August 12, 2019

Why aren't there big protests here like in Hong Kong?

A friend asked me why Americans aren’t out protesting Trump in numbers closer to those in Hong Kong, where at one point one-quarter of its citizens were protesting China’s efforts to impose total control. The answer isn't so clearcut, and certainly won't fit into a text message...

In the early days of 2017, of course, millions did turn out across America, though nowhere near on the scale of Hong Kong.

Here are a few thoughts of my own, bearing in mind that I long ago abandoned my doctoral studies in political science:

Whereas Americans still have a chance to effect “regime change” at the ballot box, Hong Kong no longer has any fallback. Despite the 1984 Joint Declaration with the United Kingdom, which transferred Hong Kong back to China, London has little leverage to hold Beijing to its commitments — specifically, maintaining the enclave’s special status for 50 years, until 2047. Especially now, with the Western alliance in disarray and the UK going through its own rough departure from the European Union. So Hong Kong’s situation is both more desperate and more hopeless than many Americans would see for the United States. 

If we do someday reach a point where Americans no longer have procedural recourse and effective constitutional guarantees, then we may also launch a desperate mass mobilization — which would most probably be too late. 

Because Hong Kong’s economic magic depends so much on maintaining the confidence of major financial powers like Europe and the United States, these protesters may actually be able to compel Chinese concessions. Trump’s spiraling trade war and currency competition with the People’s Republic, and his abandonment of human rights as a pillar of U.S. policy, mean Hongkongers can and need to exact a financial toll in order to have an impact. 

If Americans launched strikes and blockades, there would be some impact, but there would be no greater foreign powers ready to weigh in or take over our global role. Even without widespread social action, this American decline is accelerating almost as fast as the depletion of Arctic summer ice.

Nevertheless, the “resistance” and related movements are pushing hard to replicate what’s going on in Hong Kong. Yet the percentage of people coming out to protest remains relatively minor. Most Americans oppose Trump, but they aren’t ready to turn out in force.

Unlike Americans, people in Hong Kong can see exactly what kind of dystopia their current rulers would impose upon them. It’s called mainland China: No due process, no cultural pluralism, no free markets or freedom of speech, blocking of the internet and social media, total surveillance, forced sterilization, concentration camps  for ethnic and religious minorities. For most Americans, the potential outcomes of Trump 2.0 remain at worst hypothetical.

Finally, Pearl Harbor and 9/11 notwithstanding, the United States hasn’t really been invaded for two centuries. So there’s definite complacency that “it” can’t happen here. And for all the fear and revulsion from Trump’s opponents, and Russia’s ongoing “active measures”, we still see his administration as homegrown, and something that will run its course — whether or not that’s accurate. 

This thinking may be wrong, but it’s hard to stir most people enough to march through downtown. And yes, there’s plenty of laziness as well. But there’s also a sense that we can survive this, that I’m still doing better than my neighbor, that they’re only rounding up “illegals”, that the government is so remote from my existence that there’s nothing I can do anyway, that — even if they do start rounding up people just like me — somehow I’ll be taken care of.

Perhaps this last consideration is analogous to the belief of plumbers and Walmart workers and unemployed miners, that somehow we too can be rich someday — and therefore we need to worry about estate taxes and capital gains tax more than who’s being shot by police or being separated from their parents.

Perhaps it’s the difference, not between the haves and the have-nots, but between the want-to-saves and the don’t-want-to-risks. Why risk my friends or my job or my freedom, if I think I can come out on top of the slowly sinking ship?

Ultimately, there is no good reason why more Americans aren’t out marching against racism and isolationism and a dozen other issues — none of which need include a call for impeaching the President. But somehow this is our reality.

November 21, 2018

History forgotten, Saudi Arabia trumps Pakistan and Iran

President Trump uses American jobs as the reason he’s setting aside the CIA’s report that—as has been inescapably obvious for weeks—Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the brutal murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in their Istanbul Consulate. How about the thousands of American jobs already being lost as a result of the President’s new trade war with China—the one he said would be “easy”?

Another reason the President gives is Saudi Arabia’s support for his take-no-prisoners policies against Iran, despite the Islamic Republic’s continued compliance with the multilateral nuclear agreement. Coddling a brutal autocrat—the Shah—was how we lost Iran 40 years ago in the first place. What happens when the Saudi regime is overthrown because we encouraged their excesses? And who will take over then? Meanwhile, the homegrown Saudi animosity against Iran requires no incentivizing from Washington.

In almost the same breath, on Twitter, the President also slammed Pakistan for allowing Osama bin Laden to hide from justice. And what does Pakistan do for us anyway... Well, aside from the fact that our assistance helps stabilize a regime that owns nuclear weapons, and that—with a few well-placed Trump tweets—Pakistan could be far more anti-American than it is—let's stop and really think for a moment about OBL.

Let’s consider not where Osama was hiding, but where he got his start and his cash and nearly all the recruits for his 9/11 attack on our homeland. That’s right—Saudi Arabia!

So, if enabling Osama is the litmus test for cutting off relations, then why is Donald Trump doubling down on the Saudis?

October 31, 2018

Pittsburgh's uneasy spotlight

You don’t have to be Jewish to have deep feelings about last week’s terror attack in Pittsburgh. And there is no shortage of emotions and deeper meanings to take away from this horror. Here are a few of my own early thoughts.

