Archive for the ‘World affairs’ Category

Iran: The Deal

July 19, 2015

20150718_FBP005_0Better had we never negotiated. This deal makes Iran a more empowered adversary than a nuclear-armed Iran would have been. How nukes could have actually strengthened Iran is far from clear, since using them would be suicidal. So Iran traded something it doesn’t need for something it does: sanctions relief and unfreezing $100+ billion of assets. That makes Iran a more dangerous enemy.

But, if we had to have a deal, this one isn’t too bad; not the cave-in that might have been expected from President Obama’s desperation to avoid the unpalatable no-deal scenario – definitive failure, and having his military bluff called. And bluff it always was: no president (least of all this one) would incur the immense costs (not just in money) and risks of an attack likely to prove futile.

The Iranians knew this, yet we did have them by the balls on sanctions; and the five other negotiating powers were not constrained by Obama’s above-described calculus. So Iran, finally, did what it must to end sanctions, and the deal will pretty much, probably, put a 10-15 year hold on nuclear weapons development.

Unknown-1I will not use the cliché “the devil’s in the details.” My instinct is to call the deal’s inspection regime bullshit due to a cumbersome process before inspectors can go in; and likewise for the supposed “snap-back” of sanctions in case of a violation, which would seem problematical in an always messy world. However, the committee deciding these things will have a Western majority; and while snap-back would ultimately be a UN Security Council matter, Russia cannot veto it; instead, America could veto stopping the snap-back.

(The Economist has supplied a fairly lucid explication of the deal: click here.)

Unknown-3Again, I think we’d have been better off never negotiating. But that’s not the world that exists; and in the world that now does, Obama is right that we have little choice but to accept the deal. Opponents really offer no alternative; certainly not military (get real). Having gone through what we went through to get where we are, we can’t just blow it all up now by scuppering the deal. That’s not how grown-up nations behave.

Moreover, I’m an optimist and believer in progress. The world can change. In fact, it always does. And this deal may possibly be a catalyst for positive change. Iran today is a bad actor, but many countries have gone from bad to good. Lord Palmerston said nations don’t have permanent allies or foes – only permanent interests. Why Iran should be our enemy is not, from Iran’s perspective, necessarily obvious (ancient history does not control us). To me it seems obvious instead that behaving differently, and cooperating with America, would be very much in Iran’s true best interests.images-1

What a drama the world presents. I wish I could see the denouement.

Greece At The Rubicon

July 7, 2015

UnknownWhen the Euro was set up, they knew it was a fraught proposition, binding themselves to each other financially. The Germans in particular, fearful about giving up the strong Deutschemark, insisted on strict penalties for any country whose deficit breached 3% of GDP. Of course it was Germany itself, and France, that soon violated this, but the matter was fudged. Not a good precedent.

Meantime, there were also stringent fiscal criteria for admission to the Euro. So how did Greece get in?Unknown-1 It cooked its books, and lied.

Greece’s economy has long been weighed down by clientelistic politics producing an over-bloated state sector, with lots of well-paid unneeded government jobs, fat pensions and benefits, while tax avoidance became endemic, and red tape (giving all those government workers something to do) strangled business. Thus Greece could not pay its bills, borrowing heavily to close the gap. This is what was covered up. But about five years ago the retsina hit the fan when the hole became too deep, requiring a bail-out.

Reasonably enough, the Europeans (mainly Germany) insisted that Greece clean up its act as a condition for the bail-out – the “austerity” we hear so much about. In hindsight, they may have overdone it. You’d want to wean the country away from profligacy, but not crush its economy, because economic growth is the only hope for ever paying Greece’s debts. Greece did accept some reforms, but did suffer a pretty severe economic contraction, with 25% unemployment, which didn’t help matters.

Unknown-2Part of the problem is that lefty Greeks just don’t get it that, to support the lavish government salaries and other spending, you need an economy that actually produces something that earns money. Of course, that’s dirty capitalism. Feh. So Greece’s reforms did little to improve economic productiveness.

And the reforms in question, the so-called “austerity,” merely moved Greece from extreme profligacy to moderate profligacy. This shows just how deep the hole is, and suggests the Europeans probably also erred in failing to bite the bullet of just writing off a major part of Greece’s debt.

