Archive for the ‘World affairs’ Category

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.

The Nemtsov Case: “Round Up The Usual Suspects”

March 7, 2015

imagesNews flash — two suspects have been apprehended, guys from (surprise) the restive North Caucasus region (which includes Chechnya). Did the Russian authorities really solve the crime so fast? What’s the evidence? But of course, in the Russian “justice” system, when it comes to political cases, “evidence” is a superfluous concept.

No: Putin said, “Just go find some Chechen ‘terrorists’ to frame.” Adding two more victims to his lengthening list.

Boris Nemtsov: Yet Another Putin Murder

March 3, 2015
Nemtsov

Nemtsov

Boris Nemtsov is merely the latest (and biggest) name on a growing list. He was a leading pro-democracy Russian politician for two decades; an outspoken critic of Putin and of Putin’s lying Ukraine aggression. Nemtsov was gunned down in public, in Moscow, near the Kremlin.

Putin piously condemned the crime, and regime hacks predictably are out denying guilt. Russian media darkly hints, as usual, that the West is somehow responsible (part of the campaign to whip up a nationalist hysteria of grievance and hatred, tarring as traitorous anyone not going along). Another theory is that Nemtsov was a “sacrificial victim” by opponents of the regime, to destabilize it. Really.

If so, you’d think their police state could actually find the culprits. Wanna bet this murder will never be solved?

They always promise vigorous investigation. With straight faces. Just like for all these other unpunished murders of pesky politicians, journalists, and critics, in Putinist Russia:

Politkovskaya

Politkovskaya

  • Galina Starovoitsova
  • Igor Domnikov
  • Sergey Novikov
  • Iskander Khatloni
  • Sergey Ivanov
  • Adam Tepsurgayev
  • Yuri Shchekochikhin
  • Sergey Yushenkov
  • Nikolai Girenko
  • Paul Klebnikov

    Magnitsky

    Magnitsky

  • Andrei Kozlov
  • Anna Politkovskaya
  • Alexander Litvinenko
  • Stanislav Markelov
  • Anastasia Baburova
  • Natalia Estemirova
  • Sergei Magnitsky

Those are just ones I could find in a very quick web search. But one might also add the 651 victims of the 1999 Russian apartment bombings, blamed on Chechen terrorists as a pretext for launching a war of atrocities in Chechnya to inflate Putin’s popularity for an upcoming presidential election. 220px-Apartment_bombingAt the time, the “Chechen terrorist” story stank fishily. A public Russian investigative commission had its leading members arrested or murdered (two are on the list above). There is in fact much evidence pointing to Putin’s own security service thugs as the true culprits behind the bombings.

In the bad old Soviet days, regime critics were persecuted, jailed, confined in mental hospitals . . . but never out-and-out murdered. Those Communists actually had some scruples; a belief system they managed to convince themselves they actually believed in.

Capone

Capone

Not so with Putin’s regime, believing in nothing but its naked self-interest. This is a regime by gangsters, running (and looting) Russia precisely as Al Capone did in Chicago. Inconvenient people are simply gunned down. According to a recent PBS documentary, Putin personally has amassed a fortune of tens of billions.

In Ukraine, the Maidan protest movement got rid of a similar regime. That’s why Putin has responded so viciously. Scared lest Russians emulate it, Putin is doing all he can to mess up Ukraine. The regime even manufactured an “anti-Maidan” demonstration in Moscow, of people demanding, “No democratic revolution here!”

I am running out of evil Putin pictures for this blog

I am running out of new evil Putin pictures for this blog

In the last presidential debates, Obama belittled Romney, making him seem foolish, for saying Putin’s Russia is America’s chief foreign adversary. Who looks foolish now?

But, paraphrasing a current catch-phrase, I too can say I hated Putin before it was cool.

POSTSCRIPT: Nemtsov was apparently working on a report documenting Putin’s lies about Ukraine. After his killing, police searched his apartment and took away his computers.

 

Political Corruption: America versus China

February 22, 2015

UnknownThe chief corruption in American politics is the need to raise large sums for campaigns, the money coming heavily from interests wanting something. In effect it’s bribery, though politicians don’t (normally) get rich from it; what they get is re-elected.*

(New York is something of an exception. In 2012 I wrote about disgraceful State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Update: Silver was recently arrested by the Feds for millions in bribes and kickbacks disguised as legal fees. After initially rallying behind him, Assembly Democrats turned on him, and Silver was forced out as speaker.)

China, if you can believe it, is even worse than New York. While it’s often noted that our Congress is peopled by millionaires, the average wealth in China’s equivalent body (which has much less power) is vastly greater, it’s stuffed with billionaires. And whereas American legislators typically earned their affluence outside of politics, that’s not true in China. Being a bigwig in Chinese politics is a license to steal. And everything in China is outsized, including the corruption.

Bo Xilai

Bo Xilai

The country being so important, you’d think headline Chinese corruption scandals would get significant attention in U.S. media. They don’t. Not long ago Bo Xilai, boss of Chongqing, was a major figure in Chinese politics. Then he fell spectacularly, he and his wife charged with not only corruption but murder, both getting long prison terms.

An even bigger fish (or “tiger” in Chinese parlance) was Zhou Yongkang, at the center of power, controlling China’s oppressive national security apparatus.

Zhou Yongkang

Zhou Yongkang

He was China’s Beria. Now he too has fallen, blackened in China’s media as (to quote The Economist) “a thief, a bully, a philanderer and a traitor . . . the spider at the center of a web of corrupt patronage, he enriched himself, his family, his many mistresses and his cronies at vast cost to the government.”

Chinese might ask how such a villain could have gained so much authority. And while his downfall might be seen as “the system working,” the real story – as in Bo Xilai’s case – was power politics. This is the kabuki of top-level Chinese politics – since rule is by a sort of divine right (“the mandate of Heaven”), a man can be shorn of power only by voiding his divine right, by making a criminal of him. As if the other guys are different.

Xi Jinping

Xi Jinping

The Zhou Yongkang case ostensibly reflects President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign. While Xi does seem to recognize what a problem corruption is, the fact remains that the prosecutions are mainly political – getting rid of functionaries who aren’t Xi’s sycophants. He’s also been talking “rule of law,” but understands it differently than we do – rule by law, i.e., rulers’ commands, another tool for waging politics. The party, and its top dogs, are still above the law. Indeed, in China there’s really no “law” to be above.

Further, the regime is wrestling with the related concept of “constitutionalism.” China does have a constitution, which says a lot of good things. But the leaders don’t actually accept that the constitution should, even in theory, be followed. That idea is seen as “Western,” and people have been jailed merely for saying the constitution should be obeyed.

China’s apologists like to point out that Western democracies are not immune from corruption and abuses of power, citing Watergate as a premier example. But (as The Economist noted), Nixon fell because of checks and balances within the American political system – including, crucially, a free press. images-2Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang instead fell to the power of an even bigger fish. Who will constrain his power?

(And don’t even get me started on the profound, vicious, all-encompassing corruption in Putin’s Russia, where the government is simply a criminal enterprise.)

* We often hear about “buying elections.” Can’t be done. While money does get your message heard, high-spending candidates regularly nevertheless lose.

Putin’s Ukraine Salami Tactics

February 13, 2015

Another day, another bullshit cease-fire agreement. UnknownA pattern emerges: Russia, while lying about it, uses military force (with “separatists” as a front) to grab a piece of Ukrainian territory. A cease-fire freezes their gains in place . . . until they break it and grab more, followed by another cease-fire to solidify those further gains.

It’s what used to be called, at the Cold War’s onset, “salami tactics” – taking what you want one small slice at a time, without provoking a big response. But the slices add up.

images-2When Iraq invaded Kuwait, Bush 41 had Margaret Thatcher to stiffen his spine. Obama’s got Angela Merkel, who’s been wrong about every significant issue she’s ever confronted. She scotches any strong unified Western response to Putin over Ukraine.

When this started, I likened it to 1938, when Hitler was pulling the same stuff with Czechoslovakia, he was allowed to get away with it, and that turned out badly. Unknown-2Hillary Clinton said likewise. Her comparing Putin to Hitler was widely pooh-poohed. Thomas Friedman called her comments overblown; but recently he’s recanted about that.

We’re constantly told “there’s no military solution.” I was glad to finally hear a high NATO official say we’ve got to stop that nonsense – because we’re in fact getting a military solution – Vladimir Putin’s. (Even Russia’s foreign minister Lavrov cynically spouts “no military solution.”) Thus the West so far won’t even help Ukraine defend itself against a despicable invasion that everyone fecklessly decries.

“No military solution” – actually, “Never a military solution” — seems to be Obama’s overall foreign policy. He’s applied it to at least four problems. imagesIndeed, even where he ostensibly does aim at a military solution – with ISIS – he’s unwilling to really commit military means. The legislation he proposes would actually limit his own power to deploy military assets — more than existing law already does.

It’s true that a problem like Ukraine’s will ultimately require a political/diplomatic solution. But what’s misguided about the “no military solution” mantra is that political and military initiatives are not mutually exclusive – to the contrary, they are often mutually reinforcing. Military means, or at least their serious threat, can help in getting a good political solution; renouncing military options can only make that harder. Putin might well be persuaded into an acceptable and lasting political deal if he were facing serious military pushback. He laughs off economic sanctions; that’s simply not a concern to him. Absent military consequences, he has no reason to be reasonable.

Just like Hitler in 1938. I had thought the scourge of changing borders by armed force was something relegated to civilization’s past. images-1Just like we’d thought diseases like measles were consigned to the past — until fools started to refuse vaccination. Obama and Merkel are refusing to vaccinate against military aggression.

ISIS Beheadings: Murder, Not “Execution”

February 1, 2015

imagesMy dictionary defines “execution” as “putting to death in accordance with a legally imposed sentence.” The Islamic State’s beheadings are not “executions,” and that word should not be used in talking about them. The correct word is murder.

Great News: Sri Lanka Blows Off Authoritarianism

January 15, 2015
Rajapaksa

Rajapaksa

I have written before about Sri Lanka’s vile President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Yet another example of how power corrupts. Together with his band of brothers he was well along toward thoroughly undoing Sri Lanka’s democracy, and establishing a repressive authoritarian regime. The Rajapaksa boys were using the time-honored method of crushing any opposition or dissent through every means possible ranging from abuse of legal process to outright murder.

Last time, the big hero of Sri Lanka’s recent civil war tried to run against Rajapaksa, but was easily seen off and jailed for his trouble. Rajapaksa must have been pretty cocky because he decided to advance the next election by two years; no credible opponent was on the horizon, and Rajapaksa, controlling the vast resources of the government to propagandize, did seem impregnable.

But then his former health minister, Maithripala Sirisena, defected to run against him, on a shoestring. And – despite the incumbent’s overwhelming advantages – a huge shocker, Rajapaksa was beaten by a margin sufficiently decisive that he didn’t even try to tough it out.

Sirisena

Sirisena

Sirisena says that what Sri Lanka needs is “not a king, but a real human being.” Taking office quickly, he’s already dismantling some of Rajapaksa’s instrumentalities of repression, like blocked websites, and surveillance. Rajapaksa looks likely to be prosecuted now for his abuses, and headed for prison.

This is an absolutely thrilling thing. I’m reminded of Lincoln’s famous line that you can’t fool all the people all the time. Despite the intensive propagandizing by the Rajapaksa regime, the Sri Lankans – at least a majority – could see through it, and were smart enough to reject it. So much for the oft-invoked conventional wisdom that Asians are somehow culturally comfortable with authoritarianism.

Of course history never runs neatly, and things may well get messy in Sri Lanka. But the big fact is that its democracy has now been rescued, by its citizens, from a grave threat. People do understand the value of a democratic society, and will act on that understanding. This was a good day for optimists, and a bad one for cynics.

imagesMaybe Francis Fukuyama was right after all.

The Big Picture

December 26, 2014

imagesFor all America’s partisan divisions, we’re in remarkable agreement on one thing: the country is on the “wrong track,” the American dream is struggling, and our children will have trouble equaling, let alone surpassing, today’s living standard.

Each side blames the other. The right sees the left as buying votes with government handouts, fostering a feckless paternalistic culture, while killing businesses and jobs with over-regulation, and out-of-control spending presages financial ruin. The left sees rising inequality, with a corporate conspiracy to control government for its own greedy ends, heartless toward victims and their economic plight.

Both views reflect a generalized loss of trust in the institutions of society, which is not unique to America, but is mirrored all across the developed world – whether countries are governed by the left or right. In truth the difference is mere nuance on the edges of policy.

UnknownTake France (please). Sarkozy (on the right) was elected promising a “rupture” with past complacency. In office he could manage only minimal tweaks, but even that was too much for the French, who chucked him out for an assertively lefty Hollande – who promised they could have their cake and eat it too. Now he’s even more unpopular than Sarkozy, who is attempting a comeback.

Such serial disillusionment stokes the rise of populist third parties like France’s National Front and the United Kingdom Independence Party. This hasn’t happened in America mainly because our two-party system is more entrenched with structural roadblocks for third parties.

images-1But behind it all, what is really happening is that globalization is a hugely disruptive force, breaking down economic barriers and putting everybody in competition with everybody else. For the world as a whole, this is hugely positive, enlarging the economic pie by making stuff less costly, opening opportunities for billions more people to productively participate, and creating a burgeoning middle class in countries where there was none before. Of course there are losers as well as winners, and that’s why the political climate has become so febrile.

images-2But the remedy is not in trying to make globalization go away, demonizing businesses that strive to stay competitive via taking advantage of overseas opportunities; nor by decreeing higher wages or benefits as though the money comes from the sky (or from businesses being less “greedy”); or uselessly whining about inequality. Instead, the only thing that can actually save us is to raise our own competitive game: better products at better prices.

images-3Along similar lines, Kishore Mahbubani, a Singaporean, reminds us of the “seven pillars of wisdom” that our Asian competitors have imported from the West, in their “March to Modernity” —

  • Free market economics and capitalism (large-scale investment). Sorry, lefties: not by socialism did worldwide average real dollar incomes grow five-fold in the last century – a giant fact that makes pining for an alternative economic system simply silly.
  • Science and technology. The central human story has always been our use technology to overcome nature’s impersonal forces. (Listening to all the anti-frackers you wouldn’t know that fracking has been massively underway worldwide for decades with only minimal problems; it has revolutionized America’s energy picture and overall economic strength.)
  • Meritocracy. China actually pioneered the idea yet pervasively violates it. One facet of a profoundly corrupt social system that bodes ill for realizing China’s full economic potential.
  • Culture of Peace. Russian military adventurism is a grave threat to the world system.
  • Pragmatism.
  • Unknown-2Rule of law (including secure property rights, contract enforceability, judicial transparency, etc.) China’s regime lately has been talking “rule of law,” but that’s a mistranslation. It’s really rule by law – a tool for maintaining control. Not the same thing. Here again, China actually fails to follow Mahbubani’s program.
  • Education – empowering more people to participate more productively in the global economy.

Unknown-1Now you have the full big picture.*

*Someone will say, “climate change.” Not insignificant – but actually a lesser factor in shaping the human future.


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