Archive for the ‘World affairs’ Category

The Economist: A love letter

August 31, 2017

On this blog I’ve frequently cited The Economist. It’s a news magazine (though Britishly calling itself a “newspaper”). I’ve subscribed for about thirty years. The Economist is my friend, almost a lover even, integral to my existence.

Maybe because I was a socially awkward youth, wordly clueless, I’ve always had an ache for understanding. To know what’s going on, and why. This The Economist provides. It keeps me informed about every corner of the globe (and in today’s interconnected globalized world, it all matters). And much of it is deeply fascinating, like a great global “Game of Thrones” with hundreds of characters and story lines. Take Venezuela’s for example, a dramatic tale (indeed, a morality tale), unfolding for a quarter century. The Economist provides a ring-side seat. Much of this stuff never makes it into newspapers or other sources.

The Economist doesn’t merely report events, it analyzes them. And furthermore it has a definite point of view, not only expressed in its editorials (called “leaders”) but also infusing its news coverage. It is the stance of classical liberalism, the philosophy of thinkers like John Stuart Mill, aiming to maximize human liberty and flourishing, through limited, democratic, accountable government, and openness to ideas, enterprise, commerce, and human variety. Indeed, it was specifically to oppose Britain’s “corn laws” (restricting free trade) that the publication was launched in 1843.

Did I fall in love with The Economist because its philosophy matched my own, or did the magazine shape my outlook? Probably some of both. Anyhow it’s rare for me to disagree with it. (There were some baffling past presidential election endorsements which seemed at odds with the magazine’s editorial stance.)

So far I may have made it sound dry. It is not. The writing is often a pleasure to read and is full of droll wit. I recall one report, quoting Cuba’s Raul Castro saying Honduras should be sanctioned because its president (arguably) wasn’t seated democratically. “Castro said this,” The Economist wrote, “with a straight face.”

So The Economist has no time for cant or hypocrisy. The magazine tells it like it is – often with delicious zingers.

And not just with words. Its covers too can be a hoot. One gem depicted the European nations, when confronted with a threatening Russia, collectively as a quivering jelly mold, with their cringing faces.

The magazine also covers business, finance, science, and the arts, including excellent book reviews. And the final page always provides a parting treat: an obituary. Yes, its obits too are flavorful reading, often about less famous personages, but always interesting ones. Or at least The Economist seems able to make them so.

Depicting France’s Macron; the feet sticking up are Theresa May’s

I’m pleased to have gotten into its pages a few times myself, with letters-to-the-editor. (The latest responded to an article about violence in Baltimore, pointing to the drug war as a major cause.)

I wish more people read it. Many of the world’s movers and shakers certainly do, but not enough of them. It’s dismaying when folks aspiring to (or exercising) leadership are so ignorant about the world. An Economist reader would never have said, “What’s Aleppo?”


North Korea: fear the madman

August 9, 2017

We keep hearing about the “madman” in Pyongyang. Is Kim Jong Un bad? Yes. Mad? Probably not. It’s the guy in D.C. who’s both.

Kim doesn’t have to be told that attacking America would be suicide. Trump’s “fire and fury” declaration was brainless bluster serving no purpose except foolhardy provocation. He warned Kim against any further threats. Kim promptly responded with a new threat. Where will this schoolyard standoff end?

As long as it’s just a war of words, okay. But this is recklessly dangerous because North Korea in the past has shown a penchant for military provocation too, as with its 2010 bombardment of a South Korean island. In today’s belligerent climate, the moment one side or the other does the least thing military, the risk of tit-for-tat escalation will be severe. Neither will back down readily.

The Economist recently ran a detailed scenario for how it could well unfold, ending in nuclear warfare with mass casualties. Either side could all too easily miscalculate. And Trump is no paragon of finesse.*

So what should we do about North Korea? I’ve wrestled with this problem before. Right now, the answer is: just shut up. Trump’s chest thumping achieves nothing except to make things worse.

We don’t have to do anything. Kim will not commit suicide by attacking us unless we force him to.

It’s the madman in the White House I fear.

