The Rise of Two Demagogues

I heard a story about someone comparing Donald Trump’s tactics to Hitler’s rise to power in Germany after the First World War. These remarks provoked a heated response. After all, Trump is not proposing concentration camps. No. And he is not proposing an invasion of Canada or Mexico either. But then, at the outset, Hitler did not propose death camps for the Jews or an aggressive territorial war either.

He began his involvement in politics while serving as a spy for the German army after the war. He was sent to report on an anti-Marxist, anti-democratic party called the DAP. He was immensely impressed by the anti-semitic rhetoric of the leader. Eventually he obtained permission to join the party from his Army commanders and became a leader in what was to become the National Socialist Party. Not fearing to use violence, the party agitated constantly until finally Hitler became Chancellor of Germany after having been elected by democratic vote.

Trump of course had a very different history. He never joined the army. He parlayed a large inheritance into a fortune in real estate, while going bankrupt several times. He contributed money to politicians of all persuasions, including Hillary Clinton. He did not formally join the Republican Party until 2012. When he began his campaign for President this year, he did it with a bang, attacking Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “murderers”, while allowing smugly that some were probably “good people.” He then proposed a program to expel all illegal immigrants and build a physical wall on the border with Mexico to shut down the flow of these people into the United States. Later, he added to his list of the proscribed by proposing a ban on the entry of Muslims into the country. Really, here the comparison with Hitler stands up pretty well. Just substitute Jews for Mexicans or Muslims in Trump’s rhetoric and you have a plausible Hitler quotation.

The comparison is inexact. But the parallel of racism is unmistakable.

About France

I have read about a couple of authors who have characterized the French as being disappointed and discouraged. The theory is that the idea of France as a leader of civilized life has suffered a check. The idea is that the French are envious of the role that English plays in today’s world.

I hope that this is not true. For I have to say that what I find in France quite contradicts this. I have always found, in every part of that country that I have visited over the last twenty years, a proud people, very welcoming of me and my wife, whatever our competence in their language might be. (Believe me, for myself in the beginning it was quite negligible. In Montpellier in 1995 I was proud of being asked, by two young girls, what time of the day it was – even though the only thing I could do to answer was show them the face of my watch)!

We have visited Paris most often. This is a beautiful city, human in scale in a way that New York is not, which I admire. (There are too many skyscrapers already, so bless the Parisians for saying no more Montparnasse Towers)! In Paris, for us, there have been really very few problems. Most of the people we have to do business with speak better English than we do French. But when they get the idea that we want to speak their language, they are perfectly willing to do that too. That to me is gracious, even magnanimous. And we find that routine. There have been almost no occasions when a French person deliberately made us feel like foreigners.

We spent time in the Dordogne, near Sarlat, a part of the country that I compare to the Adirondack Park in my state of New York – but with much better wine. Another time we stayed in Menton, on the south coast, where we were traveling as members of a chorus, close to Italy but not really tempted to go there, for the city itself was sufficiently interesting. We drove through the mountains, along the Gorge de Verdon, to the beautiful village of Moustiers-St Marie, where countless visitors since the Middle Ages have made their pilgrimage. This village depends now on tourism, but it has a rich cultural and craft history. The people there were very welcoming. I could go on for all the parts of France we have visited, from Normandy to Strasbourg, from Sancerre to Tours. Everywhere we met only kindness and interest in our well-being.

There was a time in Sancerre when we were attending a language course at the Ecole de langues. My wife had a problem with her eyesight. The course director sent us to her own general practitioner who quickly referred us to a specialist in a nearby town. We went there by cab, and the driver waited in town for us to finish our business, and brought us back. We got excellent medical care, even though we were foreigners. I can hardly imagine the same good fortune happening to any tourist in my country.

Once we were in Rheims, and undecided about lunch, we bought some wine and charcuterie, and went to a local park to have a picnic. Our surroundings were clean and pleasant, and we had a wonderful time. Again, in my country, this little adventure would not have been possible. There would have been a lot of trash, and unpleasant people in the area.

We rent cars in France and travel on the AutoRoutes. The roadside Aires are magnificent by comparison with those in the USA; the road surfaces are smooth, the traffic is well-regulated, the trucks have to travel slower than anybody else. All of these things are worse in the USA than in France.

When we visit museums in France we find almost every time a class of students, led by their teachers, being instructed in the arts and history of their country. Generally this does not happen in America. If the French complain about their education system, imagine what they would say if they lived in New York.

My father’s tomb is at the military cemetery in Colleville, on the Normandy coast. We have often seen classes of students, led by their teachers, visiting the cemetery, and learning about the recent history of this part of their country. After seeing this I do not listen to people who make disparaging remarks about France.

We can only spend a few weeks at a time in France. To keep up our skills in the language, we take part in a literature group and a conversation group, each of which meets once a month. I have become a reader of French literature, particularly late 19th and early 20th century works. I see in this the origin of many of our cultural memes. The ideas that founded our country come in large part from the work of 18th century French writers. We cannot forget the support of the French in our own founding as a nation. Likewise, the works of many modern French writers and authors fascinate millions of Americans. What happens in French politics shows up on our TV. So, even though we speak English here, we owe a lot to French ideas, and we care about what happens there.

So, to my friends in France, not numerous but well -loved I say, forget about disappointment. You have a great country, and we still have a lot to learn from the way you do things.

The Republican Nomination Contest

Well, now we have both Rand Paul and Ted Cruz in the lists for President. Of the two, Paul is the more interesting because he is not a militarist, and he favors easing the punishment for drug law violations. This difference will cost him some votes vs. people like Cruz, and might gain him some votes against the Democratic nominee, almost certainly Hillary Clinton.

Paul’s libertarian views are extreme, and show a fundamental misreading of human nature. We are not autonomous individuals, but, inescapably, members of social groups of increasing size, benefitting and being benefited by those groups. The only apes that are autonomous, arguably, are the orangutans of Borneo, the males spending their lives alone except for an occasional mating with a female. The female’s only society is her own offspring. The orang is rather distant from us on the family tree of life. Closer are the gorillas and chimpanzees, all of which live in moderate sized social groups, comparable to those of human hunter-gatherers. We find these apes much more interesting, much more like ourselves. The reason is simple. Like them, we are social animals, and we rely on each other.

Libertarianism and conservatism would deprive us of Social Security, Medicare, and mandatory health insurance, would cut regulations on polluting industries and predatory corporations, let support for the indigent dry up further, privatize public education, sell off public lands, and refuse to deal with climate change and overpopulation. The Republican primaries will wind up selecting somebody to try to put a pretty face on all this. We should avoid being fooled.

The Symmetry of Slaughter

President Obama is catching flak from Republicans for remarks he made about the murderous acts committed in the name of Christ during the crusades and later in Jim-Crow country, rightly comparing those to the barbarisms of ISIS. An article in the New York Times, February 6 2014 reported for example : “‘The president’s comments this morning at the prayer breakfast are the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime,” said Jim Gilmore, the former Republican governor of Virginia. “He has offended every believing Christian in the United States.”’ In my opinion, however, Obama was right. Everyone was horrified, for example, by the burning to death of a Jordanian prisoner by ISIS a few days ago. But how is that different, really, from the stake burnings at the hands of the Inquisition, a Catholic institution that continued doing this until the early 1830s? It is not just Islam and Christianity that carry this burden of history, as witness the terrible religious violence that has occurred regularly in India. Religious wars are comparable in moral terms if not in sheer scale to the violence of Nazis who killed millions of Jews, handicapped, or Gypsies during World War II, based on a long festering prejudice pumped up to a racist ideology. People are capable of mortal violence when they believe on religious or ideological grounds the evil character of some other group. Gilmore’s criticism, apart from its obvious pandering, shows simultaneous ignorance of history and human nature. Add to this the frequent ignorance and denial of science among Republicans, one is struck that the Republican Party remains vulnerable to the criticism, in the words of one of its own, Bobby Jindal, as “the stupid party.”

Good News About Hillary

The results of a new poll show Hillary beating all the GOP candidates who are being touted for President in 2016.

The Republicans in Congress are most likely going to make a mess sometime in the next two years; it is likely they will lose the Senate again, and their majority in the House will probably shrink.

We are going to have divided government, but I think we can count on Hillary to do a good job.


Good News in New York

Today the news came out that New York will not allow fracking. The evidence that it contaminates the environment is too strong for responsible officials to ignore. I am not sure what was the most decisive, but the presence of benzene in the air around drilling sites was pretty alarming.

A second bit of good news is the recognition of Cuba by the US government. This is long overdue. The danger of Communism so close to our shores, a bugboo for Republicans, never was very convincing to me, once the Soviet Union had collapsed. We need to have normal relationships with our neighbors, even if our political systems differ considerably. Not that I want to visit Cuba! Key West is close enough for me.

A third bit of good news, not so recent actually, is the decline in unemployment. Obama inherited an immense disaster, thanks to his Republican predecessor, GW Bush. The country is just now regaining the position it had lost.

A fourth bit of good news are the tremendous discoveries being made in science and technology. The detection of sudden methane emissions on Mars suggests that there may have been life on the planet; every day it seems that there are new medical and scientific breakthroughs.

The one fly in the ointment is the immense power the Republican party has gained in the last election. The good news was a little too slow in reaching the public. These grinches could well spoil it all.


Merci pour ce moment

Thanks for this Moment, by Valérie Trierweiler. Les Arénes, Paris 2014.

This is a bestseller in France, a revealing story of the personal lives of two prominent people – Valérie Trierweiler, a well-known journalist at Paris-Match, and François Hollande, the current President of the French Republic. Valérie Trierweiler came to international attention after the defeat of Ségolène Royal for the presidency of France in 2007. It was only then that Royal, the mother of four children with François Hollande, announced that she had asked him to move out. The cause was apparently Valérie Trierweiler, and the French press treated her pretty much as a home-wrecker. When Hollande succeeded in defeating Nicolas Sarkozy for the same office 5 years later, it was Valérie Trierweiler and not Ségolène Royal who would assume the duties of First Lady at the Elysée palace. Clearly there could be no love lost between these two women. But Hollande supported Ségolène Royal in her run for a seat in the National Assembly. Trierweiler issued a tweet of encouragement to Royal’s opponent, Olivier Falorni, which caused a hulabaloo, exposing both her hostility for the ex-lover of the President and an apparent split between Trierweiler and him. Months later, the French press revealed that Hollande was photographed after an overnight visit with an actress, Julie Gayet. Within a few days, Trierweiler was recovering from a sleeping pill overdose in a Paris hospital. Hollande put an end to their liaison and Trierweiler was no longer First Lady of France.

The book is a memoir on their relationship – his side of the story remains untold, but he has protested some of the things Trierweiler wrote in this book. I take no position on what the true story is. This review is about Trierweiler’s story.

According to her book, Valérie Trierweiler came from a modest background, a “ZUP” near Angers. (A “ZUP” in France was a protected urbanization zone, basically public housing). She got a degree and went to work as a reporter, winding up, after a failed first marriage, with Denis Trierweiler, with whom she had three sons. Working for Paris-Match, she covered the Socialist Party, and got to know many people, including François Hollande. They became friends, close enough so that Ségolène Royal, the mother of Hollande’s four children, noticed and expressed her displeasure. Trierweiler describes a scene where she was talking with Hollande at a restaurant and Mme Royal approached their table to ask what was going on. At the time, there was no romantic relationship between the two, and Trierweiler said as much, to which Royal said “stop farting around with me.” After describing this passage, Trierweiler commented ruefully that Royal was not wrong in her inferences. It was not long afterward that Hollande began to pursue her in earnest, and she fell in love with him.

One of the most startling revelations of the book is the disdain that Hollande privately expressed for poor people – calling them “sens-dents” – toothless, apparently several times, and proud of his humor. Another was his taste for expensive items and luxurious dining. Almost as shocking is the contempt he expressed for her family – “pas jojo, la famille Massonneau” – not so pretty, your family. Another gem is when, in the Elysée, he told her that her only role was to look beautiful. In sum, Hollande comes across as a jerk.

A jerk, but evidently charming enough to her to fall in love with. She writes freely about that, without rancor. He was a great raconteur, good with constituents and crowds, and, when he wanted to be, an attentive and passionate companion for Valérie. She wound up divorcing her husband and living with Hollande for several years while he was in the political wilderness.

Hollande decided to run for the Socialist nomination for 2012, despite the general notion that the inevitable nominee would be Dominique Strauss-Kahn. However, in 2011 this rival was eliminated by the notorious sex scandal that broke out in New York City, when Strauss-Kahn was charged with rape by a chambermaid in an expensive hotel.

