoln authorized the most widespread censorship in the nation’s history, closing down papers that were “disloyal” and even jailing or exiling editors who opposed enlistment or sympathized with secession. The telegraph, the new invention that made instant reporting possible, was moved to the office of Secretary of War Stanton to deny it to unfriendly newsmen.

Holzer shows us an activist Lincoln through journalists who covered him from his start through to the night of his assassination—when one reporter ran to the box where Lincoln was shot and emerged to write the story covered with blood. In a wholly original way, Holzer shows us politicized newspaper editors battling for power, and a masterly president using the press to speak directly to the people and shape the nation.

Lincoln and the Power of the Press is due to be published by Simon & Schuster, on October 14th, 2014.

To Read: UNREASONABLE MEN by Michael Wolraich (Palgrave)

WolraichM-UnreasonableMenTheodore Roosevelt and the Republican Rebels Who Created Progressive Politics

Michael Wolraich’s Unreasonable Men (Palgrave Macmillan) looks like it could be an interesting supplemental to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s masterful The Bully Pulpit, which also details the rise of Progressivism in the United States, from the perspectives of Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, and the muckraking journalists who championed so many progressive causes.

Here’s the official publisher synopsis for Unreasonable Men:

At the turn of the twentieth century, the Republican Party stood at the brink of an internal civil war. After a devastating financial crisis, furious voters sent a new breed of politician to Washington. These young Republican firebrands, led by “Fighting Bob” La Follette of Wisconsin, vowed to overthrow the party leaders and purge Wall Street’s corrupting influence from Washington. Their opponents called them “radicals,” and “fanatics.” They called themselves Progressives.

President Theodore Roosevelt disapproved of La Follette’s confrontational methods. Fearful of splitting the party, he compromised with the conservative House Speaker, “Uncle Joe” Cannon, to pass modest reforms. But as La Follette’s crusade gathered momentum, the country polarized, and the middle ground melted away. Three years after the end of his presidency, Roosevelt embraced La Follette’s militant tactics and went to war against the Republican establishment, bringing him face to face with his handpicked successor, William Taft. Their epic battle shattered the Republican Party and permanently realigned the electorate, dividing the country into two camps: Progressive and Conservative.

Unreasonable Men takes us into the heart of the epic power struggle that created the progressive movement and defined modern American politics. Recounting the fateful clash between the pragmatic Roosevelt and the radical La Follette, Wolraich’s riveting narrative reveals how a few Republican insurgents broke the conservative chokehold on Congress and initiated the greatest period of political change in America’s history.

Unreasonable Men is published today.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Upcoming: THE IMITATION GAME

Bit of a change from the normal content for the blog, but here’s the trailer for the upcoming movie adaptation of Andrew Hodges’s biography of mathematician Alan Turing, The Enigma (below). Turing was the genius who managed to crack the Enigma Code, and is widely considered to be the father of modern computing.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Emotions Boil Over on UP…

On today’s episode of MSNBC’s UP With Steve Kornacki, emotions boiled over between host Kornacki and guests Bernie Sanders and Steve Clemons. Discussing the Israel-Palestine conflict currently going on (a delicate subject to begin with), Sanders accuses Kornacki and Clemons of bias – basically, because they are somewhat critical of Israel’s tactics and (in their opinion) excessive use of excessive force. It’s an interesting example of the media style in the United States. I think Kornacki is absolutely right to slap Sanders down after the accusation, for two reasons: as Kornacki says, it’s his job to ask difficult questions (something he’s always good at), and secondly because Sanders was whining. Here’s the clip…

Friday, 18 July 2014

“Native born citizen”…

TedCruz-Canadian

This piece is not intended as a partisan attempt to discredit a candidate’s bona fides. It is a critique of an article, taking issue with its framing.

The article in question is Jeffrey Toobin’s piece from the June 30th issue of the New Yorker, “The Absolutist” (pages 34-45).

