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Quotations

  • 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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Current Affairs

November 30, 2007

Analysis of the Y chromosome

At Annapolis this week President Bush spoke with Palestinian President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert of Israel. But, alas! he had little or nothing to say about the sticky issues that for nearly 50 years have kept the two sides from reaching a two state solution, that which everyone agrees is the only solution.

Indeed, Olmert, now back in Israel, and as a follow-up to Annapolis, has been telling his countrymen that Israel's very survival as a viable state depends on there also being a viable Palestinian state. I wonder if he wonders why Bush didn't have more to say about all this. I do.

Everyone knows what a peace agreement depends upon. For one, the Palestinian refugees must be permitted to return, although most likely to Palestine, and not to Israel proper. Then Jerusalem must become the capital of both peoples. Finally, Israel must surrender Israeli land to the Palestinians as compensation for any Israeli settlements in the West Bank that are allowed to survive.

During the conference President Bush was eerily silent in regard to all three, although he did side with the Israelis regarding the refugees not being allowed to return to their homes in Israel. Why didn't he do more? Shouldn't he have pushed Olmert to in turn push his countrymen to do what had to be done? Why didn't he?

In fact, Bush's almost complete silence at the Conference in regard to the concessions the Israelis would have to make, if they would ever have peace, makes one wonder if the Israeli Washington lobby isn't indeed all powerful.

In fact, the Annapolis Conference was hardly necessary. For we heard on day one about the only decision that would be made by the attendees. Olmert and Abbas would agree to resume thepeace talks that had been stalled for the past seven years. And they would pledge that during these talks they would reach an agreement on the creation of a Palestinian state by the end of 2008. They could have announced all that without the trip Annapolis.

Do you believe that what has been pledged will happen? I don't. And in any case, why wait a year? Everyone knows what has to be done, and it could be done today.

What does keep the two state settlement from happening? The answer is two-fold, history and religion, not enough of the one, and too much of the other. A history going back only a few thousand years, and two all powerful, totalitarian religions, curtailing the freedom of action of these peoples in the present.

Both are huge obstacles in the paths of these peoples otherwise highly suited to becoming friends, neighbors, and trading partners, that which they probably were at an earlier time in their pasts.

If in fact they were to go back a bit further into their pasts and obtain additional knowledge of their very similar histories, they would see that they were really one people, and that the so-called differences between them were all historical fabrications, not fundamental to who and what they were and are.

I take as an illustration of what I mean the following passage from an article in the New York Times by Nicholas Wade,
Scientists Rough Out Humanity's 50,000-Year-Old Story. 

"Analysis of the Y chromosome has already yielded interesting results. Dr. Ariella Oppenheim of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem said she had found considerable similarity between Jews and Israeli and Palestinian Arabs, as if the Y chromosomes of both groups had been drawn from a common population that began to expand 7,800 years ago."

And this, of course, is not a single isolated example. For we are constantly learning how much we all, not just the Palestinians and Israelis, are one people. Yet there are those among us who don't want to hear this and prefer to go on killing one another, in the name of what? Their recent past? And at the very time when their deep past is telling them to make peace.

November 14, 2007

Principled Positions and Undocumented People

In respect to granting drivers' licenses to illegal immigrants, Eliot Spitzer, the governor of New York, initially took a 'principled position,' something which politicians almost never do. And we know why they don't. For principled positions are either too complicated to be understood by the electorate, or they are minority positions and hence without much support among the electorate, or they are too apt themselves to arouse no less principled opposition positions. Immediate and overwhelming opposition to Mr. Spitzer's proposal to grant drivers' licenses to illegal immigrants would come from all three.

The governor had unveiled his position in September, when he announced that the New York Department of Motor Vehicles would begin issuing drivers' licenses without regard to immigration status. At the time he said he wanted to bring illegal immigrants 'out of the shadows.' He later described this as a "principle position."

Then during a recent democratic presidential candidate debate Hillary Clinton was asked what she thought of the governor's initiative. She was pushed, unreasonably I think, by Tim Russert ("Do you support the governor's plan?") to answer yes or no. She said she understood the governor's position, and that given the fact of some 3 million illegal immigrants in New York alone, she understood why it made sense to the governor (and to her?) to have them driving legally.

