Liberalism versus Democracy: Round 1

A lot has been written recently about the decline of democracy and the the crumbling of the liberal world order.

It has indeed become something of a commonplace to set the election of Donald Trump beside the success of the Leave campaign leading to Brexit, then go on to point to the electoral shock of the AfD entering the Reichstag in Germany and the steady rise of Marine LePen and the National Front in France, and conclude that if the sky isn’t precisely falling, it certainly is clouding up.

Add a dash of Hungary and Orban, the Poles and PiS, and even the plucky Czechs leaning to the right, and we are forced to recognize that a hard shift to the right is threatening the status quo of the Pax Americana, that  understated version of imperialism that has soothed the world’s liberals into a profound sense of righteousness and absolute certainty in the justice of the overweening power they have wielded ever since WWII ended.

The hierarchy of significance of these offenses against the world order is clear: liberalism is the hallmark of the Anglosphere and for right-wing illiberal populism to gain such power as to elect a goon like Trump in the imperial metropole and to have the sidekick Brits kick against the pricks of the European Union is almost unbelievable. These two nations have after all been running the world on the “liberal imperialism” plan for centuries now.

Next in order of importance are the two continental champions, the erstwhile co-leaders of the EU, who have struggled so long to pretend that the Bundesbank (aka Germany) has not actually taken control of the European project, even to the extent of ignoring directives issued by Washington. France and Germany, whose rivalry was central to the most murderous wars of the 20th Century and possibly all human history, are drifting to the right and that is almost as scary as having l’Orange in the Oval and the UK mounting one long racist rally and calling it Brexit.

Almost as an afterthought come the former Warsaw Pact nations and their ugly fascist-leaning governments that seem to be inexorably pushing their peoples back to the authoritarian past, apparently just because they really really don’t like Muslims. And as was the case when the Balkans exploded less than a decade after the death of Tito, many western commentators point to the history of these former East Block nations as an explanation for this descent into nationalist xenophobia. They are, after all, not part of “the West”, not really.

It is usually the case that very little time is spent on laying out what is meant by ‘democracy’ or what the ‘liberal’ in the “liberal world order” really signifies in these articles. We are assumed to know and, sure enough, most people in the west are quite willing to throw around the term ‘democracy’ without ever giving a moment’s thought to what it is, outside occasionally quoting Churchill’s reluctant approval.

One way to think about the ‘democracy’ and ‘liberalism’ that are usually mashed up into our beloved liberal-democracy is to recognize that each plays the role of limiting the possible excesses of the other in a modern state. Democracy is rooted in the notions of consent of the governed and majorities as the measure of what might be called the will of the electorate. Liberalism, as the ultimate expression of individualism, acts to limit the tendency of majorities to ride roughshod over the rights and freedoms of minorities and individuals who deviate from the norm.

Many of the institutional hallmarks of liberal democracy are more liberal than democratic per se. Rule of law, equality before the law, the full panoply of human rights, civil rights and individual rights: any or all of these might be dismissed as irrelevant or contrary to custom and belief by a majority of citizens in a modern state. Conservative polities in Muslim-majority countries may not accept the equality of women in certain legal contexts or the right of gays to engage in either sexual congress or marital union. Nationalist majorities in Europe may cling to a preference for “nation-states” as they were originally created in the bygone 19th century as “imagined communities” of people sharing a language, a culture, and a historical tradition, thereby rejecting immigrants and immigration, and denying them the liberal rights and privilege that are assumed to belong to citizens.

As Kathy Smits says in her discussion of Duncan Bell’s Reordering the World: Essays on Liberalism and Empire:

     “… it is virtually impossible to step outside liberalism in contemporary politics and political thinking.  In its protean expression as ideology, normative philosophy and discursive field, liberalism ‘virtually monopolizes political theory and practice in the Angloworld'”

Put another way, for most westerners liberalism is the air we breathe, the ground we walk on and the lingua franca of all our conversations about values. Or at least it has been up until relatively recently. Keats caught the overwhelming power of the liberal worldview when he said

            ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, –- that is all                                                                         Ye know on earth, and all ye need to  know.’

