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Monday, May 29, 2017


Ewan joins the conversation on this blog with a lengthy response to my post Idle Speculation.  He objects to my characterization of Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy as imperialistic, and after a series of observations about Putin’s behavior and that of the United States, he remarks “Compared to the US, Russia is the grown up.”

I shall not dispute Ewan’s factual assertions – as I remarked at the beginning of the post, I know little or nothing about these matters and warned readers to take them for what they were worth.  But the remark that I quote, I believe, reveals a way of thinking about international affairs that is fundamentally wrong, and I shall spend some time explaining why.  Now, I have written about this before, and like many writers, I am in the grips of the bizarre fantasy that someone who has read anything by me must surely have read everything by me, but, to paraphrase that great fantasist Ronald Reagan, though I believe in my heart that this is true, I know in my head that it is not.  So here goes.

If, like me, you have spent your entire adult life inveighing against the self-congratulatory ideological mystifications of America’s imperial projects, and if it makes you, as it makes me, “faintly nauseous” [to quote James Comey] each time you hear an American apologist describe this country as “the good guy” on the international scene, you might be seduced into a transvaluation of values, leading you to call America the bad guy and America’s opponent the good guy [or “the grown up.”]  But that would be a mistake.

The world is a complex array of nation-states, some of which have been imperial powers [Spain, France, Germany, Great Britain, Mongolia, among others], some of which are currently imperial powers [China, Russia, the United States], and the rest of which would be imperial powers if they could.  There are two models of imperium, or Ideal Types, as Max Weber would have labeled them.  One model is the ceaseless expansion of the homeland into contiguous territories – China, Russia, and to some extend Germany exemplify this model.  The other is the projection of imperial power overseas or to non-contiguous territories – England, Mongolia, Spain, Portugal, and France come to mind.

The United States has pursued a rather complex mix of these two styles of imperialism.  Very early in its history, it declared the Western Hemisphere its natural sphere of interest, projecting military and economic power to a number of places in Central and South America.  At the same time, America’s principal imperial project for its first hundred years was the forceful incorporation of all the territory to the west and southwest of the original thirteen states, ending only when America reached the Pacific Ocean.  Once that Manifest Destiny had been accomplished, America reverted to the alternative model of imperialism, projecting its power into the Pacific and the Northwest. 

The Second World War ended with two great empires bestriding the world like Colossi:  The Soviet Union and America.  The Soviet Union had successfully expanded both east into Central Asia and west into the Baltic and Eastern Europe, incorporating a contiguous territory spanning eleven time zones.  America had, in effect, inherited the imperial purple of Great Britain and France, and now, seventy years later, has its troops stationed in upwards of one hundred fifty countries.  Things did not always go smoothly for the two hegemons, of course.  The Soviet Union’s Afghanistan adventure ended badly, contributing to its eventual breakup.  America ill-considered attempt to assume France’s role in Southeast Asia was so disastrous that it was forced to reconstitute its military force to repair the damage.

In all of this, there are no good guys and bad guys, no grownups and wayward children.  There are just states [not individuals, remember] expanding their imperial reach until they come up against other states strong enough to oppose them successfully.  The underlying purposes of these expansions vary.  America’s motives are transparently those of international capital.  China’s motives are in part those of state capitalism and in part an effort at internal consolidation and stabilization [Owen Lattimore’s classic work, The Inner Asian Frontiers of China, is, as I have observed before on this blog, a useful guide.]  Russia’s motives appear to be in part economic and in part revanchist.

What then is a man or woman of the left to think?  If there are no good guys and no bad guys, where do I hang my hat and my heart?  I can only offer the answer that satisfies me.  Put not your trust in princes, as the Good Book says [Psalm 146, chapter 23, verse 5].  Choose your comrades in this world, those with whom you make common cause, and then fight alongside them for what you and they believe to be right and just.


I was searching for an old post in preparation for responding to Ewan's comment on Idle Speculation when I came upon this brief item that I posted a year and a half ago.  I liked it so much that I decided to post it again. No one has ever accused me of modesty, false or otherwise.


December 26th, the day each year that falls between Jesus' birthday and mine.

"Hegel remarks somewhere
 that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce."  Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. 

