Evidence ≠ Proof

There are so many remarkable things about what is happening in the United States at the moment. It is clearly in the throes of a constitutional crisis, which has been a long time coming, and will take many years to work through. We can hope and pray for wisdom, mercy and civil peace while they go through it. The US – and the world – may look very different on the other side, and it is in everyone’s interests for the US to be healthy.

I want to draw attention to one thing, though, which troubles me. The US mainstream media (MSNBC, NBC, ABC, etc! ) have been consistent in cutting off Trump’s rather bizarre speech last night. The “print” media has followed suit, and is being remarkably robust in pushing back against Trump’s claims.

I have no doubt that there is an immense amount of untruth, half-truth, exaggeration and simple bull$H!+ in what Trump has said – I haven’t listened to it, nor will I, but I base that remark on everything I have heard from him in other contexts. He’s an appalling politician, on all sorts of levels (still might be the best available option – that’s another conversation).

Yet all that can be true and it still be the case that ‘there is something rotten in the state of Denmark’. Just because a fool says that the sun will rise tomorrow, it doesn’t mean that the sun won’t rise. These claims need to be investigated thoroughly, and due process needs to be followed. If the system breaks down – and one of the more dangerous things that Trump has done is undermine faith in the system – everyone loses. The rule of law and the democratic process MUST be upheld, and seen to be upheld. It’s a Caesar’s wife situation.

I found the video footage (circulating on twitter) of what appeared to be an election official filling in blank ballot papers alarming to behold. Then I read that this is apparently standard practice when the original ballot paper cannot be machine read. There is claim and counter claim – evidence gets offered one way or the other (that’s what evidence IS) and eventually a judgement is reached. Evidence is not proof of wrong-doing, it’s saying ‘there is something funny going on here’.

From what I have observed in my semi-detached state, I think that there is evidence of wrong doing that needs to be investigated thoroughly and properly. There are clearly many problems in many states relating to due process, many of which were flagged up twenty years ago with Bush/Gore. It’s interesting to me that Florida seems to have updates its processes in a way that other states have not, but I’ve not examined things closely. I suspect we’re going to have a 2020 equivalent of ‘hanging chads’ pretty soon – Sharpie smudges perhaps?

Trump’s claims are ‘unproven’ and ‘alleged’ and so on. I think it’s fair enough to describe his claims in that way; I’m not sure it is right to shut him down completely and exclude those views from the public square. I think 2020 still has some surprises in store for us, and it would not be out of character for this year for Trump to eventually succeed in remaining President, which would leave the various media organisations with something of a problem. Well, they have lots of problems already.

More broadly, it seems to me that the coalition that Trump has pulled together – effectively the US equivalent of Red Tory – is going to win huuuuugely next time out. It’s the person who wins the next presidential election – who I expect to be a younger, more charismatic and charming version of Trump – who will end up guiding the US forward. I just hope the world doesn’t endure too much damage whilst the US undergoes some necessary refitting.

A good election to lose

Courier article

I write this article on the morning after the US elections, as Barack Obama celebrates his re-election as president of the United States. I can’t escape the feeling that, rather like the Conservatives in 1992, this might have been a good election to lose. In 1992, a little surprisingly, John Major led the Conservatives to a small victory, and the following September the pound was ejected from the Exchange Rate Mechanism. Whilst this was clearly a good thing for the British economy, it was just as clearly a very bad thing politically for the Conservative party, whose reputation for economic competence took such a hit that it has arguably not yet recovered, some twenty years later. I think that a similar sort of ‘black swan’ type event – in fact, several – lie in wait for the President of the United States, and I want to briefly indicate the sorts of things that might be lurking.

Firstly, the economic issues, which I have touched on in this column several times before. The Western economic system is bankrupt, and at the moment is persisting purely via a sequence of confidence tricks – that is, lots of measures, principally printing money, designed to keep confidence in the financial system going. If at any point that confidence is damaged, then people will start to seek a safer place to park their financial assets. In other words, debts will start to be called in, and instead of the value of any debt being an abstract item on a putative balance sheet, that debt will become a very real obligation. As there is not enough wealth in the world to balance out the existing debts, there will be defaults – that will make people more nervous, causing them to call in more debts, which will make more people go bankrupt, making people more nervous… Rinse and repeat until enough of the bad debt has been properly accounted for and a solvent economy – at a much smaller size than the present economy – emerges from the wreckage. Human nature being what it is, this is likely to take the form of some very visible event, like a stock market crash or a spectacular bank failure – and the person in power, whether innocent or not, will have to take responsibility.

