Category Archives: Culture/ squishy stuff

Militias, Munich, and Mayhem

The growing militia scene in the US is, I am increasingly convinced, one of the gravest threats to democratic life here. It will require a reckoning eventually and a firm political willingness to counter it, bar the open carry of weapons in certain public contexts, and (dare I say it) revisit the Second Amendment. It’s time we recognized that militias, like any weapons, are a double-edged sword, potentially used to institute tyranny just as readily as throw it off. Our safeguard against tyranny cannot be arms, but democratic institutions.

I got Volker Ullrich’s recent biography of Adolf Hitler recently for the same reasons everyone is reading about pre-War Germany: I was interested in possible parallels and divergences between Hitler and Trump. After all, I’ve often reassured myself recently with the unexamined thought that “At least Trump is just a political opportunist with no ideology apart from self-worship and aggrandizement. He would be much more dangerous as an ideological zealot like Hitler.” But was it true that Hitler was not such an opportunist? This question of to what extent Hitler simply isolated and amplified ambient political frequencies in order to ride their waves to power, versus articulating a personal ideology that happened to resonate with those ambient frequencies, has been debated back and forth in all of the five major biographies of his life. And while I was surprised to what an extent Hitler seems to have adapted his thinking to his political advantage in his early years — not ever expressing his characteristic antisemitism during his early years as a struggling artist in Vienna — my basic contention about him being an ideological zealot appears to be fairly accurate from early on in his Munich years after WWI… even when he wasn’t at all convinced that he himself was Germany’s “messiah”, but rather just a spokesperson for the eventual incumbent.

More importantly, though, this biography really struck me with its descriptions of the political climate in Munich, and Bavaria more generally, in the 20s — descriptions that have clear parallels to the US political climate today, especially in the South. Frustration with a seemingly feckless, elite-serving Weimar government in cosmopolitan, internationalized Berlin burned among many of the young struggling in a stalled, hyperinflating economy. A long history of administrative separation from the north leading many to think that a unified Germany either implied that Berlin would eventually march on Munich, or Munich would march on Berlin. Conspiracy theories, including those about international Jewery, were being flogged by inflammatory publishing houses with tight, behind-the-scenes connections to right-wing political parties, including the early DAP or German Workers’ Party that Hitler would join and transform into the NSDAP, and which took its swastika symbol from the Münchener Beobachter (later the Volkischer Beobachter) publication. There were heated arguments among the dizzying array of right wing groups flirting with National Socialism as to whether they were socialist first (though never Communist of course, for that was associated with international Jewish hegemony and the Russian revolution — socialist was rather used as a shorthand for non-democratic and ostensibly unified, or basically fascist) or ethno-nationalist first — and here Hitler was unequivocal and unwilling to give an inch in his contention that no socialist project would be possible until the German people were purified.

But, importantly, a shocking array of militia groups, often illegally armed with military stockpiles and whose ranks were filled by former — or sometimes even current — military with traumatic experiences from WWI. I had known about the Sturmabteilung, but not just how common such militias were (e.g. other Freikorps groups like the Bund Oberland and Reichsflagge). They ruled the streets of Bavarian cities, often terrorizing people at will, and Hitler was then called the King of Munich. The SA under Hitler made a famous display of armed force during Labor Day festivities in 1923 — essentially trolling and threatening the Communist Left — but had their weapons removed by Bavarian police. This defeat was essentially what drove Hitler to realize that a putsch against the Bavarian government itself was necessary, and he then took advantage of a pre-existing effort to unite the militias under a single umbrella organization.

It is this rhetoric around “uniting the right” (by which they mean the violent alt-right) that worries me here, too, particularly if that unification then facilitates an “annexation” of the umbrella organization into the apparatus of government. There’s clearly an effort underway to find a figure capable of uniting the ultra right. Trump is not that — rising as he did so quickly to a position where he has to moderate his tone to appeal multiple constituencies — though he’s doing a great job of sending not-so-subtle signs to Southern state and municipal governments that they needn’t crackdown on violent militias too much if they don’t want to.

Probably the single greatest resource to unite such groups from a data perspective is the membership database of the NRA. It is likely to be able to distinguish moderate from extreme views of its members, and may have a decent sense of who owns the most guns. This, after all, is one of the cruxes of of the power struggle: of the 300+ million guns in private hands in the US (over one per person), half are owned by just three percent of the population — so-called “super owners”. The ability to send tailored messages to disparate cohorts of gun owners based on political leaning, geographic location, and other demographic factors could make Wayne La Pierre a potentially critical tool for someone who wanted to follow the Nazi blueprint for a power grab.


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Filed under Culture/ squishy stuff, Riots, Small arms

Brexit and austerity

In the hours following Brexit I wrote on social media:

Dear Britain,

I have no standing on this issue and fully respect your democratic process, which is certainly more transparent than what we’ve got going on here right now. Furthermore, I will likely be visiting you to take advantage of the most enticing exchange rate since my childhood, and whilst there may apply for a job for which EU citizens are no longer prioritized.

