Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Three notes on “anti”

October 18, 2017

1. Just as I had expected, when antifa suddenly hit the world of the media, it was (and still is) almost invariably heard as anTEEfa, in accordance with what I have already written about  (here, here, here and here) as the default rule (which I called a “misrule”) for stress in unfamiliar words, namely, that in words that in the syllable the stress goes on the penultimate. In fact, this phenomenon was discussed on Language Log, in a post by Mark Liberman, who noted that “there’s strong pressure to apply penultimate stress to vowel-final borrowed or constructed words in English, as in ‘Tiramisu‘ or ‘Samarra‘ or ‘NATO’.” Only commenters who knew the origin of the term — an abbreviation of Antifaschisten in 70s-80s Germany — argued for an antepenultimate stress, as in German.

I should say that it isn’t only in borrowed or constructed words that this misrule (in its more general form, as I have discussed) is followed, but more generally in words that one encounters in writing before hearing them spoken; ‘awry’ is a famous example (which I first learned about in Richard Llewellyn’s 1939 novel How Green Was My Valley). In my posts I have also discussed some exceptions to the rule, to which I would like to add another: it doesn’t necessarily apply to vowel-final words of more than two syllables if the vowel is represented by y (if only one consonant stands between it and the preceding vowel); here the preference is for antepenultimate stress, by analogy with hundreds of such words in English (bravery, variety, melody etc.).

2. The antifa phenomenon, and the generally hateful counterprotests by various self-styled leftist entities to demonstrations by what they perceive as hate  groups (though Patriot Prayer, for one, hardly seems to fit the description), made me think of calling them “anti-hate hate” by analogy with what was once called “anti-missile missile” (now it’s “anti-ballistic missile”). And it reminded me of Tom Lehrer’s introduction, over 50 years ago,  to his song National Brotherhood Week, in which he said, “there are people in this world who do not love their fellow human beings, and I hate people like that.”

3. The correct grouping of components (if there are more than two) in compound words and phrases often presents difficulties in English. These are partially alleviated by hyphenation, but people are often negligent in using it, and it doesn’t always work. For instance: what do you call some who opposes Muslim extremists? An anti-Muslim extremist? (That is, if you use bracketing, an anti-[Muslim extremist].) But that would read the same as someone who is an extreme anti-Muslim (that is, an [anti-Muslim] extremist). And so the British writer Maajid Nawaz, who was once himself a radical Islamist but has turned into an opponent of Islamic extremism, has found himself branded an “anti-Muslim extremist” by none other than the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), alongside the likes of Pamela Geller and Frank Gaffney, as recently reported in Salon.



October 18, 2017

When Mariano Rajoy, the primer minister of Spain, sent armed police to violently suppress the (admitted illegal) referendum on independence conducted by the government of Catalonia, he was following the standard playbook of a right-wing leader.

As I’ve written before, the main difference, in opinion, between left-of-center and right-of-center politics is that the former is based on hope and the latter on fear.

The hope is that things will get better for people. But to inspire such hope a charismatic leader is necessary, and nearly all electoral victories of left-of-center parties happen when such a leader is present. (I list examples in the cited post.) When, on occasion, a left-of-center party wins without one, its success is ephemeral, as shown by the French Socialist Party under François Hollande.

The fear is that the some “other” threatens the people. The “other” may be another country or set of countries, or some ethnic, political or cultural minority.

Sometimes the fear is factually based — that is, the threat may be real. As a popular button in the sixties had it, even paranoids have real enemies. In that case the people usually seek a leader seen as competent to deal with the threat (Churchill in 1940 is a good example).

But often the threat is manufactured, whether spontaneously or as a part of propaganda serving some special interest. It may be ascribed to a country against which there already exists a prejudice, to domestic groups associated with such a country (“foreigners”), or to groups somehow seen as suspects (Catholics, Jews, Muslims, freemasons, “radicals” of any stripe, and so on). In those cases the fear is wholly irrational, and mere competence is not enough; what people look for in a leader is an image of strength.

