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Monthly Archives: February 2012

High-Tech Nothing

February 24th, 2012 - 11:26 am

Faster or Smarter, Neither, Both?

I am not a Luddite who wants to destroy looms. The modern age has made life comfortable in ways unimaginable just twenty years ago. I live in a house that my great-great-grandmother built over 140 years ago — and cannot imagine doing so, as she did Hesiod-like, without running water, electricity, or a phone, not to mention some Zantac and Zyrtec in the cupboard.

But we should remember what technology is — a delivery system, a pump — not our essence, not water itself. Human nature remains constant and predictable while the ever-changing rate of technological growth obscures this insight. That I can talk to Argentina with a four-second dial, or find out how to treat leprosy on the Internet in ten seconds, or be constantly directed by a soothing female voice how to navigate through downtown L.A. does not thereby mean I have any more to say to an Argentinian than my great-great-grandmother might have, or that thereby I would be necessarily more or less willing to drop historic prejudices against lepers, or that I would have any more business in L.A. than did my grandfather with his nine-farmer open party-line, strung along the road with vineyard wire on eucalyptus poles. I could, of course, but that fact would hinge on considerations that might outweigh the speed or ease of my knowledge and decision-making.

I bring all this up because in the last two weeks I heard and read some strange things about how technological changes have transformed our very politics and way of life. Here is a sample: the ubiquity of ultrasound scans has turned public opinion against abortion; drones have revolutionized our ability to conduct asymmetrical wars; cell-phone cameras have outraged the world about Bashar al-Assad’s butchery in Syria in a way that was not true during the news blackout over Hafez al-Assad’s earlier liquidation of Hama; social networking and the Internet have created new sorts of communities and networks; and the Internet has kept politicians honest, since now we have instant recall of everything they’ve said or written.

All are true to an extent — but not to the extent that we think. Let me explain.

Abortion

It is a fact that the nation is now about split evenly between pro-choice and pro-life positions, in a way the former view used to easily trump the latter in polls. And it is also accurate to say that with the ability to see a moving, live fetus during the first trimester, it is harder to convince Americans that life does not begin until birth or at least the latter months of pregnancy. But does that fact mean that Roe vs. Wade will be overturned soon, or that the public will pass referenda and the courts will uphold them barring abortion?

I think hardly. The truth is that about half the voters still support abortion even if they know that they can now see the fetus that is to be aborted, very clearly even in the first few weeks — and with the latest equipment even earlier. Notions about choice, or convenience, or embarrassment — or almost anything — are innate to humans, and cannot so easily be changed by unequivocal evidence that abortion clearly entails terminating a visible living, growing human. Ultrasounds — and even more exact imagining to come — simply bring home the reality of abortion. But that fact does not necessarily thereby mean that many are not already accepting of that reality and know full well the consequences of abortion. Abortion remains, then, an ethical issue, whose contours can be altered, but ultimately not necessarily all that altered, by technology. Whether to kill a human or not was not the only consideration of the pro-choice adherents, and proving to them that such a choice entailed just that fact did not necessarily change hearts and minds, however it may have clarified some of the issues involved.

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The New Commandments on the Barn Wall

February 18th, 2012 - 4:53 pm

Ten Commandments for Our New Century

If you think our quiet lives of desperation can sometimes become a bit much, relax. Here are some guidelines to soothe your frustration — a few commandments that make sense out of today’s nonsense.

1) Wealth and poverty are now more relative, than absolute, conditions. The ancient idea of the limited good once again rules. Someone who has more, by definition, took unfairly more from someone else with less, one who nobly chose not to do that in turn to others. Fairness, not poverty, is our national obsession. My 48-inch screen television gets wonderful reception and offers sharp quality, but only if I know that someone else does not (and should not) have a 52-inch screen. I liked my Accord until I found out “he” parked a BMW next to me. But at least I can console myself that I choose not to do the sort of things that the BMW owner succumbed to. As is true in every peasant-minded society, wealth is as collectively scorned as it is privately lusted after.

2) Regulators are never the problem; a dearth of regulations always must be. If a teacher is at fault, a train operator sleeps, or a Wall Streeter loots, it is never because an administrator was lax, a supervisor chose to overlook drug use, or an auditor was incompetent. Instead, the common culprit was that we did not have enough laws. If Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank did not preclude the career of a Jon Corzine, then we need far stronger statutes than both. If a gun is smuggled by ten idling TSA operators, then we need more and better full-body X-ray scanners. There are lots of odd mentalities at work here: the more poorly educated and inept are our regulators, the more we turn to regulations per se to make up the deficiencies — guaranteeing even more so that the regulators cannot wade through the accruing paperwork. While it is considered illiberal to fault employees as incompetent, it is considered very liberal to cite the shocking absence of yet another law.