A slightly less respectful expression of what liberalism means to the vast majority of people in  western countries would be something along the lines of “Everything I need to know I learned in kindergarden”. Hence we have the poignant irony of a thought leader like Ben Affleck defending the Islamic world from the Islamophobia of bigots everywhere by declaiming that a billion Muslims just “want to go to the store and have some sandwiches”, to which Egyptian-American Muslim scholar Shadi Hamid replies:

This is why the well-intentioned discourse of “they bleed just like us; they want to eat sandwiches and raise their children just like we do” is a red herring.* After all, one can like sandwiches and want peace, or whatever else, while also supporting the death penalty for apostasy, as 88 percent of Egyptian Muslims and 83 percent of Jordanian Muslims did in a 2011 Pew poll.13 In the same survey, 80 percent of Egyptian respondents said they favored stoning adulterers, while 70 percent supported cutting off the hands of thieves.                     *

And that is without asking the obvious question. “How popular are sandwiches among the world’s Muslims, especially among those living outside the sandwich-eating west?”

For a democracy to be democratic there needs to be some mechanism for majorities to choose those who will govern in their names. The usual mechanism for this is to hold elections to send representatives of specific groups to a parliament or congress where laws will be made and national initiatives debated and approved. Corollary to this requirement is a politically aware, preferably active, electorate.

At this point in the defining of what constitutes a democracy, a western liberal will almost always add something about either human rights or rule of law or both. That is, westerners usually reflexively define democracy as liberal-democracy and find it near-impossible to understand how that undermines the very basis of democracy if democracy is understood to involve the expression of the values and beliefs of the people who make up the demos.

In Indonesia, the nation presently wearing the crown for SE Asian “beacon of democracy” now that Suu Kyi and Myanmar have lost that title after such a short reign, there are politicians and Islamist civil society representatives who label “liberalism” a foreign ideology along with communism, socialism and religious radicalism. According to Pew, something like 93% of Indonesians reject homosexuality, more than in one-party authoritarian Malaysia or even Pakistan with its revolving door democratic and military dictatorships. And yet, unlike those two nations, Indonesia has no law criminalizing homosexual behaviour or relationships between consenting adults. Only in Aceh does a sharia-based regional law applying only to Muslims criminalize homosexuality.

When politicians and civil society spokespersons call for a rejection of LGBTQ++ rights and for laws to criminalize homosexual acts, they are speaking for a very large majority of Indonesians. Nevertheless, it is a journalistic and academic commonplace to see these politicians and these groups as “threats to democracy”. That is, to represent the values and beliefs of the majority of an electorate that does not share liberal values as they have evolved over the past 2 or 3 decades in that tiny region of the planet known as “the west” is to be “anti-democratic”, whereas to uphold the values of, among others, the former colonial powers in the region, is to safeguard “democracy”.

It really doesn’t take much imagination to understand why it is that electorates around the globe are turning away in droves from this conception of “democracy”, seeing how it is little more than a version of the kind of liberal cultural imperialism that Kipling celebrated and that Winston Churchill was willing to defend with war crimes and genocide, those markers of the liberal-democrat venturing outside her own democratic backyard.

When Madeleine Albright suggested that the sanctions that killed half a million Iraqi children were “worth it” and Hillary Clinton crowed “We came. We saw. He died.” in celebration of the death by ritual sodomization of Gaddafi, they were speaking for liberal internationalists everywhere. Unfortunately for those who would see liberal-democracy spread to the vast tracts of the globe that are yet to come under its sway, the great majority of people outside the liberal-democratic west find it much easier to imagine themselves in the place of those Iraqi children and a man like Gadaffi than they can see themselves reflected in plutocratic psycho-killers like Albright and Clinton, neither of whom is easily imagined sitting down and having a sandwich with the world’s billion Muslims.

