Question and Answer

You know who questioned slavery? The enslaved people.

Van Jones

There’s no featured post this week.

This week everybody was talking about Ian

I won’t try to cover the devastation or the human suffering, because the mainstream media has been all over that. (I can’t tell you how many NBC reporters I’ve seen standing in front of a boat sitting on top of a crushed Chevy Suburban in Fort Myers. The network appears to have declared that particular site Ground Zero.)

I do think it’s worth noticing how normal Biden’s response has been. No Sharpie controversies. No playing politics with disaster funding. No presidential whining that some governor hasn’t been nice enough to him. No tossing paper towels into a crowd, as if relief supplies come from his personal largesse.

One big reason Biden was elected was to make government normal again. This is an example of him doing precisely that. It doesn’t matter that Governor DeSantis is one of Biden’s potential rivals in 2024. Florida needs help and it’s the president’s job to see that they get it.

Disasters like Ian emphasize a point that David Graeber made in Debt: the first 5,000 years: Society rests on a core of communism that we seldom see until an emergency happens. When everything else breaks down, we help people because they need it and expect people to help because they can.

In a pure market economy, you’d be perfectly justified to frame a disaster as an opportunity to make enormous profits by, say, only rescuing people who can pay you a lot. But we all understand how unseemly that would be.

(Crassus, the rich man who joined Caesar and Pompey in Rome’s First Triumvirate, made a lot of his money by training a crew of slaves to fight fires — which happened all the time in a crowded city built out of wood. When he saw a fire, he’d show up with his crew and offer to buy adjacent properties for a low, low price. After the sale, he’d have the fire put out. What a guy!)

As I predicted last week, the hurricane in Florida made us all forget Hurricane Fiona’s damage to Puerto Rico, which never did get the 24/7 coverage of Ian. But PR isn’t back to normal yet.

On Friday – as Floridians assessed the destruction left by Hurricane Ian and the storm made landfall in South Carolina as a Category 1 – more than 230,000 customers in Puerto Rico were still without electricity, according to the PowerOutage.US website. More than 800,000 customers were without power last weekend.

Nearly 80,000 customers – about 6% – of the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority were without water on Friday, according to the government’s emergency portal system website.

Fox News even forgot Puerto Rico is part of the United States.

Martha MacCallum was telling Fox News viewers about the devastating impacts of hurricanes in places such as Cuba and Puerto Rico on Wednesday when she quipped: “Thank God we have better infrastructure in our country”.

We should never forget the reason Puerto Rico isn’t a state: race and language prejudice. If the US owned an island of three million English-speaking White people, it would have joined the union decades ago.

After Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, right-wing Christians proclaimed it as a sign of God’s judgment. Franklin Graham in particular showed little sympathy for the city’s suffering:

This is one wicked city, OK? It’s known for Mardi Gras, for Satan worship. It’s known for sex perversion. It’s known for every type of drugs and alcohol and the orgies and all of these things that go on down there in New Orleans. … There’s been a black spiritual cloud over New Orleans for years. They believe God is going to use that storm to bring revival.

Those voices are silent now. Florida has been competing with Texas to lead the nation in persecuting trans youth, shoving LGBTQ people back into the closet, and keeping students ignorant about racism. So what about that, fundamentalist preachers? Does God speak through storms or not? What might God be trying to tell Ron DeSantis?

Or maybe all the signs-of-God’s-judgment talk has always just been a way for flim-flam artists like Graham to put their own words into God’s mouth.

and Putin’s annexations

He went through with it.

On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin formally declared four regions of Ukraine as part of Russia following sham referendums this week in eastern and southern Ukraine. Putin made the illegal decree as he lobbed even more threats against the United States and its allies, another potential escalation in the war in Ukraine and in Russia’s standoff with the West.

Putin moved to annex four regions of eastern and southern Ukraine — Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia — after officials in Russian-controlled territory staged an illegal vote on joining Russia. The Kremlin does not fully control any of these areas, and pollsters reportedly went door to door with armed soldiers in Russian-controlled zones, but Putin justified the decree by saying that it was done on behalf of the “will of millions of people.”

“Illegal” can be a loaded word, so I tracked down the basis for the claim that the annexation referendums are illegal. The 1958 commentary on the fourth Geneva Convention (1949) says:

As was emphasized in the commentary on Article 4, the occupation of territory in wartime is essentially a temporary, de facto situation, which deprives the occupied Power of neither its statehood nor its sovereignty; it merely interferes with its power to exercise its rights. That is what distinguishes occupation from annexation, whereby the Occupying Power acquires all or part of the occupied territory and incorporates it in its own territory.