Sunday, May 28, 2017


I have done the Sunday TIMES crossword puzzle and both the 5 x 5 and 7 x 7 KenKens, so it is time for some idle speculation.  I trust everyone understands that I have absolutely no first-hand knowledge of any of the subjects I shall be speculating about.  Pay attention at your peril!  Here goes.  I write with an air of certainty simply because speculation is no fun if it is hedged round with caveats.

It is now clear that Jared Kushner really did approach the Russians with a proposal to use their Embassy equipment to communicate with the Kremlin.  This follows from the fact that H. R. McMaster and John Flynn have publicly stated that there is nothing untoward about the action.  If this were a Russian trick, they would be condemning the media for publishing false stories.

Why did he do this so close to the time when the Trump team would take over the government anyway?  It is not because he and his colleagues in the Trump White House are inexperienced or stupid or reckless or impatient.  And it certainly is not because he and the Trump team have any substantive national policies that they wish to pursue.  They don’t.

I think I know the answer.  Here it is [for what it is worth.]  Trump and Kushner are real estate speculators.  They are not ideologues, they are not right wing or left wing or middle of the road, they are real estate speculators.  That is who they have been all their lives and it is all they know or care about, leaving aside sociopathic narcissism and all that.

After Trump’s serial bankruptcies, he was forced to seek foreign and dodgy financing for his schemes, because American banks would no longer lend to him.  So he went deeply into debt with DeutscheBank, with a Chinese government owned bank, and with Russian oligarchs hand in glove with Putin.  Kushner took an enormous flyer in high profile Manhattan real estate, paying 1.8 billion for 666 Fifth Avenue at a time when New York real estate was booming.  He borrowed enormous sums at very disadvantageous terms, gambling on high rents and occupancy rates in excess of 90%.  Now, the real estate market is weak, and the building has an occupancy rate of 70%.  He is very close to default on the loans, and has been trying desperately to refinance.  He wanted a secret channel of communication to the Russians because he needs refinancing, and he needs it fast.

Why would the Russians be interested in helping him?  Putin has imperial ambitions.  He seeks to recapture at least some of the former glory of the Soviet Union.  But he is hamstrung by the weakness of the Russian economy.  Russia is a Petrostate, propped up by its oil sales.  Three or four years ago, when crude was selling on the world market for ~$80 a barrel, he had the means to throw his weight around in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, despite the economic sanctions imposed by the United States and the EU.  But oil is now selling at half that price, roughly $40 a barrel or even less, and the sanctions are hurting.  Alternative energy sources are booming, the world economy is plodding along with slow growth, and high oil prices are not likely to reappear any time soon.

Kushner and Trump need Russian money, and Putin needs an easing of the sanctions.  That, I suggest, is why Putin has been wooing Trump camp figures, and that is why Kushner wanted a secure communications channel to the Kremlin.


Yesterday afternoon, Susie and I saw a new film about the life of Emily Dickinson starring Cynthia Nixon.  It is a dark, slow moving, deadly earnest movie in which Nixon’s voice is heard at many points reading one or another of Dickinson’s poems.  Despite a fine performance by Nixon, I left the theater profoundly disappointed, and yet at the same time aware that perhaps what I wanted to see in the movie is essentially impossible for a director or writer to communicate.  Let me explain.

Emily Dickinson led a quiet, outwardly uneventful life in the New England college town of Amherst – one of its few tourist destinations is the Dickinson home, which I, like virtually everyone else in town, visited.  She never married, she never had a love affair, so far as we know, and only on rare occasions did she venture beyond Amherst even to the nearby city of Springfield.  She was also the author of one thousand eight hundred poems, and is arguably the greatest poet the United States has ever produced.  She had a rich, deep, complex mind and as complicated a relationship to the Christian religion as any poet who has ever lived.  And yes, I include in that estimate John Donne and Gerard Manley Hopkins.  The surface simplicity of her poetry is as deceptive as the surface simplicity of a Bach Invention.

The movie does a rather good job of portraying Dickinson’s rebellion against the rigoristic piety of nineteenth century New England Protestantism, but it does absolutely nothing to explain, or even puzzle over, the sources and dimensions of her poems.  There is a great temptation, of course, to fill this post with endless quotations from her poems, a temptation I shall resist.  Let me cite just one phrase.  In a poem ostensibly about the pink-tinged clouds one sees as the sun goes down, she writes ”angels wrestled there.”  Where we see quiet natural beauty, Dickinson saw blood sports.  If you pause and think about that fact, you will perhaps begin to gain some insight into her poetic vision.

