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Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Myth of Altruistic American Foreign Policy

It is a measure of the extremely unusual nature of the 2016 US Presidential election that national security  received very little serious attention with much of the discussion by the winner focused on the security of the southern border, the need for "extreme vetting" of immigrants and a proposed ban on certain religious groups. There was also a pledge to start using the term "radical Islam" which would apparently defeat the terrorists in some undefined way. A more charitable view might be that calling the beast by its true name is a prerequisite to actually confronting and defeating it, but the month since the official transfer of power has not left me feeling overly charitable or optimistic that there is any real plan to confront the ideology if extremism. It is a measure of the oddness of this past election that the losing candidate had far more developed ideas on nearly every policy question, including, or especially, foreign relations and national security. Liberals and conservatives alike had issues with Mrs. Clinton and were less than devastated at her defeat;  many progressives especially hated her approach to foreign policy. But one thing both critics and supporters did agree on was that had she won, it may be safely assumed that policy would be debated before US forces are committed to war.

Perhaps the greatest fear under the current leadership is a seeming naivete at the top when it comes to using American military power and an impossible-to-dismiss worry that US forces may be drawn into a shooting war without much debate or reasoned discussion.  While the US government has many checks and balances and it is safe to assume that any decision to unleash the military machine would require some level of discussion within the government, Donald Trump seems to have no discernible philosophy that would shape such a debate and hence any decision that rests with him could be swayed by a lightest of breezes. From repudiating our long-time allies in Europe and East Asia, to picking battles with China and Mexico, to warmly praising Russia and supporting dictators like Egypt's al-Sisi, Trump's policy has no unifying thread, or if it does, that common strand is well hidden. Or scarier yet, the policy towards a country seems to be directly linked to how their leaders praise him and stroke his ego. But for all my criticism of  the Trump Doctrine, the fact is that the US has not seriously debated policy for decades, perhaps not since the Vietnam war, and most Americans have extremely strange ideas about geopolitics and the role their country plays on the world stage. We had debates in the past, to be sure, but no one really stops to think exactly what current policy is, or what an alternate policy would actually look like. We have minor changes in direction, be the overt aggressiveness of Ronald Reagan or the initially less interventionist turned preemptive aggressionist instincts of George W. Bush. Barack Obama for all his vows of change really followed the same line of thinking as his predecessors. We've seen varying levels of isolationism and reaching out, but only in a narrow range about the historic position. Now for the first time since the World Wars, US policy is been stood upside down, with a distinctly isolationist "America First" pledge though I'm hard-pressed to know exactly how this plays out in actual policy.

To examine the concept of "America First", one must first drill down into the thinking behind such a slogan, The Trump administration, which is to say basically only Mr. Trump, appears to believe that our policy of the last fifty years or so has been to generously help the rest of the world while asking nothing in return. This is, however, a surprisingly widespread view across America, especially on the right side of the aisle, but not exclusively so; Americans of all political stripes hew to the idea that America is that "shining city on the hill" and that US interventions abroad have been almost always altruistic; a smaller, non-intersecting group, almost exclusively leftwing,  believes that all US policy is imperial and criminal, while a small group hopes that the US will be more outward looking without the military excursions. It is the idea that the world has been living off American generosity that underpins the Trump doctrine, and it is the same thinking that calls the US the "global cop", whether in despair, pride, disdain or exasperation. Interestingly, this school of thought - the US as the sworn upholder of world order with no personal stake - is widely held in many corners of the world, with the same mix of emotions surrounding it, and whether welcomed or hated, it is however treated as a truism.

It would undoubtedly surprise most Americans, as well as their detractors and supporters, around the world if they knew that I declare this most sacred and widely accepted tenet to be false. Undoubtedly, my lack of standing on geopolitical matters would lead to instant dismissal of this unwelcome opinion, but I may offer some arguments in favor of my unlikely theory. I would postulate that US policy since the Second World War has been singularly self-serving. This is not a criticism of that policy, nor does it imply that US interests have always been served; it simply recognizes that each US Administration has acted, wisely or otherwise, successfully or not, to further American interests to the best of their ability and based on the best information available and their best interpretation thereof. To examine this hypothesis, consider some of the most important and far-reaching decisions of US foreign policy since the World War: the Marshall Plan, creating the UNO, the Vietnam war (and in truth, its ideological predecessor, the Korean War), policing the maritime trade routes, the China policy (all the way from Chiang Kai-Shek to Nixon's visit to Tiannemen Square to present), Afghanistan policy (from 1980 to present) and the Gulf Wars.

There is no better place to start than with the Marshall Plan. In the minds of most Americans familiar with their post-World War history, this ranks as one of the most generous and altruistic actions, an infusion of American wealth into a battered and exhausted Europe that helped the nations of Western Europe endure and prosper. To be sure, the American aid did rescue Europe, there is little to dispute there. But in reality, it was the most rational and self-serving action by the US government, when you consider the alternatives facing President Truman. The US had just emerged victorious from the war, and undisputed superpower, but across from them sat Soviet Russia, bloody but equally triumphant and determined to expand its own power into Europe. The Americans knew that to let Western Europe slip into chaos would be to open all of Europe to a Russian embrace and America would find itself thrust back to its own shores. It was in America's greatest interest that Europe recover and provide strong allies in the coming battle against communism, and fortunately the US government also realized that this was a war that had to be fought and won on the ideological level. And when the European economies stabilized and thrived again, they provided a group of energetic trade partners to repay the prior largesse of their benefactor.

The Vietnam War and the Korean War were fought with one blunt idea. It is important to recall that it is not the wisdom of the idea that is in question here, and the conventional wisdom of the day predicted a domino effect should America permit any of their allies to fall to communist insurgents, again with the effect of driving the US back across the Pacific. In retrospect the fears that the fall of the South Vietnam republic would lead to an invasion of the US homeland were wildly overblown, but they were very real in the minds of US leaders as crises bloomed in Vietnam, and before that in Korea. It is why the US was willing to pour millions of dollars and thousands of lives into an effort to hold back the communist insurgents. As in succoring Europe, the benefits to the populace were a bonus, a stroke of fortune that the US did not grudge them, but also not the primary aim in crushing the Vietcong or North Koreans. The cynical nature of this policy is quite clear in the allies the US chose to aid them in their battles - the spreading of democracy, freedom and the American way was never going to take priority over the realpolitik of defeating the communists - and when policy suggested that America wage war on Nature itself to deny the Vietcong cover of their jungles, the US government had few qualms in deploying Agent Orange. It's worth recalling too that the need to crush "the Commies" was not significantly challenged in America, until the middle class realized that success in the jungles of Southeast Asia would require the blood and sacrifice of their own children. The draft defeated America, and it was only after the students rebelled against the meaningless carnage in which they were asked to participate that a wider questioning of the aims tore American society apart and finally ended the war. It's also noteworthy that earlier, in Korea, America was willing to fight to defend their South Korean allies to safeguard their own position in Korea, Japan and Formosa (now Taiwan) but when the excessively aggressive tactics favored by MacArthur threatened to widen the war theater and bring the costs of war home to America, President Truman was perfectly willing to settle for a stalemate and draw than push to liberate the entire Peninsula. Fast forward a few decades, and in much the same way, the US chose to look conveniently away when China deployed tanks and armored columns to crush a pro-democracy protest that electrified Tienanmen Square for a few weeks in 1989. Democratic ideals are fine, but when the US had to choose between unarmed students and a desperate but ruthless government re-asserting its power in a bloody massacre, the benefits accruing from an understanding with the cynical Deng Xiaoping was more than enough to decide the issue.