What conveys such an image may vary. High military rank obviously fills the bill: witness Eisenhower (when the threat was communism) or de Gaulle (Algerian nationalism). Without such a qualification, leaders must improvise. By virtue of his bullying personality, Donald Trump has convinced a significant portion of the American people that he has the “toughness” to protect their country from China, Muslims and immigrants.

What, then, is a mild-mannered civilian politician to do? Ronald Reagan provides an example: he earned his image of strength when, as governor of California, he sent the the highway patrol and then the national guard to put down “radical” student demonstrations in Berkeley.  Later, as president of the United States, he refused negotiations with the the striking air-traffic controllers’ union and abruptly fired them.

Currently, Putin, Erdoğan and Duterte are examples of right-leaning leaders who earned their tough images by violent crackdowns against Chechens, Kurds and drug dealers, respectively.

Rajoy, who is now (like Reagan)  consistently refusing negotiations, is merely following their example. When the time comes for new elections, he can boast of his strength in putting down separatists.

Grand Tour

July 8, 2017

I wasn’t planning to write about the goings-on of this year Tour de France, only a note about its geography. But I feel compelled to make a few comments after the events of the last few days.

Yesterday’s photo finish in stage 7 was resolved in favor of Marcel Kittel over Edvald Boasson Hagen on the basis of, we are told, the superior camera technology (shooting at 10,000 frames per second) available to the judges. Okay, I’ll take their word for it.

But Tuesday’s decision in stage 4, disqualifying Peter Sagan for supposedly elbowing Mark Cavendish, was based on the same videos that everyone else saw, and as far as I can tell the cycling world — riders and fans — agrees that no such elbowing took place. The videos — from front, back and above — have been shown over and over, and the obvious conclusion is that if anyone did anything dangerous it was Cavendish. Only the mainstream media (AP, BBC, Reuters and their ilk) follow their usual habit accepting the verdict of a judicial authority as fact, and so they write simply that Sagan elbowed Cavendish. But this is not like a criminal case in which one writes “alleged” before conviction but drops it after.

The judges’ decision has left aourg bad taste reminiscent of Bush v. Gore.

Back to what I was going to write about.

That fateful stage 4 wended, it so happens, through the territory of what once had been the Duchy of Lorraine. The previous stage (which Sagan won) did so through what is still the Grand Duchy (Grand Duché, Großherzogtum) of Luxembourg.

What makes Luxembourg “grand”?

Before about 1800 there was only one grand duchy in the West, that of Tuscany, resulting from the expansion of the Duchy of Florence under the Medici. But Napoleon, in 1806, made several of the German states allied with him into grand duchies, and the Congress of Vienna (1815) made even more, Luxembourg being among them. Before that, except for the twenty years (1795–1815) of being annexed to France, it had been a just plain duchy within the Holy Roman Empire, like Lorraine, but without its own dukes: the title was held, after 1477, by Habsburg kings or emperors, together with the rest of the Low Countries.

Oddly enough, when Luxembourg was just a duchy, it was much grander (plus grand, größer) — by a factor of more then four! — than the present grand duchy. It was elevated from an originally German (Franconian) county to duchy in the 14th century when it absorbed some adjacent counties, some of them in the neighboring Walloon country,  and from that time on French became the preferred language of government. This remained the case even after the Walloon part was split off (the last of Luxembourg’s partitions) and given to newly formed Belgium in 1839; that part, in fact, included a  the region of Arlon, the provincial capital, where at the time the ut spoken language was Germanic (Luxembourgish), though by now it’s mostly French.

But officially little Luxembourg (the luxem part was originally lucilin, which both means and is cognate to ‘little’) is still grand.

The Duchy of Lorraine was larger than Luxembourg even at its largest, but it never got a chance to became a grand duchy: it was absorbed into the kingdom of France in 1761. But at least it is now a part of the French region called Grand Est.

That damned electoral college, again

November 11, 2016

Sixteen years ago, in the wake of one of the most contested presidential elections in American history (and one in which, as in the recent one, the winner of the popular vote lost the electoral one), I wrote an essay in which, among other things, I analyzed the effect of changing our electoral system without amending the Constitution, by having the electors in each state determined by proportional representation rather than by winner-take-all. The result was that, in that election, Gore and Bush would have received 263 votes each, and Nader 12. Under the Constitution, then, the election would have been decided — even more undemocratically — by the House of Representatives. But of course the different system would probably have produced different results in the vote, and, as I wrote then, “in a system in which ‘third-party’ candidates are potential recipients of electoral votes, the electors might regain some of the discretion that the framers of the Constitution had intended for them to have.” It was perfectly possible, I wrote further, “that the state Green Party organizations would operate on the lesser-evil principle and instruct their electors – ahead of time, of course, so that voters would know – to vote for Gore.”

I subjected the recent election to a similar analysis, and found an equivalent result: 265 for Clinton, 259 for Trump, 12 for Johnson, and one each for Stein and McMullen. If the scenario I just imagined were to occur, what would Johnson’s electors do?

I have always thought of self-styled Libertarians as Republicans who liked to smoke pot, and I believe that their electors would choose Trump over Clinton.

This is exactly what would happen in the impossible case of replacing the electoral college with direct elections. Neither major candidate having received a majority of the popular vote, a runoff would be required, and I suspect that most of the Johnson vote would go to Trump (he is, after all, if not exactly a libertarian, at least a libertine), giving him the victory.

Now all we need is for all fifty states to adopt the principle of proportional representation for presidential electors.

Charisma on the left

November 11, 2016

Let me quote from an article, purportedly written by a German journalist after John F. Kennedy’s Berlin speech in 1963.

[T]here is another term with which American journalists describe John F. Kennedy, and his speech justified the description. The term is charismatic.

We are used to thinking of charisma in Max Weber’s terms: as “an individual’s quality regarded as beyond the everyday (originally… as magically induced), by virtue of which he or she is treated as someone with powers or qualities that are supernatural or superhuman, or at least beyond the everyday and not accessible to just anyone, or as God-sent or as exemplary, and therefore as a ‘leader.’”

In politics, this is the form of charisma that we have seen in dictators. But we see a reflex of it in certain democratically elected leaders as well, leaders whom the people treat with a trust and a deference bordering on awe: Churchill, Eisenhower, De Gaulle, Adenauer. Note that these leaders were all in their sixties when they first attained their positions of power. Their charisma is that of what Freud called a “father figure.” Note also that all these figures are all, politically, on the right.

John F. Kennedy’s charisma is different; Freud might have called it that of a “brother figure.” It power resides in making the people believe that he is one of them, not above them à la Weber. And Kennedy’s German phrase, with the emphasis – perhaps unintentional – on ein, embodies that power.

I posit that it is this kind of charisma, which is already coming to be known as Kennedyesque (the President is said to share it with his younger brother, the Justice Minister Robert F. Kennedy), that is necessary for political victory by a leader on the left.

In a democratic state, a vote is an act that is directed toward the future, and the way one votes expresses the way one feels about the future.

And what are our feelings about the future? Typically, a mixture of fear and hope. If the predominant feeling is fear, then one’s vote represents a desire for the fear to be quelled, and it will go to the party that promises security and stability. That, normally, is a party of the right, whether it calls itself conservative, Christian, or a people’s party.

But if the predominant feeling is hope, then the vote will go to whoever can kindle hope with a promise of progress, and such a vote will typically go to the left. In the United States, this is the role of the Democratic Party, as typified by the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The difference is this: for the promise of stability, charisma is not necessary, except perhaps at times of crisis; an appearance of competence is normally sufficient. But to kindle hope one needs that special something that I call charisma on the left. It was possessed by Roosevelt and by Louis St. Laurent (whom the press called ‘Uncle Louis’), and it is what we find in John F. Kennedy, the embodiment of hope in present-day politics.