* He might even calculate (insofar as he’s capable of such) that war with North Korea would produce a “rally ’round the flag” effect, just the thing to bury his Russia troubles on page 8.

Venezuela’s tragedy: be careful how you vote

August 8, 2017

Chavez & his mentor

It began in 1992 when paratrooper Hugo Chavez tried a military coup. He failed and was jailed, but vowed he wasn’t done. Released, in 1999 he won a democratic election as president.

Be careful how you vote.

Chavez strutted as an adversary of “U.S. imperialism” and avatar of “21st century socialism,” earning adoration from a Hollywood claque and the usual left-wing moral morons, bedazzled by the word “socialism” into excusing all manner of anti-democratic repression.

Chavez did enjoy much genuine support among poorer Venezuelans, whom he basically bought off by distributing the country’s oil wealth — while he crippled that very industry by nationalizing it and stuffing its ranks with political types, and wrecking the rest of Venezuela’s once-rich economy with an insane farrago of anti-market, statist policies.

Dwindling oil revenues could not sustain the game, the rich got poorer, and so, ultimately, did the poor too. Chavez died of cancer at 58 in 2013 before the mierda fully hit the fan. His chosen successor, former bus driver Nicolas Maduro, narrowly won a 2013 presidential election.


Be careful how you vote. Though Maduro’s win was almost surely fraudulent, he couldn’t have pulled that off without votes from nearly half the electorate.

Then Venezuela really went off the rails, the economy collapsing in structural disarray, producing nothing, inflation exploding, people unable to get food or medicine. Instead of reversing the economic idiocies causing this, Maduro doubled down, and blamed the troubles on supposed U.S.-inspired sabotage. But few fell for this nonsense, his political support also collapsed, and the opposition won big in 2015 congressional elections. Only more fraud and manipulation denied them a decisive two-thirds majority. Maduro’s policy was now to intimidate, emasculate, and simply disregard the congress.

Meantime, the opposition also gathered more than enough signatures to force a presidential recall vote, pursuant to the Chavez-promulgated constitution. That too the regime quite simply disregarded, refusing to hold the vote.

All this plays out against a background of increasing repression (opponents jailed; forget a free press) and rising violence as protests by an increasingly desperate citizenry escalate, and the regime responds brutally. Its intransigence made negotiation efforts useless. President Maduro, who cannot win a fair vote, has now moved to seal Venezuela into a Cuban-style dictatorship by convening an all-powerful “constituent assembly” of handpicked stooges to supplant the congress and rewrite the constitution. That assembly’s “election” was — of course — another farcical fraud. (Even the company that ran it said so.)


One of the assembly’s first acts was to fire Attorney General Luisa Ortega, a former regime stalwart, with at least a vestige of integrity that couldn’t stomach Maduro’s extreme illegal power grab, which she condemned.

And where, in all this, you might wonder, is the army? Why doesn’t it step in to protect the constitution, congress, and democracy? Because the army is part of the regime, long since packed with loyalists. Its guns are what really keep Maduro in power. It’s the army brass, not the people, he needs to keep happy. And this is not about ideology. The “socialist” and “anti-imperialist” rhetoric continues, but that’s just a fig-leaf cover for the reality. The regime, and its army, are a gang of thugs ruling Venezuela exactly as Al Capone ruled Chicago, and for the same purpose — their own criminal enrichment.

As ordinary Venezuelans sink into an abyss of deprivation, the regime and its army feed off their flesh and suck their blood. Having destroyed the normal economy, so that not even food can be purchased normally, the army has been tasked with bringing in and selling food — profiting hugely. It’s grubby fingers are in many other businesses too. Further, while the currency has become virtually worthless, they maintain an inflated official exchange rate, at around 1,000 times the Bolivar’s actual value. Why? Only insiders can exchange Bolivars for Dollars at that phony rate, plundering the state to enrich themselves. That’s why they won’t give up power. And because if they do, they’d expect punishment for their crimes.

Here is your “21st century socialism.”

What is the sad lesson of Venezuela? Be careful how you vote.

Trump and Russia

July 15, 2017

This is a big deal. A very, very big deal.

