Jul 162018
 

There is a joke I heard a long time ago about Khrushchev and Hungary’s communist leader Kádár going bear hunting. It seems perfectly appropriate to retell using Putin and Trump instead, especially in light of their meeting and, ahem, spectacular press conference in Helsinki today.

Putin and Trump go hunting. They shoot a bear. On their way back to the hunting lodge, they stop at a McDonalds for Trump to grab a burger. Putin stays outside. When Trump gets back to their pickup truck, the bear is gone.

“Vladimir, where is the bear?” asks Trump.

“What bear?” responds Putin.

Trump looks perplexed. “You see, we just went hunting, right?”

“Right,” says Putin.

“And we went up this hill, right?”

“Right,” says Putin.

“And then we spotted a bear, didn’t we?”

“That we did,” says Putin.

“Which we then shot.”

“We shot him dead alright.”

“And then we put him on the truck.”

“We did indeed,” confirms Putin.

“And then we stopped here at this McDonalds. I went in, and you stayed outside with the bear, right?”

“That is indeed so,” says Putin.

“So then, where the devil is the bear?” asks Trump.

“What bear?” responds Putin.

 Posted by at 8:46 pm
Jul 072018
 

An interesting article appeared on the Web site of BBC News today.

It describes a US president who is anti-immigration, who has a proclivity for conspiracy theories, and who appoints his own daughter to a prominent role in the White House.

But no, it is not Donald J. Trump. It is Millard Fillmore, who became the 13th president of the United States after the death of Zachary Taylor, under whom Fillmore served as Vice-President.

One of the least known among US presidents perhaps, Fillmore nonetheless played a role in the destruction of the Whig Party and the subsequent rise of the Republican Party and their 1860 nominee for President, Abraham Lincoln. It was also under Fillmore’s presidency that the controversial Compromise of 1850 was accomplished. Whether it postponed the Civil War or was a contributing cause remains a subject of debate to this day.

Fillmore’s political career collapsed after his one term. The Whig Party, already in tatters, did not nominate him in 1852. His life was afflicted by tragedies, as he lost his wife and his only daughter in rapid succession shortly after leaving office.

Uncanny similarities notwithstanding, there are also significant differences between Fillmore and Trump. Though described by Queen Victoria as the handsomest man she had ever seen, Fillmore was no rich playboy; he was born in poverty, and he was worried about making a living after leaving the White House, as he was not independently wealthy. And he was certainly a more humble man than Trump: He refused to accept an honorary doctorate from Oxford, stating that he had no “literary or scientific attainment” that would justify the diploma. Besides, his lack of a classical education meant that he spoke no Latin, yet “no man should accept a degree he cannot read”. Somehow, I doubt that such considerations would prevent the 45th president from accepting such an honor.

In 1856, Fillmore again ran for the presidency as the candidate of the newly formed American Party, but only carried the state of Maryland. He died in 1874.

 Posted by at 6:45 pm
Jun 282018
 

Bashing Trump is a favorite pastime of mine and that of many of my friends. To be sure, there are plenty of reasons to despise the man: His obvious racism, misogyny, narcissism, nepotism, corruption, his authoritarian tendencies, just to name a few.

But putting the focus on these characteristics leads us to miss a very important point. As a Republican president, Trump delivers. He does precisely what his base (who did elect him, after all) were hoping for. Putting conservative justices on the Supreme Court, who might reverse Roe v. Wade and other landmark “liberal” decisions? Check. Sabotaging Obamacare? Check. Making a stand against immigration? Check. A protectionist economic policy? Check. Standing up even against the Republican establishment in Washington? Check.

Trump’s base, by the way, also happen to distrust liberal democracy, and may not be adverse to a more authoritarian, strongman-style rule, so long as it is their strongman. As such, they are far less alarmed by the ease with which Trump gets along with other strongmen and the difficulty he has with the leaders of liberal democracies that are America’s traditional allies. This may even be seen as part of his “alpha male” personality, a sign of his strength.

So even if we take the hatemongering, Islamophobia, racism and other unsavory factors out of the equation, Trump is to many a dream come true: He is delivering precisely what they hoped to see from a Republican president.

And it is because of this that they are willing to turn a blind eye to Trump’s personal shortcomings. It may appear hypocritical, but ultimately, it’s just good old political pragmatism.

For this reason, I think it is deeply misguided to focus on the failings of Trump. This visceral reaction to Trump’s personality does not resonate with his base. If anything, it strengthens their perception that their political opposition is a bunch of disloyal losers: unpatriotic liberals who would rather see the man they despise fail, even if it harms America. (That conservatives behaved exactly like this in their opposition to Obama may not cross their minds. In fact, the very fact that they themselves behaved in this manner may be a reason why they so easily believe that their liberal opposition is no different.)

Is left-wing populism the answer? Supporters of Bernie Sanders undoubtedly think so. But I have my doubts. Why would left-wing populism be any better than its right-wing counterpart? In both cases, we end up with leaders who are dilettantes and demagogues. The problem these days (and this issue is not confined within the borders of America; look at Europe, or look right here, at the Canadian province of Ontario) is the collapse of the center. The end of fact-based governance by an increasingly despised technocratic “elite”.

The irony of it is that this liberal world order, for all its failings, kept the world together with no major conflict for the past 70-odd years, a golden age of possibly unprecedented growth and prosperity. (And not just in the first world; just look at global statistics of life expectancy, literacy rates, and other measures that show just how much life improved throughout much of the planet since 1945.) Yet not only is it rejected, it is rejected most vehemently by those who benefited from it the most.

There was another, similar golden era of near unprecedented growth and prosperity: The second half of the 19th century, all the way up to 1914. Yet even as more and more thinkers were convinced that the era of wars between major powers is a thing of the past, the world was heading towards the disaster called the Great War, which plunged the world into chaos, destroyed the prevailing world order, created the circumstances for the rise of the twin evils of communism and fascism, and eventually led to a second world war and the industrial-scale mass murder of the Holocaust.

I don’t know where the world is heading today, but I admit I think about 1914 a lot.

 Posted by at 7:01 pm
Jun 232018
 

I am reading a year-and-a-half old article in The Nation, written by Susan McWilliams about the prophecies of a 50 year old book coming true.

The book is Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs.

The article makes a compelling argument that Thompson’s observations aptly describe the rise and reasons of success of “Trumpism”. As I was reading its paragraphs, I was reminded of conversations I had recently with supporters of Trump. The sentiment of “total retaliation” described in the article closely captures my experience. What I saw was an automatic, almost visceral distrust of anything “liberal”. Trump supporters embrace things like racism not because they are racist, but because it is a way to piss off, to troll “liberals”. They reject things like climate science mainly because it comes from a scientific establishment that is seen as liberal, hence inherently untrustworthy.

Most compellingly, my conversations confirm the article’s main point: Trumpists are not looking for solutions because they do not really believe that solutions exist. Hence the ethos of “total retaliation”: nothing matters anymore, so long as they can piss off those lefty liberals some more. Children in detention camps? Great, look how those nasty liberals are squirming. The First Lady wearing a jacket with a questionable message? Look, she is even better at trolling liberals than her husband! Self-defeating tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum? Excellent, that will really piss off that wacko commie Trudeau and his cult of personality in liberal haven Canada. Let our alpha male leader show that wimp who the boss is!

In short, there is no point being a good sport when the game is rigged against you. You might as well just piss on the playing field and storm off in anger. Punching a few random folks who stand in the way helps driving the point through.

Trump, Brexit, the rise of governments mistakenly labeled as “populist” in Europe, but which really distinguish themselves by being anti-science and anti-immigrant, presenting the media or human rights and antipoverty organizations, all perceived as bastions of the liberal world order, as the enemy; they all fit the picture drawn by McWilliams, base on the prophetic words of Thompson.

I never read Thompson’s book, but now I feel compelled to look for a copy.

 Posted by at 11:20 am
Jun 212018
 

Donald J. Trump is a very vain person. His vanity knows few limits.

He even had his properties decorated with a fake TIME magazine cover, featuring his image.

Therefore, he must feel very proud now that TIME decided to use his picture on the cover of next week’s issue.

Congratulations, Mr. Trump. You earned it.

 Posted by at 3:39 pm
Jun 202018
 

And in case anyone wonders why these “evildoers” from South America are ignoring American law and cross the border illegally…

They do so because they are prevented from legally presenting themselves at a port of entry by US border agents.

Today, I e-mailed our Member of Parliament, Mona Fortier, asking her to urge our government and our Prime Minister to suspend the “safe third country” agreement with the United States. A country that behaves in this manner is not a safe third country by any stretch of definition.

Dear Ms. Fortier,

As one of your loyal constituents, I’d like to urge you to press our Government and our Prime Minister to consider suspending the Safe Third Party agreement with Trump’s America. What is happening in the United States is unconscionable (and in a case of life imitating art, eerily resembling story elements from The Handmaid’s Tale) and now, especially with that country’s withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council, I believe this step would not only be justified but outright necessary, in order to protect our Canadian values, which, I know, you, your party, and our Government strongly believe in.

Sincerely,

Viktor T. Toth

 Posted by at 4:47 pm
Jun 172018
 

Here is a sobering statistic based on some Gallup data. The only president ever who was more popular among same party followers than Trump was… George W. Bush.

Yes. More popular than JFK, Ike, Obama or Reagan, 500 days into the presidency.

Then again, this chart may reflect a disease that goes deeper than Trump: the continuing ideological polarization of America. Here are the same figures, this time in chronological order:

The trend seems unmistakable. After WW2, voters were, it appears, more skeptical. Presidents were approved based on their deeds more than their party affiliation. This appears to have changed in the past 70 years. Now, party affiliation matters more.

Then again… What if Truman, Ford, Carter, G. W. Bush are all outliers? After all, in all their cases the circumstances were unusual, exceptional even. Take them out and what we are left with is a pretty steady approval rating in the vicinity of 80%, give or take.

I don’t know. With a data set of only 13 data points, throwing four away as outliers is a bit excessive.

 Posted by at 9:52 am
Jun 172018
 

I decided to watch Fox News a little this morning.

The topic was the separation of children from their parents at the US border.

Here is what I learned: The problem is not new. And it is all about optics they tell me. That is to say, Barack Obama faced the same problem, his team even discussed the “zero tolerance” policy, but rejected it because it would have looked bad. In contrast, Donald J. Trump does not care about optics. He is willing to take the heat to do the right thing and enforce the law. He is a person who is seeking solutions instead of hiding from problems.

In short, when he institutes a policy to separate children from their parents, he is a hero who protects America’s core values better than his meek predecessor.

Mind you, I think Fox is wrong about optics. The optics were pretty bad during the Obama years, too. Here is a delightful picture of unaccompanied children sleeping on the floor of a border protection facility back in 2014.

Incidentally, the term I used as the title of this blog entry is wholly appropriate. The camps where these children are housed represent a textbook definition of concentration camps for children.

 Posted by at 8:27 am
Jun 112018
 

I admit I never expected to see this:

I admit I despise both gentlemen in this picture, albeit for different reasons.

However… if this meeting has a positive outcome, I will cheer when they are both awarded the Nobel peace prize.

 Posted by at 9:39 pm
Jun 102018
 

When Doug Ford won the provincial election a few days ago, I expressed my concern that this election (together with the elevation of the NDP to official opposition status and the collapse of the Liberals) was a victory of populism over the moderate center.

My concern, though far from gone, is somewhat alleviated today, not just by the premier-designate’s apparently competent transition team, but also by his reaction to Trump’s Twitter tirade against Justin Trudeau:

Thank you, Mr. Ford. It would have been easy to score populist brownie points with a disparaging tweet. I noticed that more than a few of your followers scolded you for not doing so. Instead, you opted for the high road. That gives me reason for cautious optimism.

 Posted by at 11:58 pm
Jun 102018
 

I have now concluded that Donald J. Trump, the lawfully elected President of the United States of America, is a traitor to his country and a traitor to the West. Quite possibly, a true Manchurian Candidate.

It is not about left or right, not about liberals vs. conservatives. He is a traitor, pure and simple. He is doing immense damage to the Western alliance, and his actions will likely result in immense damage to America’s economy and political standing as well.


The dilettantism that characterizes his government (his State Department just mentioned D-day as an example of the long-running US-German relationship) is also reminiscent of the incompetence and dilettantism that plunged the world into more than half a century of chaos in 1914.

But openly snubbing the G-7, refusing to agree to the joint statement, and trash tweeting our Prime Minister goes beyond mere incompetence. This is treason. Forget Canada, forget the Western alliance, this is treason because of what it does to the United States of America and its standing in the world.

Some folks suggested that if Trump is impeached, Mike Pence would be worse. I beg to disagree. Mike Pence may be a hardline conservative, but he is no traitor. Mr. Trump, on the other hand, is a clear and present danger to everything the West stands for. I hope American lawmakers finally find the moral courage to remove this treasonous jackass from office. Before it is too late.

 Posted by at 1:25 am
Jun 072018
 

I am watching the CBC’s coverage of the Ontario elections, and I am reminded of the immortal Yeats poem from a century ago:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

Well, Doug Ford, Donald Trump’s Ontario mini-me: it looks like the province is yours. May you wield your powers a little more wisely than the orange person south of the border.

 Posted by at 9:18 pm
May 292018
 

And now I am rooting for Andrea Horwath.

No, I won’t be voting NDP in the upcoming Ontario election. I live in a strongly Liberal riding (it is said that if the Liberals win one seat in this election, it will be this one), and I am actually quite pleased with our MPP, Nathalie Des Rosiers. The NDP in this riding is a distant third in the polls.

But throughout the province, support for the Liberal Party collapsed, and populist Doug Ford, heading the Progressive Conservatives, seems poised to become the province’s next Premier.

The CBC’s Ontario Poll Tracker

Unless Andrea Horwath and the NDP can stop him.

To be sure, I don’t really like the NDP. I like some of their ideas, but on many things, they are too far to the left for me to feel comfortable. I fear that their policies will have a negative impact on the province: higher taxes, a more business hostile climate. I lived in Ontario a generation ago when Bob Rae led the last NDP government, and while it was no disaster, it was not too good either.

But we survived. And policy mistakes are one thing… ignorant alpha-male populism is in another league altogether.

So do I look at Horwath as the lesser of two evils? Not really. I don’t consider Horwath evil. At worst, the NDP are misguided. But they seem like reasonable folks, willing to listen to the facts. Which means that, more than likely, once they are in power, they will actually disappoint some of their most ardent followers as they moderate their views and adjust to the realities of everyday governing.

Ford, on the other hand, is likely to do far more damage. Reckless tax cuts combined with a march toward balanced budgets will lead to catastrophic cuts in public services, with damage likely lasting generations. OHIP, public transport, potholes, the energy infrastructure… all of that and much more are on the line. Then there are those campaign promises (such as new hospital beds) that have not been budgeted for, and in my opinion, will never be, as these are empty promises with no real intent to follow through, once elected.

In short, in Horwath I see a responsible leader committed to some leftist ideas that I am not unduly fond of. In Ford, I see a naked hunger for power, reckless populism, ignorance, irresponsibility.

So for the first time in my life, I am actually rooting for the NDP.

 Posted by at 10:13 am
May 052018
 

In the late 1960s, early 1970s, Hollywood responded to social upheavals and perceived lawlessness by creating a series of renegade, vigilante cops, played by the likes of Charles Bronson or Clint Eastwood.

Today, perceived changes, threats to “us”, fear from “them”, seem to be bringing about another result: the rise of political strongmen around the world. This is the topic of a new article in TIME, also featured on the cover of their upcoming issue.

Pictured are Putin, Duterte of the Philippines, Orban of Hungary and Erdogan of Turkey. Not shown but extensively covered in the article are Xi Jinping, Egypt’s al-Sisi, and, of course, Donald Trump. Other strongmen are also mentioned.

What is this world coming to? Why are people who benefited the most from liberal democracy so keen to reject its values?

And in particular, why do we let the free Internet, one of the greatest inventions of liberal democracy, become a tool of state propaganda, a conduit for fake news? Why do we let the powers-that-be censor it or, worse yet, use it as a tool of oppression, as a means to build a totalitarian surveillance state?

Nor do I believe that Canada is immune. We are about to elect our very own strongman here in the province of Ontario. Doug Ford, brother to the scandal-plagued former mayor of Toronto, the late Rob Ford, is destined to become the next premier of this province. And who knows what will happen next… I am sure Doug Ford’s ambitions do not end with Queen’s Park.

In the end, it becomes a test of the strength of democratic institutions. In the US, Trump cannot ignore the courts, and may soon face a hostile legislature. In Canada, the Prime Minister may control Parliament, but the court system is strong and the press, too, remains independent. Even so, I’d rather not stress-test our democracy.

 Posted by at 3:10 pm
Apr 172018
 

This stunning young lady is none other than future First Lady of the United States, Barbara Bush, back in 1943.

Alas, Barbara Bush is no more. She passed away today after a prolonged illness.

She was genuine, she was funny, and she was noble. Her husband for more than 70 years, George H. W. Bush and Barbara Bush were clearly a loving couple until the very end.

And she even appeared on The Simpsons.

May she rest in peace.

 Posted by at 8:10 pm
Apr 112018
 

A couple of statements from the past 24 hours:

If there is a strike by the Americans, then…the missiles will be downed and even the sources from which the missiles were fired.” – Russian Ambassador to Lebanon Alexander Zasypkin, on Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV.

Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and “smart!” You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!” – United States president Donald J. Trump, on Twitter.

Suddenly, I have this almost irresistible urge to grab a shovel and start digging a fallout shelter.

While I still can.

 Posted by at 9:18 am
Apr 042018
 

A headline on Euronews caught my attention earlier today: Syria: A bigger role for the EU?

Good, thought I. The Russians might not like it though, thought I. But that’s okay, as a matter of fact, it might help bring rogue EU countries like Hungary in line, thought I. It might help presenting a united front against an increasingly ill-behaved Russia.

And then I caught myself, as I realized that I just rediscovered a truth that is as old as civilization itself: how conflict, the threat of war, or war itself can unite a people.

You know what? Much as I like the great European experiment, much as I cherish the fact that my once worthless Hungarian passport grants me European citizenship, if the price of keeping it together is more involvement in conflicts like Syria, it might not be worth it.

 Posted by at 12:18 pm
Mar 242018
 

I just read that Elon Musk nixed Tesla’s and SpaceX’s Facebook pages.

Much as I admire Musk, I will not follow his example. I am not planning to delete my Facebook account.

Facebook is not the problem. It is a symptom.

The actual problem is much broader. The Internet that brought us together is also responsible for creating fragmented communities, echo chambers if you wish. When our primary source of news is like-minded people, memes and links we exchange with each other, often uncritically, without checking their veracity, there is a problem. It makes no difference if the content delivery vehicle is Facebook, Twitter, plain old e-mail or anything else.

I am not going to give up the opportunity offered by Facebook to stay in touch with old friends, with classmates I have not seen in years if not decades, with other people I would not even know were it not for the Internet. This is priceless.

But when I want to get informed about the world, I do not turn to Facebook. I do not forward memes. I might give a perfunctory “Like” to something that appears in my feed, but I do not believe it without checking first. And most importantly, I use other sources to keep myself informed.

Yet I fear the problem is even greater than this, and once again, ditching Facebook may be precisely the wrong answer. I recall what it was like when I was growing up in Hungary in the 1960s, 1970s. We had one national television channel. (OK, make that one-and-a-half, because there was a Channel 2, but with only a very short broadcast day in the evenings, initially, only a few days a week. And on Mondays, both channels were off the air.) This means that we all watched the same things. No matter which part of the country, which walk of life you came from, you knew the same television personalities I knew, you heard the same jokes, you watched the same drama.

It was probably never quite like this in North America, where there were always a multitude of channels since the dawn of television. Still, back in the old days, “multitude” meant maybe a half dozen choices if you were in a major metro area. So the shared cultural experience was still there. Not anymore. And never mind television, with hundreds of cable and satellite channels and numerous online alternatives. On top of that comes social media, with its propensity to create microcommunities.

Again, the problem is not that you stay in touch with your circle of friends. That’s great! The problem is that your circle of friends becomes your primary source of news and views about the world. You reinforce each other’s beliefs, making it harder and harder to contemplate alternative viewpoints.

So keep Facebook. Do stay in touch with old friends or distant family members. But for heaven’s sake, don’t use Facebook to inform yourself. Ditch the memes. Stop sharing anything other than cute cat pictures. And be the most suspicious when you see something that you are inclined to believe. It’s not the lies and deceptions you hate that are the most dangerous; it is the lies and deceptions that you are most likely to believe that will fool you. This is something state-sponsored Russian trolls know all too well.

 Posted by at 8:54 am
Mar 202018
 

Every once in a while, my hopes, or perhaps delusions, that we live in a less dark world, are crushed.

This was the case moments ago, when I watched this undercover report by Channel 4 about Cambridge Analytica.

The company’s excuses, shown at the end of the report, are especially pathetic. “No, Mr. Policeman,” says the petty thief, “I wasn’t trying to steal that item when you caught me red-handed, I was just testing the security of the merchant.”

Yeah, right.

 Posted by at 5:38 pm