Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

Posts Tagged ‘corruption

William Pitt the Elder

leave a comment »

William Pitt the Elder, by William Hoare

William Pitt the Elder, by William Hoare

William Pitt the Elder (1708-1778), later 1st Earl of Chatham, was a chief minister of Great Britain (there was still ambivalence to the title of Prime Minister). He was bombastic, mercurial, confrontational and he may have been manic-depressive.

He changed Anglo-American politics forever. If you live in Pittsburgh, Pittston, Pittsboro or various Pittsfields or Chathams, your place of residence was named in recognition of William Pitt.

Paymaster of the Forces

Between 1746 and 1755, Pitt served as Paymaster of the Forces, effectively the treasurer of the British Army. At that time, the office was extremely lucrative for the holder, with two principle perquisites:

  • Ability to skim the interest in army funds, including the soldiers’ pay;
  • Ability to skim the profits of sale of military assets, such as the sale of old military supplies.

Although Henry Pelham, who has previously been paymaster of the forces, had refused these perquisites, he had been private about it. Pitt publicly renounced them. This example initiated a change in the way we conceive of the conduct of a political office holder. What had been looked upon as standard operating procedure, and remained so in many other countries, became viewed as corruption in the Anglo-American tradition.

Pitt initiated this change, and he did it not through introducing laws or launching a crusade, but by the simple force of his own example.

The Seven Years’ War

The Seven Years’ War began in 1756 and initially went very badly for Britain and her allies. The Braddock Expedition had been smashed in 1755. In the early years of the war France took Minorca, Fort Oswego and Fort William Henry. Hanover, allied to Britain through the King, was forced to withdraw from the war.

I know I can save this country and that I alone can.
— William Pitt, 1756

In 1757, Pitt entered into a coalition government with a man who had been his enemy: Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle. They divided their responsibilities: Pitt managed the war against France in their colonies, while Newcastle managed the war in Europe. Pitt obtained the funding to support world war, while Newcastle handled the patronage needed to keep the coalition in power.

Our bells are worn threadbare with the ringing of victories.
— Horace Walpole, 1759

1759 is remembered as an Annus Mirabilis for the harvest of victories over the French. In North America, Britain captured Fort Ticonderoga and Quebec, and drove the French from the Ohio Country after taking Fort Duquesne the previous autumn. British forces captured Guadeloupe. In Europe, the Navy destroyed the French capacity to launch an invasion of Britain, establishing itself as the dominant naval power, and Britain with her allies won the Battle of Minden. In India, British forces relieved the Siege of Madras.

For the remainder of the war, Britain consolidated and expanded on these gains, collapsing French holdings in India and North America east of the Mississippi.

The American Colonies

The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown. It may be frail — its roof may shake — the wind may blow through it — the storm may enter — the rain may enter — but the King of England cannot enter — all his force dares not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement!
— William Pitt, speech in Parliament, 1763

Britain had become concerned about how to pay for the enormous army it had created during the Seven Years’ War. Sons of powerful landed families had purchased commissions as officers in new regiments. It would have been unthinkable to buy them out, but how were these regiments to be supported financially? A plan for an excise tax on cider, which would have landed principally on the country gentry, had gone down to dramatic defeat in 1763, taking George III’s favorite, the Earl of Bute, along with it.

George Grenville then became first minister, and sought to solve the problem by taxing the American colonies through the introduction of Sugar and Stamp Acts. More odious than their tax effects was their intent to bypass colonial legislatures in imposing taxation. Townshend and his allies maintained that the colonies had “virtual representation” in the British Parliament.

The Stamp Act led to riots in America and attacks on British agents who collected the taxes. By January, 1766, there was sharp division in Parliament. Grenville had worn out his welcome with the King, who replaced him with Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, who brought Edmund Burke along with him as personal private secretary. Rockingham wanted to repeal the Stamp Act, but a substantial number of MPs were unwilling to yield the conceptual right of Parliament to impose taxes. Virtual representation was also seen as essential; the same doctrine addressed the representation of cities such as Manchester, which had no representatives of their own in Commons.

Pitt was not buying the idea of virtual representation, and foresaw the future of reform:

This is what is called the rotten part of the Constitution. It can not continue a century. If it does not drop, it must be amputated. The idea of a virtual representation of America in this House is the most contemptible idea that ever entered into the head of a man. It does not deserve a serious refutation.

The Commons of America represented in their several assemblies, have ever been in possession of the exercise of this, their constitutional right, of giving and granting their own money. They would have been slaves if they had not enjoyed it! At the same time, this kingdom, as the supreme governing and legislative power, has always bound the colonies by her laws, by her regulations, and restrictions in trade, in navigation, in manufactures, in every thing, except that of taking their money out of their pockets without their consent.