Thing 1 and Thing 2

When Creepo Junior was offered campaign help from a representative of a hostile foreign government, the correct response was to call the FBI. Not, “I love it.”

Whether the law was violated is murky (depends on whether an offer of assertedly useful information amounts to a campaign donation). But the violation of fundamental precepts is crystal clear. You do not collude with a hostile foreign government for its help in a U.S. election campaign. An absolute no-no. Even the most brain-dead Trump asskisser should be able to grasp this.

That is why, for months, Creepo Senior repeatedly denied any such collusion. Of course he was lying. Surprise? If Donald Trump says the sun is shining, better grab your umbrella.

And even in their pretence of phony transparency, supposedly coming clean about that meeting with a Kremlin-connected Russian operative, the Trumps still did not in fact come clean — failing to mention the attendance of someone else — a former Russian spy!!

Rinat Akhmetshin, ex Russian spy

Let me repeat that. The Trump campaign’s highest honchos met not only with a Kremlin fixer, but also a former Russian spy, and covered it up.

This isn’t “fake news” or a “witch hunt,” or a mere “distraction.” It proves — as if it still needed proving — that Putin’s regime did try to mess with our election. To subvert our democracy. To elect its preferred candidate, Trump. And if the Trumps, in colluding with them, did not technically commit treason, it sure smells pretty close.

Even after being caught with his pants down so flagrantly on this, Trump still could not restrain his deranged compulsion to spin what is, to any non-brain-dead observer, blatant bullshit, arguing publicly that the Russians actually must have preferred Hillary. This insult to intelligence shows his contempt for the poor creeps who still worship him.

And what does all this do to America’s standing in the world? When it’s obvious, to every foreign leader, that our president is a total piece of garbage whose every word is worthless?

“Make America great again.” Look upon this greatness, and despair.

“The Fix” — What is real leadership?

July 9, 2017

Jonathan Tepperman’s book The Fix is prefaced with a quote: “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it, misdiagnosing it, and then misapplying the wrong remedies.” It’s from Marx. (Not Karl but Groucho.)

My daughter gave me this book for Christmas. The Fix is great.

Its subtitle is How Nations Survive and Thrive in a World in Decline. Tepperman begins, like my own Rational Optimism book, with “The Litany” — the familiar catalog of everything wrong with the world. Admittedly that list has grown since I wrote in 2008. Yet I still don’t see, in the big picture, “a world in decline.”

Neither does Tepperman, really. He deploys exactly what I meant by rational optimism — not Pollyanna’s rose-colored glasses, but a belief that problems can be solved through reasoned effort. He discusses ten in particular (“the terrible ten”) and, for each, how one nation at least did solve it. Mostly how leaders solved them, because leadership is key.


The first issue is inequality; the country Brazil; the leader Lula. Of course Brazil hasn’t completely eradicated inequality, but it was previously one of the most unequal nations, and has made great strides. Lula came to the presidency in 2003 (on his fourth try) seen as a Marxist radical. But he defied expectations by acting instead as the most orthodox steward of the economy. That gave him the credibility to implement his Bolsa Familia program.

Government programs for the poor typically entail “doing things for them” — which is complicated, inefficient (much bureaucracy), costly, and prone to corruption. Bolsa Familia instead just hands out cash. But to get it, your kids must go to school and get immunizations and medical check-ups. This helps them escape the poverty trap, with better future prospects. Also smart is giving the money to the mothers, sidestepping feckless dads and empowering women. And its simplicity makes the program actually quite cheap, costing less than half a percent of GDP; moreover, by turning the poor into consumers, it boosted the economy, arguably more than paying for itself. All this helped sell the program to skeptics.

Next is immigration, and Canada — one of the world’s most welcoming nations. In fact, Canada seeks out people to come — most of them nonwhite. It uses a point system encompassing factors like education and skills (in contrast to America’s relationship-based system — “extremely irrational” says Tepperman).

Canada’s system developed to kill two birds with one stone. The vast nation was underpopulated. And it was experiencing ethnic tension between English and French speakers. The solution, spearheaded by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, was to subsume those differences into a broader ethos of multiculturalism.