Unknown-3Through all this, Greeks have cast the Germans as villains, seeing no reason why they shouldn’t go back to the old ways of living high on the hog on borrowed money they can’t pay back. The Germans see no reason why, having themselves undergone, a decade ago, the same sort of painful reforms now asked of the Greeks, they should have to work to age 65 and pay taxes so the Greeks can retire at 57 with fat pensions and avoid taxes. A classic grasshopper-and-ant story.

Then in January the Greeks elected the Syriza party, a bunch of irresponsible leftists with a platform of rejecting “austerity” and restoring the days of wine and roses. images-1They danced in the streets exulting in this triumph of wishful thinking. The new government, led by Alexis Tspiras, proceeded to make a hash of further bail-out negotiations and to shred any vestige of trust by Europeans. And then, just as it seemed possible that a deal might nevertheless be struck, Tsipras kicked over the table by calling a snap referendum on whether to accept the bail-out terms.

He urged Greeks to vote No, saying they could have their cake and eat it too – twice over – that they could reject Europe’s terms yet stay in the Euro – and, indeed, could reject the deal and see off austerity, returning to their old cushy clientelistic habits. With what money? Who knows.

This insane fantasy Tsipras cast as a matter of national pride – standing up against European (mainly German) blackmail!

Unknown-5Two things happened in the week before the vote. First, Greece defaulted on a scheduled debt payment; a first for a “developed” country. And Greece’s banks all but closed (for lack of money), allowing only small ATM withdrawals, throwing much of the economy and many people’s lives for a loop.

You might think this foretaste of what could lay in store would give the Greeks pause in the referendum vote. You’d be wrong. This vote was a matter of pride, remember. The Greeks are a proud people – proud enough to borrow billions and tell the lenders “Fuck You.” Unknown-4And so they did – a resounding 61% voted No. And again the grasshoppers danced in the streets to celebrate their courage.

What happens now? Tsipras justified the referendum “No” as strengthening his hand to get a better deal from the ants who, of course, lacking backbones, might just cave. But the Europeans had said they’d construe a “No” as a vote to exit the Euro. Greeks have indeed made a courageous bet, and if it comes wrong, those who thought “austerity” was rough ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

It’s not really clear how a country can be kicked out of the Euro. But perhaps it would be as simple as the European Central Bank supplying no fresh Euros; after a time Greece would effectively be forced into a different currency.

The Economist believes Europe should think twice before such a drastic step into uncharted territory. It could pull a thread that unravels the whole fabric. And you wouldn’t want a failed state in the continent, with all the potential tsuris that could entail. Furthermore, Greece could be thrown into the arms of Putin, with whom Tsipras has been playing footsie. But The Economist also thinks that if Greece stays in the Euro, the kinds of crises we’ve seen will keep repeating basically forever.images

My view, FWIW, is that Europe should cut off this gangrenous limb once and for all. A Greece-free Euro zone should ultimately be stronger and more stable. And there’s the issue of moral hazard; Greekish behavior should be seen to have consequences, lest others (like Spain) be tempted to follow it.

But Europe should also ready humanitarian aid packages for Greece. We’ll see if the Greeks spit in their faces then.

The Middle East: The Case for Not Doing

June 1, 2015

A previous post critiqued Andrew Bacevich’s “limits of power” take on world affairs. He derided what he saw as vain attempts to control history, which can’t be done – so don’t even try. It’s true that do-gooder efforts may, for numerous reasons, fail. But I prefer a proactive approach to life rather than a passive fatalism, hence trying to make the world better. And people, throughout the ages, have succeeded at it.

UnknownYet regarding today’s Middle East – I throw up my hands (and my lunch).

The conventional wisdom now is that America’s 2003 Iraq venture upended a hornets’ nest, causing today’s tsuris, and we should have left well enough alone. A seeming vindication of Bacevich. Well, maybe; but I’m reminded of when Chou En-lai was asked to evaluate the French Revolution. “Too soon to tell,” he replied.

(We did not invade Iraq based on “lies” or manipulated intelligence. All major intelligence services believed Saddam likely had weapons of mass destruction – he was trying hard to make it seem so. The true issue was: did we dare risk that he had them? Yet, to the “knowing what you know now” question, I’d say don’t invade – knowing now how botched it would be, particularly in disbanding the Iraqi army.)