After this, Grenville rose to voice his objections, and then Pitt returned in reply.

The gentleman tells us, America is obstinate; America is almost in open rebellion. I rejoice that America has resisted. Three millions of people, so dead to all the feelings of liberty as voluntarily to submit to be slaves, would have been fit instruments to make slaves of the rest.

Pitt concluded:

Upon the whole, I will beg leave to tell the House what is my opinion. It is, that the Stamp Act be repealed absolutely, totally, and immediately. That the reason for the repeal be assigned—viz., because it was founded on an erroneous principle. At the same time, let the sovereign authority of this country over the colonies be asserted in as strong terms as can be devised, and be made to extend to every point of legislation whatsoever; that we may bind their trade, confine their manufactures, and exercise every power whatsoever, except that of taking money from their pockets without consent.

[Full text of speech and rebuttal: http://www.bartleby.com/268/3/23.html]

The distinction between binding their trade and taking money from their pockets without consent escaped many of the members in attendance.

If you understand the difference, it is more than I do, but I assure you it was very fine when I heard it.
— Lord George Germain, 1766

Whigs were always having to navigate the treacherous space where liberty and order met; it would ultimately undo them. But that was more than a century in the future.

Rockingham yoked a Declaratory Act, asserting the theoretical right of Parliament to tax the colonies, to repeal of the Stamp Act, recognizing the impracticality of doing so in this manner.

Chief Ministry

Being responsible, I will direct and will be responsible for nothing I do not direct.
— William Pitt, speech in Parliament, 1761

His time as chief minister was short: 1766-1768. He selected a cabinet of very capable men, but there were no precedents by which he could require them to work together or to all pull in the same direction. Pitt himself was too obstinate and too much of a loner to do the backstairs politicking that would have been necessary to bring the group together as a team. His term as chief minister is generally considered a failure.

In 1767, Charles Townshend, Chancellor of the Exchequer, introduced the Revenue Act of 1767, first of a series of bills remembered to history as the Townshend Acts.

Pitt himself, now Earl of Chatham, had gone into seclusion in 1768. Only in 1770 did he return to his seat in the House of Lords. He was still an intermittent participant. Without his leadership, his allies — Rockingham, Burke, the Earl of Shelburne — were in disarray the government’s back-and-forth measures in America spun out of control.

Weakened by illness, Pitt played an increasingly marginal role in British politics, until he finally collapsed on the floor of Parliament in 1778.

Nevertheless, he had a profound effect on our political traditions.

Written by srojak

March 4, 2017 at 1:23 pm

Interview with the Prosecutor

leave a comment »

Steve Heath was a prosecutor, working for two years in New Orleans and another seven in Dallas. He has been in the engine room of the criminal justice system.

I met with him to ask him for his perspective and to provide a perspective that we, as ordinary citizens, would never have on inner-city crime and justice issues. All quotes in this post are from him.

[The DA’s office] got Federal grants — Federal money — but all they were doing was hand-to-hand drug sales of punks on the street, mostly black, OK? And they got tons of Federal money. They never ever got beyond the street level and got somebody really big — a drug dealer or a money launderer …

The Federal government gives counties money to prosecute crimes. Two major areas Heath cited are drug offences and domestic violence. So where you pay people to prosecute, it is not hard to figure out that you are going to get more prosecutions. Are they valid prosecutions? Well, where are your controls?

Heath said that most of the people prosecuted for dealing drugs are just go-betweens that are lured in by the promise of easy money.

You could set those people up forever … The cop will come to [the kid], “I want to buy a certain amount of cocaine.” So he goes and talks to the kid he knows who sells cocaine.

“Can you get me more?” “Well, I guess so.”  [The kid says], “Hey, this is a good deal, I’m making money off this stuff.” He was never even inclined to do it before. They get him to a certain level, next thing you know, they’re recommending a four or five year sentence for him on the first offence.

Just as in any other human activity, the competence of prosecutors is distributed over a range. One of the characteristics that Heath observed to distinguish good prosecutors from time-servers was their willingness to do real investigative work and follow the leads to the ultimate sources of crime.

You can see how the prisons get filled up. Black kid gets set up, he gets probation, he makes a mistake and gets a dirty UA on his test, it gets revoked. Next thing you know he’s unemployed, he can’t get a job, what’s he gonna do? Next thing you know, they’re all in the prisons. It is kind of racist, so I thought, “Black people kind of have a point here.” [Prosecutors and cops] are disproportionately setting them up.

I don’t think police are doing it because they’re racists; [the targets] are just easy marks. You can get Federal money all there and set up all these people, you can get your stats up: “500 more convictions than last year! 10% more than when the prosecutor took over three years ago!” But that’s all they focus on.