The point system makes most Canadians see immigration as a plus, without the kind of xenophobic feelings so prevalent elsewhere. In fact, most actually consider multiculturalism important to their national identity.

On December 10, 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Pierre’s son) stood in an airport arrivals hall handing out winter coats to the first of the 25,000 Syrian refugees Canada was welcoming. “You’re safe at home now,” he told them. While Trumpmerica currently bars all Syrian refugees.

But America is not the book’s villain. Indeed, one of its chapters is a good news story about the USA (imagine that). It concerns our recent energy revolution. (What, you didn’t notice?) It’s the fracking explosion (poor choice of words) to extract natural gas from shale, turning America into one of the world’s biggest energy producers.

No other country has tapped into shale gas to such an extent. Tepperman explains why. American property owners (unlike elsewhere) own everything under their land. That creates a huge incentive to exploit those resources; which has led to a proliferation of small energy companies; and competition among them has triggered a wave of technological innovation.

Remember how we pined for “energy independence?” Seemed hopeless — until the frackers got busy and started producing. Likewise all the Cassandra warnings about “peak oil.” Don’t hear that phrase much anymore either.

But I know what you’re thinking. At one time our local paper was filled with almost daily commentaries and reader letters expressing fear of fracking — a widespread movement which led some jurisdictions, including New York State and much of Europe, to ban it. But Tepperman dismisses all that fearmongering in barely a paragraph. The fact is that while fracking does (like every technology) entail risks, it has advanced sufficiently to deal with them quite well. So fracking has gone on for years now, producing bazillions of granfaloons of energy, and all the horror stories have proved to be basically chimaeras.

Peña Nieto

Another tale concerns Mexico, but has great relevance for the U.S. Mexico’s President Peña Nieto came to office upon a background of bitter partisan gridlock, among three main parties, no less. But he initiated a dialog among key leaders, that wound up committing all three parties to a big package of important reforms.

How was this remarkable breakthrough achieved? Tepperman: “quiet negotiations, painful compromise, political leaders willing to take risks and keep their word, and above all a recognition that zero-sum politics accomplishes nothing.” He also stresses the virtues of pragmatism as opposed to wearing ideological blinders. I was surprised Tepperman didn’t quote Deng Xiaoping: “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.” Deng was defending policies that shredded Communist orthodoxy. Of course, ideologies are not arbitrary irrelevancies: we have reasons for what we believe, and those beliefs guide what one thinks is the right answer to a problem. But the trouble is that other people may think differently. Tepperman argues for satisficing — making the kinds of compromises among competing viewpoints and interests such that everyone gets something, though nobody achieves their maximum goals. As ever: don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Returning to Mexico’s reform pact, Tepperman sees no reason, in principle, why it couldn’t be repeated in America. I’m skeptical. While Mexico’s deal did encounter cries of “Treason!” such compromises here would meet a firestorm from enflamed partisans. And as Tepperman highlights, Mexico’s political parties were losing popularity because of the prior stalemate. America’s geographic political segregation and gerrymandering create a different set of incentives; despite abysmal approval ratings for Congress, its members almost all get re-elected.

Still, one of the book’s key points holds true: leadership matters. America has suffered from a notable lack of the kind of leadership Tepperman depicts. Obama certainly did not have it. He created the Simpson-Bowles commission to produce a big compromise plan like Mexico’s, then walked away from it. Unlike Peña Nieto, Obama was content to let the partisan dynamics just play themselves out, with predictable results. And as for our current president: oy.

Our Gal in Amman (a continuing series)

June 28, 2017

Our daughter Elizabeth soon starts (another) new job, in Amman, Jordan, as project development officer with Right to Play, a Canada-based organization. She’s 24 and this will be her fourth gig already. Kids today — can’t they stick with anything?

She’ll now have worked in three different countries, for organizations headquartered in four other different countries.

She was in Jordan before, then Afghanistan, then Iraq; working for refugee-oriented outfits. Right to Play is different, focusing on giving disadvantaged kids educational opportunities emphasizing play and fun.

