Archive for February, 2011

What Obama Should Say

February 24, 2011

People of the World:

My Secretary of State has condemned the violent repression by the Libyan regime and called for its cessation. That’s fine as far as it goes. But it does not go nearly far enough.

I wish to state clearly the position of the United States.

That umbrella won't protect you

Moammar Ghadafy – or Qadafi or Khadafy or however the heck you spell it – is a deranged criminal whose regime should be terminated immediately. He and his cronies should be put on trial and punished severely for their atrocious crimes.

A good model would be Ceausescu 1989.

The United States has often been accused of supporting dictators. Unfortunately this has sometimes been true. Sometimes, in this imperfect world, it has seemed to be a difficult choice of one evil versus another. But let me make this clear: the United States does not support regimes. We support peoples, and nations. That means working with governments that happen to be in power. In the case of Egypt, for example, the United States, in order to engage with the Egyptian people, the Egyptian nation, had to work with the government of Hosni Mubarak, as long as it seemed that government could not be changed. We were not supporting Mubarak. We were supporting Egypt, and its people. And when the people of Egypt rose up to get rid of Mubarak, we supported them in their courageous action to assert their human dignity and control their own destiny. If, at the time, we seemed pusillanimous about that, I apologize. I do have a tendency to be wishy-washy and to want to have it both ways.

(And, note to my speechwriters; I don’t want to see the word “stability,” ever again.)

In the case of Libya, we never liked that sonofabitch Khadafy, and we totally support the brave efforts of the Libyan people to get rid of him.

The same is true of any other nation where a regime reigns against the will of its people. We do not support such regimes, and we support efforts by the people of such nations to achieve democratic change. We believe that Gandhi in India provided an excellent model (psst: Palestinians). However, it is a tragic reality of the human condition that sometimes pacifism means empowering non-pacifists willing to use violence to get their way. It’s a tragic reality that sometimes you have to fight and die to achieve justice and freedom. Where that is true, the United States supports such courageous efforts and honors the people who undertake them.

This is what we say to the people of all nations oppressed by undemocratic regimes: we support you, the people, and we support your aspirations for freedom. What we want is a world in which all people are free. That is the ultimate goal of United States foreign policy.

God bless humankind. Thank you, and good night.

Unions versus the Public

February 20, 2011

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker wants to restrict collective bargaining with government employee unions, in order to cope with a yawning budget gap. Unionists have besieged the capital, protesting for their rights. Or, one might say, privileges.

Wisconsin protest sign, "targeting" Gov. Walker

There is a romantic view of labor unions as standing up for working people against evil exploitive employers. In “Bloody Ludlow,” strikers and their families were massacred at the behest of mine owners. But that was a century ago, and such mythologizing has little to do with today’s economy. Sure, businesses still do try to maximize profits, and employees are part of that. However, the greater challenge for a business today is not to use its workers like robots, but rather to attract the best ones, motivate them, and retain them.

The union movement was, indeed, so successful that it put itself out of a job in the industrial economy. Unions got government to enforce the protections they advocated, so that in effect government has taken over the mission that once was organized labor’s. Thus, not surprisingly, in the industrial landscape the percentage of unionized workers has been shrinking steadily into insignificance.

Yet, even while dying in that industrial economy, unionism has gained a second life in the public sector. Government is the one industry where unionism has thrived. That’s because here, it pushes against an open door. While private firms have every impetus to resist organized labor, elected politicians have opposite incentives.

Here, the old romantic notion of unions standing up for oppressed workers against exploitive employers is turned on its head. Who are public employee unions “bargaining” with? Not businesses – the public! And as those unions grow powerful and rich (their coffers filled with mandatory dues extracted from captive members), the politicians who run government become their captives too, beholden for vital campaign support. (This is mainly true of the Democrats; at their last national convention, one of every ten delegates came from the teacher’s unions alone.)

"Walker the Mubarak of the Midwest"

Elected officials can hardly resist union demands at the “bargaining table,” when those unions have them by the balls at election time. Such “bargaining” entails a blatant conflict of interest and can properly be labeled corrupt. The victim is the taxpayer. By and large, public employees in America enjoy significantly better pay, working conditions, job security, vacations, and benefits, than do comparable workers in the private sector. This is certainly true regarding health benefits. And excessively so for pension benefits. Bribed by political support from unions, politicians have given away the store, and the resulting bloated pension obligations are a major factor now wrecking state government finances.*

Those budget crunches are leading governments at all levels to cut back help to really needy and disadvantaged people. Public employees don’t fall into that category. It is really a shame when their plush pensions suck up so much money that we can no longer afford to help those much less fortunate.

This is what Gov. Walker is trying to deal with. This is the position of privilege – this ability to feather their nests at the expense of the broader public, by corrupting the system – that the indignant protestors in Wisconsin are battling to preserve.

*For the record, yes, I collect one of those very generous pensions myself; though by leaving before I was eligible to “retire” I kissed off lifetime health benefits.


A Great Day for Idealists

February 11, 2011

So much for the idea that democracy is some kind of “Western” value that is unsuitable or even unwanted in some cultures. Egyptians have proven what cynical rot that is.

They have proven the power of ideals. That when enough people want freedom and justice enough, it can be achieved, overcoming great obstacles. But this is not new news. How many times have we seen this play out? How many authoritarian regimes, seemingly rocks of impregnable “stability,” have fallen? When will we learn that the only genuinely stable regime is a democratic one where government is accountable to the people, and they have the freedom to pursue their dreams? And that that’s the only sort of stability worth having?

In Cairo today

But it’s not easy. Mubarak didn’t hold power for thirty years because he was a pushover. I bow in reverence to the people of Egypt, for their great courageous efforts in seizing control of their destiny. It’s easy for me to pontificate in the comfort of this free and peaceable country. I don’t know if I would have had the courage to put my life on the line for my beliefs like they did. Some of them did sacrifice their lives. And in every story like this, there are always – always – people ready to do this. I love humanity for it.

The Economist’s “Lexington” columnist, who writes about America, says that George Bush, with his vision for democracy in the Middle East, so widely mocked by cynics, suddenly looks a lot more clever than his critics (click here). It would be a stretch to draw a straight line between Bush’s aim in Iraq, to sow a seed for democracy throughout the region, and what has happened in Egypt (and Tunisia). But history is a complex tangled skein, and who can say whether, had Iraq not happened, Tunisia and Egypt would not have happened?

And, now that they have happened, let us see what will happen in Syria, and Libya, and Saudi Arabia, and all the rest.

This is a great day for Egypt, and a great day for America – for the ideals America represents. America’s interests are best served by a world of democratic societies. I am not afraid of democracy in any country. I don’t believe a majority of people in Egypt, or anywhere (including Iran), want the kind of regime Iran has. Iran was not a democratic revolution – it was a revolution hijacked by a bunch of gangsters wrapping themselves in a false cloak of religious piety. Let us hope the people of Egypt are not similarly traduced.

Berlin Wall, 1989

Thomas Jefferson, in the last thing he ever wrote, expressed the dream that America’s idea of self-government and human rights would in time spread throughout the world: “to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all.” I have always hoped I’d live to see it. Today, that dream took a big step closer to realization.


Who Owns the Past?

February 9, 2011

Craig Childs has authored Finders Keepers, A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession. He’s an amateur archaeology enthusiast who explores sites in the American West. But he doesn’t take any artifacts. Childs believes such things belong, well, to themselves, and to the places where they were left by their ancient makers.

He seems fully alive to the contradictions and dilemmas this somewhat mystical idea entails. Like leaving sites vulnerable to weather and looting. A telling story concerns Childs stealing an ancient pot displayed in a little library, in order to put it somewhere in the desert. But he doesn’t defend this action. Instead, he ruefully concludes that he actually made a bad thing even worse.

Much of the book concerns the battle against looting and the illicit antiquities trade. It discusses a 2009 raid in Blanding, Utah, with federal agents arresting a slew of leading citizens, and confiscating literally truckloads of artifacts (some of which the owners insisted came legally from private land). And here again Childs is conflicted, sympathetically portraying the victims of such raids, and lamenting two suicides among them.

However, he never adequately comes to grips with the interests at stake. He actually seems to posit an interest on the part of the artifacts themselves. Of course, those seized in Blanding probably just went to some warehouse. And anyway, Childs’s notion is again a mystical one, and ultimately incoherent. Inanimate objects don’t have interests. Only people – living people – do. Nothing has meaning except insofar as it affects the feelings of beings capable of feeling.

That would include archaeologists. Yet Childs doesn’t care much for them either, describing most as sanctimonious prigs who disdain getting their hands dirty with actual digging. And he sees there is already a glut of pre-Columbian archaeology. The populations were quite large, and flourished for many centuries, so museum store-rooms overflow with their leavings.

Childs recognizes that it’s private collectors who really treasure these things. Perhaps oddly, despite his own quasi-religious reverence for pre-Columbian artifacts, he laments the high prices they fetch – which simply reflects how much other people love them too. Childs does worry about unrecorded sites destroyed by greedy treasure hunters. But a beautiful ancient ceramic, even in its original site context, may add little or nothing to our historical understanding – because archaeologists have already exhaustively studied such things – yet it can make a private collector’s heart race. Who should get to possess it? What is the interest – the human interest – to be served?

Craig Childs

Though Childs himself is obviously besotted with his own notions of connecting with the past, he sees a craving for such a connection by others, through possessing artifacts, as violating some right of the objects to remain unmolested. But, again, Childs is conflicted. Another story concerns Mario, who shows him some undisturbed Mexican archaeological sites. Then, back at the man’s house, the author sees a pre-Columbian pot on the kitchen table. Its taking would, to Childs, have been desecration enough. But, worse yet, because Mario’s wife didn’t like the color, he spray-painted it gold!

However, after pondering, Childs reaches a surprising conclusion. He reflects upon how often pottery was re-converted by early peoples themselves, and places Mario’s actions in that context: “This is what this ancient utility vessel was made for to begin with: a good kitchen, a man and a wife . . . .” Mario, he writes, “was engaging in his own conversation with history.” One might well ask why this shouldn’t apply equally to collectors who lovingly display artifacts in glass cases in their homes.

I’m a big fan of archaeology myself – we can’t know where we’re going if we don’t understand where we’ve come from. But, especially with regard to well-studied cultures like those of this book, a point of diminishing returns is reached. Much of today’s archaeology – like much of what passes for “research” in modern academia – is basically trivial. It’s far from clear why the passions of collectors must be sacrificed for the sake of such archaeologists’ fetishes.

In the end, Childs allows that we “cannot fault the desires we have to hold onto these artifacts,” and ordinary citizens should not be barred from such a direct connection with the past. For the pots in a collection, he says, this is now their “context,” the place they are most deeply appreciated. Confiscating them for transfer to “the black hole of a lockdown facility” seems “ludicrous.”

But, having conceded all that ground, Childs’s final redoubt is to assert that “having every last one is overkill.” Yet that seems unjustified, given what he himself has said about the vast supply of these artifacts. Surely there is enough to satisfy all interests. I’m reminded of the Israeli or Palestinian zealots who insist the entire land belongs to them, though it’s big enough to easily accommodate two co-existing states. Likewise, what Childs poses is not an either/or dilemma. There are more than enough ancient sites and artifacts to enable the archaeologists, the collectors, and the Childses, all to fulfill their hearts’ desires.


The Last Pharaoh

February 1, 2011

Cynicism about democracy has been very fashionable. Full of faults and failings, it’s said to be in retreat. Authoritarianism, we’re told, is in history’s vanguard, with China proving how to achieve economic dynamism despite – or thanks to – undemocratic rule. And of course supposedly democracy is a mere “Western” value unsuited to some cultures, which some people don’t even want. This trope has been invoked to explain why Arab nations in particular have seemed unreceptive to democracy.

The mistake is to view democracy narrowly as meaning just elections. But a democratic society entails far more. It means government accountability, rule of rule, free expression, pluralism, dispersal of power, and a public consensus supporting all this. Such truly democratic societies are better for people to live in than autocracies like China. Even if it did mean less economic growth. Economics is not everything, and people have shown a willingness to pay a price if necessary to have a free society. But I believe in the long run such societies are more materially prosperous as well. Across the world the world it’s the freer societies that tend to be the richer ones.

Cairo -- AP Photo

Francis Fukuyama, in his 1992 book The End of History and The Last Man, explained the rise of democracy as fulfillment of humanity’s age-old quest. He used the Greek word thymos – the human dignity of feeling that one matters, one’s life counts for something. This is seen today in the streets of Cairo. What those Egyptians really are doing is asserting their thymos, which can no longer be denied.

And, as David Brooks explains in his (typically) superb column today, it’s also wrong to see authoritarian regimes as somehow representing “stability.” A system that denies a population’s human aspirations – their thirst for thymos – can never be stable, any more than a dormant volcano is stable. Something is being bottled up, and will inevitably explode.

The Obama administration must stop shilly-shallying, and get on the right side of history — fast — by more forcefully disowning Mubarak and pushing him toward the exit.

How often we hear that this country or that one is not capable of democracy because it’s never been free. We forget that just a few decades ago, only a handful of nations were democratic. Yet one after another has made the leap. Latin America, for instance, used to be practically all military dictatorships. Now it’s practically all democracies. And India, with no democratic experience whatsoever, made the leap in 1947 and has remained (with one minor interruption) a quite successful democracy ever since.

It’s true that democracy has seen some setbacks lately – notably Venezuela. But don’t start dancing on democracy’s grave. Nothing in human events is ever neatly linear. Recent democratic reversals are mere perturbations in what has really been a stupendous historical tidal wave. As Brooks notes, over 100 nations have seen democratic uprisings in recent decades; more than 85 authoritarian regimes have fallen; and over 60 of those countries have become more or less democratic.

It’s always a concern that a revolution like Egypt’s will go awry, and bad guys will get power. We remember Khomeini (and Lenin). But we must not let our fears trump our hopes. Nowhere do autocracies serve America’s true long-term national interest. A world in which everyone is free will be a better world for America to live in. And I remain hopeful that I will live to see that world.

(Note, a fuller expression of these ideas can be found in my book, The Case for Rational Optimism; the relevant chapter can be read in full here.)