More stories

  • in

    After Afghanistan, How Probable Is Peace?

    As the world speculates about the future of Afghanistan, some key figures in the West — with a vested interest in how things evolve militarily — are today claiming to show the clairvoyance that has consistently failed them in the past. Many have criticized President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw from the battlefield. Even more have complained about how it was managed.

    Republicans feel duty-bound to denounce a policy that only Lynn Cheney objected to when the Republican President Donald Trump promoted it. One “highly decorated British Army officer” complained that “6,500 people died, including 3,000 deaths at Twin Towers, and we didn’t achieve a single thing.” Special Operations Staff Sergeant Trevor Coult went further, claiming that Biden “is a danger while he is president.”

    Numerous Democrats attached to the military-industrial funding machine have objected to the very idea of abandoning the costly struggle. Representative Jim Langevin, of Rhode Island, penned an op-ed in Foreign Policy portraying the decision as a betrayal of a moral commitment to “our Afghan allies of 20 years” and “to our military service members and their families … who gave the ultimate sacrifice.” And, of course, he couldn’t forget “the women and girls of Afghanistan who are now experiencing a devastating new reality.”

    Will the Taliban End Up Under the Influence?

    READ MORE

    He seemed less concerned when for 20 years the majority of Afghan women and girls experienced another form of devastating reality: receiving bombs delivered by surgical drones, seeing their doors kicked in by well-armed soldiers, listening to drones buzzing overhead and wondering where they might strike, failing to understand which local warlord in the pay of the CIA might protect them or aggress them, or simply watching unutterable chaos unfold day after day.

    AFP reports on the opinion General Mark Milley expressed in an interview with Fox News: Now that the US troops are no longer there to enforce the law and maintain order, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff predicts further chaos, worse than ever before. After questioning the ability of the Taliban, even before they have formed a government, “to consolidate power and establish effective governance,” Milley offers his assessment of what’s to come. “I think there’s at least a very good probability of a broader civil war,” he asserts.

    Making certain his audience will understand the degree of fear his warnings should inspire, he adds that it “will then in turn lead to conditions that could, in fact, lead to a reconstitution of Al-Qaeda or a growth of ISIS or other … terrorist groups.”

    Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:

    Good probability:

    A dire likelihood to be ardently wished for by anyone associated with the military-industrial complex or dependent on it for current or future employment

    Contextual note

    Military officers, including generals, may hide the truth about reality on the ground. As the Afghanistan Papers revealed, that happened consistently for over two decades. But even when painting a rosy picture of success or an assessment of troop performance, a soldier’s choice of language leaves some room for the truth. That is why most governments usually prefer that the military not engage too directly with the media.

    General Milley made clear what he means when he described the chaos to come as “at least a very good probability.” Both of his chosen expressions — “at least” and “very good” — reveal less about reality on the ground and more about how he hopes to see the situation evolve, calling for preparedness and possibly new operations. He wants Fox’s audience to understand that this is only a pause in the mission of the US to help other nations achieve the serenity of the global superpower that will always be a model for the rest of the world and lead by its example.

    Embed from Getty Images

    A totally neutral and objective observer who happened to be equally convinced of the likelihood of a civil war in Afghanistan would have formulated it differently, most likely asserting something along the lines that “a strong possibility of a broader civil war cannot be discounted.” Proverbial wisdom tells us that “where there’s a will, there’s a way,” but the authorities of a nation defined by its military clout tend to improve on that by suggesting that “where there’s a will, there’s a way of framing it in such a manner as to convince people of the way we have decided must be followed.”

    General Milley is no warmonger. No reasonable person would compare him to the legendary Curtis Lemay who summed up his philosophy about conflict — in this case with Russia during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis — with these words: “We should go in and wipe ’em out today.”

    Fortunately, no senior officer in the military would be tempted to think or act that way now. In contrast with the Cold War mentality, one of the lessons of all recent wars is that the US military is less motivated by the idea of winning wars than simply instilling the idea in the average American taxpayer’s mind that the nation needs a powerful, well-funded, technologically advanced military establishment to comfort the belief in American exceptionalism.

    In his interview with Fox News, General Milley shows no inclination to criticize Biden’s decision. He defends the way the withdrawal was conducted, laying all the blame on the Afghan government and its troops while claiming that everything was conducted according to plan. He cites the “corruption in the government” and its lack of legitimacy, “a fundamental issue that stretches back 20 years.”

    Embed from Getty Images

    Concerning the collapse of the army and the police force, he makes a truly interesting remark: “We created and developed forces that looked like Western forces,” adding significantly that “maybe those forces were not designed appropriately for the type mission.” 

    General Milley follows up that last observation with what almost sounds like a resolution for action in the future: “That was something that needs to be looked at.” Many commentators have remarked that at the core of the 20-year fiasco lay a persistent form of cultural ignorance. By referring to this question as “something that needs to be looked at,” Milley appears to be placing it on some unequivocally remote back burner. In military parlance, “what needs to be looked at” is what will never be looked at unless someone at the highest level of authority suddenly wakes up to acknowledge the necessity.

    Historical Note 

    In short, an episode of history has just come to an end. In the coming weeks and months, reflection on it will be mired in wild speculation about what might have been done differently, accompanied by accusations of irresponsibility and failure of accountability. And if recent history is any guide, accountability will be successfully evaded, if only because holding one identifiable person accountable opens the floodgate to calling into question the entire system of which they were a part.

    In 2009, voters for Barack Obama expected to see some form of accountability for nearly everyone in the Bush administration, guilty of multiple sins that included war crimes, the criminal transfer of wealth to the 1% and the gutting of the middle-class economy. There were zero prosecutions and instead a message about looking forward rather than backward and letting bygones be bygones.   

    Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

    There are many lessons to be learned from the debacle in Afghanistan and a need for accountability that extends backward to the Bush administration. But none of the lessons can compete with the only essential idea the leaders and actors of the military-industrial complex will continue to put forward in the months to come: that we must be ready to repeat the patterns of the past and respond to the inevitable emergence of the equivalent of al-Qaeda again. We must be afraid of the next wave of terrorism, and we must be ready to respond. The logic of 2021 is the same as the logic of 2001 — and will undoubtedly lead to similar scenarios.

    And why should the logic be different? Military budgets have never been higher, and every new Congress is ready to raise the stakes. Many of us who grew up during the Vietnam War assumed that, once it was over, nothing like that 10-year nightmare could ever occur again. Instead, we have just sat through the equivalent of a Hollywood remake that lasted twice as long.

    *[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

  • in

    When Truth No Longer Matters

    An effective communicator with a questionable past builds a successful campaign as an outsider disinterested in everyday, run-of-the-mill politics. He smartly taps into the fears and anxieties of voters and projects himself as the only person who can fix the supposedly broken system.

    Despite warnings from ex-associates and journalists regarding his sociopathic behavior, he decries the media and political opponents as unpatriotic. Policy wonks and veterans in his party are sidelined to create a personality cult unmoored from any ideology. Social media is used daily for dog-whistle rhetoric to promote the cultural supremacy of his ilk.

    Donald Trump Proves That It’s the System, Stupid

    READ MORE

    By blaming all the socio-economic ills on outsiders, previous administrations and “others,” he builds a narrative of victimhood. His devoted followers start living in an alternate universe. Once in power, he uses his bully’s pulpit to undermine all democratic institutions.

    Riding Out the Storm

    You would be forgiven for thinking that this was about Donald Trump. But this is the story of India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi. The similarities end there, however. While the United States managed to pull back from the brink after the Capitol Hill insurrection of January 6, Indian democracy is in a dangerous downward spiral.

    To understand these divergent trajectories of the oldest and the largest democracies in the world, it is instructive to examine the key differences between Trump’s and Modi’s personalities, the maturity of democratic institutions in the United States and India, and the histories of these two republics.

    In the US, Trump’s effort to subvert democratic institutions has been well documented, with commentators still writing about how close the country had come to a constitutional crisis in his final days in office. Trump tried his best to manipulate all the American institutions, but there was rarely any method to his madness. Unlike Modi, he was more interested in vanity than power.

    On a given day, he could draw lines on a map for petty reasons and undermine the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association or brazenly call the officials in Georgia and ask them to “find” enough votes in Trump’s favor to reverse the election result in the state. As much as Trump and his partner-in-crime, Attorney General William Barr, tried, they could not corrode the integrity of the system beyond a certain point.

    Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

    Despite Trump’s vilification, the media stayed strong and kept hammering home the truth. While Trump tried to use the judiciary to run down the clock on several grave constitutional issues, scores of judges, including several appointed by the president, stood up to him when it mattered the most. The legislature impeached but failed to convict him twice. However, when push came to shove, it certified the votes and declared Joe Biden as the legitimate winner of the 2020 election.

    Barring a few minor missteps, the FBI withstood a concerted pressure campaign from Trump and his allies. The Federal Reserve, the Federal Election Commission, the intelligence agencies, vast bureaucracies and diplomats around the world kept their heads down and rode out the storm. With more than two centuries of experience, most American institutions have learned the importance of guarding their turf.

    Taming the Bureaucracy

    In India, on the other hand, while running his home state of Gujarat before becoming prime minister, Modi had perfected the art of taming the bureaucracy to his will, manipulating or marginalizing the media and polarizing the electorate for his narrow purposes. While he did deliver on a few key infrastructure promises, he also carefully crafted a larger-than-life persona around himself. As soon as he became prime minister, he stopped interacting with the media.

    Well before facing reelection in 2019, he enacted an anonymous political funding system and used it to build a formidable social media propaganda machine to fabricate an alternate universe for his voters. Behind the scenes, he methodically started dismantling the democratic checks and balances. While Trump’s Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell might not have been intent on destroying American institutions, Modi proved to be more like McConnell than Trump — someone playing the long power game.

    While previous governments of opposing parties were often guilty of undermining democracy, the brazenness and the cold, calculating manner in which Modi has approached it are astonishing. By using obscure parliamentary maneuvers, the prime minister has repeatedly sidelined or manipulated the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of Parliament, to pass laws that have long-term and far-reaching social consequences.

    Embed from Getty Images

    In addition to passing questionable constitutional amendments to enact his anonymous political funding scheme, the Right to Information Act (the equivalent of the American Freedom of Information Act) was amended so that those ensuring public access to non-classified government records lost their independence. As a consequence, it became increasingly difficult to shed light on the government’s opaque decision-making.

    The enormous war chest built through anonymous political donations, the government’s sizable advertising budget and the threat of central investigative agencies were used to browbeat most of the media outlets into submission. A top Election Commission official who took a stand against Modi’s incendiary rhetoric in the run-up to his reelection was reassigned to the Asian Development Bank, headquartered in the Philippines.

    The Reserve Bank of India, in charge of the country’s monetary policy, has been repeatedly coerced into taking unsound policy decisions and covering up for the government’s fiscal and economic policy failures. Policymaking powers of at least two states, Jammu and Kashmir and Delhi, have been curtailed through potentially unconstitutional means, disturbing India’s federal structure. The military has been repeatedly co-opted for Modi’s photo-ops to promote phony nationalism. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has been a mute spectator, keeping on hold the hearing of cases related to some of the most pressing constitutional issues.

    As the unfolding global Pegasus spyware scandal indicates, Modi has probably compromised the judiciary’s independence as well. By allegedly hacking the phones of everyone from political rivals, constitutional authorities, judges, their staffers to activists, journalists and even his own ministers and friends in the private sector, Modi seems to have established an Orwellian surveillance-coercion state in which it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to challenge the power of his executive branch.