Consequently occupation as a result of war, while representing actual possession to all appearances, cannot imply any right whatsoever to dispose of territory. As long as hostilities continue the Occupying Power cannot therefore annex the occupied territory, even if it occupies the whole of the territory concerned. A decision on that point can only be reached in the peace treaty.

The practical point of the annexation is to frame Ukraine’s current offensive (which is still advancing) as an attack on Russia itself rather than a recapture of its own territory. Putin has said he will use “all available means” to defend “Russia”, which raises the specter of nuclear war.

Yesterday’s NYT discusses the possibility that Russia will use nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

“The chance that Putin would strike out of the blue seems very low,” said Graham T. Allison, the author of a seminal 1971 book about the Cuban Missile Crisis, “Essence of Decision.” “But as Kennedy said back then, the plausible scenario is if a leader is forced to choose between a catastrophic humiliation and a roll of the dice that might yield success.”

Mr. Allison suspects Mr. Putin will not face that choice unless Ukraine succeeds in pushing Russian forces out of the areas Mr. Putin annexed on Friday.

For that reason, the next few weeks could prove a particularly dangerous time, a range of American and European officials agree. But Mr. Putin is not likely to use a nuclear weapon immediately.

That’s not very comforting. During the Cold War, I didn’t worry much about a Soviet first strike because it didn’t make sense from a Marxist worldview. Soviet dogma said that communism was the inevitable outcome of history. So why would you risk everything on a roll of the dice now if your eventual victory was certain? But that thinking doesn’t apply now. If Putin sees his regime going down, he might think rolling the dice is his best bet.

OTOH, a gangster regime rests on the self-interest calculations made by all the henchmen. If a lot of those calculations are based on the belief that Putin would never do something that could get them all killed, the possibility of nuclear war could start people up and down the regime reevaluating their cooperation.

I’d like to see Biden address Putin’s henchmen directly, in a statement something like this:

A nuclear attack is something that the world will never forget and never forgive. Anyone who in any way participates in such a decision or such an attack will never know a moment’s peace. You must realize that Putin’s regime will eventually fall and his protection will fail. When that happens, there will be no safe place for you. You will be hunted to the ends of the Earth.

As for how the US should respond if Putin does use a tactical nuke in Ukraine, I’ve been reluctant to say what I’m thinking, because I’d be just another ignorant guy spouting off. So I found a knowledgeable guy who is saying the same thing: former general and CIA head David Petraeus. NATO should respond directly, but with conventional weapons. The goal would be to make sure Russia lost at least as much as it had gained by using the nuke.

The US and its allies would destroy Russia’s troops and equipment in Ukraine – as well as sink its Black Sea fleet – if Russian president Vladimir Putin uses nuclear weapons in the country, former CIA director and retired four-star army general David Petraeus warned on Sunday.

I understand fully the temptation to back down: To the rest of the world, losing Ukraine is a small price to pay to avoid the kind of escalation that could lead to an all-out nuclear war. But giving in to threats means giving something up without getting anything back. Putin retains his nuclear arsenal and can make the same threat over the next conflict. Where does that road end?

CPAC has since deleted the tweet, but its reflex response to the annexations was to line up with Putin’s propaganda. The tweet referred to the four territories as “Ukrainian-occupied”, as if they had always been Russian and Ukraine is the aggressor.

A possibly related event is the rupture in the Nord Stream pipelines, which take Russian natural gas to Germany. This appears to be sabotage, but everybody is pointing fingers at everybody else. In the short term it helps Russia, because this winter Europe will realize how much it depends on Russian energy. In the long run it hurts Russia, which will need the pipelines to sell natural gas after the Ukraine-related sanctions get resolved somehow.

and other right-wing foreign governments

Speaking of ultra-conservative foreign leaders, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro was up for re-election yesterday. He trails another former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known more simply as “Lula”) 48.4%-43.2%, which means a run-off will happen October 30. There has already been violence in this campaign, and it is expected to get worse.

In addition to how the run-off will come out, everyone wonders what Bolsonaro will do if he loses. Like Trump in 2020, Bolsonaro started questioning the integrity of the election before it happened. His supporters are more likely than his opponents to be armed, and the nation’s police support him. He probably has enough military support to keep Brazil’s army on the sidelines.

The far-right Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) Party, which traces its ancestry back to the World War II Fascists, leads the new Italian government, elevating Giorgia Meloni to prime minister. Wikipedia explains the history.