Globalists and isolationists alike love to consider the United Nations Organization the ultimate gift of the US to a mostly ungrateful world. To rightwingers and isolationists, it is the ultimate symbol of US unselfishness that the organization created by US efforts is so often aligned at cross purposes to American policy. Yet, both they and the globalists miss the wider point, that America created the UNO and continues to pay a huge majority of its costs, not out of selfless benevolence but from calculated and far-sighted self-interest. A student of history would remember that after the First World War, the League of Nations was formed to prevent future global conflict, and failed spectacularly. The causes of failure were built into the League from its inception, from the aloof disdainful non-engagement of the US (ironically, after pushing to found it) to the exclusion of the newly communist Soviet Union to the forced exclusion of the defeated Axis nations to the utter lack of compliance mechanisms. Following the failure of the League and the subsequent Second World War (or part of the World War, as many modern historians now say), the US and her allies formed a new forum for world diplomacy and drew on the lessons of the earlier failure. The UNO may often oppose American aims, but it also often aligns with her, and  against American foes. Decision in the UNO, especially the Security Council may require plenty of diplomacy and deal-cutting, but that is precisely its aim - to foster a diplomatic solution above all other options and encourage nations to work out their differences peacefully. There are notable failures, from the Israel-Palestine issue, to the India-Pakistan conflicts to North Korea, yet in all cases, the UN has still provided that crucial forum to debate and discuss and for most part has succeeded in tamping down violent confrontations. The US, for all its setbacks in the General Assembly, gains enormously when peace reigns around the world and that, and that alone, is why the UN remains the best tool of American policy. Harkening back to Korea, it's worth remembering that the coalition opposing the invasion across the 38th Parallel was sanctioned by the UN while the USSR boycotted the UNO; both sides learned an important lesson then, as the USSR and later Russia never again relinquished their chance to mold world policy and action, as mirrored by the US. Tthe US has rarely committed its forces to open war without first ensuring that any and all opposing Great Powers will not enter the field against them, from Iraq, Afghanistan and even Serbia, the US has never risked an accidental and potentially escalating shooting war with nations like Russia or China, and that has protected US lives over the years.

The benefits of peace are plentiful to America, and should be easily discernible. In the years following the world wars, America was the greatest industrial power, and large as domestic consumption was, she needed to sell her products abroad as well to fully realize the benefits. Keeping the trade routes open was key to American prosperity and while there is no US policy that screams "global cop" than the ubiquitous presence of the US Navy in all the seven seas, it is a policy totally unlike that of a policeman, who is supposed to uphold the law and maintain peace with no personal benefit. The US ensures the freedom of passage around the world not from wholly or even mainly, altruistic motives but from a simple understanding that a nation whose prosperity depends on trade and (for a long time) an unhindered supply of oil sourced from perennial flashpoints needs to maintain peace around the world.

I should emphasize that it is not my thesis that American policy benefits no one but herself. Far from it, indeed, for many nations have prospered in the safety of the American shield or grown off American treasure, and America has usually rejoiced in their success. Rather, I wish to emphasize that the arc of US policy since the world wars has been singularly grounded in realpolitik and has consistently been designed (however mistakenly) and executed with the aim of promoting American power and interests and that this reality runs contrary to popular belief across the US political spectrum. Those who demand an "America First" policy would be well advised to educate themselves on this reality before they demand a whole-scale reversal of policy. That many aspects of policy need revisiting is beyond question, as is the fact that American governments in the past have quite cynically differentiated between what is good of the nation as opposed to what is good for the American people, and that is, ultimately, the matter that should be addressed in any re-evaluation of global policy. But such a re-evaluation must be performed with a clear-eyed acceptance of reality rather than with the popular prejudice that dresses America in the role of all-generous and long-suffering selflessness, for such delusion cannot result in any positive changes.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Zero Zero X: License to Choose

One of the most divisive topics in America today is abortion (along with politics, football and the relative worth of life based on skin pigmentation) and yet I find that somehow I have taken the time to throw my mite of fuel upon that cheerful blaze that so consumes political discourse across this land. To no small part, my tardiness may be blamed on incoherence which is after all a very good excuse, having propelled one gentleman past all his fellow contenders for the standard of their party in the presidential race. But with the potentially devastating consequences of Zika virus infection looming over us, this seems a good reason to think about the most basic ideas surrounding the idea of abortion. I'd long since veered around to repudiating the position of the faith I was born in, and even before I flung off the shackles of religion, I'd already embraced the idea that women had every right to abortion services and that attempts to deny them was no less than an attack on all their rights and freedoms. I've long felt that while the wishes of the father should be at least considered, that discussion should be between the woman and man, and in the end the decision rests solely with the woman; when only one half of the pair has to deal with the huge physical changes, it's only fair that she get a proportional say in the decision to keep or abort the fetus.

But this was at best a conviction, a vaguely held idea about rights and equality that I had not fully thought through. Last night, a chance statement in a conversation with three gentleman who I shall call Ears, Baldy and Graybeard, regarding the exclusivity of atheist and pro-choice individuals led me to remark that in fact there was nothing in the Bible that literally prevented abortion. My point was that there was no clause that named abortion as a sin or prohibited act since the procedure as we understand it today was not known in era when that celebrated book was composed (as I found out later, I was wrong - aborting fetuses has been known and done for over two millennia). However, one of my fellow conversationalists, Graybeard, took a different point of view and cited the no killing commandment as all the authority needed to preclude abortion to all women. Now I would argue that in fact the sixth commandment is much too vague to be such a blanket authority since it would prevent one from ever defending one's country, or even oneself, against an attack. But that would be a cheap escape from the main question: since I am opposed to murder (in the general sense of the word) how then would I be able to justify abortion?

As far as I understand it, opposition to abortion is a moral argument and as such based on a subjective understanding of morality. But while I cannot objectively discuss a subjective theory, anti-choice views rest on some underlying concepts that can be addressed rationally. It all seems to rest on the singular idea that a fetus is the same as a human life and hence terminating a pregnancy is the same as murder, with all the moral issues contingent in that concept. To me, this central argument fails (and renders all subsequent moral arguments moot) since quite simply a fetus is not a human life. It's living, that is beyond doubt, but I find it a stretch that we would call it a human life, simply because as one debater stated, the word is Latin for baby (incidentally he was wrong, as the Latin roots refer to the bearing of offspring and is not even particular to humans). Even were he right, Latin and Greek words are often used to misname things, like planet from the word for wanderer to differentiate it from "stationary" stars or malaria from "bad air" that causes the illness. The other part of this argument was that fetuses when allowed to develop fully do become babies. However, no one would argue that tadpoles are the same as frogs or that the chrysalis is a butterfly (or moth or any other insect).  To cite an even more specific example, the silkworm pupa is very distinct from the moth and the moth is next to no use to us, except to mate and lay more eggs. At an even more extreme level, would anyone say that an egg is the same as the bird that laid it? I think I'm on reasonably safe ground when I argue that a human fetus is quite distinct from a human baby. Whether it deserves to be carried to full term may still be debated, but to equate aborting a fetus with killing a human being is a flawed argument meant to only evoke an emotional response, and deserves to be ignored.