*Hamid, Shadi. Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World (p. 13). St. Martin’s Press. Kindle Edition.

 

 

 

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Bouquets and Brickbats for the Blessed

The ethnic cleansing of Rohingya people from Rakhine State in Myanmar is a still-unfolding horror for the victims of the Tatmadaw and Rakhine militias who have deliberately, and with wide-ranging support from almost all sectors of Myanmar society, driven more than 600,000 stateless people into squalid makeshift camps in Bangladesh.

The effects of this latest round of forced displacement have rippled out beyond the sufferings of the Rohingya people to include the destruction of Aung Suu Kyi’s carefully cultivated image as an icon of human rights advocacy. Her brazen denials that anything untoward has taken place, even going so far as to offer praise for the military’s success at maintaining “stability” in difficult circumstances, almost deserve some sort of reward for obstinacy in the face of massive international disapproval.

In reality she has been stripped of a few meaningless awards from virtue-signalling institutions like St. Hugh’s college (who have gone so far as to remove her portrait from the main entrance)  and the City of Oxford. Her honorary membership in a UK trade union will also be suspended.

One might be tempted to wonder how Unison feels about her Ministry of Labour offering a $3.50/day minimum wage law in the face of Myanmar union insistence that even $5.00/day is barely enough to cover daily expenses for most workers. But what has that to do with union membership, really?

Pope Francis shakes hands with Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyitaw, Myanmar
Pope Francis shakes hands with Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyitaw, Myanmar November 28, 2017. REUTERS/Max Rossi

Also caught in the harsh light that such brutality brings to bear on the difference between media imagery and real-world behaviour is Pope Francis, whose moral cowardice in refusing to utter the word Rohingya while calling for “peace” with all the grace and aplomb of a Miss World contestant deserves far more scorn than media outlets are apparently willing to express.

Rather than castigating him for what is by any measure a failure of moral responsibility, media outlets have been almost unanimous in excusing his silence as “tactical” and subsequently praising him for finally uttering the taboo-in-Burma term on his last day in Bangladesh. Emotionally charged photographs of a Rohingya man shedding tears of joy over Francis’ concession to decency accompanied the articles praising Francis for what is in reality nothing at all.

Such “icons” of humanistic values are thin on the ground these days and wise editors don’t want to toss yet another hot clickbait item into the dustbin of history.

Suu Kyi in Rakhine: A Job Well Done

It has been 6 weeks since State Councillor Aun Suu Kyi gave her stellar performance of Myanmar’s defiance of the international community regarding the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya from Rakhine State.

In that time, the media complex that frames and colors and highlights “news” emerging from SE Asia has shifted from a tendency to blame Suu Kyi for not speaking out and attempting to stop the unfolding tragedy to focus instead almost exclusively on the perpetrators, the conveniently named Tatmadaw.

Precisely how these ethical calculations are undertaken isn’t clear, but the difficulty of rebranding Suu Kyi from “democracy and human rights icon” to “Hitler-clone monster” after the fashion of Sadam or Gaddafi or Kim is obviously a major consideration, even if it is an “unconscious” one.

Yesterday, Suu Kyi visited the afflicted area of Rakhine for the the first time ever. She made stops in Rakhine during her election campaign but not in the north where the ethnic cleansing has been undertaken.

While there, aside from posing for photos, State Councillor Suu Kyi met with a group of Muslim religious leaders and told them three things: “they should live peacefully, the government is there to help them, and they should not quarrel among each other”, as reported by one of the religious leaders who attended the meeting.

And with yet another defiantly flung finger in the face of the UN and all the various human rights organizations currently vilifying the Tatmadaw and other security forces in the region, she congratulated the police and soldiers for a job well done under difficult circumstances.

suu kyi in rakhine

As I said in an earlier post, breathtaking.

