Category Archives: Social and Political Pieces

It would be nice if we could ignore the world around us. But we can’t.

Erdogan: Touching the Sultan’s Garment is Still a Big Deal

In the wake his victory, Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan does something distinctly Ottoman:

As he stood before the tomb of Selim I, Erdogan gazed upon the caliph’s caftan and gently touched it. Would the garment become his, and more importantly, would he inherit the powers of the conquering Turkish caliph?

This custom, which finds application in the New Testament, has a long heritage in Turkey, as I explained two years ago:

The Ottomans put fair stock in touching or kissing this hem.  When Sultan Abdul Hamid II was enthroned in 1876, he went in procession to the Eyub Mosque (the Friday procession of the Sultan and his retinue to the mosque for prayers was one of the highlights of the week for residents of Constantinople).  Once the dervishes had girded him with the sabre–the Turks were and are a military people–the Sultan took three steps towards his Grand Vizier (prime minister) who kissed the hem of his garment in the name of the people.  This gesture was done even under duress; in 1808, when Sultan Selim III was murdered and Mahmud II ended up as Sultan, his soon to be Grand Vizier Bairactar kissed the hem of the new Sultan’s robe.  (Bairactar didn’t last long; he was murdered by the Janissaries, but ultimately they came to the same end).

The Ottoman emperor was also the Caliph, the head of the Islamic faithful. I think it’s fair to say that Erdogan has always had the caliphate in view, now he is one step closer. In addition to putting him at odds with Christian states like Russia (Western Europe has long since decamped from this status, as has the United States,) it also puts him at odds with Isis, which believes the Caliph must be an Arab.  It also puts him at odds with the Iranians, who are outside of Islam in the Sunni idea.

This mess isn’t going away any time soon…but watch: Erdogan’s next move along these lines is to unfurl the banner named Barack…

Xi and Trump “Getting to Know” Meeting a Good Idea

The Chinese present an interesting take on the upcoming meeting at Mar-a-Lago:

Susan Thornton, acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said this was a chance for the two leaders to get to know one another.

“We want them to establish a good working relationship, so they can, in times of opportunity and crisis, reach out to one another and have a good rapport,” she said.

She described having the meeting in Florida as a good chance for the two leaders, in a more informal atmosphere and relaxed setting, to discuss serious and important issues and to try to kick off a good relationship at the outset of the Trump administration.

That’s not a bad idea, one which I presented over a decade ago vis-a-vis the Iranians:

A more productive approach would be to have a meeting in a venue where concrete results weren’t expected. In an American context, this means a golf course. Let’s say that Bush invites Ahmadinejad to Medina G&CC near Chicago. Since the clubhouse looks like a mosque, Ahmadinejad would think he was winning up front, which would make him overconfident, a besetting weakness of him. But on a golf course the two could size each other up face to face, watching as each other deals with the ups and downs of the game and each other. Then Bush could figure out how he might like to proceed based on what he saw himself rather than something stupid his advisers might come up with.

In addition to the usual problem of Americans impatient for tangible results, Americans additionally don’t understand the importance of building trust before those results surface.  We’ll see if Donald Trump breaks the mould on this.

He needs to: with the stakes as high as they are because of North Korea, he’s going to need all the patience and savvy he can muster.  It bothers me, however, that we’re sliding back into a line of moralistic bluster.  With everyone complaining about Rex Tillerson’s low profile (a typical oilfield method) and others doing big talk, the American propensity for posturing could easily lead to nuclear war.  (Just like the Senate…)

Obsession with “Principles” Spreads Across the Aisle

It’s not just the Republicans any more, as is obvious in the current Democrat plans to filibuster Neil Gorsuch:

“Not only is the base there, but the politics of the moment demand it. Democrats are looking for members to take a stand,” said Democratic strategist Jim Manley, a former top aide to Harry Reid, who altered the filibuster rules in 2013 to approve then-President Obama’s stalled executive appointees. “To the extent there is any peril, it would be struggling to find a way to vote for the guy.”