Given the incentives, it is easy to understand the pressures on ordinary police. The prosecutor wants to run up his score and the Feds are offering money for which they want to see results. You don’t do this in leafy Deerfield, Illinois or Highland Park, Texas, where the kids have parents who will get lawyers and contest the cases. You need concentrated people who can’t effectively defend themselves. Those people are going to be living in cities and are going to be disproportionately black.

The prosecutors like the statistics, because they can wave them in front of the voters. The Feds like the statistics, because they provide reassurance that the grant programs are effective and the money given out is used effectively. But it is all bogus.

“Win 98% of our cases.” Yeah, you win that many because you never try any tough cases. You just set up these punk cases, that most of them plead out because they have no choice. That’s where I’m sympathetic with the black mindset, where what I call the “prison-industrial complex” where everybody makes a ton of money setting up people.

Heath also had some observations about police training. He strongly disliked the evolution of the shoot-to-kill policies in policing.

It kind of starts with — I can’t remember the Supreme Court case of 20-30 years ago, which basically allowed the use of force by the police if they felt their lives were in jeopardy. So that kind of opened the door, then they got a lot of governmental immunity. It’s hard to get these cases prosecuted civilly.

This article discusses the two cases from the 1980s that match up to Heath’s description:

They’re trained that, if their lives are in danger, you don’t shoot to wing somebody in the arms, or legs, whatever; you shoot to kill. So the training is bad, and frankly I think the training has gotten worse since Homeland Security money has come in here. It’s more like, police are starting to have their own mentality of fear and intimidation, rather than serve and protect.

He also observed incidence of what only can be described as overkill.

What bothers you is that they don’t just shoot them once sometimes. You see these videos, also — there was this impaired man in the street, and he got up and he had a knife. There were twenty cops surrounding him, and he got up and took two steps and all of a sudden fifteen cops shoot 38 bullets in him. He was not within thirty feet of anybody.

Heath noted that you don’t have to be black to get the short end of the fear-and-intimidation stick.

I was down in Austin and I made an wrong turn, and next thing you know a bunch of cops pull me over. I start to get out and there are three of them with guns pulled, screaming at me, “Get out of the car!”

Heath observed that there are energetic and lazy police just as there are in any other line of work. He placed his emphasis on the leadership positions; these determine what behaviors will or will not be tolerated, what training will be delivered and what culture will be cultivated.

You really need to work on fostering good race relations by listening to black leaders who are saying, “Why is it always the black kids you are setting up on all these drug charges?”

One of the side effects of the war on drugs is the feeding of what Heath calls “the prison-industrial complex,” likening it to the “military-industrial complex” that Eisenhower warned about.

It’s an industry. It’s cluttering our prisons. Get ’em on probation, revoke and then they can’t get jobs, they can’t get work. I remember the stats were, like, 70% of blacks between 18 and 34 — males — were in probation, prison or parole. That’s insane. Mostly for drug offenses.

He said that he had, at one time, been in favor of drug criminalization. His experiences in the cities had soured him on it.

The war on drugs has been a complete and total failure. They never try to go to the top. HSBC and Wachovia were both convicted of laundering massive amounts of drug money. Wachovia conveniently folded at the time, got bought up by Wells Fargo. HSBC, what’d they get, a billion dollar fine or something?

Here are some additional links relating to HSBC:

He supports community policing initiatives. He does not believe that the majority of police are abusing their authority, but those that are have an effect on public perception beyond their number.

They police officers need to walk a beat. They need to get to know the people in their neighborhood. They need to develop their snitches, their sources, their whatever. Get a pulse … They need to bond with the community.

Heath expressed the hope that we could get back to a serve-and-protect model of law enforcement that did not view the people in the community as adversaries.

Written by srojak

December 11, 2016 at 7:25 pm

An Election Every Day

leave a comment »

No matter how unsatisfying you think the 2016 election cycle has been or will become — and I think I have been quite forthcoming on how unsatisfying I find it — you can take some comfort in this observation. The election that really matters happens every day.

You vote in this election with your scarce resources: your time, your money and your attention. You vote with what you choose to give to withhold. You vote with what you choose to expect or to tolerate.

Everyone participates in this election. You can’t opt out. Even deciding not to decide is a decision.

The results of this daily election creates the national culture and political climate in which politicians and administrators have to operate. They can push the envelope, but they can’t take it where it doesn’t provide the flexibility to go.

If this were not true, if political leaders could successfully bend a modern industrial nation containing hundreds of millions of people to their will, there would still be a Soviet Union.

