Monday, May 31, 2010

A Strategy to Honor the Dead

In Memorial Day weekend news, the U.S. military brass is weighing plans for an attack on Pakistan in case a Pakistani smarter than the Times Square would-be bomber has a deadly success. Wouldn't it better honor the dead to mount an effective response, rather than add one more unwinnable war to our already overladen plate?

I have, you might have guessed, a modest proposal:
  1. Get rid of the expensive toys that go boom, leaving only a nominal nuclear rocket arsenal for deterrence and the new, very destructive sub-nuclear bomb, along with a skeleton air, water and land deployment vehicle lot.
  2. Demobilize 90 percent of the active duty 1.4 million military personnel from the top down.
  3. Use the remaining 140,000 in uniform develop a top-notch planning staff and elite commando units, along with a small unit for the conventional deployment lot.
Let's face it. Since the Berlin Wall fell and for the foreseeable future, the credible threats to the United States are in various rogue organizations. These are folks to whom peace and prosperity mean little or nothing, admittedly for reasons we ought to address through means other than the military (a whole other post).

Take 9/11.

If we had had a military capable of deploying, lickety split, elite commando units in Tora Bora and vicinity, they could have quietly gone in, torched Osama bin Laden and everyone with him, leaving everything to be found by some clueless non-English-speaking shepherd.

"Torching? Osama? I know nothing about it," the White House press secretary would have said.

Quietly, Al Qaeda's numbers 2s, 3, 45s, would began to drop like cockroaches caught in an insecticide commercial. Sooner or later, the bad guys would get the message: don't mess with us.

No invasions, no thousands wounded and killed, no collateral damage, no prisoners, no Guantanamo, not even a war deficit.

A smart president -- oops, we had Bush -- would have tried it.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Facts to What Truth?

Comments concerning my post From Facts to Truth, both public and private, suggest that there's some anxiety out there concerning the starting point and the destination in the heading of my original essay.

Some people seem to feel I have become an idolater of facts, when in reality I merely see facts as useful in discussions in which meaning hinges on them.

Others feel that I already abandoned truth by when I allegedly threw "Him" out, Christological insinuation heard. The capital-T truth that was prevalent in Western societies (America and Europe) hinged on a "Him" tossed out centuries ago by Christians themselves. Not me.

Finally, a third current of comment proposes a more intriguing question: to what truth is the Zeitgeist shifting all our facts and factoids?

Short answer: I have no idea.

Actually, I have a pretty good idea that it's not to a restoration of past theologies nor to capital-T truth. We've done that, been there and can still smell the charred human remains.

Instead, I'd suggest that once facts undergo sufficient criticism, we'll drift to some version of what used to be called "common sense," when Western commonality was white, male-dominated and Christian. Only that commonality is not coming back, thank the Echo.

I'd look for a future in which we take on the larger goals and ends: an active mind, rather than computation of two-digit whole numbers by the second quarter of fifth grade; shared prosperity, rather than a minimum $10 an hour wage.

Nothing wrong with granulated, fine-tuned goals, per se. Yet, can we deal with a whole society of 300 million diverse individuals through cookie-cutter "fact-based" solutions?

Or can we perhaps leave the details to the people who actually have to strive for the goals, relying on their uncommon sense, their gut feel for what works, their home truths?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

200 Years Ago in Argentina

Today in Argentina is celebrated as the 200th anniversary of ... what? It's not quite the declaration of independence, that was on July 9, 1816, but certainly the beginning of Argentina's self-rule and, to be completely accurate, fairly consistent misrule.

A group of the educated elite in Buenos Aires deposed the Spanish viceroy, arguing that Napoleon's invasion of Spain and imprisonment of King Ferdinand VII meant that the government of Spain was illegitimate. It was a thinly veiled ruse.

Upper crust young, idealistic republican egalitarians, who looked with hope to the pre-Napoleonic events of France since 1789, allied with somewhat more cynical merchants tired of the cat-and-mouse smuggling game around the Spanish colonial trade monopoly.

To what end? A minimal consensus was not reached until 1852, when at least a majority of Argentinians -- or at least those who counted for decisions of this sort -- could at last agree on what they did not want.

That consensus broke down in 1930, when demands by a new, emerging class of non-Spanish immigrants and first-generation citizens was met with the hard hand of the military, martial law and a decade of extremely public electoral fraud. This led to decades of struggle, involving the emergence of a charismatic leader named Juan Perón and the recurrent counterattacks from the gendarmes serving the heirs to the mantle of landowning oligarchs, namely the new commercial and industrial elite allied with the United States.

In 1983, once again, Argentinians were in unison about what they did not want, and since then they have experienced a series of largely corrupt, ineffective governments run by politicians elected on the shoulders of a fading memory of Perón.

Only a hundred years ago one of the top ten economies of the world, Argentina today sinks ever lower toward 100th place. A nation of 40 million that produces enough food for 300 million now has millions of hungry people.

What exactly are we celebrating again?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

From Facts to Truth

The Zeitgeist is changing! the Zeitgeist is changing! You heard of its first glimmer here.

For more than 200 years North American culture (you too, Canadians, thanks to David Hume) was a beacon of ... (wait for it) ... facts. We've loved empirically quantifiable and observable reality, from RBIs to GDPs, from the census to tallies of the most Valentine cards received.

Our policymakers talk about facts that can be pressed to serve any party, any master, any point of view. None care that the unemployment rate is a ratio so approximate that it misses changes involving as many as 260,000 U.S. workers.

Taught that foundational philosophy is the mother of all scientia (Latin for knowledge), I've run for decades against the stubbornly empiricist Zeitgeist (German Zeit, time, and Geist, spirit, meaning "the spirit of the age"), even though my occupation worships it.

Truth came in observable and measurable bites; reason was king. Gods, witches, intuitions and feelings were for hippies, existentialists and (of course!) women. Damn the yang, up with the ying!

That's all about to change.

A growing panel of hostile inquisitors is asking why we can invent the Internet but still can't get Johnny to read, Janey out of the slum, let alone protect either from the bad guys? Something is wrong with the tyranny of facts.

We forgot about truth, the elusive heart's desire of Aristotle, Spinoza, Maritain and others. The bureaucrats and policymakers may not realize it, the better newspapers are just beginning to sniff it, but I've known it was coming (now you do); indeed, it's long overdue.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Color of Color

I never cease to be amazed at what's in the recesses of people walking and talking our streets attired as if they were civilized, until they let slip the sheer, blind tribalism they've brought with them from their caves.

Saturday I attended a party in honor of a friend of a friend at which there were many former Americans abroad, specifically, folks whose aging parents had toiled defending the indefensible in Latin America, in this particular case, Ecuador. Suddenly a woman who became aware of the predominant group in attendance chimed, "I didn't realize there were that many white people in Ecuador."

There was no mistaking the meaning. She meant "white" as in White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant, among whose trash she had obviously been reared. Her defense was that her surname, obviously through marriage, was "Ruhmeerezz."

White? "European," one peace-at-any-pricer offered.

Last I checked, however, Spain was in the European Union. Indeed, they went to Ecuador 500 years ago from Europe, long before the Puritans landed at Plymouth Rock. Indeed, many descendants of Spaniards in the U.S. West and Southwest think, with some historical evidence on their side, that it's really the Anglos who are the illegal immigrants there.

Part of the problem is a subtle change in the way even the most educated and liberal people speak of ethnicity in this allegedly "post-racial" era. I keep hearing at seminars and symposia the phrase "of color," applied to African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, etc. It's the new easy shorthand.

But, folks, white is a color. It's not a color of skin, however. Ever tried to draw white people with crayons as a kid? There used to be a color specifically for that (don't know if there still is) and it was not white.

That's because the people called "white" aren't really white. They come in skins that range from a sickly to mottled pink, to a tan that can be indistinguishable from some of the lighter folks of other "races," to a quite brownish brown.

Indeed, the people who think they are "white" today, weren't always considered "white," as one of my favorite and scholarly blogs notes in the recent post Before I Was White.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Zone

It's often the small things that make a difference.

Giggling through an otherwise boring transaction in which the bank staff just can't spell your name (three times). Gliding through traffic after a satisfying workday. Finding the perfect parking spot even thought it's 8pm. You feel you have the karma and nothing can touch you.

Sure, having karma is itself a contradiction in terms. Karma just is, like grace. No one owns it.

Like The Zone. Capitalized. Mysterious. Undefinable. Without clear borders. It's a strangely satisfying state of mind that comes from nothing (no drugs, sex or rock and roll), probably doesn't last too long, but what a high when it's there!

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Mosque in NYC: Bushit Still Distorts 9/11

News that a mosque is planned to be built about two and a half blocks from Ground Zero in New York City have fanned the flames of the worst kind of intolerance and misinformation lingering from eight years of Bush propaganda. Even a usually sensible blogger cries foul, arguing that the plan "seems like tasteless nose thumbing at Americans and at worst, an attempt to replace our native cultures."

Lest you be confused, this not an Indian woman writing about "our native cultures." No, this is someone taking the easiest phrase out of the 2001-2008 ersatz thinking manual. Rule 1: when in doubt, trot out nativism. The same nativism used against every immigrant group since the Irish potato famine.

Oversight? Absolutely not. I tried to call the blogger to her senses (see comments here), but she continued to argue insane notions such as "The devastation of 9-11 was not committed in the name of Jesus or Yahweh, but to praise Allah."

That's right, fellow non-Muslims. Let's tar a billion and a half Muslims in the world because of the alleged actions of 18. Let's forbid the building of a mosque just to show them. Right? Wrong!

