Archive for April, 2010

Mikhail Khodorkovsky: human rights hero

April 25, 2010

Russia’s President Dmitri Medvedev recently gave a wonderful speech about the need to modernize Russia, curb corruption, extend rule of law and democratic rights, etc.

Words are cheap.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky was one of those new young billionaires arising from Soviet Communism’s fall. Head of the oil firm Yukos, he was Russia’s richest man. Then in 2003, the Putin regime charged tax evasion, tossed Khodorkovsky into a prison camp, and essentially stole Yukos.

While Putin accused Khodorkovsky of gangster capitalism, the ironic truth is that, of all Russia’s new tycoons, he was probably the most honest, transparent, and lawful in running his company. Khodorkovsky believed Russia should be a normal country. The tax charges were phony. Khodorkovsky’s real offense was open political and financial support for Russia’s democratic opposition. Putin was sending an unmistakeable message: if he could crush even this cleanest and richest foe, then all the country’s dirty businessmen (which, given Russia’s business climate, is most of them) had better dance to the Kremlin’s tune.

With Khodorkovsky’s 8-year sentence nearing completion, the regime has put him (together with his co-defendant, Platon Lebedev) on trial again, now charging him (contradictorily) with stealing the oil on whose profits he supposedly didn’t pay tax. But (like the hero Sharansky, and unlike the pathetic victims of Stalin’s show trials) Khodorkovsky is unbowed. Not only is he vigorously defending himself against the farcical charges, but he has smuggled out and published a series of articles exposing the vicious, corrupt, murderous gangsterism of the Putin-Medvedev regime, and the sorry state of Russian society in consequence.

Thus, in an ironic twist of history (or is it?), a man who was once a leading capitalist is today Russia’s foremost champion of human rights. The Economist magazine deems him today’s equivalent of Andrei Sakharov. It sees the regime itself, rather than Khodorkovsky, as really being on trial now.

(Click HERE for Khodorkovsky’s website.)

Bacevich, Niebuhr, and “The Limits of Power”

April 20, 2010

Professor Andrew Bacevich recently authored The Limits of Power, basically arguing that proactive efforts to “control” or “manage” history, to achieve some desired outcome, are vain hubris (how cynics and pessimists adore that word); the best we might aim for is a “stable balance of power.” As if this is a new idea. Nevertheless, the lefty intelligentsia (so fond of seeing limits to everything) reverentially greeted the book as some profound revelation; Bill Moyers on his PBS show duly drooled over Bacevich.

Excuse me, but there is nothing novel, interesting, or useful here. It’s a shallow straw man argument: there’s nobody who thinks we can “manage” history. But does that mean we should just give up all ambition, all idealism, all efforts to make the world better? Bacevich seems to say yes. Thanks a lot, Prof, for that thoughtful advice.

He argues that because historical processes are too vast and messy for anyone to really grasp, let alone control, because of the law of unintended consequences, and so forth, any efforts toward remaking the world are futile. Bacevich’s particular focus (fixation?) was upon Iraq where, it did appear, we were failing. But that judgment now seems premature. And taking a larger view, his impotence theory is indeed flatly contradicted by history. After WWII, the US adopted an over-arching foreign policy vision: to support democracy and contain communism. And we spectacularly succeeded. Democracy has made tremendous worldwide gains, and communism was not merely contained but defeated.

Bacevich would have said: don’t even try. No, his ideal, again, is a “stable balance of power.” That might be an expedient –- but a goal? What’s so delightful about a “balance of power” that should make it a goal? Or about “stability” – which is merely entrenchment of a status quo? Should we now aim for a stable balance of power with radical Islam? (By helping it equalize our own strength, mayhap?)

Bacevich reprised his dreary, enervating thesis in his introduction to a reprint of Reinhold Niebuhr’s 1952 book, The Irony of American History. Niebuhr too disparaged what he saw as America’s misguided effort to “manage” history; “messianic” he repeatedly called it. This he analogized to the communist ideology, which indeed invoked a mission to push history toward a particular outcome. Through the cold war, we worked to thwart that messianic vision; doing so was not analogously messianic on America’s own part, it was fundamentally defensive.

True, America has always seen itself as a special nation, a model for the rest of the world. But that’s not messianic either; we’re not on a mission. In fact, through most of our history Americans displayed little appetite for remaking the world, believing instead that the rest of the world should fend for itself. Niall Ferguson’s book Colossus expressed frustration with America’s recalcitrance concerning the kind of messianism Niebuhr talks about. All our recent wars – Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan – engendered widespread, instinctive opposition at home. And the one presidential speech that might arguably have conformed to Niebuhr’s picture – Bush’s second inaugural – was extensively derided and denounced by the American intelligensia.

What America believes is not that we have a messianic mission to democratize the world, nor that we can or should seek to “manage history,” but, instead, merely that it would be a desirable thing if the world did become more democratic, and backward nations did become more like us. We regard that as our own national interest, and in the interests of those other nations as well. As John F. Kennedy said, “We seek not the worldwide victory of one nation or system, but a worldwide victory of men.” [And women.] And, with admittedly many zigs and zags, that is the essence of American foreign policy. It’s not misguided. In fact it has succeeded to an extent Niebuhr would never have believed, and to which Bacevich seems blind.

So history is not some ineluctable force impervious to human effort. America believes not that we’re on a mission from God but, rather, in our obligation as human beings to do all we can to make the world as good as possible. The entire history of our species reflects our unwillingness to accept things as they are and to try to improve our situation.

The last thing Thomas Jefferson ever wrote was a letter saying he was too ill to attend a 50th anniversary celebration of the Declaration of Independence. I believe he there expressed the American mindset far better than Niebuhr’s grotesque caricature. Jefferson viewed the Declaration as a signal arousing people everywhere to gain their freedom; a liberation that he dared to hope would come “to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all.”

Leo Igwe: Humanist hero

April 13, 2010

“Man’s inhumanity to man” – some believe that’s the rule, not the exception. I believe the opposite is proven by our everyday experience. It is one of the key things that makes me so fundamentally an optimist. And then there are those singular individuals whose lives ennoble all humanity.

I first encountered Leo Igwe’s name when he posted a comment at this blog’s launching – an unusually long comment about bogus “miracles” in Africa (click here). Frankly at the time I thought this somewhat odd; in retrospect I am grateful and flattered, having learned more about Leo Igwe since. That he took the trouble to post even on my little blog shows his dedication to the cause. The latest issue of Free Inquiry magazine contains a good profile of him (click here).

Leo Igwe is Executive Director of both Nigeria’s Center for Inquiry and its Humanist Movement. If you think American humanists face a lot of obstacles and hostility, just try it in a country like Nigeria. Sectarian atrocities and massacres there have been much in the news. Leo Igwe has experienced his share of personal violence, and abuse of legal processes aimed at shutting him up.

But the trouble with Leo is that he doesn’t accept this stuff as normal, even in Africa; he aspires for Nigeria to embody the highest standards of civilized and rational human behavior. (Thus he is a fierce foe of a cultural relativism that would excuse barbaric practices as not wrong but merely different.)

One of his key battles concerns witchcraft (a subset of the supernatural thinking discussed in his blog post). Witchcraft in Africa is no laughing matter. Over centuries in the West, witches were greatly feared and witchery charges were constantly utilized to persecute unpopular people and nonconformists, many thousands of whom met a horrific death. This still goes on in Nigeria, and Leo Igwe has been in the forefront fighting it, at enormous personal cost and risk. (For more information about this problem, click here.)

This is just one aspect of his crusade for a more rational and just society. Nigeria is a country with shambolic and pervasively corrupt machineries of justice, wherein what should be the forces of law and order are mostly engaged in predation against ordinary people. That Leo Igwe believes he can make a difference here makes him a greater optimist even than me.

As the Free Inquiry article said, “[i]t would be difficult to find a humanist activist with greater courage, determination, and persistence anywhere in the world.”

It is also pointed out that Leo’s efforts are impossible without financial help. Tax-deductible contributions can be made by clicking here.

American “declinism” revisited

April 3, 2010

Back in June ’08 I wrote a post answering notions of American “declinism.”

That seems long ago; and now, a few trillion dollars later …

America’s longtime sources of strength have been its spirit of individual enterprise and innovation, people motivated to work hard and try new things, confident in their ability to succeed and confound naysayers. This is propelled by America’s freedom and openness, as a meritocratic egalitarian society – egalitarian not in results but, rather, with every person standing on his or her own merits (not pedigree or privilege). Of course it’s imperfect, but these fundamental characteristics are in America’s DNA.

Now, however, a different strand has crept into our national DNA – the ethos of entitlement. It’s a recrudescence of the old world paradigm of entrenched privilege that America was founded to get away from. But in today’s USA, entrenched privilege is everywhere, exerted not by some elite oligarchy but by practically every segment of society.

We see this among young people, pampered and coddled, their self-esteem puffed up by well-meaning parents and teachers who raise kids’ safety and comfort to a veritable obsession. Nurtured in this entitlement cocoon, they understandably grow to worship themselves and their needs and wants, as though the world somehow owes it to them; woe to any who would deny them.

We see it too in attitudes toward the global economy. Many seem to believe that, even if Indian workers are just as educated, talented, and productive, American workers are nevertheless somehow entitled to continue being paid several times more.

And these crybaby whiners can’t seem to remember that we live today 100 times better than past generations; so if it goes to 98 or 99 that’s, like, the end of the world. As in the recent financial wobble, when retrenchment by a few percentage points was apocalyptically described as “collapse.”

The State of New York has entered a surreal zone where no entitlement will accede to the reality of empty governmental coffers. Newspapers and TV are flooded with pleas from interest groups all clamoring to preserve their place at the public teat as though nothing has changed. State employees just got a 4% raise, negotiated years earlier in flush times; the union will not hear of foregoing it. The state will just have to go deeper in hock. Next year’s budget gap promises to be yet more huge. No one will face it.

And of course, at the federal level, just when the writing is on the wall, writ large, of a looming financial black hole, still the trillions and even new entitlements flow out. George W. Bush’s prescription drug entitlement was already fiscal madness. Then Congress used the pretext of a recession to pillage the treasury with a “stimulus” bill. Then the health care bill, piling on yet more entitlements, more trillions (with a fig leaf of promises for future financial austerity that no one believes).

How will this tale end?

I label myself an optimist. The question is which force – which strand in America’s DNA – will prove the more powerful. Will it be our ancestral DNA of individual enterprise and drive – or the new mutant DNA of complacent entitlement?