With Hollande’s election to the Presidency, his relationship with Trierweiler cooled. He was busy and did not want her involved in his political affairs except in a very limited capacity as First Lady. He did not consult her or notify her in advance of decisions, even about things that she had been asked to be involved in. And then he struck up a relationship with the actress Julie Gayet, which lasted a year, producing rumors that he denied to Trierweiler, until the French online magazine Closer published a photograph of him in a motorscooter helmet in the wee hours of the morning in front of Gayet’s apartment building.

This book is about personal pain, and Trierweiler is unsparing about her own behavior as well as Hollande’s. An example is her description of deliberately forcing Ségolène Royal to shake hands with her in public. The book is well written, as would be expected from a professional reporter with her credentials. (Nonetheless there have been suggestions in the press that she had a ghost-writer, or that her editor Laurent Beccaria insisted on cutting some potentially libelous statements about Ségolène Royal, charges that Beccaria has denied in print). The picture is of people in high positions in society behaving badly, trivially, inflicting and suffering emotional damage. I came away feeling sympathy for Trierweiler, but note that others have had the opposite reaction, with sympathy for Hollande! From her point of view, though, she had a decent job and home, a husband and three young children, and in response to Hollande’s advances, gave all that up to live with him long before he had a visible chance of becoming President. His success, which many thought was her motivation for attaching herself to him, was to her the cause of their breakup.

The final revelation, really surprising, is that earlier this year, after the rupture, he began sending her text messages asking her to come back. Now clearly this is something for which she would be able to produce evidence in case she needs to. The ending of the book provides its title:

“The time has come to close this narrative, written with my tears, my insomnias, and my memories, some of which still burn me. Thanks for this moment, thanks for that crazy love, thanks for the trip to the Ëlysée. Thanks also for the chasm into which you have dropped me. You taught me a lot about yourself, others, and myself. From now on I can move and strive, without fear of the regard of others, without begging for yours. I want to live, to write other pages of this strange book, this singular voyage that is the life of a woman. This will be without you. I was neither married, nor protected. I can only have been loved as much as I have loved.”

The last sentence poses an eternal problem of couples: the balance of affection. She seems to say that she could not have expected more love than she was willing to give. The rest of the book certainly makes the case that during the time approaching the rupture of their relationship she got less.

In the end, with Hollande once again pursuing her with text messages, she is burned and unwilling to go back, convinced that his character will never change, that life with him would be a return to lies, humiliation and eventual abandonment.

She insists that her story is true – that she was too much a victim of lies to resort to them in turn. And if so, it is certainly understandable why she feels the way she does about Hollande.

Cliven and Friends

Kathleen Parker in her column in the Washington Post (April 27 2014) seeks to put some distance between the Republican Party and Cliven Bundy, the tax-dodging rancher who recently suggested in public that black people would be better off as slaves. She mentions a whole bunch of Republicans who have done the same as her, including Rand Paul, although, as Maureen Dowd said in her column in the Times, it took him more than a day to get around to it.

It is a real problem for the Republicans, because they are without doubt the largest party of racism in America. I will leave out the fringe groups, not because they don’t matter, but because I don’t want them to get more internet hits. And I will not go into the ancient history in which all parties were racist.

Now Kathleen Parker is right when she says that not all Republicans are racist. But the truth is that the Republicans have played the race card ever since the passage of the Civil Rights Act under Lyndon Johnson. That was what Richard Nixon’s Law and Order campaign was really all about. (Nixon was of course both racist and anti-semitic). Fast forward to the ruthless and racist attack on Michael Dukakis when he was running against GHW Bush for President. And of course today we have the compounding of racist religious hatred that motivates the drooling, livid right wing attack on Barack Obama, which overflows into so-called respectable Republican rhetoric about how foreign his policies are.

Being the only major party where racism has any kind of home is not the only difficulty the Republicans face. They are also the party of ignorance. It is among their candidates that you will scarcely find a single one that admits to the scientific validity of evolution or the human responsibility for global warming. It is the Republicans who are signing up to block any studies on gun violence funded by the government.

But let us get back to Mr. Bundy. A self-styled libertarian, living in the heart of America, protected from any real danger by the immense power of the United States government, he thinks it is OK to freeload off public land and threaten government officials with firearms. Where’s the reciprocity? And then, supposedly valuing his own liberty, he thinks that black people would be content with slavery? It could be that he thinks they are not human. Or maybe he is just a hypocrite; just a suggestion.

Krauthammer on Free Speech…

Friday Charles Krauthammer came out with a column criticizing the left for its alleged penchant for suppressing free speech. Well, I guess we cannot expect him to criticize the right for the same thing. Try teaching evolution in Saudi Arabia, for example – or some places in the US for that matter. What Charles seeks to obfuscate is that the reason for suppressing free speech is usually to retain power, and the sinners can be either on the right or the left. Now I hold no brief for loonies on my side of the political spectrum. But I think we do not let them dictate our policies. Which is more than one can say for, um, John Boehner!

Update on this: a terrific letter to the editor appears in the April 18 edition of the Albany Times Union, by Karl Felsen of Guilderland New York:

Letter: The pot calls the kettle totalitarian

Charles Krauthammer is right that the greatest threat to progressivism is its growing intolerance for civil discourse and diversity of opinions. But this trend has been metastasizing for some time.
When Democrats were soundly defeated by the scorched earth tactics of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove, instead of finding their own way to victory, they adopted the Rovian way. When viciously pilloried by the rabid ranting of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, instead of turning the other cheek, they sought champions who could mindlessly scream as loud.
And when it comes to silencing dissent, the right, although still using boycotts, petitions, Darrell Issa hearings, talk radio, Fox News, etc., has pioneered a much more efficient technique.
Voter suppression is the most effective silencing tool of the modern age. No one can say with a straight face that these new laws are meant to deal with voter fraud. As one Pennsylvania Republican official unwittingly admitted on camera, these laws are intended to keep people who don’t look like, or agree with, me from exercising their right to vote. I hope the progressives never abandon democratic principles so completely, as to follow the right in suppressing the right to vote. But as Krauthammer’s column points out, modern progressives are willing to imitate and adopt the undemocratic, uncivil tactics of the right without a glimmer of recognizing the hypocrisy and moral decline they are engaging in.
I know Krauthammer was as shocked as Captain Renault in Casablanca at the intolerance displayed recently by progressives, but isn’t his column just a good example of the pot calling the kettle totalitarian? Or might it not have been better slugged, “Embrace conservatism or just don’t vote.”
Karl Felsen

The Rhetoric of Charles Krauthammer

Charles Krauthammer’s column that appeared in the Albany (NY) Times Union February 24 is a fine example of rhetoric in service of bias. He begins by asserting his neutrality on climate change (neither a believer nor a denier, he!). Then he sets up a Straw Man, decrying scientists who claim to predict what will happen, based on models of climate change. Then he introduces a Scare and Contempt Factor: these guys are wearing white lab coats! This distorts climate modeling. A good model will describe accurately what has happened in the past, and then extrapolate events to come, based on a variety of assumptions. It is correct that these models do not predict the same scenario, because the assumptions and equations may differ. No realistic modeller will bet heavily on the accuracy of these extrapolations. However, it is noteworthy that the models project continued increases in temperature. The trend of increased temperature is significant and extends back in time for many decades. The alleged stasis of the last 15 years is not significant by comparison with this trend. Citing this is another example of rhetoric in service of bias – Cherry Picking a small data set to discredit a large data set. In case you should think Mr. Krauthammer ill-qualified to pronounce on climate change, he introduces an Appeal to Authority: the opinions of two atmospheric scientists who have critiqued the accuracy of these models. And if you think they might not count for much (given that hundreds of other climate scientists support the idea that climate is changing), he doubles down on appealing to authority by citing the opinions of the Very Famous Physicist Freeman Dyson. Dyson also criticizes the consensus view on climate change, even though you might wonder if Dyson is more qualified than Krauthammer to comment on the results of people working in a totally different field than his own. Rather than give us a chance to consider why many climate scientists might legitimately adopt a single position on the issue, Krauthammer implies that they are all in a Conspiracy with one another. His final rhetorical flourish is to call those he wishes to discredit a nasty name. Krauthammer chose the word “Whore”. It is hard to imagine anything more contemptible.

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