But holy sh*t, what the f*ck did you just do?!? Did you vote on the basis of most toupée-like hair of the best known proponent? That may bode ill for our presidential contest if we follow suit. Perhaps you can now blow up the Chunnel and charge the French for demolition costs, Trump-style.

But truth, yo, once you’ve recovered from your hangover, we need to talk. Basically all pluralistic societies need to have a few deep-and-meaningfuls.

In the wake of the vote, the following observations seemed so banal, so simple, so utterly self-evident, that I had not bothered posting them anywhere — they didn’t seem so deep or meaningful. However, considering that well-educated, fairly intelligent, and even arguably well-meaning people like David Cameron can so dramatically fail to grasp the situation, I’ll have a go anyway.

Economic globalization involves the movement across national borders of any or all production factors – capital, goods, and, yes, people. Even though there are almost always overall societal gains from trade, the lower and middle classes of many countries suffer from economic globalization. That is because their particular local combination of production factors produces goods and services that may be more expensive than those produced by other local combinations of production factors plus ever-dropping transportation costs.

Okay, so when people are put out of work, they need to gain the skills they will need for a new line of work that promises to be more competitive, or which is naturally less vulnerable to international competition. They will need to go back to school. In the meanwhile, will need to have a place to live and study, food to eat, and decent healthcare so that they don’t, you know, suffer mental breakdowns, get stuck in healthcare debt-spirals, resort to self-medication, fail to raise their kids to be decent people, etc. This has led to the long-established observation, perhaps most famously made by Dani Rodrik back in 1998, that increasing openness to trade requires increased government spending as a percentage of GDP. Here is a bad copy of his original graph. (Note, by the way, fellow Americans, that the US is the least open economy in his sample. Small countries in Europe, by contrast, are extremely open, and thus require more spending.)


A country whose lower and middle classes are suffering from the effects of globalization may in turn suffer fiscally. That is because the bulk of their tax payers are, well, not billionaires. At this point, they have two basic options: First, they can spend more money on retraining and education, healthcare, nutrition, and affordable housing programs in the hopes of boosting long-term competitiveness. But that will require either raising taxes on the rich (eek!) or borrowing.

Second, they can claim that, given the fiscal crisis, they need to go into austerity mode and stop social spending. If they choose Door No. 2, to make themselves feel and look less like assholes, politicians will (a) blame the poor and then wind up policing them rather than supporting them; (b) extol the virtues of the rich (“The rich already pay most of the taxes!” – leaving off the part about how the system precludes lower and middle income growth); (c) try to convince themselves and others that the rich will eventually come to the aid of government and make more jobs, perhaps in the yacht-making industry; and if/when the first three approaches wind up sounding insufferably condescending and alienating what is turning out to be a growing segment of the electorate, (d) pretend that the problem is all about the one globalizing factor of production that you can easily put a (dark-skinned) face to: immigrants. (Of course, tactic (d) makes them look more, not less, like assholes.)

The problem in the US, as in Britain, is not about immigrants. At all. It does not come from abroad. It is about economic redistribution within our respective countries so that gains of globalization can be shared.

The uncomfortable compromise between the Left and the Right in America in recent decades has basically involved funding what social programs have been grandfathered in during more generous eras (the Earned Income Tax Credit, Medicaid, SNAP) at least partially via borrowing, whilst lowering taxes on the rich (as in 2007). This is because Democratic politicians intermittently fought rearguard actions against conservatives defending progressive taxes, and then were totally bought off by Wall Street anyway. The Obama Administration has thankfully eschewed talk of austerity, thereby helping the US economy to hobble ever so slowly toward recovery, and now even the Right can’t muster under that banner. In the UK, Osbourne’s austerity package has had a similarly repelling effect on voters, and UKIP has taken up the slack. The fact that Cameron presided simultaneously over an embrace of austerity and the Brexit vote manifests a strange disconnect in his thinking between the two.

So, yes, there are important discussions that we as pluralistic societies need to have about what it means to be humane, respectful, open-minded, tolerant, and life-affirming in the face of diversity. But that conversation needs to extend not just to migrants, but also to *all* those who need tools and support to make the future something to look forward to, rather than fear.


Response to the question “how much of it is intentional (e.g. Zinn’s contention that the wealthy interests pit lower classes/races/threats to power against one another to preserve their elite status) or Hanlon’s Razor in action?”:

In some ways, the problem, in the narrow, technical sense, is infinitely more diagnosable than the reasons we are stymied in addressing the problem.

But I don’t think that I can really be binary about the choice you set out: I think it’s defensible to assert that our social, economic, and political systems are fundamentally geared to disfavor minorities, the poor, and migrants (with disproportionate risks at intersectionalities). But I also think nuances abound in this space and worry that it’s too facile to inculpate all beneficiaries of the system as “little Eichmanns” — many politicians on both sides of the aisle (but probably preponderantly Democratic) I would characterize as simply out of touch, and Skinner-conditioned not to bite the hands that feed in our highly monetized electoral system.