Cartoon by Danziger

Cartoon by Danziger

Bush 43’s real Iraq sin was willing the ends but not the means – imagining it could be done cheaply and easily. I still think Bacevich is wrong, and we could have succeeded; but if you do aim to alter history, please be prepared for some heavy lifting.

images-1Of course, President Obama, who forswore repeating Bush’s Iraq mistake, is now doing exactly that – willing the ends but not the means – declaring that we will destroy ISIS (or is it now just containment?) but without actually going to war. As if some cheap airstrikes will do the trick. The results so far add yet more color to the picture of feckless American impotence Obama has painted.

My instincts are hawkish. However, the problem with Obama’s ISIS strategy is not just that it’s ineffectual but it isn’t a strategy at all, more like striking out blindly. ISIS is horrible, yes, but we must weigh the ramifications of battling it. images-3We’re relying on Shiite militias, almost as nasty (at least one is actually on our official list of terrorist organizations), and likely to exacerbate sectarian hostilities. And this war puts us in bed with the Iranians, and even with Bashar Assad*, not to mention Lebanon’s Hezbollah terrorists also fighting ISIS for Assad’s sake. Be careful what you wish for — is the triumph of all those forces really desirable?

Maybe we don’t have a dog in this fight, and should just let all these bad guys beat each other to exhaustion, which probably now has to happen, before some halfway sane alternative can possibly, eventually emerge in that afflicted terrain. As columnist Thomas Friedman suggests, we cannot impose a resolution absent a stupendous commitment that isn’t going to happen; Middle Easterners must work this out for themselves, bloody though that may be. Meantime, Iraq’s nationhood is now a lost cause; the Kurds deserve their own state anyway. We should fight only for something that is really worthy of defending, and is defensible – e.g., Kurdistan, or Jordan, if threatened. It was different at the start of Syria’s conflict when we could have gained real strategic advantage by backing the good guys. But Obama funked it, and now there aren’t any good guys.

images-2Let’s understand what’s really going on with ISIS. This is not mainly about religion or theology (nor some sort of arguably legitimate “grievances”). The violence itself attracts certain people; while the normal well-adjusted human being is decidedly not violent (contrary to cynical stereotypes), some alas don’t meet that description. There are always enough young men to staff the ranks of storm troopers or beheaders or whatever. But – more broadly – for its recruits and loyalists, ISIS is mainly about personal identity. The transition to modernity can leave people unmoored from traditional cultural sources of identity and personal meaning (“who am I?”) – the “loneliness of the crowd.” Today’s Middle East is so messed up that it’s natural to cling desperately to whatever sources of seeming identity (and security) people can. In some societies this hunger for identity and meaning may manifest itself in nationalism; but the Middle East lacks nation states to which intense feelings can attach. So, instead, that hook is provided by tribalism, Islam, and jihad. This also attracts young people from outside the region with similar personal voids and cravings.

A recent PBS Frontline program showed that ISIS really started flourishing to fill the vacuum in Syria, defending civilians against Assad, once it became clear that America would not. Local people who support it aren’t crazy. For all these reasons ISIS is a powerful force that won’t melt away with some aerial bombardment. If anything, being under attack by their fetishized enemy feeds their narrative and intensifies loyalty – another reason why our half-baked military campaign seems worse than useless.

Unknown-1Then we have the Iran nuclear negotiations. Getting whatever promises we can out of Iran might sound good, inasmuch as the military option, no matter how much Obama pretends otherwise, is unthinkable. Delaying Iran’s nuclear weapons capability also may seem desirable, hoping the landscape might change in a decade. However, the very fact of a deal with America would be a big boost to Iran’s international stature, and sanctions relief would be a big economic boost, all of which would serve to further entrench Iran’s mullahs in power, and to strengthen a country that will still fundamentally be our geopolitical competitor and enemy. On the other hand, if Iran did get the bomb, what could they do with it that wouldn’t be suicidal? So here too I lean more and more to the desirability of doing nothing. I’d rather see Iran with unusable nukes left stewing in its shit-hole than an Iran without nukes but empowered in ways that really matter.

* Remember when Obama sought Congressional authorization to bomb Assad’s forces for chemical weapons use? We are now finally bombing in Syria — without Congressional authorization — striking Assad’s enemies. Does this make sense?

 

Waiting For Snow in Havana

May 28, 2015

Unknown-5Carlos Eire was eight, with normal childhood concerns, a love for fireworks and pools, and a loathing for lizards, until Fidel Castro came along and ruined everything. Eire’s memoir, Waiting For Snow in Havana – Confessions of a Cuban Boy, gives a mordant child’s-eye-view of “the Revolution.”