That might sound sappy in today’s troubled world. Not so. A lot of our pathologies, particularly terrorism and conflict, are rooted in people who are troubled. Maladjusted for productive societal life. And a couple of books I’ve happened to read lately* drive home how much that’s a product of adverse childhood experience. Children in difficult, dysfunctional, stressful circumstances are often doomed to grow into troubled adults; the kind who strap on suicide vests. Countering that syndrome by exposing kids to positive, life-affirming experiences is a very good idea indeed.

You save the world one person at a time.

* J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, showing how dysfunction is transmitted from generation to generation, by altering brain structure in childhood; and Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream (a gift from Elizabeth) about the drug war, explaining how addiction correlates with childhood trauma.

America’s degradation

June 14, 2017

It always made me sick when anti-Americans (like Noam Chomsky) would smear the U.S. on human rights. Perfect we’ve never been. But compared to all other nations throughout history, none more nobly upheld fundamental human values. And our light grew ever brighter.

But now it’s dimming. This, today, is what makes me sick.

Marco Coello was a high schooler who joined a 2014 demonstration protesting Venezuela’s vile regime. Its President Maduro strives to crush democratic opposition while his insane policies make life a cruel misery for most Venezuelans. This is what Marco protested. Regime thugs seized him, jailed him, put a gun to his head, doused him with gasoline, beat him with various implements including a fire extinguisher, and tortured him with electric shocks.

After several months he was released pending trial, and with his father, somehow managed to flee to America. He got a job and started studying English. And he scheduled an appointment with Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) to begin the process of applying for political asylum.

The U.S. is obligated to recognize valid claims for asylum under a 1951 international protocol, as codified and expanded by the 1980 Refugee Act passed by Congress, which established procedures and set up what is now the CIS to administer them.

Asylum is to be granted when someone legitimately fears persecution in their home country, for race, religion, nationality, political opinion or social group, and its government won’t protect them. In such circumstances the 1951 protocol obliges a nation to not return them to the place where they’d face persecution.

But never mind legal requirements. The U.S. being a haven for oppressed people is, well, who we are.

Correction: were.

Marco’s case, his lawyer thought, would be a slam-dunk. After all, his story was extensively documented in a Human Rights Watch report, and in one by the U.S. State Department itself, on Venezuela’s human rights violations.

Yet when he and his lawyer showed up for the scheduled CIS asylum interview, instead of being told “It’s an honor to meet you,” this torture victim was unceremoniously handed over to the ICE gestapo, who arrested him, handcuffed him, and threw him into a detention facility awaiting deportation.

This is Trump’s unspeakable degradation of our country. Hearing “Make America great again” makes me want to vomit.

(ICE’s pretext in Marco’s case was a misdemeanor on his record for parking on private property — seriously. He’s been released from detention after intercession by Senator Rubio, but still faces deportation. The story is detailed in the New York Times.)

My contribution to our China trade deficit

June 13, 2017

Our yearly trade deficit with China is around $340 billion and rising. That is, we import from China $340 billion worth of goods more than we export to China. Trump fulminates obsessively about this, saying China “rapes” us to the tune of that $340 billion.

Confession: I have personally added to our past China trade deficits, by importing many thousands of dollars worth of goods.

Typical Northern Song coin

They were old Chinese coins, bought mainly from one Shanghai dealer, Luo. I think he actually got rich in the process. But I made money too. For example, I’d get Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127 AD) coins, 10,000 at a time; cost around 13¢ apiece (shipping included). I’d sort through them, cleaning many, picking out better ones to sell for a buck or two, and the rest typically at $20 per hundred. Collectors loved such inexpensive thousand-year-old coins.

A middleman or trader like me has traditionally been seen as a kind of economic parasite. After all, I produce nothing myself. However, what I do is to get coins from people who value them less to ones who value them more. That creates what economists call a “consumer surplus,” making both my suppliers and my buyers better off. That’s economically beneficial.

I sell much to other dealers too. They retail the stuff to other collectors, creating still more customer value. And meantime, Luo got the coins from other Chinese sellers. They too profited and were made better off.

Also it’s not exactly the case that I produced nothing. My work of sorting, cleaning, and identifying coins added value to them.

Did any of this entail any job losses? On the contrary, my profits made me richer and hence able to buy more goods; and enabling my customers to buy coins cheaper than they would otherwise pay left them with more money to spend on other things. All this added buying power triggers creation of more jobs, to produce the additional goods and services now wanted. Similarly, Luo’s enrichment, and that of his Chinese suppliers, enabled them to spend more, contributing to Chinese job growth. And more jobs in China means Chinese can buy more goods made in America.

So is China “raping” us? What nonsense. Trade is win-win. That’s why people do trade. Being able to buy imported goods cheaper than they can be made here puts something like a trillion dollars annually in American consumer pockets; and spending that extra cash creates lots of jobs — surely more than the few trade might displace.*

Trump refuses to understand this. In his ignorant diseased mind, all deals have a winner and a loser. Sad.

My personal trade imbalance with China ultimately reversed. Chinese coins got much more expensive in China; Luo stopped selling those and switched to other stuff, which he’s been buying in recent years from me. Alas, my profit margin on those is much smaller.

* Another perspective on our China trade imbalance is that as Americans buy more Chinese goods than Chinese buy from us, money flows from the U.S. to China, which translates into China saving and investing at a higher rate than Americans do. Net annual saving by U.S. citizens has hovered around zero. And we finance our combination of consumer spending plus government spending by borrowing (much from China, lending us back the money we’ve spent for their goods). But that’s another issue.

Trump’s climate speech — full of covfefe

June 3, 2017

America first? Really? Who’d ever thought a U.S. president could make his Russian and Chinese counterparts appear better global citizens than us? But now even Putin and Xi Jinping are on the climate change high road, while America slithers down the other (accompanied only by the dictators of Syria and Nicaragua).

After Trump’s European trip, Germany’s leader Merkel judged that the era of U.S. leadership is over and Europe is on its own. Trump proved her point with his announcement of withdrawal from the Paris climate accord. A grown-up nation does not renege on its promises. Far from making America great again, he’s deformed it from an upstanding world leader into a child in a temper tantrum. America has never been this ungreat.

Trump says it’s to protect U.S. jobs. He just says things without regard to any reality; it’s just more covfefe.

It is true that even if carbon emissions went to zero, global temperatures would still rise, only a little less than otherwise. So if we were to curb emissions by reducing industrial output, to combat climate change, the economic harm would outweigh any benefit. But that’s not what Paris does.

Instead, it merely recognizes carbon’s effect on climate and the desirability of minimizing it to the extent we can. Simple common sense. Its targets are not binding commitments, with any penalties for noncompliance, but rather just earnestly expressed ambitions. Which virtually every other nation on Earth agreed are wise.

So no job losses. Zip, zero, zilch. Nor any transfer of wealth from America to other nations — more nonsensical Trump covfefe. His whole speech was a farrago of nonsense detached from reality, an embarrassment to the country. Transitioning sensibly from dirtier to cleaner energy sources can only have economic (as well as environmental) benefits. Trump’s coal fetish is simply insane. Coal blights the planet as well as miners’ health, and is a comparatively costly energy source. Even China, the world’s leading coal nation, is assiduously cutting back on it. And clean energy is creating around ten times as many jobs.

So why would Trump go out of his way to trash what he himself referred to as a “non-binding” agreement? To pander to his base of course — the rest of the world can go hang. Sensible heads in both government and business almost unanimously advised him against withdrawing from Paris. Polls show a majority even of Trump supporters opposed doing it. So this is aimed at the hard core of the hard core. Even politically it seems insane.

But it sticks a thumb in the eye of the world order, so Trump can play the disruptor. And it reflects yet again his bottomless ignorance about the world, the willful ignorance of a fool who thinks he knows it all. And perhaps also Trump, even in his literally diseased mind, could see that his record so far is not his lie of triumphant accomplishment but a train wreck. Trashing Paris was at least one thing he’d said he’d do that he could actually do. To him a no-brainer. Too bad it really is brainless.

In the Rose Garden he said the world was laughing at us for agreeing to Paris, and that will stop. Trump has an uncanny thing for turning reality exactly inside out. They weren’t laughing at us then, but now they are, while shaking their heads sadly.