    Opposite Paths

    Why have India and the US embarked on such opposite paths? One reason is the difference between the two leading men themselves. A devoted foot soldier of right-wing Hindu majoritarian ideology, Modi rose through the political ranks and served more than two terms at the helm of the state of Gujarat before running for the highest office in the land. He had carefully studied all levers of executive and bureaucratic power and, along with his deputy, Amit Shah, had already gained notoriety as one of the country’s most ruthless politicians.

    While both ran their campaigns as outsiders, Trump’s understanding of the government machinery was limited. As former National Security Adviser John Bolton recently pointed out, Trump is incapable of staging a coup because he lacks the attention span required for it. With no discernible political acumen, Trump was incapable of looking beyond the next news cycle or his narrow self-interest.

    Embed from Getty Images

    The American system dodging the Trump bullet and the Indian system crumbling under Modi also reflect the wide gulf in their socio-cultural values. By insisting on universal adult suffrage from its inception, the founding fathers of the Republic of India expressed tremendous faith in the citizenry and future leaders despite a severe resource crunch, a moribund economy and near-total absence of infrastructure for health, education or even basic transportation.

    While giving every adult the right to vote is hailed as a quintessentially Indian revolution, and rightly so, it has been a double-edged sword. On one hand, it has dismantled the centuries-old feudal social structures and slowly empowered historically oppressed castes. On the other, limited institutional capacity and lack of appreciation for their independence among voters have made the Indian system susceptible to demagoguery in the short run. This will change as India becomes more prosperous and internalizes the benefits of decentralizing power, but that brings into sharp relief Modi’s betrayal of his mandate.

    Fledgling Democracy

    At 75, India is still a fledgling democracy. It has already gone through one emergency under former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, when all institutions, state and national elections, and fundamental rights were suspended amid near-total media censorship. While the Supreme Court took corrective action after the emergency, widespread poverty and, until recently, low levels of literacy have hampered rapid institutional capacity building in India. Corruption is endemic to all branches of government, making them easy targets for manipulation.

    In its short history as a republic, the socialist economic model adopted by India’s pre-1990 governments has also created a new feudal system in the form of political patronage. With the government tightly controlling the economy, politicians became the new overlords picking winners and losers. As the initial euphoria and idealism following independence faded, criminals came to dominate politics. Corruption became the mainstay of political life.

    While these might be birth pangs of any new republic — and might find parallels in the early decades of the existence of the United States — complacency and arrogance of the Indian National Congress (INC), India’s GOP, has fueled the rise of Modi.

    A Modi-fied India Has Weakened on the World Stage

    READ MORE

    In the 1970s and 1980s, a 21-month-long national emergency, followed by legislative action favoring minorities to protect the INC’s own vote banks, had led to resentment among the Hindu majority. Instead of correcting some of these historic wrongs to move the discourse to a liberal center, Modi has swung it to the extreme right. He has not taken any overt steps that resemble the emergency that Indira Gandhi declared in 1975. Instead, he has chosen covert means to slowly and deliberately dismantle the Indian system of governance.

    More importantly, while Gandhi’s methods were largely populist, Modi has added toxic majoritarianism to it, making this movement more dangerous, with potentially longer-lasting consequences. For someone who claims that he developed his political consciousness during the emergency, Modi’s assault on the liberal system that enabled his rise from humble beginnings is truly ironic.

    A leader who promised to decentralize power and dismantle India’s new feudal system of political patronage now presides over one of the most centralized decision-making structures. When the framers of the Indian Constitution chose universal adult suffrage, they also expected elected leaders to nurture democratic institutions until they can stand on their own feet. Modi’s betrayal of that mandate, more so than Gandhi’s, will affect India for a generation, if not longer.

    Dark Phase

    Lastly, while the American system was built on an ethos of “don’t tread on me” and a desire to keep government out of people’s lives, historical factors like entrenched feudalism and extreme cultural diversity made India choose a cradle-to-the-grave approach to governance with a strong central executive.  

    Americans instinctively question authority and are suspicious of the government, whereas Indians, by and large, have tremendous faith in the government as a source of good and are still coming out of the shadows of colonialism. American society values individual liberty, privacy and agency, while Indians gravitate toward collectivism and fatalism.

    Perhaps the most telling indicator of this difference was the fact that Trump’s approval rating never crossed 45% while Modi commands favor among 60% to 70% of Indians despite his mismanagement of the pandemic, a series of foreign policy failures and the economic destruction under his watch.

    Embed from Getty Images

    Indian democracy is going through a dark phase, and all eyes are on the Indian Supreme Court to see if it will push back against Modi’s draconian executive branch. Even if the courts start asserting their independence again, India will pay a steeper price than the US did under Trump before it becomes a healthy democracy again. For the sake of their own democratic future, one can only hope that Indians start questioning their government more, hold it accountable and insist on securing privacy and liberty.

    While fast, centralized decision-making might seem seductive in the short run, India will reap long-term benefits if it can turn its latent admiration of developed Western countries into a deeper appreciation for the checks and balances that enable their stability. Against all odds, India has stared down some of the toughest challenges so far. With some more patience, if it can focus on building institutional capacity and spreading awareness about their importance through rapid upgrades in the quality of education, it will live up to its potential of becoming a liberal, democratic counterweight to China.

    Meanwhile, supporters of republican values in the United States will do well to learn from the goings on in India and count their blessings, or institutions, that helped the union survive Trump. In early August, as members of the House committee investigating the failed insurrection of January 6 heard gut-wrenching testimonies from Capitol Police, some of their Republican colleagues held press conferences blaming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for the tragic events.

    As the January 6 commission has reconvened and subpoenaed scores of records from the government and private phone companies, Trump and his congressional supporters are back at it again, claiming executive privilege and threatening private companies with consequences if they cooperate with the commission to prevent it from shedding light on the truth.

    Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

    The GOP leadership is keen on winning back both the houses of Congress in 2022 and knows the damage this fact-finding mission will do to electoral prospects. Some pushback or false equivalence is par for the course in this political game. However, the brazenness of the lies and fealty to Donald Trump more than six months after his ignominious While House exit is mind-boggling. Without condoning the messy last days of the US war in Afghanistan, they can take a leaf out of President Biden’s book to square with Americans about the systemic risk Trumpism poses to the system.

    As national attention shifts from the Afghanistan war to other domestic and foreign policies, insisting on the truth by supporting the January 6 investigation, even at the cost of losing one election cycle, would be a small price to pay for the conservatives to preserve the republic.

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

  • in

    COVID-19: The Lab Leak Theory Makes a Comeback

    The sudden reemergence of the lab leak theory earlier this year — that COVID-19 was made in and escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology — has hit international media and occasioned nervous reactions from the Biden administration, which demanded a conclusive report on the origins of the pandemic within 90 days. That deadline has just expired, with little result. As the head of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) emergencies program, Michael Ryan, stated last week, “The current situation is that all of the hypotheses regarding to the origins of the virus are still on the table.”

    The New American Art of Inconclusive Conclusions

    READ MORE

    The radical right has, in the meantime, become obsessed with the lab leak idea. Those of us who have experienced — and survived — coordinated campaigns of abuse on social media recognize the signs: Suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere, people you have never heard of begin to spam your email or social media accounts. Someone has pointed the trolls in your direction, and you start to wonder, who and why?

    Someone’s Errands

    In the final days of May, “Mikael” emailed me: “So the most likely truth about Corona is a conspiracy idea that is a threat against democracy? What kind of nut are you that is so wrong? Who’s errands do you run?”

    The background to his kind email, followed up by another a few days later, was an article published a week earlier in the right-leaning Swedish journal Kvartal. Here, journalist Ola Wong suggested that a report — I happen to be its author — published by the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB) aims to serve the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In a gross simplification of what the report actually stated, Wong alleged that it “cautions against blaming China” and “goes so far as to claim that searching for an answer to the origin of the virus and the responsibility for its spread basically amounts to a desire to find a ‘scapegoat’. MSB says that this is the hallmark of conspiracy theories and a threat to democracy.”

    What I did in my report was provide an overview of how conspiracy theories around COVID-19 are part of what the WHO has branded the “infodemic” — an infected infoscape in which different actors spread disinformation for various purposes, such as to denigrate their political opponents and attack expert knowledge. I distinguish between six areas of conspiratorial imagination in relation to the pandemic: origins, dissemination, morbidity and mortality, countermeasures in politics and public health, vaccination and metatheories.

    Both separately or in various combinations, all these six categories have fueled conspiratorial meaning-making. In some cases, they have driven processes of radicalization toward violent extremism, such as attacks against 5G technology, mass demonstrations leading to political violence or disgusting displays of racist stereotypes.

    Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

    Moreover, as a historian of ideas, I don’t study the root causes of or treatments for a contagious virus that has killed millions across the globe but rather the conceptions and discourses connected to it. In that sense, I am less interested in what really caused the pandemic and more invested in studying how different concepts — for instance about its origins — are used in (conspiratorial) rhetoric around the subject. It is also not my ambition or task to investigate the likeliness of a lab leak or the possibility that the COVID-19 vaccine contains a microchip. So, first of all, Wong — and, as we will see, others alongside him — has failed to capture the basic premises of the report. Just to make my case, the passage Wong reacted to (the MSB report will soon be available in an English translation), reads:

    “The question about the origin of the virus and the disease is infected because there is an underlying accusation of guilt. Could anyone who might have known about the existence of the virus also have stopped its dissemination? Was the outbreak of the virus covered up? Was the virus created in a lab or by transmission from animal to human? Questions like these are of course reasonable to ask, but already early on they were connected to what is an attribute of conspiracy theories: to place blame on someone and point out scapegoats. … By calling COVID-19 ‘the China-virus’ a narrative was established in which China was made responsible for the pathogen, disease and in extension its dissemination. In the trail of imposing guilt, racist Sino/Asiaphobic stereotypes were expressed against people with Asian appearance across the globe.”

    I then made a parallel to the famous claim made by former President Donald Trump and his followers that climate change is a “Chinese hoax to bring down the American economy” and that, in continuation of this line of thought, COVID-19 now is inserted into the narrative with the twist that it would benefit the Democrats in the 2020 election. I concluded that “in both conspiratorial narratives, scientific expertise is rejected.” Furthermore, I quoted an expert from Yale Medical School (Wong wrongly frames it as my opinion) stating that it is both incorrect and xenophobic to “attach locations or ethnicity to the disease.” I also mentioned that the spread of the virus was blamed on a cabal between the CCP and the Democrats.

    Embed from Getty Images

    Nowhere in the entire report is it ever claimed or even hinted at that it somehow would be wrong or illegitimate to investigate the origins of the virus as a lab leak. It is true that conspiracy theories typically use scapegoating as one of many rhetoric strategies, and that they are, by extension, threatening democracy for multiple reasons. But it is utterly wrong to suggest, as Wong does, that the report somehow alleges that it would be a threat to democracy to investigate the origins of the pandemic as a lab leak or that the report dismissed such claims as a conspiracy theory.

    Wong writes: “But if you mention China, you risk being labeled as a racist or accused of spreading conspiracy theories. Why has the origin of the virus become such a contentious issue?” But anyway, “MSB’s message benefits the CCP” and its narrative “that the pandemic is a global problem” (well, isn’t it?) and “not a problem originating from China to which the world has the right to demand answers.”

    Chinese Propaganda Machine

    Wong identifies such deflection as an outcome of a cunning Chinese propaganda machine, quoting an article that remembers how the US was blamed for the origin of AIDS/HIV in the 1980s in a similar conspiracy mode. Well, had Wong turned a page of the MSB report, he would have found a passage with the heading “The US-virus,” which exactly explains that another conspiratorial narrative about the origin of the virus also exists. Consequently, it would have similarly been completely absurd to state that the report “serves the interests of the US” since it treats the narrative about the “US virus” as a typical conspiracy theory.

