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It’s War, You Idiots

August 18th, 2013 - 12:14 pm

It’s hard to get our minds around the dimensions of the slaughter underway in the Middle East and Africa, and harder still to see that the battlefields of Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Nigeria and Mali are pieces in a global war in which we are targeted.  For the most part, the deep thinkers zero in on the single battlefields.  What if anything should we do about the big fight in Egypt?  Should we assist the Syrian opposition?  What to do in Lebanon or Jordan? Should we respond positively to the Iraqi government’s request for security assistance?  Is anyone thinking hard about Tunisia, likely to be the scene of the next explosions?

It could not be otherwise, since our government, our universities, our news organizations and our think tanks are all primarily organized to deal with countries, and our analysts, policy makers and military strategists inevitably think inside those boxes.  We don’t have an assistant secretary of defense for global strategy (FOOTNOTE:  actually we do, his name is Andrew Marshall, he’s a sprightly genius of 92 years, and he runs a largely ignored corner of the Pentagon called “Net Assessment”), but we do have one for the Near East and South Asia.  And there’s hardly a professor in America who is talking about the fundamental change in the nature of global affairs in which we are enmeshed, the paradigm shift from the post-World War II world dominated by the United States and the Soviet Union, to…we know not what.

So there’s a global war, we’re the main target of the aggressors, and our leaders don’t see it and therefore have no idea how to win it.

Any serious attempt to understand what’s going on has to begin by banning the word “stability,” much beloved of diplomats and self-proclaimed strategists. If anything is fairly certain about our world, it’s that there is no stability, and there isn’t going to be any.  Right now, the driving forces are those aimed at destroying the old order, and their targets (the old regimes, very much including the United States) have until recently showed little taste to engage as if their survival depended on it.  But things are changing, as always.

The war is easily described:  there is a global alliance of radical leftists and radical Islamists, supported by a group of countries that includes Russia, at least some Chinese leaders, Iran, Syria, Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua.  The radicals include the Sunni and Shi’ite terrorist organizations and leftist groups, and they all work seamlessly with the narcotics mafias.  Their objective is the destruction of the West, above all, of the United States.

What if they win?  Some of them want to create a  (Sunni or Shi’ite) caliphate, others want Castro- or Kim-style communist dictatorships.  Like the five Mafia families in The Godfather, they have made their war plan, but, as with the Corleones and the Barzinis, they are riven by disagreements, some of which are fundamental.

War is foggy, and alliances are often very unstable, especially at moments when the whole world is up for grabs.  Look at Egypt, for example.  At one level, it’s a sectarian fight:  the “secular” military vs. the “Islamist” Muslim Brotherhood.  So nobody should be surprised when the Brothers burn churches and murder Christians.  But the top military dog, General Sisi, has some pretty impressive Islamist credentials.  Indeed, his elevation at the time of the Brothers’ purge of Mubarak’s generals was frequently attributed to his close ties to the Brotherhood.

I don’t think anyone nowadays would call him a friend of the Brothers.  So what happened?  Did he go secular all of a sudden?  Was his “Islamism” a trick from the get-go?  Or is “Islamism” less monolithic than some suppose?  A Saudi of my acquaintance showed up in Cairo a few days ago with a bunch of checks, some currently cashable, others postdated over the next twelve months, all hand-delivered to Sisi and his guys.  Their advice to the Egyptian military is to mercilessly crush the Brothers, and their advice will likely be adopted, both because the junta knows that death awaits them if they lose (2 Egyptian major generals and 2 brigadier generals, along with many colonels, have been assassinated by the Brothers in the current spasm), and because only the Saudis can foot the huge bill facing Egypt just to provide the basics for the people.  Most of whom, to the evident surprise of Western leaders and journalists, seem inclined to support the junta (neighborhood militias have taken on the Brothers throughout the country, for example).

So we’ve got an indubitably Islamist regime–the Saudi Wahhabis–supporting a military junta whose leader is famously Islamist against the infamously Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.  Yes, they may well all yearn for the destruction of the infidel West (although the junta impiously pockets our dollars), but for the moment the struggle for power trumps the power of the faith.