I find myself agreeing with Hillary, that, given the failure of Congress to take up and pass an immigration reform measure, the governor's position is not unreasonable, and in fact certainly understandable. Hillary by seeming to take the governor's side was almost onto a principled position of her own. Given the opposition that she must have known was out there what she said in support of the governor almost showed some courage.  Did we get a glimpse thereby of what Hillary could be when not overly attentive to the moods and swings of the electorate?

Today the governor's own initiative fell apart. Evidently the opposition to his plan, led by Lou Dobbs et al., was overwhelming. Why! a driver's license is a privilege! Extending privileges to illegal immigrants, no way!

People seem to forget that our country was founded and settled by "illegal immigrants,"and that for hundreds of years we erected no barriers to those who gave up all to come here. The immigrants to our shores have always been this country's greatest strength. Why is it any different now? Why do we need to keep them out?

Today also Hillary took back the little courage she almost showed at the candidates' debate. In her own words to the press:

"I support Governor Spitzer's decision today to withdraw his proposal. As president, I will not support driver's licenses for undocumented people and will press for comprehensive immigration reform that deals with all of the issues around illegal immigration including border security and fixing our broken system."

Other than to call them "undocumented people" no word in her words about the immigrants themselves. Have you ever met one of these "undocumented people?" I have, and do you know what, they're people, no different from you and me.

I take that back. They are different. They're younger, and they still believe in the American dream. They still believe that here in America they can make something of themselves, contributing to the strength and prosperity of the country while doing so. This really wasn't about drivers' licenses.

September 11, 2007

Bush, Sarkozy, and a Newly Belligerent Russia

On August 27 of this year Nicholas Sarkozy, France's new president, delivered a major speech outlining his views on international relations. In particular he had important observations to make regarding America's probably biggest international headache not directly related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that of Russia's new found belligerency, something which has been clearly taking shape on the international scene since Putin replaced Yeltsin as Russia's president on December 31, 1999.

It is readily apparent that Putin's and Russia's positions regarding both Iran and Kosovo stand in direct opposition to those of the United States. Yet up until now there has been no meaningful response on the part of President Bush to Putin's anti-Americanism. Putin is allowed to continue merrily on his way, creating a KGB led power center to the East of Europe oblivious to the interests of the United States.

Most of all our President refuses to see President Putin for what he really is, still continues to disregard the Russian President's words and actions, and instead goes on "looking into Putin's eyes and seeing his soul," most recently while boating with Putin at Bush senior's Kennebunkport home in Maine.

In regard to both Iran's nuclear ambitions and Kosovo's fledgling independence President Bush continues to rely on the Security Council for blocking the ambitions of the one and facilitating the realization of the other. However in both instances this is not happening and instead Bush's friend Putin has made it abundantly clear that Russia will not permit meaningful U.N. sanctions being applied to Iran nor will it abandon its long term support for its linguistic cousin and almost neighbor, Serbia, by getting behind a Bush supported U.N. resolution in favor of independence for Kosovo.

Enter Nicholas Sarkozy, the new president of France. Does he get it in regard to the true motivations and interests of Russia? I think he does. I know that Bush doesn't.

What does Sarkozy have to say about the Russia of Putin? And what is Sarkozy's advice regarding Iran's nuclear ambitions, and Kosovo's independence?

Here I cite the relevant passages from Sarkozy's August 27th. talk. First of all, he has this to say about Russia:

"La Russie impose son retour sur la scène mondiale en jouant avec une certaine brutalité de ses atouts, notamment pétroliers et gaziers, alors que le monde, l'Europe en particulier, espèrent d'elle une contribution importante et positive au règlement des problèmes de notre temps que son statut retrouvé justifie."

The single phrase "une certaine brutalité de ses atouts" says it well. For Sarkozy there is "no looking into the eyes of the man and seeing his soul." Sarkozy's message is understated but nevertheless clear. And when one thinks of the Russia of Putin "brutalité" does seem the right word. Think of Chechnya, of the assassination of the Russian journalist, Anna Politkovskaya. It puts Putin on notice that France will be looking for significant positive changes in Russia's relations to Europe and the world.

Sarkozy's words in regard to Iran's nuclear ambitions are no less noteworthy. Here is  what he says about what he calls the world's fourth major crisis (the first three being Islam's confrontation with the West, how to integrate into the world order the emerging giants of China, India, and Brazil, and how to meet the now global risks to climate and health and the exploding worldwide demand for energy):

"Quatrième crise, au confluent des trois autres  : l'Iran. La France maintient avec ses dirigeants un dialogue sans complaisance, qui s'est avéré utile en plusieurs occasions. Elle a pris l'initiative, avec l'Allemagne et le Royaume-Uni, d'une négociation où l'Europe joue un rôle central, rejointe par les Etats-Unis, la Russie et la Chine. Les paramètres en sont connus ; je n'y reviens pas, sinon pour réaffirmer qu'un Iran doté de l'arme nucléaire est pour moi inacceptable, et souligner l'entière détermination de la France dans la démarche actuelle alliant sanctions croissantes mais aussi ouverture si l'Iran fait le choix de respecter ses obligations."

In particular, "un Iran doté de l'arme nucléaire est pour [Sarkozy] inacceptable." He's putting the Mullahs on notice. He doesn't say unacceptable to the U.N. Security Council, but that Iran's nuclear armaments would be unacceptable to the country France.

The he goes on to say: "Cette démarche [sanctions, but that won't be limited to the actions of the Security Council] est la seule qui puisse nous permettre d'échapper à une alternative catastrophique  : la bombe iranienne ou le bombardement de l'Iran. Cette quatrième crise est sans doute la plus grave qui pèse aujourd'hui sur l'ordre international."

Particularly remarkable is his, "la bombe iranienne ou le bombardement de l'Iran." This is what Bush must be thinking but not daring to say, given his disastrous performance up until now in Iraq.

"Le peuple iranien [Sarkozy concludes his remarks on Iran] qui est un grand peuple et mérite le respect, n'aspire ni à l'isolement, ni à la confrontation. La France n'épargnera aucun effort pour convaincre l'Iran qu'il aurait beaucoup à gagner en s'engageant dans une négociation sérieuse avec les Européens, les Américains, les Chinois et les Russes."

Sarkozy's remarks in regard to Kosovo are not directed at Putin's Russia. Evidently he still believes that Europe (he doesn't mention the Security Council) will be able to solve this crisis, and that Russia will consequently not have a part to play.

"Le Kosovo offre une autre illustration de cette complémentarité puisque l'Union et l'OTAN, sous mandat de l'ONU, y coopèrent étroitement. Cette coopération revêtira une importance cruciale au cours des prochains mois. A l'initiative de la France, le Groupe de Contact poursuit ses efforts pour renouer le dialogue entre Serbes et Kosovars."

Finally, Sarkozy leaves Jaques Chirac far behind and moves clearly and happily toward a renewal of ties with America. Although this step doesn't come at the most auspicious time, given that our country still has an incompetent man and bungling President at the helm, Sarkozy's words do promise better relations between our two countries in the future.

"Je suis de ceux qui pensent que l'amitié entre les Etats-Unis et la France est aussi importante aujourd'hui qu'elle l'a été au cours des deux siècles passés. Alliés ne veut pas dire alignés et je me sens parfaitement libre d'exprimer nos accords comme nos désaccords, sans complaisance ni tabou."

A final footnote to the above. In today's International Herald Tribune John Vinocur makes it clear just how much Putin by his words and actions is bent on undermining the strength of America's position in the world. And that while Sarkozy understands this Bush seems to not want to admit it, and is, by his omission, allowing Russia a free ride in its new found belligerence, a belligerence that is fueled by an anti-Americanism recalling that of Soviet Union in years past. It was Vinocur's piece that got me thinking about Sarkozy and Russia and all the rest.

September 10, 2007

the Petraeus Strategy

In an op ed piece in today's Wall Street Journal Senators McCain and Lieberman    have this to say:

"The recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq was unequivocal on this point: 'Changing the mission of Coalition forces from a primarily counterinsurgency and stabilization role' -- the Petraeus strategy -- 'to a primary combat support role for Iraqi forces and counterterrorist operations" -- which most congressional Democrats have been pressing for -- "would erode security gains achieved thus far.'"

Am I alone in not having a clue as to the difference between the Petraeus strategy and that of the congressional Democrats?

June 27, 2007

The New Confederacy

You would think, wouldn’t you, I would, that these four U.S. Senators, three Republicans and one Democrat, all from the South, and all from the (former) Confederacy, that they would not be leading the charge against the 11 million illegal immigrants, that we are told are currently in the country. (One wonders how they were counted? Do you know? Send me an email and let me know.)

Perhaps putting people down is something these Senators have inherited from their slave owning ancestors? The number of illegals happens to be three times that of the slaves in the South at the start of the War Between the States. Perhaps the illegals represent for these Senators a serious threat, as the freed slaves in earlier times, to their (our) way of life?

In any case these Southern Senators are leading the charge against the illegals, in particular, as I read in today’s N Y Times, by their diabolical anti-immigrant amendments to the Immigration Bill currently being debated in the Senate.

Republican Senator from Missouri Christopher Bond’s amendment would have barred illegal immigrants from eventual citizenship. Not too different from their predecessor’s efforts to bar freed Blacks (and women) from voting.  People you’re afraid of, people you don’t understand, you keep them out.

Republican Senator from Texas Kay Bailey Hutchison’s amendment would have required that illegal immigrants return to their home countries before they could obtain even temporary legal status. Diabolical is the right word for that one.

A bit more palatable is the amendment of Senator Jim Webb, Democrat from Virginia. This would permit only those immigrants who have been in the country at least four years to be eligible for eventual legal status. What does that mean? Four years of illegality is better than just one year or two?

Delaying tactics were the weapon of choice of yet another of the Southern critics of the Immigration Bill. Republican Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina insisted on a full reading on the Senate floor of all 27 amendments. After about one hour of this the Senators who were present revolted and brought the reading to an end, promising hard copies of the amendments to all for homework that night.

I don’t know whether Republican Senator from Alabama, Jeff Sessions, was also the author of an anti-immigrant amendment, but this man from the Deep South announced that he “continued to be “flabbergasted and amazed” that people think the bill (which would put the illegals on a track to citizenship) would work. Instead, he said, it would bring a new flood of illegal immigrants.

There are those among us who would like nothing better than a new flood (illegal because that’s the only way they can get here) of immigrants. It would mean that our country is still the destination of choice for millions of the dispossessed throughout the world.

And that’s good, especially when there are so many who speak bad of our country. It’s a good thing, both for those who want to come here, and for us who are already here and have so much to gain from those coming.

The illegality of the eleven million is not what is most important. What is important is that these people have come here at great risk to themselves, and for the most part by doing so have shown admirable qualities, strength and courage among others. Can our country ever have too many of these kinds of people?

What is important is that the “illegals” have come here to work and thereby help themselves, their families, and the country, America, that, unlike the government, does need them and does have a place for them.

I’ve rarely had a good word to say about our President. His conduct of the Iraq War ought to lay him open to impeachment proceedings. But immigration is one thing he got right. Why is that so?

Well we learn why from an article in the NYTimes of last week: We learn that, “the roots of Mr. Bush’s passion [to help the illegals obtain citizenship] lie in Midland, Texas, now heavily Hispanic, the city where Mr. Bush spent much of his childhood and to which he returned as a young adult after spending his high school and college years [at Andover and Yale].”

Mr. Bust, the reporter says, "developed a particular empathy for the new Mexican immigrants who worked hard on farms, in oil fields and in people’s homes and went on to raise children who built businesses and raised families of their own, without the advantages he had as the scion of a wealthy New England family.”

This is the sort of wisdom that one acquires from living and working closely with all kinds of people, with people clearly unlike oneself. We used to learn this in the public schools when the economic, ethnic, and racial separations were not so pronounced; perhaps there was a period like this just after WWII. Perhaps we learned it best of all when we had the military draft, and the average patrol represented all of America.

George Bush learned it by living and working among a poor, Latino population in Midland, Texas, both as a boy and as an oilman. Unfortunately that now seems to be all that he learned. Would that fellow Texan Kay Bailey Hutchinson, and fellow Southerners, Christopher Bond, Jim Webb, Jim DeMint and Jeff Sessions had also learned it. If so the U. S. Senate might now be doing the right thing.

June 11, 2007

Arming the Enemy

Today in the New York Times we read that, “Americans officers acknowledge that providing weapons to breakaway rebel groups is not new in counterinsurgency warfare, and that in places where it has been tried before, including the French colonial war in Algeria, the British-led fight against insurgents in Malaya in the early 1950s, and in Vietnam, the effort often backfired, with weapons given to the rebels being turned against the forces providing them. Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of the Third Infantry Division and leader of an American task force fighting in a wide area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers immediately south of Baghdad, said at a briefing for reporters on Sunday that no American support would be given to any Sunni group that had attacked Americans. If the Americans negotiating with Sunni groups in his area had ‘specific information’ that the group or any of its members had killed Americans, he said, ‘The negotiation is going to go like this: You’re under arrest, and you’re going with me. I’m not going to go out and negotiate with folks who have American blood on their hands.’”

Incredible? Yes! With all we know about the Iraq war, even we who live far from the war zone, in Marblehead, Massachusetts, we would call it the height of folly to arm the Sunni insurgents. Aren’t these insurgents the very same Baathist followers of Saddam who, when allied with the Al Qaeda jihadists, have been killing, maiming and kidnapping Americans during the four years since the President’s announcement of “Mission Accomplished” while on the deck of the Battleship, the USS Abraham Lincoln?

Incredible? Yes! But now we learn that there are American officers, Generals, who are not in Marblehead but are over there on the ground in Iraq, and who therefore certainly know what we know plus a lot more about the war, and about the Sunni insurgents; there are American generals who are ready to arm the Baathists in support of our battle with Al Qaeda.

Such a strategy can only spring from the desperation of our Armed Forces in Iraq, and from the Generals’ great career need to make the “Surge” work. For how else could they believe themselves capable of judging between the good insurgents and the bad, between those who have killed Americans and those who haven’t?

General Lynch assures us that he's "not going to go out and negotiate with folks who have American blood on their hands.” How can the American officer ever be sure that the “folks,” as he calls them, don’t have American blood on their hands?

If someone had ever told me that this was going to happen, that we would finish by arming the Sunni insurgents, the remnants of Saddam's armed forces, I would never have believed it. And now it’s happening.

We’ve known for a long time that we have lost our way in Iraq. This latest action on our part is just more confirmation of that fact. Our deluded President goes on talking about bringing freedom and democracy to people who don’t want it enough to fight for it themselves, in fact to people who leave the fighting almost entirely to us. What country was ever rebuilt from without?

And no less incredible our Congress goes along with the President, funding the President's war without time restraints. Our soldiers continue to die on a battlefield when the presence of the enemy is only recognized after a bomb explodes, never before when the enemy might have been stopped and the explosive device defused.

May 27, 2007

What Have We Done

I read this in today’s NYTimes:

“Many militias and terrorist groups are just waiting for the Americans to leave,” said Salim Abdullah, the spokesman for the Iraqi Accordance Front,... "This does not mean the presence of American troops in Baghdad is our favorite option,” he said. “People in the street say the United States is part of the chaos here and they could have made it better and safer. Still, we need America to make the country more stable and not leave Iraq in the trouble, which they, themselves, have caused.”

It’s Salim’s last sentence that’s the shocker, when he says, apparently in all seriousness:   “we need America to make the country more stable and not leave Iraq in the trouble, which they, [the Americans] themselves, have caused.”

In other words we have created the trouble and now we have to stay to eliminate the trouble we have created. How do we do that? Maybe a bad marriage of our own creation can be made better by our staying, but the country, Iraq, will be better by our staying? We're in our fourth year of believing this with a total absence of evidence for that belief. Our being there creates the trouble. Our continuing to be there will somehow do away with the trouble? I don’t think so.

Unbelievable, isn’t it, first Vietnam, and now Iraq. We have shot ourselves in both feet, and at this time we can hardly walk. In both instances we have created situations for which there is no solution other than our walking away (if our feet would allow it) and thereby making a bad situation, of our creation, even worse. Unbelievable that we have done this to ourselves. What horrible chain of reasoning adopted by our leaders enabled this to happen?

Then further on in the same article I read this:

“The conditions that need to be achieved before a major troop reduction, General Odierno said, are a reduction in insurgent and militia attacks and an improved ability by Iraqi security forces to protect noncombatants.”

Now haven’t we heard this before, probably each year, since the President’s “Mission Accomplished” speech on the USS Abraham Lincoln, in May of 2003? What has led General Odierno to believe that anything we have done during the now four years since the President’s ill-chosen words on the Carrier deck has led to anything but an increase in insurgent attacks? What has led the General to believe that the ability of the Iraqi security forces to protect noncombatants is improving? Perhaps he is new to Iraq?

He must be, for I see no other explanation for the continual folly of his and others' pronouncements, than the fact that our military personnel is constantly changing and that with the arrival of each new contingent in Iraq comes the belief that with our help the security conditions can be improved and the responsibility for the country’s security can eventually be placed in Iraqi hands.

But those with the long view, many journalists among others, realize that with the passage of each year the only significant changes taking place in Iraq are in the numbers of the dead and wounded and the numbers of those fleeing the country. What have we done?

May 21, 2007

Let's not turn them away.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in response to the recent compromise deal reached by the U.S. Senate on immigration made this statement: "I strongly oppose today's [immigration] bill.... Any legislation that allows illegal immigrants to stay in the country indefinitely, as the new 'Z-Visa' does, is a form of amnesty. That is unfair to the millions of people who have applied to legally immigrate to the U.S."

Romney, and the others who speak as he does, are dead wrong. Immigrants, all immigrants, are what this country is all about. Our country's present strength and high standard of living stem in large part from the successive waves of immigrants, including the hundreds of thousands of black Africans who came here, "€œlegally?"€ in the 17th. and 18th centuries.

Immigrants have always been a major factor in our country's cultural and economic growth and resulting economic and cultural prosperity. And they still are. If you have any doubts about this you need only go to Silicon Valley and confirm that the majority of the technology companies there, in no small part the drivers of our economy, are headed by Chinese and Indian immigrants.

OK, you may respond. But Romney is only talking about illegal immigrants. I would answer that illegal immigrants may be the very best kind. For they, unlike someone'€™s mother-in-law, or half brother or second cousin, who all had legal access to the country, who were "€œentitled" under the old system, the "illegals" are prepared to pay any price just to get here. Don'€™t we want people like that? Shouldn't we welcome them? And shouldn'€™t we help them to help themselves become Americans like ourselves?

Was what we have meant to be just for ourselves? I don't think so.

It is clearly evident that once here the so-called illegals are especially dedicated to the task of making a go of it, and much more so, I believe, than the large numbers of those who are already here and have given up on their chances.

For no one can doubt the immigrants' desire to improve their lives. If our own poor, of which we are told there are now tens of millions, had this same desire we might see more of them lifting themselves out of poverty.

Because we have placed so many obstacles to their coming here the illegals have had to have shown what they are made of, and they have shown toughness and courage, resourcefulness and entrepreneurship, all qualities that we want to see in our new citizens. Romney and others of like mind would tell these people that we don'€™t want them? We do want them.

Immigrants, and perhaps especially the illegals, whose time here is threatened by demagogues in public offices, want their children to do well in school and are prepared to make whatever sacrifices will be necessary to that end. If you have any doubts about this look at the life stories of the many immigrant children who were first or nearly first in their high school graduating classes last year, in Boston where I live, but certainly in many other cities with large immigrant school populations as well.

These people, these so-called illegals, are a precious resource, and we would turn them away? Those who want to come here, whatever the cost, may very well be the  single most important "natural" resource we possess.

Unlike the Governor I'€™m encouraged by the passage of the Senate bill. It's a start, although it makes too many concessions to the forces of darkness (read Harry Reid's reservations). The immigrants, and especially the large numbers of them coming from East and South East Asia, from Central and South America, and across the border from Mexico, bring light along with them (in this regard see David Brooks' op ed piece).

And whatever happened to:

  "Give me your tired, your poor,
  Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
  The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
  Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
  I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

                                         from The New Colossus
                                                  by Emma Lazarus

May 10, 2007

Health Care and Education

Atul Gawande in an op ed piece in today’s NYTimes says that the “The American health insurance system is a slow-creeping ruin, damaging people and increasingly the employers that hire us.” There are many who say something quite similar about the American system of public school education, perhaps not a “slow-creeping ruin,” but, for too many young people just starting out in life, clearly a failure.

The irony is that no two national issues are more on the minds of our politicians than education and health care. Irony because, in spite of constant attention, or at least lip service, given to both, the inadequacies of both are no less present today than they were over a generation ago when all the talk began.

Perhaps no two issues, when it comes to judging the worth of our American civilization, are more important. How are people cared for when they are sick (and when they are well)? And how do the young acquire the requisite skills and knowledge they will need to find a job and earn a living wage? When there are large numbers of Americans who are left out in one or both respects this negatively impacts the lives of us all.

Of the two clearly health care takes up a much larger slice of our economy, this year that slice being some 2 trillion plus dollars or 16% of our 13 trillion dollar gross national product. Educational expenditures in the United States are less than half that amount. Expenditures on K-12 education are about one half of that, or about 4% of GDP.

The spending difference stems from the fact that the need for health care is obviously no less with us when we are old than when we are young, health care and health maintenance becoming more and more important as we age. Education, on the other hand, is mostly with us when we are young, in the first quarter of our lives, becoming (alas!) less and less important as we age.

And interesting thought experiment would be to consider the result if the expenditures were reversed. It may be that the very best health maintenance program would be more education and not more hospital visits.

The present 4 to 1 ratio between health and education expenditures is at present the way things are not necessarily the way things should be. Our schools in their mission statements clearly articulate the importance of life long learning for their graduates, but our society does little or nothing to encourage and make such learning a reality. As a  result most people see their learning as being limited to their years in school and ending for the most part with the end of school. Again, alas!

Perhaps the greatest flaw in our educational system, is the fact that we think of education primarily as schooling, and confine it to the first quarter of our lives. Whereas this is the time when school and classroom learning are probably least effective. This is the time when children, who are learning as they breathe, all the time, and probably learn much more out of school than within the school and classroom walls.

Those of us who have taught both children and adults know how much more motivated and attentive than the children are the adults in our classes, how much more they enjoy and profit from the lesson.

I believe that it is by relegating education, a.k.a. schooling, to the early years that we do the most harm, for in so doing we try to pack into those years everything a child of Rousseau, Jefferson, Dewey and Einstein, among many others, needs to know.

And it doesn’t work. That's much too much. And the readiness is by and large not there. We are not turning out those who are well versed in words and numbers, let alone capable of assuming responsible and productive roles in society.

You don't believe me? You need only to speak with the deans and professors in our community colleges, with all those who do the hiring, with the military recruiters, with the police departments in our large cities, and others such, to know it doesn't work. Too many of the kids who begin high school don’t finish. Too many of the kids who finish high school don’t finish college. Too many kids who have spent as many as 13 years in school end up by having very little to show for it.*

What to do? I think the answer is clear. Make schooling, or rather education, like health care, make it life long. But how? First of all we can stop trying to put everything into the first 13 years. And we can also take more into account what the kids are really learning as they grow up, what's present, and a big part of their lives during their school years.

We should no longer pretend that children's learning stems mostly from what we do, or try to do, with or to them in the school and classroom. For if you've been close to young children you will know that it doesn't. Rather than "what did you do in school today," ask, "what did you do today?" That way you might get closer to where they are.

Most of all we can stop trying to transform children into the kind of thinking and responsible and caring and imaginative and entrepreneurial etc. adults that we would like them to me (the kind of adults we'd like to be ourselves). And instead we could make sure that they pick up a few useful skills at the very beginning of their journey, a journey that for the most part takes place, even when young and materially dependent on us, outside of our reach and ken.

Our much more modest goals during the school years should be once again reading, writing, and arithmetic. And our greatest challenge should still be to get them to believe that these skills are important for them to possess.

Finally, in the larger society out there, we should talk less about school, and more about education, and we should provide more opportunities for education. We should talk as if education were much more something that began following the completion of the first 13 years of schooling, than something that ended at that moment in time. For education, no less than health care, ought to be with us throughout the length of our lives.

* See Tough Choices, Tough Times on the number of kids who don't finish high school and college.

February 19, 2007

The enemy's thinking

We read about this attack in today's New York Times:

"The suicide bombers who attacked today timed their assault to inflict maximum damage, witnesses said. Shortly before dawn, two of them drove their vehicles into the outer perimeter of the station and detonated them, tearing a huge hole in the walls. Then, as American soldiers gathered at the breach to assess the damage, a third bomber drove his car up and detonated it."

It's pretty clear the enemy is thinking. It's not so clear we are.