Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

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.

Democracy

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.

Lewandowski

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?

.

 

 

Enough already, Bernie

June 9, 2016

I was going to write this piece a few days ago, before the California primary, when the polls were showing California Democrats split evenly (about 45-45) between Bernie and Hillary. I was going to title it “Bye-bye Bernie” on the assumption that my hero would be his gracious and realistic self and recognize that, by any democratic measure — votes received and elected delegates — Hillary had won the Democratic nomination for President. I mean the graciousness and realism that Bernie had shown in the early debates, when he said, “Enough already with those damned emails!”.

But Bernie seems to have taken leave of that graciousness and realism, and refuses to give up, even after the last batch of primaries, most of which Hillary won decisively. In California, the undecided 10 percent seem to have all gone for her, since she won 56-44.

I voted for Bernie in the primary. Not two days ago but many weeks ago. I am a mail-ballot voter from way back, and I tend to vote early, sometimes too early. (In 2008 I voted — face reddening — for John Edwards.) I voted for Bernie for the sheer pleasure of voting for someone who openly calls himself a socialist, as I have done since the age of thirteen. (While Ron Dellums, for whom I voted many times, was a member — as I was — of Democratic Socialists of America, he did not go around saying “I am a democratic socialist.”)

But as the actual primary election approached, I began to wonder if I might have voted differently had I waited.

I believe in most of Bernie’s program for America. Our country certainly needs the kind of progressive revolution that he advocates. But is he the right man to lead us into it?

The two presidents who presided of the most striking progressive changes in the USA were, undoubtedly, FDR and LBJ. Both were veteran Democratic politicians, steeped in the party’s establishment. Roosevelt had been a state senator, a junior cabinet member, and governor of New York. Johnson had been congressman, a senator — rising to majority leader — and Vice-President. They had the political resources that  enabled them, with their great political skill, to swing their party, and some of the opposition as well, behind their programs.

I see no evidence of Bernie Sanders having such resources. I don’t see the movement that he seems to have created among millennials as any more viable than Occupy.

I remember that when, in November of 1963, Lyndon B. Johnson suddenly became President of the United States, neither I nor anyone around me expected what came to be the great achievements of his presidency, unfortunately stymied by his inability to resist the military’s push for involvement in Vietnam.

Hillary Rodham Clinton is a veteran politician in the mold of FDR and LBJ. I don’t necessarily see her hawkish and finance-friendly past as indicating how her presidency might evolve. And while those on the political right operate mainly on fear, those of us on the left live on hope. And I refuse to give up hope.

I won’t hold my breath, but maybe — just maybe — Hillary’s hawkish record will give her the standing to resist needless military interventions. Maybe — just maybe — her knowledge of Wall Street will give her the strength to oppose more concessions to the financiers. Maybe — just maybe — HRC will take her place alongside FDR and LBJ.

So, Bernie: Enough already!

 

City

May 6, 2016

A few weeks ago I published a post titled “Cities,” and just the other day one titled “M Cities.” Here I go again, with “City.” And they have nothing to do with each other.

In the Unites States, on forms that require someone to fill in their address, the space for street address is almost invariably followed by “City, state, ZIP code.” There is one big exception: federal tax forms, in place of “City,” have “City, town or post office.” But state tax forms, at least in California and New York, have the usual “City.”

This has never been a problem for me. All the places where I have lived in the US have been cities, and in every one of them the name of the post office has been the same as the name of the city. So that there has never been any doubt about writing Los Angeles, New York, Berkeley, or El Cerrito.

But there are many possibilities where this might not be the case.

First of all, many Americans do not live in cities. They might live in incorporated municipalities that are not called “city” but town, township, borough or village — the federal “town” is, I suppose, a stand-in for any of these — or in unincorporated areas. The post office serving such an area may or may not have the same name as the corresponding locality; sometimes it is, in fact, that of a nearby city, possibly leading a correspondent to believe that the person lives in the city in question. A case in point is the unincorporated area of East Los Angeles, whose addresses are listed as Los Angeles.

Next, there is the case of large cities, such as New York and Los Angeles, that have annexed nearby localities which nevertheless have kept their postal names. In New York, only Manhattan addresses have New York, NY as the “city”; otherwise it’s Brooklyn, Bronx, Staten Island, or any of the various districts that make up Queens. In Los Angeles, the districts of the San Fernando Valley, the western area (West Los Angeles and Westwood) and the harbor area (San Pedro and Wilmington) have their own post offices. Addresses in Hollywood can be either “Hollywood” or “Los Angeles”, and the ZIP-code areas of the separate city of West Hollywood overlap with those of Los Angeles, leading to further confusion. I have often found in online searches for my mother’s house, located in Los Angeles, listed as being in West Hollywood because of a shared ZIP code. Similarly, when I lived in the Thousand Oaks district of Berkeley,  whose ZIP code is shared with the nearby village of Kensington (I call it a village, though the term isn’t used in California, since it’s a small unincorporated area with some limited self-government), I would sometimes get mail addressed to me as though I lived in Kensington. (One time this created confusion with a tax return: Kensington is in a different county from Berkeley and, since at the time the two counties had different locations for mailing tax returns, some clerk at the Internal Revenue Service confused ZIP codes with counties and informed me that I had sent my return to the wrong place.)

And then we have neighboring cities where an area of one city is served, for the convenience of the Postal Service, by a post office located in the other city. An example of this is half a mile from my house, where San Pablo Avenue divides El Cerrito on the east from Richmond on the west, but both sides of the avenue are served by the El Cerrito post office. There are thus businesses on the Richmond side that not only have an El Cerrito address but even put “El Cerrito” in their names; but they are not in El Cerrito.

Also, the eastern portion of the Berkeley campus of the University of California lies within the city of Oakland, but of course the university’s installations in that area, including the Lawrence Berkeley (sic!)  National Laboratory and the Lawrence Hall of Science, carry the university’s Berkeley address and are thought of by most people as being in Berkeley.

In the United Kingdom, the Royal Mail has created the concept of “post town” to cover all addresses, it being understood that the post town is not necessarily the same as the actual town (or city or borough or whatever) where the address is located. How about “postal city” to cover the same need in the US?