Archive for September, 2013

Why Does The World Exist?

September 29, 2013

WhyDoestheWorldExist?FullMech.inddIn writing previously about Lawrence Krauss’s book, A Universe From Nothing: Why is There Something Rather Than Nothing? I called this the greatest question. Comes now Jim Holt’s book, Why Does the World Exist? Whereas Krauss’s was basically a physics book, Holt’s is mainly philosophical.

At the heart of the problem is what nothingness means (as the alternative to the Universe we’ve got, full of stuff). Holt spends much time on this, discussing the plausibility of nothingness via a process of subtraction from our cosmos of somethingness. Meantime Krauss described nothingness in such a way that applying physics to it could get you a Big Bang; he talks a lot about field theory and suchlike. imagesBut the trouble is that religious apologists can always say their nothingness (not even fields) is deeper than yours and requires a god to get something going. Of course, a “nothingness” that’s got a god in it ain’t no nothingness in my book and merely begs the question of where he came from. (As Dawkins says, a god capable of the trick would be so complex and improbable as to require an explanation even bigger than the one he supposedly provides.)

images-2But Holt explains that the picture of our Universe leaping into being out of nothingness is actually somewhat misleading. The key point is that time itself (or, more accurately, space-time) is a feature of our Universe. “Before” the Big Bang there was neither space nor time. And I put “before” in quotes because there was no “before.” “Before” is a time concept, and if time began with the Big Bang, it’s incoherent to speak of anything “before” it. The Big Bang is a boundary, just as the edge of our curved space-time is a boundary, and it’s equally incoherent to speak of anything “beyond.”

images-1Thus, to say the Universe is 13.7 billion years old is actually equivalent to saying it always existed. Not that you can go back an infinite number of years; you can’t. You can only go back 13.7 billion years. That’s all the time there’s been; “always” means 13.7 billion years.

The foregoing might seem to make the question, why the world exists, go away. Holt discusses one philosopher, Adolf Grunbaum, who does think existence is a non-question.

But I disagree. For all the agonizing over conceptualizing non-existence, I, in my simple-minded way, have no problem with it. Suppose the Big Bang had never happened. It was, after all, an event, and maybe a-la-Krauss it can be deemed inevitable, but still it’s possible to conceive the alternative. The Universe either exists or it doesn’t. Without a Big Bang, it doesn’t. Nothing, nada, maybe not even Krauss’s quantum fields (maybe). So the question doesn’t really go away: if there are two alternatives, why  does one obtain rather than the other?

images-3Indeed, as Holt observes, Occam’s Razor tells us that nothingness is far more likely than existence, since the theory of nothingness is the sine qua non of simplicity – it has no moving parts or arguably arbitrary components. Existence is full of them.

But a different way to approach the problem is to posit that the Big Bang was not a unique event. If it happened once, it’s entirely reasonable to suppose it’s happened over and over. One possibility is an oscillating universe – its expansion reverses and ends in a “big crunch” which rebounds in a fresh big bang. images-4Another is the multiverse concept, that big bangs are natural events in any universe; and our own may be creating offspring universes, for example, out of the “singularities” at the hearts of black holes, where the laws of physics go haywire. In either of those models, “always” can become not just 13.7 billion years, but infinite, with no beginning to existence. But that of course still leaves the question of why this rather than eternal nothingness.

Meantime, if we accept Krauss’s tack, that the laws of physics, acting upon whatever void “preceded” the Big Bang, somehow account for its happening – where did those laws come from? Could they – like the law of gravity (its force being inversely proportional to the square of the distance between objects) – have been operative (or latent) even in a nothingness devoid of space or time? How so? And if so, couldn’t one object that a true nothingness wouldn’t even harbor laws of physics?

A multiverse could obviate this problem, since each daughter universe could be born with its own laws of physics (and parameters, like the electron’s weight), which could differ among them; you wouldn’t need to conceive of any pre-existing laws. This would also answer the “anthropomorphic” argument that our Universe’s parameters seem preternaturally fine-tuned to permit our existence. If there are many divergent Universes, it’s no wonder we find ourselves in the one where that’s possible.