Those of us who have spent years listening to movement conservatives (and religious ones) have heard “taking a stand” until we’re sick of it, especially when the results never improved.  Now the Democrats are going the principled, obstructionist route, which is the mirror image of the Freedom Caucus’ torpedoing of Ryan’s health care bill.  (That failure is a real gift to the GOP, although it will take time for that to become obvious.)

You can’t win by “standing” on anything, principles or otherwise.  You have to go on offence.  Movement conservatives were great at taking stands, but ultimately the Republican electorate got tired of waiting for results and nominated Donald Trump.  For the Democrats to come up with an unconventional candidate will require forcing same on their risk-adverse (dare I say anal) elites, and that’s easier said than done.

The EU Drives Swedes to Drink

Literally, it has gone up significantly since joining the undemocratic, Procrustean experiment:

“Sweden’s alcohol policy is more liberal than 25 years ago, and consumption is 20-25 per cent higher than before we joined the EU.”

And this, mind you, with all the tee-totaling Muslim immigrants…

I saw this in action because Finland also has serious alcohol restrictions.  In 1988, during my first visit to what was then Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) there were many drunk Finns wandering around the place.  “They come to drink,” my representative told me, because of the enormous price differential between Finland and the then-Soviet Union.

I’ve attempted to show (with hostile reaction) that the Scots-Irish church’s hard push for total abstinence comes from that group’s penchant for binge drinking.  Obviously the Swedes, opposite of the Scots-Irish in many ways, take the same view, in a secular framework.  But with all the boozers across the Baltic, it’s a hard “red line” to draw.

The increased alcohol consumption may also be an explanation for the Swedes’ liberal policies towards Middle Eastern immigrants…but I digress.

The Perils of Repealing the Johnson Amendment

One of Donald Trump’s promises to the Evangelical community–and one which he’s gotten much enthusiasm about in return–is his promise to repeal the so-called “Johnson Amendment,” the provision in the tax code which prohibits 503(c)3 tax-exempt organisations–and that includes churches–from explicitly endorsing candidates for public office.  I say “explicitly” because churches on both sides of the political–and racial–spectrum have been implicitly doing this for a long time.  And the polarisation of our society has only made this easier.

It’s for that reason that I think the real impact of this will not be as widespread as people think.  Whether it is beneficial is another story.  One thing that this country has been “about” is that freedom is something to be used responsibly.  If and when this restriction comes out of the tax code, our ministers will have some serious choices to make.  Based on my experience with our ministers, this may not work out as anticipated.

Most ministers of the Gospel are called, trained and set forth to lead their congregations or, to use Our Lord’s pastoral analogy, feed the sheep.  The interests of the sheep are for the most part local: raising a family, doing the work to make a living, and being a part of their community.  The gifts and skills of the ministers, which admittedly vary, are geared towards that kind of life pursuit.  That’s especially true with Evangelical churches, with their focus on the salvation experience and (hopefully) the later spiritual growth.

To properly operate politically, however, requires a broader view of life.  That’s where the problem comes in.  Most of our ministers, by training and temperament, are unprepared to properly address the broader issues facing our society, and thus are unprepared to properly inform their congregations about how best to respond to those challenges.  As a result of this there are two mistakes our ministers make in addressing political issues that can significantly impact their congregations.

On the left, we have those who basically “flip” the message of the Gospel, putting the broader social issues ahead of the personal ones.  That’s a major reason left-wing churches are in decline: they’re political all right, but they don’t address people’s life issues in a meaningful way.

On the right, we have various forms of “prosperity teaching.”  At the core of prosperity teaching are two underlying assumptions.  The first is that Christianity is the “way up” in this world, and second that moving up is the principal goal of life.  Today we principally associate prosperity teaching with the likes of Paula White, who prayed at President Trump’s inauguration.  But we’ve had this before.  In the 1950’s and 1960’s the Episcopal Church experienced tremendous growth, basically by telling people that they had the nicest religion and that people could move up by becoming a part of it.  The taste of the two results is quite divergent, but the ultimate goal is the same.

The danger of the left-wing mistake is obvious: declining churches.  The danger of the right is the same as Harry Reid’s doing away with the super-majority filibuster for nominees: if the political wind reverses, you’ve given yourself the shaft.  In both cases the reality of the Gospel is obscured by our desires of the moment.