Notice that this bloody confrontation has nothing to do with the celebrated Sunni-Shi’ite war that is so often invoked to “explain” current events.  It’s all happening within Sunni Egypt (although the Shi’ite Iranians are certainly meddling–surprise!–on behalf of the very Sunni Brothers).  And there are plenty of “foreign fighters,” just as there were in Iraq, just as there are in Afghanistan:  in the last 8 days, according to usually reliable sources in Cairo, 253 Uzbeks, 21 Yemenis, 40 Afghans and 11 Turkmens have been arrested, along with  126 Hamas operatives, who bring weapons and train pro-Brotherhood Egyptians.

ANOTHER FOOTNOTE:  During the Cold War, Ignazio Silone mused that the last war would be between the Communists and the ex-Communists.  Maybe the Middle East is now the scene of a war between Islamists and ex-Islamists, or between pious Muslims and not-so-pious ones, or even between Muslims and ex-Muslims.  In this context, we should ban the use of the word “moderate,” along with “stability”…

Does that picture give you mental cramps?  Then move on to Syria.  You’ve got Bashar Assad on top in a neighborhood of Damascus, supported by Iran and Russia, fighting against a variety of insurgents including al-Qaeda units, Salafists, former members of Assad’s military, and the usual mob of adventurous souls, including Americans and Europeans, who believe they are waging jihad in the name of Allah.

Assad is actually a figurehead; the real capital of Syria is in an office of the Iranian supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.  A leader of the Syrian opposition made this clear, saying that Hezbollah and Iran were the real powers in Syria, and there’s plenty of evidence for his assertion, including dead Hezbollahis and Quds Forcers.

So al-Qaeda’s fighting Iran in Syria, right?  That fits nicely into the Sunni vs. Shi’ite meme, thereby relieving a mental cramp or two.  But wait:  our very own Treasury Department, which is as good as we’ve got when it comes to deciphering the crazy quilt network of global terrorism, told us in no uncertain terms a couple of years ago that there was a secret deal between AQ and the mullahs.  Moreover, the tidal wave of terrorism that has crashed on Iraq is universally termed a resurgence of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which has been Iranian-sponsored since Day One (just ask the late unlamented Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, sent to paradise by U.S. Special Forces).  Which gives us a big mental cramp indeed:  an Iranian (Shi’ite)-sponsored (Sunni) al-Qaeda assault against (Shi’ite) Iraq, and right next door an Iranian-assisted (Sunni) al-Qaeda, alongside other (mostly Sunni) foreign and domestic fighters against a (kinda Shi’ite) regime under the control of (totally Shi’ite) Tehran.

Who’s on first?  Is Iran sponsoring AQ in Iraq and killing AQ next door in Syria?  Is it some sort of trick (Iran using AQ to penetrate the opposition in order to have some control over whatever follows a defeat of the current Syrian regime, for example, or a deception, using AQ in Syria to subvert the opposition)?

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The Mother of Scandals Is Always Pregnant

August 15th, 2013 - 11:08 am

I have to disagree with Victor. The mother of all scandals is the taxman.

Benghazi is an event, a terrible event, but the systematic use of the IRS as an instrument of oppression, the omnipresent long arm of the state-to-be, is even worse. It’s a crucial instrument for redistributing wealth, for intimidating critics, and for preventing political opponents from amassing the wherewithal to challenge the would-be tyrants.

Moreover, it serves as cover for collecting sensitive information about us. Sure, the NSA megadata collection is scary, but the IRS is right there, not only putting the Tea Party in purgatory but even grabbing medical records that include very private matters, as emerges in a California law suit.

The suit alleges that IRS agents seized tens of millions of medical records in the course of a search in connection with an investigation of a single person’s failure to pay taxes to the IRS’s full satisfaction:

“These medical records contained intimate and private information of more than 10,000,000 Americans, information that by its nature includes information about treatment for any kind of medical concern, including psychological counseling, gynecological counseling, sexual or drug treatment, and a wide range of medical matters covering the most intimate and private of concerns,” the complaint reads.

That sort of information can be quite damaging if it shows up on your local news show, and it stretches one’s imagination to figure out what would justify such a massive data grab in a matter concerning a lone taxpayer. Time will tell, but it seems of a piece with the pell-mell rush to get all possible information about all of us, and with ensuring that the regime’s political opponents won’t be able to fund electoral campaigns.

Obviously, when we hear “IRS” in the same paragraph as “medical records,” we are reminded that the IRS will play a lead role in the enforcement of Obamacare. The more we look at the IRS scandal, the more worrisome it becomes.

