Work and Days

Paradoxes of the Present Age, Profound and Trivial

Sometimes reality seems at odds with perceived wisdom. Yet these disconnects rarely seem to enter public discussion. Here are a few examples, big and small.

The Axis of Evil and Unending Wars

The Korean mess reminds us again of who was and who was not in the ill-famed “axis of evil” as articulated in January 2002. Germany, Japan, and Vietnam were not, all once bitter foes of the United States. The former two were defeated and their hostility ended in reformed, postwar democratic governments. The latter won a political victory over the United States, and the question whether there would be a South Vietnam analogous to an independent South Korea was answered in the negative.

By the same token, the triad of evil all had ongoing but unresolved wars with the United States. Saddam Hussein at the time had lost the Gulf War but survived, and that fact in turn had led to an unending no-fly zone war. (Note that today Iraq would not be in the axis, given that Saddam is no more). An armistice in 1953 did not settle the question of whether an aggressive communist North Korea would leave South Korea alone. And our war that had de facto started with Iran in 1979, and which waxed and waned over the next thirty years through terrorist surrogates and American counter-measures, continues today.

Perhaps peace ensues when clear-cut defeat or victory decides a war. In contrast, an ongoing, on/off conflict is the legacy of truces and temporary armistices, as we pass the unresolved war on to our children.

The present strategy in Korea? Who knows? But I think a prosperous South Korea is between the rock of hoping for the relatively nonviolent implosion of the failed state of North Korea in some sort of East German fashion, and the hard place of a communist thugocracy in the bunker lashing out in “we will take you down with us” fashion.

Note well that in the supposed age of counter-insurgency, we still have assets like carrier battle groups, armored divisions, bombers, and high-tech fighters. War is cyclical, and while some thought the U.S. would only fight in messy, dirty Vietnam-like wars such as Iraq and Afghanistan, we should remember that even that scenario was not always the recent norm — remember Grenada, Panama, Gulf War I, and the Balkans.

Military history reminds us that wars of all sorts — insurgencies, terrorism, conventional land invasions, high-tech aerial combat, missile exchanges — can in theory break out anytime. It was always the great strength of the postwar U.S. army, nursed on the experience of World War II from the jungles of Guadalcanal to the B-17 missions over Germany, that it was multifaceted and ready for any challenge.

Some ask: “Why do we have any F-22s given the realities of an Afghanistan?” Others would counter: “Why do we not have more given the realities of an even more important Korean peninsula?”

Fewer or More Terrorist Plots?

The latest foiled terrorist attempt in Portland comes on the heels of the Times Square bombing plot, the New York subway plot, the unsuccessful Mutallab Christmas bombing, the Fort Hood shootings, and the increasing high alerts in Europe and the U.S. of new terrorist attempts to come.

All that raises questions about why radical Islamic terrorists are either increasing their efforts to kill Westerners, or at least not abating them — despite the reset/outreach efforts of the new administration. Have these wannabe killers forgotten the widely reported al-Arabiya interview, the Cairo speech, the bowing to the Saudi royal family, the promised civilian trial of KSM and closing of Guantanamo, the declarations from the head of NASA, and the euphemisms of “man-caused disasters” and “overseas contingency operations”? Did not the radical Islamists understand the message of outreach of the new American administration, the end of the dark days of “smoke ’em out” and “dead or alive,” and the de facto confession that our policies were unnecessarily provocative during the eight years between 2001 to 2009? Thereby will they not at least mitigate their efforts to murder Americans, given our newfound decision to seek compromise rather than confrontation? And if not, why not? Why treat our magnanimity with contempt?

Corruption and Crimes — or Misunderstanding?

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) made the argument that none of his transgressions were criminal in nature or ipsis factis proof of corruption. If so, can less illustrious Americans emulate his behavior with impunity? Can they chose not to report thousands of dollars in income without worries of IRS audit or worse, or use as an office four rent-controlled apartments, or abuse the postal system, or use public positions and employment to raise money for particular private projects? Surely if we, mere citizens, were to try all that, we would either be fired or in jail, or both. I know allusion to the Magna Carta and involvement in the Civil Rights movement would fall on the deaf ears of a federal prosecutor.

The Age of Want?

Are the usual Black Friday stories of near mayhem and stampedes into discount stores to buy elective electronic goods compatible with Great Depression narratives of endemic poverty and near starvation? What exactly is happening in matter of disposable income — are vast numbers of Americans in need of food to survive one more day or in need of more DVD players and flat-screen TVs, or both or neither?

Drug Cartels Made Us Do It?

A frequent argument is that the endemic American desire to snort cocaine or smoke marijuana or inject heroin — our collective urge for illicit drugs — has ruined Mexico, turning it into a failed state that exports its poor to us, even as cash-rich, exporting cartels try to take over the country.

I agree that any American who uses illegal drugs must accept the moral consequences that his purchases fuel killing and mayhem in Mexico. But that said, Mexico and its society bear the burden for the narco society that threatens to destroy the state. After all, Canada shares a longer border with the U.S. than does Mexico. In this age of easy transport, drugs grown in the tropics can easily ship to the U.S. via Canada. Canada could have a thriving meth or heroin export industry with zillionaire gangs running entire provinces.

So something is different in Mexico, and that something for a variety of reasons is not articulated — e.g., the lack of a truly consensual government, an independent judiciary, a middle class, protections of private property, freedom of expression, a free market, and a transparent tax system conspires to turn Mexico into a drug exporter to its neighbor in a way Canada is not.

More or Less Money

Why did the Bureau of Indian Affairs budget increase last year nearly 7% to $2.7 billion, when Native American gaming is now almost a $30 billion industry? Did the vast new wealth of the last two to three decades have no effect whatsoever on the Native American community, or rather did it decrease the standard of living, necessitating added federal revenue? Had there not been such a multibillion-dollar private industry on Indian lands would the federal Indian Affairs budget have been smaller or larger?

Illegal Immigration — Again

My puzzlement with Hispanic community elites’ constant demand for “comprehensive immigration reform” (a.k.a., some sort of blanket amnesty) is that I fear the urge is in part tribal. Let me explain. If there were 5 million Greeks in California fleeing the Athenian meltdown, all residing illegally here in California, would the Hispanic community object, and, if so, on what particular grounds (e.g., legality, practicality, fiscal reality, morality?)

Ditto 7 million theoretical Sudanese illegal aliens, 4 million Koreans, or 3 million Italians. Or is the demand for amnesty based not so much on the theory of illegal immigrants as de facto citizens, given their residency status, but more on ethnic solidarity? And would other ethnic groups in turn act as they do? I would hope that should 1 million Swedes decide to come into California en masse, overstay their visas, or have no visas, and then demand amnesty, I would demand that they would comply with the law and face the consequences of their violations. And I think, in fact, I would write just that. The fact that a foreigner happens to look more like myself, or embody traditions which I grew up with, or invoke a noble past immigrant tradition, I confess cuts no ice, none at all. As an American, I feel far more affinity with a fellow Mexican-American citizen than with a citizen of Sweden. I hope it is so with others as well, and trust that in time it is so.