 

Send in the Clown: Trump and American Credibility

With all the knicker-twisting going on about how the big baby with the brain of a reptile and his own transplanted anus for a mouth is dribbling the world toward the brink of a possibly nuclear exchange with North Korea, it might be wise to try to remember at least one previous American approach to war even though it’s not really a part of anyone’s Twitter stream or the all-revealing/all-disappearing news cycle.

According to David Halberstam, in his monumental pre-Twitter takedown of the notion of meritocracy, the ironically titled “The Best and The Brightest”, the sainted John F Kennedy remarked to James Reston, apropos of having had his ass taken to the woodshed over American imperialism by Nikita Kruschev, that he needed to beat up on some little 3rd world country that couldn’t be expected to fight back because

“…now we have a problem in trying to make our power credible, and Vietnam looks like the place.”

look ma no hands

Let that sink in while others of our kind are reveling in Ken Burns proto-fascist contention that the Vietnam War was entered into in “good faith”. One does not normally associate the brutal slaughter of millions and the near-total destruction of 3 small countries in order to make a nation’s power “credible” with anything like “good faith” but, you know, American.

Halberstam’s book makes a hash of the currently popular notion that intelligence and an Ivy League education make for better political decisions than knuckle-dragging racist morons like Trump are capable of making. And given that Kennedy and his circle of really smart white men were also profoundly racist, a lot of what passes for “insight” in the era of Trump versus all the smart people is obviously profoundly a-historical and as dumb as the proverbial sackful of hammers.

But I digress.

The bottom line is this: American Presidents and their co-conspirators in the security and defense establishments go to war on a regular basis. And those wars are pretty much always aimed at killing lots of people who aren’t white and not part of “The West”.

It is also the case they they are often entered into to establish the “credibility of American power”, an ever-shifting notion that is, apparently, regularly in need of reconfirmation. And nothing confirms power better than images of little mountains of dead men, women and children of a colour other than American white or black.

You would be hard pressed to find anyone who would question the observation that American power is perceived to be at a very low ebb at the moment; the wailing and the gnashing of teeth over the end of the “liberal global order” can even be heard over the sounds of the record-breaking seven wars that Obama-the-Intelligent conducted during his graceful and educated sojourn in the White House.

It is not so commonly noted but equally clear that yet another invasion of yet another military non-entity like Iraq is not likely to impress anyone the American establishment thinks needs to be impressed with “the credibility of American power”. Now that Russia is back on the military intervention circuit and China is transmitting images of its ultra-modern hi-tech weaponry and building military bases in the South China Sea, establishing the “credibility” of American power might take something more along the lines of a limited nuclear exchange with a feisty little rabbit like North Korea.

And who better to establish the innocence of Ken Burns and all those American tax-payers who can’t stand being held responsible for the actions of their democratically-elected leaders than Donald “Not My President” Trump, “progressive” America’s very own Hitler?

I mean, think about it, once the smoke clears (not the radiation mind you or the global fear and trembling), all Good Americans will be able to blame the war on Evil Clown Trump and most of the dead will be non-white foreigners anyway.

Just the way they like it in the land of the free and home of the brave.

Just the way they blame Bush-Cheney for Iraq and Johnson-Nixon for Vietnam. And hell, they’ve already forgotten what they did to Korea last time around.

As George Carlin once sagely noted:

What did we do wrong in Vietnam? We pulled out! Huh? Not a very manly thing to do is it? When you’re fucking people, you gotta stay in there and fuck ’em good. Fuck ‘em all the way, fuck ‘em ‘til the end, stay in there and keep fucking ’em until they’re all dead. We left a few women and children alive in Vietnam and we haven’t felt good about ourselves since!

 

 

Suu Kyi of Burma: Khaleesi Gives Them All The Finger

Suu Kyi’s performance yesterday in her first address to the international community in the wake of her government’s recent ethnic cleansing in Rakhine was nothing less than breathtaking.

A more dignified “fuck you” has likely never been delivered to so many by someone so small.