The director makes some obvious and inevitable choices:  after Dickinson dies and her coffin is being put in the horse-drawn hearse, we hear Nixon’s voice:  “Because I could not stop for death/Death kindly stopped for me.”  The film ends with Nixon reading “This is my letter to the world/That never wrote to me.”  But it also makes some really appalling choices.  When Dickinson is given her brother’s new baby to hold, she looks down at the infant and says, “I am nobody, who are you?/Are you nobody too?”  This has got to be the wrongest reading of a great poem ever offered.

How can we communicate, in a film, or indeed in a book, the creative process of a great poet, a great composer, a great novelist, or a great painter?  The splendid movie, Amadeus, succeeds brilliantly as a movie, but only because it is really about Salieri, not Mozart.  Mozart’s creative genius is treated in the film as incomprehensible – Salieri says God is dictating the notes to Mozart.

Perhaps I ask too much.  It must be sufficient that a movie, as the word suggests, move us.  If we could explain how Dickinson did it, then we could all do it, and that, alas, is a blessing that New England’s God has chosen not to bestow.

Saturday, May 27, 2017


I have wondered about this.


I am put in mind about the story of The Little Juggler.  What can I possibly add to the celebration of the flood of news that keeps me, and tens of millions of others, glued to our TV sets or IPhones?  I have never even met a newspaper reporter, although a good college friend went on, after we had lost touch, to work for the TIMES.  But there is one aspect of this complex story that fascinates me, and a personal experience from thirty years ago may illuminate it a bit.  I refer to the leaks.

In 1986, I spent five weeks in Johannesburg, South Africa lecturing on Marx in the Philosophy Department at the University of the Witwatersrand, or Wits.  The chairman of the department was Jonathan Suzman, the nephew of a famous anti-apartheid activist Member of Parliament named Helen Suzman.  The Suzmans were a wealthy family, and Jonathan belonged to a toney downtown private men’s club called the Rand Club.  After I had been there three or four weeks, he invited me to dine at the club with him and a small group of prominent men – some bankers and corporate executives, the editor of one of the leading English language newspapers [not The Daily Mail.]  I borrowed a tuxedo [only the third time I had worn one] and went off to see how the one percent lived.  There were six or eight of us in a private dining room, served by quiet, efficient, deferential Black men doing their best to be invisible.

At this time, the government was carrying out active raids against groups of fighters based in Botswana who were members of the military wing of the African National Congress, uMkhonto we Sizwe.  The newspaper editor gave those of us at the dinner some not-for-publication information about bombing raids carried out by the South African air force against suspected camps inside Botswana.  A lively discussion ensued about whether the raids would be successful, where they would strike next, and the size of the rebel forces.

I sat there, utterly mystified by the ease with which these men spoke about secret matters in the presence of Black waiters, who, during the conversation, continued to refill our coffee cups and clear away dishes.  Then I realized the truth: these smart, well-educated, politically clued up men simply did not see the waiters, they did not exist for them save as extensions of their dining needs.  It was exactly like Mitt Romney’s famous 47% remark, made at a supposedly closed dinner and recorded on a cellphone by one of the waiters.  Since I had nothing to contribute to the conversation, I amused myself by wondering which of the waiters was the ANC operative charged with reporting everything that was said at the dinner.

As the flood of leaks continues, I find myself wondering who is doing the leaking.  There were very few people in the Oval Office when Trump blurted out top secret information to the Russian Ambassador and Foreign Minister [the Oval Office, I am told, is actually not very big, and will not hold large gatherings.]  The leak must have come from one of those few people present.  You do not need to conduct an extensive investigation to make a short list of suspects.  Are there people working in the White House who are as invisible to Trump and his “senior advisors” as those waiters were to my dinner partners at the Rand Club?  Some flunky must be tasked with actually typing up the notes taken by some other flunky at the meeting.  My understanding is that when a new administration come into office, everyone in the old White House right down to the chef, the bathroom attendants, and cleaning staff is fired and new people are brought in.  These leaks must be coming from supposed loyalists.

As our distinguished President likes to ask, What the hell is going on?

Friday, May 26, 2017


I know it is juvenile and fifth grade of me, but this warmed my heart.