If you want to see where an unrestrained tax collector can bring a modern society, have a look at Italy, where most citizens understandably jump through hoops to reduce their tax burden. When I was a correspondent in Rome some forty years ago, a leading economist calculated that the marginal tax rate was actually 123%. You had to find a way to avoid paying all those taxes.

The last Italian government, headed by an economics professor named Mario Monti, constantly blamed non-payment of taxes for many of the country’s economic ailments. It unleashed the Treasury police to track down the most egregious cases, a practice that is deadly for a lot of high-end tourism (a big source of revenue, lest we forget). Elegantly dressed officials of the Guardia di Finanza now swoop into the country’s most elegant resorts, interrogating restauranteurs, retail shop owners, spa managers, and tourists who rent or own yachts this time of year. They’re looking for cash transactions that might not be declared in full, and they’re often very aggressive. It’s now routine for them to board yachts and start asking questions of the passengers:

“Is this your boat?”

“How much did it cost? How did you pay for it?”

“To whom did you pay it?”

And so forth. Predictably, the yachts that usually frequent places like Capri, Sardegna’s Emerald Coast, and the Amalfi-Positano stretch, with its many marvelous restaurants with sea access, have gone elsewhere, like Croatia.

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There Goes the Judge, Sigh…

August 10th, 2013 - 12:08 pm

Judge Clark has died at his California ranch.  Steve Hayward tells his story very well, as is his wont.  I was not an intimate, but I always got a hearing from him when I requested it, and as Steve says, he was a real gentleman with a unique strength:  he didn’t really want to be in government, and he really didn’t care who got credit for success.  He was a real friend to Reagan and a great treasure to the nation.

I think the essence of the man was manifest fairly early on.  He was deputy secretary of state to Haig, who faced a nasty decision:  Israel had asked for the extradition of a Palestinian killer who was in an American jail.  The case was very contentious, and it was clear that if we agreed to the Israeli request, there was a real chance of attempts at revenge.  Haig asked Clark, who was, after all, a magistrate, to evaluate the merits of the case.

Clark waited until Haig was out of the country, which made the judge “acting secretary of state.”  And then he quietly ruled that the terrorist should be extradited.  That meant he assumed full responsibility.  Anyone wanting to avenge the decision would have to target him, Judge Clark.

That was a real profile in courage, which was rarely noted either then or afterwards.  For me it defined Judge Clark.  A rare man, a brave and gentle man, a hero.  That he was so ferociously challenged by some of the others is a reminder of the pettiness that is so common in political life, and of the jealousy that true greatness so often provokes.

Arrivederci.

Some leaders make history, others are products of their times. Unfortunately, very little of the punditry with which we are afflicted tries to distinguish between the two types.

It’s only natural that “reporting” on, and discussion of, international affairs is so often reduced to psychobabble about personalities. We live in an age when attention spans are short, vocabularies brief, and knowledge of the past is miniscule and subject to constant change. And it’s a lot easier to ponder the psychology of a celebrity than to do the hard work of understanding the world.

But political leaders have to be analyzed in context, not just as case histories drawn from their free associations and recurring dreams. Leaders operate within certain parameters — they have greater or lesser possibilities to reshape their world depending on the content and strength of those parameters, which include the presence and power of countervailing forces.  They are not free to do everything they may desire, and in some (rare) cases they may not be able to do any of the things they wish.

Not that personalities don’t count, especially in international affairs. The Reagan-Thatcher friendship was a major part of the West’s victory over the Soviet Empire; the Bush-Blair friendship was similarly important in the years after 9/11; the Obama-Erdogan friendship has been a key ingredient to American behavior in the Middle East since 2009; the interplay among FDR, Churchill, and Stalin reshaped the world in the last century; and Reagan and Thatcher, along with John Paul II and several others (King Juan Carlos of Spain, Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel, and Deng Xiaoping), shaped their world.   So it is neither surprising nor improper for us to try to understand the personalities of the day.

Of which three, at least, are currently treated as crucially important: Putin, Rouhani, and Obama.

Of the three, Rouhani has the least ability to act freely.  He is a cog in a machine, not a free agent.  He is not the leader of his country. Even if he were everything his apologists claim — a moderate reformer who wants to have good relations with us and wants a more tolerant Iranian society — he wouldn’t be able to do it on his own. Any fundamental change in Iran requires the say-so of the supreme leader, who doesn’t want good relations with us and doesn’t care about the misery his regime has visited upon the people.

As for the nature of the man himself, there is considerable evidence Rouhani’s credentials are phony. His doctorate seems to rest on a dissertation that appears to have been plagiarized. His nominee for justice minister, Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi, has been credibly accused of crimes against humanity. There is little evidence he has any interest in good relations with America; indeed, as Sohrab Ahmari wrote in the Wall Street Journal, earlier this year he proclaimed:

We need to express “Death to America” with action. Saying it is easy.

And, as Reza Kahlili shows us, Rouhani has bragged about tricking the West into believing Iran was stopping uranium enrichment, when in reality the project was surging.

In short: Rouhani is not in charge, he is a cog in a machine, and he doesn’t seem to be at odds with the hateful doctrines that have defined the Islamic Republic since 1979. It’s hard to make a convincing case that the United States, or the West in general, should make a major strategic investment in friendship with the new Iranian president.

Putin is the opposite. He has much more freedom to act and he has imposed his will on Russia. Leon Aron has laid out the nature of “Putinism” with admirable brevity and elegance: Putin knows what he wants, both at home and abroad, and he pursues his goals ruthlessly and relentlessly. He truly rules his nation, and there is very little guile in his strategies. With Putin, you get what you see.

The similarities between Putin and Rouhani are doctrinal. Both are contemptuous of democracy, both are resolved to crush opponents of their regime and to eliminate pockets of liberty. Both are therefore profoundly anti-American, recognizing that the very existence of a strong and successful United States is a threat to their own legitimacy.

As with Rouhani, there isn’t likely to be a warm American relationship with Putin. But, it is worthwhile to deal seriously with Putin, precisely because he can deliver if he chooses to.

Putin and the Islamic Republic are enemies, but you can make deals with enemies-who-can-deliver. Which is why it is so strange that Obama strains to make a deal with Iran, but throws a hissy fit with Russia. Logic, as the White Rabbit once said, grabs you by the throat and makes you see what’s what. Except if you’re Obama.

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Releasing Prisoners, Appeasing Enemies

August 4th, 2013 - 8:35 am

Both the Israeli release of more than a hundred Palestinian killers and the American release of five Taliban killers  from Guantanamo are U.S. policy decisions, so it’s fair to treat them as part of a single mindset.  There are many possible reasons for releasing prisoners, but most of the time, and especially in recent years, such actions are part of a bigger issue, as are these two examples. The prisoners are typically pawns on a geopolitical chess board.  Both Israel and the United States have been involved in this game for decades.  It all started as barter, but it has now become an embarrassing form of appeasement.

The Israelis have frequently released Palestinian prisoners, as a component in efforts to reach a stable agreement between the two enemies, but the practice began in 1971 as a simple one-on-one swap, when a terrorist from al Fatah was released in exchange for an Israeli night watchman who had been abducted by the Palestinians.

–The next known deal was in 1979, when an Israeli soldier was ransomed for 76 Palestinians.

–In 1983 the numbers got bigger.  After the war in Lebanon, Israel released 65 terrorists held in Israeli prisons, plus 4,700 Palestinians and Lebanese POWs, in exchange for six IDF soldiers.

–In 1985 Israel sent 1,150 prisoners to the Palestinians to gain the release of three soldiers.  This deal was the first of two times Israel released Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, a prolific killer who became the founder of Hamas.  He was released a second time in 1997, swapped for two Mossad agents arrested in Jordan in a failed operation to assassinate Khaled Mashaal, Hamas’s current leader.  Yassin promised to give up suicide bombing, but almost immediately resumed the practice.  He was killed in 2004.

–The year 2004 saw the celebrated deal with Hezbollah, negotiated by German government officials, which sent 435 prisoners from Israel to the Shi’ite terrorist group, in exchange for one live Israeli (Elhanan Tannenbaum) and the bodies of three others.

–More than six hundred Palestinian prisoners were released between 1993 and 2000, some as part of deals like the Oslo Accords, others as good-will gestures in the context of other negotiations, such as the Wye River Agreement.

–The biggest recent deal was with Hamas:  the release of more than a thousand Palestinians in exchange for the safe return of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit, in 2011.

It’s easy to see that there is nothing very new in the latest Israeli prisoner release, neither in the fact itself, nor in the role American pressure undoubtedly played in bringing it about.  In the eighties and nineties, Israel released prisoners in response to American pressure, and as a way of fending off other American demands, such as yielding territory or shutting down settlements.

As for the American liberation of terrorists, that, too, has been going on for some time.  There has been a steady flow from Camp Gitmo;  the number of prisoners held there has fallen from well over seven hundred to 167 as of a year ago.  Some have been released outright, others have been transferred to other countries.  Many of them have returned to the battlefield.

–When we left Iraq, more than 300 Iranian prisoners under U.S. military control were turned over to the Iraqi government, which promptly sent them home.  Many of them were known to have been involved in lethal terrorist attacks against American troops in Iraq, and there was no doubt that the Iraqis were going to release them.  Thus, despite the many claims–most recently by the estimable Jonathan Tobin, whom I admire– that the United States “would never” release killers of Americans, we’ve done it repeatedly.  Does the name Ali Daqduq mean anything to you?  Here’s what I wrote about the disgusting appeasement of Iranian terrorism in late 2011-2012.

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The Metaphysics of Jailbreaks

July 28th, 2013 - 7:08 pm

In the mid-seventies, when I was reporting from Rome for The New Republic, jailbreaks were commonplace.  Red Brigades terrorists and other such broke out of prisons throughout the country, and one day I got a telephone call from Washington.  An irritated colleague asked, “Can’t the Italians keep anyone in jail?”  My answer was fairly blunt.  “Suppose you’re a prison guard,” I said, “you’re making barely enough to scrape by, month by month.  Then somebody calls you late at night.  The message is brutal.  ’Stay away from cell block B Thursday after 11 o’clock.  We’ll pay you ten thousand dollars and we won’t kill your daughter.’”

What would you do?  Stupid rhetorical question, I know, but nobody had posed it to my colleague, who was anything but stupid and was very well educated.  It’s just that very few deep thinkers are familiar with the dark side.  When you find one–Eric Hoffer, for example, or Alexander Solzhenitsyn, for another–it is worth your while to pay close attention.

These thoughts are prompted by the two recent dreadful jailbreaks in Libya and Iraq, both of which are very serious and infuriating.  Some of those evil people in Abu Ghraib were transported there by Marine convoys that covered many miles of very dangerous territory (IEDs abounded), so that “the rule of law” could be established under American guidance.  Some of those convoys were commanded by people very close to us.  So the family takes it very seriously.  Would that our commander in chief were serious, and that American guidance had continued.  But no, he was in a hurry to get out, and this is one of the consequences.

I’m not suggesting that all, or even most, of the guards at Abu Ghraib or Benghazi were complicit in the two massive breakouts in recent days.  In both cases, police and security forces were killed; they weren’t conveniently elsewhere.  But jailbreaks, especially when high-profile prisoners are involved, are not spontaneous happenings.  They are planned, and you can be sure that the planners had managed to enlist the support of some of the men in charge.  “I’ll pay you ten thousand dollars and we won’t kill your daughter” works most every time.

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July 25th was the 70th anniversary of the fall of Mussolini, voted out of office by the Grand Fascist Council, arrested by order of the king, and imprisoned.  At first, Italy remained in the war under a military government, but the armed forces were in shambles, the Allies had landed in Sicily, and the new government negotiated an armistice with Eisenhower that was agreed on September 8th.  Whereupon, in a matter of days, the Germans occupied most of the country, liberated Mussolini from a mountain top and set him up with a little “republic” in the north, and the battle of Italy was on.

Mussolini had led a mass movement to power, had successfully challenged the dominant superpower of the time (Great Britain), had enjoyed enormous popularity for most of two decades, and had entered the war on the side most military experts expected to win (Nazi Germany).  He had every reason to expect to rule Italy for years to come, and to be a major actor on the world stage.

It didn’t work out that way.  The Americans were unexpectedly bombed into the war at Pearl Harbor, and created an army and a system of production of weaponry that virtually nobody anticipated.  The Germans unexpectedly invaded the Soviet Union as winter approached, its troops unprepared for the terrible weather.  Hitler was defeated at Stalingrad.  The Allies invaded North Africa, defeated Axis forces, and attacked Italy itself.  Thus, July 25th.