Not only did she not admit to any sin of omission on her part for not speaking out against the flagrant human rights abuses being committed by soldiers and local people (very likely as she spoke), but neither did she offer any criticism of any aspect of the way the military has conducted itself.

On the contrary, she had nothing but praise for the way her government has improved things in Myanmar.

She managed to find a way to use a 50% decrease in AIDS deaths (a figure reported last year related to the period 2010-2016 and therefore having nothing to do with her administration) as a metaphorical illustration of how ignoring specific problems– like hundreds of thousands of her people fleeing rape, arson and murder– while attending to general improvements in social programs like health care and education is a more efficient and rational approach to such problems as ethnic cleansing.

Like I said, breathtaking.

She doubled down on every bit of political doublespeak she has resorted to since crowning herself Khaleesi to avoid saying directly that she either supports the ethnic cleansing of “Muslims residing in Rakhine” or is utterly indifferent to the suffering being visited daily on hundreds of thousands of Rohingya:

  1. Rakhine Muslims are not the only ethnic minority in the state whose needs the government must attend to.
  2. Terrorism must be dealt with.
  3. Everyone has problems. Everybody hurts. We should all care about the pain and suffering of all, not just those “Muslims residing in Rakhine”.
  4. There is false news out there and we need evidence. Foreign journalists must be wary of spreading misinformation.

And on and on. The bottom line: “I have heard your criticisms and I reject them.”

In a number of instances, Suu Kyi simply lied.

She claimed there had been no clearances or fighting since September 5th. Journalists taken on a tour of the area after that date reported fresh fires and the sounds of guns near to where they were.

She claimed that all ethnicities had equal access to health care and education in Rakhine. The Rohingya are denied not only access to health care and education but many are living in what some have described as concentration camps, and have limited travel rights even when living “off the reservation”.

Somewhere in that grand flatfooted rhetorical gesture that she performed in front of a global audience yesterday, she made a claim about rule of law and equality before the law that would have been hilarious if it weren’t for the mountain of corpses and charred remains of villages smoldering in the wake of soldiers and citizens whose impunity has been established and reiterated many times over the past 5 years and which is essentially an element of Myanmar culture at this point.

It will be interesting to see how this firmly delivered “giving of the finger” to the media and the NGOs that created “The Lady” Daw Aung San Suu Kyi “Democracy Icon” is spun by her international enablers, given the audacity of her performance.

Repressive laws that discourage free speech in Myanmar plus a tendency on the part of journalists in SE Asia to temper their own speech in order to retain access and keep their jobs may have the predictable effect of softening Suu Kyi’s blunt rejection of liberal internationalism in the eyes of the international audience. We will have to see.

One problem, of course, is that as long as a country like Thailand continues to present an easy target like a “Junta” for SE Asia pundits to take aim at, it won’t matter how many Rohingya die or how many lives are devastated, the simple fact of Myanmar having held an election to put Khaleesi on her throne will be used as a handy screen for all the investment pouring into what has been called Asia’s “last frontier”.

“Democracy”, as Suu Kyi and the generals well know, works as well as Dragons when it comes to legitimizing and sanitizing all sorts of things that liberals might otherwise find beyond the pale.

ASSK

Trump(ets) of Doom: The Rifles Next Time

Without question, the death of IWW member Heather Heyer at the hands of a Nazi-sympathizer while she protested Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia has put an end to the most recent phase of the far right’s struggle to gain traction in the mainstream of American discourse.

As Angela Nagle put it at Baffler recently, referring to the online horde of alt-right ironists that make up what was heretofore the most visible face of the movement, “But how many of these racist trolls are committed to the real-life violence and potential state repression that the movement’s goals will now summon forth? ”

I imagine “very few” would be the most likely answer to that rhetorical question. The ever-popular metaphorical “mom’s basement” may be a lonely place but it beats the hell out of bending over to pick up the metaphorical soap just dropped by that shaven-headed thug with the swastika tattoo in a federal prison.

