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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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Political Science

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 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.

May 31, 2007

Liberal, Conservative. Two sides of the same coin.

In his op ed piece in today’s Washington Post George Will would make the case that the basis of today’s dominant political argument lies in the tension existing between the poles (and goals) of freedom and equality — conservatives being more allied with freedom, liberals with equality, or at least equality of opportunity if not outcomes.

Would that this were so! That a genuine and mature difference of political opinion animated the conflict between those on either side, left or right, of the center.

What is more probably the case is this: Those who have most to gain by being allowed greater independence and greater freedom of action will be on the right. Those who have most to gain by a greater dependence on government actions and programs for their own livelihood and security will be on the left.

In other words for most people the ages old and still fascinating argument between freedom and equality is now, and perhaps always was, only “livelihood deep.” The lottery winner who may very well have been a passionate government employee the day before will the day after become a passionate promoter of the free market. The fallen owner of a failed business, or the president of a savings and loan association, undone by his own policy of sub-prime loans, will both become zealous takers of government bailouts.

It may very well be true as Will says that the most powerful group of liberals are the public employees, those whose livelihood comes directly from the government. Accordingly, if we follow this same reasoning, the most powerful single group of conservatives would be those most removed from government entitlements, in particular entrepreneurs and the owners of small businesses.

But from saying that it’s a far cry to saying that the ones are passionate supporters of equality and the others of freedom. The arguments that thinkers like George Will make, for freedom on the one side and equality on the other, are not what drives the union members nor the business owners to support respectively, say, the liberal and conservative candidates. Again, their being on the side of one or the other follows much more from whence comes their livelihood.

Reason, that is, reasonable arguments on one side or the other, has never been what drives most men, although thinkers (and I too) would like this to be so. That it’s not so is not a secret. Not a generation has passed by that one writer or another has not bewailed the fact that most men’s actions do not spring from a well considered and well reasoned analysis of the situation.

Al Gore’s recent book, Assault on Reason, reveals the superficiality of his own thinking when he writes as if he had made an important discovery, this being the superficiality and unreasonableness of our leaders in Washington. Would that Al were right and that these times were exceptional and that we had only to return to a prior time or golden age in our history when our leaders’ actions and words were based on a well reasoned and persuasive analysis of the situation.

George Will himself, of course, is on the side of freedom. He is one of those who does not look to government for the solution. However, I think he overstates the case, in this case, his case against liberals. “Liberalism,” he says, “increasingly seeks to deliver equality in the form of equal dependence of more and more people for more and more things on government.”

The duality that Will highlights, that of freedom vs. equality, conservative vs. liberal, is neat and memorable, and continues to lend itself to endless although mostly sophomoric discussion. But a kinder and gentler view of the difference between liberal and conservative thought, and a more believable and just view of liberalism than that of Will, would be the following.

First of all freedom and equality concerns are not what most separates liberals and conservatives (assuming that true liberals and true conservatives do in fact exist). Liberals that I have known, Arthur Schlesinger and John Kenneth Galbraith, for example, would defend freedom no less than equality, and conservatives, William Buckley and George Will himself, would certainly place themselves very much in the camp of equality in regard to many current issues.

What separates these men is far more subtle than George Will’s freedom/equality tension or opposition. What separates them is the degree to which they would restrain, the one, freedom, and the degree to which they would promote the other, equality.

This is a difference of degree only. And in many situations they would probably find themselves defending the same position, such as the civil rights of Blacks and other minorities (making more government necessary), and school choice programs represented by magnet and charter schools (bringing about more freedom).

George Will makes liberals, who in his estimation are mostly looking for government solutions, thereby less admirable, than conservatives who, according to Will, look much more to individuals and individual initiatives for solutions. This is an unfair oversimplification and distortion of what is in fact a fully legitimate opposition between group and individual responsibilities. Both are necessary. Liberal and conservative positions are like all true oppositions two sides of the same coin. That which forces most of us to be in the center.

May 01, 2007

Stop Paying Attention to the Middle East

In a recent article in Prospect Magazine Edward Luttwak has some interesting things to say about the West’s bête noire, or better, black beast, the Middle East. Is he right? If he is why are we presently sinking so much of our wealth and sacrificing so many of our people in that area of the world?

Luttwak would persuade us that the whole world and in particular the United States would benefit if the Middle East were simply ignored, removed from its now nearly 100 year long position on the front burner of the world’s trouble spots.

