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925 Silver Collection

Perfidy at Home and Abroad

by Mark Van Proyen

Peter Paul Rubens, “The Massacre of the Innocents,” 1638, oil on panel, 78 x 119”. Courtesy of Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

“Guilty, guilty, guilty!” So sang the rooftop chorus at the end of May. Then the fever broke with the realization that sentencing would not take place until July 11, to be closely followed by a landing on the docket of the New York Court of Appeals. After that appeal inevitably fails due to an obvious lack of a constitutional basis to rule otherwise, the case will move on to the Supreme Court. With three Trump appointees on the court plus an additional pair of ultra-rightwing justices, we can see where all of this is headed, even if Trump loses in November.

House Speaker Mike Johnson recently appointed demoted Admiral Ronny Jackson and Pennsylvania Congressman Scott Perry to the House Intelligence Committee, both election deniers and rabid Trump supporters who could never pass the required background check if they were up for a staff position on that same committee. We might remember that before he was elected to Congress, Jackson was the Navy doctor who signed off on a medical examination that claimed that the 6-foot-4-inch Trump was in excellent health and weighed 239 pounds, setting a “girther” conspiracy theory in motion. In her testimony before the January 6th Committee, Cassidy Hutchinson noted that during the final months of the Trump administration the White House infirmary supervised by Dr. Jackson was a world class hub of amphetamine distribution. Perry, for his part, believes that the KKK is the military wing of the Democratic Party, and Italian space lasers changed voting tallies in 2020. And these guys are now on the Intelligence Committee! THE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE!

Jacques-Louis David, “Oath of the Horatii,” 1784, oil on canvas, 129 3/4” x 167 1/4”.
Courtesy of The Louvre, Paris. Photo: Steven Zucker.

All of this suggests that the Democrats were in error by helping Johnson retain his Speakership a few months ago. However, doing so was politically expedient, the way to get funding for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan onto the floor for a vote. Otherwise, it might have been held up indefinitely. But their act of generosity might have come with concessions extracted from Johnson.

Biden’s executive action on border security is another example. He should have done it right after Johnson blocked the bi-partisan border legislation, on orders from Trump, that would have easily passed had it come to the floor. Waiting several weeks to do an executive action only invited the question of, why so late? Both episodes remind us that the Democrats think that nuance and reaching across the aisle are virtues, even though many likely voters regard them as weaknesses. Many equate threats, lies, and bullying as signs of strength, regardless of how stupid or dangerous that may be. Coalition politics has its limitations when time is wasted by consensus-oriented influence-peddling that slows any decisive action.

Ana Teresa Fernández, “Erasing the Border,” 2011, spray paint on border wall at Border Field State Park, San Diego. Courtesy of the artist.

“Our Democracy.” “Rule of Law.” These phrases now sound like hollow election-year euphemisms. Most convicted criminals, unlike Trump, could never dream of forwarding any jury decision to an appeals court and then on to the Supreme Court, simply because such steps cost a lot of money in up-front legal fees. Again, we see one standard of justice for the wealthy, who indulge in jury intimidation with near impunity, and another for everyone else. When we factor the tilted imbalances of gerrymandering into the lopsided electoral college and then add voter intimidation to the mix, it becomes obvious how our permanent state of minority rule sustains itself. Meanwhile, problems are not addressed until it is too late to solve them. And now, alarming clouds continue to gather on the geopolitical horizon.

The major media outlets spent the first week of June covering the 80th anniversary of D-Day, with renewed call-to-arms speechifying that had no effect on the sharp rightward turn by France and Germany in the European Union Parliamentary elections held three days later. The election went so bad in France that President Emmanuel Macron dissolved the French Parliament and proclaimed a new snap election. Even worse, on the anniversary of D-Day, our House of Representatives voted on a bill that would de-fund NATO. The bill had no chance of passage, but 46 Republican members of Congress did vote for it. 

eL Seed, “Perception,” public mural in Cairo. Courtesy of the artist. The piece uses the words of Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, a Coptic Bishop from the 3rd century: “Anyone who wants to see the sunlight clearly needs to wipe his eye first.”

Undaunted by these events, I went about searching for underreported stories. Much has been written about the multi-billion-dollar aid packages that went to Ukraine and Israel after the belated congressional vote that took place at the end of April, but the eight billion that went to Taiwan has thus far drawn scant comment. On May 24 and 25, China initiated massive war games that surrounded Taiwan with air and naval assets to mimic a blockade of the island. The Beijing government called these deployments “punishment exercises,” which prompted the perfect non-response from Taiwan’s newly elected President Lai Ching-te: ”Taiwan’s future will be determined by the people of Taiwan.” Recent polls show that 80 percent of those people think that the current situation of ambiguous semi-statehood called “strategic ambiguity” is their preferred choice.

Soon after those exercises, the United States sent a bi-partisan congressional delegation to Taipei. Shortly after that visit, it came out that Taiwan is only getting a small amount of the allocated money in direct aid. Most of it is earmarked for the purchase of American-made weapons systems. According to an article published by Conner Fiddler for the Defense Policy Institute, $3.3 billion of that $8 billion allocation is going to the purchase of three submarines from American shipbuilders. The rest of it is directed toward U.S. arms manufacturers, who will replace weapons drawn from existing American stockpiles to be sent to Taiwan. The remaining money will be spread around other Indo-Pacific partners, including some earmarked for The Five Eyes Network, which is a consortium of intelligence agencies from the U.S., the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.

The emphasis on submarines is particularly puzzling. Taiwan has recently built two of its own, and beyond that the strait of Taiwan is a bad environment for any kind of submarine warfare. At its narrowest point, the strait is about 100 miles wide, with depths that rarely go below 250 feet. Most of the many smaller islands in the strait are occupied by Taiwan, some large enough to host airports, others of sufficient size to harbor anti-air and anti-ship missile systems.

Chris Burden, “ALl the Submarines of the United States of America,” 1987, painted cardboard
and monofilament installation. Courtesy of the Archives of American Art, Washington, D.C.

On multiple occasions, The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has said that it plans to use force to annex Taiwan, even though it has never controlled the island. Would the U.S. and its allies defend Taiwan? Obviously, the answer is yes. How would such a defense play out? Given that the U.S. has major military assets in Okinawa, Guam and Korea, with four additional bases under construction in the Philippines, it would be impossible for the PRC to sustain a naval blockade east of Taiwan. Also, when we think back to the D-Day invasion, we should remember that it was successful because it took the German defenders by surprise. Modern satellite surveillance and signal intelligence would now make any such surprise impossible. Remember, we were able to warn Ukraine a full week prior to the Russian invasion in 2022. The possibility that the first war between Artificial Intelligence entities could take place in the Strait of Taiwan should not go unnoticed.

Russia also has a sizable naval presence in the northwest Pacific, meaning that a wider escalation of a China-Taiwan conflict would also be a possibility. Not great news for Japan or South Korea, but let’s not get too far ahead of the current situation. During the first week of June, North Korea started to send balloons into South Korean airspace. Those balloons carried payloads of common, every-day refuse that were subsequently dropped at random locations in the South. By some lights, this portends a new form of Surrealist-inspired asymmetrical warfare, by others it was just a bad joke aspiring to be a distraction. But even distractions have their own military utility. Remember, when something goes wrong at the circus, clowns are sent in to pacify the audience.

Mark Van Proyen has written commentaries emphasize the tragic consequences of blind faith placed in economies of narcissistic reward. In 2020, he retired from the faculty of the San Francisco Art Institute, where he taught Painting and Art History. From 2003 to 2018, he was a corresponding editor for Art in America . 
Photo credit: Mary Ijichi
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