A footnote is that, as Einstein showed, matter and energy are interchangeable. And gravity being negative energy, it balances out the positive energy incorporated in all the mass in the Universe. Thus the Universe’s total net energy is zero; which makes it somewhat easier, at least, to conceive its popping out of “nothing.” In simpler terms, 0 can be peeled apart into +1 and -1; so from nothing you can get two somethings. The ultimate free lunch, this has been called.

images-6It helps too that our thinking of matter as “stuff” is also not exactly right. Aristotle theorized that the world consists of stuff plus structure. Now we know that matter is at least mostly empty space. And as we delve ever deeper into submicroscopics, it’s basically all structure and we actually can’t find any hard nuggets of stuff. What seems to be stuff turns out to be just artifacts of structure. That too makes somewhat more plausible a Universe bursting from “nothing.”

Nearing the end of the intellectual journey he traces, seeking an answer to the title question, Holt gives us several pages of logic which he claims resolve, to his own satisfaction, why the Universe must exist. It’s the one part of the book I actually skipped over. I felt sure it couldn’t be that simple, any more than St. Anselm’s famously concise “ontological argument” proves God’s existence.* This is not something we can solve with pure intellectualizing.

I recognize that much of this essay might strike a religious reader as mumbo-jumbo, like the doctrine of the Trinity sounds to an atheist. But here’s the difference. Theological theories are bald speculations not subject to correction by any information coming from reality. Science, in contrast, is an enterprise concerned with understanding reality based upon actual information we get from it, and developing as we get more. UnknownThe standard model of physics, including the Big Bang, has been confirmed by predictions based upon it being borne out by observation — so far, at least (that’s how Einstein got his Nobel prize). Of course our understanding is a work in progress. But positing God as the explanation is a “Hail Mary” pass that evades the issue.

Unknown-1*  1) God is the greatest imaginable being; 2) A being that exists is greater than one who doesn’t; 3) Therefore God exists. Ha ha. The fallacy is that you’re talking not about God, but the idea of God. There’s no way thinking about something can prove it exists.

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Impoverishment of the Human Soul in American Education

September 25, 2013

I’ve often written about education. Not that it’s a hot-button topic, or that I’m an expert; but it’s so important for America’s future.

Souter

Souter

We know we’re behind on STEM education – science, technology, engineering, math. But recently the American Academy of Arts and Sciences issued a report spotlighting an even more dire deficiency, in humanities education. I went to a presentation about this by a panel member, David Souter, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

You might think STEM is the critical stuff, and humanities is really just fluff. Indeed, when Souter mentioned decreased funding for “social science research,” I couldn’t help recalling the Sokal hoax, an article of gibberish parodying modern academic jargon that made it into a prestigious publication, Social Text. imagesAnd it’s true that much of what passes for social science work is crap. Which is a shame, because vaunting STEM over humanities actually puts the cart before the horse; the importance of the former rests upon the latter.

You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve come from. The real aim is human flourishing; a person who’s a science whiz while knowing little of history, civics or the arts is a hollow shell. All the science in the world can’t safeguard the human values we claim to cherish as Americans if, in fact, we don’t understand those values, in the larger context of humanity’s progress.

Unknown-1The point was nailed in a short film preceding Souter’s talk. One scene showed two young girls watching, on TV, a clip of Neil Armstrong’s first Moon step, and his words. “What did that mean?” one asks the other. “I don’t know,” she answers. “Doesn’t seem a big step to me.”

That’s impoverishment of the human soul.

Souter illustratively chose to single out one particular corner of the humanities: poetry. When he said he was going to recite a familiar American poem, and then talk about the problem of what the poet meant by it, I could instantly guess his choice: Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken. Unknown-2After his recitation, Souter told of once hearing Frost himself perform it (at his request), and coming away with the usual understanding of the poem reinforced. But he then quoted Frost calling it a “very tricky” poem, and eventually Souter arrived at a very different understanding. And that itself is an important lesson to be gleaned from poetry studies – how even one’s best thinking can lead to wrong conclusions – a lesson with applicability far beyond poetics.