    But such inconsistencies are of no interest to Wong. Instead, he now delves into the by now well-established “new evidence” (it was always suggested as a possibility) that he claims to have “disappeared from the global agenda” (did it really?) about the lab leak theory. The reason why the theory was suppressed, he argues, was because “The media’s aversion to Trump created a fear of association,” and “Because of the general derision for Trump, the established media chose to trust virologists such as [Dr. Peter] Daszak rather than investigating the laboratory hypothesis.”

    Divide and Rule: What Drives Anti-Asian Resentment in America?

    READ MORE

    Wong then extensively quotes from science journalist Nicholas Wade pushing for the explanation that “gain-of-function” experiments were carried out in Wuhan and that zoonotic transmission seems unlikely: “What Wade describes is not a conspiracy, but rather an accident for which no one has wanted to assume responsibility.” Wong is obsessed with responsibility and “the day of reckoning” that yet is to come, when China’s guilt finally will be revealed to the global audience. As much as he seems to long for this day when justice will prevail, he implores at the very end of his article to not “let sweeping allegations of conspiracy theories and racism undermine the work to trace the origins of the virus.”

    Wong’s article left me puzzled in many ways, almost unimpressed. I did not state anything in my report that Wong purports I did, so it is difficult to understand why a journalist would find it worthwhile challenging the Swedish Civil Contingency Agency with an argument that has no basis whatsoever.

    Lab Leak Whispers

    Just two days later, Swedish public service radio P1 invited both myself a Wong to come on its morning program to address the question of “What are you allowed to say about the origin of COVID-19?” — stipulating that there is some sort of censorship around the subject. Wong was unable to produce any credible evidence that the CCP ever has called the lab leak theory a conspiracy. There might be, and I am interested to read more about this attribution and its rhetorical function; the Chinese embassy in Washington later used such terminology.

    By then, the fringes of the Swedish radical right had already sniffed out the potential of the story, propelled by the tabloid Expressen, which in bold letters ran the story, “MSB dismisses the lab-leak entirely: follows the line of China.” The article reiterates Wong’s one, but manipulates the content of the MSB report further, alleging that accusations of racism and conspiracy theories stifle the investigation of the origins of COVID-19.

    Radical-right agitator Christian Palme posted Wong’s article on one of Sweden’s Facebook pages for academics, Universitetsläckan, which kicked off a wave of conspiratorial debate. Per Gudmundsson, of the right-wing online news outlet Bulletin, stated in an op-ed that the MSB report made him suspicious. Hailing Hunter S. Thompson’s paranoid style of reporting, Gudmundsson alleges that the Swedish Civil Contingency Agency wants to pacify the people with calming messages. He ridiculed attempts to discuss what is reasonable to do when planning interventions and designing counternarratives to toxic disinformation that can act as drivers of radicalization while at the same time exercating Islamist extremism, without any interest in countering it.

    Embed from Getty Images

    Finally, the gross simplifications of Wong’s article had reached the outer orbits of the alternative radical-right media in Sweden, Fria Tider and Samnytt. Fria Tider referenced the controversial Swedish virologist Fredrik Elgh, stating that it is “senseless” that MSB had dismissed the lab leak hypothesis as a conspiracy theory (it did not). Samnytt, in turn, amplified the Chinese whispers started in Kvartal to a completely new level. In its own version of reality, the MSB report was allegedly released in order to prevent any investigation of China (not true). Under the heading “Prohibited to ask questions,” Samnytt states: “the message of the report is that it is not allowed to ask questions about the origin of the virus” (also not true).

    Moreover, referring to and quoting Gudmundsson’s article on Bulletin, it goes on to state that “instead of questioning the established truths, the report recommends ‘to be in the present and to plant a tree’” — right quote but wrong context — “or to use other methods to calm your thoughts.” The author of the article is Egor Putilov, a pseudonym of a prolific character in the Swedish radical-right alternative media.

    And now back to Mikael. Curious to drag out trolls from under their stones (they might explode in daylight), I answered the first email he sent to me; he replied. Mikael characterized himself as a disabled pensioner (Asperger’s) living in a Swedish suburb among “ISIS-fans, clans, psychopath-criminals and addicts etc. which you most likely have taken part in to create/import.” He asserted to have insights about what is happening behind the scenes related to COVID-19 and that the recent reemergence of the lab leak theory only demonstrated his superiority in analyzing world matters: “If I think something controversial, the rest of Sweden frequently thinks the same twenty years later.”

    He recommended I look for knowledge outside the small circle of disinformed and obedient yes-people within the “system.” I must admit that Mikael’s email was one of the friendlier online abuses I have experienced. On the same day, I also received a message from “Sten” titled “C*ck” and containing a short yet threatening line, “beware of conspiracy theories and viruses… .”

    What If the Scientists Were Wrong?

    As historian and political analyst Thomas Frank eloquently has pointed out, we should expect a political earthquake if a lab leak is indeed confirmed. Frank claims that what is under attack is science itself. Science, we were told, held the answers on how to combat the pandemic. Experts in public health provided scientific evidence for political countermeasures, despised by those who routinely reject science or feel that their liberties have been infringed upon.

    If it is proven that “science has failed the global population,” either by accident, by gain-of-function research getting out of control or, worse, by deliberately creating a bioweapon, both scientists and those who rely on their expertise will come under attack and their authority will be seriously undermined, with unpredictable consequences. Why would people have reasons to believe that climate change is real, that 5G technology is harmless or that cancer might be cured with rDNA treatment? Frank posits that what is at stake is a liberal “sort of cult” of science that was developed against the “fool Trump.” Should it turn out that scientists and experts were wrong, “we may very well see the expert-worshiping values of modern liberalism go up in a fireball of public anger.”

    Embed from Getty Images

    Frank and others, such as Wade and his Swedish apologist Wong, allege that it somehow was the media’s fault to cement the lab leak origin as a crazy conspiracy theory just because it was peddled by a president who made more than 30,000 false or misleading claims while in office. When the “common people of the world” find out that they might “have been forced into a real-life lab experiment,” a moral earthquake will be on its way since they will come to the ultimate realization “that here is no such thing as absolute expertise.”

    In the end, this will imply that populism was right all along about the existence of an existential dualism between “the people” and the well-to-do, well-educated ruling “elite” minority that creates and manages an eternal cycle of disasters affecting the majority. I tend to agree: This dualism is in fact a strong driver of populist mobilization and one that reoccurs in most conspiracy theories: we, the suffering people, the victims, against them, the plotting elite, the perpetrators.

    But I would like to add to Frank’s conclusions, that the (social) media outlets as much as the radical-right propagandists were immediately able to smell out the potential of the lab leak as a typical frame by which “the people” like Mikael, Sten, Martin and Per (more and more of them — all male — have started contacting me directly) could be pitched against “fake science,” government agencies and politicians.

    I would say that this, in fact, is the real purpose. In reality, the radical right does not care one bit about the origins of the virus but has discovered a perfect trope with which public distrust in authority can be deepened further. This is the reason why Wong needed to unleash an unsubstantiated attack against the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency. He, as much as Gudmundsson, despises any attempt to provide citizens with tools to decode disinformation and conspiracy theories as to allow informed members of society to judge the accuracy of various claims beyond populist apocalypticism. If media literacy and the ability to detect conspiratorial messages increase, sensationalist media outlets will lose their power.

    Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

    One of the three key elements of populism as defined by Benjamin Moffit is a permanent invocation of crisis, breakdown or threat. If this perpetuum mobile is disrupted, the source of populist power is dismantled, which is why Wong and others have to target the firefighters, and why Gudmundsson doesn’t want to hear about how to counter radicalization. The eternal flame of catastrophe is the campfire of populist socialization. Right now, the lab leak theory is a giant burning log providing heat for all these gratifying marshmallows to be grilled and fed to “the people.”

    But there might also be other reasons. By pushing the lab leak hypothesis, the radical right makes the case that “Trump was right” about the “China virus” and, if so, he might also be right about the “stolen” election and all other 29,998 lies uttered during his presidency. Moreover, it was the liberal mainstream media’s fault that the lab leak was “buried” (which it never was) because they are all agents of Chinese disinformation (and communism, as we all know, is the great evil of the 20th century), classical guilt by association. So, in the bigger picture, the lab leak is needed as proof of the infallibility of the great leader in his quest to “drain the swamp.” QAnon will celebrate on the ruins of Capitol Hill.

    However, what worries me most is that the lab leak theory is used by the radical right as an attempt to minimize the danger of anti-Asian racism or any other racist attribution and abuse in case of earlier or later crises and catastrophes. Somehow, not only will science be proven wrong and the great leader right, but racism will be defended as a rational and normal reaction to pandemics. Wait, didn’t the Jews poison our wells at one point?

    *[Fair Observer is a media partner of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right.]

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

  • in

    The New American Art of Inconclusive Conclusions

    In early 2020, as soon as the epidemic caused by a novel coronavirus began turning into a global pandemic, everyone, from scientists to politicians and media pundits, was eager to understand where it came from. Conveniently for US President Donald Trump, it came from China. That enabled him to suggest that if it originated in a nation now perceived to be America’s enemy, it was probably a malicious plot designed to weaken his electoral chances.

    But the scientific community, relayed by the media, calmly explained that, like earlier examples of the coronavirus, it was transmitted to humans by animals and originated with bats. The essential message could be boiled down to: Trust the scientists, who know what they’re talking about.

    A year later, with Trump no longer in the White House, suspicion arose even among many scientists that, well, accidents happen, even among all-knowing scientists. But this accident, if that’s what it was, turned out to be particularly embarrassing, with millions of people dying, the global economy thrown into a tailspin and all the rituals of daily life upended, including such things as children’s education and, more drastically (in terms of loss of income), professional sports.

    Do Americans Still Trust Their Public Health Agencies? 

    READ MORE

    When the stakes are so high, suspicion about who and what is to blame takes on a new dimension. The dominant take of 2020 was that it was all about wild animals. The dominant take in the spring of 2021 was that, no, it was people, and specifically scientists, who were the unwitting culprits. Back in 2020, the logic of US politics meant that reasonable people could assume that any assertion by the incumbent president, Donald Trump, known for his addiction to “alternative facts,” was a self-interested lie. Moreover, if a scientist provided a version that contradicted Trump, it was likely to be the truth.

    A year later, Trump was gone. The path was cleared for rational public discussions. It became possible to begin weighing evidence before asserting a possibly unfounded opinion. That is when some medically-informed journalists and an increasing number of scientists admitted that human error as the source of COVID-19 was not only possible, but highly credible. 

    The confusion spawned by this reversal of public discourse led the presumably level-headed President Joe Biden to commission a report from the intelligence community on the true origin of the pandemic. Last week, The Washington Post reported on the initial result of that study. The article stated that “President Biden on Tuesday received a classified report from the intelligence community that was inconclusive about the origins of the novel coronavirus, including whether the pathogen jumped from an animal to a human as part of a natural process, or escaped from a lab in central China, according to two U.S. officials familiar with the matter.”

    Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:

    Inconclusive:

    Not quite certain enough yet to be codified and promulgated as an official lie

    Contextual Note

    If Trump could be counted on to produce any version of the “facts” that suited his agenda, Biden came into office with a confirmed capacity for lying about the facts of his own life — including his educational honors and his stance on the Iraq War — but also with a reputation for largely respecting publicly acknowledged truth. He did, however, out of ordinary political opportunism, give credence to the easily debunked reports about Russians paying bounty to Afghans willing to kill Americans. That was because he knew his fellow Democrats were fond of blaming Russians for all the nation’s ills. 