Another aspect of the economic situation is the US government’s own financial position. As a result of the huge level of deficits built up over many years – but massively accelerated over the last four – the US government is practically bankrupt. It has been able to fend off the implications of this situation for the simple reason that the US dollar remains, for now, the ‘reserve currency’ for the world financial system. In other words, for a great deal of international trade, especially oil, the transactions take place in dollars. The US government can therefore keep printing dollars because people need them, and there is a lot of ‘wealth’ in other government accounts that people do not wish to see collapse in value. However, that is not a situation that can or will last forever. Indeed, this aspect may come to a head very soon, as unless the US government agrees a new budget in the next few months, it will drive off a ‘fiscal cliff’ – there are some $600 billion worth of tax increases about to take effect, and if that is allowed to happen then it will have a severe impact on the US economy. There will be lots of coverage on this topic over the next few weeks.

Thirdly, an under-reported but major factor in our ongoing economic problems is the developing impact of Peak Oil. Ignoring the ‘blip’ in 2008 (when oil hit $150 per barrel) the price of oil has been significantly increasing year on year for nearly ten years now. The reason for this is simple – there is less oil available than there is demand for it, and that is because there has been no significant increase in the oil supply since 2005. Indeed, if you break the numbers down, the amount of oil available for export (in other words, the amount of oil not being used by the nations that produce the oil) has been declining by about 0.7% a year since 2005. This problem is not going to go away, it is only going to get worse, and for an indication for how it might affect the United States, just look at the coverage of ‘superstorm’ Sandy, and what happened there when the fuel supply was interrupted.

Of course, economic issues aren’t the only ones that can cause problems to a President, although I suspect that they will be the major ones. The field of foreign affairs is also looking scarier as time goes on. Principally that relates to the Middle East. I tried to explain to a friend the other day why the situation is so bad, and simply tried to list the different actors and their motivations. I stopped when I had reached eight! The situation is obviously very complex, but it seems equally obvious that things like the accession to power in Egypt of the Muslim Brotherhood, and their shift from a pro-US stance to one that is, at the very least, independent and welcoming to Iran, will have significant long-term consequences. More broadly, the increasing level of hostility between China and its neighbours in the Far East is worrisome, and if the Chinese leadership elects a more ‘hawkish’ new President, that would be a dark omen.

As MacMillan once put it, ‘events, dear boy, events!’ are what govern political careers. It is quite possible that there will be one particular event that triggers a cascade of consequences bringing all of these issues to a head. Imagine, for example, that Israel launches an attack on Iran, triggering a wider war involving Saudi Arabia; that the oil supply through the Straits of Hormuz is interrupted, even if only briefly; that the resulting spike in the oil price causes many of our fragile financial institutions to pass over into bankruptcy; and that the US dollar – as a result of political hostility to the United States – loses its role as a reserve currency. I don’t want to say that these problems will be impossible to solve only that, as I said at the beginning, if you’re going to lose an election, this isn’t a bad one to lose. Barack Obama’s in-tray is unlikely to have much good news in it for many years to come.

I’ll finish by sticking my neck out and making a bold prediction (containing just a smidgen of wish-fulfilment) – either at the head of a purged Republican party, or at the head of an independent ‘Tea Party’ ticket, the US will elect Sarah Palin as president in 2016. You read it here first…

On wishing they might both lose

A few brief thoughts about the US election.