Moving on to the idea that it is right or wrong to abort a fetus, I would argue that it's acceptable to abort a fetus, for the simple reason is that it cannot survive outside the womb under natural circumstances. A counter argument was offered that a baby is dependent on its mother as well, but I think that's not even a close comparison. Most offspring, especially further along the evolutionary ladder do require some assistance to survive but the level is not even close to that required by a fetus that is not even ready to live in air as yet. In fact, as my uncle (a biologist, fervent Catholic and staunch opponent of all abortion) once explained, a fetus is a parasite. Not in the layman's understanding of the term, but in the definition of a biologist, a human fetus meets all points of the definition as an organism that is absolutely dependent on its host, draws all its nutrition and energy from the host and forces changes upon its host to create a more hospitable environment for itself. Once the fetus is ensconced, the host is unable to destroy it even when the host's own health is adversely affected. It's obvious too that the human womb is not a universally welcoming place for the embryo or it would be incredibly easy for any and every woman to get pregnant; just like any smart parasitic invader the embryo actually forces the host to suppress its immune system to allow a successful pregnancy and this can take anything from one to dozens or hundreds of attempts. Absent any outside agency, a human fetus has a less than 2 in 5 chance of surviving from conception to full term. If it is acceptable for the human body to "naturally" terminate over sixty percent of conceived fetuses, why then is a less natural form of the same so terrible? The Catholic church (and undoubtedly other religions) has long advocated for only natural methods in case of managing pregnancy, but they pick and choose when to apply this standard, or they would all be walking around naked as apes.

I'm well aware that my discussion above describes fetuses in a not very appealing way and may seem insulting to the idea of pregnancy itself but it's sometimes necessary to lay out the facts in the baldest terms to debunk claims to the contrary (and after all, I'm well positioned to talk to the parasitic nature of the human fetus, having been one myself). When it comes to the question of pregnancy and carrying the fetus to term, I'm all in favor of it, just not a supporter of forcing it upon someone who doesn't want it. And that is in fact the exact reason that I believe the best world would be one in which we make contraceptives widely available and spread education thereon universally so that we do not force women into a position where they have to make this choice. Unlike the most fervent anti-choice folk, I think (and most studies back this up) that most, if not all but  a minuscule minority of, women think deeply over this decision and it is a difficult and heart wrenching choice for them. Of course, this is even more reason to enable a world in which women have total control over their own lives and bodies and are not forced into a painful choice. The biggest point that the anti-choice brigade misses is that having access to contraception or abortion services never coerces a woman onto an unwanted path while denying them these choices most certainly does.

There is so much more to add on this topic - fetal pain and the obtuse attempts to first ban late term abortions and then delay women from getting early abortions so that they run out of time and choices. I could ramble on for a long way on these and other ideas. But rather I want to address one last point by Graybeard. He stated, almost proudly, that he opposed his own daughter's choice to abort her pregnancy, because in his words "when she spread her legs, she ceded her right to further decisions respecting the fetus". This is interesting to me, since it basically awards greater rights now to a clump of cells (at the start of development) than to the woman who must make more sacrifices than any man could really comprehend to enable that same set of cells to become a baby. To offer a (purposefully simplistic) analogy, if one offered a starving (and maybe homeless) man a single meal, would the benefactor now be permanently responsible for feeding and housing the other? Or would he have the right to walk on and leave that unfortunate to fend as best he can? Would be have a choice to help the starving man or is he bound by that first choice to help the other for as it takes? In Graybeard's world,  woman had one choice - to have sex or not have sex. Now quite apart from the fact that in some parts of the world, and within some groups in the US, this is not really a choice made by the woman but her spouse, history has also shown that it is an unreasonable concept. Abstinence sounds simple and easy, but ignores all the messy reality of life. To insist that only the woman loses her freedom due to an act that involved at least two people is at the very least unfair.

It is amazing, and more than a little sad, that men, who never have to face the same wrenching choices, the same sacrifices and same experiences are the ones trying to decide the issue for women; in reality this decision should not be made by even another woman no matter how similar her own experiences may be. It is the choice, first and always, of the woman, who it solely concerns. We would justifiably disdain and reject any coercion in our own lives; refusing to force our choices and opinions on women in something that concerns us only peripherally is the very least we owe them.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Musing on Arda

The past few months have been so packed with drama and horror, from the Orlando shootings, the Nice attack, the political rise and very real prospects of Donald Trump as president, the continued issues between the police and the society they purportedly serve, that there is almost too much to choose from in blogging about current matters. Since I like to put some distance betwixt myself and the events I opine on in my blog and the on-going events are still too recent for me to have a proper perspective, I decided that rather to retreat instead to a space of peace and calm, the land of Arda or as it is often called, Middle Earth. Middle Earth was not exactly peaceful, but the defeat of the darkness helps cast a rosy glow over its entire history. And sitting at ease far removed from that fictional world, I can sip on my coffee and offer my criticisms on one of the great works of fiction.

It is, it goes without saying though I am saying it here, an act of incredible arrogance on my part to offer up criticism on Tolkien's universe. But not only do I have both the freedom and the chance to criticize what I could not create myself, this is less a criticism and more a musing on some aspects of his work that specially fascinate me and some ideas that I would see differently, were that power available to me. Tolkien created his universe and it was his natural prerogative to shape it and its characters as he wished. But he dreamed up Middle Earth a century ago and the world has changed quite dramatically in its attitudes. My own perspective shaped around the turn of the century is so very different from that of a young English soldier in the trenches of France in the war to end all wars that is quite amazing and a testament to the greatness of Tolkien's work that Middle Earth calls to me in much the same way as it has to generation after generation from every corner of the world.

From my first reading of The Lord of the Ring, I wished that Tolkien had treated Eowyn slightly different. She was, despite her relatively minor role, one of my favorites along with Meriadoc Brandybuck. Tolkien gave her a great role in the Battle of Pelinnor Fields when she stood by her king when all other fled in terror of the Witch King and then delivered the death blow to first the Fel Beast and then its rider, and was thus the only person in Middle Earth to destroy a Nazgul. Glorfindel drove off the Witch King at an earlier date, Legolas unseated one of the Nazgul from a long distance on the banks of the Anduin while Gandalf even only pushed them back enough to shield the retreat of Faramir and his men while suffering a bad defeat later in a one-on-one battle.  In that sense, Tolkien's statement is odd that Eowyn abandoned her dreams of glory in battle in favor of healing and a domestic life; Eowyn had already achieved great glory, at least equal if not surpassing Aragon and there was no act in Middle Earth that could equal hers.

But even sadder for me is her unrequited love for Aragon, for she comes across as an infatuated schoolgirl. That she idolized him when he first rode into Edoras was perhaps natural, given her seclusion and suffering at the hands of Grima Wormtongue but I would have wished that she followed him and loved him in the same way that Gimli and Legolas did. Sadly Tolkien suggests that her infatuation did not really end when they parted and there is at least a suggestion that she rode secretly beside her king to the Battle of Pelinor Fields seeking death as an answer for a hopeless love; to a modern reader, her desperation would make more sense as a story of a strong warrior continually passed over in a patriarchal society. Her continued infatuation casts a pall over her subsequent love for Faramir and it reads too much like she was settling for him when she could not get her actual choice. That is a pity, for though it is a minor chapter in the lives of two relatively minor characters, it lessens them unnecessarily and both of them appealed strongly to me. Their love could and should have been a wonderful thing - Eowyn as a strong and independent woman striving to be accepted an an equal and definitely able and willing to kick ass when needed, while Faramir was a great foil as the accomplished warrior who preferred learning and nurturing to fighting. No other characters in Middle Earth were better suited to be joined, but that unfortunate infatuation continues to loom large over them and Tolkien's attempt to then re-gild their relationship after Eowyn states that she wished for Aragon's love reads as rather clumsy and contrived to modern eyes.