I find it generally more difficult to defend Republicans, since their ideology is really founded upon a refusal to acknowledge redistribution as a necessary part of meritocracy. Take their attacks on the estate tax, for instance — in order to concurrently uphold the values of the free market *and* wish to abolish the estate tax, you must believe that the karmic credit of one person’s work ethic should roll-over to their next of kin. That starts to look an awful lot like a tacit assertion that the current economic status quo is indicative of a normative eugenic hierarchy.

Aside: This isn’t to defend the Democratic party, though. The Clintons, in particular, were disastrous in a lot of ways — for developing countries probably to an even greater extent than the US. But perhaps the most pathological part about them was the extent to which they redefined what it meant to be Democratic. I think a lot of people my age who grew up with Clinton as the first Democratic president in their lifetimes thought that must be what progressivism looked like, when it was really just an opportunistic hodgepodge: an unholy matrimony of politics and deregulated financial markets; progressive-ish income tax policy but regressive capital gains taxes; more appointments of women and minorities to cabinet positions than during any previous presidency, but also passed DOMA and the Violent Crime Act. His legacy was in some ways one of moral hazard vis-a-vis the Republicans (they were just rewarded and emboldened by Clinton’s easy centrism) and a tendency toward “rational” accomodationism.

But at the extremes, I think it would be hard to argue that both Farage and Trump aren’t making conscious and explicit attempts at race-baiting. Trump doesn’t even try for plausible deniability any longer — bare bones legal deniability suits him just fine.

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Filed under Culture/ squishy stuff, Politics/ Political Economy, Uncategorized

Abyei, Kony 2012, & America’s Devil

I have really made an effort not to write about the Kony 2012 campaign.  Mostly this is because others have written it to death – especially the debate between the starry-eyed activists and the cynical experts.  There were those who celebrated the campaign’s tech-savvy ability to raise awareness of “the issue.”  And of course, there were those scholarly voices who coldly pointed out those pesky facts – that Joseph Kony left Northern Uganda in 2006, that the region has been in a process of reconstruction and recovery for the past six years, that the child soldiery statistics alluded to in the campaign’s film were cumulative totals of the LRA’s history, that the LRA inflicts a far smaller human toll than many other non-“brand name” militias in the region – that the campaign seemed to gloss over so blithely.  Some respectable voices, such as Chris Blattman’s, generously pointed out that, regardless of the fact-check score card, Invisible Children seems to do good work in country.  But when the advocacy group’s co-founder, Jason Russell, enrobed the whole shoot-and-match in seven layers of delicious irony even as he maniacally disrobed himself just a couple of miles from here, the debate sank to the level of tabloid fodder and I fully divested.

So why bring it up at all, now?  There have been reports today of forced (and uncoerced) recruitment of men and boys into an armed group presumed to be the Sudan People’s Liberation Army – and concomitantly displacing 100,000 more – in the contested Abyei region of the newly created national frontier between Sudan and South Sudan.  The development threatens to bring all-out war to the world’s newest nation-state – one whose people have experienced numerous complex and overlapping conflicts over the last half century.  And while this is happening literally hundreds of miles from Northern Uganda, it is an example of the same type of violence – roving bandit militias that use local populations against themselves to clear or claim territory – that has come to characterize armed conflict in the entire East-Central Africa region.

There are persistent social and economic dynamics at work in the region, including, but certainly not limited to, grinding poverty and widespread lack of employment, underdeveloped communications infrastructure, oil dependency and soaring oil prices, and a weakened social fabric.  The most insightful pundits have already made the point: the Kony 2012 campaign focuses with laser precision on the vilification of a single man, while inexplicably ignoring the structural causes of violent conflict in East-Central Africa.  The campaign places Kony’s stylized image alongside those Adolf Hitler and Osama bin-Laden, both of whom became personifications of unalloyed evil in the American popular consciousness, both of whom were brought low by American military might in the end.  But Kony, like Hitler and bin Laden, is a product of his environment, and the Kony 2012 campaign succeeds in obfuscating reality and entrenching the American myth of the Devil Without.  If you think that evoking the Devil incarnate is hyperbolic, read this.  Russell himself is a passionate Christian who has spoken about his faith at a university founded by Evangelical Jerry Fallwell – and during his meltdown rant, accused a passerby of being the Devil.  Indeed, one of the reasons that the Kony 2012 campaign resonated so deeply may have been the very lack of a national scapegoat in the wake of bin Laden’s killing, in the context of a protracted economic crisis, the US’ inextricable engagement in the broader Middle East and increasingly North and sub-Saharan Africa, the loss of Mexico as a Spring Break destination to the cartels, etc, etc.

We have the sense that the world is becoming less hospitable to us, and why shouldn’t it just be pinned on this dude we’ve heard has massed an army of 30,000 child soldiers and slouches toward Bethlehem?  Because responsible engagement in the region is harder than arresting one man.  It may even require some introspection.

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Filed under Africa, Culture/ squishy stuff, International Development Policy, Politics/ Political Economy