Meantime, a grasp of our poetic heritage, as part of our larger literary endowment, is essential to what Souter called civic literacy. It’s part of knowing where we’ve come from. Of course, history is central. Those two girls watching Armstrong couldn’t have understood much history – didn’t understand the story of humankind, and their own place in it. Without that, how can we fulfill our roles as members of society?

images-1In this regard, civics per se is also integral. We used to teach civics; no longer; and that seems, well, crazy. We’re making a civicsless citizenry. Two thirds of American adults today don’t know about the separation of powers among three branches of government!

When Souter said he was about to quote a famous past American judge, I also guessed right: Learned Hand (of Albany). It was from a WWII “why we fight” speech. Hand said, “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women.”

The relevance for today’s America is obvious. With our ideological polarization, far too many people seem far too sure they’re right, and little interested in understanding the minds of others. Viewpoints are not informed by a broad perspective – the sort of perspective that is attained by a grounding in the humanities – literature, and the other arts, history, psychology, anthropology, and so forth. Speaking in the film, columnist David Brooks said our biggest policy mistakes turn out to be mistakes about human nature.

I keep saying that America’s specialness is not some God-decreed eternal verity. It’s a human creation. And if Americans stop understanding what it’s really all about, it cannot be sustained.

My Great Blind Date to Mexico

September 22, 2013

The fall of ’73 was a strenuous time for me. At the PSC where I worked, the utilities we regulated were in crisis. My book about the Albany political machine had just been published. And, as a ward leader, I was deep in a tough election campaign.

One of my foot-soldiers was Dawn, into whose crazy-quilt household crashed her sister, Mickey, having left her husband. Mickey was attractive and dynamic, and I went out with her.

imagesIn conversation, the subject of travel came up. I said I could really use a vacation, but had no one to travel with. So Mickey volunteered! We quickly settled on Mexico; it would have to be after the election. “And to make it interesting,” she said, “let’s agree not to see each other till we leave.”

OK, I said. Mickey did make a point of confiding the information that she was considered “a great lay.”

Mind you, I was still practically a virgin then. (I don’t count the hooker in Rome.) So to say I looked forward to this trip would be an understatement.

You might think this tale a little flaky. But it gets worse.

Well, I make all the arrangements, buy the tickets, and so forth. images-1And the night before our scheduled 6 AM departure, I settle in for an early bedtime, when around eight, the phone rings.

It’s Mickey. She’s gotten a job offer she can’t refuse. Must start right away. No Mexico.

To say I was crushed would be an understatement. I had told everyone at work, and my family, I was going to Mexico with a chick. How puffed up I’d been! What humiliation loomed now! To go alone would be pathetic.

“So how am I supposed to find somebody to go to Mexico in a few hours?” I say to Mickey, seemingly a futile rhetorical question.

“Well, do you know Nancy, who lives here?” Mickey says.

“No. Put her on.”

images-4Nancy comes to the phone. “Hi Nancy. I’m Frank. We’ve never met, but would you like to go with me for two weeks to Mexico, tomorrow morning?”

Nancy says yes. And we go. (In pre-9/11 times, the name on a plane ticket didn’t matter. Remember?)

Nancy proved to be personable and pleasant, and we had a fun adventure together. I did try one polite attempt on her virtue, which was politely rebuffed. Nancy was clear that my paying for the trip didn’t make her my girlfriend. I wasn’t actually pissed about this. It merely made this big blind date with Nancy no different from any other date I’d had.

Ironically, we had to register in hotels as man-and-wife, Mexico being very Catholic. It was also cheap, with a highly favorable exchange rate. UnknownOur first night, we dined in a lovely restaurant, a multi-course meal, complete with margaritas. When the bill arrived, in pesos, it translated into two dollars and change.

On the return trip we got stuck overnight in New York, and since my parents lived near the airport, we stayed with them. I’d previously described my intended travel companion as tall, skinny, and dark haired. Nancy was none of those things. They’d already looked askance at my plans, and now were further confuzzled.