    One difference between the two presidents is that Trump was always ready to jump to a conclusion, rejecting the temptation to call anything inconclusive. He painted the world in black and white, from which nuance was excluded. There was, however, one exception. He opposed the CIA’s largely conclusive assessment that Trump’s buddy, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, had commanded the bone-saw crew who dismembered Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. On that issue, Trump claimed that the evidence was inconclusive.

    Most theories that lead to blaming someone other than the initially designated culprit are routinely deemed inconclusive or labeled as conspiracies to the extent that no smoking gun has been found. Those who cling to the idea that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin of John F. Kennedy and the soon-to-be-paroled Sirhan Sirhan for the death of Robert Kennedy continue to claim that the mountain of countervailing evidence is inconclusive. In both Kennedy assassinations, the smoke eventually became visible, but the smell of the gunfire had faded. Any forensic traces of actual smoke were of course branded conspiracy theories.

    Embed from Getty Images

    Concerning the report on the origins of COVID-19, the inconclusive assessment appears justified. The case for a lab leak has grown stronger in recent months, but apart from suspicion generated by the fact that the Chinese government has been obstructive, there is no serious evidence to justify it. The Chinese government is by definition obstructive in everything it does, so this could hardly be confused with the kind of exceptional behavior that credibly points toward a coverup. 

    The Post offers an interesting explanation of another apparent anomaly: “Proponents of that theory point to classified information, first disclosed in the waning days of the Trump administration, that three unidentified workers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology — one of the world’s preeminent research institutions studying coronaviruses — went to the hospital in November 2019 with flu-like symptoms.”

    Americans would of course find this suspect, since, given the crippling price of medical treatment in the US, people avoid going to the hospital except in an emergency. The Post helpfully adds: “In China, people visit the hospital for routine and mild illnesses.” Cultural assumptions can always intervene to skew the perception of the meaning of the evidence.

    Historical Note

    Since COVID-19 is still mutating and raging nearly two years after its outbreak, no one knows when the definitive history of the COVID-19 pandemic will be written. The current wisdom says that, unlike the Spanish flu of a century ago, it will end up not as a chapter of history, with a beginning, a middle and an end, but as an endemic feature of humanity’s pathological landscape.

    In contrast, the history of the deep psychological mutations taking place as a result of the pandemic, especially in Western society, is beginning to take shape. Democracy has always lent itself to contestation. Protest has traditionally served to help define the positive dynamics of democracy, where voices could be heard that might influence what Thomas Jefferson once called “the course of human events.” But the pandemic has accelerated a different, far less positive trend, not of constructive protest but of an utter loss of faith not only in civic authority, but also in every other form of authority. Science itself may be the victim. 

    The secular order imposed by modern formally democratic governments depends to a large extent on the belief in the beneficent authority of science and the sincerity of its representatives, the scientists. In recent decades that authority has been shaken by the role powerful economic actors and complicit politicians have played in manipulating science to serve their purposes. The managers of the economy have become accustomed to using their clout to promote comforting lies about science itself, in the name of “national interest” and the “needs of the economy,” which means the health, not of the planet or its population, but of the mighty enterprises that create (and also destroy) jobs.

    Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

    It is a well-known fact that in US culture, uncertainty and inconclusiveness are unpopular. That aversion was one of the keys to Trump’s electoral success. Not having a decided opinion on something is often seen as an excuse for not getting things done, which means committing the cardinal sin of wasting time. Americans tend to see having and expressing a strong opinion — the art of being assertive — even when poorly informed, as a fundamental right that should never be compromised by the rituals of dialogue and debate.

    Nearly 60 years after the JFK assassination, an event that still contributes to undermining Americans’ faith in political authority, an accumulation of more crises has added powerfully to the confusion. The latest Afghan debacle, an unresolved pandemic and mounting evidence of the tragedy of climate change have combined to undermine every American’s hope for establishing the kind of certainty Americans believe to be their birthright.

    *[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

  • in

    We Are Not Worthless: Resentment, Misrecognition and Populist Mobilization

    We live in resentful times. Dare we even utter these words? They sound as trite and cliché as that time-honored opening sentence that has introduced so many articles on populism in recent years, “A specter is haunting Europe.” It can easily apply to Latin America, or the United States or, why not, India, Turkey or the Philippines. But, to abuse a well-known adage, only because something is trite does not necessarily mean that it isn’t true.

    The Good Old Days: Nostalgia’s Political Appeal

    READ MORE

    The fact is that we do live in an age of resentment, and populism has been among its main political beneficiaries. Resentment has been credited for propelling Donald Trump into the White House in 2016, contributing to the narrow success of the Brexit vote, playing a major role in Jair Bolsonaro’s election in 2018, and fueling the most recent upsurge in support for radical right-wing populist parties in Europe. Those who vote for them are said to be “fearful, angry and resentful of what their societies have done for them over the years.” Those of us who have been studying these developments for the past several decades could not agree more.

    Unsocial Passion

    Populism derives much of its impetus from the force of the emotions it evokes. The arguably most potent of these emotions is resentment. Unfortunately, more often than not, the link between resentment and populism is merely asserted, as if it were self-evident. As a result, resentment is either trivialized or comes to stand for about any emotion considered objectionable.

    The reality is, however, that resentment is a highly complex, equivocal and ambiguous emotion.  Etymologically, resentment derives from the French verb ressentir, which carries the connotation of feeling something over and over again, of obsessively revisiting a past injury (from the outdated se ressentir). It is for this reason that Adam Smith, in his 1759 treatise on moral sentiments ranks resentment among the “unsocial passions.” This is not to say that resentment is an entirely odious and noxious passion. On the contrary, Smith makes a strong argument that resentment is “one of the glues that can hold society together.” For, as Michelle Schwarze and John Scott have pointed out, “we need the perturbing passion of resentment to motivate our concern for injustice.”

    .custom-post-from {float:right; margin: 0 10px 10px; max-width: 50%; width: 100%; text-align: center; background: #000000; color: #ffffff; padding: 15px 0 30px; }
    .custom-post-from img { max-width: 85% !important; margin: 15px auto; filter: brightness(0) invert(1); }
    .custom-post-from .cpf-h4 { font-size: 18px; margin-bottom: 15px; }
    .custom-post-from .cpf-h5 { font-size: 14px; letter-spacing: 1px; line-height: 22px; margin-bottom: 15px; }
    .custom-post-from input[type=”email”] { font-size: 14px; color: #000 !important; width: 240px; margin: auto; height: 30px; box-shadow:none; border: none; padding: 0 10px; background-image: url(“https://www.fairobserver.com/wp-content/plugins/moosend_form/cpf-pen-icon.svg”); background-repeat: no-repeat; background-position: center right 14px; background-size:14px;}
    .custom-post-from input[type=”submit”] { font-weight: normal; margin: 15px auto; height: 30px; box-shadow: none; border: none; padding: 0 10px 0 35px; background-color: #1878f3; color: #ffffff; border-radius: 4px; display: inline-block; background-image: url(“https://www.fairobserver.com/wp-content/plugins/moosend_form/cpf-email-icon.svg”); background-repeat: no-repeat; background-position: 14px center; background-size: 14px; }

    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox { width: 90%; margin: auto; position: relative; display: flex; flex-wrap: wrap;}
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox label { text-align: left; display: block; padding-left: 32px; margin-bottom: 0; cursor: pointer; font-size: 11px; line-height: 18px;
    -webkit-user-select: none;
    -moz-user-select: none;
    -ms-user-select: none;
    user-select: none;
    order: 1;
    color: #ffffff;
    font-weight: normal;}
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox label a { color: #ffffff; text-decoration: underline; }
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox input { position: absolute; opacity: 0; cursor: pointer; height: 100%; width: 24%; left: 0;
    right: 0; margin: 0; z-index: 3; order: 2;}
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox input ~ label:before { content: “f0c8”; font-family: Font Awesome 5 Free; color: #eee; font-size: 24px; position: absolute; left: 0; top: 0; line-height: 28px; color: #ffffff; width: 20px; height: 20px; margin-top: 5px; z-index: 2; }
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox input:checked ~ label:before { content: “f14a”; font-weight: 600; color: #2196F3; }
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox input:checked ~ label:after { content: “”; }
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox input ~ label:after { position: absolute; left: 2px; width: 18px; height: 18px; margin-top: 10px; background: #ffffff; top: 10px; margin: auto; z-index: 1; }
    .custom-post-from .error{ display: block; color: #ff6461; order: 3 !important;}

    On this view, resentment represents what Sjoerd van Tuinen has called “a mechanism of retributive justice” that “prevents and remedies injuries.” It is from this sense that Smith’s notion of resentment as the glue that holds society together derives its logic and justification. If resentment is an unsocial passion, it is, as Jerry Evensky has argued, that resentment, if “unregulated … can be the most socially destructive of all passions.” Here, resentment is nothing but vindictiveness and rancor, the urge to find malicious pleasure in revenge. This is the dark side of resentment.

    The other, positive side to resentment is what Smith calls the “safeguard of justice and the security of innocence.” In this iteration, resentment serves as a mechanism that “prompts us to beat off the mischief which is attempted to be done to us, and to retaliate that which is already done; that the offender may be made to repent of his injustice, and that others, through fear of like punishment, may be terrified from being guilty of the like offence.” This type of resentment is, as Jonathan Jacobs has put it, “vitally important to maintaining the proper regard for the status of persons as equal participants in a common moral world.”

    As a moral emotion, Elisabetta Brighi has stated, “resentment is not only an appropriate individual response to failures of justice, but it is also an indispensable attitude to cultivate if an overall degree of fairness is to be maintained in society.”

    An excerpt from a speech by Frederick Douglass, the prominent 19th-century African American abolitionist, orator and preacher illustrates the point. Speaking before the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society in 1853, Douglass noted that it was “perhaps creditable to the American people” if European immigrants from Ireland, Italy or Hungary “all find in this goodly land a home.” For them, he continued, “the Americans have principles of justice, maxims of mercy, sentiments of religion and feelings of brotherhood in abundance.” When it came to “my poor people (alas, how poor!) enslaved, scourged, blasted, overwhelmed, and ruined,” however, “it would appear that America had neither justice, mercy, nor religion.” As a result, he charged, African Americans were aliens “in our native land.”

    Strangers in Their Own Land

    The irony should not be lost on anyone who has followed the course of American politics in recent years. In 2016, Donald Trump not only secured the Republican nomination, but he was also elected president of the United States. He did so on a platform that catered to the disenchantment of large swaths of the country’s white population with a political class that appeared to care little about their concerns. Trump scored particularly big among the millions of white Americans who thought of themselves as having become, in Arlie Russell Hochschild’s words, strangers in their own land.

    Similar sentiments have been reported from the eastern part of Germany. A study from 2019 by one of Germany’s leading public opinion firms came to the conclusion that 30 years after unification, “many eastern Germans still feel like aliens in their own home.” The political fallout has been dramatic: The “feeling of alienness” has informed party preferences more than have differences between political agendas.

    Other studies have shown that a significant number of eastern Germans see themselves as second-class citizens. Talia Marin, who teaches international economics at the technical university in Munich, traces these sentiments to the fact that after unification, many eastern Germans were being told in not particularly subtle ways that their skills and experience acquired during the communist period “had no value in a market economy.” Confronted with this “feeling of worthlessness,” they “lost their dignity.” A representative survey from 2019 provides evidence of the extent to which eastern Germans continue to feel slighted. In the survey, 80% of respondents agreed with the statement that their achievements in the decades following unification have not received the recognition they deserve.