OK, his was an affluent family (his father a judge), with more to lose than most Cubans, for whom the ousted Batista regime sucked. But Eire’s book belies Castro’s “Revolution” being an advancement of social justice, exposing its dark reality.

UnknownThe judge was a peculiar man; believing himself the reincarnation of France’s King Louis XVI, the book always refers to him thusly; his wife was “Marie Antoinette.” He put his shoes on before his pants. He insisted on adopting a quasi-pedophile who tried to molest the judge’s natural sons. And he remained in Cuba with that adoptee after the rest of the family escaped to America, even though from the start he despised “the Revolution.”

I myself was suckered in by its romanticism in 1959’s heady days. Then again, I was only eleven, and soon enough repented. Many on the left never did.

Unknown-3This is a litmus test of one’s political seriousness. The left talks a good game of Enlightenment human values but often falls for empty labels and slogans in place of the real deal, and otherwise readily trashes those values (especially freedom of thought and expression). Thus the enduring idealization of Castro  – a megalomaniacal dictator who cemented his power by imprisoning, torturing, and shooting great numbers of Cubans who did not kiss his feet.*

I am sick of palaver about the wonderfulness of Cuba’s education and health care. Truth is, the regime schools and doctors its serfs sufficiently for them to function at work – for which it pays them a pittance. Thus the economy manages to creak along, just. “The Revolution” was quite good at destroying the wealth of the rich and successful – much simply confiscated – yet the average Cuban is as poor as ever, and in fact, inequality is if anything worse. But don’t ever dare complain.

Social justice? One weeps to think how much better off those poor people would be with a normal government that allowed their enterprise to flourish, rather than crushing it with an oppressive, dysfunctional, crackpot economic model crafted only to perpetuate total societal control by the masters.

Unknown-4The hip political satirist Mort Sahl, asked to name the personage he admired most, said “Fidel Castro.” This was long past the time when any sentient being should have grasped the reality. (We’ve seen the same syndrome with Venezuela and Chavez.)

It’s now been 56 years, but in Cuba, as Carlos Eire put it, everything is still “Revolution this” and “Revolution that.” Seems to me 56 years should have been time enough to complete a revolution (especially with all dissension obliterated) and get on with normal life (not to mention actually making it better). If Cuba did need a revolution in 1959, it needs one far more now. The book’s title is never explained, but that’s probably the “snow in Havana” Carlos Eire has waited for, in vain. He never returned.

* Batista was often called a brutal dictator. True; yet he was toppled with relative ease. Why haven’t the Castros been toppled? Such regimes (and Venezuela’s, Iran’s, etc.) are far more repressive than old style “right wing” dictators ever were, thus far harder to get rid of.

Fighting the Secret Plot to Make the World Richer*

May 24, 2015

President Obama is battling for “fast track” authority, to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP, a trade deal among 11 big countries) without having it subject to Congressional amending. It’s the only way such a deal could conceivably happen.

Warren

Warren

Most Democrats, led by Elizabeth Warren, oppose this. They say the trade negotiations are being conducted in secret, shaped behind the scenes by corporate interests. (We all know Obama shills for fatcats, right?) As columnist Ruth Marcus points out, this Warren argument is simply bogus. It’s not as though legislators will have to vote on the deal without our knowing what’s in it. In fact, the proposed legislation requires the terms to be made public 60 days before signing – an unprecedented proviso.

Unknown-2But, as Marcus notes, the secrecy argument is a mere excuse, and Warren et al would still oppose this deal if the negotiations were broadcast live on C-SPAN. They paint it as selling out American workers by helping foreigners to compete unfairly against them. This reprises the 1990s NAFTA debate, when Ross Perot warned of a “giant sucking sound” of U.S. jobs going to Mexico. Warren says he was right. But in truth that sound was at most a whisper, with direct U.S. job losses minimal.

Well, free trade does threaten some jobs by exposing them to tougher foreign competition. But this perspective is like viewing the universe through a straw, blind to the bigger picture. Part of that picture is that freer trade lowers prices for consumers. This is huge; the U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates that imports add $10,000 annually to the average American family’s purchasing power. That enables them to spend more, stimulating the economy and generating more jobs – probably way more jobs than the few lost to foreign competition.

Unknown-1By harping on those latter lost jobs while ignoring the benefits to consumers and the economy as a whole, Warrenite Democrats are literally favoring the interests of the few (very few) over the interests of the many. Some populists.