Here follows a summary of what he has to say. To read Luttwak himself, click Here.

First is the Arab-Israeli conflict. There are those who, like the late King Hussein of Jordan, and now his son, Abdullah, constantly promote a “five minutes to midnight” catastrophism. The King was always warning us that the Arab-Israeli conflict was about to explode, involve the whole world, “unless…”

But of course the explosion never took place. In fact, “the dead from Jewish-Palestinian fighting since 1921 amount to fewer than 100,000—about as many as are killed in a season of conflict in Darfur.” Luttwak says that “strategically, the Arab-Israeli conflict has been almost irrelevant since the end of the cold war.”

Then there is the oil. What has been the impact of the Arab-Israeli conflict and of the Middle East conflicts in general on oil prices? Only in 1973, following the Yom Kippur/Ramadan War, was the impact even felt when the Saudis declared embargoes and cut production, but that was the first and only time the “oil weapon" was wielded.

“For decades now,”Luttwak writes, “the largest Arab oil producers have publicly foresworn any linkage between politics and pricing, and an embargo would be a disaster for their oil-revenue dependent economies.”

Furthermore, he says, “the relationship between turmoil in the middle east and oil prices is far from straightforward. During the period, 1981-1999, when Iran and Iraq fought an eight-year war within view of oil and gas installations, when the Gulf war came and went, when the first Palestinian intifadah raged—oil prices, adjusted for inflation, actually fell.”

Today global dependence on middle eastern oil is declining, that region producing 30% of the world’s crude oil supply at the present time as compared to almost 40 per cent in 1974-75. In 2005 17 per cent of American oil imports came from the Gulf, compared to 28 per cent in 1975.

Even if the Israelis and Palestinians could settle their differences,”it would do little or nothing to calm the other conflicts in the middle east from Algeria to Iraq, or to stop Muslim-Hindu violence in Kashmir, Muslim-Christian violence in Indonesia and the Philippines, Muslim-Buddhist violence in Thailand, Muslim-animist violence in Sudan, Muslim-Igbo violence in Nigeria, Muslim-Muscovite violence in Chechnya, or the different varieties of inter-Muslim violence between traditionalists and Islamists, and between Sunnis and Shia,” let alone push the Islamists to abandon their particularly severe hostility towards the West.

Just as mistaken as the importance given the Arab-Israeli conflict is what Luttwak calls the “Mussolini syndrome.” Serious people, including British and French military leaders, accepted on their face Mussolini's claims to great power status because “they believed that he had serious armed forces at his command”….only to later discover that “his forces quickly crumbled in combat,” and that “it could not be otherwise, because most Italian soldiers were unwilling conscripts from the one-mule peasantry of the south or the almost equally miserable sharecropping villages of the north.”

The same mistaken Mussolini syndrome is now applied by the so-called middle east experts to the countries of the Middle East. “They persistently attribute real military strength to backward societies whose populations can sustain excellent insurgencies but not modern military forces.”

First of all in the 1960s there was the supposed strength of Nasser’s military. The strength, of course, wasn’t there as the war of 1973 demonstrated.

Then in 1990 it was the turn of Iraq to be hugely overestimated as a military power. Whereas it took the allies just two weeks of precision bombing to paralyse Saddam's entire war machine, so that it scarcely tried to resist the allies’ ground offensive when it did come. Saddam's army was the usual middle eastern façade without fighting substance.

Now it’s in Iran’s turn to be subject to the Mussolini syndrome. For example we are given awed descriptions of the Pasdaran revolutionary guards, those same guards who fought only one war, against Iraq, and lost. Now we are warned by the experts that Iran, if thwarted in its nuclear intentions by the West will unleash a devastating reign of terror on us all.

But 30 years of “death to American” has produced little in the way of international terrorism. As for the claim that the Iranians are united in their pursuit of a nuclear bomb, or in anything else, the truth is that of “Iran's population of 70m or so, 51 per cent are ethnically Persian, 24 per cent are Turks, with other minorities comprising the remaining quarter. Many of Iran's 16-17m Turks are in revolt against Persian cultural imperialism; its 5-6m Kurds have started a serious insurgency; the Arab minority detonates bombs in Ahvaz; and Baluch tribesmen attack gendarmes and revolutionary guards.”