    Dignity, studies have shown, is central to contemporary politics of recognition. It is at this point that resentment and populism meet. For, as Grayson Hunt has argued, resentment represents “an interpersonal dynamic which desires the restoration of respect.” Recognition, Charles Taylor has noted, constitutes a “vital human need.” Recognition entails, in Avishai Margalit’s words, “acknowledging and honouring the status of others.”

    Embed from Getty Images

    The opposite is misrecognition. Misrecognition, in turn, is a major source of resentment. Pierre Rosanvallon, in a recent essay on populism, ranks resentment among what he calls the “emotions of position.” These are emotions that express “rage over not being recognized, of being abandoned, despised, counting for nothing in the eyes of the powerful.” In his view, what provokes these emotions is the huge gap that often exists between objective reality, such as the fact that, in terms of GDP, France is ranked fifth among industrialized economies. Subjectively, however, the daily lived experience of a substantial number of French people is quite different who face difficulties making ends meet.

    France is hardly unique. As early as 2008, one of the BBC’s top executives, Richard Klein, noted that “the people most affected by the upheaval” that had characterized Britain during the past decade, both economic and cultural, “have been all but ignored.” Klein’s comments were made at the occasion of a BBC documentary series on Britain’s white working class. The documentary revealed a profound sense of “victimhood, rage, abandonment and resentment” among these strata. Not even the Labour Party, once the protector of working-class interests, seemed to consider them important. As a result, they felt completely abandoned, no longer worthy of dignity and recognition.

    This is what also seems to have happened in post-unification eastern Germans, or at least not in the perceptions of eastern Germans. Otherwise, they would hardly consider themselves second-class citizens, not on an equal footing compared to westerners. The result has been widespread resentment, surfacing, for instance, during the refugee crisis of 2015-16. At the time, the priority was to integrate the hundreds of thousands of newcomers Angela Merkel’s government had allowed to enter the country. For good reasons, in the east, the mood was one of irritation, if not outright hostility.

    The predominant notion was that the government should first integrate what was once communist East Germany. Eastern Germans complained that in the years following unification they had been asked to fend for themselves. Yet a few decades later, the state was lavishing benefits and support on refugees. For them, eastern Germans grumbled, the state did have money, for “us,” not.

    Misrecognition

    The eastern German case is a classic example of misrecognition, defined as the denial of equal worth, which prevents its victims from interacting on par with the rest of society. It denies its victims mutual recognition and, in the most extreme case, excludes them from equitable and just (re)distribution. Objectively, this might sound like a thoroughly unfair assessment. After all, for decades, the German government transferred a massive amount of funds to former East Germany (GDR). German taxpayers were forced to pay a “solidarity surcharge” designed to finance Aufbau Ost, a program of reconstruction designed to allow the eastern part of the country to catch up with the west.

    Yet none of these measures appear to have substantially reduced the lingering sense of resentment prevalent among large parts of the eastern German population. In 2019, around 60% of respondents in the state of Brandenburg considered themselves second-class citizens, while some 70% resented the economic and political dominance of westerners. Two years later, a few days prior to the regional election in Sachsen-Anhalt in June 2021, 75% of respondents there agreed with the statement that “in many areas eastern Germans continue to be second-class citizens.”

    The Politics of Recognition vs. Redistribution

    READ MORE

    Federico Tarragoni, a leading French expert on populism, provides another illustration of misrecognition, this time not from Western Europe but Latin America or, more precisely, from Venezuela. Tarragoni is primarily interested in explaining the widespread support Hugo Chavez garnered among large parts of Venezuela’s population. On the basis of discussions with ordinary Venezuelans living in the outskirts of Caracas, he reports the profound sense of injury and injustice experienced on a daily basis by the inhabitants of these barrios, who have a strong sense that nobody has any interest in them. They are cut off from the rest of Caracas. As one resident puts it, these are places where taxis don’t go. For Venezuela’s high society, these barrio dwellers are nothing but “savages” for whom they have nothing but disdain and contempt.

    It should come as no surprise that contempt on the part of one side breeds resentment on the part of the other. Resentment, in turn, evokes a panoply of related emotions, such as anger, rage, even hatred, and particularly a wish for vengeance. When unfulfilled, however, when justified grievances are met with smug indifference on the part of those in charge, the wish for vengeance is likely to turn into resignation. In the sphere of politics, resignation is reflected in a drop in electoral participation, at least as long as there is no credible alternative. This is where populism comes in.

    Feeding on Resentment

    Populism feeds on resentment. Populist discourses of resentment “encode reactions to a sense of loss, powerlessness, and disenfranchisement; they consolidate feelings of fear, anger, bitterness, and shame.” The targets of populist discourses are, however, rarely the institutions and policies responsible for socio-economic problems, such as neoliberalism, international financial markets or transnational corporations. Rather, they are found in groups that appear to have gained in visibility and recognition, such as ethnic and sexual minorities, while others have been losing out. Populists channel the resulting wish for vengeance to the one place where everybody, independent of their social status, has a voice — at the polls.

    Election time is payback time. This is how two prominent Austrian political scientists commented on the fulminant upsurge of support for the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) under its new leader, Jörg Haider, in the late 1980s. In the years that followed, the Austrian experience was replicated in a number of Western European countries, most notably Italy, Switzerland and across Scandinavia. The arguably most egregious case in point, of course, was Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 — an act of vengeance, at least in part, against a political establishment that more often than not appeared to show little more than thinly veiled contempt for ordinary people and their increasingly dim life chances (viz Hilary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables”).

    The vote for Trump was an instance of what Andrés Rodríguez-Pose, from the London School of Economics, has characterized as “the revenge of the places that don’t matter.” These are once-prosperous regions that have fallen on hard times, walloped by the decline of mining, by deindustrialization and offshoring: the Rust Belt in the United States, northern England in the UK, Wallonia in Belgium, the Haut-de-France region in the north of France. These areas have been left behind in the race to remain competitive — or regain lost competitiveness — in the brave new world informed by financialization and globalization.

    Embed from Getty Images

    To be sure, these developments have been going on for some time. More than a decade ago already, the French political geographer Christoph Guilluy drew attention to the emergence of what he called “la France périphérique” — peripheral France. These are areas increasingly cut off from the dynamic urban centers. These are the areas, Guilluy noted, where the large majority of the “new popular classes” live, far away from the “most active job markets.” Thus, Guilluy charged, “for the first time in history, the popular classes no longer reside ‘where the wealth is created’ but in a peripheral France, far from the areas that ‘matter.’”

    The demographer and historian Hervé le Bras has extended the territorial analysis to include France’s educated middle class. He finds that “territorial segregation” increasingly also affects these social strata, segregation largely dictated by educational level. The higher the level of education, the closer a person lives to the urban center. The opposite is true for those disposing of lower levels of schooling who, as a result, see their upward mobility effectively blocked. The situation of qualified workers is hardly any better. Their qualifications progressively devalorized, they too find themselves relegated to the periphery, far away from the most advanced urban centers, more often than not forced to do work below their qualifications.

    Brave New World

    In this brave new world, it seems, a growing number of people are left with the impression that they have become structurally irrelevant, both as producers, given their lack of sought-after skills, and as consumers, given their limited purchasing power. Unfortunately for the established parties, as Rodriguez-Pose readily acknowledges, the structurally irrelevant don’t take their fate lying down. Telling people that where they live, where they have grown up and where they belong doesn’t matter, or that they should move to greener shores where opportunities abound more often than not has provoked a backlash, which has found its most striking expression in growing support for populist movements and parties, both on the left and on the right.

    The eastern part of Germany is a paradigmatic case in point. British studies suggest that there is a link between geographical mobility — and the lack thereof — and support for populism. To be sure, there are plenty of people who insist on staying in their familiar surroundings for various perfectly sensible reasons, such as family, friends and proximity to nature. At the same time, however, there are also plenty of people who stay because they have no options, which, in turn, breeds resentment.

    As Rodríguez-Pose has observed, “the lack of capacity and/of opportunities for mobility implies that a considerable part of the local population is effectively stuck in areas considered to have no future. Hence, the seed for revenge is planted.” This is what has happened in parts of eastern Germany. One of the most striking demographic characteristics of eastern Germany is its skewed age distribution, disproportionately dominated by the elderly. And for good reason: After unification, many of those who could get away left in search of better life chances in the west.

    The German ethnologist Wolfgang Kaschuba has characterized the rise of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) in the east as “the revenge of the villages.” In fact, a number of studies have shown that the AfD did best in structurally weak areas, characterized by demographic decline and lack of perspectives for the future. The most prominent example is Lusatia, a region in eastern Brandenburg and Saxony, bordering on Poland. In the regional elections in 2019, the AfD reached some of its best results in Lusatian villages, in some cases almost 50% of the vote.

    The region is known for lignite mining, which during the GDR period represented a major industrial sector, attracting a number of industries and providing employment for the whole region. After unification, however, most of these industries closed down, resulting in mass unemployment and a large-scale exodus of anyone who could. The recent reversal of Germany’s energy policy, which entails a drastic reduction of coal in the energy mix, means that the days of lignite mining are counted — another blow to the region, rendering it even more economically marginal — if not entirely irrelevant. Under the circumstances, resentment is likely to remain relatively high in the region and with it continued support for the AfD.

    Embed from Getty Images

    Resentment, the Presbyterian bishop, theologian and moral philosopher Joseph Butler insisted in a sermon from 1726, is “one of the common bonds, by which society holds itself” — a notion later adopted by Adam Smith. Today, the opposite appears to be the case. Today, more often than not, resentment is the main driver behind the rise of identity-based particularism (also known as tribalism) and affective polarization, both in the United States and a growing number of other advanced liberal democracies.

    Diversity in its different forms, with ever-more groups seeking recognition, breeds resentment among the hitherto privileged who perceive their status as being assaulted, lowered and diminished. The current stage of liberal democracy, or so it seems, generates myriad injuries and grievances and multiple perceptions of victimization, each one of them prone to fuel resentment, providing a basis for new waves of populist mobilization.

    Populist mobilization, in order to have a chance to succeed at the polls, has to offer a positive motivation to those who experienced disrespect, contempt, slight or a general lack of recognition or appreciation. This is, to a certain extent at least, what is meant when we talk about the “populist valorization” of the experiences of ordinary people. Valorization means in this context taking ordinary people, their concerns and grievances seriously. Populist valorization, however, falls far short of the norms of recognition, which are based on mutual respect and esteem.

    It represents nothing more than what Onni Hirvonen and Joonas Pennanen characterize as a “pathological form of politics of recognition” centered upon “the in-group recognition between the members of the populist camp” and the denigration of anyone outside. As such, it cannot but “contribute to the feelings of alienation and social marginalization” that were the source of resentment in the first place. It is unlikely to assuage the profound political disaffection permeating contemporary advanced liberal democracies. In the final analysis, the only ones who truly benefit from the politics of resentment are populist entrepreneurs.

    *[Fair Observer is a media partner of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right.]

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

  • in

    America, the Stumbling Giant

    The United States has been the most powerful country in the world for 130 years and has actively led the international community for 75. With only 4.25% of the world’s population, the US still accounts for a little more than 24% of the world’s GNP. Its military is by far the world’s most powerful, with a budget larger than the next 12 biggest militaries combined. The US has the highest per capita income of any major country and the most diverse and creative economy the world has ever seen. It leads in virtually every technology critical for economic and military predominance, from artificial intelligence to materials science. Its democracy has set a standard the world has looked up to for 240 years.  