Sadly, Tolkien's genius did not extend to the details of personal feelings or character shading and he worked mostly in broad strokes rather than fine detail when it came to  love - witness the description of the love between Aragon and Arwen Eveningstar, or the even greater love affairs of Thingol and Melian or Luthien Tinuviel and Beren. The love of Galadriel and Celeborn is described in but one short phrase and Celeborn's character is rarely developed to explain how he won the love of one of the greatest of the Eldar and possibly the greatest living Elf in Middle Earth during the events of the War of the Ring. Even Samwise Gamgee's romance is but slightly touched upon. Perhaps Tolkien preferred the light touch in describing these events since the love and marriage of individual characters seems of minor importance when weighed against the great events of the Third Age when the glory of the elves was waning and the shadow of Mordor hung over all. But to me, it is precisely the lives and hopes and dreams of the most ordinary people that make the great events of the story important. In his own way Tolkien understood this and embraced it, for it was Sam's devotion to Frodo and his love for the Shire and its people that gave him the strength to carry them to Mount Doom, it was the unexpected and improbable comradeship that sprang up between Gimli and Legolas that spurred them to great actions and it was Gandlaf's love for and interest in the "unimportant" hobbits that eventually gave him the key to overthrowing Sauron and finally banishing the darkness from Middle Earth. But all these relationships are but hinted at with the lightest of brush strokes and that is genius on Tolkien's part for it allows our imagination and personal perspectives to fill in the blanks. Unfortunately for Eowyn and Faramir and I, their story was the one time Tolkien did abandon the broad strokes in favor of greater detail. A warrior of her accomplishment, Eowyn assuredly deserved a better love story; at the very least, she most definitely deserved better dialogue!

I mentioned above the one enduring thread in the tale of the Hobbits, their love for each other and for the Shire and for "all things green and beautiful". At the climax of the story, Frodo faces the final test as he stands above the fires of Mount Doom and prepares to throw the One Ring to its destruction. But the power of Sauron and the siren song of power prove too much and to Sam's horror he claims the Ring for his own. All that they had sought and suffered for was for naught and the end of Middle Earth seemed nigh when Gollum sprang forth and seized the ring for himself and in his celebration took the One Ring back to its infernal furnace and finally unmade it. Reading this from a modern perspective, I really wished that Frodo had withstood the power of the Ring, that where the kings of Men had proved weak, the love of simple things like a good meal (and many of them), a rosy apple, a green Shire and a good song would triumph over the dark and empty promises of Mordor. Now it goes without saying that Tolkien as author is the ultimate and only decider of how his story should go and his tale is very much a part of the greater picture he painted of both Middle Earth and the powers that created and shaped it. It is worth nothing Tolkien had a precedent for this idea - while the nine Kings of Men succumbed to the lure of power and became Ringwraiths, the seven Dwarf lords did not - the main book does not dwell on it, but Tolkien's background works indicate that the dwarves loved their work and wealth more than power and so even though they were hurt by the rings that Sauron gave them, they did not become his servants. Though the "gods" are rarely mentioned in the Lord of the Rings books - even the journey of the Elfs to the Undying Lands is merely mentioned and never explained at length - the larger Tolkien universe fills in most of the gaps and provides the theological underpinning of the story. The Fellowship was never going to win or lose on its own merits, the combined power of Men, Elfs, Dawarves, a Wizard and twice as many Hobbits as were originally intended was clearly not enough to stand against, much less overthrow the power of Mordor. Tolkien's use of the word "doom" (destiny or Fate in modern parlance, one suspects) indicates a hidden power at play throughout the story. Manwe is never named, far less credited, except for a hint that Gandalf the Maia was "sent back" to finish the task after dying in his victory over the Balrog of Moria. And interestingly when he returns with greater power and transformed (Thorondir remarked as to Gandalf being as light as a feather and on his return he seems uncertain and disoriented at first) that power is still never brought to bear conclusively against the Nazgul. Gandalf does aid the retreat of Faramir's ill-fated mission to retake Orthanc but he never engages the Nazgul in direct combat. The one time that it seems the confrontation is looming, he is distracted and needed to save Faramir's life and the Nazgul break off their assault on the town to deal with the arriving Rohirrim. Perhaps Tolkien never decided even in his own mind if Gandalf would be able to face and defeat the Nazgul and in the end, the pivotal action is worked by the most unlikely of heroes. (In the movie, when face to face with the Witch King, Gandalf is thrown down and the Nazgul gloats that the wizard cannot defeat him - only the arrival of the Rohirrim distracts the Witch King and saves Gandalf.) This, more than any other, illuminates Tolkien's world view for Middle Earth - the fate of the world is shaped by unseen players beyond the frame of the story and small events that seemed to have no importance come back to decide the final battle.

Thus, it was Frodo's compassion for Gollum in the early chapters of their meeting (and his continued pity almost all the way through, especially when contrasted to the naked and well-deserved distrust of Samwise Gamgee) that spared that unfortunate creature's life - Frodo even actively intervened to keep Faramir and his men from killing Gollum - and ensured that he would live to play a crucial part in the story. Frodo's compassion saving Middle Earth is a fine concept - pity and compassion proved more important than all the military and magical skills of Gandalf, Aragon, Legolas and all the rest - but not even Gandalf knew its importance and it plays a part in shaping the tale seemingly despite rather than because of everyone's actions. Other minor events also are shown to have exceptional importance in retrospect - Merry and Pippin were not supposed to even leave the Shire, per Frodo's original plan. They then insisted on being a part of the Fellowship when no one imagined they'd be of any importance, and Pippin especially appears to doom the task when he alerts the orcs in Moria of their presence - it seemed till then that they would be able to slip through undetected - and Gandalf seemingly dies in a heroic rearguard action. But a couple of days later, the two of them bravely sacrifice their own freedom and safety to spring Frodo from the Orc ambush near Amon Hen. After their escape and delivery from the orcs, they befriend Treebeard - the only members of the party who could gain the trust of an Ent, one imagines - and are the key agents in rousing the Ents and bringing the war to Isengard, defeating Saruman before the Rohirrim arrive. Merry then joins with Eowyn - crucially the only other warrior of Rohan to not flee in terror - to slay the Witch King while Pippin (in a much less heroic role) plays  a role in saving Faramir from being accidentally killed by his demented father. That these two almost forgotten agents combined to influence some of the key events of the war is another testament to the idea that the Valar or even Eru Illuvatar himself were moving the pieces in a giant chess game. Tolkien paints a riveting and coherently consistent tale - I just wish a simpler, more mortal power had defeated Sauron.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Fear and Hatred in Orlando

Last weekend, a man filled with hatred walked into a nightclub and shot dead over fifty people. The sadness, the horror and the disgust for his actions were so massive that I wanted to immediately write a long diatribe about his misguided actions and the foul philosophy that drove him. But I decided to wait for  my initial passion to cool and address this only after both my own thoughts and the motives of the killer were clearer. My initial shock and outrage that we'd just seen another horrific mass shooting was magnified by the realization that the death toll had just reset an almost century old record as the bloodiest mass murder in the US (I assume we weren't counting events like Wounded Knee), but other than statistics  does it matter so much if the death toll is 49 (Orlando), 33 (Virginia Tech) or 28 (Sandy Hook)? To each person who had his or her life cut short and to their loved ones who have to deal with the aftermath, it's as big a tragedy whether one or a hundred other died alongside for no good reason. Does it matter more if it's a a grade schooler, or a college student? Does it matter if it happened on a military base or in a movie theater? Does it matter if it happened at midday or in the early hours of morning just before last call? In the end, the fact that it happened at all is what should matter and how we react in the days to come will define the kind of country and people we are.