Unknown-4Interestingly, for most of its history, throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Democratic party understood perfectly well that freer trade was good for the many while protectionism cosseted the few at their expense. Not a good deal for “everyday Americans.” This was in fact a headline issue for Democrats. But then (perhaps too heavily invested with union interests) Democrats lost their way on the trade issue.

Meantime, even the focus just on America’s economy is too narrow and misses the larger reality. If NAFTA’s impact on U.S. jobs is debatable, its impact on Mexican ones was unarguably huge, making Mexico much more prosperous than it would otherwise have been. And surely a richer neighbor is something in America’s national interest.

imagesIndeed, whatever its effect on any particular job, or industry, or country, freer trade makes the world as a whole richer.** Any serious economist will tell you so. It does this by enabling capital investment to be put to the most economically efficient uses, unhindered by artificial barriers and constraints, which results in production of more goods with fewer inputs of resources and labor. That’s an enlargement of the global economic pie, so more people can get bigger slices. Since WWII, this – an increasingly globalized world, with more and freer trade – has been the prime driver which has raised billions of people out of poverty.

Surely that is something in America’s national interest. A richer world is a less troubled world; and can buy more that U.S. workers produce.

Warrenites cloak themselves as tribunes for those “everyday Americans,” believing that if Democrats sound this trumpet loudly enough they’ll win. Thus they are trying to move the party, and Hillary Clinton, to the left of President Obama – who in fact was just barely not too far left to win – barely. The British Labour party made the same mistake in their recent election, believing the country would embrace pet left-wing themes. It did not; Labour was crushed.

imagesOur next election, with a Democratic candidate tacking left and having big trustworthiness issues besides, will be the Republicans’ to lose. If only they can control their own self-defeating instincts and offer a halfway sensible nominee.

* I cribbed this title from a recent article in The Economist.

** Potentially $220 billion richer annually, from the TPP alone, it’s estimated.

Tufts Graduation – Madeleine Albright and Drinking Urine

May 22, 2015
Photo by Dan Della Penta

Photo by Dan Della Penta

Last weekend we attended our daughter Elizabeth Robinson’s graduation from Tufts University. She got a degree in International Relations and Economics, summa cum laude, and received the prestigious John Gibson prize for her research at Jordan’s Za’atari Refugee Camp.

In June, she will return to Jordan to live; first with another round of intensive Arabic study on a State Department scholarship, and then starting her employment with Questscope, an NGO concentrating on youth empowerment and refugee issues in the Middle East, with which she’s been working.

We’re often asked if we’re unhappy about her going there. To the contrary. From a young age Elizabeth has set for herself a high standard of excellence in preparation for life as a citizen of the world. She is on a worthy mission, and living her dream.

It is customary to say we’re proud of her. But that sort of makes it about us, reflecting credit upon us. However, Elizabeth is more than usually a self-made person; she’s really done all this herself, leaving us as bystanders, holding her coat. More than pride I feel admiration for her, and also much gratitude because she’s made parenting so easy for us.

150517_kdb_tuftsgraduation0002The chief commencement speaker was former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. In her address she took note of some hallowed Tufts traditions, including picture-taking at the elephant statue, and drinking urine. The latter was news to me, and I was frankly shocked to hear such a thing from such distinguished lips.

At least “drinking urine” was what we all thought we heard Albright say. But Elizabeth speculated she was actually saying, “drinking at The Burren,” which is the name of a popular local bar. It’s also been suggested that The Burren would now do well to add to its menu a new drink: “the Madeleine Albright.”

Photo by Therese Broderick

Photo by Therese Broderick

For a more serious report on Albright’s speech, click here. And for another blog post about imbibing urine, click here.

The British Election Mess

May 4, 2015

Time was, Britain ruled the world. Even in later times it “punched above its weight.” But no more. Chastened by perceived failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Brits have been sadly missing in action regarding Syria, Ukraine, and ISIS.

At least they have a record of effective governance, as against America’s dysfunctional gridlock. But that too looks set to change. Here’s a primer on the looming May 7 election disaster:

Blair

Blair

Let’s start with Tony Blair, who heroically dragged the Labour Party into electability by defanging its loony left. But they never forgave him, and used Iraq to make him a pariah after leaving office. His Labour successor, Gordon Brown, lacking Blair’s flair, became a sitting duck at the 2010 election.

Cameron

Cameron

It was won by David Cameron who, Blairlike, had detoxified his own Conservative (Tory) party. But – partly because Britain is effectively gerrymandered to favor Labour – the Tories missed an overall parliamentary majority, so went into a more or less unprecedented coalition with the Liberal Democrat third party, holding the balance of power.

Miliband

Miliband

Then, in the fight for Labour’s leadership, the obvious candidate, David Miliband, was beaten by his own brother, Ed – theretofore a nonentity. Why? Ed played to the party’s unrepentant loony left, tired of politically unsexy moderation. Since then, he’s generally been rated a disaster.

Cameron’s government has done quite a good job cleaning up the fiscal mess Labour left, Britain’s economy is humming nicely, and the Tories have noticeably failed to commit the crimes of Labour’s fevered class-war scaremongering. But many Brits give the government little credit for its economic achievements, and don’t feel much better off. Yet even so, given such a lame Labour alternative, spouting economic quackery, whom no one can seriously picture as prime minister, game over, no?

Well – it’s complicated.

Sturgeon

Sturgeon

One complication, that seemingly cuts against Labour, is Scotland where, despite losing the independence referendum, the Scottish National Party (SNP, with a spiffy new leader, Nicola Sturgeon) is on a tear to annihilate what had been Labour’s solid block of Scottish parliament seats.

But meantime, in England, the Tories’ lunch is being eaten by the UK Independence Party, blokish, anti-EU, and anti-immigrant, also with a quasi-plausible leader in Nigel Farage.

Farage

Farage

UKIP will actually win few seats (Britain does not have proportional representation), but may well drain enough votes to sink the Tories in many constituencies.

What about the Lib-Dems? They were a popular third alternative, a “less loony left,” as long as they could posture virtuously without dirtying their hands with actual governance. Now that bloom is off the rose, and the Lib-Dems are plummeting, likely to lose most of their seats. They’ll be supplanted as the third largest block in parliament by the SNP, whose very raison d’etre is Tory-hatred (the chief impetus behind Scottish independence).

Some other oddball parties will win seats, including Welsh and Northern Irish local outfits, and possibly Greens, making it even harder for any party to get an absolute majority in parliament. The result will be a real mess. But, barring an unlikely outright Tory majority, we’ll probably wind up saying hello to Prime Minister Miliband – with a weak government hostage to a party of regional secessionists having an economic program even dottier than his own. Moreover, whereas in the past an inconclusive result might have meant quick fresh elections, under current rules poor Britain will be stuck with this parliament for a full five year term.

What’s happening here is seen elsewhere in Europe – cranky voters unwilling to go along with responsible, grown-up economic policies, and bedazzled by the allure of shiny objects dangled by political hucksters.

Mayweather & Whoever

Mayweather & Whoever

Ah, democracy. Surely more interesting to follow than pro sports (like that recent thing – I could not care less which of two brutes can batter the other senseless.)

UPDATE MAY 8 — TORIES WIN!!  Confounding pre-election polls showing Labor and Tories about equal, presaging a hung parliament, Cameron’s Conservatives wound up crushing Labour and winning, albeit barely, an overall parliamentary majority. So the Brits (or enough of them) came to their senses in the end — it must have been my blog post that turned it around. Labour was also, as predicted, wiped out in Scotland. Their wretched leader, Ed Miliband, has resigned. So much for the loony left.

John Gray versus Pinker on Violence: “The Sorcery of Numbers”

April 1, 2015

UnknownSteven Pinker’s 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, argued that declines in all kinds of violence, including war, reflect moral progress. I reviewed it enthusiastically (and not just because it cited my own book). But, unarguably, Pinker’s thesis has had a bad few years.

Hardly was his ink dry when violent conflict engulfed the Arab world. Russia has resurrected, zombie-like, a kind of big power military aggression we had thought gone forever. And whereas expanding democratization was a key explanatory pillar for Pinker’s thesis, democracy too has had setbacks, in countries from Venezuela to Thailand, with Egypt’s revolution producing a regime even worse than before,* while China’s authoritarianism looks better (in some eyes) than America’s democratic paralysis.

imagesWell. As I’ve often argued, human affairs are complex, and their path is never linear. We’ve had some years going in the wrong direction; but it’s way too soon to read the last rites for far longer and larger trends in the right direction.