    But the American giant is stumbling. Today, Americans fear that the US is in decline. Its economy is progressively skewed to the ultra-rich. Its national government is almost paralyzed. China is challenging Washington’s international power and leadership. American society is more divided than at any time since the Civil War, with up to 40% of Americans believing that a “strong man” leader — a fascist — is preferable to democracy.

    Will American Democracy Perish Like Rome’s?

    READ MORE

    Almost all Americans worry that for the first time in history, their children will be poorer than they are. Many of America’s political moderates and progressives fear that America’s democracy will be replaced by fascistic autocracy and consider former president Donald Trump and the current Republican Party fascist. Yet on the other side of America’s political divide, an NPR/Ipsos poll in December 2020 found that 39% of Americans believe that the country is controlled by a sinister “deep state,” and this enrages them.

    Social Stresses

    My family and I are literally what made America. Since my ancestors arrived in 1620 on the Mayflower off the shore of Cape Cod, in Massachusetts, America was created by “White Anglo-Saxon Protestants,” popularly known as WASPs. The culture that shaped the United States for 350 years was overwhelmingly English, then Western European, with a dominant Puritanical, Protestant ethos.

    For 15 generations, America was also culturally and legally a society for whites. Even for my generation growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, many Americans still changed their surnames to sound more “Anglo” — dropping the last vowel, say, from the Italian (and Catholic) “Lombardi” to “Lombard,” to appear more WASP-like and less “ethnic” or un-American. Fully 10% of the population was black, but they were excluded from power and lived on the cultural periphery. Half the nation still lived in an apartheid “whites only” regime, the legacy of centuries of white domination and black slavery. In the media, one saw only white faces like mine, except in subordinate or, rarely, in “exotic” roles. And, of course, America, like the rest of the world since time immemorial, was only a man’s world.  

    .custom-post-from {float:right; margin: 0 10px 10px; max-width: 50%; width: 100%; text-align: center; background: #000000; color: #ffffff; padding: 15px 0 30px; }
    .custom-post-from img { max-width: 85% !important; margin: 15px auto; filter: brightness(0) invert(1); }
    .custom-post-from .cpf-h4 { font-size: 18px; margin-bottom: 15px; }
    .custom-post-from .cpf-h5 { font-size: 14px; letter-spacing: 1px; line-height: 22px; margin-bottom: 15px; }
    .custom-post-from input[type=”email”] { font-size: 14px; color: #000 !important; width: 240px; margin: auto; height: 30px; box-shadow:none; border: none; padding: 0 10px; background-image: url(“https://www.fairobserver.com/wp-content/plugins/moosend_form/cpf-pen-icon.svg”); background-repeat: no-repeat; background-position: center right 14px; background-size:14px;}
    .custom-post-from input[type=”submit”] { font-weight: normal; margin: 15px auto; height: 30px; box-shadow: none; border: none; padding: 0 10px 0 35px; background-color: #1878f3; color: #ffffff; border-radius: 4px; display: inline-block; background-image: url(“https://www.fairobserver.com/wp-content/plugins/moosend_form/cpf-email-icon.svg”); background-repeat: no-repeat; background-position: 14px center; background-size: 14px; }

    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox { width: 90%; margin: auto; position: relative; display: flex; flex-wrap: wrap;}
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox label { text-align: left; display: block; padding-left: 32px; margin-bottom: 0; cursor: pointer; font-size: 11px; line-height: 18px;
    -webkit-user-select: none;
    -moz-user-select: none;
    -ms-user-select: none;
    user-select: none;
    order: 1;
    color: #ffffff;
    font-weight: normal;}
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox label a { color: #ffffff; text-decoration: underline; }
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox input { position: absolute; opacity: 0; cursor: pointer; height: 100%; width: 24%; left: 0;
    right: 0; margin: 0; z-index: 3; order: 2;}
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox input ~ label:before { content: “f0c8”; font-family: Font Awesome 5 Free; color: #eee; font-size: 24px; position: absolute; left: 0; top: 0; line-height: 28px; color: #ffffff; width: 20px; height: 20px; margin-top: 5px; z-index: 2; }
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox input:checked ~ label:before { content: “f14a”; font-weight: 600; color: #2196F3; }
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox input:checked ~ label:after { content: “”; }
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox input ~ label:after { position: absolute; left: 2px; width: 18px; height: 18px; margin-top: 10px; background: #ffffff; top: 10px; margin: auto; z-index: 1; }
    .custom-post-from .error{ display: block; color: #ff6461; order: 3 !important;}

    But with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965, America began a stupendous social change, with blacks and women gaining unprecedented rights. Furthermore, non-WASP immigrants have arrived in the US by the tens of millions. When I was born, America was over 88% white. By the year 2045, under 50% will be white. The trend has already been clear for decades. In the past dozen years, the US has elected a black president twice, a black-Indian female vice president, and its second Catholic president.

    Today, the US has a vibrant black middle class. Its Asian population is growing rapidly. Asian and Indian Americans hold many prominent positions in the country’s economic and scientific establishments. Women now hold countless key positions in all sectors of the US economy, including boardrooms. This demographic and social revolution has diversified America but also engendered a nativist, racist reaction and the rise of a fascist: Donald Trump.

    Socially conservative whites — especially the least educated — have literally taken to the streets to “save” their country from these changes. Donald Trump voices their anger and their demands. Having lost the presidential election of 2020 yet having refused to accept verified results, the Republican Party has taken dozens of measures to restrict voting access for non-whites. There has been talk of civil war, and there has been an insurrection.

    Economic Stresses 

    Real incomes have largely stagnated for about 40 years. Globalization has destroyed entire sectors of America’s middle-class economy. Much of US manufacturing has moved abroad to lower-wage economies. In the 1960s, the single male income earner could provide a middle-class life for most families. Today, 60% of families require two full-time incomes to maintain a middle-class life. According to a Brookings paper, women account for “91% of the total income gain for their families.”

    In 2019, a Federal Reserve study found that almost 40% of Americans “wouldn’t be able to cover a $400 emergency with cash, savings or a credit-card charge that they could quickly pay off.” With $41.52 trillion in assets, the top 1% of households control more than 32% of the country’s wealth. With just $2.62 trillion in assets, the bottom 50% own a mere 2%. This concentration of wealth is creating social and political strains.

    America Is No Longer One Nation

    READ MORE

    The Republican Party has based its appeal on these grievances for decades, and Trump, the classic demagogue, exploited them all the way to the presidency. Blaming stagnation and increasing economic insecurity of ordinary Americans — and their loss of white social status — on globalization has been a ploy of Republicans since the mid-1960s. The party has progressively based its appeal on such tropes and fears since.

    Today, Republicans systematically oppose any action by the federal government as a threat to “freedom.” They seek to reduce taxes, gut economic regulations, lower investments in infrastructure and slash expenditure on education, which they deem to be a means of dangerous social engineering. 

    Political Stresses

    As McKay Coppins has pointed out in The Atlantic, after emerging as the leader of the Republican Party in 1994, “Newt Gingrich turned partisan battles into bloodsport, wrecked Congress, and paved the way for Trump’s rise.” As speaker of the House of Representatives, Gingrich sought to demonize and destroy the Democratic Party. He refused to cooperate, let alone compromise with the Democrats at any level either in the White House or Congress.

    When Barack Obama was elected president, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell acted ruthlessly to oppose everything the Obama administration proposed. Before the 2010 midterm elections, McConnell declared: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” Today, McConnell has stated that “100% of his focus is on blocking” President Biden’s agenda.

    Embed from Getty Images

    Since the mid-1990s, American politics has turned increasingly polarized, its federal government almost paralyzed. There are two principal reasons the US suffers from political rigor mortis. First, the Republican Party has become increasingly intransigent and partisan. The Democratic Party remains more moderate and open to compromise but has gotten little in return from the Republicans. Second, America’s electoral structures accord a disproportionate weight to rural districts, which is where the anxious, angry and reactionary WASPs and other whites live. The more ethnically diverse, urban and educated citizens tend to live in the major cities, heavily concentrated on the country’s Atlantic and Pacific coasts. 

    On July 1, 2019, Wyoming’s population was 578,759 while California’s numbered 39,512,223. In the presidential elections, Wyoming receives three electoral college votes; California receives 55. This means a vote for president in Wyoming is worth more than 3.72 times a vote in California. However, it is in voting for the US Senate where Wyoming really has an edge. Every state in the US elects two senators, regardless of its population. This makes a vote in Wyoming 68.27 times more valuable than a vote in California. 

    This structural bias toward less populous rural states gives Republicans a tremendous political advantage. It has enabled them to triumph in two of the last six presidential elections despite winning a minority of the popular vote and to frequently hold a majority in Congress and Senate, despite receiving lower overall votes. America is so evenly divided politically that one party often controls the White House while the other dominates Congress, or at least one of its two chambers. Given the partisan gridlock in the US, this virtually brings legislation to a halt.

    The consequences of this electoral and institutional schizophrenia are everywhere to see and experience: American roads, bridges, water mains, harbor facilities and education now lag far behind most developed countries and even many emerging economies. Some foreign visitors to the US have commented that American infrastructure reminds them of the 1950s — which is precisely when much of it was built. The Shinkansen, Japan’s bullet train network, awes Americans, including myself, and it is 50 years old. America has always been a “third-world country” for the ethnically excluded. Now, the strains and failures of America’s social, economic and political paralysis extend more broadly through society. Even the WASPs are not spared.

    Global Stresses 

    Two global issues in particular shape American public life and self-doubts. First, the US is no longer the only great power. China’s rise has been breathtaking. Beijing challenges American preeminence in trade, technology, diplomacy and military strength, posing the greatest challenge to the US since World War II. Many Americans fear that China’s rise is a sign of American decline.  

    Second, global warming threatens the American way of life and shapes much of the political debate about the environment, the economy and the role of government. Signs of a literal cataclysm are already upon us. The West Coast has experienced the worst forest fires in recorded history and is living through the worst drought in 500 years. In 2012, the US Geological Survey estimated that sea levels would rise on the East Coast by nearly 50 centimeters by 2050. In 2021, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association projects the same level of sea rise in Boston and Massachusetts. By 2050, the spot where my Mayflower ancestors began the American experiment 400 years ago will be swallowed by the sea.

    Yet even global warming divides America. Most of the Republican Party believes that global warming is a hoax perpetrated by the “deep state” so that scientists can have jobs. Some even assert that the California wildfires are linked to “Jewish space lasers.” These Republican beliefs are an amalgam of lunacy and old fascist tropes. That one of the country’s two major political parties believes such dangerous lies and delusions bodes ill for America’s future. 

    Embed from Getty Images

    During his campaign and since becoming president, Joe Biden has declared that the next four years will be a “battle for the soul of the nation.” He and his party have to end the paralysis of America’s public institutions and democracy, heal social divisions, and reduce growing economic inequality. They must rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure and rise to the challenge of China as a fast-emerging peer competitor in international and economic affairs.

    The Republican Party and nearly 40% of the American population will oppose every step Biden attempts. The rural bias in the country’s political structures consistently grants this 40% control of about half the House of Representatives and Senate. Biden must win majorities to implement his transformative economic, social, political and diplomatic policies with only the slimmest majority possible in the legislature.

    Furthermore, this majority is fragile. Of the 100 seats in the Senate, Republicans have 50, Democrats 48 and independents two, both of whom caucus with the Democrats. The vice president presides over the Senate and supports the president but may only vote in the event of a 50-50 split. Historically, most presidents have struggled to enact their agenda even with strong electoral majorities.