Depending on one's political views, the most compelling part of the story is either that the club catered to gay people and the victims were mostly gay people or that the killer was a young Muslim man who made a grandiose pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State in the middle of his cowardly attack. A secondary concern also dictated by one's political worldview is the use of a semi-automatic rifle, legally purchased by a man who had been investigated previously for links to terrorist groups. And yet, we have to wonder if these concerns need be mutually exclusive, or if in fact we should be equally concerned by it all. I am leaning strongly towards the latter position as I think it over.

Let's start with the major conflicting concerns - was this a crime of terror or hate? Did the killer attack because he was homophobic or anti-American? We may likely never know, and never with certainty since he died in the hostage rescue; in reality even had he lived, there is  good chance that we would not know because he himself did not know why he did what he did. My guess is that he was driven by many reasons, and attempting to point a finger at just one flawed philosophy misses the bigger picture here. He was likely driven by homophobia, given the public statements of his family and other acquaintances. Even if he were a homosexual himself, as seems very possible notwithstanding his father's denial, it doesn't preclude hatred of gays from driving his actions, and may even have exacerbated his anger and hatred. Yet, it is very likely, especially given his own declaration, that he had developed a hatred of his own country that also motivated his actions and that hatred has its roots in his religious beliefs. And this despite the fact that he was far from a pious or observant Muslim - his alcohol consumption alone marks him out as a pretty unobservant Muslim. But just as his own homosexual desires could not soften his hatred, so too his flouting of basic tenets of Islam do not hide the fact that his hatred for America started and ended in the violent Nihilistic teachings of fundamentalists.

This does not smear the guilt over every Muslim, in America or anywhere - after all, this was also a clear attack on gays so should all straight people be considered guilty? The best course, as President Obama has done, is to treat this exactly for what it is - a crime of hatred and terror, but the crime of a single violent, unbalanced individual. It is dangerous to act as if his Muslim identity is paramount - the day after his attack, an Indiana Christian extremist was intercepted by chance in California en route to wreak similar havoc on destruction on the Gay Pride parade in Los Angeles - and focusing only on Muslims ignores the reality of these other threats and leaves us vulnerable. To ignore his religious extremism is just as dangerous - but this push back against religion cannot come from the government. For one, the government is constitutionally required to eschew religious discrimination, As long as the believers comply with American law - and nearly every American Muslim does, regardless of the foolish chatter of those calling for banning of Sharia law in America without a shred of proof that Muslims have ever sought special treatment under the law - the government has no reason to step in or treat them any different from anyone else.

From a practical standpoint furthermore, the threat of Muslim extremists is far overstated and our perception of the greater risk is largely colored by political grandstanding; by my estimate, we've had five major attacks on the US that could be attributed to Muslim extremists - Fort Hood, the Boston bombing, Chattanooga military recruitment center, San Bernardino and now Orlando and of these, both Orlando and San Bernardino seem to be more complex and driven by confused and mixed motives. In the same time period (dating back to 2009) we've had 28 other mass shootings, including Tucson, the Aurora movie theatre, Sandy Hook, Charleston Church, Umpqua Community College and Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood. This does not include the seditious and quasi-terrorist actions of the Bundy clan in Nevada and Oregon. These many mass shootings were motivated by a variety of issues, but extremist Christianity was definitely one of the causes, in attacks on the Black Church and Planned Parenthood (will Donald Trump start talking about "radical Christianity" along with "radical Islam"?). Military installations were targeted on multiple occasions, including a second attack at Fort Hood. All this shows that we have an outsize fear of one type of killer and one motivation, which is mostly unfounded. We should be especially cognizant of the fact that not one of the terrorist attacks attributed to outside influences, be they al-Qaida or ISIL, was actually planned, directed or overseen by those organizations. In other words, the attacks have much less in common with the terror attacks in Europe and are really no different than our many, many other shootings. The push back on religious extremism must come, but it must come from all of us and it should hold all extremists to the same standard. Muslim extremists are dangerous but no more than any other violent angry person.

In the aftermath of any attack, there is a debate about gun control and it follows a standard unchanging script. There are calls for tighter laws, the gun lobby pushes back, a lot of statistics and claims are thrown around by all sides and at the end of the day, nothing is done. The only equally predictable outcome of this will be that gun sales will spike...AGAIN!I am a long time proponent of greater gun control, but one thing I now realize, and amazing as it may seem, I find myself in agreement with the NRA that this is not the time to discuss gun control. We have different reasons, I imagine - the NRA, thinks no time is a good time to discuss the topic and fears that the heightened emotion in the aftermath of such an attack may overcome the typical obstruction to any form of gun control; I fear that the heightened emotion in the aftermath of such an attack may lead to passage of a flawed and purely reactionary law. The key factor to remember about these many, many mass shootings is that they were committed with legally purchased weapons and that many of the perpetrators owned the weapons for weeks, months, even years before they snapped and committed their crime. Most, if not all suggested laws would have little effect on deterring these mass shootings. Much ink has been used, metaphorically, on the implausibility of a meaningful buyback scheme similar to what Australia achieved twenty years ago. While highly unrealistic, it remains the only way that gun deaths in the US will ever drop. But such a program cannot be forced by the government, it must come from a change of heart amongst gun owners, and the time to address this is not in the immediate and emotional aftermath of a mass shooting when gun owners are defensive and unwilling to engage with equally intransigent gun control advocates. But when passions have cooled, then it is time for America to address the question of whether we really need assault weapons for self defense, whether such weapons are actually "sporting rifles" at all, and whether any gun, be it a pistol, shotgun or long rifle actually increases the safety of its owner or whether it increases the probability of death by the gun. Let there be a debate, without needless and irrational emotion, and if America judges that their scientists should be forcibly restrained from collecting any data on gun deaths and violence or that doctors should be forced, by law, to keep from discussing health risks involving guns, then so be it: we will have decided that we would rather keep our guns with all the dangers they entail than risk a society without easy and universal access to these instruments of death and defense.

Meanwhile, our best and most appropriate response to this latest shooting is to do everything that repudiates and rejects the intent of this attack. As I said before, this attack was likely motivated by a mix of different ideas, but whether it was terror or hatred that predominated hardly matters when it comes to our response. Terrorists aim to scare society and to provoke harsh and fear-driven responses, especially from the government that both hurt everyone as a whole and through its disproportionate response, builds support within a minority group; in such a case, a Muslim terrorist would hope that government and societal reprisal against all American Muslims would isolate and radicalize that same group. Our best response, again as epitomized by President Obama's actions, is to reject the role that the killer would have us play and react in a measured and rational manner. If we stop for a moment and look past the name and ethnicity of the killer we see no difference between this and any other mass shooting in the US - so if we do not barricade ourselves in our homes in fear when mentally ill young men gun down score of young school kids, why should we allow the acts of an unstable killer in Florida to affect us differently? We react with a resigned shrug when a college student guns down his classmates, so why should we react with less fortitude just because this killer claimed to kill in the name of his religion instead of some equally garbled and confused manifesto? We do not blame all Christians for a killer who invokes that faith, why would we do any different for Muslims in America?