According to Toobin, Ted Cruz has an “unusual intimacy with the constitutional text” (37), thanks to his after-school sessions at the Free Enterprise Institute, and also his role as a “Constitutional Corroborator”, who are connected with the FEI. Over the course of his education and intellectual evolution, Toobin writes, Cruz has focused very much on the specific text of the US Constitution, wholeheartedly adopting the position of a “textualist” or “originalist”…

“During the past several decades, the ideological battles over the Constitution have often come down to the originalists, closely aligned with the textualists, against those who believe that the Constitution also protects some nontextual, or unenumerated, rights.” (37)

Toobin describes a memorization trick of Cruz’s, which is aimed at helping people to remember the specific rights set forth in the Constitution. This trick “was an early stage in a textualist’s education. To textualists, the meaning of the Constitution is limited to the precise terms of the document, and nothing more.” In other words, Ted Cruz believes very much in what the Constitution specifically dictates and expresses as the laws for the governing of the United States of America.

Why do I bring this up? Not one page later, Toobin writes something that, to me, seems absolutely incorrect. Not only that, but by Cruz’s own ideology would suggest he does not accept what Toobin claims (as explained by Toobin, and also Cruz himself during many instances on camera). Specifically: Cruz’s eligibility to run for President.

Monday, 14 July 2014

“Paperwork is against my religion…”

A clip from MSNBC’s Up, about the fallout from the Hobby Lobby ruling travesty. They followed this up with a truly stupid ruling…

“Some groups said that the paperwork was against their religion. The court agreed with them.”

I’d say this was unbelievable, but it’s no longer unbelievable, for contemporary America. As one of the guests in the above clip says, “I’m utterly confused… this doesn’t make any sense to me”. Well said. This type of ruling, and the expanse and advancement of religiosity and religion-based rulings (some would say this is the “Talibanization” of America) is very troubling from an outside perspective. It sets an extremely troubling precedent for future rulings. And, once again, I am stunned that “freedom of religion” trumps “freedom from religion”.

I’m reminded of what Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Draft Constitution for Virginia: “All persons shall have full and free liberty of religious opinion; nor shall any be compelled to frequent or maintain any religious institution.” How is allowing a business the right to impose their religious beliefs on their employees not compelling employees to adhere to a religious institution they do not themselves follow?

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Charles P. Pierce on SCOTUS and Religious Rulings…

Following the recent rulings from the Supreme Court of the US (Hobby Lobby, etc.), I caught a link for Pierce’s piece for Esquire, from March 25th, 2014, “The Hobby Lobby Case and Our Diminishing First Amendment”. I thought his conclusion was very good…

The whole thing is a depressing reminder that almost the entire debate over the role of religion in our politics is conducted, in one way or the other, on the grounds of human sexuality. In this, alas, and especially in this case, because it involves a woman's right to control her reproductive health and the role of birth control therein, the political brawl is a precise parallel to what happened among Roman Catholics in the aftermath of Paul VI’s dreadful Humanae Vitae encyclical in 1968. Suddenly, the whole question of papal authority, and the magisterium, and the deposit of faith, and almost the entirety of Catholic doctrine pivoted vitally on the question of birth control. The Church went mad over it, and it hasn't recovered from it yet. In Bare Ruined Choirs, historian Garry Wills best summed up the situation in a way that resounded through the arguments raised in the Hallowed Chambers today.

“Thus are the ‘keys to the Kingdom’ reduced to mere smithying of intellectual chastity belts.”

And thus, today, in the Supreme Court, was the First Amendment to the Constitution reduced to exactly the same thing.

Charles P. Pierce is the author of Idiot America, a fantastic must-read book on America’s history of quacks and “How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free”. Cover is below, and you can read my review here.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Chris Hayes on the Return of the Neocons

Continuing the coverage of the coverage: Once again, the US news media turns to those who led the US into the Iraq debacle for advice and commentary on the current escalating violence in that country…

You can find Tony Blair’s piece (mentioned in the clip) here; and BBC’s coverage of Boris Johnson’s response here.

Blair’s piece seems to be arguing along the lines of, “Consider the reasons we went into Iraq. Is the situation in Syria not similar if not worse? Ergo, we should invade that country, too. Regardless of the fact that it will be costly, dangerous, and unpopular.” That’s a considerable paraphrasing, given the rambling, over-long nature of the former-Prime Minister’s article.