    No president since Abraham Lincoln in 1861 has had to deal with such an array of grave social, political and economic crises. Throughout history, many states have proven unable to address structural, systemic problems with legislation and policies that do not profoundly alter these structures or systems. In most instances, however, this requires major social and political upheaval, sometimes even revolution. This has happened before in America — in 1776, when there was revolution, in 1861, when there was civil war, and in 1929, when there was economic collapse. 

    Within the current framework of American democracy, Biden can probably only succeed in radically addressing America’s daunting democratic, diplomatic, social, political and economic challenges if his party wins a more solid majority in both chambers of Congress. Thus, all eyes, hopes and fears turn to America’s congressional elections of 2022, now only 16 months away. This historic vote may well decide who wins the “battle for the soul of the nation.”

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

  • in

    So Far, Biden’s Foreign Policy Is Proving Too Conventional

    On the domestic front, Joe Biden is flirting with transformational policies around energy, environment, and infrastructure. It’s not a revolution, but it’s considerably less timid than what Barack Obama offered in that pre-Trump, pre-pandemic era.

    When it comes to foreign policy, however, the Biden administration has been nowhere near as transformational. The phrase Joe Biden has used so often is “America is back.” That sentiment certainly captures some aspects of Biden’s relationship with the international community, such as repairing relations with the World Health Organization and rejoining the Paris climate accords. In these ways, the administration has brought America back to the status quo that existed before Trump was unleashed on the world stage.

    How Joe Biden Looks at the World

    READ MORE

    But on some very important issues — China, Iran, Cuba, North Korea — President Biden hasn’t managed to restore even the previous status quo. His approach to military spending and the arms race is decidedly hawkish. His message on immigration, as expressed by Vice President Kamala Harris on a visit to Guatemala earlier this month, effectively erases the inscription on the Statue of Liberty by telling potential border crossers in the region to stay home. Okay, foreign policy is not a winning issue at the ballot box, and Biden certainly has a lot on his agenda. But even the notoriously cautious Obama took some courageous steps with Tehran and Havana.

    It’s possible that Biden is focusing on America first before turning to the world as a whole. It’s also possible that he’s simply not interested in altering US foreign policy in any significant way beyond removing US troops from Afghanistan. True, it was exhilarating to have a conventional president again after Trump. But conventional, when it comes to US foreign policy, is just not good enough.

    Confronting China

    If the Biden administration’s overriding domestic preoccupation is a sustainable economy, then its dominant foreign policy obsession is China. Biden and Xi have spoken only once, by telephone in February. Xi participated in Biden’s virtual climate confab in April. They are likely to meet face to face sometime this year, possibly around the G20 summit in Rome in October. There’s been talk of greater cooperation on addressing the climate crisis. And there haven’t been any overt military confrontations in the South China Sea or elsewhere.

    But otherwise, Biden and Xi have not really gotten off on the right foot. It was a no-brainer for the new Biden administration to lift the Trump-era tariffs on Chinese products and de-escalate the trade war that unsettled manufacturers and consumers on both sides of the Pacific. The Biden team is ostensibly doing a review of US-China trade policy with a focus on whether Beijing has met its commitments under the “phase one trade deal” signed back in January 2020 (so far, it’s been a mixed record of China meeting some targets for US imports and missing others).

    .custom-post-from {float:right; margin: 0 10px 10px; max-width: 50%; width: 100%; text-align: center; background: #000000; color: #ffffff; padding: 15px 0 30px; }
    .custom-post-from img { max-width: 85% !important; margin: 15px auto; filter: brightness(0) invert(1); }
    .custom-post-from .cpf-h4 { font-size: 18px; margin-bottom: 15px; }
    .custom-post-from .cpf-h5 { font-size: 14px; letter-spacing: 1px; line-height: 22px; margin-bottom: 15px; }
    .custom-post-from input[type=”email”] { font-size: 14px; color: #000 !important; width: 240px; margin: auto; height: 30px; box-shadow:none; border: none; padding: 0 10px; background-image: url(“https://www.fairobserver.com/wp-content/plugins/moosend_form/cpf-pen-icon.svg”); background-repeat: no-repeat; background-position: center right 14px; background-size:14px;}
    .custom-post-from input[type=”submit”] { font-weight: normal; margin: 15px auto; height: 30px; box-shadow: none; border: none; padding: 0 10px 0 35px; background-color: #1878f3; color: #ffffff; border-radius: 4px; display: inline-block; background-image: url(“https://www.fairobserver.com/wp-content/plugins/moosend_form/cpf-email-icon.svg”); background-repeat: no-repeat; background-position: 14px center; background-size: 14px; }

    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox { width: 90%; margin: auto; position: relative; display: flex; flex-wrap: wrap;}
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox label { text-align: left; display: block; padding-left: 32px; margin-bottom: 0; cursor: pointer; font-size: 11px; line-height: 18px;
    -webkit-user-select: none;
    -moz-user-select: none;
    -ms-user-select: none;
    user-select: none;
    order: 1;
    color: #ffffff;
    font-weight: normal;}
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox label a { color: #ffffff; text-decoration: underline; }
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox input { position: absolute; opacity: 0; cursor: pointer; height: 100%; width: 24%; left: 0;
    right: 0; margin: 0; z-index: 3; order: 2;}
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox input ~ label:before { content: “f0c8”; font-family: Font Awesome 5 Free; color: #eee; font-size: 24px; position: absolute; left: 0; top: 0; line-height: 28px; color: #ffffff; width: 20px; height: 20px; margin-top: 5px; z-index: 2; }
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox input:checked ~ label:before { content: “f14a”; font-weight: 600; color: #2196F3; }
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox input:checked ~ label:after { content: “”; }
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox input ~ label:after { position: absolute; left: 2px; width: 18px; height: 18px; margin-top: 10px; background: #ffffff; top: 10px; margin: auto; z-index: 1; }
    .custom-post-from .error{ display: block; color: #ff6461; order: 3 !important;}

    The review is more than just bean-counting. In a marked departure from the usual neoliberal trade talk coming out of Washington, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai has said, “I want to disconnect this idea that the only way we do affirmative trade engagement, trade enhancement is through a free trade agreement.” Tai prefers to operate according to a “worker-centric trade policy” that evaluates China on issues of forced labor, workers’ rights and the environment. A more nuanced approach to trade is all to the good, of course, and Tai should be commended for breaking with the Washington consensus.

    But taken in conjunction with other Biden administration policies, the reluctance to lift tariffs on Chinese goods is part of a full-court economic press on the country. The Biden administration has effectively continued the Trump approach of not only lining up allies in the region to contain China (the Quad, the Blue Dot Network) but enlisting European countries as well to join the bandwagon. In his recent trip to Europe, Biden corralled the G7 to create the Build Back Better World (B3W) initiative, a purported alternative to China’s Belt and Road infrastructure program, and twisted some arms to get NATO to prioritize China as part of its mission.

    NATO’s new emphasis on China reflects the Pentagon’s shift in focus. Trump might have loudly proclaimed his anti-China animus, but the Biden administration is determined to close what it calls the “say-do gap” by expanding capabilities beyond the Navy to challenge China in the air and above.

    China’s moves in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and the South China Sea are deeply troubling. Nor is Beijing doing nearly enough to green its Belt and Road Initiative. But the Biden administration needs to think creatively about how to leverage China’s own multilateral aspirations in order to address global problems. Trade tensions and disagreements about internal policies are to be expected. Yet the Biden administration has an urgent and historic opportunity to work with China (and everyone else) to remake the international community.

    Sparring With Iran

    Another no-brainer for the Biden administration was reviving the Iran nuclear agreement that Trump tried to destroy. Granted, it was tricky to unwind the sanctions against Tehran and address Iran’s demands for compensation. It wasn’t easy to reassure the Iranian leadership of the sincerity of US intentions given not only Trump’s past hostility but the current animosities of congressional Republicans. And there was also Israel, which was doing everything within its power to scuttle diplomacy up to and including sabotaging Iran’s nuclear facilities and assassinating Iranian scientists.

    These obstacles notwithstanding, the Biden team could have gotten the job done if it had started earlier and been more flexible. Not wanting to open itself up to criticism from hawks at home, however, the administration argued for a mutual, step-by-step return to the agreement. By contrast, Iran quite sensibly argued that the United States, since it attempted to blow up the agreement, should be the first to compromise by removing sanctions, a position that some US policymakers have also supported.

    Is the US Back Under Biden?

    READ MORE

    Meanwhile, the Biden administration is continuing a tit-for-tat confrontation with militias aligned with Iran. This week, the administration launched airstrikes against facilities on the Iraq-Syria border from which these militias have allegedly attacked US.bases in Iraq. US forces in Syria subsequently came under rocket fire.

    Why are there still US soldiers in Iraq and Syria? Didn’t the Biden administration commit to ending America’s endless wars? Although US forces are scheduled to depart Afghanistan in September and Washington has pledged to remove troops from Iraq as well, negotiations around the latter have yet to produce a timetable. Removing 2,500 US soldiers from Iraq would please the government in Baghdad, remove an irritant in US-Iranian relations and take US personnel out of harm’s way. What’s not to like, Joe?

    Getting Nowhere With Cuba and North Korea

    Late in his second term, Barack Obama orchestrated a bold rapprochement with Cuba. After lifting financial and travel restrictions, Obama visited the island in March 2016 to meet with Cuban leader Raul Castro. It wasn’t a full opening. Washington maintained a trade embargo and refused to close its anomalous base in Guantanamo. But it was a start. Donald Trump brought a quick end to that fresh start by reimposing the restrictions that Obama had lifted.

    Joe Biden promised to resurrect the Obama policy. Trump’s reversals, he said as a candidate, “have inflicted harm on the Cuban people and done nothing to advance democracy and human rights.” And yet, as president, he has done nothing to reverse Trump’s reversals.

    As Karen de Young writes in The Washington Post, “Under Trump restrictions, non-Cuban Americans are still prohibited from sending money to the island. Cruise ships are banned from sailing from the United States to Cuba, and the dozens of scheduled U.S. commercial flights to Cuban cities have largely stopped. Tight limits remain in place on commercial transactions.”

    The reason for the new administration’s lack of action, beyond its concerns about human rights in Cuba and its fear of Republican opposition in Congress, boils down to domestic politics. Robert Menendez, the Democratic senator from New Jersey who never liked the Obama-era détente with Cuba in the first place, represents a key obstacle in Congress. Public opinion in Florida among Cuban-Americans, which had swung in favor of rapprochement during the Obama period, has now also swung decisively in the other direction, thanks to a steady diet of Trumpian demagoguery.

    Embed from Getty Images

    Here, the Biden administration could try something new by closing Guantanamo. The administration is already launching a quiet effort to close the detention facility at the base by resolving the status of the several dozen inmates. He should go even further by rebooting Guantanamo as a center for US-Cuban environmental research, as scientists Joe Roman and James Kraska have proposed.

    North Korea, meanwhile, is the one place in the world where Trump sought to overturn decades of US hostility. His attempts at one-on-one diplomacy with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un didn’t achieve much of anything, but it still might have served as a foundation for future negotiations. Biden has instead followed the script of all the administrations prior to Trump: review policy, promise something new, fall back on conventional thinking.

    The administration finished its review of the North Korea policy in April. Biden rejected his predecessor’s approaches as misguided and has relied on the usual big-stick-and-small-carrot policy that stretches back to the 1990s. On the one hand, Biden extended sanctions against the country and has maintained a military encirclement. On the other, his emissaries have reached out to Pyongyang, with Special Representative for North Korea Sung Kim saying this month that the United States would meet with Pyongyang “anywhere, anytime, without preconditions.” “Without preconditions” is fine. But what about “with incentives”?

    Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, North Korea is more shut off from the world than usual. It is preoccupied with the economic challenges associated with its increased isolation. In his annual address in January, Kim Jong-un made the unusual admission that the government’s economic program fell short of its goals. More recently, he has said that his country is “prepared for both dialogue and confrontation, especially … confrontation.”

    Biden should focus on the first half of Kim’s sentence. South Korea’s progressive president, Moon Jae-in, nearing the end of his own tenure, very much wants to advance reconciliation on the peninsula. Instead of beefing up its military containment of the isolated country, Washington could work with Seoul to break the current diplomatic impasse with a grand humanitarian gesture. Whether it’s vaccines, food or infrastructure development, North Korea needs help right now.

    Military Exceptionalism

    It’s still early in the Biden administration. Remember: Obama didn’t achieve his major foreign policy milestones in Iran and Cuba until later in his second term. Biden no doubt wants to accumulate some political capital first by repairing relations with allies and participating in multilateral fora on the global stage and achieving some economic success on the home front.

    The administration’s position on military spending, however, suggests that Biden is wedded to the most conventional of thinking. The United States is poised to end its intervention in Afghanistan and reduce its commitments in the Middle East. It is not involved in any major military conflicts. Everyone is wondering how the administration is going to pay for its ambitious infrastructure plans.

    So, why has Biden asked for a larger military budget? The administration’s 2022 request for the Pentagon is $715 billion, an increase of $10 billion, plus an additional $38 billion for military-related spending at the Energy Department and other agencies. True, the administration is hoping to boost non-military spending by a larger percentage. It is planning to remove the “overseas contingency operations” line item that funded the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    But if there ever was a time to reduce US military spending, it’s now. The pandemic proved the utter worthlessness of tanks and destroyers in defending the homeland from the most urgent threats. Greater cooperation with China, a renewed nuclear pact with Iran and a détente with both Cuba and North Korea would all provide powerful reasons for the United States to reduce military spending. To use Joe Biden’s signature phrase, “C’mon, man!”

    *[This article was originally published by Foreign Policy in Focus.]

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

  • in

    The Sad Reality of US Dealmaking

    The fallout from US President Joe Biden’s week in Europe has just begun. There was no dramatic moment that sums it up, though the media vaguely hoped the one-on-one with Russian President Vladimir Putin might produce something akin to the jabs, uppercuts and right crosses of Rocky Balboa vs. Ivan Drago in their opening round. But there was nothing to see. The fight wasn’t televised and Biden carefully avoided the risk of seeing both on stage in a joint press conference.

    Though no spectacular shift in US–Russia relations will likely appear in the months ahead as a result of the encounter, some aspects of Biden’s performance concerning the posture and attitude of the US on the world stage may prove pivotal. Biden’s actions and rhetoric in Europe have contributed in significant ways both to defining his presidential legacy and clarifying the shifting vocation of the US in a world that has become far more complex than the one previous presidents had to deal with.

    Biden’s Optimism vs. the Media’s Pessimism

    READ MORE

    Biden seems to realize it as he frequently refers to this moment of history as an “inflection point.” He’s right, though he seems to have seriously misjudged the nature of the tectonic shift the world is undergoing. Biden defines such inflection points as “moments in time when we’ve made hard decisions about who we are.” But the era in which presidential decisions in themselves constituted historical inflection points probably ended in March 2003, when the US, under George W. Bush, invaded Iraq. Forces were then unleashed that no longer await presidential decisions. Powerful undercurrents of history, the economy and of nature itself — all beyond any politician’s control — have been fueling the largely unmanageable force behind today’s inflection.

    Jonathan Lemire and Aamer Madhani are the authors of an AP article that focuses on Biden as America’s pitchman to the rest of the world. The title of the article is: “Biden Abroad: Pitching America to Welcoming If Wary Allies.” Reduced to its essence, Biden’s pitch consisted of reassuring his allies that he can be trusted simply because he is not Donald Trump, even though his policies have shown little indication of breaking with the former president’s innovations.

    Embed from Getty Images

    The world remembers Biden’s previous boss, Barack Obama, who before his election in 2008 claimed to represent a radical shift away from everything that Bush stood for. He even convinced the Nobel committee he was a prince of peace. Once in office, Obama prolonged most of Bush’s policies, including foreign wars, reinforcing the surveillance state and maintaining tax cuts for the wealthy, all of which imperiled the economy itself, leading to the 2008 financial crisis that he was tasked with solving.

    Lemire and Madhani note that whilst the allies in the G7 appeared relieved by the feeling that there was now “a steady hand at the wheel,” they were far from convinced that the US was permanently back on an even keel. They did end up agreeing to the general drift of Biden’s campaign to highlight the opposition between democracy (the West) and autocracy (China and Russia). 

    At the same time, the authors remarked that “Germany, Italy and the representatives for the European Union [were] reluctant to call out China, a valuable trading partner, too harshly.” More significantly, they noted that there was “a wariness in some European capitals that it was Biden, rather than Trump, who was the aberration to American foreign policy and that the United States could soon fall back into a transactional, largely inward-looking approach.”

    Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:

    Transactional:

    An adjective that describes not only the willingness to make deals with others, but also the refusal to recognize the existence of anything other than calculation of individual interest in the conduct of one’s affairs and relationships even with permanent partners and allies.

    Contextual Note

    After his meeting with Putin, Biden declared: “This is not about trust. This is about self-interest and verification of self-interest.” He needed to reassure the American electorate that, unlike Trump, he had nothing but mistrust for Putin. But he may have been signaling what most Americans always want to hear: that nobody should be trusted, because all relationships begin — and most end — with the assertion of self-interest. America’s European allies have understood that, despite protestations of solid alliances, special relationships and undying friendship, Trump’s approach of reducing everything to a transactional deal was a true description of the reality of US policy under every recent president.

    The language used by the media demonstrates this reality with some clarity. The AP journalists already described Biden’s action as “pitching America.” In an article with the title, “Biden Struggles to Sell Democracy Abroad When It Faces Challenges at Home,” The Washington Post described Biden’s behavior in Europe to that of a street barker. “But then, like any good pitchman, Biden quickly regained his footing,” the Post reports. Diplomacy always involves self-interest and always contains an agenda, but when it consistently appears as a pitch, potential customers begin to doubt the sincerity. The authors of the AP article make it clear that, however persuasive the pitch, Biden has not yet closed any deal. They even seem to doubt one is likely.

    Historical Note

    Writing for Spectator World, historian Andrew Bacevich commented that Joe Biden’s premise concerning US leadership of democratically-inclined allies sounds like a desire to return to an imagined status quo that, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, appeared to be heralding what George H.W. Bush called “a new world order.” But in this century, history has moved on in ways Biden and most American politicians appear either not to have noticed or persist in willingly ignoring. “The idea that a US-led bloc of Western nations will determine the future of the planet will become increasingly implausible,” Bacevich explains.

    The historian puts in perspective Biden’s insistence on managing an inflection point: “While repeatedly insisting that history had reached ‘an inflection point’, he simultaneously reiterated the claim made by every US president since Harry Truman (Trump excepted) that ‘the partnership between Europe and the United States’ will determine the fate of humankind.”

    The G7 is that partnership, which now includes Japan. But the fate of humankind will rely on the interplay of forces that no single nation or group of nations controls. If there were a way of getting humankind itself into the picture through, say, a global democratic revolution that respects the classic democratic dictum of one man, one vote, the combat to promote democracy over autocracy might make some sense. But that is on no one’s agenda. The degree of inequality between nations and within nations may now have reached a point of no return.

    .custom-post-from {float:right; margin: 0 10px 10px; max-width: 50%; width: 100%; text-align: center; background: #000000; color: #ffffff; padding: 15px 0 30px; }
    .custom-post-from img { max-width: 85% !important; margin: 15px auto; filter: brightness(0) invert(1); }
    .custom-post-from .cpf-h4 { font-size: 18px; margin-bottom: 15px; }
    .custom-post-from .cpf-h5 { font-size: 14px; letter-spacing: 1px; line-height: 22px; margin-bottom: 15px; }
    .custom-post-from input[type=”email”] { font-size: 14px; color: #000 !important; width: 240px; margin: auto; height: 30px; box-shadow:none; border: none; padding: 0 10px; background-image: url(“https://www.fairobserver.com/wp-content/plugins/moosend_form/cpf-pen-icon.svg”); background-repeat: no-repeat; background-position: center right 14px; background-size:14px;}
    .custom-post-from input[type=”submit”] { font-weight: normal; margin: 15px auto; height: 30px; box-shadow: none; border: none; padding: 0 10px 0 35px; background-color: #1878f3; color: #ffffff; border-radius: 4px; display: inline-block; background-image: url(“https://www.fairobserver.com/wp-content/plugins/moosend_form/cpf-email-icon.svg”); background-repeat: no-repeat; background-position: 14px center; background-size: 14px; }

    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox { width: 90%; margin: auto; position: relative; display: flex; flex-wrap: wrap;}
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox label { text-align: left; display: block; padding-left: 32px; margin-bottom: 0; cursor: pointer; font-size: 11px; line-height: 18px;
    -webkit-user-select: none;
    -moz-user-select: none;
    -ms-user-select: none;
    user-select: none;
    order: 1;
    color: #ffffff;
    font-weight: normal;}
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox label a { color: #ffffff; text-decoration: underline; }
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox input { position: absolute; opacity: 0; cursor: pointer; height: 100%; width: 24%; left: 0;
    right: 0; margin: 0; z-index: 3; order: 2;}
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox input ~ label:before { content: “f0c8”; font-family: Font Awesome 5 Free; color: #eee; font-size: 24px; position: absolute; left: 0; top: 0; line-height: 28px; color: #ffffff; width: 20px; height: 20px; margin-top: 5px; z-index: 2; }
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox input:checked ~ label:before { content: “f14a”; font-weight: 600; color: #2196F3; }
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox input:checked ~ label:after { content: “”; }
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox input ~ label:after { position: absolute; left: 2px; width: 18px; height: 18px; margin-top: 10px; background: #ffffff; top: 10px; margin: auto; z-index: 1; }
    .custom-post-from .error{ display: block; color: #ff6461; order: 3 !important;}

    Trump’s presidency taught the Europeans about the dangers of getting on board with grand US-led projects. They are beyond risky. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), even more than the Paris climate accord, provides a perfect example. At a truly interesting historical moment marked by the election this weekend of a new president in Iran, the US actually has an opportunity to push toward a solution that would involve reconciling a number of competing interests stretching across a wide expanse of the globe.

    The New York Times believes that the election of Ebrahim Raisi as Iran’s new president may be the perfect opportunity for Biden. Its reasoning makes sense. If Raisi makes the concessions necessary to remove US sanctions, Iranians will have the hope of returning to a prosperous economy. Still, the heritage of Donald Trump has seriously weakened US credibility. “The Iranians have demanded a written commitment that no future American government could scrap the deal as Mr. Trump did,” the Times reports. “They want something permanent — ‘a reasonable-sounding demand,’ in the words of one senior American official, ‘that no real democracy can make.’”

    What the official means is that a real democracy could make that “reasonable-sounding demand,” but not the US version of democracy. The Times explains: “Mr. Biden, like President Barack Obama before him, could never have gotten the consent of two-thirds of the U.S. Senate. So it is termed an ‘executive agreement’ that any future president could reverse, just as Mr. Trump did.”

    Bacevich is right. The US, even with Europe, cannot “determine the future of the planet.” It can’t even define a line of policy that will hold for more than four years. The most powerful nation in the world is also the most powerless.

    *[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More