Archive for the ‘World affairs’ Category

Torturing America

December 12, 2014

Some things are just wrong. Absolutely, and always. Surely torture is one of them. That it’s even necessary to say this, in America, in the 21st century, seems bizarre.

Torture not only damages the victims, but also the perpetrators, and the societies that tolerate it.

images“Enhanced interrogation” was torture. Even if it did produce helpful information, it was still wrong, and should never have been done. Ends don’t justify means.

But the Senate report refutes every claim that helpful information was garnered. All the pushback to that conclusion is nothing but bald assertions, “yes it did,” without specifying exactly when and how. And meantime, as the report also documents, the CIA has lied pervasively about this subject.

As if all that wasn’t bad enough, it’s also revealed that the CIA paid $81 million in taxpayer money, to a couple of bozos, for the precious advice to copy Chinese Communist torture techniques.

And even if the torture had produced good information, it would not have been worth the price paid, in shredded American moral credibility. UnknownWhen China, and Iran can, with straight faces, shake their scolding fingers at America on human rights, we know we’re off the rails. Now, when we criticize them, many will think we’re the moral hypocrites. America’s thusly squandering its role as the world’s conscience will make it all the easier for the worst human rights abusers to act with impunity. It’s a big setback to the global moral progress so painstakingly achieved. Altogether a prohibitively huge cost for whatever information (if any) we got through torture.

But 9/11 blinded us to our true national interests, making us so hysterically fearful of terrorism as to pay almost any price to thwart it. Horrible as it was, 9/11 did not harm America, or undermine what we cherish about our society, nearly as much as what we’ve done in response to it. th-2Like all the surveillance, TSA madness, hostility toward foreign visitors, curtailment of civil liberties, and distortions to our foreign policy. And torture, giving ourselves one heck of a black eye. That self-inflicted damage to America, and to human values globally, is greater than a dozen 9/11s would have done.

Legacy_of_AshesI am not of the Andrew Bacevich school, holding that anything we try to do to make the world better is futile, and we shouldn’t even try. Being proactive to improve things is the essence of the human character. But Tim Weiner’s aptly titled history of the CIA, Legacy of Ashes, shows that the CIA has never gotten anything right, never done anything that truly served America’s interests, while doing things, again and again and again, that disserved them. We’d be better off had the CIA never existed.

Nor am I of the Noam Chomsky school, seeing nothing good about America. images-1Yes, our country has blemishes, this is Earth, not Heaven, populated by humans, not angels. But the Chomskys are morally blind to the bigger picture. And part of what is truly great about America is the spirit of openness, self-criticism, and self-correction exemplified by the Senate report. You will see nothing like that in China or Iran (or Russia, Cuba, Venezuela, or Egypt).*

*China has just awarded its annual Peace Prize to Fidel Castro. Last year’s winner was Putin.

Building Trust Between Police and the Policed

December 8, 2014

The non-indictment of Officer Wilson, in Ferguson, for Michael Brown’s death, was justifiable. Brown had just committed a robbery and was being violent. Maybe Wilson didn’t have to kill him; but no way could a jury properly have convicted him “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

UnknownEric Garner’s case is different. His crime was the relatively minor one of evading cigarette tax. He wasn’t violent. And the police conduct clearly violated policy. How was his death not at least, arguably, criminally negligent homicide?

That grand jury failure to indict disserves not just Eric Garner but society as a whole, because it undermines confidence in the justice system, a key underpinning of civilization. It tends to validate an idea that the police are literally out of control, a law unto themselves, acting with impunity, unaccountable to the society they’re supposed to serve.

The bars are US, UK, Germany, Australia

On left: US, UK, Australia, Germany

American cops kill many hundreds annually. In other civilized countries it tends to be in single digits. Something is drastically wrong here.

With respect to black communities in particular, the relationship between citizens and law enforcement is poisonous. Rather than the paradigm of police serving people, it’s closer to one of war, at least in how it’s seen – on both sides. The mutual hostility is toxic.

Saying we’re a racist society is too simplistic and mostly wrong. Few whites are actually prejudiced. But I wrote recently of unconscious racial bias. Evolution programmed our brains to make snap judgments extrapolating from tiny bits of information; doing so could be life-or-death for our ancestors. It still can be for cops, and ethnicity is one such bit.

Painting by Norman Rockwell

Painting by Norman Rockwell

I heard someone interviewed on the radio saying police should understand their job not as making arrests, but building trust. Actually, they shouldn’t have to build it, community trust should be integral to the very fabric of policing, ab initio. But, again, particularly for black neighborhoods, not’s not what we’ve got, so it does need to be built.