FdI emerged from a right-wing split within Silvio Berlusconi‘s party, The People of Freedom (PdL), in December 2012. The bulk of the party leadership including Meloni, as well as the symbol of the movement (the tricolour flame), comes from the National Alliance (AN, 1995–2009) party, which had merged into PdL in 2009. AN was the heir to the Italian Social Movement (MSI, 1945–1995), a neo-fascist party founded by former members of the banned National Fascist Party (1921–1943) and the Republican Fascist Party (1943–1945).

American conservatives are ecstatic, and Meloni looks likely to join Hungarian authoritarian Viktor Orbán in the pantheon of foreign leaders who get cheered at CPAC (where she has already spoken twice). But lots of people on my social media feeds posted this quip:

I can’t believe they made Mussolini a woman in the reboot. This woke nonsense has ruined yet another franchise.

The most immediate problem raised by Italian neo-fascism is whether Italy will become pro-Putin voice inside NATO. So far, Meloni is not signalling that.

Meloni, 45, has sought to moderate her views recently, and this week she tweeted support for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Yet as Europe teeters on the brink of a recession stemming at least partly from energy sanctions imposed on Russia, there are fears within the Biden administration and elsewhere that Meloni could slash what’s been a significant Italian contribution to Ukraine’s defense.

Such a move could have a domino effect and cause key Western allies to push for a negotiated end to Russia’s war on Ukraine. Trump backed that position Wednesday, one Ukraine’s leaders vehemently oppose because it would likely require giving up large swaths of their territory to Putin.

and the Supreme Court

The start of the new Court term led a lot of pundits to raise a bunch of the issues I discussed last week. The NYT Editorial Board wrote:

The actual cause of [the Supreme Court’s] historic unpopularity is no secret. Over the past several years, the court has been transformed into a judicial arm of the Republican Party. This project was taking shape more quietly for decades, but it shifted into high gear in 2016, when Justice Antonin Scalia died and Senate Republicans refused to let Barack Obama choose his successor, obliterating the practice of deferring to presidents to fill vacancies on the court. Within four years, the court had a 6-to-3 right-wing supermajority, supercharging the Republican appointees’ efforts to discard the traditions and processes that have allowed the court to appear fair and nonpartisan.

The WaPo’s Ruth Marcus wrote an extended introduction to the new Court term, which includes a number of race-related cases: affirmative action and voting rights in particular. Another case revisits whether anti-discrimination laws apply to Christian businesses that turn away gay customers for religious reasons. There’s an opportunity for the Court to limit the power the Clean Water Act gives the EPA, and to increase state legislatures’ power to sway elections.

and the pandemic

Case numbers are dropping almost everywhere except where I am in New England. Nationally, deaths stubbornly remain around 400 per day.

When President Biden declared the pandemic over a couple weeks ago, I had to decide when I’ll start thinking of it as over: When the death numbers get down to about 100 per day. That would be flu-like.

According to data collected by the CDC from 2010 to 2020, the agency estimates that the flu has caused 12,000 to 52,000 deaths annually.

100 per day would be 36,500 annually, right in the middle of a normal flu range. Until then, I’m going to keep wearing masks and avoiding indoor crowds.

and you also might be interested in …

The week’s dumbest controversy was about Lizzo playing James Madison’s flute. If you’ve seen references to it and want to know what it was about, click the link. But if you don’t care, don’t start caring on my account.

I aspire to someday have a life so carefree that how the Library of Congress handles James Madison’s flute rises to the top of my list.

The dumbest statement about a controversy had to be this one by Ron DeSantis, who was defending his initiative to put a right-wing slant on how Florida public schools teach American history.

It was the American Revolution that caused people to question slavery. No one had questioned it before we decided as Americans that we are endowed by our Creator with unalienable rights and that we are all created equal.

CNN’s Van Jones pointed out the obvious.

You know who questioned [slavery]? The enslaved people.

Like the history I was taught growing up, DeSantis’ history is based on the principle that only European views count. There’s no other way to justify the claim that “no one” questioned slavery before 1776, that Columbus “discovered” America, that Gutenberg (and not Bi Sheng of the Song Dynasty) invented movable type, or a bunch of other pseudo-facts I remember from my K-12 years.

The origins of movable type.

But even if you only count English-speaking White people, DeSantis’ history is just wrong.

In the 1569 case it had been ruled that English law could not recognise slavery. This view, although overturned by the ruling in Butts V. Penny, was subsequently upheld in 1701 when the Chief Justice, Sir John Holt, ruled that a slave became free as soon as he arrived in England. In this view, different from, but no less unequivocal than that of the Solicitor-General in 1677, slavery was illegal.

Judge Cannon continues to put Trump above the law. Once again, the special master that Trump chose wanted to pin down exactly what he’s claiming — this time about whether the FBI planted documents or not. But no. Those claims are allowed to float, and presumably to influence the case, without even being stated for the record, much less supported by evidence.