Chris Matthews also covered the return of the Neocons…

Rachel Maddow on Michael Hastings, Media & Iraq Warmongers

Caught this on the Monday episode of Rachel Maddow Show – it’s a great segment about Michael Hasting’s fearless journalism, and his unflinching approach to rooting out corruption and stories anywhere, regardless of who it might upset. In his posthumous novel, The Last Magazine, is also an indictment of American journalism. Here’s the clip…

Penguin Books’ China eSpecials – World War I, History & Politics

I stumbled across the first four of these eBook specials earlier today, and thought I’d share the information. With the UK and elsewhere paying a lot of attention to the Great War, I was very happy to see that Penguin Books had released these four books focusing on China’s experiences during the time. This is the type of topic that is all-too-often overlooked by the West. I do hope more in a similar vein are on the way – either about other periods of China’s history, or other nations’ experiences during the two World Wars and other momentous moments.

Bickers-GettingStuckInForShanghaiRobert Bickers, Getting Stuck in For Shanghai: Putting the Kibosh on the Kaiser from the Bund – The British at Shanghai and the Great War

After 1914, between tiffin and a day at the race track, the British in Shanghai enjoyed a life far removed from the horrors of the Great War. Shanghai's status as a treaty port – with its foreign concessions home to expatriates from every corner of the globe – made it the most cosmopolitan city in Asia. The city’s inhabitants on either side of the conflict continued to mix socially to mix socially after the outbreak of war, the bond amongst foreign nationals being almost as strong as that between countrymen. But as news of the slaughter spread of the Far East, and in particular the sinking of the Lusitania, their ambivalence turned to antipathy.

Robert Bickers is also the author of Empire Made Me, The Boxers, China and the World (with R.G. Tiedemann), and The Scramble for China.

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Fenby-SiegeOfTsingtaoJonathan Fenby, The Siege of Tsingtao

In 1914, Europe was not the only continent coming to terms with a new form of conflict. Through a mix of complex alliances and global ambition, the war had spread to northern China, where the German-held port of Tsingtao became a key battleground. To strike a blow at Kaiser Wilhelm's naval forces, Britain and its ally Japan lay siege to the port during October and November. In The Siege of Tsingtao, the first of the Penguin China Specials on the First World War, celebrated historian Jonathan Fenby examines the causes of the battle, the ulterior motives for it, and the path it helped set East Asia on for decades to come.

Jonathan Fenby is also the author of The Penguin History of Modern China, Will China Dominate the 21st Century? and others.

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FrenchP-BetrayalInParisPaul French, Betrayal in Paris: How the Treaty of Versailles Led to China’s Long Revolution

At the conclusion of “the war to end war”, the victorious powers set about redesigning the world map at the Paris Peace Conference. For China, Versailles presented an opportunity to regain territory lost to Japan at the start of the war. Yet, despite early encouragement from the world’s superpowers, the country was to be severely disappointed, an outcome whose consequences can still be felt today.

Paul French is also the author of Midnight in Peking, Through the Looking Glass, Carl Crow: A Tough Old China Hand, and North Korea: State of Paranoia, among others.

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ONeillM-ChineseLabourCorpsMark O’Neill, The Chinese Labour Corps

As the young men of Europe were fighting in the trenches, a little known contingent of Chinese labourers crossed the world to provide support vital to the Allied war effort. Largely illiterate farmers from northern China, these men were simply attempting to make a better life for themselves, ignorant of the war and its causes. Under brutal conditions many died for their efforts, and their involvement wasn't recognised for decades – it is still not widely known. In this fascinating First World War China Special, journalist Mark O’Neill brings their story to light, describing in detail the labourers’ recruitment, their daily experiences in a foreign land and the horrific work they carrier out – including the clearing of remains from battlefields.