I read recently about a pilot program, in one of Brooklyn’s worst crime-ridden housing projects where, with some visionary leadership, the police really did try to change the whole dynamic of their relationship with the community, into a joint enterprise aiming to improve quality of life and outcomes. Unknown-1They sought to enlist crime-prone youth as partners rather than targets. The police even knocked on doors distributing Thanksgiving turkeys.

Maybe that’s a sad commentary on just how bad the police/community relationship had gotten, requiring such extraordinary efforts to overcome. There was indeed a deep well of distrust. But it seemed some progress was made in undoing that. Crime went down. And a lot of kids who would have wound up in prison did not.

When I heard that comment about making arrests versus building trust, I thought of Israel and the Palestinians. The analogy is imperfect, but here too we see a thoroughly poisoned relationship of recrimination and mistrust. Indeed, way too far gone to be fixed with turkeys. Yet it actually doesn’t have to be this way. Israelis and Palestinians are neighbors and both would be a lot better off if they could see their way to cooperating rather than battling. images-3History isn’t destiny; people can rise above it. They could, instead of tolerating zealots stoking conflict, work toward mending their relationship and building trust, so both can improve their quality of life.

Yes, that’s optimistic. And maybe too rational.

The Real North Korea, by Andrei Lankov

December 1, 2014

UnknownI’ve written before about North Korea. This 2013 book changed my view. (Ideologues take note.) I previously felt that the policies of the international community – negotiating with North Korea and providing aid – only served to prolong the human nightmare. I advocated a tough-love policy of refusing to do anything that helps North Korea’s regime to cope, so the inevitable collapse would come sooner rather than later; with readiness to face up to the fallout.

Lankov convinced me that this simply wouldn’t work. For one thing, a North Korean collapse would be intolerable to China – likely giving it a flood of refugees and the loss of a “buffer state,” replaced by an enlarged U.S. ally next door. So toughness by the U.S. and friends would be negated by stepped up Chinese support.

Moreover, even a total quarantine of North Korea wouldn’t likely do in the regime. It did survive economic collapse and famine in the nineties. The repression is that strong; and the starvation even of millions wouldn’t faze the regime – with the guns to tough it out.

imagesLankov also clarified some realities about North Korea. America’s chief concern has been the nuclear issue, and for two decades we have unsuccessfully tried to cajole the North to denuclearize. They never will. Because nuclear blackmail is all they’ve got to extort goodies from other concerned nations. Without nukes, North Korea would have nothing. And the Kim regime believes that denuclearization would leave it naked to U.S. military force. They think Saddam would still be in power if he’d really had WMDs; as would Khadafy if he hadn’t given up his nuclear program. Maybe true.

images-2A second reality is that Kim and his regime are not crazy, much though it may appear so, from their utterly dysfunctional economic policies and provocational bellicosity. Rather, Kim and his ruling elite are hostage to the remorseless logic of the cul-de-sac into which they’ve gotten themselves. They’re riding the back of a tiger and know they’d better not fall off. So if the warmongering seems risky, it is a risk calculated with extreme rationality. Kim and company understand that a real war is the last thing America and South Korea want, so they can get away with a lot of provocation without triggering Armageddon – while the true purpose of the behavior is to complement the nuclear blackmail, making North Korea look like a threat that we’ll pay to pacify.

images-1The Kim regime is stuck with the economic system it’s developed over decades, and can’t change it. Westerners seeing reform just around the corner are always wrong. As Tocqueville said, revolution happens not when the commoners are most downtrodden, but when they can glimpse a better life. What finally brought down Soviet Communism was Gorbachev’s attempt to reform it. North Korea won’t make that mistake. Unknown-2Tocqueville again: “a sovereign who seeks to relieve his subjects after a long period of oppression is lost unless he be a man of great genius.” Kim Jong Un must be smart enough to know that, contrary to their boastful propaganda, his is not a dynasty of geniuses. And that his fate in a post-Kim North Korea won’t be pretty. Any “reform” would risk that prospect.

So, what is the answer? This tough-minded commentator is almost embarrassed by it, but Lankov convinced me that only a soft approach makes sense. The North Korean system cannot endure forever, as the contrast with the prosperous South inexorably widens and becomes more known, despite the regime’s best efforts to tar the South as a hellhole of poverty and oppression. images-3And while spontaneous revolt from below can’t be expected, evolution in the thinking of the elites is inevitable. Its hastening should be our aim, simply doing all we can to expose North Korea’s intelligentsia to truth and reality. Sooner or later, something is bound to give. It may be (as Hemingway famously described going broke) gradual – and then sudden.