New Tory Prime Minister Liz Truss’ first major act was to propose a gigantic tax cut for the rich.

Last week, Truss’ government announced that they would cut taxes by £45 billion ($48 billion) in a bid to get the UK economy moving again, with a package that includes scrapping the highest rate of income tax for top earners from 45% to 40% and a big increase in government borrowing to slash energy prices for millions of households and businesses this winter.

Truss has acknowledged mistakes in how the proposal was rolled out, but seems to be standing by it, even as the pound crashes. But not everybody is behind her.

Conservative members of parliament fear the combination of tax cuts along with huge public spending to help people cope with energy bills, rising inflation, rising interest rates and a falling pound are going to make winning the next general election impossible.

Who better to comment than UK fake-news personality Jonathan Pie?

Having passed the House and gotten support from Mitch McConnell, a bill to reform the Electoral Count Act of 1887 looks likely to become law. The bill eliminates various loopholes and vagueries that Trump used to try to hang onto power after losing the 2020 election.

McConnell’s support is one more step in the continued souring of his relationship with Trump. Obviously, Trump doesn’t like the implication that his failed coup attempt was the kind of thing America should avoid in the future. But he really lashed out after McConnell supported a continuing resolution to keep the government open until after the election. On his Trump-centered Twitter-clone, the former president said McConnell “has a death wish”, which I (and a lot of other people) interpret as a suggestion that McConnell be assassinated. The same post insulted McConnell’s Chinese-American wife, Elaine Chao, who left Trump’s cabinet after January 6. Trump called her McConnell’s “China loving wife Coco Chow”.

Explain to me again how “divisive” Joe Biden is.

Speaking at a Trump rally in Michigan Saturday, Marjorie Taylor Greene said

I’m not going to mince words with you all. Democrats want Republicans dead. They’ve already started the killings.

Again, the point here seems to be to incite and justify right-wing violence.

This week I learned two words: Having an implant removed is called “explanting”. And a person known by a one-word name (like Madonna or Lula) is “mononymous”.

and let’s close with some practical information

Ryan North’s career in comic books (Dinosaur Comics, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, …) has led him to spend an enormous amount of time contemplating plausible supervillain schemes. Now you can benefit from his lifetime of research by reading his book How to Take Over the World.

The infrastructure chapter alone could save you billions. Where should you build your secret lair? (Not at the bottom of the ocean or on the Moon. You’d just be creating problems for yourself.) How much space do you need to achieve food and energy independence from the outside world? (The Biosphere 2 research is invaluable here.)

And then there are the more specific villainous plans. How can you create your own dinosaurs? (Actual dinosaur DNA is unrecoverable now, so the Jurassic Park technique can’t possibly work. But you might be able to create pseudo-dinosaurs by manipulating the DNA expression of the dinosaurs’ bird descendants. This technique also avoids a lot of catastrophic outcomes, because your dinosaurs’ offspring would be birds again.) What’s the most plausible path to immortality? How can you control the weather? (The plan here looks a lot like the one Neil Stephenson explores in Termination Shock, which was probably being written simultaneously.)

Supervillainy may seem like a radical career choice, but there’s no time to lose, because Disney owns Marvel Comics and Warner-Discovery owns DC. Think about what that means:

Two of the most powerful multinational corporations on the planet have spent decades, in plain sight, paying some of the most creative people alive today to design increasingly credible world-domination schemes.

So if you don’t take over the world, one of those two undoubtedly will. Your reign is bound to be better than theirs.

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  • Carol Jacobs-Carre  On October 3, 2022 at 12:47 pm

    Why don’t we have an American Jonathan Pie? We need one (or a Joanna)

  • Joe Max  On October 3, 2022 at 1:17 pm

    RE: Putin using nuclear weapons.

    The idea that in the old Cold War days, the USSR wouldn’t really use nukes because of Marxist dogma, how that world communism was historically inevitable anyway, was brought up in the 1960s nuclear apocalypse book Fail Safe. One character (the one based on Kissinger) made that very same argument – the Soviets are fanatics, and they will trust the predictions of Marx and not want to burn the world down. A general replied that the leaders of the USSR are “Russians first, Communists second.” If they were attacked or forced into a corner, they would respond like Russians, and push retaliate, “Marx be damned.”

    • weeklysift  On October 4, 2022 at 7:55 am

      I had forgotten most of “Fail Safe”. My comforting take on Marxism was mainly an argument against an opportunistic Soviet first strike, which is something people worried about back in the Carter and Reagan years.

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