Yes, the country can get better or worse. We can go up or down on the Freedom Index, where we are already behind Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan, the UK, France, the Czech Republic, Poland and Estonia. We can return to the rule of law or we can have less of it. We have national problems with entitlements and education. We can have politicians and administrators break the economy.

I am not saying the annual elections don’t matter. I am saying the perpetual referendum of 325 million people conducting their daily business matters more.

I never ruled Russia. Ten thousand clerks ruled Russia.
— One of the Tsars Alexander on his deathbed.

We can strive for equal justice under the law or continue to have corruption. But, to give an example, a nation that accepts the precept that “rank has its privileges” has already bought into having corruption. Corrupt public officials will get farther in such a nation than in a nation that demands transparency and accountability.

Here is a historical example:

The conviction that the subordination of the individual to the good of the community was not only a necessity but a positive blessing had gripped the mind of the German army, and through it that of the nation.
— Gen. Paul von Hindenburg, Out of My Life (1920)

At all historical evidence, Hindenburg was speaking accurately. Is it any wonder that Germany turned to the Nazis in 1933 when times got hard? The ground was already prepared for them. Hindenburg himself could and did object to the style of the Nazis, but could not effectively stand against their principles. Ideas have consequences.

Control the controllables. If each of us clean up our own corner of the country, the country would be cleaned up.

Written by srojak

October 30, 2016 at 1:17 pm

US Constitiution 1.1

leave a comment »

In 1979, Theodore Lowi released the second edition of his book The End of Liberalism: The Second Republic of the United States. Lowi teaches at Cornell and would be characterized as a liberal; for example, he advocates government planning. However, he is also a proponent of the rule of law. The evolution of the political processes away from law and representative government toward bargaining and interest-group government began to trouble him by the time he wrote the first edition of the book ten years earlier.

Where contemporaries saw government departure from formalism as pragmatic, Lowi saw it as corrupt. Where reality deviates from formalism, we find arbitrariness, influence-peddling and injustice. He wrote the best defense of political idealism I have seen:

The gap between form and reality gives rise to cynicism, for informality means that some will escape their fate better than others. There has, as a consequence, always been cynicism toward public institutions in the United States, and this, too, is a good thing, since a little cynicism is the parent of healthy sophistication. However, when the informal is elevated to a positive virtue, and when the gap between the formal and the informal grows wider, and when the hard-won access of individuals and groups becomes a share of official authority, cynicism unavoidably curdles into distrust. Legitimacy can be defined as the distance between form and reality. How much spread can a democratic system tolerate and remain both democratic and legitimate?
The End of Liberalism, p. 297.

Although he did not use the term, the mechanisms that Lowi describes are that of corporatism: public-private partnerships in rule-making and governance. Although Lowi did not name it, he described it well enough:

The state grows, but the opportunities for sponsorship and privilege grow proportionately. Power goes up, but in the form of personal plunder rather than public choice. If would not be accurate to evaluate this model as “socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor,” because many thousands of low-income persons and groups have provided within the system. The more accurate characterization might be “socialism for the organized, capitalism for the unorganized.”
Ibid, pp. 278-9.

For the second edition, Lowi reverse engineered a new constitution for the government from actual practice, in an attempt to highlight the spread between form and reality.

There ought to be a national presence in every aspect of the lives of American citizens. National power is no longer a necessary evil; it is a positive virtue.

Article I. It is the primary purpose of this national government to provide domestic tranquility by reducing risk. This risk may be physical or it may be fiscal. In order to fulfill this sacred obligation, the national government shall be deemed to have sufficient power to eliminate threats from the environment through regulation, and to eliminate threats from economic uncertainty through insurance.

Article II. The separation of powers to the contrary notwithstanding, the center of this national government is the presidency. Said office is authorized to use any powers, real or imagined, to set our nation to rights by making any rules or regulations the president deems appropriate; the president may subdelegate this authority to any other official or agency. The right to make all such rules and regulations is based upon the assumption in this constitution that the office of the presidency embodies the will of the real majority of the American nation.

Article III. Congress exists, but only as a consensual body. Congress possesses all legislative authority, but should limit itself to the delegation of broad grants of unstructured authority to the president. Congress must take care never to draft a careful and precise statute because this would interfere with the judgment of the president and his professional and full-time administrators.

Article IV. There exists a separate administrative branch composed of persons whose right to govern is based upon two principles: (1) the delegation of power flowing from Congress, and (2) the authority inherent in professional training and promotion through an administrative hierarchy. Congress and the courts may provide for administrative procedures and have the power to review agencies for their observance of these procedures; but in no instance should Congress or the courts attempt to displace the judgment of the administrators with their own.