After getting home to Albany, I never heard from Nancy again. Nor Mickey; I think she went back to her husband.

images-2In retrospect, there’s something fishy about this story. The “let’s make it interesting” thing. The last-minute phone call. Nancy being ready to go. It had to be some kind of set-up. But why? What was the logic?

Sometimes life doesn’t follow logic. This happened. It remains a mystery to me. Like the Great Seventh Grade Poetry Report mystery. Maybe someday I’ll tell that one.

America’s Immigration Gestapo Betrays Iraqi Allies

September 19, 2013

I love my country and believe it’s a force for good in the world. I’m not one of those cynics who expects America to behave badly. That’s why it hurts so much when it does.

UnknownBush-bashing was, um, a little overdone. But alas, the Bush administration did all too much to, um, disappoint those who supported the Iraq war.

I won’t revisit all the old arguments, but there’s one matter you may not know about, featured recently on National Public Radio’s This American Life. It’s our betrayal of Iraqis who helped us. Pro- and anti-war folks should equally be nauseated.

The hourlong NPR report focused on the efforts of one ex-serviceman, Kirk Johnson (click here for his project’s website), to get the government to honor its moral obligation to Iraqis who, at huge personal risk, worked for us during the war. Now that we’ve left, they’re in even greater danger from jihadists bent on retribution. You would think they’d be perfect candidates for political asylum in the U.S. images-1But America’s Immigration Gestapo (IG)* does not agree.

When it became clear that the IG was stonewalling these supplicants, Johnson and other like-minded Americans carried the issue to Congress. And a law, sponsored by Edward Kennedy, was actually enacted, creating a five year program with 25,000 slots for our former Iraqi employees to gain expedited admission to the U.S.

So did the IG act in accordance with this law? No.

So then Johnson et al made a pitch to the Obama White House to cut the Gordian knot, by simply airlifting all these Iraqis to a military base in, say, Guam, where they could be expeditiously vetted in person for acceptance as refugee immigrants. The proposal wasn’t far-fetched – indeed, Britain, among others, had done something exactly like this with their own former Iraqi helpers. imagesBut when the radio report said this would merely require a stroke of Obama’s pen, my heart sank.

Let’s be clear. Under long-existing law and policy (not to mention basic morality), these people have a right to come here. And it’s a matter of life-or-death.

The NPR report featured the typical case of one Iraqi, Omar, who assiduously struggled to gain admittance while under repeated death threats. His voluminous exchange of e-mails with the IG, over many months, was extensively quoted, and almost literally made me feel like throwing up. In comparison, my recently chronicled run-around from eBay looks like VIP treatment.

The IG would e-mail Omar saying his documentation of contact information for the Americans he worked for was insufficient. Omar would respond with total documentation with every “i” dotted and “t” crossed. The IG would reply saying, in exactly the same words, that his documentation of contact information . . . . Again, and again, and again. Through it all, Omar’s messages exhibited unfailing politeness. The IG kept repeating that his patience would help to accelerate the process (!)

What was going on here? Merely sheer bloody-minded bureaucratic incompetence? Much as I believe in that phenomenon, something more must be involved. Johnson says the answer is simple: Omar, and the thousands like him, are Muslims. But it isn’t discrimination, exactly. Rather, if God forbid one of them came here and committed a big terrorist outrage, no bureaucrat would want his name on the paper trail that let him come.

Unknown-1As if someone who actually risked his life to help Americans in Iraq would be prone to that. I understand cover-your-ass. But this is remove-your-brain.

One sensed that Omar’s story would not end happily. He was beheaded.

* I have written before about the IG’s human rights abuses.

Julian Jaynes: How Old Is The Self?

September 15, 2013

I recently had an article published in Philosophy Now. Because only subscribers can read it online, I’ve uploaded the text. Here’s a brief recap:

UnknownJulian Jaynes’s 1976 book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, holds that true consciousness emerged only around 3,000 years ago. Before, our “bicameral” minds deemed the chatter in our heads the voices of gods. Around 1000 BC, societal and geopolitical upheavals forced the change. Jaynes’s theory has been widely discussed and given much credence.

By “consciousness” Jaynes means a sense of self, that there’s a “me” in there. While we don’t fully understand how selfhood arises, it can be seen as an emergent property of the mental system as a whole. But a lot of mental functioning is more or less unconscious; we can even perform complex tasks, like driving, apart from conscious attentiveness. Jaynes is saying people could have had such complex mental functioning without the emergent property of self. But this is contradicted by the evidence of seven billion examples, wherein the complexity does produce selves, even for people dumb as boards.

images-2Jaynes focuses on The Iliad. In this ancient epic about the Trojan War, he says, characters are never portrayed with inner lives, but instead always manipulated by gods. The war, Jaynes declares, “was directed by hallucinations. And the soldiers . . . were noble automatons who knew not what they did.”

But what The Iliad really illustrates is cultural evolution. Civilization was new, and it took time to develop all its familiar characteristics. The Iliad followed the convention of the time for how tales were told. Literature had to evolve a lot before portraying characters’ inner lives. And Jaynes misreads The Iliad. He stresses how Achilles vacillated over killing Agamemnon until the Goddess Athena told him to. But what was this vacillation if not the working of his own mind? And while Jaynes says the vacillating is depicted physiologically – “gut churning,” etc. – surely the Greeks understood such imagery as conveying something mental.

images-3Jaynes repeatedly describes “bicameral” inner voices as “hallucinations.” But they were people’s own thoughts, which were real, and that’s different from hallucinating nonexistent voices coming from elsewhere. Conceivably they might have been thought “voices of gods” if popping up suddenly after a lifetime of silence. But normal people become aware of their own thoughts at least as soon as they learn language, and know who is doing the talking. And even hallucinators (like schizophrenics) still have selves, and thoughts they know are their own.

Also, Jaynes evades the issue of how god directives were carried out. You’d need an intermediary, hearing the god voice, deciding to obey it, and working the muscles accordingly. images-4So there’d still have to be a self, even if one that’s heeding god voices.

Jaynes seems to date bicameral minds to the beginnings of civilization (around 10,000 years ago), the god voices evolving from actual voices of kings. This begs the question of what sort of mental life preceded bicameralism, and on this Jaynes is remarkably silent. Would earlier people have had selves, and given them up? Or were they previously not even bicameral? Yet archaeological evidence shows that stone-agers led quite sophisticated lives with plenty of technology and artisanship. Language goes back tens of thousands of years, and it’s hard to imagine its developers didn’t know when they were talking to themselves.

Jaynes is also conspicuously silent about civilizations outside the Near East and Mediterranean areas. Obviously his invoking social upheavals 3000 years ago would be inapplicable to other regions with very different histories. And his discussion of those alleged upheavals is anyway cursory. Life throughout ancient times was pervasively tumultuous, difficult, and much more violent than today. Jaynes fails to show something so uniquely unsettling about the times around 1000 BC that it changed how minds work.

Survival was always a struggle; consciousness was a useful survival adaptation, evolved to at least some degree in many creatures. Homo Sapiens is simply the most extreme example, whose high level of consciousness likely evolved to facilitate the complex social cooperation that figured so large in his survival, long before 1000 BC.

images-6Anyone studying deeply the earliest civilizations must see how alike we are. Those ancestors, who first figured out how to grow crops, domesticate animals, build villages and then cities, created writing and literature and music and art, invented governmentimages-7 and law, launched great projects of architecture, exploration, trade and conquest, and laid the foundations of science and mathematics, could not possibly have done it all with minds that functioned in the primitive – in fact, downright silly – manner Jaynes postulates. He offensively belittles those people and their stupendous achievements.

NOTE: SEE A LATER POST FOR MORE ABOUT THIS!

Assad and Obama Wriggle Off the Hook

September 11, 2013

UnknownPutin and Assad are lying snakes, so any deal with them must engender supreme skepticism. Obama and Kerry almost say so (diplomatically), but in fact Obama will swallow whatever dish of worms Putin and Assad feed him, to wriggle off the hook on which he so needlessly impaled himself.

That hook was his foolish call for a Congressional vote – which he didn’t need and was bound to lose – a presidency-wrecker. To avoid that, Putin and Assad well know, Obama will lie down for anything.

While postponing a strike pending negotiations might be logical, postponing the vote actually is not. Congressional backing would have strengthened Obama’s negotiating position. A “no” vote, on the other hand, would have relieved Assad of the need to negotiate at all. Thus postponing the vote (forever, presumably) is Obama’s declaration of weakness; it belies his speaking last night of “the credible threat of U.S. military action.” Putting it up to Congress gutted that credibility.

images-1Many, including Obama and Kerry, have stressed how hard it will be to get a deal that will truly take care of Syria’s entire huge stock of chemical weapons. They’re right. So we’ll get a fig leaf deal. At least, you might think, it would preclude Assad from using chemical weapons again. But remember, no one thought he’d do so after Obama’s “red line” statement. And after this new agreement-to-be, if Assad re-offends, what will Obama do? Will he be up for going through this whole ghastly wringer again? I doubt it, and Assad will too. Using chemical weapons again afterward would show up Obama as a chump.

And anyway, the deal would still leave Assad’s conventional military capabilities wholly intact, capabilities he’s already used to kill 100,000, and which might have been degraded by U.S. missile strikes. Avoiding that blow, and in effect getting a free hand to continue his killing spree, in exchange for what is likely to be a meaningless restriction on chemical weapons, seems like a pretty sweet deal for Assad.

Yet I’m for it, if the alternative is Congress voting no. A fig leaf is better than naked impotence.

So, the winners: Putin and Assad, of course, and bad guys everywhere, now knowing they have little to fear from America. And Obama, who avoids doing what he never wanted to do, and the humiliation of Congress telling him he can’t.

The losers: The Syrian people, of course, and the world as a whole, which has just been made better for thugs and worse for human values, than it might have been, but for Obama’s feckless miscalculations. (Should his Nobel Peace Prize be revoked?) Unknown-1America’s credibility, and its role as the world’s policeman, take a big hit.

Yes, I said policeman, as in, “We shouldn’t be the world’s policeman.” Do you want to live in a society with no cop on the beat, and psychopaths can rampage with impunity? The fundamental social contract entails government – and policemen – protecting us from harm by others. There is no world government, but America’s role is the next best thing. Somebody has to take responsibility, step up to the plate, and act as the world’s policeman, or else we’ll live in a much more disorderly and violent world. America is the only country capable of doing it.images-4

Or would you prefer China?

“Be Excellent to Yourself Dude”

September 8, 2013

UnknownIt’s a line from the movie Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Also a message in a bottle, found among Hurricane Sandy debris on Long Island. imagesTurns out the bottle had been launched by Sidonie Fery, who’d died in 2010 at 18, falling from a cliff in Switzerland. The Long Island town has erected a memorial plaque quoting the message.

And I’m quoting it because it sort of captures why I’ve been blogging for over five years and writing hundreds of posts. While I do seem to have some fans, it’s not making me a star or shaking the world. But I do it to please myself. And because I’m tough to please when it comes to the written word, I have to be excellent. I wouldn’t bother if I were not striving to maintain a high standard that satisfies my most discriminating reader – me.

So I don’t just whip off my blog posts, a lot of thought and work goes into them. I enjoy doing it. And it reflects my lifelong project of trying to understand the world. You can actually slide through life without that; yet I find it enormously enriches mine. It makes me the rational optimist of this blog’s title. I’ve written before of my “ideology of reality” — basing beliefs on the realities I’ve come to understand, rather than the opposite of beliefs molding perceptions of reality. Too many people operate the latter way, and I often wonder what planet they imagine they’re living on. Orienting readers to Planet Earth is a chief mission of this blog.

Now another word about the blogosphere. You may notice I have around 1000 followers. This is misleading. My followership started to balloon in May when WordPress featured one of my posts. I checked out one of my new followers’ own blogs. Didn’t seem especially intriguing, yet it had a slew of comments. And practically every comment said: “Thanks for following my blog!”

images-2Reminds me of when, years back, I somehow got on a mailing list about mailing lists, a window into a whole mail-order subculture. I actually run a mail-order business myself and sell plenty. But this subculture instead seemed to be all about mailing lists and how to parlay them to supposedly make money, from people who’d also be encouraged to imagine they could profit the same way. Seemed like a giant chain letter but with no payoff at the end; nobody ever seemed interested in actually trying to sell anything other than pamphlets telling how to make money selling such pamphlets. Maybe the only money being made was by the Postal Service.

So similarly, it seems there’s a whole universe of bloggers who sign up as followers on other blogs just hoping thereby to get traffic for their own. images-3Perhaps based on Yogi Berra’s dictum: “You can’t expect people to show up for your funeral if you don’t go to theirs.”

But, again, I‘m not doing this to get a lot of followers (or funeral attendees). I do it out of my deep love of language and enjoyment working with language, as well as to express my understandings about the world, shaped over decades of reading and thought.

images-1So while I blog mainly to “be excellent” to myself, I am also gratified that some people, at least, find something here of value to them. If you are one of them, please feel free to express your appreciation. I am very fond of little pictures of men like Washington, Lincoln, Hamilton; a special favorite is Jackson. My mailing address is Box 8600, Albany, NY 12208.

The Scandalous Sochi Olympics: Medals for Disgrace and Bullshit

September 4, 2013

imagesAn Olympic gold medal was always one of my fantasies. Standing up there, while our majestic national anthem is played – what a supreme moment! But, at 65, that dream has kind of faded. Not that I was athletic anyway. Not that I could even do, say, a single chin-up in high school.

But I will hereby award an Olympic gold medal: to the International Olympic Committee  (IOC) itself, for the sprint to the bottom of disgrace in giving the 2014 winter games to Sochi in Russia. That deserves a special prize.

Winter Olympics Site (the white stuff is not snow)

Winter Olympics Site (the white stuff is not snow)

Sochi might seem a bizarre locale for winter games: a beach resort on the Black Sea, whose climate The Economist labels “subtropical,” noting it’s “one of the very few places in Russia where snow is scarce.” So the organizers have been hoarding last year’s snow. Also, Sochi is next door to still simmering violent conflicts in the North Caucasus.

But never mind such quibbles. Vladimir Putin wanted this, and so it was bestowed on him by the IOC as a reward for . . . what? His splendid record on human rights and international cooperation? images-1Indeed, Putin wanted these games as a form of “regime laundering,” to give his murderous gangster mafia a veneer of international legitimacy; so he could puff out his over-exposed chest and preen in the Olympics’ reflected glory.

But that wasn’t all. As if to demonstrate why the games should never have been awarded to Russia, their cost is now estimated at $50 billion, the highest ever. The original estimate was only $12 billion. Why the huge overrun? In a word, corruption.

Il Capo di Tutti Capi

Il Capo di Tutti Capi

Putin wanted these games not only for international legitimacy but to make a mockery of that very legitimacy by using the games to loot the nation’s coffers, for the benefit of the crony capitalists who feed off him and prop him up (see my past post on The Dictator’s Handbook). The games are mostly paid for by the Russian government, with the money flowing to a coterie of big, politically connected insider contractors. So, inflating the bill from $12 to $50 billion? No problem. Who’s gonna complain? Another Magnitsky? (Murdered, to shut him up.)

Russia exemplifies those states where government, instead of building national prosperity, is a vehicle for extracting wealth to benefit a narrow elite. There’s no democratic accountability to stop them. Russians mostly bend over for this, thinking they’re not too bad off. They fail to realize not only how much is stolen from them, but how much more prosperous a rule-of-law economy would make them.

Navalny

Navalny

Regime critic Alexei Navalny (see my past post) was recently convicted and sentenced to five years in a labor camp on obviously phony charges. At his “trial” his defense was not allowed to call any witnesses, nor even to cross-examine prosecution witnesses. That’s why I put “trial” in quotes. At protest demonstrations, random participants have been arrested and charged with “violence against police,” carrying heavy prison terms. Regimes like this talk a lot about obedience to law.  But instead of rule of law – which means means applying laws impartially –  it’s really rule by law, which is just a tool for a ruling group to repress and exploit everyone else.