November 9 – 25 Years Later – Save The Wall

November 9, 2014
1962

1962

I was a kid when I went by myself one time to the 1964 New York World’s Fair – I lived nearby – and wandered into the West German pavilion. There was a film about the Berlin Wall (erected in 1961). I was stunned. Until then I hadn’t truly grasped the evil. It made me a cold warrior.

Twenty Five years later. Remodeling at my office had resulted in a stupid partition blocking my window view. In chatting with my wife about my efforts to get it removed, I called it “The Berlin Wall.”

Then one day when she walked in, I greeted her by saying, “The Berlin Wall came down today.”

“The one at your office?”

“No,” I said. “The real one. In Germany.”

imagesShortly before, I had switched on the evening TV news, and saw people dancing atop the wall. I will never forget that moment, and the pictures of people flooding through those gates, whooping with exhilaration at the freedom they’d gained. It was November 9, 1989 – the world became a new and better place. It was an unambiguous triumph of my dearest beliefs. Life doesn’t give us too many like that. There are tears in my eyes now, writing this.

A lot has happened in the ensuing 25 years, and some pessimists believe the world is now worse. Well, it sure ain’t perfect. But the great sweep of history is the titanic efforts of human beings to make things better. November 9, 1989 was a milestone in that eternal struggle.

images-2My wife later gave me, as a gift, a little box containing a souvenir – a chunk from the Berlin Wall. Then we visited Germany, and I could actually stand, upon a patch of rubble where once the wall had been, and raise my arms in triumph.

At first the Germans left a little of the wall intact, for remembrance. But now even that bit is under threat of demolition. Some people are saying, “Save the Wall!” and I agree. This should be kept as a monument to the evil it represented – and a monument to the human beings who overcame it.

In 1964 I could not foresee the day when that wall would come down. And I certainly could not have imagined the day, 50 years later, when I’d write a blog post saying, “Save the Wall.”Unknown

Americanah — Please Smack This Woman

October 31, 2014
Adichie

Adichie

Ifemelu didn’t know she was black – until, as a teenager, she came to America from Nigeria. She’s the focus of Nigerian/American Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 novel, Americanah. It’s garnered great reviews as penetrating social commentary about both countries.

Many novels are non-chronological, often starting with a dramatic scene and then going to the backstory. I get that. But Americanah cut back and forth so much that I had trouble keeping things straight.

Ifemelu’s teenaged Nigerian boyfriend was Obinze. It was no casual attachment, but portrayed as obviously quite deep. Yet soon after arriving in America, she stops reading or answering his e-mails and letters, cuts him off without a word. Why? No reason I could see. Near the end she gives a reason; but (to me) a lame one.

article-1162718-03F37C2E000005DC-317_468x377Soon she’s in a fairy tale romance with Curt – handsome, rich, charming, warm, smart – white – and mad for her. They’re jetting to London and Paris on whim, etc. Then Ifemelu, for no particular reason, has a one night stand with a pallid grunge musician. Credible? Maybe. She informs Curt. Credible? Not so much. Curt throws her out. Credible? Well – I had a similar experience once (for a different, stupider reason).

Unknown-1Then Ifemelu starts a blog on race matters from the perspective of a non-American black. Many blog postings are given verbatim. We’re apparently supposed to think they’re highly insightful and provocative. I did not. To me they flogged tired, whiny racial tropes we’ve heard a thousand times. Yet Ifemelu’s blog is wildly successful, she actually gets a living from it, attracting contributions and advertisers, speaking gigs proliferate, and she winds up with a Princeton fellowship.

Unknown(How does this happen? Someone please tell me – my blog, since ’08, obviously has highly excellent content, but its readership could fit in a phone booth (well, OK, a big one, and it would be very tight), and I’ve never earned a cent. Of course, I do it for love.)

images-1The book is full of party scenes — populated by effete, politically hip intellectual poseurs. They’re mildly satirized, which is mild fun, up to a point, but enough is enough.

