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The World This Week: Death of the Godfather

Antonin Scalia


February 14, 2016 23:58 EDT

In the US, the death of Justice Antonin Scalia has added fuel to the fire in a raging Republican primary.

This week, Syrian troops pounded the ancient city of Aleppo, Turks targeted Kurds, and North Korea announced it was up to new mischief. LinkedIn’s share price fell by 43% on a single day, while Twitter’s stock fell to “a new all-time low.” Money fled to bonds and the yield on Japanese ten-year bonds fell to -0.04%. This means that investing $10,000 in Japanese bonds today will get you $9,996 in ten years. Clearly, expectations for the global economy are no longer rosy.

This global political and economic turmoil is unsettling American voters. They feel threatened in a world that seems more dangerous and uncertain. Americans are anxious and angry about the hollowing out of the middle-class, the gradual disappearance of the working-class, the rising costs of health care and the whittling down of their pensions. For the last three decades, inequality in the US has been rising radically. It is now reminiscent of the eras of the Gilded Age and the Roaring Twenties. Unsurprisingly, deepening divisions in society are causing ferociously fractious politics.

Now, there will be more acrimony. Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court’s longest service justice and a dyed-in-the-wool conservative with a razor sharp wit, passed away in his sleep on February 13. The political battle to appoint his successor has broken out while his corpse is still warm.

Republicans are going ballistic because President Barack Obama, their bête noire, will nominate Scalia’s successor. They are crying foul and asking him to leave this choice to the next president. They have promised rearguard action in the Senate where a supermajority of 60 is required to confirm a presidential nomination.

Scalia was a legal giant. This author ran into him at an eminently forgettable event in Washington, DC. Scalia was far from forgettable though. He was warm, witty and vigorous. He advised this author to return to the world of law after parrying a repartee.

Unsurprisingly, Scalia’s closest friend in the Supreme Court was Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the leading bleeding heart liberal on the bench. Ginsburg paid tribute to Scalia by calling him “a jurist of captivating brilliance.” She observed: “We disagreed now and then, but when I wrote for the Court and received a Scalia dissent, the opinion ultimately released was notably better than my initial circulation.”

With Scalia dead, the bonhomie between political opponents in Washington, DC is extinct. Not only have Democrats and Republicans drawn daggers, but both parties are experiencing civil war. Candidates are slaughtering holy cows. Bernie Sanders declared that the US made a mistake in deposing Mohammed Mosaddegh in 1953. Hillary Clinton responded with claptrap because she is a card-holding member of the American establishment. The Republican debate in South Carolina was a bloodbath. Everyone summoned ghosts from the past, and John Kasich declared that the borders of Iraq “were drawn after World War I by Westerners who didn’t understand what was happening there.”

Other Republican candidates went further. Donald Trump declared that George W. Bush made a mistake in invading Iraq. He accused the former president of lying about weapons of mass destruction. Trump went on to cross the Republican Rubicon by accusing Bush of incompetence in failing to protect the US from attacks on September 11, 2001.

The Bush family have been the patron saints of the Republicans. Papa Bush was Ronald Reagan’s faithful sidekick before ascending to the throne. Bush Jr. worshipped the ground Reagan walked on. Apart from the presiding deity of Reagan himself and safely dead saints like Scalia, Trump’s broadsides reveal that nothing in the Republican church is sacred anymore.

What makes the likes of Reagan and Scalia sacred is the memory of American greatness. The US was the big boss after World War II. Mistakes like Mosaddegh did not matter. Vietnam was more serious and caused a real crisis of confidence. The 1979 Iranian Revolution shook up things as well, but with his smooth manners, perfect hair and a sunny smile, Reagan reassured the nation.

Unfortunately, the trouble is that many of today’s realities are rooted in Reagan’s decisions. Conservatives worship Reagan but fail to observe that he ran big deficits. They forget his draft dodging and other unfaithful acts. To borrow words from Scent of a Woman, Reagan was a snitch who sold fellow actors down the river in the era of McCarthy’s witch hunts. Then, Reagan was an informer for the FBI, and Director J. Edgar Hoover passed some taxpayer money to the Gipper in brown paper envelopes. As this author pointed out last week, Reagan still gets away with supporting apartheid South Africa and playing dog-whistle politics with supporters of the Ku Klux Klan.

In 2016, it is clear that Reagan’s trickle-down economics has failed. His policies favored Wall Street and benefited the financial sector inordinately. Bill Clinton was Reagan’s political stepchild and signed the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act in 1999, removing the Glass-Steagall Act of 1939. Warnings of Byron Dorgan and others were ignored. Clinton appointed a former CEO of Goldman Sachs as treasury secretary and bankers became the new kings of Washington, DC.

Not all transpired as per plan. Banks speculated wildly and lost their shirts. The Great Recession of 2008 followed. Taxpayer money bailed out banks, which proceeded to pay multimillion-dollar bonuses to their failed executives. Quantitative easing by central banks has further benefited those with assets, such as these overpaid executives.

As prices of assets have risen, so has inequality. Those without assets have struggled to find decent paying jobs and are hurting.

Inequality in the US is making the wealthy more powerful. In a historic decision, Scalia significantly augmented their power. As Reagan’s appointee to the Supreme Court, he was one of a majority of five that prohibited government from restricting political expenditures by corporations. This iconic case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission has allowed those with money to spend unlimited amounts on election campaigns. This was a case where the justices decided on party lines. Republican appointees opposed limits on election expenditures, while the four Democrat justices wrote dissident opinions.

The World This WeekScalia’s consistent conservative record has made him a saint for the Reagan faithful. Jeb Bush called him a “lover of liberty” and commended him for being a judge who “did not try to legislate from the bench.” Marco Rubio declared that Scalia did not treat the constitution as a “living and breathing document” but interpreted its “original meaning.”

