Stacked for the Sticks

There are two Americas. One vibrant and dynamic and heavily Democratic, the other stagnant, troubled, backward-looking and now all but exclusively Republican. The latter elected Donald Trump.

That may sound a deplorably broad generalisation — until you look at the map of last November’s presidential election results broken down by counties. You will observe an ocean of Republican red swamping small islands of Democratic blue.

Trump looks at the map and sees in it validation of his fatuous claim to have won a historic landslide in spite of coming second by nearly 3 million votes. The truth is different. Those blue islands are, for the most part, the densely populated counties that are the engine rooms of a full employment American economy, encompassing the country’s largest cities and their teeming suburbs.

Hillary Clinton may have won in only 472 counties to Trump’s 2 584, but Hillary’s counties are responsible for 64 percent of America’s GDP, according to calculations by the Brookings Institution based on Moody’s data. The contrast with the previous election that put a Republican in the White House is striking: the 2 397 counties that went for George W. Bush in 2000 accounted for 46 percent of GDP; Trump’s haul, though nearly 200 larger, for 20 percent less..

Like Jacob Zuma, Trump owes his office to the hinterland.

America’s great cities, unlike its hinterland, are hugely diverse. They are fuelled by migration from both within and without the nation’s borders. They attract, as metropolises generally do, the best and the brightest. They are magnets for those with the get and go to get up and go, people like Trump’s Hebridean mother, not to mention his German grandfather, who didn’t hang around in the boondocks after making his first pile as a gold rush brothel keeper but headed straight back to New York to launch a dynasty.

The diversity and openness of New York, Miami, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and other such metros contribute mightily to their economic dynamism. What John Stewart Mill wrote in 1848 is no less apt today:

“It is hardly possible to overrate the value, in the present low state of human improvement, of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar…Such communication is peculiarly in the present age one of the primary sources of progress.”

To the growing detriment of American democracy, the political deck is stacked in favour of the sticks (just as it was under the Nationalists in SA).

This is not new, of course. To guard against a tyrannical majority (that might, inter alia, strip the agrarian South of its slaves) the founders decided that each state should be represented in Washington by two senators regardless of its population. Today, minority protection has morphed into something dangerously akin to minority rule.

With 84% of Americans now resident in metros — up from 63% in 1960 — it is technically possible to achieve a majority in the upper chamber with the votes of senators representing just 16% of voters nationally. And it will likely get worse. By some estimates, come 2040, 30 per cent of the population will control 70 of 100 senate seats.

At the congressional level, gerrymandering of district boundaries (the Nats were very good at that, too) is reckoned to have given Republicans two-thirds of their current edge over Democrats in the House of Representatives. Republican-controlled state legislatures have proven themselves adept at passing laws to discourage voting by Democratic constituencies. If Trump gets to appoint another Supreme Court justice or two, such injustices could be locked in for generations.

And that will leave this once great country in the grip of rubes and the plutocrats who cynically manipulate them with slogans, fake piety and phony patriotism.

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Was Paddock a Terrorist?

“Why is Steven Paddock referred to as a “shooter” and a “lone wolf” and not a “terrorist”?,” former Primedia news chief Yusuf Abramjee tweeted on Tuesday, referring to the Las Vegas butcher. He attached a definition of terrorism proposed by Rice University sociologist Craig Considine: “a propaganda term used to manufacture anti-Muslim sentiment…deployed only when Muslims commit violence.”

Simultaneously making the rounds on Facebook was this, attributed to one Yasir Qadhi: “Do you know what white privilege is? It is to murder over 50 people and injure 450 only to have authorities claim, within minutes and without any verification, that you are not a terrorist.”

Like Dr Considine, I am in complete sympathy with Muslims who find themselves automatically under suspicion in the US and elsewhere because a tiny minority of their coreligionists have taken to slaughtering innocents. Nor have I any doubt that Donald Trump exploits and exacerbates Islamophobia in playing to his base.

What I do wonder, though, is whether taking umbrage that the “t” word was not instantly applied to Paddock is going to help. Here I side with Sally Kohn, a CNN commentator who describes herself as “America’s second favourite cable news lesbian”. She tweeted:

“Look, we don’t know yet what motivated the shooter in Vegas. If it was political views/ideology, then it is terrorism. By definition. But we should wait for facts. As we should with any shooter regardless of race or religion.”

One thing we do know is that Islamic State’s semi-official news agency, Amaq, quickly took credit for the massacre. It claimed Paddock converted to Islam several months ago and then assumed a nom de guerre, Abou Abd el-Bir Amriki.

Credibly getting its fingerprints on the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history would certainly serve IS’s purposes. Not everyone rules out that the fingerprints may really be there. Amaq has hitherto been pretty reliable, says Graeme Woods, author of Among the Believers and a top-ranked IS watcher. The Amaq he has tracked does not normally want to get caught in an obvious lie.

Whether or not IS was involved, the umbrage taken at Paddock’s not being branded a terrorist will surely be a source of satisfaction for the jihadists. One of their immediate aims, after all, is to promote a sense of grievance and alienation among Muslims living in Western societies. Donald Trump and his nativist advisers and fans are their witless helpers.

So it would be useful to come to a consensus on a better definition of terrorist than Considine’s, one that distinguishes between terrorism and other forms of mayhem that involve indiscriminate or collateral killing and maiming.

The distinguishing mark of terrorism, as CCN’s Kohn suggests, is political or ideological purpose. Terrorists commit heinous acts to trigger responses from their adversary which they believe will work to the advantage of their cause. The responses they desire may range from straightforward capitulation to disproportionate counterterror that delegitimises the adversary.

However you regard their tactics from a moral standpoint, true terrorists are in it for more than personal gratification. Their causes, dare one say, may sometimes even be just. In his fight against slavery, John Brown hacked pro-slavery men to death with a broadsword quite deliberately to terrorise their friends.

A friend in California, a wonderful writer, accused me of splitting hairs when I argued against calling Paddock a terrorist until we knew more. In the current climate, I replied, we need to be exact with our language. From loose language follows feckless, knee-jerk policy.

At this point, Paddock has all the characteristics of a rampage killer driven by internal demons and made massively deadly by Second Amendment fundamentalists who regard Sunday’s carnage as a hecatomb well sacrificed on the altar of Freedom. What he represents is a problem entirely other than terrorism, properly defined.