Ifemelu’s next live-in boyfriend is Blaine, a black Yale professor, another Prince Charming. So maybe it’s not an epic passion, but c’mon, a lot of folks would kill for such a nice mellow relationship. Yet after several years (and 13 in America) Ifemelu decides to chuck it all – Blaine, blog, Princeton – to return to Nigeria. Why? Beats me.

images-2It’s not as though Nigeria has improved since she left. Indeed, it’s gone downhill, growing even more dysfunctional and corrupt. The typical American hasn’t the faintest idea how different a nation like that is. Adichie does illuminate a lot of Nigeria’s rottenness. And yet, another thing I disliked about the book is its narrow portrayal of the country – the only Nigerians we meet are middle or upper class or intelligentsia.images There’s no sense that this is a thin crust atop a vast populace at best just eking out an existence. Those Nigerian masses are invisible here.

(Also unmentioned is Boko Haram, now in control of a large territory – showing that Nigeria’s government and army exist only for predation, and are useless to help or protect the populace. Yet, doing end-runs around their useless government, Nigeria’s creative and enterprising people are bubbling with entrepreneurship.)

Once back there, Ifemelu starts a new blog, about Nigeria (or at least that thin crust) – again a roaring success. She has an old friend, Ranyi, in fact a very good loyal friend who helps Ifemelu a lot. Ranyi is the kept woman of a married “big man,” a common Nigerian situation, which Ifemelu scathingly blogs about, the portrayal of Ranyi being unmistakeable. Ranyi complains. Ifemelu blows her off, saying she really had in mind her own Aunty Uju, whose being a general’s mistress “destroyed” her life.

Say what?

Destroyed? Aunty Uju, when her general suddenly croaked, got out of Nigeria with enough to reach America and became a doctor. And brought up the general’s child as her well beloved son.

I found Ifemelu unlikeable. If that was the author’s intent, she succeeded, but somehow I doubt it was. This novel had a very autobiographical feel.

UnknownThere’s still Obinze, Ifemelu’s teen heart-throb. We’ve been following his adventures too. He’s become quite rich – the Nigerian way, that is, by sucking up to a “big man” who lets him in on a deal plundering the public treasury. Despite this, Obinze is yet another guy portrayed too good to be true, a saint so bursting with virtues and devoid of faults that it made me gag.

Ifemelu finally contacts him before her return to Nigeria. And then, once there, fails to follow up. Would someone please smack this woman upside the head? But maybe it’s just my biased perspective. I worked so hard to get a good partner, and value her so much, that Ifemelu’s insouciance rankles.

Unknown-2Of course I won’t reveal the ending, but you can guess it. Such endings are supposed to be satisfying to the reader. But I felt a less saccharine conclusion would have been truer to what preceded it.

China: The Arrogance of Unchecked Power

October 18, 2014

When I visited Russia in 1994, and a traveling companion asked, “Can we do such-and-such?” I replied, “Why not, it’s a free country.” Being able to say so felt great.

Xi Jinping

Xi Jinping

Mao Zedong

Mao Zedong

That was then.

I was also one of those optimists thinking that as China grew richer, it must become freer. But for now at least, it’s the opposite. President Xi Jinping is consolidating power to a degree unmatched since Mao, and what had been a glacially slow democratization has gone sharply into reverse.

To induce Britain to peacefully surrender Hong Kong in 1997, China made solemn promises for a transition to democratic home rule. Those promises have now been thoroughly flouted, with the regime refusing to countenance any sort of popular sovereignty. And, of course, beating and jailing people who protest.

But with unchecked power, you can do what you want, no matter how vile. Hong Kong today is the most visible manifestation. But Xi’s regime is engaged in an all-fronts assault upon anything and anyone viewed as even remotely challenging to its control.

Ilham Tohti was an ethnic Uighur economics professor at a prestigious Beijing university. He’s from Xinjiang, the (originally) Muslim far-west province, where long-simmering resentment at Chinese rule has been greatly enflamed by China’s ferocity in trying to stamp it out.

Ilham Tohti

Ilham Tohti

Tohti was a critic of China’s policy, and actually a rare calm voice of moderation. But charged with “separatism” he was sentenced in September to life in prison and confiscation of all his assets.

The advanced Western nations (and many copycats) have arrived at a social model wherein governmental power, and especially the power of any one person, is checked. This is more than merely political; it’s a mindset, a way of life, and once achieved it seems to stick. But attaining this level of maturity may be harder than optimists, like Francis Fukuyama (and me) imagined, and if you haven’t got there, everything remains up for grabs. Thus, China; and Russia; and creeps like Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka, Sisi in Egypt, Ortega in Nicaragua, Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Chavez (and his derisory successor Maduro) in Venezuela, and so on.*

Unknown-1Fukuyama’s 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man, argued that humanity’s long ideological struggles have finally ended in a rout by liberal democracy and market economics. He recently published a new book, basically saying, “Not so fast.” The rub is not any virtue in authoritarianism but, rather, problems internal to democracies. America is becoming politically dysfunctional and paralyzed. But Fukuyama’s original argument was that (classical) liberalism feeds our most fundamental human needs. That’s still a powerful counterforce against alternatives; I’d far rather live in a declining USA than a rising Putinist Russia!