3) Debt is a mirage. Borrowing right now has no connection with repaying eons later. At some future date, inflation, debt reduction, write-down, higher taxes on “them,” growing the economy, a computer meltdown, those not born, a few “fat cats,” or a German will somehow step in to erase what is owed — some $16 trillion in collective debt. Borrowing and spending win friends and foster admiration; cutting and repaying alienate and earn antipathy. Do we adore more the politician who enacts another entitlement with someone else’s money than we do hate the curmudgeon who wants to see how it is paid for? Close call. Just as a billion in 2009 instantly became a trillion, then why cannot a trillion in 2012 likewise become a zillion? What do a few zeros matter anyway?

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Europe in the Rearview Mirror

February 12th, 2012 - 9:54 am

The Dream and the Nightmare

The European Union was always a paradox. Its existence was predicated entirely on the notion of German guilt, translating into massive cash transfers east and south. Just as Versailles was supposed to have restrained Germany, then a divided, postwar Germany, then NATO integration and the common Soviet enemy, and then the EU — and now what next?

There was quite a EU veneer placed over the politically incorrect “German Problem.” Most of us listened in disbelief as we were lectured that veritable disarmament, subsidized windmills, reach outs to a Syria or Libya, easy anti-Americanism, and sermons about cradle-to-grave socialism were the way of the new Europe. And always came the grating condescension, that a self-appointed bureaucratic class in Brussels might lecture Neanderthals what was good for them, without worry over democratic checks and balances.

In understandable fear of cannibalizing Europe yet a third time within a century’s span, European academics and elite functionaries had taken a perfectly understandable notion of a European common market and transmogrified it into an anti-democratic, utopian, and utterly unworkable European Union. Was the euro supposed to trump the laws of Economics 1A, simply because it was constructed as something moral?

Was it not ridiculous that Germans would sell their wares to poorer southern Mediterraneans, who would then borrow the money for payment from EU banks, which then in turn would supposedly guarantee the debts by appeals to a transcontinental collective to share risks? (Where did the blown $400 billion plus to Greece actually go? The answer is not hard to find: just look at the new bridges, freeways, subway, airport, vacation homes, hotels, cars, buses, etc., and then look at the manner in which a Greek bank is staffed, cars are driven in Omonia Square, or how construction workers erect apartment buildings — and then again sigh that the latter elsewhere in the world do not lead to the former.)

Gauleiters and Greeks

Who was more culpable, the efficient German companies and banks who tried to draw on the guarantees of an entire continent to legitimize loans that empowered a German mercantilism, or duplicitous Mediterraneans who wished to live like Germans but not to produce like them? After all, two daily commutes, siestas, tax cheating as a national religion, and 9 PM dinners do not otherwise add up to a life of sophisticated brain surgery, Mercedes buses, and Bosch dishwashers. Did the CEOs of Audi and Siemens think that they did? Read the Greek newspapers and Merkel appears as a cartoonish Hitler; read the German and Greeks seem beach-going untermenschen.

From Paradise to Purgatory

Did Euro visionaries not see that the efforts at utopian pacifism on a continental scale were not merely doomed to fail, but destined to a failure of such magnitude that the resulting acrimony would be far worse than had the silly project never been tried in the first place? The Greek and German papers now engage in a level of stereotyping, caricature, and national hatred not seen since the 1930s, and far in excess of anything in the pre-EU days of the 1970s and 1980s. History’s antidote to a failed utopianism is not merely a return to nationalism, deterrence, balance-of-power alliances, and all the ancient methods of keeping the peace, but more to pandemic disgust and eventually to strife. A strong proactive alliance of the United States, France, and Britain in 1934 would have stopped Germany; a weak and pretentious collective League of Nations would facilitate it.

Munich and Athens in California

I drive each week from one of the poorest areas in the U.S. to one of the wealthiest. A man from Mars after walking in west Selma and then downtown Menlo Park could tell you exactly why the gap is not three hours, but more like three centuries. One-quarter mile from my house about 30 people live in wrecked trailers behind a farmhouse with an assortment of barn animals wandering about the premises; about 100 yards from my tiny studio apartment in Palo Alto, Facebook zillionaires bid upwards of $2 million for a tiny house worth about $70,000 in Fresno.