Comes now John Gray in The Guardian** with an essay boldly headed, “Pinker is Wrong About Violence and War.” The subhead asserts, “[t]he stats are misleading . . . and the idea of moral progress is wishful thinking and just plain wrong.” (My daughter Elizabeth challenged me to respond.)

images-4I was expecting to find, in this lengthy essay, some substantive grappling with Pinker’s arguments and his exhaustive analysis of data, in the light of latterly developments. Not so. Indeed, the essay’s verbosity is inversely proportional to its substance. As Texans say, all hat and no cattle; revealing less about Pinker than about Gray’s pretentious cynicism masquerading as intellectual depth.

Gray does perfunctorily argue that data here “involves complex questions of cause and effect,” citing some ambiguities whose disregard, he says, renders Pinker’s statistics “morally dubious if not meaningless.” images-1But what Gray completely disregards (did he read the book?) is the vast depth in which Pinker examined just such issues (for example, what counts as “war” and how you count casualties), always probing for the reasons and explanations behind the data, to arrive at true understanding.

Rather than get into such nitty-gritty, Gray offers a string of non sequiturs. images-5For instance, unable to rebut Pinker’s analysis of actual history, he invokes counter-factual history – what might have happened, but did not (e.g., Nazis winning WWII). And, after enumerating a few recent violent episodes (yes, it’s no revelation they still occur), Gray says, “Whether they accept the fact or not, advanced societies have become terrains of violent conflict. Rather than war declining, the difference between peace and war has been fatally blurred.”

Fatally! This hyperbolic twaddle is belied by Pinker’s comprehensive exegesis of just how different modern advanced societies are, from earlier ones, in terms of the violence ordinary people encounter in everyday life. Thus Pinker addresses not just war, but every other class of violence – something Gray totally ignores.

Part of Pinker’s explanation for the improvement is the influence of Enlightenment values (just one example: Beccaria’s battle against pervasive torture). But Gray makes the customary shallow and cynical attack on the very idea of Enlightenment values. He cites a few backward views held by Locke, Bentham, and Kant. Which proves what, exactly? And Gray alleges (without specifying) “links between Enlightenment thinking and 20th-century barbarism,” dismissing any denial as “childish simplicity.” Call me childish, but I don’t consider Hitler, Stalin and Mao avatars of Voltairean humanism.

But, again, none of this nonsense represents any serious effort to engage with the analysis Pinker laid out in such depth. images-6And it’s all just a lead-up to Gray’s main point, which is to simply ridicule the whole project of elucidating these matters through statistical evaluation – which he likens to a 16th century magician’s use of a “scrying glass” to access occult messages, or spinning Tibetan prayer wheels. He sees Pinkerites as similarly trying to assuage some existential angst by fetishizing data, reading into it meaning that isn’t there. “Lacking any deeper faith and incapable of living with doubt,” Gray writes, “it is only natural that believers in reason should turn to the sorcery of numbers.”

There you have it. “The sorcery of numbers.” The postmodernist mentality at its worst: there’s no such thing as truth. images-2Don’t even try to understand reality by examining evidence for what’s actually happening. Instead, place reliance on – what? – John Gray’s deeper wisdom, uncontaminated by data? Magicians and sorcery indeed!

True, statistics can be misused, but surely that doesn’t tell us to eschew their use. Pinker recognized that his book challenged conventional wisdom and would be met with a wall of cynicism like Gray’s. Thus he knew he had to build a powerful battering ram of facts and data – accompanied by thoroughgoing and persuasive interpretive analysis – to break through that wall. Unknown-1Pinker’s success is evidenced by Gray’s bemoaning that “the book has established something akin to a contemporary orthodoxy.” If so, that orthodoxy is in no danger of overthrow from such a disgracefully foolish effort as John Gray’s.

* Though there’s been good news in Sri Lanka, and now Nigeria, where voters transcended traditional divisions to oust the ruling party.

** It had also published a similarly cynical and stupid review (by George Monbiot) of Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist.

 

Dalai Lama Reincarnation: Who Gets to Decide?

March 23, 2015

imagesTibet has had 14 Dalai Lamas. Heretofore, when one died, the leading lamas went out to find a small child who is deemed to be the reincarnated Dalai Lama. But the current one (Tenzin Gyatso) now says he may not be reincarnated.

China disagrees, considering this something for its government to decide. Ruling Tibet by repression, China has always ferociously demonized the Dalai Lama (who left Tibet in 1959); and, when he dies, plans to dredge up some pliant toady as his supposed reincarnation (something China imagines will help solve its Tibet problem). This is what led the current Dalai Lama to get off the reincarnation train. “There is no guarantee that some stupid Dalai Lama won’t come next,” he said.