This surprising history comes to mind when I read the confident predictions and analyses about the various battlefields in our world today.  You couldn’t anticipate the fall of Mussolini — at the hands of men he had appointed to high office — until the surprising and dramatic events took place.  Without Pearl Harbor, the United States would not have entered the war and it would most likely have taken a very different course.  Without the German invasion at the wrong time, Stalingrad would not have occurred, and the Allied North African campaign might have been delayed, or even lost.

These crucial events, and others like them, were the results of human decisions, and many of them were mistakes.  At the end of the day, it was all about winning and losing, and the Axis lost even though Germany and Italy had created wildly popular and successful totalitarian mass movements.  And the defeat of the Axis was also the defeat of fascism and Nazism, neither of which plays any significant role anywhere in Europe.

So when I hear some smart people say that the Muslim Brotherhood is not going away, or that Assad is doomed, or that Assad is going to win, I want to say to them, “But we don’t know.  It all depends…”  Popular mass movements like the Brotherhood can indeed go away, especially if they are defeated.  Fascism was once a global movement, but it’s gone, even if some of its evil elements survive here and there.  It’s gone because it was defeated, and its claims to represent the future were thereby demonstrated false.

The Brotherhood might be decisively defeated in Egypt.  The jihadis might be decisively defeated in Syria.  So might Assad, along with his Russian and Iranian defenders.  You may think any one of these outcomes is impossible, but impossible things happen all the time.  My father delighted in quoting to me a slogan from General Electric in the 1930s:  “The difficult we do at once;  the impossible takes a little longer.”

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Save Ayatollah Boroujerdi

July 21st, 2013 - 11:42 am

A brave and good man is dying.  Ayatollah Hossein Kazemeini  Boroujerdi is incarcerated in Tehran’s infamous Evin prison, as he has been since 2006.  He is routinely tortured, denied medication for his grave ailments (including heart disease), and under 24-hour surveillance by officers of the Intelligence Ministry.  This sort of treatment is reserved for Iranians judged to be a serious threat to the tyrannical Iranian regime.

Ayatollah Boroujerdi threatens the regime for two reasons:  he advocates toleration of all religious (and non-religious) beliefs, and, in keeping with Shi’ite tradition, opposes the involvement of religious leaders in politics.  Years ago, he said  “the regime is adamant that either people adhere to political Islam or be jailed, exiled or killed. Its behavior is no different from that of Osama bin Laden or Mullah Omar.”

He has repeatedly criticized the fundamentalist doctrines of the Iranian theocratic state, and has dramatically spoken about the most explosive issues in the Muslim world, including anti-semitism.  In 2010 he sent Hanukkah greetings to the Jews of the world, saying “any religious belief that brings us closer to the Source (God) is the truth. This force will lead humanity towards enlightenment. On this great day, we celebrate the unity among the believers of God’s light.”

The regime has not executed him, fearing public protest.  He remains one of the most revered men in Iran.  At the time of his arrest, he operated a hundred telephone lines to assure ongoing contact with his followers and allies, and his public meetings were so well attended that he was forced to hold them in a public stadium.  The regime would undoubtedly prefer that he die in prison, so they could claim he succumbed to medical problems.

According to his family and supporters, Ayatollah Boroujerdi is indeed in critical condition.  In the past, prisoners in death camps have been treated better if their captors were aware of widespread attention and concern.  Even in the Nazi death camps, inmates slated for execution did better if they regularly received letters and packages (the Danes were particularly good at organizing such campaigns), and if their names were on requests for clemency from foreign governments to the officials of the Reich.

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You Never Know

July 17th, 2013 - 7:46 pm

The ancient Greek philosopher Sextus Empiricus taught his students that skepticism relieved two terrible diseases that afflicted mankind:  anxiety and dogmatism.  But it’s hard for most of us to live with systematic uncertainty.  Only great spirits, those blessed with courage and good humor, can fully embrace it.  Yet it is central to human creativity, and its value is only recognized at moments when the old consensus is falling to pieces, and the world’s direction is unknowable.

Most “knowledge” nowadays  is contained in virtual boxes, sorted by specialties:  economics, sociology, literature, statistics, anthropology, psychology. They are all formalized in university departments, and they aren’t flourishing.  Au contraire, they are imploding.  Look at all the economic theories that burned in the bonfires of the global crash starting in the fall of 2008.  Look at the seemingly endless revisions to atomic theory, which apparently needs anti-matter to account for the behavior of matter.  Psychological models are discarded with regularity, and now, all of a sudden, we’re told that salt is good for us!

So it’s not surprising to find a revival of skepticism.  My Italian friend, Giuliano da Empoli, has written a wonderful little book called Against the Specialists; the Revenge of Humanism. It nicely lays out the case against stultifying certainty and praises humanistic skepticism.  He argues elegantly that the recognition that we’re going to be wrong much or even most of the time, combined with an unrestrained search for understanding and possible solutions to our many woes, stimulates creativity.

It’s entirely appropriate for such thoughts to come from a citizen of Florence, since Renaissance humanism was part of an epic revolt against (Aristotelian) certainty.  The great souls of the Renaissance famously ranged across diverse areas of knowledge.  Leonardo and Machiavelli, for example, worked together on military/engineering schemes to divert the flow of the Arno River around Pisa, to besiege the city.

Giuliano, and several other keen-eyed thinkers, see signs of a possible humanistic renaissance today.  There are plenty of examples of such creative intellects.  One of my favorites is Albert Hirschman — polyglot, wandering Jew, economist, warrior, historian, philosopher and punster — who died last year, aged 97.  An encomium to him described Hirschman as a “developmental economist,” which is like calling Leonardo a dyslexic cartographer.  His skeptical credentials are totally in order.  He formed a club called the 4W Club:  for Where We Went Wrong.  And then there’s Daniel Kahneman, the only person to win a Nobel Prize in Economics…who never attended a lecture on the subject.  He delights in the realization that error abounds, and he’s written a delightful book to explain how error is built in to the human mind.  “After a crisis we tell ourselves we understand why it happened and maintain the illusion that the world is understandable. In fact, we should accept the world is incomprehensible much of the time.”

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Enough Already! Holder Must Go

July 11th, 2013 - 5:46 pm
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Maxed out.

Dear General Holder,

Get out of here.  Please.  Yesterday will do fine.  Your command at Justice became intolerable in your first big public statement, four and a half years ago, the one in which you laid out your hateful view of American society:

…in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards. Though race related issues continue to occupy a significant portion of our political discussion, and though there remain many unresolved racial issues in this nation, we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race.

You were telling us two things:  First, you intended to inflame political racial conflict in the United States.  Despite some boilerplate language about overcoming racism and becoming “one nation,” your speech demanded that we focus on our alleged obsession with racial differences.  You said, quite rightly, that it was intellectually misguided to talk about “black  history” as something separate from “American history,” but you didn’t mean it.  Indeed, you insisted that Black History Month be used to do just that — to treat black Americans separately from the others.  And although you conceded that America in the 1960s was superficially unrecognizable compared to America in 2009, the differences were often trivial and deceptive:

though the world in which we now live is fundamentally different than that which existed then, this nation has still not come to grips with its racial past nor has it been willing to contemplate, in a truly meaningful way, the diverse future it is fated to have. To our detriment, this is typical of the way in which this nation deals with issues of race…

outside the workplace the situation is even more bleak in that there is almost no significant interaction between us. On Saturdays and Sundays America in the year 2009 does not, in some ways, differ significantly from the country that existed some fifty years ago.

Second, as the last sentence above so clearly proves, you were either ignorant of, or had chosen to ignore, what had happened in America from the sixties to 2009.  We had largely moved beyond thinking of ourselves in black or white terms.  Indeed, our society had changed so much that the very concept of “race” was overtaken by events.  By 2010, ten percent of marriages were between people of different “races,” long term “mixed relationships” were twice as numerous, and fully 85 percent of those polled by Pew said they thought the increase (the rate had tripled in a decade) was either a good thing, or not particularly significant.  It wasn’t a big deal, it was what we knew we were, a society in which “race” was less and less important, as it should be.  Only a small fraction thought it was bad news.

Maybe it’s different at the pinnacle of American society, where you have long lived and worked.  But down here in the middle class, we spend our weekends with the same people we see during the work week.  And it’s not racially determined.  Surveys invariably show that we are the least racist society in the world, along with the other members of the Anglosphere and the Latin countries (something you might bear in mind the next time it occurs to you to incite venom against some “white Latino”).  The society you’re talking about is not American, it’s Asian, or North African, or Arab.  We’re the best in the world.  You should know that and say it proudly.

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