– I’ve never been a fan of Obama, all other things being equal I would be rooting for him to lose on Tuesday night. All other things are not equal, however; – one of the principal things that I don’t like about Obama is that I see him as a machine politician without any particularly strong guiding principles of his own; I suspect that he is personally corrupt; and most especially I see his policies as being driven by established vested interests in the various spheres. Crucially, Goldman Sachs alumni seem to have been in charge of the economic policy, and I’m not in favour of anything that favours the vampire squid;
– but what is the alternative? Romney is hardly someone to shake up the system and take on the vested corruption is he? To again refer to a Matt Taibbi article – yes I’m a fan – Romney is absolutely a product of the capitalist system, and a member of the financial elite. If we’re looking for a radical change of path, Romney is not the one to deliver it. If he wins the presidency, I don’t see any change of course on the horizon;
– hence, my preference would be for both to lose! Which won’t happen. The thing is, I suspect that – just as with the UK elections of 1992, the winner of the election will be inheriting a poisoned chalice, and that the 2012 election is a ‘good one to lose’. The magnitude and extent of the bad news falling on to the US is only going to increase – a superstorm Sandy in several spheres. Which is why I’m kinda-sorta rooting for Obama to just edge it, ideally in a contested election, that he wins through the electoral college and not via the popular vote;
– who would I rather see leading the US? Someone with a track record of opposing corrupt entrenched interests, ethical and pragmatic, and a committed belief to the highest values that the US represents; ideally someone who was also prepared to accommodate a decline in the US empire and recognise the Limits to Growth. Nobody qualifies on all those scores – but there is someone who does come close.

Exceptional or Imperial? Sarah Palin and the choice facing the United States

Note: this was first posted to my now-defunct political blog Gandalf’s Hope on 4th February 2011

How is the US exceptional? I would say it is an exceptional nation because it is based upon an idea, the idea that all men are created equal. Of course, the United States has gone through tumult on its way to fully learning, embracing and embodying that idea but nonetheless, the extent to which the US pursues that vision, and the way in which the consequences of that vision such as individual freedoms and democracy are embedded deeply into United States culture do in my opinion make the US an exceptional nation (and, indeed, one to which I often consider emigrating).

How is the US imperial? Well, the simplest way to demonstrate that is to ponder a handful of facts. The US maintains 730 army bases in 50 nations around the world (some would say it is higher). It operates (for now) the global default currency, and thereby enables a transfer ‘rent’ from the rest of the world. It dominates a number of client states and has intervened explicitly or tacitly throughout the world (most notoriously in Iran). Most explicitly, the US with around 4% of the world’s population enjoys something like 25% of the world’s natural resources, most especially oil. We might have a long academic debate about just how the US qualifies as an ‘Empire’ but if we avoid the semantic quicksand the essential point seems unassailable.

It seems to me that discussions of the worth or otherwise of the United States is often bedevilled by a failure to distinguish between these two aspects of US polity. Real life is of course much greyer than any binary definition can allow for. Those who defend the exceptional nature of the US are often hard-pressed when faced with evidence of US government complicity in torture and other systemic abuse. On the other hand, those who are most convinced that the US is the Great Satan and an evil empire are hard-pressed when presented with the strong evidence available that the US is often a force for good in the world, not least in terms of the highest values embodied in the constitution and the sheer grace and decency of so many individual citizens.

There is, inevitably, a tension between these two strands of current US life, and because the world is going through a process of upheaval the world has an interest in seeing which way the US will choose to go. For the truth is that the Imperial structure established by the US, most especially since the end of WW2, is now breaking down. The US is going to go through a process of relative weakening. Instead of being the overwhelmingly dominant nation, within the next thirty years the US will become more of a ‘primus inter pares’ – still very strong, but with several other strong nations alongside it: China, India and Brazil are the most obvious three, possibly accompanied by an EU, but not accompanied by either Russia or South Africa, the other two nations often suggested as potential major states.

In this context, the US governing class is faced with a choice. Does it seek to preserve imperial power and control for as long as possible? Or does it seek – in accordance with its own exceptional highest values – to enable a peaceful transition into a different world order?

The way that governing classes think is often preserved at an institutional level. By that I mean that, in order to become a member of the governing elite one has to adopt the values of the institutions into which one becomes trained as a member. In order to gain power within the system, the bona fides of acceptance of the system have to be demonstrated. When all is well this provides a cohesive strength and stability and is a prerequisite for long-term stable government. However, what this process does not prepare for is an existential crisis when the fundamental basis of the establishment is called into question. In such a situation the perpetuation of group-think leads the governing class to become more and more detached from the emerging reality, with the inevitable consequence of collapse or revolution.