Scalia’s theory of originalism gelled well with the desire of American conservatives to return to the halcyon days of the Founding Fathers. Scalia wanted the legislature to make laws and believed his job was interpreting the laws as they were written. If people wanted to ban abortion or do away with the death penalty, they had to persuade their fellow citizens to pass a law instead of look to the court.

Scalia, a devout Catholic, fathered nine children. Clearly, he did not countenance the idea of contraception. Yet Scalia was a complex man. In a strange way, his approach to the US Constitution is more akin to Martin Luther than the Vatican. Scalia was far from fanatical, though, and went on to declare that he was “a faint-hearted originalist.” As he once memorably and pithily remarked, “I am a textualist, I am an originalist. I am not a nut.”

Still, many Republicans see Scalia as the last badass godfather of the Reagan era. Now that he is dead, a crazy gang war has begun.

*[You can receive “The World This Week” directly in your inbox by subscribing to our mailing list. Simply visit Fair Observer and enter your email address in the space provided. Meanwhile, please find below five of our finest articles for the week.]

Arab Military Forces to Take on ISIS: More Questions With No Answers

Dubai, UAE

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Offers by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to deploy forces in the fight against the Islamic State raise more questions than answers about the direction of the conflict.

Saudi Arabia recently announced that the kingdom was prepared to dispatch ground forces to Syria to fight the Islamic State (IS). Days after the Saudi announcement, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) followed suit, revealing it was also ready to supply ground troops to “help support and train an international military coalition” against IS, “provided such efforts were led by the United States.” The announcements raise many questions but few answers.

First, why not start with more airstrikes? The US formed its coalition, of which both nations are members, to carry out an air campaign against IS almost 18 months ago. Both countries’ air forces have carried out air sorties against the terrorist organization, but relatively few have been conducted by non-US coalition members. According to the US Department of Defense… Read more

The Rohingya Issue is More Than a Humanitarian Crisis


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The ongoing religious tension fueled by extremism may become a substantial threat to Myanmar’s democracy.

With a new parliament sworn in and the date for selecting a new president fast approaching, Myanmar’s National League for Democracy (NLD) is now tasked with laying the foundation for the country’s democratic development. At the heart of this challenge lies curbing religious extremism and integrating the Muslim Rohingya minority into Burmese society.

In the last few years, Buddhist extremism has gained momentum in Myanmar. Ma Ba Tha, an anti-Muslim group of Buddhist monks, in many ways surpasses its predecessor, the 969 Movement. If the 969 Movement was a loose network of anti-Muslim monks, Ma Ba Tha is a well-structured organization with regional chapters and a TV channel to broadcast its sermons. Experts in politics, law and technology offer professional assistance for the group’s activities, such as drafting bills that ban inter-religious marriage and require government approval for religious conversion, as well as… Read more

Somalia’s Path to Recovery is Not Just About Elections



With elections expected in summer 2016, questions are being raised over Somalia’s electoral record.

Somalia’s political recovery will be tested in the lead-up to the 2016 national elections. It is widely agreed that the possibility of “one-man, one-vote” is both unrealistic and impractical. The war-torn, fragmented East African nation of 10 million people is not new to pseudo-democratic election processes. Since 2000, Somalia has used a strange and unfair power-sharing scheme among the country’s so-called “majority and minority clans”—an alien system known as the 4.5 formula.

At the Arta Peace Conference, held in Djibouti in 2000, Somali political leaders agreed to the 4.5 formula to distribute national parliamentarian seats. By then, over a dozen Somali “peace conferences” were held, and faction leaders sought a political solution to clan power struggles in post-war Somalia.

Three subsequent national elections—one held in Kenya in 2004, again in Djibouti in 2009 and a third in Mogadishu in 2012—used the… Read more

The Curious Case of US-India Relations

Narendra Modi and Barack Obama


India and the US have remained estranged for too long due to ideological reasons, but there is a greater overlap of interests than meets the eye.

In a recent interview, US Ambassador to India Richard Verma mentioned how both “countries need each other more than ever for economic betterment and enhancing security.” This assessment underscores the fact that a quarter-century after the collapse of bipolar world order, there is a gradual and sustained deepening of US-India relations, underpinned by changes in the global geopolitical landscape, especially in Asia, which has emerged as the economic center as well as home to the most troublesome flashpoints over recent decades. This cementing of ties between Washington and New Delhi has emerged amid a greater realization in both these democracies about the increased alignment of interests.

What is intriguing, however, is the ease with which the strategy of defense is progressing on one hand, and the slow development of economic and trade… Read more

Does Religion Have a Place in the 21st Century?

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A post-secular society is marked by recognition that religion is once again important.

According to a widely disseminated 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, the US is drifting away from religion. Taking the cue, Daniel Dennett, one of the four horsemen of atheism, wrote that religion has been waning for centuries, and if the trend continues, religion will disappear—at least in the West.

Dennett joins many thinkers such as Voltaire, Auguste Comte and Max Weber, who have over the course of centuries enthusiastically sounded the death knell for religion in various ways. Modernization theory and its corollary secularization thesis did much to bolster and almost cement the idea that religion and modernity are engaged in a zero sum game. For many observers and analysts, a smoking gun in the case for secularization and the death of religion is the decreasing church attendance and the rise of “nones” in the West. This incontrovertible piece of evidence, however… Read more

*[This article was updated on February 16, 2016, at 05:06 GMT.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: United States Mission Geneva / Frankris / Suphapong Eiamvorasombat / Frederic Legrand – COMEO / Mark Skalny / Italianvideophotoagency / CHOATphotographer / Oleg Gubar / 

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