The 1992 book ended with a metaphor of wagon trains: some have arrived at their destination while others remain out in the wilderness having lost their way or beset by troubles. But ultimately, Fukuyama said, all will get there.images-4

I still believe that. But a perfect polity exists only in Heaven (and maybe not even there).

* But note Iraq, where despite having eight years to ruthlessly entrench himself, Maliki could still be ousted by the political process; a hopeful sign.

Our Jordan Adventure

October 14, 2014
Elizabeth, going native

Elizabeth

This seemed a good time to visit the Middle East. So we went to Philadelphia. That was the ancient Greek name. Before that, Rabboth-Ammon; thus, today, Amman.

The country is named for the River Jordan – the river of metaphor – “I’m only going up over Jordan” – The Ur-River – “Michael, row the boat ashore.” Would’ve been nice to see it. We didn’t.

Therese and me at Petra

Therese and me at Petra

The “we” included my ever cheerful ace travel partner Therese. Up at 5:30 and out the door at 5:40? Sure, no problem.

We were visiting our daughter Elizabeth, 21, living in Amman studying Arabic. Having an Eid holiday break, she organized a tour for us. English speakers being rare, it was great having Elizabeth as our Arabic-speaking guide; especially negotiating with cab drivers. (It’s a point of honor for Elizabeth not to overpay.)

She is also studying the Zaatari refugee camp, near Amman, a reminder that conflict is not far away. And helping out at Questscope, an NGO, developing a “youth empowerment” program. Amman is full of seemingly unoccupied young men – potential jihadist recruits. The project aims to give them better outlets for their energies.

Therese climbs a sand dune at Wadi Rum

Therese climbs a sand dune at Wadi Rum

Historical context: In 1948, the UN partitioned the British-run Palestine territory, creating Israel and an Arab state – Jordan. Israel, in the 1967 war, took a big piece of Jordan – the West Bank. (In the national museum a large map labeled all the surrounding nations; Israel (including the West Bank) was called “Palestine.”)

Monarchy is not my favorite system, but Jordan been blessed with unusually enlightened monarchs. After the ’67 war, King Hussein did something astoundingly smart – renounced all claim to the West Bank. So Jordan could get on with life, not wasting its energies in futile irredentism. (Palestinians take note.)

Jerash

Jerash

In Amman we joined up with one of Elizabeth’s Questscope pals for a car trip to Jerash. Along the way we saw many roadside pens with sheep and goats, often with a skinned carcass dangling from a scaffold, apparently for sale for Eid holiday feasting. One also continually saw little cubical concrete or cinderblock structures, some utilized for storage or mini-stores, but more often rubbish strewn, never completed, or half ruined. Aborted construction seemed ubiquitous. Also used tires – sometimes arranged in decorative megaliths.

powerlineMostly we traversed bleak scrubland desert, whose most notable feature was electric power lines and telephone poles. But this is important. In many places (particularly Africa), lack of such infrastructure is a big factor inhibiting economic development.

bagpipes

Jerash was ancient Gerasa. (In Roman times, the area, including Philadelphia, was called Decapolis, part of Syria.) The ruins are well preserved. In the amphitheater, two guys in full Arab regalia performed rousing Scottish (!) music on drums and bagpipes. I told my wife, “Here’s what we missed with no Scottish independence celebration to go to!”

Amid the ruins, a local fellow latched on to us and helpfully pointed out various details. Of course I knew he expected a tip, but was taken aback when he insisted on 30 Dinars (while repeating, “I’m a Muslim”). I wound up giving him 20 Dinars ($28), and though he feigned displeasure, it was wildly excessive. Well, it was our first day.

Petra

Petra

Then we took a bus to Petra, the amazing capital of the Nabataeans (flourished in the first centuries BC and AD). Access is through a long, very narrow, deep gorge; the city’s main features were mostly carved right out of the rock. We had to climb for hours, a more strenuous challenge than I’ve had in years; but my 67 year old carcass managed it.

Nabataean coin

Nabataean coin

Nabataean coins are very cool and I’d have liked to find some nice ones. Many tchotchke sellers there did have coins – garishly made to look like what a tourist might imagine for ancient coins. When one guy pressed his fakes at me and I laughed them off, he asked if I would recognize real ones. Then he showed me two coins – one, an Aelius denarius (rare), at least a realistic fake, the other a little bronze, genuine but miserable and worthless.

imagesThat Petra and the Nabataeans are integral to Jordanian identity was evident from our later visit to Amman’s national museum. Really nice, especially on linguistic history. One placard called the advent of alphabetic systems the democratization of knowledge, since it made reading and writing much easier to learn. Also noteworthy there were the oldest large-size human statues ever found, dating before 7500 BC.

At Petra, Elizabeth asked a guy at the visitor center what we should expect to pay for a taxi to Wadi Rum. Not only did he find an answer, he made some calls and arranged the ride, for a price at the bottom of the range. Such helpfulness is something we’ve found throughout our many travels (except of course in France). The Jordanians were lovely, save only for one kid who threw garbage at us, shouting “haram!” (“Non-kosher”)

Our deluxe accommodations at Wadi Rum

Our deluxe accommodations at Wadi Rum

That taxi trip – an hour and three quarters – cost all of 30 Dinars ($42; made me wince again at what I’d given the “guide” at Jerash). The car radio was tuned to a Russian talk show. I asked the driver if he spoke Russian. He said no.

Wadi Rum was our desert “Bedouin camp” experience. Well, it was no tarted-up dude ranch. The guys in Arab dress lounging and conversing around the camp fire looked like they came out of some old picture book.

Aqaba. Can you spot the camel?

Aqaba. Can you spot the camel?

Next, like Lawrence and his 1917 Arab rebels we marched on camelback across the forbidding Nefud desert to Aqaba. Actually, we took another taxi (one hour; 25 Dinars; but the guy had to drive to Wadi Rum from Aqaba to get us). Aqaba has become a major seaside resort town.

We took another bus back to Amman. Midway there was a smoking break, when almost everyone got off to puff.

Amman’s main art museum (privately funded) was eye-opening – contemporary art from developing nations, nearly all Muslim. Not ethnic ghetto stuff, but interesting and accomplished work at the highest level. But ordinarily we never see it, not even at the international art fair we recently attended in Dubai. Yet another aspect of how the Muslim world is cut off from the wider global culture.

UnknownOn our last day we took yet another bus trip, to the Dead Sea. Swimming in it was a bizarre experience, like floating atop a vat of jello. Also bizarre was observing the Dead Sea mud bathers.

Jordan is a good country. If ISIS attacks it, mine had better be there. With boots on the ground.

Scotland – The Blog Post That Might Have Been

September 19, 2014

Well. Sanity prevailed. In the end, it wasn’t even close. But, anticipating the possibility of a Yes vote, I had prepared a blog post. (What, you think I just pop these off? No, they are most carefully composed, thoroughly researched, and peer-reviewed.) And, not wanting to waste the effort, just for fun I’ll post it anyway. Here is what I’d have said, had Scotland voted for independence:

                          Scotland the Brave – Or Barmy

imagesVoting with their hearts, not heads, is the catch phrase. Economically, Scottish independence will likely make them worse off. In the United Kingdom, the net government revenue flow has been into Scotland, not out. And the real reason they’re choosing independence is because they fancy themselves more left-wing than Britain. “No more Tory government, ever” was the war-cry.* They blame Margaret Thatcher and her Tory party successors for whatever ails Scotland. It’s nonsense. Thatcher saved Britain, and Scotland has been hurt not by national economic policies but, rather, its own inadequate adaptation to globalization. Indulging their lefty delusions will only make that worse. And they seem to imagine independence will mean higher government spending but lower taxes!

Yet I actually view the vote with sympathy. I’m a born sucker for a people’s aspirations for nationhood and self-rule. If Scots want to live in a socialist paradise, that’s their privilege.

UnknownHistory is also relevant. Scotland was actually independent for longer than it’s been part of Great Britain. The Brits tried repeatedly to conquer Scotland but never succeeded. What finally joined them was an historical fluke. Queen Elizabeth I of England and Mary, Queens of Scots were famously enemies; Elizabeth got her mitts on Mary and beheaded her. But when the “Virgin Queen” died in 1603, childless, her closest living relative was actually Scotland’s King James – Mary’s son! So James became king of both countries.

Bonny Prince Charlie

Bonny Prince Charlie

The two still remained notionally separate for another century. When the 1707 “Act of Union” formally joined them, the Scots weren’t pleased – inasmuch as the originally Scottish Stuart dynasty had been overthrown in 1688.