So little is really known about 9/11 and so much nonsense was justified in the name of that event, that most people forget that
  • we never had actual evidence proven in court about who and what brought these events about, nor much less why, having instead to rely on the word of the men who stole the election of 2000; 
  • there is no "war" on, since a war is a state of belligerency between two nation-states -- those who would like to try every Muslim in a military tribunal ought to ask the same for the Mafia, the KKK, the white-power militias associated with the likes of Timothy McVeigh, since they are equally as criminal and at war with American society and ideals as Al Qaeda; and
  • we do have freedom to believe in anything or nothing at all in this country (and I, for one, would like very much to keep it that way).
In the particular case of the mosque in question, it is planned to be erected two and a half blocks away from Ground Zero. There is a Greek Orthodox church and other places of worship in the vicinity. The leader behind this project is a respected advocate of inter-religious tolerance highly praised and respected by a leading New York rabbi.

If we are going to decide that all mosques and Muslims are responsible for the crimes of 9/11, then
  • Are all U.S. whites responsible for 300 years of kidnapping, torture and slavery of millions of African Americans?
  • Do all Jews and all synagogues stand accused for the Israeli armed forces attacks on civilians during the Sabra-Shatila massacre of the 1980s, or the flattening of Qana just a few years ago or the humanitarian disaster of Gaza that still continues today?
  • Is the rape of children by a relatively small proportion of priests irrevocably the fault of all Catholics, including the children, and all Catholic churches?
I could go on, but the intelligent reader will have gotten the point. Even if all 18 suicide attackers on board of the four airplanes that crashed on September 11, 2001, died with praises of Allah on their lips or their minds (which we don't know for a fact), it is hardly reasonable or logical to blame these actions on their religion and all fellow believers.

Let's stop the shouting and start reasoning together.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Are We Breeding Jihadists?

Ever since Hannah Arendt's memorable "banality of evil" concerning Adolf Eichmann, it's been something of a cliché to "discover" that criminals were originally mild-mannered milquetoasts. True to script, the lazier journalists are having a field day with the ordinariness of Faisal Shahzad, the alleged Times Square bomber.

Yet the real news would be discovering what forces combined to change the Eichmanns and the Shahzads from mere mediocrities to criminals. By forces, I mean to include nature, or natural predispositions and personal decisions for which each individual is responsible, and nurture, the external, social influences that might have turned a mediocre nature into something ready to become truly awful.

We can do nothing about the personal decisions the Eichmanns and the Shahzads and the Timothy McVeighs have made. But we can think and act on the cues we get about their social influences.

Indeed, the United States made sure Germany was not penalized in 1945 as it had been under the Versailles Treaty in 1918 so as not to provide Germans disgruntled with the consequences of losing a war the excuse for getting revenge through World War III.

As Shahzad's story beings to be pieced together, it seems pretty clear that he carried a major social grudge. Like so many, he was scammed into a mortgage he really couldn't afford and his employment collapsed with the economy.

Might he have remained happily unknown today with another sequence of events? Might he have avoided seeking comfort in jihadism to assuage his sense of economic failure in the land of alleged plenty?

If Albert Gore had been allowed to be sworn in despite his narrow win in 2000, might the catastrophic greed allowed to run free in the Bush era have been reined in? If, even without Gore, had Bush acted sooner and asked for a stimulus package earlier, wouldn't the Great Recession have been less great?

I realize this is all woulda, coulda, shoulda.

But we do confront "tea party" folks who demand with protest signs awash in misspellings and solecisms that "furriners lurn" English and old people who wave their medicare cards while they call government health programs "socialism" and we continue to have too many weapons on the streets and in gun stores. Isn't this the kindling for home-grown jihadism of a nut-wing variety?

In brief, there's a lot of anger out there. People continue to experience very bad times, which breed worse people. That's why we need to push to make better times, to curb excess and include every level of society in the nation's bounty, so we can breed more tolerant people of good will and deed.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

"Regime Change" We Don't Want to Believe In

In the past week or so, the talk in Washington among journalists and think tank wonks outside the Obama Administration has been bubbling with the phrase "regime change" in reference to Iran. We've seen that movie before, new euphemism notwithstanding, and it has no happy ending.

As much as I would prefer an Iranian president with a name that was easier on the English-speaking tongue (5 syllables is way too long!), I don't think that a Western-inspired, or much less funded, overthrow or a coup, or any of the names we use for the forcible removal of a ruler, is what we want to do. Here's why:
  • the coup d'etat is most un-Jeffersonian and never a good path to democracy;
  • pushing for "regime change" in another country invites reciprocity and, last I heard, folks in the Middle East would like to turn ours into ... ahem ... an Islamic theocracy; and
  • the cure is almost always worse than the disease (think Chile 1973, Brazil 1964, and oh, Iran 1954).
Let's stop there. I like triads. Thank goodness the jabber I've heard does not come from the Obama folks. But, frankly, if they are in the least tempted, this short post ought to help.