Article V. The judicial branch is responsible for two functions:
1. To preserve the procedural rights of citizens before all federal courts, state and local courts and administrative agencies, and
2. To apply the Fourteenth Amendment of the 1787 Constitution as a natural-law defense of all substantive and procedural rights.
The appellate courts shall exercise vigorous judicial review of all state and local government and court decisions, but in no instance shall the courts review the constitutionality of Congress’ grants of authority to the president or to the federal administrative agencies.

Article VI. The public interest shall be defined by the satisfaction of the voters in their constituencies. The test of the public interest is re-election.

Article VII. Article VI to the contrary notwithstanding, actual policymaking will not come from voter preferences or congressional enactments but from a process of tripartite bargaining between the specialized administrators, relevant members of Congress and the representatives of self-selected organized interests.

How did he do? How closely did he bring the form of his constitution to matches what actually happens?

Written by srojak

October 15, 2016 at 2:48 pm

The Informed Celebrity Test

leave a comment »

There are many celebrities who appear to be confused. They think that they have a pulpit to pronounce on economics and politics because their celebrity status gives them access, whether or not they actually have any backing for their opinions.

Celebrities do not have a monopoly on being ill-informed. However, they have an ability to be heard that ordinary private citizens do not enjoy. They have a ready platform to get their message out and attempt to influence others. This platform is not available to the rest of us.

To compensate for the access advantages a celebrity has over any other citizen, I offer this simple test for celebrities to take before they tell the rest of us how we ought to vote. The positions taken are not as important as the support offered for them.

  1. The Department of Labor has announced changes to the regulations under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), to go into effect on 1 December 2016. Specifically, the earnings limit for salaried employees who must be paid overtime will be raised to $47,476/year, with an automatic adjustment every three years (at this writing, the limit is $23,660/year).
    1. Should a salaried employee receive overtime? Why or why not?
    2. What is the principle that guides your answer to the previous question?
    3. Under what constitutional authority is this change to the law being made?
    4. What are two regulations regarding labor and wages that the original FLSA, passed in 1938, established?
    5. Name two employer practices relating to wage payments for adult workers that used to occur before the 1930s and caused people to want federal labor law.
    6. The same change sets the income level of a “highly compensated employee” at $134,004/year, which is obtained by finding the 90th percentile of full-time salaried workers across the nation. What multiple of that number did you make last year?
  2. The Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case [558 U.S. 310] involves the regulation of political activity by organizations.
    1. The case was appealed when a lower court declined to provide injunctive relief to Citizens United. What was the Federal Election Commission doing that Citizens United sought an injunction to stop?
    2. What was the majority finding of the court?
    3. In the dissent authored by Justice Stevens, what differences between a corporation and a human person did he identify?
    4. Where do you put the boundary between free speech and “electioneering communication”? Does it matter who is doing the speaking? Explain.
    5. How does Congress direct and control the actions of the Federal Election Commission, including assertion of accountability by commissioners for their actions?
  3. The Kelo v. City of New London case [545 U.S. 469] involved a particular use of eminent domain by the City of New London, CT.
    1. What was the twist on eminent domain particular to this case?
    2. What was the majority opinion?
    3. In the dissent written by Justice O’Connor, what was her point?
    4. Must there be a public use to be a public purpose? Why or why not?
  4. There have been various public discussions this year as to whether one or the other of the major party candidates is unqualified to be President.
    1. What are the qualifications given by the Constitution for a President?
    2. What other qualifications would you assert? On what grounds?
  5. The US national debt is, at the time of this writing, $19.6 trillion.
    1. What is the difference between the debt and the budget deficit?
    2. About 88% of the federal budget is consumed by six major items. Name four.
    3. What are the three ways available to finance government operations?
    4. Do we ever have to pay down the debt? Could we just keep running it up for the foreseeable future? Explain.
    5. The Federal government has the exclusive authority to coin money? Could the government just print its way out of debt? Why or why not?
    6. If the Federal government just repudiated the debt, what would happen? Who would be affected?
  6. In most elections, including this one, there have been discussions about what the candidates will do to create jobs.
    1. What direct authority does the President have to create jobs?
    2. What means are available to the President to influence the creation of jobs?
    3. In the 1930s, several programs were created to put people to work during the Great Depression, most notably the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Do you think such programs could be used to effectively reduce unemployment on a permanent basis? Why or why not?

You have all the time you need.

Written by srojak

October 13, 2016 at 8:38 pm

OK, He’s Not Stalin

leave a comment »

One of the problems I find with The Nation is that reading its content makes me ask, “which nation?” Surely not the United States. Surely not a country I would want to live in.