Their restiveness broke out in revolt under the last Stuart heir, “Bonny Prince Charlie,” culminating in the 1746 Battle of Culloden, where the Scots were crushed, followed by their land’s “pacification” with monumental brutality.images-2

None of this history was to the fore in the referendum. But perhaps it wasn’t wholly forgotten.

Before this vote, the British government made clear that it would be for real – not merely symbolic. They hoped Scots would quail from such a stark choice. Well, they didn’t. And so, while negotiations over details will be long and fraught, in the end Scotland will be an independent country.

images-3Great Britain will be sadly reduced, hardly “Great” any longer; a final indignity for a nation that once ruled much of the world.** Remember those old maps with so many pink patches? One of them was us. We had to fight the Brits for our freedom (and I have not forgotten they later burned our capital, in 1814), yet so much of our cultural patrimony derives from Britain. Though not unblemished, hers is a proud record, so greatly responsible for setting the whole of humankind upon a path of progress. This is like seeing an old parent’s diminishment and fading away. But, in so much of human history, the closing of one chapter is the opening of another.

As this blog post should show, my sense of history greatly enriches my experience of life; making me respond to an event like this with deep feeling.

images-1One thing on my bucket list – maybe the only thing – is to be present at a nation’s independence. I’d had hopes for Quebec; missed out on the Soviet and Yugoslav dissolutions; and East Timor, and South Sudan, weren’t feasible either. But on whatever day it is the Scots finally celebrate their independence, I will be in Edinburgh, and I will cheer with them.

* Ironically, the exit of anti-Tory Scotland will likely ensure Tory government in London forever.

** I’m reminded too of how the once-mighty Roman Empire was eventually reduced to just the city of Constantinople, before its extinction in 1453.

Three Exciting Candidates

September 15, 2014

UnknownI first noticed Neel Kashkari in 2008 as a remarkably young Indian-American, standing beside the Treasury Secretary and being tasked with sorting out the floundering banking system. Having accomplished that, he’s now the Republican candidate for California governor.

Jerry Brown (first elected 40 years ago! – seems like yesterday) has actually been a great governor this time around, resurrecting the state with reforms that few once thought doable. But there’s more to be done, and Kashkari is the one who gets it. In a nation whose economy is hobbled by too much business regulation, California may be the most regulation-happy state of all, virtually building a moat to keep new businesses out, and a catapult to eject existing ones.* Unknown-2No surprise that its unemployment rate is among the nation’s highest.

Kashkari wants to fix this, and also another part of the problem, education, which in California is abysmal and strangled by bureaucracy, which Kashkari pledges to slash. He sensibly favors charter schools too (not that they’re necessarily better than public ones, but because both will likely be better if in competition with each other).

Kashkari also thinks Brown is nuts to budget a gazillion dollars on a high-speed rail boondoggle when California has much more pressing needs, like a water supply crisis.

But, unusual in today’s GOP, Kashkari combines all that economic good sense with classical liberal social views. He’s marched in a gay pride parade. He wants a more humane immigration policy. He wants others to be able to follow him in achieving the American dream.

This is my kind of Republican, embodying the reasons I became one myself, in the Pleistocene, when it was not a party with its head up its rear, but stood for values good for all Americans (and would-be Americans). This kind of Kashkari Republicanism might have a future. A Republicanism of grumpy old white men who don’t believe in evolution will prove themselves wrong by going extinct.

Unknown-1Speaking of grumpy old white men, Kansas Senator Pat Roberts, 78, trying to fend off the Tea Party, turned himself into one of them stoopit Republicans. Kansas hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since 1932, and Roberts’s Democratic opponent has withdrawn, leaving him up against independent candidate Greg Orman, who’s getting much support from Republicans of the non-stoopit variety (yes, there are many of us, even in Kansas). Orman says he voted for Obama in ’08 and Romney in ’12, and, much like Kashkari, seems to make good choices in selecting from both the right and left sides of the policy menu.

Greg Orman,. cartooned in The Economist

Greg Orman, cartooned in The Economist

But Orman’s real attraction is his assertive critique of the partisan enmity that so afflicts today’s U.S. politics, with each side demonizing the other as not just wrong but evil. We need to can this, and boost up that “radical middle.”

Next, Brazil. The line goes, it’s the country of the future and always will be. What keeps Brazil from being an economic dynamo is big government. Yes, even worse than America’s; Brazil’s economy is so strangled with regulation and government meddling that businesses just throw up their hands in despair.

The current caretaker of this stultifying system is President Dilma Rousseff, a standard-issue unimaginative old lefty (sees nothing amiss in Venezuela, etc.), up for re-election. Many Brazilians are fed up and realize something must change. But, frustratingly, the best candidate, offering real change, Eduardo Campos, with a program of unshackling the economy, was running a distant third. Then in August he died in a plane crash.

Marina Silva, an ascetic black woman, risen from dire poverty (taught herself to read at 16!); former environment minister; had run third in the previous election. But trying again, she was blocked from the ballot on a technicality. So she joined Campos as his vice-presidential running mate.

Marina Silva

Marina Silva

And with Campos’s death, Silva has replaced him as their party’s presidential candidate. This seems to have electrified Brazilians. Partly it’s a personality thing – in a country plagued by repeated scandals, Silva’s backstory and perceived unimpeachable integrity are highly attractive. But she also appears to have bought into Campos’s agenda of economic liberalization. And she now looks likely to win the election. It would be a bracing breath of fresh air for Brazil.

* I’ve written about this here, and here.

Civilizational Crisis: The World According to Brooks (& Robinson)

September 5, 2014

imagesI like columnist David Brooks for being a “Big Picture” kind of guy – giving the view from Olympus.

His 9/3 column finds commonality in the two big conflicts bedeviling us. Ukraine and the Islamic State might not seem direct threats to our security. (Obama calls Ukraine a “regional” conflict.) But this is myopic because “the underlying frameworks by which nations operate” and “the norms of restraint that undergird civilization,” Brooks says, “are being threatened in fairly devastating ways.” This is not geopolitical business-as-usual, but a true civilizational crisis.

I don’t say that lightly. Politicians are always burbling how the challenges of the day are somehow unique, but as a student of history, I know better. In my Rational Optimism book I argued that cynics and pessimists lacking true historical perspective don’t grasp the progress we’ve made. But that was 2009, and now in 2014 that progress is really jeopardized.

images-2Brooks casts Putin as playing, in conventional terms, a very weak hand. His country is a shit-hole. “But he is rich in brazenness . . . in his ability to play by the lawlessness of the jungle, so he wants the whole world to operate by jungle rules.” That’s exactly what the world (mostly) had progressed beyond.

Neither Russia’s kleptocracy nor the Islamic State can give their people a modern living standard. Putin substitutes for that the intoxication of militarist swagger; the Islamic State substitutes the intoxication of religious fervor. This Brooks calls “a coalition of the unsuccessful . . . a revolt of the weak.” Unable to play by the normal rules, they seek “to blow up the rule book.” (Thomas Friedman talks of the “world of order” versus “the world of disorder.”)

Thus while Putinism attacks a key principle of modern civilization – no grabbing territory by force – so too does the Islamic State – no imposing religion by force.

As Brooks says, you (well, Obama) might think these atavisms must ultimately fail because they are such ugly responses to human aspirations. “But their weakness is their driving power; they only need to tear things down, and, unconfronted, will do so.”

images-1Put another way – people not squeamish about shooting will beat those who are.

I am tired of hearing the words, “There is no military solution.” Actually, there is. And, contrary to pacifism, there are things worth fighting for.

The Islamic State may indeed be weak, seen objectively; but it thrives on an aura of success. Osama Bin Laden was on to something in saying, “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse.” UnknownWhile the West acts like a 97-pound weakling, the Islamic State appears to sweep all before it. That’s what attracts so many, even from the West, to its banner, heightening its seeming strength. This needs to be crushed – militarily.*

Likewise, Putin rides a wave of popularity, seen as avatar of a resurgent Russia making fools of a flabby decadent West. This too needs to be militarily crushed. What are we afraid of? That Russia will nuke us? Putin isn’t that crazy. I far more fear a future in which he did not get his nose bloodied in Ukraine.

Germany and Japan had to be militarily crushed to teach them the lesson that aggression does not pay. They learned it well, and the world is better for that. But it seems the lesson must be applied a few more times before the whole world absorbs it once and for all.

We took 10,000 years to finally achieve a world order where you don’t grab territory or impose religion by force. That is worth fighting to defend. Even pacifists should get this; it’s peace that needs fighting for.

Unknown-1But are Putin and the Islamic State right after all – have we become too flabby and pusillanimous to really defend our values?

* In Iraq. In Syria, let them and Assad’s goons kill each other, for now.

POSTSCRIPT: At today’s NATO summit, for all the bluster, nobody proposed to send Ukraine any military help, not even defensive. And the cease-fire, if it holds, locks in the Russian military gains of the last few weeks — a clear victory for Putin.


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