To stick yet another thumb in the eye of the IOC and the world community, Russia recently passed a law making it basically illegal for gays to come out of the closet.

The IOC is now considering a 2020 site selection. Turkey is in the running; will the IOC learn its lesson? See my post about recent developments in Turkey.

And for more Sochi details, check out The Economist’s report. It concludes by quoting – without further comment – Russia’s original bid for the games: it claims to provide “a stable political and economic environment in order to improve and enhance quality of life. The government is based on free and open elections, freedom of expression and a constitutionally guaranteed balance of power.”Unknown

Do they give an Olympic medal for bullshit?

The Avoider-in-Chief

September 1, 2013

“I wasn’t elected to avoid hard decisions,” President Obama declared in his Saturday speech. “Avoider-in-Chief,” NPR’s reporter immediately labeled him.

imagesAfter a really tough address by Secretary Kerry, laying out the Syrian regime’s monstrous crimes against humanity, the compelling evidence for its guilt, and the moral necessity for a response on behalf of the international community* – and then table-pounding language in Obama’s own speech – he winds up not announcing action but passing the buck to Congress!

The President has (as he said) undoubted authority for the kind of limited strike contemplated, without Congressional approval. Even the 1973 War Powers Resolution only requires notifying Congress after acting, and Congressional authorization only for military action lasting over 60 days.

images-2Indeed, so limited is the action contemplated that it probably wouldn’t achieve even its very limited objective. Unless the punishment is severe enough to curb Assad’s war-making ability, his regime may well calculate that the price is worth paying for a free hand for whatever atrocities it takes to crush opposition. And of course there are risks to us. However, after drawing a “red line” and making such a big stink about this, inaction is not an option.

Obama’s seeking a vote by the people’s representatives might sound like democratic scrupulousness. But, to begin with, it flagrantly contradicts his own words that he wasn’t elected to avoid hard decisions. It shows unwillingness to take responsibility for action he says is both necessary and within his power. It sends the world a message clear as mud.

Unknown-1Secondly, it sets a highly undesirable precedent, undermining presidential authority as commander-in-chief. While in the past, major military undertakings, like both Iraq wars, have been preceded by congressional votes, that’s never been true of limited actions like this. (Such as Obama’s own Libya intervention, much more extensive.) The idea that these actions too should now have congressional authorization – even though not legally required – will unduly tie the hands of future presidents. An America tied up in knots over every little military action is not good for world security.

And thirdly, of course, Congress may well balk. Most voters are dubious of any involvement in Syria. Many Democrats hate all military actions and tend to oppose them. Many Republicans hate endorsing anything Obama wants, and welcome any opportunity to stymie him. Others, like McCain (and me) deem Obama’s plan inadequate. The British parliament humiliated Prime Minister Cameron by rejecting his similar request. We’re told this influenced Obama’s change of heart. So now he wants to subject himself to the same humiliation?

We know how dysfunctional our Congress is nowadays. It won’t even return till September 9. Ample time for critics to gin up vocal opposition. images-1Given the acrid political environ-ment, this thing is bound to descend into a swamp of contentiousness, political point-scoring and backbiting. For the President to argue strongly for action – and then to needlessly cast its fate into that swamp – what was he thinking?

And if Congress refuses – then what? For Obama to go ahead anyway would beg the question of why he asked for a Congressional vote in the first place. But if he was too wimpy to act without such a vote, surely he won’t have the balls to act afterward in defiance of Congress.

The implications of inaction, for the global order, and America’s role in upholding it, would be just too awful to contemplate. UnknownTo end up doing nothing in this situation would be catastrophic for American credibility, and world morality. Yet Obama is risking this outcome, so unnecessarily, because without the security blanket of Congressional backing he’s too squeamish to exercise his authority to do what he says is right and necessary. It’s a ghastly, appalling misjudgment.

*And I repeat, as I have for two years now: where is the International Criminal Court?