The hatred and homophobia that may have played at least as large if not a greater role can be best defeated by utterly rejecting the very premise that these victims were in any way different from us. The politicians and others within this country who have marginalized, demonized and discriminated against gays and lesbians are not responsible for this specific hate crime (especially if the hatred was born and nurtured in a non-Christian environment), but with every statement or action that builds a wall between segments of society they encourage the darkest corners of society to give in to the hatred and anger and eventually it boils over; while our politics of discrimination had small role in this crime, it may not be as blameless the next time around and it is up to all of us to turn away from this kind of divisiveness and all the agents who encourage it and embrace all members of society. When I saw Michael Bradley lead the US soccer team onto the field wearing a rainbow armband, it was a thrilling moment that reminded me of everything that was great about America. Another awesome gesture was a local Chick-fil-A, once publicly identified with homophobia courtesy of their very religious founder and CEO, opening on Sunday to offer free meals to people lined up to donate blood for the injured of this attack (itself an exhilarating reaction on the part of the people of Orlando); how awesome would it be if that bakery in Albuquerque or that pizza place in Indianapolis were to offer their wares to the pride rallies this week, not as an acceptance of something that they do not countenance for religious reasons, but as a gesture that repudiates the hatred that would wreak violence on people simply because they are different. The best way to fight hatred of this kind is not with laws and polemics, but with simple gestures that show that whatever our differences, whatever our beliefs, we reject hate and stand united as a human brotherhood. Ultimately, whether this attack was driven by hatred of gays or America or an attempt to terrorize us or both, we will not allow him to script our response and that is the best way to defeat such attacks.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Spinning the Truth: The Needle in a Modern Information Haystack

A couple of days ago, I saw a striking headline that Target was suing a man who had heroically saved a teenage girl from a knife-wielding attacker. Now, as with cat and dog persons, the world divides into Target or Walmart people and I shop at Target when forced to choose the lesser of two evils. So naturally, this click bait headline worked it's siren magic and drew me in to read the story. What was immediately obvious was that the article, on the Federalist website, was highly abbreviated and could not be treated as a news report at all. Using the meager details gleaned from the Federalist story, I searched for more background and was able to find out a little more.

The story, as I understood it, is basically this: a mentally ill man, Leon Walls attacked a man near a Target store in Pennsylvania. Michael Turner who Target is suing, and some friends including the stabbed man chased after Walls as he ran into the Target store. At some point, Walls then sized a teenage girl as a hostage and apparently was demanding that he be allowed to leave unmollested when someone jumped him from behind. In the ensuing fracas, the girl first broke free but then Walls lunged forward and stabbed her before being finally subdued. Till here the article in the Federalist is not in any disagreement with the facts, though it does suggest that Walls stabbed the teenager first while other articles suggest that he was trying to use her as a human shield and escape. Where the truth gets lost totally however is in the characterization of the lawsuits - the Federalist suggests, but its tone and omissions that Target is suing a hero out of vindictiveness but conveniently leaves out the fact that the family of the teen sued Target first alleging that the store failed to protect them and Target responded by counter-suing both Turner and Walls. This distinction is crucial, because the omission hides the fact that Target's suit is a sad but typical part of American civil justice. If Target were to fight the suit brought by Allison Meadows' family, they would almost certainly lose or have to settle out of court - we are after all the same people who agreed with a plaintiff that McDonalds was in the wrong when the plaintiff burned herself when she spilled the hot coffee she's just bought over her legs while exiting the drive-through lane and since then we've had lids that remind us that hot coffee is in fact and contrary to what we may believe, actually quite hot - and so they counter-sue the other parties involved so that they may present the full story before a jury and muddy the waters enough to avoid paying the full demanded amount. They do not expect to collect any money from Turner, and certainly not from Wells who was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison, but they do hope to show a jury that the attack was caused by others and was not solely their fault, and avoid paying damages.

Now the rights and wrongs of this case are beyond the scope of my little rant here, but the story is illustrative of one of the greatest problems we face in today's world. We are drowning in information, but it's so much that we cannot really handle it all. Conveniently, there are numerous organizations, like the Federalist, Slate, Mother Jones, Breitbart and others that package it into bite sized pieces. Or rather they pick out the stories most likely to interest their target audience. While this might still leave a void in our overall understanding of the world, it would be no major problem. But many of these organizations do not stop with picking and choosing the news they highlight for their audience - instead, like this article from the Federalist, they go several steps beyond and snip out key elements and spin it to suit their own agenda. And unfortunately, their audience is blissfully unaware of or willingly blinded to the actual facts. In this case, a quick perusal of comments by the Federalist's readers showed that they had accepted the narrative that the author wanted to project, and this despite the open attempt to tie this case (from 2013! ) to Target's recent decision to extend equal privileges to members of the LGBT community as to its heterosexual patrons. In this case the author was not particularly subtle in her spinning of the story or omission of the pertinent facts. Yet her readers, with their political views already in tune with hers looked past all inadequacies in the reporting and treated it with the same reverence that my family did the BBC World Service when I was still in short clothes.

Let's ignore for a moment the fact that a likely libertarian-leaning group is somehow against a decision by Target to extend freedom and equality to all members and instead demanding that we regulate the use of restrooms through government action. Let's look past the omission of the facts of the story that the judge sentencing the attacker knew that the man needed medical treatment but in the face of program cuts had no choice but to incarcerate him in prison instead. Let's treat, for the sake of argument, as spurious or irrelevant,  Target's claim that Turner and his friends chased Walls with baseball bats (even if they had good intentions to simply hold him till the police arrived) and that they helped create the conditions that led to Allison Meadows' stabbing. What we are still left with is a website that purposely disseminates only a portion of the truth, spinning it to suit their own narrative and very knowingly hiding any and every fact that works against their position. And their readers, in many cases will take this story as one hundred percent fact and base their future positions and actions on that very suspect foundation. This is a problem that cuts across all ideological lines. Since Michael Turner is a black man, The Root also weighed in with their own version and did as bad a job of presenting the facts as the Federalist. I didn't find the story in any of liberal-leaning news sites I usually use, but that is less a bias on their part (though the lack of story would confirm that bias in the eyes of most hard line conservatives) as a reflection of the lack of any actual story here. Not to mention that it is actually a three year old story and that it centers on the most common of American behavior - person suffers loss, person sues anyone and everyone trying to get compensated for loss.

But in a world where we are forced or at least led by way of least resistance to choose our sources of news, it's worth reflecting that the news we obtain is all too often not the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Equally unfortunately, we tend to believe our preferred sources and see all conflicting views as biased and untruthful. In this case, the gaps and untruths confirm my inherent suspicion about right-wing news sites, but rationally, I know that conservatives would find similar if hopefully less striking cases on liberal sources. And in a world of deep partisan bias, one man's truth is another's lies  and sources that I see as impartial and honest such as the Associated Press, Reuters and the New York Times are regarded with deep suspicion on the opposite side of the political divide. In the end, all one can hope is that more people would draw their news from a wide spectrum of sources and paradoxically question all facts that match their own views  - the more the story presented fits our narrative, the more we should question it and seek additional contrarian (but trustworthy) sources. Those sources may often present a viewpoint that challenges our cherished view of the world and in doing so does us more service than a hundred corroborating stories.


