The mote in our eye

Ladies and gentlemen, my first blog post in almost four years.  Did I miss anything?

Hopefully you all will not be waiting another four years for the next one.  As you might be able to tell from the content, it was not external political matters which kept me away — although I’ll admit that those have had a toll on my spiritual and mental well-being from time to time.  Please feel free to leave comments, as before.

There’s been a bit of pearl-clutching on this side of the pond over an opposition candidate in the upcoming Russian Presidential election, Alexey Navalny. Navalny is a reformer, and has made combatting corruption the centerpiece of his campaign, with strong and reasoned policy points concerning the economy. Of course, one of the weak points of modern Western democracy is that policy is a very distant concern among observers of his campaign, and many aren’t even looking at it at all. That’s human nature, of course, but it is amplified by media reaction. On that side, Russian media is essentially an arm of the Vladimir Putin campaign and ignores Navalny. They will get around to ridiculing him later, if he gains any traction with his campaign. (This is not a behavior that is confined to Russia, as I’ll discuss later in this article.) To Western media, Navalny has become a cause celebre because he seems to be the only reform-minded candidate running against Putin, and Putin has been transformed into something of a Blofeldian caricature in the U.S.

According to the narrative, Putin masterminded a plot from afar which unjustly pushed Hillary Clinton out of the top spot, fixed the U.S. election, and enthroned Donald Trump instead. The motive for this is obvious; both men are very deferential towards each other, even while the usual sabre-rattling between the countries continues in a slightly more muted way. The “how” is much less so; there’s much more that could be said about that, but it’s to the point that a full half of the people who voted for Clinton in the last election believe that Russians hacked voting machines in places like Wisconsin — a “fact” that was never alleged by anyone, to my knowledge, but, to give a similar example, the Iraq/al-Qaeda link was never officially alleged either, and we have seen how the media was instrumental in getting people to believe it anyway for the benefit of powerful political interests.

The point is that for the U.S. media, based mostly on this narrative, “Putin = bad”; therefore, “Navalny = good”, and that’s the only real calculation that’s going on.

This brings us to Amy Siskind. Siskind is a former Wall Street executive(!) who now writes occasionally for Huffington Post. Her major project is called The Weekly List; it’s a website which tracks the “new normal” established by Trump, as experts in authoritarianism advise to defend against a sort of “creeping coup”. As Trump’s authoritarian bonafides are pretty well established, it’s a worthy pursuit…though I somehow doubt it would have been kept if the other authoritarian running had won. Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at NYU and an astute media critic whom I follow, recently tweeted about this list, saying that Siskind’s entry for the week ending February 3, 2018, was “the longest ever”. This would make it seem as if we were entering an authoritarian crisis just in the past week.

However, to back up for a second: such a list, if it was to be of use, would also have to include context. We cannot properly determine “the new normal” without establishing whether this is in fact “new”. Sure enough, a perusal indicates a lot of given facts, most of which seem correct, but there’s very little analysis. To paraphrase Chico Escuela from Saturday Night Live, it’s “Bad Stuff ‘Bout the Trump”.

And that’s a pretty serious disservice. If we portray something as uniquely alarming – a “new normal” that has been introduced by Trump – then it would stand to reason that removing Trump would be the way to get us back to the “old normal”, before the arrival of an authoritarian. If, on the other hand, this is a part of the landscape that has simply reared its ugly head during Trump’s administration (as subtlety is not his strong suit, let’s just say), then Trump’s removal is simply treating a symptom, and it would be a sad delusion to think that the problem of authoritarianism, or many other things that Trump represents, was “fixed”.

One of the illustrative points was this item about the aforementioned Alexey Navalny:

On Sunday, Alexey Navalny, an anti-corruption opponent of Putin was dragged violently into a van while protesting in central Moscow. He was later released, pending trial. The US issued no statement on the arrest.

This isn’t really anything that new; opponents of Putin have had this and much worse done to them in the past. Its connection with Trump is also given by virtue of it being on this list, despite the fact that there seems to be no connection at all.

But the real thing that got me about this was the newfound level of concern for minor candidates in other countries when there seems to be at least tacit support for the same sorts of actions against those candidates here. (And make no mistake: Navalny’s combination protest/campaign rally drew about 2000 people in Moscow and less than 100 in other cities such as Krasnoyarsk; by the numbers, he is a minor candidate and can’t be compared to the Republicans or the Democrats here.)

Candidates of Navalny’s stature, regardless of their actual policy stances, are routinely barred from the ballot by U.S. courts. They are obliged to collect massive numbers of signatures under obtuse and confusing regulations; those signatures are then judged by members of the government installed by the Republican and Democratic Parties, and in some cases by officials of opposing campaigns acting in a governmental capacity. (In Pennsylvania, a case was successfully brought against Democratic campaign workers who were brought in to a suite of rooms at the State Capitol in Harrisburg to examine and reject ballot petitions.)

For the crime of attempting to debate other candidates, or in many cases even attending a debate, Presidential and other candidates from non-approved parties are detained or arrested. In 2012, Jill Stein and her running mate Cheri Honkala were arrested and chained to a chair in a basement for eight hours when they attempted to enter the campus of Hofstra University, where a debate was being held. Laura Wells, a candidate for Governor of California, was arrested for attending a debate; the judge set her trial date for Election Day.

It should also be noted that Stein, who ran again in 2016, is being hauled in front of a Senate investigative committee on the absolute flimsiest of pretexts: a picture taken of her with — you guessed it — Vladimir Putin.

There are plenty of similar stories which add up to the same thing: we expect democratic process out of Russia – and decry both Putin and Trump when it is not forthcoming – that we are unwilling to provide or even acknowledge in the U.S. This is the tragedy, and the head-shaking futility of the whole “Resistance” against Donald Trump: it acted, and acts now, only when powerful partisan interests were threatened. The overall rule of law which was to apply to all, and was to protect us from the rise of a tyrant, was compromised long ago while this “Resistance” stood idly by – or aided and abetted.


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