China’s satrap governor of Tibet declared that in saying such things, the Dalai Lama is “profaning religion and Tibetan Buddhism.” It is good to know that China’s rulers are so protective of such religious values; instructing the Dalai Lama himself on how to be a good Buddhist. And here we thought the Communist regime was a bunch of atheists.

images-1In fact, China actually has an official in charge of religious matters, Zhu Weiqun. It was he who insisted that Dalai Lama reincarnation is a governmental decision.

If you think we have over-mighty government in America, just imagine a government that claims the prerogative of regulating one’s reincarnation. We are fortunate to be living in a free country where reincarnation is still a private matter. I sure don’t want some government bureaucrat telling me who, if anyone, will inhabit my soul in my next life.

They might have me come back as a religious nut!

I Have a Dream: Israeli Election Speech

March 14, 2015

My fellow Israelis – I’m seeking your votes in this week’s election, for a policy that both reflects our highest human values, and offers a sustainable path for our nation’s future.images-2

Some will call it utopian. I call it sanity.

Mr. Netanyahu and his allies offer a policy of unending conflict. As if all the land between the Jordan and the sea is ours and its Palestinian inhabitants are not human beings but a mere inconvenience whose rights and interests can be overridden with bouts of military brutality, crowded out of their homes by ever-expanding Jewish settlements. images-3As if the Palestinians – and the world community – will accept this dispos-session and apartheid forever. This is nuts.

Unfortunately many Palestinians do accept it, indeed embrace it, preferring the conflict to its solution, reveling in victimhood and “resistance.” As if that were a productive life. As if they could somehow someday drive the Jews out of Israel. This too, of course, is nuts.

Enough. I say to both our peoples: the land is big enough for us both. This doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game where one side’s gain is the other’s loss. The whole history of modernity shows this – nations (at least the grown-up ones) not tearing each other down with conflict, but building each other up with reciprocal trade and investment, making for the enrichment and flourishing of all. Why not Israel and Palestine?

images-1Some will say we have no partner for peace. Frankly our peace offers have heretofore been spurned because they were not believed. I understand that trust is sorely lacking. But now I am not merely offering an olive branch. I am offering the whole tree.

I want Palestinians to have a state, but not a state in name only; not a crappy state. I have a dream for a thriving, flourishing Palestinian state, with our two countries as good neighbors, helping each other live the best lives possible. UnknownIf Palestinians see the foundation for prosperity and fulfillment through cooperation, as an alternative to wasting their lives in futile conflict, I believe most will embrace the former.

To that end, I am proposing not only to give Palestinians the land on which to build their state, but also a Marshall Plan type program of massive economic assistance to help them build it. Israel can well afford this. Just think of all the money we’ll save on our military budget. Wouldn’t it be better spent on building up our neighbors than beating them down?

Some will call this blood money, atonement for alleged past sins. Maybe, but I am not looking backward; I am looking forward. I call it an investment in the future. What do we get in return? Peace, yes, but not just that. The ability to look at ourselves in the mirror and be proud of what we see.

images-4But will the Palestinians once more turn their backs? I rather think that, with real money on the table, we will find the partners for peace.

Many of my fellow Jews will no doubt be horrified by all this. We’ve grown up seeing Arabs as enemies. Which of course is mutual. And certainly plenty of actions on both sides have nourished this enmity. Yet it’s not something ordained by God. We are not hapless playthings of a destiny we don’t control. To the contrary, our destiny is in our own hands. We can make choices. Different and better choices.

To those Jews who believe they’re on a mission from God to occupy this entire land, I suggest to you that there is ample work for you to do to help build our nation within borders that also allow space for our neighbors to flourish as well next door. Or, if you wish to continue living among them, you will be free to remain there, as equal citizens of that nation – just as many Arab people reside in Israel today, as equal (well, almost equal) citizens of this nation.

Moses Brick Testament Destruction of Canaan Instructions for GenocideThe God of the Old Testament told Jews to occupy the land of Canaan by killing or enslaving all its original inhabitants. I think that book was written by people trying to justify those crimes; it was a libel upon God. That’s not the benevolent God we worship today. And the nation those ancient people built with the sword was ultimately destroyed, and they were cast into darkness for many centuries. Maybe that was God’s just punishment.

imagesLet us be better, and wiser, today.

God bless Israel – and Palestine.


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