It seems clear to me that this is what is happening in the United States at the moment. The present occupant of the White House – in my oh-so-humble opinion – is a corporate shill who lacks the character required to be anything other than a front for the governing class. As a man who has made a habit of pleasing people and being as inoffensive as possible, and without the moral hinterland required to recognise the crises engulfing the world at this time, he operates as a teleprompter operator articulating the assumptions and preferences of those who have benefited most from the imperial system, and who are acting with increasing desperation to preserve that system from collapse. This can be seen from the healthcare system designed by pharmaceutical and insurance corporations through to the bailouts given to the wealthiest banks (at the expense of the middle class) and the way in which the revolving-door culture between Wall Street and Washington is repeatedly renewed and affirmed.

If there is to be any hope of a benign transition to a different world order, one in which the US can take an esteemed place alongside other powerful nations and continue a ‘soft-power’ revolution to slowly transform the world, then there must be a change of leadership. The world is crying out for a US that lives out the exceptional path, not the imperial path. This needs a leader that embodies that higher path and is able to call the United States to its own highest values and ideals. This needs a leader with proven courage in standing up against vested interests. This needs a leader with grounded attachment to moral high ground, most especially in a faith which enables a discrimination between the true light of the world and worldly pretenders to that light.

There is, of course, one person who fits that bill. The imperial system, the governing class, recognises that existential threat and is thereby doing its damnedest to destroy that threat, through a consistent and co-ordinated campaign to defame and demean Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska. This does not mean that Palin is perfect and without flaws and weaknesses. It does mean that here we have someone who may just possibly be the last best hope for US exceptionalism.

This is not a Democrat vs Republican challenge. The governing class would be perfectly content with Mitt Romney or any of the other seven dwarves that may be contending for the GOP nomination. No, this is about the possibility of a creative renewal of the United States enabling it to work for the highest possible outcome. The stakes are very real, up to and including another US civil war or (more likely) a more global war, if the governing class sees that as the only way in which to preserve its power. The only way in which a higher path might be taken is if the governing class itself is detached from its hold on the levers of US power, and the US enabled to return to its own best values and practices. Of course I may be wrong, but I do see Palin as the one contender who might possibly be able to do that.

Addition for October 2012: I respect Palin’s decision not to run, but I still believe that she is the right person for this time of crisis.

Short thoughts 1 – on the Tea Party

Partly by way of a response to Graham

So far as I can tell, whilst it has its fair share of nutters and cranks, the Tea Party is motivated by fiscal conservatism & a desire for small government – which is pretty mainstream in US politics (some 17% of tea partiers are registered Democrats; only 57% are registered Republicans). They can be as antagonistic to establishment Republicanism (eg the CBC) as to Obama, and seem to mainly want to get the US government to rein back on spending. Which is also pretty reasonable.

The only question might be a prudential one – is now the right time to cut back on state spending, in the midst of recession etc (same question as in UK politics)? My perspective is that this question assumes that the recession is temporary, and relies on the return of growth to escape the consequences of more indebtedness. If you don’t believe that we will ever go back to having growth in the same way again – as I don’t – then continuing to build up huge debt is a really really bad idea. We can still debate about where and how to cut the spending, but that spending does need to be cut, and cut significantly, that seems straightforward to me.

In defence of burning the Koran

This one might be a bit controversial… (even Sarah Palin thinks that it’s wrong!)

There is much fuss about the proposal by Pastor Terry Jones to burn some copies of the Koran on September 11th. He is, understandably, coming in for a very great deal of criticism. Book burning is, historically, just one step away from people burning. It has also been used to intimidate and suppress opposition to the ruling hierarchy, and is pretty much as anti-Enlightenment as it is possible to get. How then might it possibly be a defensible act? Here is my line of thought (and, if it needs to be said, Of Course I Could Be Wrong):

I think that it is a sin to be offended; does that also mean that it is wrong to give offence? After all, that is what is at stake here. There is no sense that the intellectual content of the Koran is at risk of being obliterated for all time due to this action. It’s simply that it is extremely rude and “insensitive”. Other things being equal, it would clearly not be right to cause such offence – but are other things equal? I think not.