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And, two bonus Penguin Specials, time not connected to World War I, but still focusing on China:

FrenchP-BadlandsPaul French, The Badlands: Decadent Playground of Old Peking

The Badlands, a warren of narrow hutongs in the eastern district of pre-communist Peking, had its heyday in the 1930s. Home to the city's drifters, misfits and the odd bohemian, it was a place of opium dens, divebars, brothels, flophouses and cabarets, and was infamous for its ability to satisfy every human desire from the exotically entertaining to the criminally depraved. These vignettes of eight non-Chinese residents of the precinct White Russians, Americans and Europeans bring the Badlands vividly back to life, providing a short but potent account of a place and a way of life until now largely forgotten, but here rendered unforgettable.

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GarnautJ-Rise&FallOfHouseOfBoJohn Garnaut, The Rise and Fall of the House of Bo: How A Murder Exposed The Cracks In China's Leadership

When news of the murder trial of prominent Communist Party leader Bo Xilai’s wife reached Western attention, it was apparent that, as with many events in the secretive upper echelons of Chinese politics, there was more to the story. Now, as the Party’s 18th National Congress oversees the biggest leadership transition in decades, and installs the Bo family’s long-time rival Xi Jinping as president, China's rulers are finding it increasingly difficult to keep their poisonous internal divisions behind closed doors.

Bo Xilai’s breathtaking fall from grace is an extraordinary tale of excess, murder, defection, political purges and ideological clashes going back to Mao himself, as the princeling sons of the revolutionary heroes ascend to control of the Party. China watcher John Garnaut examines how Bo’s stellar rise through the ranks troubled his more reformist peers, as he revived anti-“capitalist roader” sentiment, even while his family and associates enjoyed the more open economy's opportunities. Amid fears his imminent elevation to the powerful Standing Committee was leading China towards another destructive Cultural Revolution, have his opponents seized their chance to destroy Bo and what he stood for? The trigger was his wife Gu Kailai’s apparently paranoid murder of an English family friend, which exposed the corruption and brutality of Bo’s outwardly successful administration of the massive city of Chongqing. It also led to the one of the highest-level attempted defections in Communist China’s history when Bo’s right-hand man, police chief Wang Lijun, tried to escape the ruins of his sponsor’s reputation.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Good Read: Brian Beutler on Cantor Loss Legacy (TNR)

I’ve only recently started reading Brian Beutler’s work for The New Republic (that I’m aware of, anyway).

I think he has a very good, fluid style. This, naturally means I’m more likely to read his work even if I disagree with his analysis. I do think there is great value in good style as well as good content, and it is always nice to discover a new voice.

CantorEricI just finished reading his his June 13th piece, “The Legacy of Cantor’s Defeat Is Shaping Up to Be Incredibly Small”. While the article started a little strangely, with a real-world anecdote that is ultimately meaningless in its banality (some journalistic tricks and tics will forever irk me), I thought I’d share a pair of good paragraphs:

Cantor’s defeat probably didn’t imperil or kill any major bills. It may have sent them downriver in body bags, but they weren’t going to pass anyhow. That probably includes immigration reform – the one issue that supposedly (though not actually) did Cantor in. But the great irony in all this is that McCarthy hails from a California district with a large immigrant population and is much more favorably disposed toward comprehensive reform than Cantor was.

Looking way ahead to September, I suppose it’s possible that a cabal of disenchanted hardliners will decide to make something of all this by trying to shut down the government again. But unless it was part of an elaborate conspiracy to sacrifice GOP seats as a pretext for ousting John Boehner, it’d be an incredibly weird, delayed primal scream, and suggestive of a strange unfamiliarity with how Cantor’s exit changes the balance of power in Congress.

The piece is also a nice alternative to those by still-hyperventilating journalists and commentators who appear to think the sky may have fallen. As he writes at the end, this furore surrounding this story was a “firestorm of our own creation”. He comes to this conclusion logically, too, after laying out the arguments for why this “unexpected defrocking of a Majority Leader” will ultimately be rather anticlimactic:

The office [of Majority Leader] is vested with the kind of procedural power that’s theoretically vast, but largely invisible to anyone not paying close attention. In a well-functioning majority, it’s also largely pro forma. What made the Cantor surprise such a juicy insider story is that the current majority is so fractious that the vacancy carried with it the potential to reignite a Republican civil war. We might still get a small one. But when the dust settles, we’ll be left with a leadership team with very little of consequence left to do and thus few decision points at which the presence of an outsider might muck things up.