After the Arab-Israeli conflict, the oil, and the Mussolini syndrome, perhaps the greatest error repeated by middle east experts of all persuasions, by Arabophiles and Arabophobes alike, is “the very odd belief that these ancient nations are highly malleable.” Whereas “it is not hard to defeat Arab armies, it is mostly useless.” For although force can destroy dangerous weapons "it cannot bring about desired behavioral changes.”

The experts also make the opposite mistake. They keep arguing that if only this or that concession were made, if only their "soft" policies were followed through to the end and respect shown, real behavioral changes would result. Hostility would cease and a warm Mediterranean amity would emerge.

But the real condition of these lands and peoples is something else. Their scientific and technological and cultural backwardness generates a constantly renewed sense of humiliation and of civilisational defeat. It is this that fully explains the ubiquity of Muslim violence embodying Muslim resistance to policies of the West, be these concessions or the force of men and arms.

“The operational mistake that middle east experts keep making is the failure to recognise that backward societies must be left alone…. With neither invasions nor friendly engagements, the peoples of the middle east should finally be allowed to have their own history—the one thing that middle east experts of all stripes seem determined to deny them.”

“We devote far too much attention to the middle east, a mostly stagnant region where almost nothing is created in science or the arts—excluding Israel, per capita patent production of countries in the Middle East is one fifth that of sub-Saharan Africa. The people of the middle east (only about five per cent of the world's population) are remarkably unproductive, with a high proportion not in the labour force at all.”

“The middle east was once the world's most advanced region, but these days its biggest industries are extravagant consumption and the venting of resentment….”

“Unless compelled by immediate danger, we should therefore focus on the old and new lands of creation in Europe and America, in India and east Asia—places where hard-working populations are looking ahead instead of dreaming of the past.”

April 24, 2007

What our President Doesn't Know Hurts Him and Us

OK, our president is George Bush, and he’s not a good president. According to some, of whom many historians, he is our worst president ever. I often wonder how he can be still standing after six years of blunders.

Why, for example, haven’t the mortal blows that our country, our people, our service men and women, as well as other countries and other peoples, have received on a daily basis, why haven’t these blows toppled our president and thereby enabled our country to begin again to relate intelligently and positively to other countries and peoples? 

How is it possible that this man, a product of our very best families and schools, doesn’t see today, now into the fifth year of the war, the terrible price we are all made to pay for his mistaken policies and decisions?

Of all the many errors of judgment the man has made during his presidency the very worst one may very well be his apparent belief that countries and peoples can be fundamentally changed, made to order, by superior force. Then can't, of course.

This is a common mistake, although not often producing such disastrous outcomes as we are now experiencing in Iraq. Parents make the mistake with their children, teachers to a lesser extent with their students. Foreign invaders make this mistake with conquered populations. For people will be changed, if at all, not from without, but from within.

When most successful in their conquests the Romans used persuasion, not force. When they did use force it was so overwhelming that no resistance was possible.

There is no inbetween. By superior force alone one can no more control people’s movements, let alone their opinions, minds, and hearts, than one can keep expanding quantities of air or water within containers of fixed dimensions. The containers no matter what they are made of will burst under the increased pressure. And just as air or water, call it wind or tidal wave, will overwhelm everything within its path, so will peoples, determined to be free, overturn all obstacles in their way.

The greatest irony may very well lie in the fact that as Bush says he is bringing “freedom” to peoples who have never known freedom. In this instance the freedom he brings is most of all freedom to oppose him and his plans for the country.

In their new found freedom the Iraqis are not choosing to be like us, no more than children will ever freely choose to be like their parents. The Iraqis are clearly choosing to go their own way. Why doesn’t Bush get out of their way?

Again, why doesn’t Bush see the disastrous results of his mistaken policies? Bush would make people free, but the people only see in this as his attempt to have them under his control. The strongest force in the world is that of people freeing themselves from an unwanted yoke.

The Israelis and the Palestinians are another instance of the same thing. For Israel in regard to its treatment of its conquered peoples is no less mistaken than Bush in regard to Iraq.

Take, for example, the Gaza Strip. It looks well within the power of one of the world’s best armed forces to control. Why it’s less than the size of Philadelphia, and with fewer people.

How many Israeli soldiers would it take to control Philadelphia, say prevent the good citizens of Philadelphia from firing rockets and mortar shells across Delaware Bay into Camden, NJ?

Maybe none at all if the good citizens were not seeking their independence above all else. But if they were, if they were hell bent on being free, what number of soldiers could control some one and one half million people armed to the teeth? Israel continues to act as if to do so were within its power.