Saturday, May 7, 2016

Broken Promises and Secrecy in a Dangerous World

Eight years ago for reasons best known to themselves and perhaps including a Scandinavian middle finger to George Bush, the Nobel Prize Committee decided to award the Peace prize to the new American president. One wonders how much they have rued their choice since as Barack Obama has continued the American policy of fighting wars around the world. To be sure, he's engaged in fewer wars, less intervention and overall backed away from the worst parts of the earlier "war on terror" but he nevertheless continued to keep the US deeply engaged in wars abroad. It is unknown what the Nobel committee expected of him, but it is unlikely that his actions would meet with their unqualified approval or that he would be even considered for the honor today. I felt back then that it was foolish to award so prestigious an honor on President Obama before he'd had a chance to live up to his idealistic declarations or our ridiculously high expectations. But like the committee, I too anticipated much of the new president and like them (I imagine) I look back at those dreams and wonder how I could have been so mistaken.

Barack Obama was not just the man who'd opposed the US-Iraq War from the start (while he certainly claimed that badge of distinction to implicitly criticize his opponents, it was far easier for the junior liberal Senator to take a progressive stance when there were no eyes on him and his opposition had little practical impact), but he was also the candidate who raced to the pole position on a slew of promises that promised a liberal utopia. And when faced with the greatest challenge to his candidacy in the controversy over Jeremiah Wright's positions, Obama found a way to spell out a wonderful and uplifting explanation that enunciated our shared progressive ideals. But above all, he promised an end to the bloody and violent policies of the last presidency and raised hopes of a return to best ideals of America, from ending extrajudicial detentions to closing the shameful chapter on torture. Alas, the rhetoric and ideals of the candidate that were deemed worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize proved utterly powerless to sway the actions of President Obama. To liberal supporters of the president, including myself, this is the single greatest failure of Obama's presidency. There are plenty of other issues that have not advanced as we might have wished, from single payer health care and universal coverage to gun control to reformed taxation and long term solutions to the budget deficits and financial imbalances to his signal failure to shut down the Guantanamo prison. But on those issues, it must be acknowledged that Obama lacked the support in Congress and on many of the issues also had insufficient popular support among the general populace to sway his opponents in Congress (and given the oddities of American electoral politics, a majority of support means little if it is concentrated in urban, generally more liberal areas) and was therefore highly constrained in his ability to effect change on a grand scale on any or all of these matters. A defter politician or a less polarizing figure may have been able to manage some incremental change but the deck was generally stacked against Obama on all policy issues dear to liberals, and faced with a stubbornly obstructionist opposition party, he had no choice but to accept that his ambitious agenda would never reach fruition.

However that makes Obama's war policy so much the more frustrating since this was one area where his legion of critics and opponents would generally hold that he has not gone as far as they would have liked and yet he has committed the US to military action around the world. In other words, this is one place where he was not trying to force action in the face of opposition but rather was heading down a path that suited the rightwing and hawkish portions of Congress. While the libertarian wing of the GOP objected to any intervention or continuation of prior engagements, they generally represent a smaller and less influential side of the party and Obama would have actually had more support from his opponents in Congress if he'd been more warlike than less. From a liberal perspective, it would be far better to see the president criticized for not going to war at all than for entering a war but failing to commit to killing enough of the enemy or for failing to sacrifice enough in American lives.

However, in all fairness to the president, there are some extenuating circumstances. The famous if inaccurate Pottery Barn analogy continues to drive our policy in Iraq. And given the former Administration's dreams that the Iraq model would spread and transform the whole of the Middle East, it was difficult for Obama to truly disengage from conflicts in Syria, Yemen and even Libya when it was US policy in Iraq that destabilized and changed the entire region. Sadly, the Iraq model is playing out across the Middle East, but it is the blight of instability and civil war rather than the bloom of liberal democracy that has spread far and wide. In retrospect, Obama has had little choice but to remain deeply involved in Iraq and has been further enmeshed in the region as the instability in Iraq has exploded outward and drawn nearly every major nation into a complicated and contradictory web of conflict. It may even be to Obama's credit that he has resisted deeper involvement and that he has tried to limit US intervention even when his own rash statements (the Syrian government's use of chemical weapons) or his allies' interests (Libya, Yemen) have forced his hand. Even his most controversial policy - extensive use of remote strikes with precision weapons or drone strikes, in common parlance - is more than anything else an attempt to keep US service personnel out of direct harm's way.

In the end, I guess I can respect his foreign policy decisions. Muddled and contradictory as they seem and as they have been described by his critics, they are in reaction to a muddled and contradictory world and if all the advice and preferred policy of his critics (including my own) were to be assembled, the picture painted would be as muddled and contradictory, if not more so. But there is one striking failure, both on the part of the president and his staunchest critics in Congress and that is the lack of explanation or information on US intervention. Just this past week, the Defense Department admitted that US forces - probably Rangers, Green Berets or some other Special Forces units -  are on the ground in Yemen. This is unbelievably disturbing - not only is Yemen one of the most confused conflicts where there no "good" or "bad" guys (by a long shot) but our interests run wildly contrary to the intentions and interests of our closest "allies" in the region, and there are no good outcomes to be expected of US intervention. However the greater problem is that our involvement is revealed only by chance and that not only does the President consider it unnecessary to tell his own citizens that he has committed troops to a foreign conflict but that Congress has never truly demanded or pushed for a clear report on US involvement abroad. Today, while some (if not all or even a startlingly small percentage of) Americans may be aware that their country is still deeply involved in both Afghanistan and Iraq, a much smaller group would be aware that US forces are involved in both Yemen and Syria. Worse yet, we have no way of knowing just how many other places we may be involved in "training" and "advising" local government forces in conflicts against forces that we consider dangers to us. Are we involved in Algeria, Mali, Nigeria, Chad, Somalia, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan and/or the Philippines? What about Colombia, Peru, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica? Perhaps Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Ethiopia have US forces "helping" them? Are US forces involved in countries like the Ukraine and Georgia or Azerbaijan?

As a liberal, I would wish that the world was a better, more peaceful place and that we could solve our problems in more civilized ways. But I understand that the realities of the world actually around us often require violent answers. But the least one should expect from the government is honesty to its own people of where it chooses to put its citizens in harms way and why. Governments will always claim that openness would jeopardize their policy aims, but with all due respect this is nonsense - in a democracy, the power is supposed to lie with the governed not the elected representatives and the least those regents should do is be honest of where they have chosen to entangle the nation, no matter their reasons. And if this honesty would truly hurt the chances of success of the policy than perhaps the policy is flawed. But when the policy is hidden there is no chance to even evaluate it, much less make an informed decision of support for that policy that is being carried out in the name of the entire country.

Congress shows such tenacity in investigating some issues, especially when the name Clinton is involved and has now spent over two years over the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi (without ever finding any evidence of criminal wrongdoing or even negligence) and has now expanded their probe into matters far removed from the original question. Now, whether Secretary Clinton was ill-advised in some of her actions, there is no rational reason to believe that she ever acted with intent to harm the country and the investigation is almost transparently an attempt to destroy her bid for a historic presidential bid and possibly even more historic presidency. Yet those very driven Congressmen have spent little energy questioning how many places the US may have troops involved in undeclared wars. Senator Rand Paul who was willing to filibuster the Senate over his concerns that US drone strikes were targeting American citizens and denying them due process is far less concerned that the US is engaged in war (in everything but name) when those same strikes kill non-Americans. Congress has happily voted billions of dollars to fund military operations around the world but the details of those operations are hidden to the taxpayer citizens who pay for them, and no one in the halls of Congress or the vital Fourth Estate or even amongst the same taxpayers seem really concerned with compelling a response from the people who commit their country to potentially unending wars with the well-intentioned but nonetheless concealed stroked of a pen.