McCarthyKevinNewI confess, lately I have been rather out-of-touch of the politicking of Congress and, particularly, the Republican leadership. Therefore, I cannot really offer informed comment on how Cantor’s loss, or his now-apparently-assumed replacement by current Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) will really change the way the House of Representative operates under Republican control. Beutler’s article offers a reasonable analysis that I’m inclined to agree with.

When I shared a media round-up from the Wednesday after Cantor’s loss, I pointed to an article by Justin Landon, an experienced former Congressional staffer. He posited that Cantor’s unexpected defeat could lead to the nuttier voices in Congress (new and old) gaining traction and prominence. Here’s what he said:

Corralling a Republican caucus that has turned over half its members in the last two elections has been no easy task. With demands for absolutist positions and conservative martyrdom, Boehner has only survived thus far thanks to luck and Eric Cantor’s connection to the Congressional leaders of the Tea Party movement. In other words, the next Speaker of the House is probably going to be someone who’s a little nuts… without Eric Cantor and thus John Boehner, we’re in for a long six years of political demagoguery. An already crippled Congress may be slipping into a coma from which we may never wake.

Will this happen, if McCarthy – Cantor’s “closest lieutenant” according to Beutler – moves in to the Majority Leader’s office? It would all depend on how busy the 115th Congress proposes to be. Beutler suggests, as mentioned in the first block-quote, that this will have minimal practical impact because there aren’t any major bills on the horizon. And how much difference will there really be, even if McCarthy approaches the role the same as Cantor? It appears to me, that the Tea Party and more extreme Republicans are pretty much a law unto themselves, rarely corralled by the leadership – unless their mutual goals coincide (obstructing anything Obama- or Democrat-promoted, for example).

If you believe the narrative that immigration is what killed Cantor’s election, that won’t be on the docket – nor will it be pushed or even whispered of by any Republican who will be in a tight or contested race in 2016. Let us hope, though, that cooler and more intelligent heads prevail, and the United States does move closer to addressing what is certainly one of its most broken policies.

Recommended Reading: Leslie H. Gelb on Current Iraq Situation

201406-IraqReutersDailyBeastGelb

Photo Source: Reuters/Daily Beast

I just wanted to draw your attention to this excellent piece by Leslie H. Gelb at The Daily Beast, “Iraq Is Vietnam 2.0 And U.S. Drones Won’t Solve The Problem”. Here are a couple of the best take-aways.

First, on the subject of newly resurgent violence and active insurgency groups in the country:

“When the jihadis took over the city of Mosul and began their march towards Baghdad, Washington was of course shocked. But officials, legislators, and policy experts in that fair city should not have been shocked. What happened in Iraq was history as usual. The U.S. fights in Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya and Vietnam and other places (maybe next in Syria), provides billions of dollars in arms, trains the friendly soldiers, then begins to pull out—and what happens? Our good allies on whom we’ve squandered our sacred lives and our wealth fall apart. That’s what’s happening in Iraq now.”

Second, on why the US should not re-intervene, and the inevitability of blame and recrimination from those the US is trying to “help”:

“before the U.S. government starts to do the next dumb thing again, namely provide fighter aircraft and drone attacks and heaven knows what else, it should stop and think for a change. If America comes to the rescue of this Iraqi government, then this Iraqi government, like so many of the others we’ve fought and died for, will do nothing. It will simply assume that we’ll take over, that we’ll do the job. And when things go wrong, and they certainly will, this cherished government that we’re helping will blame only America. Don’t think for a moment it will be otherwise. Don’t think for a moment that the generals and hawks who want to dispatch American fighters and drones to the rescue know any better today than they’ve known for 50 years.”