As the Romans did to Carthage, or the allies to Dresden during the second world war, one might “bomb” the city of Philadelphia into the Stone Age. But if you didn’t do this, and as long as you allowed some of the people to live, you would not be safe from their suicide or other attacks on your soldiers and other representatives.

Again, there is no inbetween. Why haven’t we learned that after Vietnam and now Iraq? Why hasn’t Israel learned that after more than a half century of conflict with the Palestinians?

Why doesn’t our president see that there is only one way that people change, say Sunnis and Shia giving up their ethnic hatred of one another, Al Qaeda abandoning its Jihad against the US, criminals walking away from criminal behavior, and that’s from within?

We need to reach other peoples who live on this earth and who do not share our beliefs but from within, if we would reach them at all, and not destroy them and us in the process. How do we do that? Perhaps first by putting away our guns.

We in Iraq, and the Israelis in Palestine, have only the choice between completely destroying the enemy (a choice that no one is now making) and talking with that same enemy.

The talk to succeed at all will have to lead to one side giving up positions of power, Israel, for example, giving up controlling rights to Gaza water supplies and air space, and the United States giving up its present military occupation of Iraq.

But that’s not enough. The other side, the Palestinians and the Iraqis, will have to begin turning more and more of their energies to bettering the lives of their peoples and thereby giving less of their energies to Jihad against Israel and the West.

Why doesn’t our president know that this is what has to happen, and that it’s not within his power to make it happen? Withdrawing is really all he can do. Taking away thereby the easy target he now presents to his enemies. Forcing them thus to look more at themselves, and less at him.

February 28, 2007

William Sumner's Forgotten Man

In the Boston Globe of February 26, 2007 we learn that Governor Deval Patrick seeks a $72 million hike in health aid that would boost prevention and add 3 inoculations.

Of course the announcement delighted public health advocates, who have seen the state's prevention programs depleted by budget cuts in recent years.

We also learn that the Governor would spend an additional $13 million to turn about 800 of the state’s 1,500 half-day kindergarten classrooms into full-day programs, and that he would provide about $200 million more for public education next year.

And that in his budget for the 2008 fiscal year, which begins July 1, the state would:

“Increase funding for early intervention programs by $3.8 million, which would provide services of social workers, developmental specialists, and other therapists to young children under 3 to meet the expected 2.5 percent increase in demand next year.

“Increase funding for health promotion and disease prevention by $21.6 million, a 168 percent increase over this fiscal year, according to the governor's office. … The $12 million increase for the state's smoking prevention and cessation program would be the largest since 1999, according to the governor's office.

“Increase spending on the state's universal immunization program by $24.8 million, a 67 percent increase over this fiscal year, to add three new vaccines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.” **

The Governor, were told, has not yet explained how he would pay for all this. We're not surprised. Politicians talk much about what they're going to spend, little about where the new monies will come from.

The state is already facing a $1.3 billion budget deficit. Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, had this to say in response to the Governor’s proposals, "I am surprised, given the tight budget, that they've been able to find this much money." Aren't we all?

The Governor, or course, has nothing to say about the “man,” the taxpayer, who would fund his new spending initiatives. Among politicians, including presidents as well as governors, there is as a rule little or no mention of the taxpayer, the “forgotten man.” The subject is rather how the tax money will be distributed, never the justice or validity or legitimacy of the imposition of taxes on the working public.

Perhaps the best case for the tax payer, or Forgotten Man, was made by William Graham Sumner in an essay, entitled, "On the Case of a Certain Man Who Is Never Thought Of," originally published in 1883, as part of Sumner’s book, “What the Social Classes Owe to Each Other.”

According to Sumner the Governor (or President) and his aides put their heads together to decide what the tax payer should be made to do for those who do not pay taxes (other than on consumption) and are not able to provide for themselves. The taxpayer is never allowed a voice in these matters and his position, character, and interests are as a rule entirely overlooked, hence the term “Forgotten Man.”

Politicians seem to regularly forget that a government produces nothing at all, and that the state cannot get a cent for any man without taking it from some other man, and that this latter must be a man who has produced and saved it.

Governor Patrick is not without certain benevolent feelings toward "the poor," "the weak," those without health care, and other such. “These investments," he says, "will not only save lives, but also reduce treatment costs in the future." But his proposals, all government expenditures, are only possible by the transfer of capital from the better to the worse off.

Now there are always two parties to any government scheme of the transfer of wealth, those on the receiving end, and those from whom the wealth is taken. The latter, represented by our forgotten man, is “worthy, industrious, independent, and self-supporting. He is not ‘poor’ or ‘weak.’ He minds his own business, makes no complaint, and consequently the politicians never think of him and trample on him.”

Here are Sumner's own concluding words to his essay:

‘The fallacy of all prohibitory, sumptuary, and moral legislation is the same. A and B determine to be teetotalers, which is often a wise determination, and sometimes a necessary one. If A and B are moved by considerations which seem to them good, that is enough. But A and B put their heads together to get a law passed which shall force C to be a teetotaler for the sake of D, who is in danger of drinking too much. There is no pressure on A and B. They are having their own way, and they like it. There is rarely any pressure on D. He does not like it, and evades it. The pressure all comes on C.

“The question then arises, Who is C? He is the man who wants alcoholic liquors for any honest purpose whatsoever, who would use his liberty without abusing it, who would occasion no public question, and trouble nobody at all. He is the Forgotten Man again, and as soon as he is drawn from his obscurity we see that he is just what each one of us ought to be.”

(**That these numbers be put in perspective, be aware that the 2006 Massachusetts state budget appropriations were just over $26 billion, with the largest single amount, $11.2 billion, going to health and human services. Education was second, with appropriations amounting to just over $5.5 billion.)

February 24, 2007

What's Next after Left and Right?

The editors of Prospect Magazine have asked 100 writers and thinkers to answer the question, “Left and right defined the 20th. century. What’s next?”

As you might expect the 100 respondents had no trouble coming up with their own answers to the question.

What I found interesting were the sheer number of opposing idea pairs replacing that of the left and right.

There is general agreement, and there probably always has been since the Greeks gave us Apollo and Dionysus, that our world is alive by the tension of opposites. Take away that tension and what is left? Utopia? Communism? Totalitarianism? China of the Song, Yuan and Ming Dynasties?

In any case we are not there yet, not yet in a world without tension. We still live very much within the tension of opposite pairs. In education there is public and private. In democracy there is liberty and equality. In economics there is state control and the free exchange in the market of goods and ideas.

Here are just a very few of the replacements proposed for the “left vs. right” of the century just passed:

Global vs. local, the vested interests of governmental incompetence on the one hand and the democratic urge for reform on the other, nation state vs. market state, the reality based community and the ideologically-based community, open vs. closed, liberalism vs. authoritarianism, youth vs. age, technocracy against democracy, … and there are even those who hold onto the left right opposition, (and I think I’m probably one of them).

Perhaps there is at bottom a single opposition that keeps us all alive, and perhaps the 100 pairings are only different names for the same underlying human condition. The interesting question for me is why we’re not all in the middle, seeing the truth of both sides, while only occasionally and temporarily leaning to the one side or the other.

Why instead are so many of us so much on one side or the other, even to the point of blowing oneself up in pursuit of one’s belief? Why can’t we all learn to live between opposing forces, keeping them at a distance, not allowing the one or the other to consume us with a destructive singleness of purpose and vision?

January 28, 2007

Group identity politics and the American Creed

Francis Fukuyama's essay, Identity and Migration, appears in the current (no. 131, 2/2007) issue of Prospect Magazine. He points out that group identity politics played little or no part in the lives of nations during the making of the modern world. But now the rise of group identity politics is threatening to undo the values that are the foundation of the civilization of the Western world.

Groups previously confident and assured of their place in the nations of the world now feel themselves threatened by a sea of modernity. "When emigrating to western Europe one's identity as a Muslim is no longer supported by the outside society." As a result groups, more and more, in their own defense, are asserting themselves, and in a few instances, violently, as, for example, the radical Islamists, aka terrorists, living among otherwise peaceful Moslem populations in Europe and in the Middle East.

It used to be enough to protect the individual from the power of the state. No more. Now groups of individuals sharing values, languages, and traditions, want not only protection but special status for themselves and their beliefs. When this special status is not forthcoming, as in the dictatorial regimes of the Middle East and elsewhere, or even in the secular societies of Europe and America, extremists within these groups will attempt by force and terrorism to have their way.

The West has allowed large scale immigration of Moslem populations, both from the near and the far East but has not known how to assimilate these populations. Instead the West, in particular Europe where the largest numbers of immigrants are Moslem, has, without insisting that the newcomers adopt the West's own values, allowed a kind of multi-culturalism that has satisfied no one.

As Fukuyama says: "Multiculturalism—understood not just as tolerance of cultural diversity but as the demand for legal recognition of the rights of racial, religious or cultural groups—has now become established in virtually all modern liberal democracies."

The American creed is based on a few basic values, such as equality (understood as equality of opportunity rather than outcome), liberty (or anti-statism), individualism (in the sense that individuals could determine their own social station), populism and laissez-faire.

Group identity politics threatens these values. What we have most to fear from these groups, that themselves feel threatened, is the loss of what makes us what we are. Fukuyama is very clear on this point:

"Liberalism cannot ultimately be based on group rights, because not all groups uphold liberal values. The civilisation of the European Enlightenment, of which contemporary liberal democracy is the heir, cannot be culturally neutral, since liberal societies have their own values regarding the equal worth and dignity of individuals. Cultures that do not accept these premises do not deserve equal protection in a liberal democracy. Members of immigrant communities and their offspring deserve to be treated equally as individuals, not as members of cultural communities. There is no reason for a Muslim girl to be treated differently under the law from a Christian or Jewish one, whatever the feelings of her relatives."

November 11, 2006

Asking Charity to do the Work of Social Justice

In a recent article in Slate Magazine City University professor and historian David Nasaw (the author of The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst) questions, for the most part the unquestioned, respected, and admired place of private philanthropy in the life of our country. Why, it was great news all around, wasn’t it, when we learned about Warren Buffett’s planned 32 billion dollar gift to the Gates Foundation? The Foundation already had some 32 billion dollars of its own, and was to be the recipient in the near future of another 32 billion, again from Gates himself, in the form of Microsoft stock, all that together totaling some 96 billion dollars! The largest sum of private money in existence, easily beating the combined endowments of the Vatican, the Ivies, Stanford, MIT, and the University of Texas, although still only about 3% of the 2007 budget of the United States.

But how does David Nasaw put private philanthropy, this year amounting to about $280 billion, how does he put all this private giving into question? First of all he reminds us that early in the last century self-perpetuating private foundations were said to pose a “menace to the country’s future” because, as it was claimed anyway, “the private foundation, was a profoundly anti-democratic institution, one that concentrated too much wealth—and power—in the hands of trustees who were neither elected nor accountable to the public.”

Then Nasaw reminds (well not really “reminds” us) but tells us of the Colorado coal miner who complained loudly at the time about $250,000 of Rockefeller Foundation money that had been allocated for a retreat for migratory birds. The miner insisted that the Rockefeller money was the product of his and other workers’ labor and that he and his fellow workers ought to have a say in how it was spent. Why migratory birds? Why not a safe retreat for his wife and his children? And closer to home, why AIDs in Africa? Why not failing inner city schools?

Nasaw ends his article by quoting William Jewett Tucker, a future president of Dartmouth College, who in 1891 while criticizing Andrew Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth, declared that “a society could make no greater mistake than asking charity to do the work of social justice.”

Wow, I said to myself. Isn’t this exactly what has happened? This is our country today. A lot of private charity, certainly, but no where near enough to satisfy the claims of social justice. And new charitable foundations, such as that of Bill and Melinda Gates, are the insurance that this visibly deficient method of accomplishing “social justice” will continue to prevail. Most of all the Gates Foundation will enable governments even more than in the past to do less in the future.

Now no one really expects Foundations to do all the work of social justice, not even most of it. For the social justice work of Foundations can go no further than their charitable contributions can take it.

Let me give you an example. You have an inner city school system with some 10 elementary schools, each with some 500 students. The kids are in school all morning and while there they are mostly preparing for tests because of the No Child Left Behind law of 2001. They get out of school between 1 and 2 and they have very few good places to go, good things to do during the long afternoon hours. Art, music, shop, and sports activities, the sorts of activities that are the rule in private schools, are almost non existent for them, until some Gates or other private foundation money turns up. But that money is only enough to enable just one of these schools to create afterschool activities such as theater, a boys chorus, a girls soccer team. The other nine schools will go without.

The one program in the one school is presented as a pilot program, that is, a program from which kids in other schools will eventually benefit when the program gets beyond the pilot stage. But it never gets beyond that stage, and after 2 or 3 years it may even lose the continuation of that initial funding. Now the school system is not at fault. For everyone is of the opinion that this is the sort of thing that only private funding can bring about, and there’s just not enough of that. No one’s at fault. That’s just the way things are.