But both these extremes at least share common laws — in theory a common language, the same constitution, and an identical popular culture. In contrast, when I go from the Peloponnese to the Rhine I see about the same vast economic divide, but one in which different histories, languages, cultures, and ethnicities acerbate — not mitigate — the gulf. In fact, if I were to dream up a way of having central, rural California go to war against the wealthier coastal strip from San Diego to San Francisco, I would simply have them first craft a EU-like arrangement for a few years.

Europe is not the EU

But all that said, the EU is not quite Europe; the parts are far better than the sum. Britain, Germany, Scandinavia, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and the rest, for all their elites’ hatred of the U.S., are still admirable places, especially in comparison with societies in most of Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Life is humane, and the poorest in resource-poor Europe are not poor like those in oil-rich Mexico or Venezuela. The food and water do no make one sick; medicine is advanced. The rule of law largely prevails. Competency ensures things work. When I travel, I look for the small irrelevancies that are not so irrelevant: in Libya, dogs looked tortured; in Britain, they are humanely treated. There are no billboards of Great Leaders in Europe in the fashion of the monotonous ubiquity of an Arafat, Mubarak, or Assad on nearly every wall. In Mexico, people toss trash out the car window; in Munich, I see strangers stoop to put someone else’s litter in trash baskets. Getting in line in Egypt or Kuwait is governed by the sharpest elbows; in Holland, there is a system of order. I don’t drive any more in most countries other than northern European ones. As a general rule, if you go to the emergency room south or east of Crete, pray that you are in Israel.

Yes, I know Europe is sick, ill with loud secular agnosticism and atheism, aging and shrinking, wedded to an unworkable redistributive socialism. But it still works because Europeans for centuries have remained highly educated, skilled, lawful, and talented as the creators of our own Western system.

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Are You ‘Them!’?

February 5th, 2012 - 8:52 am

Until the appearance of Barack Obama on the national scene, I knew of “them” only from an old sci-fi movie in which huge ants (“Them!”) ate people.

But there are new monsters in America, and I am starting to wonder whether I am to be considered among them: those of the uninvolved and uninformed lives, the bar-raisers, the downright mean ones, the never deserving of respect ones, the Vegas junketeers, the Super Bowl jet setters, the tuition stealers, the faux-Christians who do not pay higher taxes, the too much income makers, the tormenters of autistic children, the polluters, the enemies deserving of punishment, the targets to bring a gun against, the faces to get in front of, the limb-loppers, the tonsil pullers, the fat cats, the corporate jet owners, the one-percenters, the stupidly acting, the not paying their fair sharers, the discriminators on the “way you look”, the alligator raisers and moat builders, the vote deniers, the clingers, the typical something persons, the hunters of kids at ice cream parlors, the stereotypers and profilers, the cowards, the lazy and soft, the non-spreaders of money, the not my people people, the Tea party racists, the not been perfect and mistake makers, the disengaged and the dictating, the not the time to profiteers, the ones who did not know when to quit making money, and on and on.

My God, man, how did Barack Obama & Co. conjure up so many demons?

So Are You One of the Culpable?

This is proving to be a Manichean administration. It sees the world in terms dark and light, of us/them, and then must create the necessary binaries to divide and demonize—so strange given this was the narrative of the Obama campaign against Bush, not so strange given the Chicago origins.

After three years, I realize that lots of us are on the downside of about every one of the president’s new Mason-Dixon lines. Yet I am not a one-percenter like Jon Corzine or Nancy Pelosi. I did not send my kids to private schools as did the Obamas in Chicago. I live in a racially mixed area, one of the poorest in the nation—unlike the mostly white mansion environs of John Kerry. My siblings’ families are racially mixed; I’ve never bought and sold real estate, or made much money on investments. I am certainly, then, no Rahm Emanuel, Jamie Gorelick, or Franklin Raines. I never had any developer give me a sweetheart deal to expand my backyard as did Barack Obama. I have never in my life used the term “typical black person” and would not dream of talking in terms of being a “wise white guy.” I have never been in a church where the pastor used the Lord’s name to amplify his cursing.

Sorry, No Medieval Penance for Us?

Unlike Timothy Geithner, I have always paid my taxes as I should. And unlike Barbara Boxer, I for a number of years made a living driving a tractor and pruning. In other words, I should be sorta OK in the Obama’s us/them class divides. But I also have not purchased an exemption from the Obama adjudicators, and feel no guilt about anything. I did not vote for Barack Obama and I have a bad habit of criticizing much of what he wishes to do for America. Professing to being liberal and caring, after all, in this era, is more important than being so. So instead, like many of you, I am getting the feeling that Obama plans to run for reelection on the premise that millions of Americans like us have done or are doing something quite wrong to people more noble than ourselves, both here and abroad.

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