But there are elements of the vast and scattered racist right that may come to see this as their moment to shine.

There was something both ominous and bizarre about the performance of the heavily armed and uniformed militia that showed up at Charlottesville, paraded before a number of cameras, then seemed to disappear from view while antifa scrapped with good ol’ boys in the streets in very much the same fashion as we became accustomed to a few months ago when the alt-right was holding “free speech” rallies as incitement for the antifa to come out and play.

Where did they go? inquiring minds want to know.

As has been pointed out by some of the less romantic pundits on the American left, if it comes to real violence between antifa and all those AR-15 packing 2nd Amendment lads, the left can kiss its skinny ass goodbye. Not that anyone is listening.

The present momentary frenzy of jouissance that has overtaken much of the online discourse of the American left as it casts off all doubt about the moral quandary involved in the “punching a Nazi” question, with some even proposing a call to arms, highlights one often overlooked feature of the American left that threatens any kind of success for the movement itself.

Before they are either socialist-materialist-class struggle leftists or the more numerous and broadly appealing left-identitarians, American leftists are Americans first and foremost.

This explains why one dead white girl in Virginia evokes an exaltation of rage while hundreds of dead children in North Africa and the Greater Middle East barely elicit a grunt from great swaths of “the left”. It explains why airports get thronged by protesters opposing Trump’s Muslim bans but airbases from which lethal American machinery and manpower depart daily to kill those banned immigrants before they leave their homes are not disrupted at all.

And it explains why a few days or weeks from now it will be as if none of this ever happened or will only be remembered as a few memes and bumper-sticker style slogans useful for putting an end to a discussion that threatens to demand a little thought.

Because without a doubt, something will happen that will utterly erase the morbid excitement of praising a dead colleague and invoking The Battle of Lewisham as if every keyboard warrior on the American left had just returned from a turn with the POUM in Catalonia. And knowing Americans, it will involve guns. Or bombs. Or cruise missiles. Or drones.

It is, after all, the American way. If it weren’t, those militiamen would be in prison right now.

 

Are We Not Men We Are DEVO.jpg

 

Trump(ets) of Doom: America the Beautiful

The American “left” has a new hero today: a young woman, apparently a DSA member, was killed by a fascist using his car as a weapon in an ISIS-style attack against anti-fascist protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her picture has been posted on my Twitter timeline a number of times already and I’m sure over the next few days we will be seeing and hearing more about her.

This is in sharp and meaningful contrast to the faceless, nameless hundreds who die every week in American missile attacks, bombing runs and various other military actions undertaken by American-armed and -supported militaries around the globe. Outside of a small number of journalists who relentlessly make noise about the various ongoing imperialist wars being conducted by or with the complicity of the US, the “left” in America seems indifferent.

Let a few hundred or a couple thousand white nationalist fascists gather somewhere to make a bogus case for “free speech” as a cloak for racist ranting, and the American “left” is there to oppose them. This is probably a good thing, considering the history of American police and local officials tending to side with such people when push comes to shove.

But let a few American drone operators working at a base in Nevada go to work of a morning to kill a few dozen brown or black people in some country where people earn less in a day than most American “leftists” earn in half an hour and there is no one there to stop them. There is racism and then there is killing PoC in the name of freedom and democracy.

Let American soldiers and marines and sailors go to work all over the US to do their part in support of the American imperium and no one is there to draw attention to the reality of what these people do. The “left”, like Americans of every political stripe, pays its taxes and makes its choice. And that choice is the same one made every day by every other citizen complicit or proudly supportive of American militarism: America! Fuck yeah!

I imagine that some proud DSA member will be able to theorize that killing PoC in poverty-stricken nations half a world away doesn’t approach the levels of evil achieved by marching with swastikas and making Kekistani memes in your spare time.

But I call bullshit on that. I mean, that Trump, he’s a fascist. Right?