So what has happened? The government is off the hook, meaning that the public authorities don’t have to face up to the inadequacy of their work with inner city children. The authorities don't see as their responsibility to provide the vital, asset and confidence building activities that children need. Instead they pass this responsibility by default on to the philanthropic community. But this community, as we have seen, can not do more than a small portion of what is needed, with the result that things go on much as they always have. And for too many kids in our inner cities the conditions of their lives don't get any better.

It's hard not to conclude that the Gates money, and charitable giving in general, may not be the great blessing it's taken for, but rarther an insurmountable obstacle to the public’s acceptance of full responsibility for the health of our children living with unmet needs in our impoverished inner city neighborhoods.

November 05, 2006

Buried and Forgotten

See James Traub's article,  Ban Ki-moon vs. The Bad Guys in today's NYTimes

48 countries, in 1948, voted in favor of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These countries were called at the time, Afghanistan, Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Ethiopia, France, Greece, Guatemala, Haiti, Iceland, India, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Liberia, Luxembourg, Mexico, Myanmar, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Pakistan, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Sweden, Syria, Thailand, Turkey, United Kingdom, USA, Uruguay, Venezuela. The other 10 members of the UN at the time either abstained (Byelorussia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, the Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Ukraine, Yugoslavia) or were absent (Honduras and Yeman).

Now there are, of course, many more countries in the UN, 192 as of this year, 2006. That’s considerably more than the total UN membership of 58 in 1948. Furthermore, of the 48 original signers of the Declaration how many of these have a government today that is at all a continuation, and not the result of a rejection and replacement of an earlier government? The United States and the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, Belgium, Costa Rica, Denmark, maybe France, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden. In short the liberal, Western democracies.  Pretty much Europe and America. The nations of South America, Africa, Asia, the states of the former Soviet Union, all those countries that now make up the largest part of the current UN membership, were not for the most part signers of the Declaration.

Now what was that Declaration that these 48 countries, at least at that moment in time, were voting for? (How many of the 48, let alone the 192, would vote in favor of the Declaration today?) There were thirty articles. To read them for yourself go to this site.

If you read all 30 Articles, you will immediately realize that there is not a single country in the world today that tries to govern in accordance with them, either in fact or in spirit. The Declaration represents a Utopia that if anything is receding into the distance. To see what I mean take just the one Article 26 which says:

      (1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

      (2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

      (3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

Not even the United States, which prides itself on being a respecter of human rights, could say that “higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit,” or that “education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality,” or finally that “parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.”

One wonders who wrote the Declaration, since it obviously could not have been the signers. A Google search quickly gives us the answer, John Humphrey, a Canadian and employee of the UN, was the principal author. One also wonders what the signers of the Declaration were thinking when they signed it. One wonders if they even read it. A Google search doesn’t give us an answer to this one, showing that Google too has its limits.

In today’s NYTimes Michael Kinsley reviews “a shelf of books” that raise “various alarms about the condition of American democracy.” The condition is not good according to these books. “Cheating” by those on the Left and the Right is what is wrong and in Kinsley’s view “the worst form of cheating in American democracy today is intellectual dishonesty.” Now doesn’t “intellectual dishonesty” mean not telling the truth? Truth telling is certainly absent from our political life. The question that Kinsley doesn’t answer, nor, I suspect, is the answer anywhere on Google, is, has there ever been a society when not telling the truth was not the rule?

Perhaps our biggest mistake is that we go on pretending. Pretending, for example, that we are respecting the Rights as set down in the Declaration. Nowhere do we hear political leaders telling us how things really are, for only then could we, might we, go on to make things better. Who has the courage to admit that these Rights cannot now be honored because it would mean that too many of those now favored would lose favors to those many more who are now unfavored?

For example, take Article 23, that concerns work, “Everyone has the right to work,…”, and Article 25 that concerns remuneration, “Everyone has the right to a  standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family,…, and Article 29, the individual in the community, “Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible, and Everyone in the exercise of his rights and freedoms shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.”

John Humphrey’s mistake was not to have said that his Declaration was the result of a communication with a Higher Being. For then the Declaration might have become a text for us to live by. But it didn’t happen and now the Declaration is forgotten, and instead we have fanatics turning to other texts, the Bible and the Koran in particular, and waving them before us as they proceed to destroy both people and property, the very things that the Declaration set out to protect.