And, also, his rather bleak outlook for the two American wars in the Middle East and further afield:

“No amount of U.S. air and drone attacks will alter this situation. This kind of outcome was inevitable for Iraq given the political lay of the land in that country. It is almost certainly what’s going to happen in Afghanistan. There too, we’ve fought and died, equipped and trained hundreds of thousands of Afghan troops. The Kabul government is a corrupt mess not worth fighting for. There too, Americans should not be surprised if the Taliban soon regains the offensive and Afghan troops take off their uniforms, lay down their arms and run. Remember Vietnam? The South Vietnamese had a million and a half men under arms and despite the unconscionable Congressional cutoff of future aid, these armed forces had plenty to fight with. But they gave up too. And to be sure, the United States and friends are not providing a great deal of arms and equipment to friendly Syrian rebels. But then, the jihadis didn’t have much to fight with or many men to do the fighting and they seem to be doing all too well in Syria.”

And a caution to avoid (more) meddling and to leave it to the Iraqi people to address and solve this problem:

“Before the United States jumps off another cliff, let’s simply stop and take note of the bloody realities of more than fifty years. These internal civil wars, including the fights against these terrible extremists, are won and can only be won by the people Americans want to help—not by American troops, planes, drones, trainers, equipment and arms. And in the interest of a great majority of people in these countries who suffer from these wars, Washington owes it to them to try, just try, the diplomatic path of decentralization and federalism.”

“Let us turn, now, to Captain Wrong…”

In the midst of the recent developments in Iraq, of increasing violence and the advances of the ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) faction, the New York Times did a peculiar thing. Peculiar intellectually, but by no means unusual.

In their article “U.S. Said to Rebuff Iraqi Request to Strike Militants” (June 11, 2014), Michael R. Gordon and Eric Schmitt turned to one Kenneth M. Pollack for analysis and input on the situation. Pollack is a former C.I.A. analyst and National Security Council official, and currently a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Here’s what Pollack had to say:

“U.S. military support for Iraq could have a positive effect but only if it is conditioned on Maliki changing his behavior within Iraq’s political system,” Mr. Pollack said. “He has to bring the Sunni community back in, agree to limits on his executive authority and agree to reform Iraqi security forces to make them more professional and competent.”

This all sounds rather reasonable, of course. What’s peculiar, as pointed out by Rachel Maddow this past week, is why they would turn to Pollack for analysis. He was, after all, the “Captain of Team Wrong in 2002” (Maddow). The US media has a pretty extensive history of calling on people who have been so wrong in the past. (See, for example, William Kristol and George Will, to name but two.)

PollackKM-ThreateningStormThe above epithet is based on some of the content of Pollack’s book The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq. Here are three snippets:

“a full-scale invasion of Iraq to remove the Iraqi regime, scour the country for WMD, and rebuild a stable, prosperous Iraq”

At least the “scour … for WMD” suggests that the WMD may not exist (if you read that quotation through a rather even-handed, generous lens).

“… in purely economic terms, it is unimaginable that the United States would have to contribute hundreds of billions of dollars and highly unlikely that we would have to contribute even tens of billions of dollars…”

Oops. Estimates for the overall cost of the US misadventure in Iraq are around the one trillion dollars. Well done, sir.

“Those who argue that the United States would inevitably become the target of unhappy Iraqis generally also assume that the Iraqi population would be hostile to U.S. forces from the outset. However, the best evidence we have suggests that the Iraqi people would be pleased to be liberated…”

Also wrong, as it happens. But not entirely so. To play devil’s advocate, he was partially correct. U.S. forces were not targets of a generally hostile Iraqi population. They were, however, generally the targets of those Iraqis who were hostile.

What made Pollack’s statement ultimately wrong is that, actually, invading and occupying forces do inevitably become the targets of insurgencies and disaffected and revolutionary forces among the occupied. History has a great many examples of this. To assume the US forces would be anything but occupiers suggests a rather gullible and uncritical reading of the American plans to begin with. How could the US have been anything but an occupier? They committed to protecting Iraq, under the “Pottery Barn Rule”, so famously expressed by then-General Colin Powell. How else could they do this but by establishing, effectively, an occupying presence? Therefore, it was inevitable that hostile Iraqi forces would target the US forces in the country.

This was especially the case after a government was set up – although, to be fair, there was no real way to predict that it would be so exclusionary in practice. [And, I’m fully aware, that this piece has benefited from hindsight, but I still think the point is a valid one.]

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Here’s the Maddow clip, from the episode referenced above and which inspired this post: