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  • Simon Blackburn: An Unbeautiful Mind
    Polkinghorne holds the belief that unless some things last forever, everything is futile, a "meaningless empire of accident." This would wipe the smile off the face of many scientists. For science is not good about "forever." It paints a different picture of the world in which we find ourselves. Science teaches that the cosmos is some fifteen billion years old, almost unimaginably huge, and governed by natural laws that will compel its extinction in some billions more years, although long before that the Earth and the solar system will have been destroyed by the heat death of the sun. Human beings occupy an infinitesimally small fraction of space and time, on the edge of one galaxy among a hundred thousand million or so galaxies. We evolved only because of a number of cosmic accidents, including the extinction of the dinosaurs some sixty-five million years ago. Nature shows us no particular favors: we get parasites and diseases and we die, and we are not all that nice to each other. True, we are moderately clever, but our efforts to use our intelligence to make things better for ourselves quite often backfire, and they may do so spectacularly in the near future, from some combination of manmade military, environmental, or genetic disasters.
  • Roger Scruton: The West and the Rest
    "It is thanks to Western prosperity, Western legal systems, Western forms of banking, and Western communications that human initiatives now reach so easily across frontiers to affect the lives and aspirations of people all over the globe. However, Western civilization depends on an idea of citizenship that is not global at all, but rooted in territorial jurisdiction and national loyalty. By contrast, Islam, which has been until recently remote from the Western world and without the ability to project its message, is founded on an ideal of godliness which is entirely global in its significance, and which regards territorial jurisdiction and national loyalty as compromises with no intrinsic legitimacy of their own. Although there have been attempts to manufacture nationalisms both appropriate to the Islamic temperament and conducive to a legitimate political order, they have fragmented under the impact of sectarian or tribal allegiances, usually giving way to military dictatorship or one-man, one-family, or one-party tyranny. Islam itself remains, in the hearts of those who live under these tyrannies, a permanent call to a higher life, and a reminder that power and corruption will rule in this world until the reign established by the Prophet is restored."
  • Adam Smith: Wealth of Nations 1776
    The difference of natural talents in different men is, in reality, much less than we are aware of; and the very different genius which appears to distinguish men of different professions, when grown up to maturity, is not upon many occasions so much the cause as the effect of the division of labour. The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature as from habit, custom, and education. When they came into the world, and for the first six or eight years of their existence, they were perhaps very much alike, and neither their parents nor playfellows could perceive any remarkable difference. About that age, or soon after, they come to be employed in very different occupations. The difference of talents comes then to be taken notice of, and widens by degrees, till at last the vanity of the philosopher is willing to acknowledge scarce any resemblance. But without the disposition to truck, barter, and exchange, every man must have procured to himself every necessary and conveniency of life which he wanted. All must have had the same duties to perform, and the same work to do, and there could have been no such difference of employment as could alone give occasion to any great difference of talents.
  • Kishore Mahbubani: Freedom
    But freedom does not only solve problems; it can also cause them. The United States has undertaken a massive social experiment, tearing down social institution after social institution that restrained the individual. The results have been disastrous. Since 1960 the U.S. population has increased 41 percent while violent crime has risen by 560 percent, single-mother births by 419 percent, divorce rates by 300 percent and the percentage of children living in single-parent homes by 300 percent. This is massive social decay. Many a society shudders at the prospects of this happening on its shores. But instead of traveling overseas with humility, Americans confidently preach the virtues of unfettered individual freedom, blithely ignoring the visible social consequences.
  • Harold Pinter: Nobel Lecture
    There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.
  • Charles Darwin: The Descent of Man
    As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races.
  • Earnest Becker: The Denial of Death
    We have to go the way of the grasshopper even though it takes longer.
  • Johnson, Samuel: Rambler # 121 May 14, 1751
    "To learn is the proper business of youth; and whether we increase our knowledge by books or by conversation, we are equally indebted to foreign assistance."
  • Murray Rothbard: Education Free and Compulsory
    It is evident that the common enthusiasm for equality is, in the fundamental sense, anti-human. It tends to repress the flowering of individual personality and diversity, and civilization itself; it is a drive toward savage uniformity. Since abilities and interests are naturally diverse, a drive toward making people equal in all or most respects is necessarily a leveling downward. It is a drive against development of talent, genius, variety, and reasoning power. Since it negates the very principles of human life and human growth, the creed of equality and uniformity is a creed of death and destruction.
  • J. M. Cameron: Review of Becker's Denial of Death
    Life, for Becker, is a desperate business, in which a steady heroism before the terrors of existence is in general the only thing to be commended.
  • Mark Lilla: The Politics of God
    In the end, though, what happens on the opposite shore will not be up to us. We have little reason to expect societies in the grip of a powerful political theology to follow our unusual path, which was opened up by a unique crisis within Christian civilization. This does not mean that those societies necessarily lack the wherewithal to create a decent and workable political order; it does mean that they will have to find the theological resources within their own traditions to make it happen. "Our challenge is different. We have made a choice that is at once simpler and harder: we have chosen to limit our politics to protecting individuals from the worst harms they can inflict on one another, to securing fundamental liberties and providing for their basic welfare, while leaving their spiritual destinies in their own hands. We have wagered that it is wiser to beware the forces unleashed by the Bible’s messianic promise than to try exploiting them for the public good. We have chosen to keep our politics unilluminated by divine revelation. All we have is our own lucidity, which we must train on a world where faith still inflames the minds of men. NYTimes Magaziine, 8/19/2007
  • Richard Fields: The Land of Opportunity
    Immigration to the United States is not a problem. It is a phenomenon. The only way the United States can stop this phenomenon is by destroying the capitalist economy that draws immigrants here. We need to move in the direction of more open immigration, not in the direction of militarized borders fit only for a police state. Though it's been obscured by layers of cynical campaign rhetoric, the issue of immigration comes down to whether we want to restrict individual liberty to native-born Americans or offer it to everyone. If freedom works for us — and it does — what possible moral reason do we have to offer it to those born in San Diego, and deny it to those born inches away in Tijuana?
  • Edward O. Wilson: Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, 1998
    On the surface it would seem, and was so reported by the media, that the Rwandan catastrophe was ethnic rivalry run amok. That is true only in part. There was a deeper cause, rooted in environment and demography. Between 1950 and 1994 the population of Rwanda, favored by better health care and temporarily improved food supply, more than tripled, from 2.5 million to 8.5 million. In 1992 the country had the highest growth rate in the world, an average of 8 children per woman. Parturition began early, and generation times were short. But although total food production increased dramatically during this period, it was soon overbalanced by population growth. The average farm size dwindled as plots were divided from one generation to the next. Per capita grain production fell by half from 1960 to the early 1990s. Water was so overdrawn that hydrologists declared Rwanda one of the world's twenty-seven water-scarce countries. The teenage soldiers of the Hutu and Tutsi then set out to solve the population problem in the most direct possible way. Rwanda is a microcosm of the world. War and civil strife have many causes, most not related directly to environmental stress. But in general, overpopulation and the consequent dwindling of available resources are tinder that people pile up around themselves. The mounting anxiety and hardship are translated into enmity, and enmity into moral aggression. Scapegoats are identified, sometimes other political or ethic groups, sometimes neighboring tribes. The tinder continues to grow, awaiting the odd assassination, territorial incursion, atrocity, or other provocative incident to set it off. Rwanda is the most populated country in Africa. Burundi, its war torn neighbor, is second. Haiti and El Salvador, two of the chronically most troubled nations of the Western Hemisphere, are also among the most densely populated, exceeded only by five tiny island countries of the Caribbean. They are also arguable the most environmentally degraded.
  • Murray Rothbard: Rights of Animals
    There is, in fact, rough justice in the common quip that "we will recognize the rights of animals whenever they petition for them." The fact that animals can obviously not petition for their "rights" is part of their nature, and part of the reason why they are clearly not equivalent to, and do not possess the rights of, human beings. And if it be protested that babies can't petition either, the reply of course is that babies are future human adults, whereas animals obviously are not.
  • Dr. Kenneth R. Miller:
    When asked, “What do you say as a scientist about the soul?” Dr. Miller's answer is always the same: “As a scientist, I have nothing to say about the soul. It’s not a scientific idea.” Dr. Mller, a Roman Catholic and biologist at Brown University is the author of, “Finding Darwin’s God” (Harper, 1999)
  • Richard Rorty:
    "...if we can work together, we can make ourselves into whatever we are clever and courageous enough to imagine ourselves becoming.”
  • Richard J. Herrnstein:
    "It is easy to lie with statistics, but it's a lot easier to lie without them."
  • Michael Slackman: Quiet Revolution in Algeria
    In Algiers there is a whole class of young men referred to as hittistes — the word is a combination of French and Arabic for people who hold up walls.
  • Albert Einstein:
    Common sense is nothing more than a deposit of prejudices laid down by the mind before you reach age 18.
  • Neil Postman:
    "Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see."


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December 2007

December 20, 2007

Reform and the Schools Establishment

One of the principal obstacles to reforming the public schools in our large cities, where the school failure and dropout rates are particularly high, remains the fact that those who are best positioned to carry out any reform, the Teachers Unions and the school Superintendents, are not willing to change their own mostly defensive positions in regard to the schools, and admit that major reforms are necessary.

Now without a doubt, at least for those who are not union members or school superintendents, the most significant public school reform effort within the city of Boston, and probably within the whole country, during the past 20 years has been the Commonwealth Charter School.

It is well known, if not well recognized, that a good number of the charter schools in Massachusetts have been extraordinarily successful. Several of them have all but eliminated the so-called achievement gap between Blacks and Latinos on the one hand, and White students on the other, that which some felt couldn't be done, given the enormous disadvantages that encumber the lives of inner city Blacks and Latinos compared with their White peers in the suburbs.

What has been the response, or rather the lack of response, of the public school Establishment to these highly successful, so-called “no excuses” charter schools? Has the Establishment contacted these public schools in order to begin to understand their successes?

The previous Boston Superintendent may have visited one charter school once during his ten year tenure, although I'm not sure about that. The new Superintendent, as far as I know, has yet to reveal what she will do in this regard.

As for the Teachers Union, instead of welcoming the “new kid on the block” as friend and partner, it looked instead for a way to compete with the charter schools, perhaps in order to thereby lessen the obvious positive impact of these new schools on kids and families in Boston.

The Teachers Union's response was to support pilot schools, although only begrudgingly because the pilots were a lot like charters and therefore represented a threat to the traditional way of doing things.

But other than this defensive action there has been nothing else in the way of response, no sharing of best practices, no other contact, as far as I know, between the Boston Teachers Union and the Commonwealth Charter Schools. I find this situation incredible, and I find it even more incredible that no one is even talking about it.

If I could I would ask the Superintendent of Schools along with Teachers Union several questions, all in an effort to better a bad situation. First, is it because they believe that poverty itself does most to explain the achievement gap and that without  addressing this “gorilla” there is little that the school could do on its own to be effective?

Another question stems from the common establishment criticism of charters, that they remove good students from the “regular' public schools to the detriment of these schools. But in fact in this regard who is most at fault?

Which group of schools, public charters or public exam, pilot and magnet schools, such as Boston Latin School, Fenway, and the Arts Academy, do the most “harm” to the non-selective district schools by removing the particularly talented children, not to mention the most motivated parents, from the general admissions pool?

Isn't the answer is obvious? Clearly the highly selective exam, pilot, and magnet schools are most to blame, although we don't hear anyone complaining about it. That no one does complain is probably because these schools have important friends, both in the School Department and in City Hall. OK, they are doing good work, but so are many of the Charters.

Two last questions, the first in regard to the most recent school reform, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which the defenders of the public schools see as a first step in the further dismantling of the public schools by private, usually corporate interests.

Does anyone really believe that Ted Kennedy, George Miller et al. had the undoing of the public schools in mind when they fashioned the law? I don't think so. Wasn't it one more attempt to address the problem of failing inner city schools, the problem that the Schools Establishment is loath to admit, let alone address?

Finally, in a series of op-ed pieces about intelligence appearing in the Wall Street Journal in January of this year Charles Murray makes a strong case that we are sending, or trying to send, too many students to four year colleges. For Murray it's clear that many of them won't be able to do the work, and will be quickly frustrated and disappointed and probably drop out.

Is Murray right, about there being only a minority of students in the inner city schools that are college material, perhaps no more than a quarter of an entering high school freshmen class? 

If he is right wouldn't it mean that we should be getting behind major structural changes in our schools? Isn't this a reform that is urgently needed? And about this also we hear absolutely nothing from the Establishment. Do the Superintendent of Schools and the Teachers Union even have a position on this issue?

December 07, 2007

No Such Thing as Moral or Spiritual Progress

The contemporary British philosopher, Roger Scruton, writes in Why I Became a Conservative:

"Edmund Burke persuaded me that societies are not and cannot be organized according to a plan or a goal, that there is no direction to history, and no such thing as moral or spiritual progress."

I think he's wrong about the first, partially right about the second, and completely right about the third thing he says.

Societies are forever being organized according to a plan or a goal, even if not always successfully. For it's true that the best laid plans (witness the totalitarian fascist and communist states of the past century) often come to naught, the goals of the planners abandoned.

But the U.S. Constitution was a "plan" and this plan, after more than 200 years, is still very much a plan we follow. Also the goal of securing for all our citizens certain inalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, is no less our goal today than it was in 1787.

I'm not sure what Scruton means when he says there's no direction to history. Perhaps this is just another way of saying there is no goal, that history is not going anywhere?

But this country's history is the history of our reaching, or still trying to reach, one goal after another, be it civil rights for African Americans, equality for women, health care and education for all. So given these goals, and our having reached some of them, isn't there plenty of direction to our history?

But if he means by direction to history, progress, well then things are no longer so simple and straight forward. The word itself, progress, or the idea of progress, has not yet been defined to everyone's satisfaction.

If by progress we mean a greater understanding of our biological nature as well as the physical world we have certainly made enormous progress. For doesn't the undeniable progress of science and technology give a direction to history, even if we don't yet understand the goal to which all this progress is taking us?

But Scruton is clearly right where he says there has been no moral or spiritual progress, no progress in our view of man. This conclusion follows clearly from the fact that we read the oldest literary texts today as if they were no less relevant now than they were in their time, hundreds and thousands of years ago.

Progress in science is demonstrated by the fact that our science texts, while not ever being completely discarded, are constantly being replaced by new works reflecting our greater knowledge of man and nature. Literary texts, on the other hand, those of Sophocles and Shakespeare, for example, have not yet been undone and replaced.

So there have been direction and progress if by that we mean reaching a greater understanding of what we are and from where we came. But if we mean by that a greater understanding of truth, beauty, goodness, and other moral qualities, no.

In regard to their understanding of truth, beauty et al. the great prophets of the past still mostly equal or surpass in their relevance to our lives the writers and prophets of more recent times and the present.

Our conclusion that we know very little of what we really are, and what we ought to be, should teach us humility. Yes we can go to the moon, but we are no more in control of our individual destinies that was the biblical Job.

Yes, Roger, there is, so far anyway, no such thing as moral and spiritual progress. The next question would be, is this conclusion enough to make conservatives of us all?

December 05, 2007

Vladimir Putin, as seen by Bill Nichols in USA Today, March 27, 2002

(My commentary on the text in red italic)

If Bill Nichols has correctly read Putin intentions in March of 2002 one might reasonably conclude that the present lack of cooperation between Russia and the West, is mostly our fault. And also that Bush's reading of the man, ten months earlier on June 16 of 2001, was not completely whacky. That is, Bush's words following his first meeting with Putin whem he said that he, Bush, "looked the man in the eye," and "was able to get a sense of his soul."

Perhaps, although I've never believed it until today, what Bush saw was not unreal. In any case by our actions since then we've helped to bury under a renewed and hardened and darkened antagonism whatever light Bush may have seen in the man. Nichols' account makes me think that whatever Putin is today it's in good part because of us. Certainly we're to blame for the crazy idea to install missile defenses in two of the former Republics of the Soviet Union. Whose daft idea was that anyway?

In what follows I cite passages from Bill Nichols profile of Putin done for USA Today on March 27, 2002. Why the Russian translations? Probably that's mostly for me. But we Americans sometimes seem to forget that the Russians do speak another language. English is not yet the world's language, and the Russians, like many others still want to be heard in their own language. Nichols' words are in bold, following by the Russian translation. If you know a little Russian it might be fun to follow along.

Russia's Putin is an enigma to the world
(Путин – загадка для всеро мира)

Bill Nichols'original text is in bold characters,
Followed by a Russian translation in normal text size.

Several weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, Russian President Vladimir Putin confronted an historic choice.
Через несколько недель после нападений террористов на Соединенные Штаты 11 сентября российский президент Владимир Путин встал перед историческим выбором.

His top advisers pushed him to extract concessions from Washington in exchange for Russia's help in the U.S. war on terrorism, officials close to Putin say. His response was startling: No. Instead, the Russian president would offer unconditional cooperation to strengthen bonds with the West.
По свидетельству официальных лиц из ближайшего окружения г-на Путина, его высшие советники подталкивали его к тому, чтобы он выбивал у Вашингтона уступки в обмен на помощь России в войне Америки с терроризмом. Его реакция была поразительной. Нет! Вместо этого российский президент предложил безусловное сотрудничество в целях укрепления связей с Западом.

''He said to this crowd, 'This is not about price lists. This is not about bargaining. This is about something else,' '' says Grigory Yavlinsky, a leader in the Russian Duma, the lower chamber of Parliament.
"Он сказал этим людям 'Тут неуместно заводить разговор о прейскурантах. Мы не собираемся торговаться. Тут речь совсем о другом.'", - вспоминает Григорий Явлинский, один из лидеров Государственной Думы Российской Федерации.

The ''something else'' Putin seeks is a new Russia, a Russia that is regarded as a full partner by the same Western nations that were mortal enemies of the Soviet Union.
То, другое, к которому стремится г-н Путин - это новая Россия, такая Россия, в которой те самые западные страны, что были заклятыми врагами Советского Союза, будут видеть полноправного партнера.

Just as earlier this week our own intelligence services told our government that Iran's nuclear bomb initiative had been on hold since 2003 (meaning that during the time since then our government has not been aware of what was really going on at Iran's nuclear facilities) so reading Nichols' reporting from Moscow, one year earlier, in 2002, makes us painfully aware now of just how much we perhaps missed a golden opportunity to cooperate with Putin and Russia.

Apparently we just as incorrectly read the man Putin, as Bush did Iran. Has 9/11 blinded us to just about everything else that was and is going on in the world, including, perhaps, a more cooperative Russia?

Quick, name one important, beneficial, and well thought out international action that our government has undertaken during the past six years, that is, since 9/11. Can you? I can't.

That this former KGB officer -- who marked the second anniversary of his election on Tuesday -- would try to build such a Russia has shocked diplomats around the world, turned traditional East-West relations upside-down and left global leaders wondering what Putin will do next.
То, что этот бывший офицер Комитета государственной безопасности (КГБ) СССР - который во вторник отметил вторую годовщину своего избрания на пост президента России - намерен попытаться построить такую Россию, шокировало дипломатов во всем мире, перевернуло традиционные отношения Восток-Запад и заставило лидеров нашей планеты гадать, каким будет следующий шаг г-на Путина.

Well, at least some things don't change. The elections in Russia are just over (last Sunday, December 2) with the crushing Putin victory, and now everyone is wondering what Putin is going to do next.

Perhaps nothing surprises Westerners more than Putin's success in turning around his nation's economy, particularly in Moscow, where a once drab and listless communist capital has come alive with glittering streets and vibrant commerce: sushi bars, store windows displaying trendy designer clothes, Manhattan-like traffic jams.
Пожалуй, ничто так не удивляет представителей западных стран, как успехи г-на Путина в деле перестройки экономики страны, особенно заметные в Москве. Когда-то серая и апатичная коммунистическая столица сегодня полна жизни: сверкающие улицы, бурно расцветшая торговля - суши-бары, одежда от модных дизайнеров в витринах магазинов - "пробки" на улицах, как в Манхэттене.

We need to hear this sort of thing more often. The city Moscow is now right up there with Paris and London in regard to glitz and show, and its citizens, no less than those of the other European cities, will surely fight to hold on to what they now have (a material prosperity they never knew during Soviet times). So in spite of the apparent incomprehension between Putin's Russia and the West there will be no return to the closed Soviet society of before.

Russia was on the verge of economic ruin and political anarchy during Boris Yeltsin's last years as president. Now, Putin wants his rejuvenated nation to be at the table with other Western nations.
В последние годы президентства Бориса Ельцина Россия стояла на краю экономической разрухи и политической анархии. И вот теперь г-н Путин хочет, чтобы его обновленная страна была за одним столом с другими западными странами.

The difference between when Nichols was writing and now is that Putin is evidently thoroughly convinced that order and security trump democracy, at least in Russia. And it's hard to quarrel with him in that regard. In 2002, his second year in office, Putin may have felt that a Russian democrat in office was possible, although Yeltsin's example ought to have told him the opposite.

Now he knows there's no place in present day Russia for the democrat. The Russian people are not ready. Putin has become, whether he knows it or not, a disciple of Hobbes, and he's going to make sure that his country has a strong ruler at the helm.

Western leaders, however, aren't sure whether to trust Putin. Many still question whether he is committed to a Russia that embraces capitalism and democracy.

Однако западные лидеры не уверены, стоит ли доверять г-ну Путину. Многие все еще сомневаются, действительно ли он хочет, чтобы в России восторжествовали капитализм и демократия.

Putin, now we know, while he has turned his back on democracy, does embrace a kind of state capitalism. See my earlier piece below, Putin and Kasparov.

Russia's new prosperity, for example, is limited to Moscow and a few other large cities. Critics at home and abroad say Putin's record is poor on civil liberties, such as press freedom. Rights groups say Russian troops continue to commit atrocities in the breakaway republic of Chechnya. Senior U.S. officials here say they question whether Putin believes in democracy at all.
К примеру, новообретенное процветание России пока ограничивается Москвой и несколькими другими крупными городами. Критики дома и за рубежом говорят, что г-н Путин плохо зарекомендовал себя в вопросе о гражданских свободах, например, свободе печати. Правозащитные организации говорят, что российские войска продолжают творить злодеяния в мятежной республике Чечня. Американские высокопоставленные официальные лица здесь, в Москве, говорят, что не уверены, верит ли вообще г-н Путин в демократию.

Most of what Nichols has to say could have been said today, with few changes being necessary. The new Russian prosperity is limited to Moscow and a few large cities. The new found oil wealth has done little to raise a good half of the population out of the depths of poverty. There is little or no press freedom, but, and to the good, people are able to travel abroad, and as far as we know the latest representatives of Putin's own KGB are not torturing and murdering dissidents in the basement of the Lubyanka.

Chechnya is no longer the "breakaway Republic", its people, those that are still alive, having been successfully pacified. Putin has succeeded with the Chechnyans whereas we failed with the Viet Cong, although admittedly the two situations are not comparable. But most of all we didn't have the stomach to do in Vietnam what Putin has done in Chechnya.

Finally, when Nichols wrote Putin watchers weren't sure, but now they are, that Putin is much more the Tsar of a fallen Russian empire trying to hold on to past glories, than the President of a new liberal and democratic Russia reaching out to the West. Helas! But we really couldn't have expected anything else.

Some Russians have the same doubts and question whether he is merely building a new authoritarian system. ''(Putin) has started to restore what we had before, but in an even uglier way,'' says Tatiana Chubrikova, 52, a translator for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. ''He thinks he knows what is good for everyone and then tries to impose it.''
Некоторые россияне испытывают аналогичные сомнения и задаются вопросом, а не выстраивает ли он новую авторитарную систему. "Путин начал восстанавливать то, что у нас было раньше, но в еще более скверном виде, - говорит 52-летняя Татьяна Чубрикова, переводчик Верховного комиссариата Организации Объединенных Наций (ООН) по делам беженцев. - Он думает, что знает, что хорошо для всех, и пытается навязать это людям".

Now six years later Putin no longer thinks, but knows what is good for everyone, and no longer does he try, but simply imposes his own thinking on everyone else. We see this today in the pictures coming out of Russia of the large numbers of Russian youth attending youth camps. They're not yet, thankfully, comparable to the frightening Chinese youth formations of Mao's cultural revolution, but they do remind us of that time in China.

Many Russians, long accustomed to living under a schizophrenic communist system that delivered far less than it promised, say the inscrutable Putin is another enigma for them to unravel. Officials close to the former spymaster say a normal day might find him talking to President Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and a group of his former KGB cronies -- and giving equal weight to each conversation.
Многие россияне, давно приученные жить при шизофренической коммунистической системе, которая делала куда меньше, чем обещала, говорят, что непостижимый г-н Путин является для них еще одной загадкой, которую нужно разгадать. Официальные лица из окружения этого бывшего шпиона говорят, что в любой обычный день он может беседовать с президентом США Бушем-младшим (George W. Bush), с премьер-министром Великобритании Тони Блэром (Tony Blair) и с группой бывших дружков из КГБ - и каждой беседе придавать равноценный вес.

''Putin's very far away from us,'' says Eugin Dashkin, 52, a department manager in a sugar production company. ''It's very difficult to tell the difference between his deeds and his words. It's difficult to feel if it's real or not.''
"Путин от нас очень далек, - говорит Евгений Дашкин, 52-летний менеджер отдела в компании по производству сахара. - Очень трудно делать различие между его поступками и его словами. Трудно понять, реально это или нет".

Few Muscovites doubt that the economic turnaround is real. The economy has improved steadily since Putin, 49, became interim president when Yeltsin retired on New Year's Eve, 1999. Putin was elected three months later.
Немногие москвичи сомневаются в том, что перемены в экономике реальны. Устойчивый рост экономики отмечается с тех пор, как 49-летний Путин стал временно исполнять обязанности президента страны, когда в конце 1999 года, накануне празднования Нового Года, ушел в отставку г-н Ельцин. Через три месяца г-на Путин стал законно избранным президентом.

If you want to read Bill Nichols's full account of Putin's Russia in 2002, which I encourage you to do, go to the USA Today article here.

December 01, 2007

Putin vs. Kasparov, Hobbes vs. Locke

"There are, at the present time, two great nations in the world which seem to tend towards the same end, although they started from different points: I allude to the Russians and the Americans.... The American relies upon personal interest to accomplish his ends, and gives free scope to the unguided exertions and common-sense of the citizens; the Russian centres all the authority of society in a single arm. The principal instrument of the former is freedom; of the latter servitude."
             (Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Book One, 1835, Chapter 18)

During the some 40 plus years of the Cold War almost the entire inhabitable world seemed caught up in the seemingly unending, relentless struggle between de Tocqueville's "two great nations," between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the long struggle between the communism and totalitarianism of the one and the capitalism and democracy of the other.

Then two things happened to bring the Cold War to an end. First, Mikhail Gorbachev at the Twenty-Seventh Party Congress in 1986 inaugurated Perestroika, or economic structuring, this being a fundamental reform of Soviet totalitarian rule from within.

Two years later, in May of 1988, the Soviet Union began the final withdrawal of its troups from Afghanistan, this withdrawal and defeat signaling the rapid break-up of the Soviet Empire that was to follow, beginning with the Fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, and ending with the dissolution of the Soviet Union into its component republics in late 1991.

Then what happened? The West rushed in with their carpet bags filled with democracy and capitalism. The one, democracy didn't take hold. For as we know from William Shakespeare the readiness is all, and the Russian people were not ready for democracy.

The other, capitalism, did triumph, not only in Russia, but throughout the former republics of the now defunct Soviet Union. It was a wild and unruly capitalism, but capitalism it was, and communism was relegated to the dustbin.

The Soviet Union had always possessed a wealth of natural resources. The new, now Russian capitalists, first private grasping individuals, and then the Russian state itself, set about to exploit them, seizing ownership of the resources while paying little or no attention to whatever rule of law had survived the death of the Soviet Union.

All that brings us up to the present moment and to President Putin, a.k.a. Tsar Putin. Russia, under Putin's not yet totalitarian but more and more authoritarian rule, is again becoming a principal player on the world stage, and once again a serious obstacle to America's attempt to export freedom and democracy to the Middle East and elsewhere.

There are even those who speak of a new Cold War, but I don't think this is an accurate description of what is happening. And in fact in most areas, in particular in regard to spending on defense, Russia is no longer a serious rival, if it ever was, to the United States.

Furthermore, in Russia itself, and in spite of Putin's clamp down on democracy, the West in important ways has triumphed. For example, Russians are now able to acquire property. They are free to travel both within and without the country. And for the first time since the end of the second World War there is an abundance of consumer goods available on the shelves.

However, at the very least, there are growing tensions between the new Russia and the West. What is the source of the tensions? What has kept Russia apart from Europe? Why didn't the new Russia simply join, say, the European Union? What is it that still seems to come between Russia and the West?

I think what is going on in Russia is a revival of the old struggle between Hobbes and Locke, between the merits of authoritarian rule, such as that of a king or tsar, and another kind of rule by democratically elected representatives, such as that of our Congress and President, although I'm not sure that Putin has read either Hobbes or Locke, or would even describe the situation he has faced in this manner.

But this difference is still a valid one. And in fact Hobbes is still triumphant in many if not most countries of the world. The two largest countries, China and India, well represent the two positions. And it's interesting that we would not think of imposing democracy on the one, nor authoritarianism on the other, if indeed we could. We can't.

Putin probably hasn't read Hobbes, and there's probably even less chance that he has read Locke from whom our own Declaration of Independence (life, liberty, and, not the pursuit of happiness, but property) was principally derived. But the strength of Putin's position clearly depends on its similarity to the position of Thomas Hobbes.

In his own lifetime Hobbes witnessed the beheading of a King, the English Civil War, and the Protestant Revolution. He understandably concluded that only a strong state under a strong, authoritarian ruler could prevent anarchy and provide security.

Just today in a Wall Street Journal interview Mikhail Gorbachev said of Putin that "he had somehow managed to put together a country that was falling apart." And that's probably the very best that can be said about the man.

Putin must have known disorder. He witnessed the final years of the Soviet Union, and he probably suffered through the chaotic first years of Boris Yeltsin and the new Russia.

Then, and given his own totalitarian upbringing as a member of the KGB, he must have readily concluded, probably during the Yeltsin years of non-rule, that the Russian people needed security and order, not to mention income and jobs, benefits that could come from a strong ruler, much more than they needed freedom and democracy from Europe or the United States. And that makes him, whether he knew it or not, a disciple of Hobbes.

The leaders of the Western world, on the other hand, are disciples of John Locke, even while admitting along with Winston Churchill, that "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

Those words of Churchill came at the very beginning of the Cold War. At the end of the Cold War, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, we all naively believed that Churchill was shown to be right.

But now, some 16 years after the collapse, we can't be so sure. Hobbes' argument in his Leviathan of 1651 was valid at the time and given the existing or imminent disorder and anarchy in many nations and regions of the world, including Russia, it may still be valid today.

Who would go to the Sudan, to the Congo, or even to Iraq thinking that representative democracy was more important than a strong and capable authoritarian government? We did of course, and look what happened.

So the good that can be said about Putin can be summed up by saying that he has recognized that the Russian people want and need a strong ruler. He is certainly trying to provide one. If he steps on a lot of toes, and worse, crushes liberal minded individuals and reform minded and rebellious groups, as in Chechnya, that's just the cost of civil order in Russia today.

Last week the Hobbes-Locke duality was beautiful illustrated by the "match" between the former world champion chess player, Gary Kasparov, and Putin. Kasparov lost of course and spent five days behind bars.

Putin didn't offer to take Kasparov on in a game of chess. That being just one more piece of evidence that Putin, no matter what else he may be, is not a great man.

Putin did win their "political" match-up, "hands down," and made his
point that in a Russia still highly susceptible to coming apart at the
seams not even a tiny rebellion, such as that of the liberal reformer,
Gary Kasparov, could be tolerated. And he may be right.