Sometimes it isn’t just defensible, it is actively right to give offence. After all, giving offence is simply refusing to share in the cultural nostrums of the time – it is to go against them, to break taboos. Sometimes this is mandatory.

Consider Jesus overturning the tables in the temple and grabbing a whip to drive out the traders and their cattle. This was undoubtedly a deeply offensive act – but it was also profoundly righteous, it was an act of prophetic drama concerned with demonstrating a religious truth. In effect, it was the toppling of an idol (the contemporary temple worship) in order to proclaim the higher truth (right worship of the living God).

In doing this, Jesus was drawing deeply on the main Scriptural tradition of prophecy. As Walter Brueggemann has so eloquently described, the first and foremost task of the prophet is to teach the people that things don’t need to be the way that they are. In other words, the foundational work of the prophet is to liberate the consciousness of the oppressed – for the liberation of their bodies (the Exodus) inevitably follows. To do this requires toppling the idols of Egypt – challenging them and showing that they have no power.

I think that this is the right context in which to understand the burning of the Koran by Pastor Jones. Put at its most basic (and from a confessedly Christian point of view) it is not the case that the Koran is the Word of God – that description is only rightly applied, in the end, to Jesus. The reverence offered to the Koran by faithful Muslims is therefore (however benign in the vast majority of cases) a form of idolatry. Where such things are less benign are where this idolatry is used to buttress all sorts of other evils – such as the khawarij doctrines of thinkers like Qutb.

To burn the Koran in this context is therefore a symbolic act of tremendous power. It is to engage with the war against the militant Muslims at the level of ideas and propaganda, which is (I would argue) the most important level if this war is to be won. It might be argued that this is, in fact, a self-defeating act of propaganda – that it will alienate the moderate Muslim, and simply increase the dangers faced by our soldiers on the battlefront. I don’t find such arguments convincing. This is not Abu Ghraib – which truly was an abomination – nor do I believe that it will make much difference to enemy soldiers who are already doing all that they can to kill Westerners wherever they may be found. Exposing the ‘gods’ of the enemy to ridicule is surely part of what it means to resist dhimmitude, after all, didn’t we do the same to the Nazis in World War 2?

(‘Hitler… has only got one ball, the other… is in the Albert Hall’)
In other words, burning a Koran seems to be an act which might share in both prophetic righteousness and be pragmatically right in the context of resistance to the khawarij.

It could, however, just be an example of intolerance and bigotry. How might it be discriminated from that? How might it be shown that it is not just a form of bullying?

This is, I believe, to articulate something which has not been properly expressed by any of our leaders so far, which is about how we are to conduct this war. If it is true that this war is fundamentally a spiritual one, conducted at the level of ideas (principalities and powers) then we cannot succeed unless we are true to our own highest beliefs and ideals. Which means that whilst the burning of a Koran might be symbolically acceptable to show that it is not the Word of God, we can only give substance to this by demonstrating adherence to the true Word of God and what he taught. In other words it is absolutely imperative that we safeguard the well-being of that which bears the true image of God, ie the human being. We cannot allow a protest against idolatry to develop into a pogrom against people. If the Holocaust and all that led up to it represents the darkest heart of Western Christianity (which I believe) then we must do everything to ensure that it is never repeated. This means a rigorous regard for the human rights (civil rights) of Muslims in terms of their personal safety, but also a staunch regard for their personal property – including their Korans. A symbolic burning of a Koran might be righteous – to mutilate the Koran that belongs to a person, which has been used in their worship, to which they have become sentimentally attached – this is something else. It would be as if Jesus didn’t simply drive the traders out of the temple but that he gave each of them a bloody nose as well.

That’s why I think it might be defensible to burn a Koran on the anniversary of September 11th – it is a repudiation and ridiculing of the deathly ideology that slaughtered 3000 people. Yet it will only be truly righteous if it is also accompanied by a commitment to respecting the human and civil rights of Muslims. In the end we can only win by pursuing our best, not by indulging our worst.