Ultimately, unless the people clamor for an answer and make it clear to their representatives that they deserve to know what their government is doing in their name, the secrecy will continue. Ironically, US involvement is not so very secret in the ranks of her enemies and lacking believable declarations from the US government, is probably greatly exaggerated even to the point where every injustice suffered at the hand of their own rulers is added to the account of the Americans and becomes just another reason to hate the US. The American people are often bemused as to why they are hated in so many corners of the world, not realizing the actions of their own government that contributes to those emotions. And while their government acts in secrecy, the account of hate and bitterness continues to compound, also in secrecy till it explodes upon us. These matters, the actions of ones government should concern all of us for we all live with the consequences and it is only fair that actions taken in one's name should be debated openly. The final definitive lesson of the Obama presidency - and the contrast of its actions to the idealism that preceded its actions -  is that whether the White House incumbent is liberal or conservative, rightwing or leftwing, hawk or dove, the inertia of the establishment will ensure that the veils of secrecy remain intact and the apathy of the citizenry and their watchdogs of the Fourth Estate will keep things unchanged.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

The Race Is Not Always To The Swift

Augustus Fink-Nottle memorably explained this concept to the scholars of Market Snodsbury Grammar School, but minorities in America may well wonder if it is always to the white. The Black Lives Matter movement has torn aside the curtain that hid the simmering discontent amongst Black Americans and forced the nation to confront uncomfortable concepts like White privilege. While I generally dislike the BLM approach towards their nominal allies - do you gain anything by interrupting and insulting Bernie Sanders, Mike O'Malley or Hilary Clinton? - I can understand and empathize with some of the frustration within the community.

Critics of the movement, and they are legion and for most part shielded by the anonymity of the internet, have two main arguments against the protest cry. Firstly, why do only Black Lives matter? And secondly, why doesn't the community clean up its own act and quit blaming the whites for all the ills that bedevil them. They also level a number of other arguments, but most of those are of a straw man variety, arguing against aspects and positions that are not represented by the BLM activists. Even the main criticisms are easily addressed. The logic of the argument rests on the struggles faced by other ethnic groups that have faced adversity and yet do not blame the majority for their problems. But this ignores the most basic difference between African Americans and all other minorities. The ancestors of today's African Americans were brought in against their will as slaves; all other groups have arrived on American shores, for most part, by choice. They may have fled economic hardship or persecution, been coerced or otherwise pressured by their feudal overlords, or in my case, boredom and a lack of wheat beers and strip clubs, but they were never forced into America against their will and with absolutely no choice in the matter, to that same level. Also significantly, the Africans came from a vast variety of countries, regions and ethnic groups across the vast swath of continent but were lumped together by their new overlords with scarce a thought or nod to their deep differences. Their identity as a single ethnic group was forged in the fetters of slavery, and later, even after the 13th Amendment, in the shadow of Jim Crow laws. The damage wreaked upon this group through two hundred years and more of oppression cannot be easily undone; more significantly, the ethnic and cultural history that other groups could fall back upon for solace in the face of injustice and suffering was denied the African Americans - their history and ethnicity, to all extents and purposes, started with their enslavement. In my opinion, this makes it so much harder for them to overcome the roots of the problem in a way that was possible for the Irish, Germans, Italians, Chinese and even the Mexicans. It's also why newer African immigrants have a widely different experience.

The oppression did not end with the Civil War, nor even with the Civil Rights movement. Subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle prejudicial policy continues to damage the community and to be sure, in some cases, well meaning policies have hurt as well. The building of the interstate system facilitated the flight of affluent whites to the suburbs setting the stage for the decay and impoverishment of urban centers. In slowly dying cities the vicious cycle was set in motion whereby poor communities are denied education advancement, trapping them deeper in poverty and furthering the deterioration of the city and its amenities. No other community has faced quite that same level of challenges. Which brings one to the second argument against the validity of BLM's angst, that the majority of violence is perpetrated by Blacks against Blacks and that they are focused on a tiny fraction of killing by the police. Regardless of the reality of the statistic, what is missed here is that not only are the police not supposed to kill unarmed Black men, but that they are actually supposed to serve those communities and protect them from the violence of their own misguided members. Instead the police have unwittingly become a wall between these urban ghettos and the "good" communities, and have become enemies of the ghetto communities rather than their partners and servants.

There are problems with the BLM, as there are bound to be in any anger-fueled movement. Lacking a clear leadership - or any leadership - each group of activists vocalizes its own views and interests rather than a coherent overarching message. While the majority of the movement embraces non-violent protest, there are always going to be those who have less patience. There are some who will challenge their biggest national supporters to draw a reaction, ignoring how it may help or hurt the movement in the long run. There are some who have so lost faith in the police that they see them as implacable enemies and advocate violence against them, or at least cheer and condone violence against police officers. These are the real problems with the movement, along with a failure to get the actual message of "Black Lives Matter" out to the wider world. They've certainly tried, and of course, some people will never accept the message and will seek to misrepresent them. But the lack of a national face to the movement does not help and makes dissemination of the message much harder. It's why both Clinton and O'Malley responded to the BLM activists with the statement that "all lives matter". On the face of it, that sounds like a reasonable response, except that it totally misses the real message of "black lives matter". It is not that some lives matter and some don't, it is not a dismissal of the importance of Caucasian, or Asian or Hispanic lives, but an agonized statement that one group in America is targeted for violence on sight, that they are guilty until proved innocent and that they suffer a disproportionate amount at the hands of law enforcement, much of it unjustified.

My buddy posted a video some years ago that showed reactions of the general public to the sight of a young black man, a young white man and a young white woman trying to force open a lock on a cycle in the park. Need I mention which person attracted hostility and a 911 call? That's why the slogan matters. Because a twelve year old like Tamir Rice was shot down for holding a toy gun and we're arguing about whether he had the orange cap on the barrel to designate it as a toy rather than admitting that he would have likely never been perceived as a threat if he was White or Asian. Because till today the media is obsessed over the disappearance and possible murder of a young white woman on vacation in Aruba, while thousands of black men and women are killed and are no more than a statistic. Because if I see a group of black men standing by the side of the road, I'm nervous and will probably try to turn off before I reach them no matter how peaceable and nonthreatening they may seem, but I'll walk right by other ethnic groups with scarcely noticing them. All ethnic groups get stereotyped to an extent, but African Americans are prejudged as trouble and danger and the risk of violence against them is dramatically ibcreased as a result. The fact that so much violence is within the community is not a matter to be ignored; rather it is wrapped up in the scream that "black lives matter".

This movement, like other activist movements that spring from a deep and real cause, will not go away quietly. The challenge is to transform themselves into agents of positive change - and that means accepting that everyone has an interest and stake in the issue and that other groups are capable of empathizing. Excluding all other groups or declaring that no one else may address issues like slavery or racial prejudice is counter-productive. Attempting to exclude allies is counterproductive. This is a moment when the BLM movement faces a critical fork in the road. Down one road lies frustration, probably increasing violence, radicalism, splintering and eventual irrelevance - excluding whites and others from discussions of problems in the Black community is an unfortunate step along that road. The hope rather is that they coalesce around a real agenda for realistic change and find a way to galvanize their activists into working towards a better tomorrow. There are problems and it is in everyone's interest that we address and solve them, or risk having a repeat of the race riots of the sixties and seventies.