Once again this is on display in the March 3 article by Stephen Cohen, “Distorting Russia” [http://www.thenation.com/article/178344/distorting-russia]. The article has a mixture of well-grounded criticism and PR for Russian interests, with a dollop of standard-issue internationalism thrown in. So let’s work through it. All quotes, unless otherwise indicated, are from the article.

There are notable exceptions, but a general pattern has developed. Even in the venerable New York Times and Washington Post, news reports, editorials and commentaries no longer adhere rigorously to traditional journalistic standards, often failing to provide essential facts and context; to make a clear distinction between reporting and analysis; to require at least two different political or “expert” views on major developments; or to publish opposing opinions on their op-ed pages. As a result, American media on Russia today are less objective, less balanced, more conformist and scarcely less ideological than when they covered Soviet Russia during the Cold War.

Welcome to Earth, Dr. Cohen. Have you been living on a desert island for several decades? News reporting in general is failing to adhere to journalistic standards, does not provide essential facts and context and does not distinguish between reporting and analysis. Journalists often report the fact of a persons’ opinion as if it were a fact about an event. The decline of journalism is not a sudden revelation.

As to “conformist,” I must ask, conforming to what? This charge, and the unsubstantiated way it is thrown around, appears to owe a heavy debt to Mrs. Stephen Cohen, a.k.a. Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation.

The history of this degradation is also clear. It began in the early 1990s, following the end of the Soviet Union, when the US media adopted Washington’s narrative that almost everything President Boris Yeltsin did was a “transition from communism to democracy” and thus in America’s best interests.

While I don’t agree that the narrative originated in Washington or was as clear-cut as he renders, Cohen has a point. When the media were paying attention to Russia at all, they tended to paint everything going on as not-Soviet and therefore wonderful. As Cohen cites, there was a lot of disruption, corruption (more on this later) and abuse of power going on.

Since the early 2000s, the media have followed a different leader-centric narrative, also consistent with US policy, that devalues multifaceted analysis for a relentless demonization of Putin, with little regard for facts.

I do not believe that this was true since the early 2000s. I will say that there was a natural mistrust of a man who rose through the KGB ranks. However, certainly recent events have prompted journalists looking to build stories with cognitive simplicity to paint Putin as a black hat. The Pussy Riot episode and the repression of Russian dissidents have fed into this.

The Evil Vladimir narrative is accelerated by his position on homosexuality, which is at odds with Western orthodoxy on the subject. In January, Putin made a statement that Russia must cleanse itself of homosexuality, triggering stories such as this:

Inside of Russia, the consensus is that as soon as the Olympic torch goes out, enforcement of the so-called “anti-propaganda law” and the state-sanctioned violence that accompanies it will increase.  New laws, such as the proposal to tear children away from same-sex families, will likely be passed.  And the wholesale destruction of civil society, of which the anti-gay laws, the “Foreign Agents” law, the NGO law, and dozens of administrative measures, will continue.
— “Putin’s Post-Sochi LGBT Crackdown”, The Daily Beast, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/02/24/putin-s-post-sochi-lgbt-crackdown.html

Look at the verbs in the above text. They are all future tense. They cannot possibly be facts, because they have yet to happen. Even the “wholesale destruction of civil society” which, if it is happening, needs to be substantiated, “will continue”. The continuation of an trend which is arguable but not confirmed is itself a future occurrence. So where are the facts here? It may be a fact that some people have this opinion, but that does not make this factual reporting.

And consensus among whom? The evidence from Russia is that his policies in these areas do obtain some popular support, and in fact he is building his political position by going after such easy targets as gays.

If nothing else, American journalists gave terrorists an early victory, tainting “Putin’s Games” and frightening away many foreign spectators, including some relatives of the athletes.

The Sochi Games were seen by all parties as symbolic, and as anyone who has sat through a high school literature class knows, symbolism is in the eye of the beholder. Symbolism is naturally subjective and we won’t get far arguing about it.

The Sochi Games will soon pass, triumphantly or tragically, but the potentially fateful Ukrainian crisis will not. A new Cold War divide between West and East may now be unfolding, not in Berlin but in the heart of Russia’s historical civilization. The result could be a permanent confrontation fraught with instability and the threat of a hot war far worse than the one in Georgia in 2008. These dangers have been all but ignored in highly selective, partisan and inflammatory US media accounts, which portray the European Union’s “Partnership” proposal benignly as Ukraine’s chance for democracy, prosperity and escape from Russia, thwarted only by a “bullying” Putin and his “cronies” in Kiev.

While it is true that Kiev is the heart of Russia’s historical civilization, the Moscow governments have done much to cut that heart out, not the least of which is the Holodomor, the Ukrainian Terror Famine of 1930-33. We still argue about the number of millions of people who died in that man-made event. The Ukrainians have never forgotten an event that most American readers don’t even know happened.