Does religion cause violence?

May 28, 2017

A congressional candidate physically assaults a reporter — and gets elected. What the f— is happening to this country? And meantime atrocities are committed with cries of “Allahu Akbar!” — “God is great!”

Once again my wife gifted me with a book to challenge me: Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence.

The rap is that religion, by instilling a notion of absolute truth and a limitless sense of righteousness, inspires violence. As witness all the persecutions, religious wars, the Crusades, the Inquisition, all the way to 9/11 and ISIS. Some say this outweighs any good religion does, and we’d be better without it.

Armstrong, a leading historian of religion, has a different take. She aims to get religion off the hook, with (the back cover says) “a passionate defense of the peaceful nature of faith.”

Well, for a book about “the peaceful nature of faith,” it sure is soaked in blood, amply living up to the title. It is a depressing, horrifying read. Yet, in chronicling one atrocity after another, Armstrong’s basic point is that religious belief per se is not their root cause. Instead, religion has often been cover for what is really more about politics, power, and lucre.

In pursuing those, some actors are more cynical than others. And while, for men at the top (and it’s mostly been men) cynicism may have reigned supreme, for the foot soldiers in the killing fields religious zealotry often provided the indispensable motivator.

Armstrong does repeatedly stress what she considers to be the peaceful teachings of most religions. Yet there can be a cognitive disconnect. She puzzles over how the Crusaders, for example, could reconcile what she calls their psychotic violence with the teachings of the faith they were supposedly fighting for. But she also explains how battle and slaughter themselves can inspire a kind of extremist ecstasy. I would add: especially when coupled with a sense of supreme religious righteousness. So religion is, indeed, very much part of the problem.

It is also important to understand that through most of history, political power was not the thing we know today. The idea of the state serving the needs and interests of the citizenry is quite a modern concept. Previously, the state was essentially a vehicle of predation, with whatever good it did being calculated to keep the populace sufficiently submissive that their pockets could be efficiently picked for the benefit of the rulers.


God was part of the formula by which the powerful ruled, for their self-aggrandizement. Armstrong makes the point that only in modern times has “religion” come to be seen as a thing unto itself. Previously it was integrally bound up with the whole culture, including its political and power structures; “separation of church and state” would have made no sense to those populations. But Martin Luther argued for it, saying that religion should be something private, interior, and that marrying it with state power was an unending source of trouble.


And the philosopher John Locke made a similar case from the standpoint of human liberty – that it was just wrong to try to compel religious belief. But it took some further horrors (like the Thirty Years War, killing 35% of Europe’s population) to convince sensible heads that Luther and Locke were right.

Note too that before modern times there was really no such thing as economic growth. That meant one state (its rulers, really) could get richer only at the expense of another. A further impetus to warfare in which, again, religious pretexts were very useful.

The emergence of the modern state curbed a lot of the violence that was so endemic. Today most governments do at least try to serve their citizenries, and prosper better through trade than war. This is a key reason why violence has in fact so markedly declined (as well explained in Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature.) A noteworthy exception today is Syria – very much an old time predatory state (if at this point you could even call it a state). And then there’s ISIS, whose demented violence is not really attached to any state, in the modern sense, either.

But that religion per se, religion itself, still causes violence is all too evident. Bangladesh, and especially Pakistan, experience intensifying lynchings of accused “blasphemers.” And it’s not the work of just a few extremists, but a widespread cultural pathology. A Pakistani student was recently dragged from his dorm room, by classmates, and brutally killed, on some vague accusation of blasphemy.

Speaking of violence, I was unable to finish the book – it fell victim to the January Fort Lauderdale airport shooter. I went to Fort Laud for a coin show and planned to fly home that Friday evening. Because of the shooting I could not fly till Sunday. I scheduled a cab for 6:00 AM and a 5:45 wake-up call. The call didn’t come, but I awakened at 5:54, and rushed out. In the rush, the book got left behind.


I will end by quoting Reinhold Niebuhr: religion is a good thing for good people and a bad thing for bad people.