And who among us has, on the left, the ability to kindle hope? The man with the greatest potential, despite his loss two years ago (though with greatly improved results for his party), is still Willy Brandt, Kennedy’s friend, who stood with him in front of the Schöneberg City Hall during the speech. Those who wish the SPD well can only hope that it stays with Brandt until such time as hope wins out over fear in the hearts of West Germans.

But as a Hamburger – a relatively new one, but one baptized by last year’s storm tide – I would like to add that our own Helmut Schmidt is another man with the potential of inspiring hope, as he demonstrated by the way he led us out of that disaster.

The reason I wrote “purportedly” is that the German journalist is actually a fictional character in a novel of mine, written in 2009.  It was of course written in hindsight, with the knowledge that Brandt, and Schmidt after him, would be elected (and in Schmidt’s case reelected) as Chancellor. And now I can extend the list of politically successful left-of-center leaders who possessed that kind of charisma: Olof Palme; François Mitterrand; Felipe González; Tony Blair; Bill Clinton; Lula da Silva; Trudeau père (and potentially fils as well); Barack Obama.

The statement I put in boldface has to be qualified by recognizing that occasionally non-charismatic leaders on the left of center do make it to the top, but it’s almost always due to peculiar circumstances, as in the cases of Lyndon B. Johnson (the Kennedy assassination), Jimmy Carter (the scandals of the Nixon administration), José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (the Madrid bombings), Gordon Brown (Blair’s resignation), and most recently François Hollande (the unpopularity of Sarkozy). Johnson and Zapatero, somehow, managed to get reelected because of genuine accomplishments, but not Carter and Brown, and probably not Hollande.

Hillary Clinton, for all her virtues, is not charismatic. The 2016 US presidential election seemed to have provided one of those peculiar circumstances  — the candidacy of Donald Trump — that might have allowed her to win anyway. But Trump, apparently, projected enough of  that “appearance of competence” to enough people to give him the usual fear-driven right-wing victory.

For the Democratic Party to win in 2020, one of two things is necessary: a disastrous Trump administration, or a candidate endowed with charisma, Kennedyesque or otherwise (such as that shown by Bernie Sanders). Otherwise the party is doomed yet again.


Second to Italy

November 9, 2016

A few days ago, in an article in Salon, I came across an interesting bit of information.

In a study measuring the level of political knowledge among citizens of Western countries, the United States came in second to last. The last one was Italy.

So it’s only fitting that Italy was ahead of the US in choosing as its leader a corrupt, narcissistic, lecherous real-estate developer and entertainer.

It’s likely that Trump’s administration will follow the example of Berlusconi’s in many ways: policies that will help enrich himself even further; good relations with the likes of Putin, Erdoğan and Netanyahu; and so on.

Incidentally an explanation of why Trump won despite most polls showing him as losing may be the Johnson factor. Those same polls gave Gary Johnson, on the average,  about 6% of potential votes, but when the choice was narrowed to Clinton vs. Trump, these votes seemed to split evenly between the two candidates. But in reality it seems that of those voters who told pollsters that they would vote for Johnson, the Trump half ended up voting for Trump, while the Clinton half stayed with Johnson.


September 7, 2016

Winston Churchill is famously quoted as saying that “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Of course, he introduced the dictum with “it has been said that” (though no other written source for it has ever been found), and he prefaced it by saying, “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise.”

Still, the basic sentiment is one that I have felt all my life. But now I’m beginning to wonder.

