Here are just a few of his more memorable remarks:
On the failings of Western civilization
In his very important study on the rise and fall of American growth, Robert Gordon observes that there was virtually no economic growth for millennia until 1770, slow growth for another century, and then a “special century” until 1970, dependent largely on specific inventions. Since the 1970s the picture is much more mixed: in the US, with actual decline in real wages for non-supervisory workers over 40 years and even increased death rates in recent years. These are among the features of the neoliberal era that have led to the rise of the kind of “morbid symptoms” that Gramsci warned about from Mussolini’s prison cell, as we see all too clearly in the western world today.
Elsewhere we find different patterns. Thus Russia suffered severe economic decline and demographic collapse when market reforms were introduced in the ’90s. China has been different again. As Amartya Sen has shown, Maoist China saved about 100 million people – not a small number – as compared with democratic capitalist India from independence to 1980, not from “enlightenment” in the usual sense, but from rural health programs and other reforms. And since then it has undergone spectacular growth and provided the bulk of the reduction in global poverty, in a society that’s not a model of enlightened values. Nazi Germany experienced very rapid growth in the ‘30s, not a triumph of enlightenment. There are numerous other complexities that are of major significance, but that disappear in unanalyzed statistical tables.
On the threats posed by the modern GOP
Take its leader, who recently applied to the government of Ireland for a permit to build a huge wall to protect his golf course, appealing to the threat of global warming, while at the same time he withdrew from international efforts to address the grim threat and is using every means at his disposal to accelerate it. Or take his colleagues, the participants in the 2016 Republican primaries. Without exception, they either denied that what is happening is happening – though any ignorance is self-induced – or said maybe it is but we shouldn’t do anything about it.
The moral depths were reached by the respected “adult in the room,” Ohio governor John Kasich, who agreed that it is happening but added that “we are going to burn [coal] in Ohio and we are not going to apologize for it.” Or take a recent publication of Trump’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a detailed study recommending an end to regulations on emissions. It presented a rational argument: extrapolating current trends, by the end of the century we’ll be over the cliff and automotive emissions don’t contribute very much to the catastrophe – the assumption being that everyone is as criminally insane as we are and won’t try to avoid the crisis. In brief, let’s rob while the planet burns, putting poor Nero in the shadows.
On the legacy of Richard Nixon
Nixon had a mixed record. In some respects, he was the last liberal president: OSHA and EPA for example. On the other hand, he committed terrible crimes. Arguably the worst was the bombing of rural Cambodia, a proposed article of impeachment but voted down though it was incomparably more important than the others. And the article was much too weak, focusing on the secrecy. There has been little attention to the orders that Nixon delivered, relayed to the Pentagon by his faithful servant Henry Kissinger: “A massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. Anything that flies on anything that moves.” It is not easy to find comparable orders for genocide in the archival record. But all of Nixon’s crimes pale in comparison with the decision to race towards the precipice of environmental catastrophe.
On the efficacy of U.S. media in the age of Trump
It depends on what we think their job is. They are businesses, so by accepted standards their job is profit. By other standards, they have a duty to the public to provide “all the news that’s fit to print,” under a concept of “fitness” that is as free as possible from submission to power interests or other distorting factors. About this there is a great deal to say – I’ve devoted many words to the topic elsewhere, as have many others. But in today’s strange climate of Trumpian “alternative facts” and “false reality,” it is useful to recognize that with all their flaws, which are many, the mainstream media remain an indispensable source of information about the world.
Jacob Sugarman. Jacob Sugarman is the acting managing editor at Truthdig. He is a graduate of the Arthur L. Carter Institute of Journalism whose writing has appeared in Salon, AlterNet and Tablet, among other…