Of course for many of us, the Pittsburgh attack is close to home. I’ve been in the Tree of Life for a wedding long ago, and Jews are all connected. And as a security volunteer in another synagogue hundreds of miles away, I was actively dealing with safeguarding and with liaison to our local police. But somehow it’s more, and I’m choosing here to leave out the very compelling political and security ramifications because I think there’s something innate that also merits exploration. 

Perhaps we (somewhat like Israelis) have tried to put the shame of victimhood behind us. We watch the massacres and violence around the United States and we sympathize, empathize, pledge solidarity, and step up to help. But now we Jews are in the spotlight, we are the ones receiving sympathy and assistance. Cable news is focused on US. Not Israel, not a multi-ethnic public school, not a military base. 

We have the spotlight right now, and we may not all agree on how to use it. But it feels very strange to be noticed for what was done to us, and not for what we have done -- whether good deeds or bad. Almost unavoidably, we are objectified. Our rabbis are elevated to the national stage, “Shabbat” is a term mentioned by CNN, and the Jewish experience and current trauma have been universalized to a national and international audience.
Maybe this just takes some getting used to. And maybe the pain and sorrow are still too overwhelming.

February 19, 2018

About parades and insecure rulers

President Trump seems intent on staging some glorious and costly parade, to showcase our military might and — presumably — to celebrate his own power as America’s Commander in Chief. Why does this sound familiar to me?

Nicolae CeauČ™escu was still ruling Romania with an iron fist in the summer of 1976, when my parents brought us back for a week-long visit with friends in the lush countryside. In one town near the border with Serbia (then called Yugoslavia), we happened upon a strange spectacle. A few days before Liberation Day, citizens were lining the main street and cheering as soldiers and workers and schoolchildren marched down the middle. It seemed the whole town had turned out for what amounted to a dress rehearsal for the big event — marchers and spectators included. Such was the hero worship of this hollow autocracy, that the farce of national strength and solidarity had to be practiced. 

The spectators even waited as the marchers ran back down a side street in order to repeat the exercise from the top. On TV, I had seen the fancy parades in Beijing, Moscow and even Bucharest, but it had never occurred to me just how absurd was the farce and how insecure the ruler — or to what degree everyone knew it. 

I have been to Paris for the July 14 parade, which is impressive and genuinely popular. It is embedded in the national consciousness, and never about the politicians who happen to oversee France's military professionals.

Romania got rid of Ceausescu's parades in 1989,
but North Korea's Kim is still going "strong"...
I doubt we civilians will be required to practice cheering in advance of Trump's big day, though the President has already branded as traitors any Members of Congress who didn’t stand and applaud for his State of the Union address. Personally, I need no practice. I’ve seen this movie before, about the cult of personality, and I don’t need to watch it again. #SpoilerAlert 

September 11, 2017

Today we mourn, tomorrow we vote

September 11, 2001, was a Tuesday. Though our leaders seemed to be asleep at the wheel in the months preceding, and in the first minutes of the horror, these attacks were essentially a physical assault from the outside. 

That fateful Tuesday was a primary election day in New York, and it was appropriately postponed. In the years that have followed, and right up to recent days, we have seen our democratic way of life both tested and diminished -- that is on us, not on the terrorists. 

Tomorrow is another such primary day, giving us a new opportunity to honor and reaffirm our democratic institutions in real time. If you are registered as anything other than "independent", then please come out and vote to determine who will be the nominee for your party in the November general election. 

We cannot bring back those we lost on that beautiful sunny day, nor the thousands more we sacrificed in pyrrhic pursuit of vindication in Afghanistan and Iraq. But we can do this little act of faith and commitment to the values for which we have always struggled.

Today we mourn, tomorrow we vote.

August 10, 2017

Our 'madman' against theirs

With Ban Ki-moon (NOT a madman)
In one of the private meetings I was privileged to join with Ban Ki-moon when he was UN Secretary-General, he shared a basic and important insight about dealing with the North Korean regime. As a native of the territory which is now the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Ban and his family fled south as refugees. Many years later, he confessed to us that even he as a Korean cannot make sense of that regime.

The so-called "madman theory" contends that an unpredictable leader can extract better concessions if the other side is duly frightened. This may explain some of Ronald Reagan's success in the waning years of the Soviet regime. But when the DPRK's Kim Jong-un makes wild threats and U.S. President Donald Trump responds with apocalyptic rhetoric, then the madman theory is out the window, and it's simply a race to macho demonstrations, miscalculation and broken chains of command, any of which can result in catastrophic escalation.

Cooler heads can only prevail when they are among the decision-makers. Trying to out-brag a braggart is hopeless, and with nuclear and conventional weapons threatening millions in Asia and the United States, it's a recipe for Armageddon. Whether out of pride or survival instinct, a true madman (and one who surrounds himself with fawning sycophants) is less likely to back down in the face of escalating threats and more likely to move closer to the brink.

I don't think Mr. Ban or any other level-headed diplomat can make sense of Mr. Trump, and this is a looming liability. With respect to nuclear proliferation on the Korean peninsula, it is cause for alarm.

July 26, 2017

Remember Stalin? He's back.

Precisely 25 years ago, when we were distributing 250,000 food packages around Moscow, the "Memorial" office was one of many distribution sites. When an elderly recipient saw the U.S. flag on one side of the box, and the Joint Distribution Committee menorah on another, he told my colleague that Stalin's regime had sent him to the Gulag, falsely accused as a spy for the CIA and the Joint. Now, he was receiving a modest but vital gift from the U.S. Government and the Joint. And now, this.