It seems as if democracies — at least the large ones — have stopped functioning. Consider:

  • Brazil: a notoriously corrupt Congress has removed from office, on the flimsiest grounds, a legally elected President.
  • Britain: a poorly planned referendum has led to a reckless vote for Brexit, creating havoc in the country and around the world.
  • France: local councils have passed stupid laws regulating beachwear.
  • Spain: two elections have produced a Congress incapable of forming a government, and now new elections are scheduled with the same parties.
  • USA: the candidacy of Donald Trump is beginning to look serious.

Countries that are democracies on paper but have become de facto dictatorships (India, Russia, Turkey) are another matter.

There is another quote about democracy, falsely attributed to Churchill: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” The problem, then, is not with democracy per se but with the “average voter,” who may be prone to vote based on some emotion (fear, pride, hatred) that may have nothing to do with the actual issues. The only remedy I can think of for this kind of voting is education in critical thinking. And of course that’s the last thing that the political and economic elites want for the people. Just think, people might think critically when listening to advertising! Heaven forbid!

Disappointments II

August 15, 2016

I few months ago I published a post in which recounted some political disappointments I’ve experienced in the past. I now have some current ones to report.

I am disappointed in Donald Trump. In the course of his controversy with the family of Captain Khan, he might have said, “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero ‘cause he was killed. I like people who weren’t killed.” But he didn’t say it.

More, seriously, I am also disappointed that so many on the Democratic left have expressed misgivings, if not worse, about Hillary Clinton on the sole basis of her mixed record as a Washington insider. I wish they would think back to Lyndon B. Johnson, who was chosen by John F. Kennedy to be his Vice President precisely because he was the ultimate Washington insider, against the opposition of supposedly liberal groups such as labor unions. But when LBJ became President, he turned out to be the most progressive one this country has ever had. So, as I’ve written before: Give Hillary a chance.

I could add that I’m disappointed with the Rio Olympics, at least with their coverage by NBC, except that I really am not; it’s pretty much what I had expected.


June 30, 2016

The Lewandowskis have scored recently.

Corey , probably the better-known one in the USA, has scored a plum job with CNN, where his duties will apparently to comment on the Trump campaign, from which he was recently fired as manager.

Robert, arguably the more famous one outside the USA, scored a goal that gave Poland an early lead in the Euro 2016 quarterfinal against Portugal, as well as a penalty kick in the shootout, but one of his teammates had his kick blocked, so that Poland lost.

The reign of Spain…

June 30, 2016

…as champions of European nations’ soccer is over. The top Spanish clubs are, of course, as strong as ever, mainly on the strength of their non-Spanish strikers (Messi, Suárez, Neymar, Ronaldo, Bale, Griezmann). But the national team, already ignominiously (and, at the time, unexpectedly) knocked out in the 2014 World Cup, made a similarly disastrous showing in the Euro 2016.

There were easy victories over weak teams (Belarus, Ukraine, Luxembourg, Macedonia), with only a loss to Slovakia, in the qualifying round, and victories over Turkey and Czechia in the group stage, but a loss when Spain finally met a team of  similar caliber (Croatia) — a loss that made Spain the runner-up of their group and so forced to faced a group winner, Italy, who knocked them out with a decisive defeat.

It was a few hours after that match (on June 27) that England was famously knocked out by Iceland. And England’s coach, Roy Hodgson, resigned immediately.

What about Vicente del Bosque, the Spanish coach? Well, he had announced in 2014 that he would retire after Euro 2016, on turning 65, and he is in fact being allowed to

retire when he chooses, with no accounting for his recent coaching failures. It’s reminiscent of the way Franco, his lookalike, was allowed to die peacefully, with no accounting for his crimes against the Spanish people.

The day before the Italy match Spaniards went to the polls and, as they had done six months earlier, voted, in roughly the same proportions, for the same four parties that had been unable to form a government.

There is a Catalan saying for persistently doing the same ineffective thing: voler fer entrar el clau per la cabota (trying to drive a nail in head first). Is this what the Spanish people, whom I love dearly, are doing?