I think that political activity needs to be the province of the laity.  And I’ve heard Christian politicians show a stronger grasp on what the Gospel is all about than ministers about political issues.  To put our ministers in the “driver’s seat” of political activity is to cede yet another function of the laity, reducing the latter to passive consumers of the church’s product.  And we have enough of that unBiblical kind of thing going on as it is.

As I said at the start, freedom is something that needs to be used wisely.  If you get it, be careful: you may end up losing it all if you blow it.

Facing Our Past Folly in Iran

It’s next to impossible to get anyone in this country to face up to it, but Zero Hedge has done it:

As for Iran, the CIA admits that the U.S. overthrew the moderate, suit-and-tie-wearing, Democratically-elected prime minister of Iran in 1953. He was overthrown because he had nationalized Iran’s oil, which had previously been controlled by BP and other Western oil companies. As part of that action, the CIA admits that it hired Iranians to pose as Communists and stage bombings in Iran in order to turn the country against its prime minister. If the U.S. hadn’t overthrown the moderate Iranian government, the fundamentalist Mullahs would have never taken over.

They’re referring, of course, to Mohammad Mosaddegh, who was overthrown in 1953 by the CIA, egged on by the Brits.  He had nationalised BP as he felt (with good reason) that Iran wasn’t getting its fair share of oil revenues.  You get into a discussion with an Iranian about their history, and sooner or later his name will come up.

And for me, of course, my family business could have sold equipment to an Iranian oil company, just as it did with Aramco, National Petroleum of the UAE, PDVSA, CNOOC, ENAP, Petrobras…and I could have gotten to know then in Tehran and not they having to come to me.

Zero Hedge’s article on the subject of the ban deserves a full reading about all the other countries that were included–and those who weren’t.

We Won’t Let Them Vote At All

That’s what Snapchat’s offering to the world:

Investors are furious at Snap’s decision to deny them a say in running the company when the owner of message app Snapchat launches one of the US’s largest tech initial public offerings.

A dozen of the US’s biggest pension funds have sent a letter of objection to Snap, while one investment industry leader predicted its IPO could “open the floodgates” to similar governance arrangements at companies around the world.

I am sure that many in our political system, surveying the result of the last election, quietly rue the day they gave anyone the vote.  Snapchat’s founders, however, are working to make that a reality in the corporate world, something which they are legally in their rights to do.  Whether the financial industry, through its various market organisations, will let them get away with it is another matter altogether.

It’s fair to say that what voting “means” on a corporate level is different from what it is on a political one.  But having voting shares does have an impact on how publicly owned companies are run.  Usually removing voting rights from stock is compensated for by giving those stockholders “first dibs” on the success (and last dibs on the failure) of the company, as is the case with preferred stock.  (Bondholders are even above that if things go belly up.)

Snapchat’s founders, however, have decided to give their common stockholders the worst of both worlds: no voting rights and back of the line treatment in the event Snapchat snaps.

I still find it interesting that a social media company, which (along with its brethren such as Facebook and Twitter) have bred the “online trash fire” that social media has become with the last election, has decided to dispense with voting altogether.

And I am sure that my mother, who was obsessed with the existence (and voting potential) of a non-family minority block in the stock of our family business, is cheering this on.

The Oilman Becomes Secretary of State

The U.S. Senate, however, was unenthusiastic:

The votes against Mr. Tillerson’s confirmation were the most in Senate history for a secretary of state, a reflection of Democratic unease with President Trump’s early foreign policy pronouncements that threaten to upend a multilateral approach that has guided United States presidents since World War II.

I’ve said that you can be a great American and you can be good a foreign policy, but you can’t be both.  I think that Tillerson is the best shot we have at proving me wrong.  In addition to the left’s long-standing aversion to the oil industry, he breaks a lot of Cold War legacy conventional wisdom about many things, especially the Russians.

A bigger problem will be his relationship with the department he now heads.  The State Department and the oil industry represent two different approaches to interfacing with the world around us, and the two don’t exactly admire each other.  OTOH I think he will be a steadying influence on the President, who respects his negotiating skills.

One thing he will need to tackle is the vetting process for visas.  In addition to figuring out who is dangerous and who is not, it has been frightfully slow.  An Iranian friend of mine had his wife and newborn (American citizen) go back to Iran; it took eighteen months to get a return visa.  The intervention of our congressman and senator (Bob Corker, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee) were to no avail.  And this was  under the last administration.

The Similarity Between the Change of an American President and a Roman Emperor

In the midst of the current upheaval, an interesting observation from Peter Salway’s Roman Britain (Oxford History of England).  In his discussion of the relationship between the Roman Emperor and his provincial governors, he says the following:

It is easy to become so absorbed in the career of the hundreds of individuals whose appointments are known in great detail from the thousands of inscriptions surviving throughout the empire, that we assume ‘standard careers’ and forget that there was little to stop a capricious emperor from interfering with the system.  In some ways the death or fall of an emperor or his favourite adviser was not unlike a change of president in the United States, where vastly more appointments are a matter of party and indeed of one man and his personal advisers than in Britain today…Patronage ran through the Roman system from top to bottom, and Rome cannot be understood without grasping the fact.

The Founders’ debt to democracy and Greece is well understood; less understood is their debt to Rome, and especially Republican Rome, which the Empire followed.  OTOH, it has been the Progressive ideal from Woodrow Wilson onward to replace this reality with a more “professional” system, as many countries in Europe (and some working on getting out) have done.  To attempt to superimpose a rule by bureaucrats on a system such as ours is unworkable; not grasping this has been one of the left’s many weaknesses, one which they may rue before too long.

Happy New Year, Comrades, and Thinking About the Class Struggle

To the right is a Soviet New Year card; I’ve featured these before.  If they look suspiciously like Christmas cards, well, that’s just the genre…

As it happens, this New Year isn’t one our counterparts on the left have looked forward to ever since That Man With the Big Hair won a couple of months ago.  There have been many recriminations about this.  For some of us the question is this: how could you people, who have showered trillions on the population while taking complete credit for it, miss running the table at election time?  (Same question in 2000, and 2004…)  I think the answer to that question comes in part from the country that produced that New Year’s card.

The left has traditionally had three wedges to drive into Euro-Christian civilisation: sex, race and class.  A fourth one, the environment, is used to underpin the other three.  This combination is a metastable one; it can work for a while, but can be only maintained with a great deal of propaganda while relying on their opponents to help keep the rickety chandelier together.

One way to simplify things is to de-emphasise one or more of them and concentrate on the others.  American conservatives like to characterise their opponents as Marxists.  This is not entirely true: there are very few real Marxists on the American political scene, even in academia.  That’s because, while Marx focused on one of those wedges–class–American liberals concentrate on sex and race.  That was certainly in evidence this last election cycle.  Had the American left struck a better balance among the three, Donald Trump–or any other Republican for that matter–would have never stood a chance of winning the White House, and that defeat would have probably taken the Senate with it.

But they didn’t.  Instead they took their stand with the pro-choice and identity politics–the latter of which is, in a sense, trying to revive pre-Enlightenment ways of governing society–and ignored the fact that income inequality only worsened under Barack Obama.  Bernie Sanders attempted to shift this back to a more class-based dialectic, but his attempt wasn’t entirely successful.  And, as we all know, the Democrat party leadership was in no mood to nominate him anyway…

Marx’ obsession with class–and that of his disciples–has its shortcomings.  The racism embedded in Russian society never changed during Soviet times.  The move to women’s rights didn’t go very far either, even though they had very liberal abortion and divorce legislation.  Their environmental policies were a disaster they are still suffering from.  But they built a nation to be reckoned with and a great industrial power.

The American left, however, is still pursuing its (or its parents’) hippie dreams of a land with free love and no need to achieve.

I still think that the American left could finish the job (close the deal, perhaps?) To do that, however, will need a lot better leadership then has surfaced up to now.  I used to say they needed to find their inner Lenin; I’m not sure they’ve got anyone at this point up to Otto von Bismarck or even Léon Blum.

Which, I suppose, is the best insurance for happiness for the rest of us…Happy New Year, comrades.