Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A Morbid and Distracting Fascination with History

Killing a King:
The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and
the Remaking of Israel
Dan Ephron
(W.W. Norton & Co, 2015)

The summer of 1995 was a time of hope for peace in Israel/Palestine. Israel had been at peace with Egypt for 16 years by then. On September 13, 1993 Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas met on the White House lawn to finalize their initial Oslo accord outlining the parameters of a two state solution. This progress on the Palestinian front, in turn, allowed Israel to execute a peace treaty with Jordan in October 1994. Peace talks with Syria were underway. Rabin and Arafat had forged a working relationship and gained a measure of mutual respect. There was a sense of inevitability about peace that summer. 

Huge obstacles remained. Yasser Arafat moved from Tunis to Gaza only in July 1994. Would he be able to build a Palestinian government that could effectively govern? While Arafat was away in Tunis (1982-1994) Hamas emerged as a rival representative of the Palestinian people. Ideological,  militarily capable, and popular through its provision of social services in Gaza and the West Bank, Hamas was fiercely opposed to the Oslo peace process. Arafat needed to assert himself over Hamas and unite the Palestinian factions and public behind him.  Would he be successful? 

On the Israeli side, too, there were large questions. Would Rabin be able to carry through the commitments he made in the Oslo Agreement? In order to achieve the peace contemplated by the Oslo Agreement, the Rabin government would have to be able to expel 140,000 settlers from the occupied territories and resettle them in the Jewish state. But large portions of the Israeli public were fiercely opposed to giving up any part of the West Bank, peace or no peace.  On February 24, 1994 Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish religious nationalist opposed to Israel giving up any of its God-given land entered the Tomb of the Patriarchs mosque in Hebron and shot 154 people at prayer, killing 29 of them. He was treated as a hero by portions of the Jewish settler community. In the wake of the massacre the Rabin government contemplated evacuating the 500 or so settlers living in the center of Hebron. The government backed off for fear of violence.  There was a real question, therefore, whether the government would be able to evacuate 140,000 settlers from 140 settlements as part of the Oslo peace process when push came to shove.

Just in time for the broadly celebrated 20 year retrospectives of Rabin's assassination on November 4, 1995, Dan Ephron has published Killing a King, a gripping journalistic book that brings to life this time when peace seemed to hang in the balance. Ephron covered the large peace rally in the Kings of Israel square in Tel Aviv (now Rabin square) where Rabin was assassinated as a young reporter for Reuters. He also covered the subsequent trial of Yigal Amir (the assassin). Since then he has continued to write about the Middle East, notably for Newsweek magazine, and elsewhere. The book describes the relationship between Rabin and Arafat, their growing trust, and the obstacles they each faced if they were going to implement the Oslo Agreement. We learn about Yigal Amir, a law student at Bar Ilan University, and the protest movement against the Oslo peace process that he helped grow.  We learn about Amir's girlfriends, his brother, and the messianic views of his fellow travelers. Ephron details how Amir came to believe fervently that God would want him to kill this "King Rabin" for his readiness to give up "Jewish land" and how Amir was morally supported in this view by irresponsible rabbis willing to engage in moral speculations about such an act. We learn how Amir stalked Rabin for two years, openly discussed his plans for assassination with his brother and friends, including an informant for Israel's secret service who failed to take Amir sufficiently seriously. We learn about the rivalry between Rabin and Shimon Peres, and how this rivalry, even after Rabin's death, may have informed Peres's steps and missteps leading up to his electoral defeat to Benjamin Netanyahu in May 1996. 

To read Killing a King leaves you with the impression that Rabin and Arafat were reluctant but determined champions for peace. Ephron implies that in order for Oslo to be implemented, something akin to a civil war had to be settled inside both the Jewish and Palestinian camps: between the pragmatists led by Rabin and the ideological right wing unwilling to surrender any portion of Judea and Samaria on the Jewish side, and between Fatah and Hamas on the Palestinian side. Ephron suggests that--at that moment in time (1995)--Arafat and Rabin were both necessary to fight those wars and by assassinating Rabin, Amir likely did affect the course of history. Ephron portrays Peres as a petty, vainglorious diplomat, not up to the task of defeating those unwilling to give up any portion of the West Bank or Jerusalem for peace. We are invited to believe that Rabin and Arafat, together, had a chance to consolidate Oslo, but that without both of them there, there was no chance. 

The book hints at the rightward drift in Israeli society since 1995 but does not detail these changes, or what they mean for the peace process or Israeli society today. For a look at those changes and what Israel has become after 48 years of occupation you need to go elsewhere, like Max Blumenthal's Goliath.  Business analysts too are getting the picture. See, e.g. THIS Stratford report.  HERE is David Remnick's report in the New Yorker in November 2014 describing Israel's one state reality. 

As it has played out, of course, after Rabin's assassination the right found a skilled and effective leader in Netanyahu whose Likud party defeated Peres in the May 1996 elections and which has dominated Israeli politics for most of the past 20 years. In 1978, a 29-year old Netanyahu appeared on the American Public Television program "The Advocates," arguing strenuously for one state, a Jewish state, between the Jordan river and the sea. There should not be a separate Palestinian state, he said.  See Link HERE. Confronted with the question about how he would square a Jewish and democratic state with demographic trends indicating an Arab majority in that space, he confidently denied that this would be a problem. 

Netanyahu didn't really mean "it's not a problem," of course. What he meant is "don't worry about it." 

And for 20 years after Rabin's assassination, the international community and Israeli politicians did not worry: Zionism would be saved and justice would be served by the two-state-solution! Israel and the world Jewish community refused to confront the emerging one state ethnocracy even as the two-state-solution contemplated by the Oslo agreement was being actively undermined by Hamas, by Jewish religious nationalists, and by every Israeli government. Israel paid lip service to a two-state solution for the Israel/Palestinian "problem," but at the same time every Israeli administration since the Yom Kippur war (1973) has worked hard to expand settlements in the West Bank and to build Jewish-only infrastructure. "We will be here permanently forever," said a triumphant Netanyahu to settlers in Ariel after his election in 1996. Ariel is a settlement of nearly 20,000, 34 km deep in the West Bank. Instead of 140,000 Jewish settlers that Rabin faced in 1995, today there are more than 500,000 Jewish settlers entrenched all across the West Bank. If there was doubt in 1995 whether Rabin could successfully evacuate the settlements to achieve peace on the Oslo model, today there is no doubt: it can't be done. The Oslo model is dead.

In the run up to the most recent election (March 2015) Netanyahu made clear there would be no Palestinian state side-by-side with a  Jewish state. Obama and Kerry have begun to point out the implication of this failure. When Secretary of State John Kerry embarked on his last push for peace, which was firmly rebuffed, he said at a House hearing: “I think we have some period of time—in one to one-and-a-half to two years—or it’s over.” That was in 2012. By 2014, Kerry was warning Israel that it was in danger of becoming an apartheid state. At the beginning of this month Kerry again warned that through its continued occupation of the West Bank, Israel is becoming a bi-national state. 