At the same time, the southern and eastern districts of the Ukraine are heavily populated with ethnic Russians. In the time-honored East European tradition, these people expect reprisals when the Ukrainians take power, and ill-advised measures such as voiding the right of local governments to conduct business in the Russian language feed this fear.

This map shows the geographic dimensions of the problem the Ukraine faces. The ethnic Ukrainian people, in Kiev and to the west, supported the party of Yulia Tymoshenko and Alexander Turchinov in 2012. The ethnic Russian minorities, who are in fact majorities in the Crimea and nearly so in Donetsk, supported the party of Viktor Yanukovych. Meanwhile, there is another population center, Lviv, which Poles call Lwów and Germans call Lemberg. This region was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1945 and folded into what was then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. They are much more western-oriented than anyone in Kiev, let alone Kharkiv.

So Kiev and Lviv don’t want to be dragged into Russia, while Kharkiv and Simferopol don’t want to be dragged away from Russia. However, the 1994 Budapest Memoranda, which Russia signed, guarantees the territorial integrity of the Ukraine. So the borders of the Ukraine are a legal fact and the use of force by Russia to overturn this is an abrogation of her treaty commitments.

Perhaps the largest untruth promoted by Snyder and most US media is the claim that “Ukraine’s future integration into Europe” is “yearned for throughout the country.” But every informed observer knows—from Ukraine’s history, geography, languages, religions, culture, recent politics and opinion surveys—that the country is deeply divided as to whether it should join Europe or remain close politically and economically to Russia. There is not one Ukraine or one “Ukrainian people” but at least two, generally situated in its Western and Eastern regions.

Thus, as shown in the map, there are really two polities as Cohen identifies. However, there is one sovereign nation. By advocating a Russian “right” to interfere in the affairs of the Russian minority in Kharkiv, Donetsk and the Crimea, Cohen is simply being the mouthpiece for an aggressive Russian effort to reassemble the Soviet Empire.

Furthermore, if one wants to get all historical, consider what that part of the world looked like 500 years ago:

Poland and Lithuania, 1635

Poland and Lithuania, 1635

Compare this to the green area map from 2012. This historical heritage is important because the areas under Polish-Lithuanian rule would have experienced much more of contemporary European thought developments than would the areas under Russian control. It makes the Ukrainian people much more European than the Russians.

Again without any verified evidence, [Snyder] warns of a Putin-backed “armed intervention” in Ukraine after the Olympics …

Well, Snyder got that one right, didn’t he?

But the most crucial media omission is Moscow’s reasonable conviction that the struggle for Ukraine is yet another chapter in the West’s ongoing, US-led march toward post-Soviet Russia, which began in the 1990s with NATO’s eastward expansion and continued with US-funded NGO political activities inside Russia, a US-NATO military outpost in Georgia and missile-defense installations near Russia. Whether this longstanding Washington-Brussels policy is wise or reckless, it—not Putin’s December financial offer to save Ukraine’s collapsing economy—is deceitful. The EU’s “civilizational” proposal, for example, includes “security policy” provisions, almost never reported, that would apparently subordinate Ukraine to NATO.

And this is the point at which I really part company with Cohen. In the great tradition of naïve idealist foreign policy, everything is so black-and-white that if you are not telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, it is deceitful. It is a heritage that The Nation is firmly rooted in and Dr. vander Heuvel — er, Dr. Cohen appears to have swallowed whole.

And what of Barack Obama’s decision to send only a low-level delegation, including retired gay athletes, to Sochi? In August, Putin virtually saved Obama’s presidency by persuading Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to eliminate his chemical weapons. Putin then helped to facilitate Obama’s heralded opening to Iran. Should not Obama himself have gone to Sochi—either out of gratitude to Putin, or to stand with Russia’s leader against international terrorists who have struck both of our countries?

Gratitude? You have got to be kidding me. If President Obama still has his face pressed into his press clippings, he is too overwhelmed with the wonderfulness of himself to have gratitude toward anyone. If he has let any reality in, he has to be aware that Putin played him. In any event, American foreign policy would have been much more effective if people in power were not listening to people like Cohen.

Diplomacy

One wants to react by saying that Eastern Europe and Russia are more complicated than we understand, but upon reflection, they are really simpler. Strength and power are respected, and the posturing that is required to get on in America or Western Europe doesn’t cut any ice over there. The tactics that work in the West, where powerful people obsess about being perceived as fair and equitable, are non-starters in other parts of the world where that behavior is understood as a weakness to be exploited. If two wrongs don’t make a right, try three.

I return to a speech — well, a rant, really — given by Ambassador Alexander Konuzin in 2011:

You say Russia has only interests. Who doesn’t?

Exactly. We have interests, the Ukranians have interests and the Russians have interests. Naturally they come into conflict. We will pursue our interests as the Ukranians pursue theirs and the Russians theirs. We will use language that puts our actions in the best possible light, as will the Russians. We will use the language of diplomacy while availing ourselves of all options to achieve our policy goals, just like the Russians, the Chinese, the French and everybody else on the planet with two neurons to rub together. To return to the Ambassador:

Are you prepared to be a subject of international relations, or only an object?

A subject makes things happen. An object is something things happen to. Under the guidance of the idealists at The Nation, we would be objects in international relations. Include me out.

Who Is Vladimir Putin?

Anyone who doesn’t regret the passing of the Soviet Union has no heart. Anyone who wants it restored has no brains.
— Vladimir Putin, 2005

Vladimir Putin was born in 1952 in what was then Leningrad, and served in the KGB (secret police) for 16 years, reaching the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. He retired to enter politics in 1991.

There is no such thing as a former KGB man.
— Vladimir Putin

He rose rapidly in politics, and joined the federal administration in 1996. At the end of 1999, Boris Yeltsin surprised the nation by resigning and named Putin as Acting President. He had been President or Prime Minister of Russia ever since, and has put his own stamp on national policy.

He has his own personal website: http://eng.putin.kremlin.ru/

Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself.
Individual savings were depreciated, and old ideals destroyed. Many institutions were disbanded or reformed carelessly. Terrorist intervention and the Khasavyurt capitulation that followed damaged the country’s integrity. Oligarchic groups — possessing absolute control over information channels — served exclusively their own corporate interests. Mass poverty began to be seen as the norm. And all this was happening against the backdrop of a dramatic economic downturn, unstable finances, and the paralysis of the social sphere.
— Vladimir Putin

The evidence of his actions suggests that Putin wants what he believes is best for Russia and the Russian people. He sees this through the lens of Russian history, traditions of strength and his KGB training and experience.

We don’t need a weakened government but a strong government that would take responsibility for the rights of the individual and care for the society as a whole.
— Vladimir Putin

This outlook is not unique to former KGB officers. Even dissidents such as Solzhenitsyn, when they looked west, saw mostly chaos, weakness and randomness. Indeed, the Smart Money in 1900 among Western intellectuals was that liberalism could not survive against the cohesion and unity of the totalitarian state.

Corruption

Anglo-American standards of corruption are much different than found in the rest of world. The idea that it is morally objectionable to enrich oneself while in office through graft, backscratching and insider trading is much stronger in our tradition than in others.

Neither Russia nor the Ukraine have had a William Pitt in their history to advance the standards of conduct in government office. The Orange Revolution of 2004 petered out because it appeared to have simply handed the country over from one gang of thieves to another. Yanukovych, who took power in 2010, upped the ante both in terms of pillaging the country and repressing dissent.

The Comrade Wolf knows whom to eat, as the saying goes. It knows whom to eat and is not about to listen to anyone, it seems.
— Vladimir Putin, 2006

When he was starting to appear to lose control of the country in January, Prime Minister Medvedev said, “We need partners who are in good shape and for the authorities that work in Ukraine to be legitimate and effective, so that people don’t wipe their feet on the authorities like a doormat.” Yanukovych got the message, but he lost support of the people upon whom he depended to carry out his orders.

The demonstrators in Kiev and particularly in Lviv are looking for something more. Yulia Tymoshenko was welcomed back to freedom but not back to power. She was seen as part of the problem by the Maidan demonstrators. However, when Yanukovych prosecuted her for corruption, it was obviously an attempt to criminalize a political opponent, a standard play from the Soviet-era playbook.

However, it is one thing to aspire to better, and another to implement it. The economy is a shambles from all this looting; who will clean up the mess? How do you stay in power without being able to buy political love through corruption and cronyism? How do you get a nation from where it is to where it aspires to be?

Cognitive Simplicity

I recall, back in the 1980s, all these discussions over the issue of “can we trust Gorbachev?” Yes, we could trust Gorbachev to do what he believed to be best for the Soviet Union and its people. He didn’t need our permission to run his country.

Similarly, Putin will do what he believes to be in Russia’s interest. We won’t agree that what he does is even in the interest of all the Russians, but then he won’t agree that what our government does is in the interest of all the Americans, either.

The American media gives the impression of providing most stories about Russia as filler to an audience that has very little interest. The truth on the ground is at once both simpler and more complex. It requires understandings of culture, history and attitudes much different than ours. It can’t be reduced to the Goodies and the Baddies, and it can’t be delivered effectively in a two-minute segment.

Written by srojak

March 2, 2014 at 1:00 pm