What is a "bi-national state?" If you're optimistic, think secular and democratic; think Canada; think Switzerland. So why would Kerry's comments about a bi-national state cause "consternation in Israel?" It's a good question. The need to worry hasn't really sunk in.

Killing a King is a nostalgic book. It takes us back to a hopeful moment in time. It's a reminder that hope is possible. "Yitzhak Rabin defended this country, but more importantly, he advanced the values that are fundamental to Israel. He stood for freedom, for peace, for acceptance of those different from us, and the preservation of democracy," said Bill Clinton at the memorial rally in Tel Aviv. But to indulge in such nostalgia without truly facing up to what's happened since then, and admitting the fact that the kind of peace Rabin hoped to achieve in 1995 is no longer possible, is also a kind of fraud. Dexter Filkins recognizes this in his recent article in the New Yorker, taking to task Dennis Ross, who has also recently publish his account of the U.S.-Israel relationship since 1948: "In four hundred-plus pages," says Filkins, "there is almost no mention of the changes that have transformed the Israeli polity in the past six decades, and surprisingly little discussion of the steady growth in the settlement population, which now exceeds half a million."  

Ephron's book doesn't downplay the political changes like Dennis Ross does. Killing a King makes clear that the settlers have won, and that the Amir brothers have no doubt that they were instrumental in that win. But Killing a King is also a distraction from the now 48-year old occupation. With its morbid fascination with and focus on the details of the murder, the details of Yigal Amir's life, and some of the crazy conspiracy theories that are popular in Israel about the murder (like Rabin set it up, that the secret service did it, that the conspiracy went awry...) the book diverts attention from the real problems and from what needs to be done. 

Dan Ephron is married to This American Life producer Nancy Updike and This American Life did a full hour program on the book. Terry Gross did an interview with Dan Ephron. Between these two popular shows, they spent nearly two hours looking voyeuristically at this murder, and virtually no time discussing the real problems of Zionism today. 

The book and its eager reception in America, like the celebrations of Rabin on this 20th anniversary of his assassination, in general, suggests that American Jews are not yet ready to get serious about engaging with the problems of Netanyahu's Zionism. They are not yet ready to truly worry.

Rabin & Arafat on White House Lawn
September 13, 1993

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Border Between Truth and Lies

A great passage on the borderland between truth and lies, from the novelist Hilary Mantel (Bring Up the Bodies):
"What is the nature of the border between truth and lies? It is permeable and blurred because it is planted thick with rumour, confabulation, misunderstandings and twisted tales. Truth can break the gates down, truth can howl in the street; unless truth is pleasing, personable and easy to like, she is condemned to stay whimpering at the back door."
Indeed. Top that.


Here is the list of her works as listed in Wikipedia.  I really must get to more of this.


    Short stories[edit]

      • Learning to Talk (Fourth Estate, 2003)
      • The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories (Fourth Estate, 2014)[46][47]


      • Giving Up the Ghost: Fourth Estate, 2003


      Wednesday, December 23, 2015

      David Frum on Class War Inside the Republican Base

      David Frum/ photo

      David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, is a senior editor at The Atlantic magazine. He is a self-described neoconservative, although he has become critical of GOP tactics and direction in recent years. His article in The Atlantic, The Great Republican Revolt is worth a read.

      Here is the gist:

      For the past few years we have fretted about how big money controls our politics. Citizens United has been bandied about as a shibboleth that explains all ills of politics. Well...., the success of Trump shows us that grass roots politics matter. All the money in the world won't buy you an election, if you don't have the base with you. The GOP base is in open revolt against the big money Republican message of tax-cuts, budget-cuts, free-trade, and muscular foreign policy.

      Romney (2012), says Frum, ran as a classic big money conservative, with an orthodoxy of tax cuts, budget cuts, deregulation, and free trade. The concession he made to the GOP base was some stricter enforcement of immigration. That didn't work.

      When Romney lost decisively (332-206 electoral votes) the party GOP party elite refused to accept this as a repudiation of  GOP orthodoxy (tax cuts-budget cuts-deregulation-free trade). They infamously deluded themselves that Romney was going to win right up 'til the polls closed, and when he didn't, they didn't see this as a reason to change. They stayed with the same orthodoxy, but opted to try kinder gentler talk on immigration. Nothing for the middle class.

      In support of the new kinder-gentler on immigration GOP strategy, Rubio, as part of a gang of eight, supported legislation in the Senate for immigration reform, which included a path to citizenship. Jeb Bush, the GOP establishment anointed one for 2016 talked kinder, gentler on immigration, referring to illegal immigration as "an act of love." The GOP big money elite's plan going into the '16 election cycle, in other words, was GOP classic orthodoxy (tax cuts-budget cut-deregulation-free trade) plus immigration reform. Everything to serve the big money interests, plus immigration reform to make the GOP seem less hateful.

      Jeb Bush raised gobs of money from the GOP money guys to carry this program forward.

      The base didn't buy it. The revolt started with the ouster of the House Majority leader, Eric Cantor, in 2014, and when Jeb! declared for the Presidency, he was dead on arrival. Instead, the GOP base has embraced Trump.

      Who is that base? 

      Class warfare is no longer between the GOP and the Democrats, says Frum. Class warfare has gone intra-party: Wall Street Republicans vs. Main Street Republicans; wine rack Democrats vs. beer rack Democrats. This fissure has come into the open this year in the Republican party. 

      Main street Republicans include the white middle class, the Tea Party from 2010-11.  They are the ones who feel that their life and life prospects used to be better. This middle class part of the GOP electorate is not in line with the big money GOP orthodoxy: they are not small government libertarians, nor ideological ultra-conservatives, nor particularly religious. They are the white middle class that feels it has lost ground and prospects. They are insecure and angry. They are anti establishment organizations: anti-government, anti-union, but also anti-corporation. 

      This GOP base wants to protect entrenched entitlements, but entitlements for those who are deserving. Who are the deserving? The traditionally privileged white middle class, the traditional working class (not illegal immigrants, new immigrants, the homeless, or inner city blacks). These white middle class voters do not support cuts in Medicare programs, or cuts in Social Security. To the extent they feel their entrenched benefits are threatened, says Frum, they are nationalistic and nativistic. They lean GOP because they are afraid the Democrats want to take benefits from them and redistribute them to newer Americans--the foreign born, immigrants, the poor, the less deserving. They are against migrants who make new claims, against globalized markets that depress wages and benefits. 

      This GOP white middle class base has come to feel that the GOP elite does not have their best interest at heart. [And who can blame them?] So along comes Trump. 

      Trump has rejected the GOP party elite, and has rejected GOP classic orthodoxy to a surprising extent. He has scoffed at trade agreements; he has called out the hegemony of big donors; he has rejected the Bush war in Iraq; he is not talking about cutting social security or entrenched benefits; to the contrary, he is talking about preserving these benefits. He feeds into the nationalist insecurity and anger of the base, which is angry at big corporations, angry at foreign policy adventures, angry at free trade, and angry about lack of prospects for the middle class. So Trump talks about Wall Street making too much money and being out of control. 

      Where does this go? 

      Frum sees four potential paths for the GOP of 2016. 

      1.  Double Down: Maybe Jeb! is simply the wrong messenger, too freighted down with his family's legacy to carry the Classic GOP orthodoxy forward. Maybe GOP orthodoxy (tax cuts-budget cuts-deregulation-free trade) is just fine.... provided the GOP gets a bright young face AND trashes immigrants.  That's Rubio's campaign thinking. That's why the establishment dollars are switching from Jeb! to Rubio.   And, even if not Rubio, perhaps an outsider (like Cruz or Fiorina--seemingly solid GOP conservatives) and $100 million in negative advertising to trash Hillary will get the job done?  Andrew Prokop at Vox breaks down the prospects for the four GOP establishment candidates: Rubio, Bush, Christie, Kasich. 

      Frum seems skeptical. 

      2. Tactical concession: Carry on with GOP orthodoxy (tax cuts, budget cuts, deregulation) but make concessions to the base on anti-immigration, and anti-free trade populism--at least for the election.  That seems to be the strategy of Ted Cruz and Chris Christie, says Frum. 

      Frum seems skeptical that gimmicks will get the job done. 

      3. Real Reform

      Real reform, suggests Frum, would entail ditching the ideological tax-cutting, budget-cutting, and deregulating, and free-trading ideology, and turning the GOP into a true center right party with an eye to benefitting not just the rich, but the middle-class. 
      [P]arty elites could try to open more ideological space for the economic interests of the middle class. Make peace with universal health-insurance coverage: Mend Obamacare rather than end it. Cut taxes less at the top, and use the money to deliver more benefits to working families in the middle. Devise immigration policy to support wages, not undercut them. Worry more about regulations that artificially transfer wealth upward, and less about regulations that constrain financial speculation. Take seriously issues such as the length of commutes, nursing-home costs, and the anticompetitive practices that inflate college tuition. Remember that Republican voters care more about aligning government with their values of work and family than they care about cutting the size of government as an end in itself. Recognize that the gimmick of mobilizing the base with culture-war outrages stopped working at least a decade ago.
      Such a party would cut health-care costs by squeezing providers, not young beneficiaries. It would boost productivity by investing in hard infrastructure—bridges, airports, water-treatment plants. It would restore Dwight Eisenhower to the Republican pantheon alongside Ronald Reagan and emphasize the center in center-right.
      Frum seems in favor of this but skeptical that it's in the cards.  It would be Un-American.

      4. Rig the Rules of the Game Even More: The political rules in America, of course, are fixed in a way to favor the GOP. Two senators from each state greatly favors the rural red states.  Gerrymandering, and natural urban/rural splits also provide an advantage in the House. So maybe internal party rules can be rigged to keep out non-establishement candidates like Trump?

      Frum is not recommending it.

      This article does useful categorization to help us keep track of how the GOP politics will unfold in the next few years.

      Matt Yglesias tweets that Frum is way too pessimistic about the Republican chances.  Stay tuned.... Iowa caucuses are just five weeks away.

      You can follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles.

      Tuesday, December 22, 2015

      The Ghost of Christmases Past

      Break, Oh dawning morning light,
      and you Shepard folk, do not fright
      while the angels say to you
      this hapless boy will be our comfort and joy,
      here to conquer Satan
      and to bring us peace at last!
            --anonymous, from J.S. Bach Christmas Oratorio (loose transl.)
      The fourth Sunday of Advent has passed. The goose has gotten fat. We are putting pennies in the Christmas kettles on our way to last minute shopping. In the northern hemisphere--which is all I've ever known--it's stormy. Even in San Francisco it's raining this year. The spirits of the solstice, revels, and Saturnalia are in the air: we are ready to celebrate Christmas 2015... or in my case, to remember the ghosts of Christmases past. 

      As a boy in Switzerland, Christmas was four weeks of heightening anticipation ending in a crescendo of unrestrained joy. Blue and red ribbons, decorative table cloths, Christmas figurines, and candles appeared from their hiding places in late November.  A large wreath with the four advent candles, muddy boots, and wet clothes ushered in the season's smells. The house filled with the aroma of cookies baking, Laeckerli, the raisins, nuts, rum and powdered sugar of Wheinachtsstollen, tangerines, nuts and cloves in Christmas stockings. 

      Joy to the world, the Christ has come. There was the long cycle of waiting for Christmas eve and its presents. There was the short cycle of waiting to open our advent-calender window in our pajamas every night. Would this be the night a special star appeared in my window? There was the in-between cycle of the four Advent Sundays. There was the anticipation of Samichlaustag on December 6. Perhaps an encounter with the bearded one in town; fruits and nuts in our stockings; stories. One month every year in this altered state of consciousness for much of our childhood.

      There is, of course, no evidence that Christ was born on December 25, or even in December. The celebration was fixed by the Romans. Perhaps the church chose that date to coincide with several extant Roman traditions: the birthday of Sol Invictus, of Mithra, the feast of Saturnalia. Intentionally or not, Dec. 25 offered a date with a good theological basis that also would counter several pagan holidays.

      We count our years from ano domini, the year that Dionisus Exiguus (a Roman monk 470-544 AD) erroneously calculated as the birth year of Christ. Exiguus used his calculation to publish a comprehensive table of Easter relative to what he fancied as the date of Christ's conception. Modern scholars, however, believe he got the date wrong by several years. The best evidence, according to Pope Benedict XVI, indicates Christ must have been born several years earlier than ano domini

      The Jewish tradition I married into is not so comfortable with this ano domini terminology. Jews refer to our Gregorian calendar post ano domini as "the current era," or, when  in a generous mood, as the "common era." Unless it's our object of worship, claims of divinity make people nervous. 

      By the time the Christmas tree appeared, anticipation reached fever pitch. The tree was purchased late, just one or two days before Christmas Eve so the needles would be fresh and safe for lighting 50 candles in its branches.  The creche with Mary, Joseph, the manger, baby Jesus, and the three Wise Men sat on the fireplace mantle, even if by now attention wandered to the enticingly sized and colorfully wrapped packages under the tree. 

      In short, Christmas was the best holiday of the year. Family, a festive meal, we kids happy, grateful, and on our best behavior, on the receiving end of boundless love. Every outing and last minute chore a celebration and a joy; participation without obligation, without thought, yet, of those awkward thank you notes to grandparents, aunts, and uncles we would be nagged about for weeks to come. And the golden glow of 50 candles; shadows dancing in the branches and on the ceiling, a miracle indeed. 

      As an adult, I've managed to capture a spark of this Christmas miracle just a few times, with a tree, a circle of friends to sing songs, play tunes, drink Prosecco, and above all, to  light those 50 candles. I've not kept it up. We haven't had a tree in years. There is the lack of belief in Christ as the savior from Satan, a savior to bring us peace at last. There is the association in my wife's family of those lights with Kristallnacht. Kristallnacht, of course, preceded Advent by a couple of weeks that year (1938) and it is not their words, but that's how I think of the discomfort the tree causes. But mainly, there is my benign neglect of the tradition.

      It is surely harder to maintain that tradition as an adult than to be enraptured by it as a child. It is also harder, I'm guessing, to keep it up in San Francisco than in Thun. The "Christmas Season" hereabouts, in our empty nest, is kicked off by football and Black Friday, not by Advent and childish anticipation. The Embarcadero office towers downtown are wrapped like Christmas packages, although less than they used to be. There is a large lighted tree in Union Square, the better to shop by. Some of the stores are decorated, and there is the odd residential block that makes a spectacle, but you have to drive for miles. It's all too upbeat and over the top: more Halloween than "Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht" for the most part. 

      We've fallen out of the habit of wishing "Merry Christmas" lest we offend. We've worked hard to ween our friends off annual gift exchanges. Christmas has become too crass, too slavish to consumption, too freighted for us adults to recapture childish rapture. It's not so much that there is a War on Christmas, as Christmas has been hollowed out and is collapsing under its own weight; hollowed out by Christ's fallen standard bearers (televangelists, hypocritical politicians, the mean-spiritedness and corruption of the Catholic Church, the irrationality of Evangelicals) and collapsing under the weight of hype and expectations of the market. 

      But when I recall my childhood memories, I say "It's a Wonderful Life" and Christmas is a tradition worth saving. Its salvation must start in the home.  With our children and grandchildren. Peace, love, and understanding... from a manger... and 50 candles on a tree.  But keep that water spritzer handy. 

      Friday, December 18, 2015

      Are We Living a Constitutional Crisis?

      [Spoiler alert: politics is depressing, and there is no obvious solution]

      We look at our politics and we hang our heads. One of our major parties is putting up candidates for president who are inexperienced and extreme. Members of Congress are too partisan and so loath to compromise that our legislative branch is unable to properly serve our needs. They are more intent on winning than solving the country's woes. It's dispiriting.

      We look around for root causes and we see the influence of too much money in politics, the influence of partisan media, a public that is too easily manipulated. We see gerrymandering and venality among our political leaders. Across the political spectrum, the public is frustrated with the inability of Congress to get things done. A November 2015 Gallup poll says that 86% of the public disapproves of Congress. 

      But what if the problem isn't the poor quality and pig-headedness of politicians? What if the problem isn't mainly about hyper-partisanship, gerrymandering, and too much money influencing politics? What if what we're living through is a more deep seated structural sickness that goes to the very heart of our constitutional order? What if the problem isn't political, but structural? 

      That's what Sanford Levinson thinks. He's a constitutional scholar at the University of Texas Law school. He has been suggesting for some time that what we are witnessing is, at its root, a structural dysfunction that is baked into our constitution. See his University of Maryland law review article "How I lost my Constitutional Faith" (2012). 
      In 2012 Tom Friedman lamented: “We can’t be great as long as we remain a vetocracy rather than a democracy.  Our deformed political system—with a Congress that’s become a forum for legalized bribery—is now truly holding us back.” Friedman was right about "vetocracy" says Levinson--but the problem is not political, it's structural.

      A "vetocracy" explained Levinson, "allows what some would call 'special interests' to prevent the passage of legislation both supported by majorities of the electorate and in fact conducive to some notion of the 'public interest.'"  Levinson points out that this vetocracy flows directly from our United States Constitution. 

      And, of course, we recognize this: even though for the past 25 years a majority of the electorate has supported stricter gun control measures, the minority that opposes any restrictions on gun ownership has been repeatedly able to veto proposed gun control measures. 
      Special interests have been able to thwart the passage of gun legislation even though majorities of the electorate support such legislation and even though such legislation is conducive to a reasonable conception of the public good. This is one example, but the same dynamic operates on most proposed legislation: from family leave to global warming; from the minimum wage to social security. 

      We don't have enough democracy in our system, says Levinson. The House and Senate have a death grip veto over each other with respect to all legislation. In the Senate, moreover, each senator has the power to filibuster legislation they don't like. Passing legislation that threatens any vested interests is extremely difficult to pass under the best of circumstances; and if that weren't enough, the President also has a veto power over any legislation that does manage to run this gauntlet. In reality we have a tricameral system of government when it comes to passing legislation.

      The problem is inherent in our constitution. 

      The constitution has a lofty purpose. As articulated in its preamble: 
      We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
      In order to achieve these goals, the Constitution operates in two spheres: First, there is the guarantee of our fundamental rights; and, second, there are the rules for how political power is distributed and exercised. When we think reverently of our founding fathers and the constitution they bequeathed to us, we tend to focus on the first of these spheres enshrined in the Bill of Rights. The right of free speech, the right of equal protection.... When we think of the second sphere, we accept the mechanics of "separation of powers" and consider this a good thing. We neglect to question (and notice) how the rules for the distribution of economic and public goods are in fact rigged in a way that does not serve our democratic interests. We fail to notice how our two party system does not work well with the separation of powers set forth in the constitution.

      Levinson continues to be inspired by "the Constitution of Conversation" that is embodied in the "majestic generalities" of the Bill of Rights ("due process" "equal protection" "just compensation" etc.) . "If one's primary concern about the Constitution is the set of rights that it either guarantees or, at least, allows states and the United States to recognize," says Levinson, the constitution will do. "There is almost nothing in the Constitution that overtly invalidates the achievement of any plausible set of rights, whether one thinks of such things as a right to same-sex marriage or to universal medical care."  Not that Alito and Scalia and Thomas and Roberts would agree, but that is a political problem, not a structural problem. 

      By contrast, what Levinson calls the "Constitution of Settlement," the structural parts of the constitution that are not subject to general interpretation but that fix the rules of the game, there the constitution won't do; that's where the problem lies. 

      The problem is not that we might elect a Donald Trump. The problem is that a 55% majority in the Senate and a majority of the House cannot pass legislation conducive to a fair notion of the public interest backed by a majority of the electorate because of the veto power inherent in the filibuster. And even if they are able to pass such legislation, it can be vetoed by the President. 

      Judges have relatively little say regarding what Congress does to manipulate the economy, to mitigate against threats posed by terrorism, the state of American education, the deficit, and similar problems.  Courts, by and large, can't advance the ball of social progress through interpretation of economic and social legislation. They can periodically interfere and prevent progress by striking down laws as exceeding the powers of Congress... but the role of the court in this sphere is ancillary and only a brake on progress...not an engine for progress.  And that's a problem, because when it comes to such legislation, our "Constitution of Settlement" has fixed the game. 

      These structural provisions of the Constitution... make it nearly impossible to pass legislation that truly addresses the major problems of our time. .... It is the Constitution of Settlement that comprises those aspects of the Constitution that are remarkably nondynamic, that are not, as a matter of actual practice, amenable to the sometimes dazzling (or, to their opponents, dismaying) feats of “interpretation,” ... that can enable the necessary adjustment of seeming constitutional verities to the demands of changing circumstances.
      Rather than focus on hagiographic explanations of "How do bills become law in Congress," our schools should better educate our children to ask the hard questions:  “why do most bills have no chance of being seriously considered, let alone becoming law?”
      Many factors surely go into explaining our complex system. I do not deny the importance of the corrosive role of money in elections or the rise of talk radio and cable news, not to mention the development of a polarized party system that is near-unprecedented in our politics. My own contribution to this discussion, though, is to suggest, indeed to insist, that the Constitution of Settlement deserves far more attention than it receives. 
      Levinson expounds on this in an article published at the libertarian Cato Unbound this week:
      [O]ne reads ... heartfelt attacks on those with whom one disagrees and the suggestion that if only we could elect one’s own champions, then everything would be all right. If that were in fact the case, the only crisis would indeed be political, and we could celebrate the Constitution as providing the mechanism, through regular elections, of voting the rascals out, albeit belatedly, and placing the right candidates into office.

      It is much scarier, in every way, to believe that the Constitution—and our being trapped into its byzantine “forms”—is a bug, and not a feature, of our political system. That is what constitutes our most fundamental constitutional crisis.
      There is, of course, also the fact that the structure of the constitution is hugely biased in favor of rural areas  (the House) and small states (the Senate).

      And there is the depressing fact that our Constitution is next to impossible to amend meaningfully. The problem of amending the Constitution is so daunting that Levinson jokingly refers to himself as "a crank" for even bothering to point out the problems. And, of course, the electorate is cranky too. It's understandable.

      Listen to professor Levinson, speaking at the Cambridge Forum after the 2010 mid-term elections, HERE.

      Read the CATO Forum HERE.

      You can follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles.

      Tuesday, December 15, 2015

      The Obscenity of the National Anthem at the Republican Debate in Las Vegas

      The December 15, 2015 Republican Debate was held in Sheldon Adelson's Lair (The Venetian in Las Vegas).  Adelson, with a reported net worth of $38 billion makes Donald Trump look like a piker. He is a mega-donor to the Republican party, and whichever of the Republican candidates will be left standing at the end of this marathon will be in his debt.

      Trump, who marches to his own drummer, nevertheless appeared to pay tribute to Adelson (a big supporter of Israel and Netanyahu) when he referred to "the Israelis" and "Netanyahu" when touting the effectiveness of the wall that he proposes to build at the border to keep out illegal immigrants.

      The candidates were introduced like basketball players: "At 5'11" and 335 pounds, from the University of Delaware.... CHRIS CHRISTIE!!" [Hint: it's an analogy] Ayla Brown, the daughter of former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, belted out the national anthem. She did a great job. Everyone stood doey-eyed, hand on heart.

      Is this really the way to begin a somber discussion about the fate of the country; the fate of the world?

      Ted Cruz spoke of carpet bombing wherever ISIS is. Asked whether that meant he would carpet bomb Raqqa, the ISIS headquarters and a town of 220,000, he said "wherever ISIS is!" He is speaking of killing 10's of thousands of people.  Kasich talked about sending American troops to war. Chris Christie spoke about being o.k. with starting World War III by shooting down a Russian plane in Syria. Donald Trump talked about killing the families of any terrorist.  .... And we kick this off with our national anthem?  We kick this off with "And the rockets red flare, and bombs bursting in air....?"

      It's obscene.  And CNN is acting like it's normal.

      Trump wants to build a fortress, close down Mosques, shut down "parts of the internet." Rubio wants to build a police surveillance state. Fiorina doesn't want any fine input from lawyers and wants to privatize government (as best I can figure out what the heck she's talking about).

      "Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave, O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?"

      Sunday, December 13, 2015

      Sowing Distrust of Government, Science, and Education for 35 Years: Today's GOP is Reaping the Pathology of Conspiracy Theories

      There is something amiss, pathological, about the current crop of GOP presidential candidates. They seem ungrounded by reality, adrift in conspiracy theories.  What's up with that? 

      Everyone is asking the question. So here's a theory up the flag-pole: For more than 30 years, Republicans have preached distrust of government, science, and education; they have been supported in this by right wing media, think tanks, and influential figures in popular culture. As a result a bias of distrust in  government, education, and science has taken hold in broad swaths of the GOP electorate. The problem with that, recent studies suggest, is that distrust of government and science and education makes us especially susceptible to conspiracy theories. It takes our motivated reasoning to pathological levels. 

      We are all guilty of motivated reasoning and confirmation bias. We are very good at making up stories to explain the world, to make sense of it. We can do this almost instantaneously. And we are tenacious about hanging on to these stories once we have committed to a narrative. Researchers say it's worse when emotions are involved. You know, like mass shootings; like the safety of our children. That is human nature. We all make up facts to support our beliefs, as needed, and we will ignore inconvenient facts, as needed. See  e.g. Michael Gazzuniga. Everybody does it.

      A recent study from the University of Iowa found that this confirmation bias applies even to financial traders...they will hang onto their initial assessment of value even as contrary evidence comes in,  even as it is clearly costing them money.

      Conspiracy theories are just an extreme example of this tendency. They too, are part of an effort to gather facts and create frameworks to protect and bolster our worldviews. And now there is a new study [pay wall] published in the American Journal of Political Science. The study is described by David Roberts at VOX. Three political scientists (Miller/Saunders/Fahrhart) reported on the effect of trust, or lack of trust, on our belief systems.  They found that a lack of trust (in science, the government, education etc.) is strongly correlated with conspiracy theories. In other words, those who are highly engaged in politics but have a low trust level are prime candidates for adhering to conspiracy theories.

      A lack of trust in government, of course, has been a hallmark of Republican political rhetoric since before Newt Gingrich. The most extreme manifestation of this is the "Freedom Caucus" in the House that has managed to bring down the speakership of John Boehner. "Lemmings with suicide vests," Devin Nunes described them as reported in Ryan Lizza's current article in the New Yorker.  Trump and Cruz and Huckabee and Rubio are not far behind on the crazy scale.

      The problem is not restricted to conservatives. Take the anti-vaccination movement which is correlated with a liberal world view. Take liberal blogger Sarah Pope who is being lampooned here by Samantha Bee.

      "They have an amazing ability to ignore scientific consensus," says the vaccine expert in the video. And so they do. Just like the climate change denialists, the Freedom Caucus Republicans in Congress, or the majority of the GOP candidates for president this year.

      The spread starts on blogs like Popes', goes viral on Twitter, and replicates itself wherever progressives congregate. I had been looking for patient zero, and I have found her. And then, when it jumps hosts into a CELEBRITY it goes airborne, putting millions at risk; you can catch it from an iPhone, over soy lattes, even at a toddler DJ class. 
      And being educated, smart, or well informed is no antidote.... Pope very clearly has a deep distrust of scientists and politicians. According to the Miller/Saunders/Fahrhart study, this makes her a prime candidate for the vaccine conspiracy theories... and her level of knowledge makes it worse!

      The fact that her blog has 40,000 followers makes her a dangerous "Very Serious Person."

      Back in July, Henry Farrell wrote "A Brief History of Very Serious People," arguing that certain people have undue influence over the beliefs we form--whether crazy or good:
      Everyone co-exists in a social system that tends to value, heavily reinforce and widely disseminate some people’s beliefs while disparaging, heavily discounting, and tending to limit the circulation of certain other people’s beliefs. This bias is not random, but instead reflects and reinforces existing power structures and asymmetries.  People whose beliefs are reinforced and widely circulated so that they are socially and politically influential, even when they are manifestly wrong, are Very Serious People. The system provides them with no incentives to admit error or perhaps to understand that they have erred, even when their mistakes have devastating consequences.
      Being a Very Serious Person is about occupying a structural position that tends to reinforce, rather than counter, one’s innate biases and prejudices. Put slightly differently, the Very Serious Person theory is one that is at least as much about collective structures of opinion as it is about individuals. We all err, sometimes very badly. The theory says that VSPs face less incentive either to second guess their errors as they are making them, or to think through their errors after they have made them, because collective structures reinforce their tendency to think that they are right in the first instance, and their tendency to think that they ought to have been right (if it weren’t for those inconvenient facts/specific and contingent circumstances that meant that things didn’t go quite as predicted just this once) in the second.
      There is a certain essential utility to this process of course:
      Individual biases, together with a certain degree of pigheadedness can have advantages for group problem solving, as long as people have a minimal capacity to come around to recognizing the advantages of a better perspective, however grudgingly, and (my addition) as long as collective structures of decision making do not systematically entrench certain kinds of bias. 
      This is the advantage of democracy when it works; it harnesses mulishness and rancorous dispute, to reveal the information that is latent in the disagreements between our various perspectives on the world (which are inextricably intertwined with our value judgments). However, when certain people’s perspectives are privileged, the value of democracy is weakened. Their perspectives will continue to prevail, even when they are wrong. Weak arguments that they make will be treated as strong ones, while strong arguments made by their opponents will be treated as weak ones.
      The problem with the GOP of 2015--as manifested by their abysmal crop of presidential candidates--is that conservative decision making in the U.S. has for the last 35 years systematically entrenched a harmful bias against science and government, the very conditions that incubate crazy conspiracy theories. As Peter Beinart points out in Haaretz yesterday: "Before Donald Trump's anti-Muslim rhetoric, there was Anne Coulter."

       Conservatives in America over the last 35 years have, in Farrell's words: established  systems around them that magnify that bias against science and government, reinforced it, and reflected it, creating vicious feedback loops of self-satisfied yet consequential ignorance. The name of this system sounds like Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Anne Coulter, Bill O'Reilly, Michael Savage,  Fox News, and the Republican Freedom Caucus.

      It's the feedback loop Samantha Bee describes in the video clip, above.

      And the system has been selling distrust. Distrust of government, distrust of science, distrust of teachers... And it has given us a bunch of conspiracy theory nut jobs running for president.

      And, no, it's not just politics as usual.  We are all susceptible to confirmation bias... but we are not all under the thrall of conspiracy theories. We don't all make shit up equally.

      Take this chart from the New York Times: this is a compilation of lies told by politicians. "How do you tell when a politician is lying?" goes the meme. Answer: "when his lips are moving." It turns out that for Trump and Carson and Cruz that is close to the truth:

      Yes, all politicians lie, but if we look at the current crop of Republican presidential candidates, it's clear there is something amiss. This is not chance--it's the result of entrenching an anti-government, anti-science, anti-education bias that has made these people into crazy conspiracy nut jobs.

      There is something pathological about it.

      Here is Devin Nunes (Congressman from California--east and south of Fresno) as reported by Lizza:
      Nunes, who is the chairman of the House Committee on Intelligence, told me that the biggest change he’s seen since he arrived in Congress, in 2002, is the rise of online media outlets and for-profit groups that spread what he views as bad, sometimes false information, which House members then feel obliged to address. ....“I used to spend ninety per cent of my constituent response time on people who call, e-mail, or send a letter, such as, ‘I really like this bill, H.R. 123,’ and they really believe in it because they heard about it through one of the groups that they belong to, but their view was based on actual legislation,” Nunes said. “Ten per cent were about ‘Chemtrails from airplanes are poisoning me’ to every other conspiracy theory that’s out there. And that has essentially flipped on its head.” The overwhelming majority of his constituent mail is now about the far-out ideas, and only a small portion is “based on something that is mostly true.” He added, “It’s dramatically changed politics and politicians, and what they’re doing.”
      Yes, there is something pathological in todays Republican party.  What will it take to break the fever? Some trust.

      Saturday, December 12, 2015

      Roger Cohen's Speech on "Is a Two-State-Solution still Possible?"

      Roger Cohen writes an opinion column for the New York times. He started his career at Paris Metro, moved on to Reuters, The Wall Street Journal, and he has been at the Times since 1990.  He is an intelligent and earnest commentator on International politics. He is too hawkish for me on many occasions, but always worth reading.

      Last Monday I heard him speak about the prospects for peace in Israel/Palestine. My report, and the heart of Cohen's speech is published at MONDOWEISS.

      You can follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

      Monday, December 7, 2015

      Hanukkah: From Maccabees to Allenby with Optimism and Faith

      On November 2, 1917, Lord Balfour made his famous declaration in a letter to Lord Rothschild:
      Foreign Office
      November 2, 1917 
      Dear Lord Rothschild:  
      .... His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.
      I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.
      Arthur James Balfour 
      Nine days later, November 11, 1917, the British General Allenby entered Jerusalem and ended more than 400 years of Ottoman rule in the city. Hanukkah fell on November 27 that year. In Cincinnati, at any rate, Allenby was viewed as a redeemer of the Jewish state on par with Judah Maccabee. Today there are major boulevards named after Allenby in Tel Aviv and Haifa; there's a monument in Beersheba; a town square in his honor in Jerusalem, and the main border crossing from the West Bank to Jordan is at the Allenby bridge.

      General Allenby, Jerusalem, November 1917
      Thirty years on, the Jews were less favorably disposed to the British. On July 22, 1946 Menachim Begin and his Irgun blew up the British headquarters in the King David Hotel in a terrorist act that killed 91 and injured another 41. But the hope expressed in the poster above came true on May 14, 1948: there was again a sovereign Jewish state in Palestine, the first time since the Hasmonean dynasty, which followed the Maccabean revolt in 165 BCE.

      The story of Hanukkah comes from the apocryphal book of Maccabees I. Antiochus IV, the Saleucid ruler (heir to Alexander the Great) established Zeus as the deity to be worshipped in the temple. There were many Jews loyal to the Greek culture of the Saleucid rulers, but Jewish conservatives, led by Mattathias, were greatly offended by the Greek ways. The story begins with murder on the altar, results in military victory by the zealous Maccabees over the Saleucids and their Jewish supporters, and ends in the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem.
      And Mattathi′as and his friends went about and tore down the altars; they forcibly circumcised all the uncircumcised boys that they found within the borders of Israel.  They hunted down the arrogant men, and the work prospered in their hands. They rescued the law out of the hands of the Gentiles and kings, and they never let the sinner gain the upper hand. [I Maccabees 45-48] 
      When they were done, Judas Maccabee and his brothers "commanded that all the people of Israel shall celebrate the holiday of the dedication of the the temple on the 25th day of the month of Kislev, every year in praise and thanks to God." There is no mention of magic candles or a one day supply of oil that mysteriously burned for eight days.

      Maccabees II (written ~124 BCE  in Alexandria in Greek(!)), notes that the holiday was celebrated as a second Sukkot (the fall harvest festival). Some say this explains the eight day duration of the holiday. Some say it coincided with the end of the olive harvest.

      Hanukkah means "dedication." In the Babylonian Talmud (~500 A.D.) the rabbis converted the holiday to a festival of lights.  [Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 21b] Yehuda Kurtzer thinks the rabbis inserted the miracle of oil into this dedication because they struggled against the dangers of celebrating a story of murderous nationalist religious zealotry, as described in the Book of Maccabees. It is the kind of zealotry that fired Yigal Amir, the assassin of Yitzhak Rabin. Bernard Avishai says that of all the troubling details of the Rabin assassination, the one he cannot get out of his mind is that Amir attended synagogue on the morning of the assassination, where the weekly portion read was Abraham's binding of Isaac. Killing on God's command, as Abraham was ready to do; killing to uphold God's law regarding ritual sacrifice, as Mattathias did.... it leads to most unholy bloodshed and tyranny.  So the rabbis turned away and looked for a more benign meaning. 

      Today, the holiday is celebrated as a festival of lights. The Reform website states: "It reminds Jews to rededicate themselves to stand against forces that would destroy Judaism and to keep alive the flame of Jewish religion, culture, and peoplehood so that it may be passed on to the next generation."

      The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism  website draws the lesson that Jews worldwide should provide a robust and uncritical defense of Israel. It's the wrong lesson. Zealotry is loose in the land of Israel. Now is a time to question the murders Mattathias is guilty of, not a time to unthinkingly cheer them on.  More appropriately, at the Rabbinical Assembly website (also conservative), Rabbi Alan Lucas says: "The real challenge for Jews of all types, secular and religious, inside and outside Israel, is to identify with and affirm Hanukkah’s authentic message of optimism and faith."

      Hanukkah is a joyous holiday. It is a time to light candles, to gather with friends, to sing, to fry latkes and enjoy them with apple sauce and sour cream from our Northern European traditions, and to bake sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) from our North African traditions.

      Some enjoy salty cheese to celebrate Judith, who entered the Assyrian camp and fed salty cheese to the commander to make him thirsty, and wine to make him drunk. When he fell asleep, she cut off his head. I will skip the cheese.

      As I watch the candles, I will think of the wisdom of the rabbis who turned away from nationalist zealotry and brought us Hanukkah as a Festival of Lights... and I will rededicate myself to fight nationalist zealotry....from Mattathias to Trump/Rubio/Cruz. And I will do so with optimism and faith.

      Friday, December 4, 2015

      Identity Politics from the U.S. to Ukraine

      What is the geographic center of gravity in the American mind? Kevin Phillips says in The Cousins’ Wars that the U.S. Revolution and Civil War were at heart a continuation of the English Civil Wars, the bloody one in 1642-1651, and the “glorious one” in 1688. White male British affairs at heart.

      Subsequently, of course, the Irish made a splash in cities across the country, and since the 1960’s African Americans, Asian Americans, Latin Americans, women, the sexually diverse, and others have asserted themselves in our politics and staked their claim to our collective identity.

      Today the geographic center of gravity in the American mind is up for grabs. All those Donald Trump supporters are no longer so confident that we are a white Christian Anglo-Saxon country at heart. It causes tensions.

      Europe, of course, has such tensions in spades. In Vienna, after the Anschluss on March 12-13,1938, my then 13 year old mother-in-law to be was told by her teacher to move to the back of the class, to be quiet, and not to come back after the semester was over. She escaped Vienna in January 1939 when a family in London responded to an advertisement in The Jewish Chronicle of London and agreed to take her in. It’s made her susceptible to identity politics and a strong supporter of Israel all her life.

      Now 90 years of age, my mother-in-law recently read an acclaimed collection of short stories by a young writer, Molly Antopol, The Unamericans. Antopol’s family is from Eastern Europe, she spends much of her time in Israel, but she is very much an American Jew.  Some of the stories are set in Eastern Europe, resonating with the events of World War II. My mother-in-law's parents's families hailed from there too. She can relate.

      So we got to talking about what is Eastern Europe, and what is it's identity? Confronted with the annexation of Crimea by Russia and the civil war in Eastern Ukraine today, we wonder: are these people of the west, or are they people of the east? What is their identity?

      John Mearshimer, a University of Chicago historian in the realpolitik mold, thinks Ukraine is “people of the east.” Thus when Russia annexed Crimea and began to foment turmoil in Eastern Ukraine last year, he suggested that this was a natural reaction to NATO looking east, and Europe entertaining the thought of taking up closer relations with Ukraine. He counseled that, because Ukrainians are people of the east, we should “keep our mitts off” (paraphrasing).

      This hit a nerve with Brad DeLong. Just like Americans have different stories that make up our identity, DeLong suggested, Eastern Europeans—Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians—have belonged to three different “imagined communities.” Only one of those is fully “of the East.” And they are not vassals of Putin! Read DeLong’s entertaining post at his Blog. [Some of what follows is directly from Brad, most of it is reworked for present purposes. I've mostly omitted quotation marks.]

      The Kievan Rus’

      The Kievan Rus' dominated Eastern Europe from ca. 800 A.D. until the Mongol invasion in the 1240’s. Modern people of the three East Slavic countries, Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus all claim them as their cultural ancestors and treat Old East Slavic (or Rusian, with one “s”) as the direct predecessor to their own language.

      The imagined community that is Kievan Rus', says DeLong, is the east most outpost of a Mediterranean and European-oriented civilization. It was influenced by the Byzantine Empire ruled from Constantinople.

      Following the 1569 Union of Lublin, Kievan Rus became part of the Kingdom of Poland (Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth). It too was oriented to the West.

      In 1648-1657 the Dneipr Cossacks (named after the Dneiper river that flows through Kiev and enters the Black Sea west of Crimea, near Odessa—i.e. Ukraine) rebelled against Poland to form a Ukrainian Cossack state (the Hetmanate). This state is at first independent, then autonomous and self-governing but owing allegiance to the Muscovite Tsar in Moscow (treaty of Pereyaslav 1659), and then after 1775 neither autonomous nor self-governing. But much of Kievan 'Rus, what we now call the Western Ukraine, was ruled from Vienna, with its major city of Lviv called Lemburg.

      The Novgorod Center of Influence

      A second imagined community of influence on Eastern Europe was the 'Rus of Novgorod the Great. This was oriented toward the Baltic and the North Sea beyond: Sweden, Germany, the Hanseatic League, Holland, and international trade. Peter the Great (b. 1672-d.1725), the Romanov Czar of Muscovy, built St. Petersburg (completed 1713) precisely because he wished his empire to imagine itself not so much Muscovite as Novgorodian.

      Peter saw Saint Petersberg as providing his Moscow-centered realm with "a window on the west" that was maritime Europe. But, of course, the Baltic littoral and as far inland as you could navigate a barge in summer did not need a window on the west: Novgorod (and Riga) were cities as European as Helsinki or Stockholm or Danzig.

      Muscoy Rus

      The third imagined community is that of the Muscovy 'Rus: far enough north in the forests that the Mongols could not easily and permanently dominate it, and far enough east that western Europeans could not easily control it. It is the heart of Slavonic Orthodoxy, neither western European, Middle-Eastern, nor steppe-Mongol. It is the civilization of the very strong leader desperate for geographic buffers against invaders from the east, from the south, and most recently from the west.

      The polity of the Tsars came to dominate the lands of all the Russians in a long slow process of fits and starts. Their project was to convince everyone that their community was Muscovy 'Rus--not Kievan 'Rus oriented toward Constantinople, Vienna, and Warsaw; and not Novgorod 'Rus oriented toward Stockholm, Copenhagen, and Hamburg.

      At least some of the Tsars who did the most to advance the political project of the Muscovite empire--Peter the Great (1672-1725), Catherine the Great (1721-1796), and Alexander I (1777-1825) with his French-speaking aristocracy come immediately to mind--had at least mixed thoughts about this. They would have greatly preferred that the empire they were building had its heart in Novgorod 'Rus rather than Muscovy 'Rus.

      The Peculiar Universality of the Soviets

      The ambivalent attitude of the rulers of 'Rus toward their Muscovy power base came to a sharp end in 1917 with the accession to power of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov--Lenin. Lenin believed that he was a bit player in the great socialist revolution of the early twentieth century. It was his job, he believed to make the socialist revolution for the nationality of the Moscow-centered Great Russians. Other nationalities--Finnish, German, Estonian, Polish, Ukrainian, Georgian, Kazakh, and so forth--would make their own socialist revolutions. He would help to the extent that he could. But to take over was not his job.

      Lenin did not aspire to rule the empire of the Tsars: he did not want to be the jailer of the prison-house of nationalities that the Romanovs had assembled under their rule. He sought, rather, to lead the Russian people--in comradely and brotherly alliance with their neighbors--into Karl Marx's classless utopia. This made Lenin both an anti-nationalist and a cosmopolitan nationalist. He was an anti-nationalist in that--unlike nearly everyone else of his followers--he did not particularly care about the terms on which his Bolshevik Russia made its peace with Germany and withdrew from World War I. The German socialist revolution was imminent, after all, and after it took place borders would be adjusted and treaties rewritten in mutual brotherhood. He did not think that Russia should be great. He thought that peoples should be free--and socialist, and therefore allied. 
      Lenin's successor, Stalin, would have none of this. He wanted the empire of the Tsars, and more. Local autonomy and local nationality were useful illusions with which to beguile, but power needed to be centralized in Moscow, in the Kremlin, and in Stalin.

      However, a strange thing happened. The formal structure of the USSR remained that of fifteen union republics. And the educational system of the Soviet Union taught everyone that their ethnicity was an honorable nationality of its own. And over seventy years people came to believe this: come 1991 the Estonians were more Estonian, the Ukrainians more Ukrainian, the Georgian more Georgian, and the Kazakhs and Tadjiks more Kazakh and Tadjik than they had been eighty years before.

      The Killing Fields

      For the surviving descendants of the victims of World War II, Jews, Gypsies, Ukrainians, Poles, Belarusians, this area of the Muscovy Rus' and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, of course, is etched in the brain as ground zero for the horrors of World War II. As Anne Applebaum says in her review of Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands:
      This is the region that experienced not one but two—and sometimes three—wartime occupations. This is also the region that suffered the most casualties and endured the worst physical destruction. More to the point, this is the region that experienced the worst of both Stalin’s and Hitler’s ideological madness. During the 1930s, 1940s, and early 1950s, the lethal armies and vicious secret policemen of two totalitarian states marched back and forth across these territories, each time bringing about profound ethnic and political changes

      Stalin got a head start in 1933 with his forced farm collectivization program in Ukraine, culminating in a mass famine which resulted in 3.9 million dead. The Germans and the Soviets shared a contempt for Polish, Ukrainian, and Baltic independence and systematically proceeded to eliminate the elite in those countries. They arrested and murdered Polish professors, priest, intellectuals, and politicians. Stalin ordered the murder of 20,000 Polish officer at Katyn and in other forests nearby. Of the nearly six million Jews who died in the Holocaust, four million were from the "Bloodlands." The vast majority of the rest (e.g. 165,000 German Jews, 65,000 Austrian Jews, and 75,000 French Jews who perished in the camps) were also shipped east. A total of 14 million civilians perished in this region during the period 1933-1953.  

      Those events continue to resonate in politics from Israel to Europe (east and west) to the United States.

      You can find Brad DeLong's piece HERE.
      You can find my earlier posts on Ukraine HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE.

      You can follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles