Monday, November 22, 2010

A Non-Anniversary Celebration

I always wondered how long it would take. I mean for Nov. 22 to become, pretty much, just another day. Oh sure, there are some observances here and there, and a few articles ("JFK's Secret Service agents break their silence" -- right, that'll be the day), but when's the last time you heard the term "Camelot"? All it takes is a mere 47 years, and Jackie marrying a greasy Greek billionaire, and the rest of the family more or less melting down psychologically and politically (although, heaven knows, it took long enough), to finally lay to rest the Camelot myth. Not to mention revelations that the White House was a revolving door for whores (real ones, not just politicians) during JFK's time... and the evolving conventional wisdom that he really wasn't all that liberal in many ways -- especially when it came to the Cold War. He got us into Vietnam, and LBJ took that baton and ran with it -- but who, after all, hired all of those "brain trusters" who oversaw the Vietnam debacle? JFK, of course. And who got us into the ludicrous boycott of Cuba, which persists unto this day because no politician has the balls to do anything about it? So really, the JFK legacy is far from idyllic; many would say that it hovers somewhere between mediocrity and disaster. But for sheer telegenic star power, JFK has yet to be beat -- and don't bother me with claims that his good looks were at least partially due to steroids. The guy was a war hero, after all -- right? I don't think anyone has come up with a serious claim to the contrary. After all, "Old Joe" Kennedy was not averse to offering up his sons on the altar of American imperialism if he thought it might enhance the family fortunes in the long run. The only mistake he made was in assuming that there was an unlimited quantity of Kennedy DNA -- but Teddy and the next generation have shown that to be a fond wish. Never has the genetic concept of regression toward the mean been demonstrated in such a conclusive and brutal way. Ever notice how so many rich families eventually turn into a bunch of extremely ordinary people who happen to have a lot of money? Yeah -- the iron laws of genetics. Maybe it's actually a blessing, who knows?

Of course, there could be other explanations besides sheer "Kennedy fatigue" and 47 long years. (That's two entire generations since the assassination -- which would be kind of like someone trying to get me interested in the assassination of William McKinley. Wow -- that's sobering.) What are we going through right now? "The Great Recession" -- which is, I guess, the same as saying "The Little Depression"... perpetual wars (which we still haven't completely adjusted to as a nation or society)... and a greatly accelerated program of collectivization and totalitarianism -- compared to which, the early 1960s (before the hippies, note... or the urban riots... or the war on drugs... or just about anything else you can name) seem awfully remote by comparison. Every time I see pictures of those "ad men" and the June Cleaver-type housewives, I say "I wasn't around when that was going on" -- except that I was! But at the time, just as now, the baseline is the baseline -- we take it for granted. It doesn't seem odd, or weird, or bizarre, or "ironic" -- only in retrospect do those adjectives occur to one. We had air raid drills, "duck and cover", and fallout shelters -- well, of course! Any sensible society would have done the same. After all wasn't the Soviet Union the very embodiment of evil, and wasn't it run by madmen? Oh, wait -- that was Nazi Germany, and the Soviets were our allies. Gosh, it must have been very confusing for all concerned.

And what about nostalgia? What do I identify as my "good old days"? What will my grandchildren identify as theirs? Is nostalgia even possible any more? I mean, my parents had the Roaring Twenties -- Prohibition, bootleg gin, Al Capone... "great old cars" (and scores of makes, unlike now)... and the next generation had Benny Goodman, swing music, and World War II to keep them warm at night. Then things started to fall apart a bit... and what I call the Second Civil War started, not coincidentally at just about the time JFK was killed. Think: Nov. 22, 1963, and the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan for the first time a mere 2 1/2 months later. Why is this so significant? Well -- rock and roll, which had been around for a good ten years at that point, had prepared the battlefield for the cultural revolution to come. Rock and roll was not the cultural revolution, but it was at once a symptom and a driving force -- but it took the Great Disillusionment represented by LBJ and the Vietnam War to really bring things to a head. So JFK's assassination was a direct cause of some things, and an indirect cause of others... not to mention, it was the first major victory of the rising military-industrial-intelligence complex. And, it served as a damn good lesson to Catholics, to stay out of national politics. So in that sense it re-invigorated American Puritanism just in time for the rise of neoconservatism, which was aided and abetted by the Vietnam conflict. The mindset that got us into Vietnam was, or became, the neoconservative mindset, even if that didn't come into full flower until the invasion if Iraq. Because there was, after all, a grain of truth to the anti-communist struggle... but it was transplanted into, and morphed into, the anti-Islamic struggle with nary a bump, after the neocons gathered their forces during their exile during the Clinton administration. Vietnam was one of their founding myths, and they took over the Republican Party during Reagan's administration, and then lay in wait until George W. Bush came along, at which point the latter-day crusades began. And yet, at the height of the Cold War, all were equally mesmerized by the prospect of defeating communism and establishing an American Empire -- and JFK no less than most. So his status as a Cold Warrior should not be overlooked, even though it violates many of the premises of his hagiography.

And it may just be that a certain war-weariness has set in among the American public -- although you'd hardly know it from the plethora of public displays of "supporting the troops", and from the rank cowardice among members of both major parties when it comes to opposing any further involvement in the Islamic world. It is always easy for old men -- and the privileged -- to send young men -- and the unprivileged -- off to die... for any cause, or for no cause at all. What if everyone in Congress, and the administration, resolved never to send troops into any battle that they would not be willing to participate in themselves? It would not be the end of war -- but it would certainly be the end of these wars, and of most others. And then the Department of Defense could go back to being just that, and nothing more.

And yet our missionary zeal to remake the world in our own image, that got a huge lift from Wilson and a further boost from FDR, was still very much alive and well during JFK's time, and he believed in it... perhaps in a more sincere way than most of the latter-day cynics and profiteers. While it's true that people with ideals, and principles, create at least as many catastrophes as cynical exploiters do, their misguided zeal is, somehow, a bit easier to stomach -- especially if you've been given an American brain. The notion of fighting for ideas (as long as they aren't religious!) is something Americans are perfectly at home with -- and fighting simply for money, power, or personal glory is frowned upon, relatively speaking. And the Kennedy family had paid its dues, so they could not be accused of complete dilettantism. And there was certainly sufficient cynicism behind our involvement in Vietnam -- even as there has been behind all later conflicts (including the present ones). But one does have to wonder at the naivete and folly of people who thought it would actually be possible to conquer communism by force of arms. Communism was (and is), after all, an idea, like unto none other. It represents one of the most basic desires of humankind -- namely to be taken care of, non-stop, from cradle to grave... to be loved and coddled by an all-knowing greater power... to be part of a community of tireless mutual esteem-building happy faces. And to conquer this by mere force of arms? Why, they were every bit as naive as the people who now think we can conquer "terrorism" by the same means! Ultimately, it really is ideas that conquer -- ideas and demographics. And human psychology, I suppose -- at least in the aggregate. People simply got tired of communism; it's not as if it had ever worked, and then all a sudden began to fail. It was a failure from the start... just as Nazism was (in a moral sense, at least). What we need in today's society is more fatigue -- people have to get tired enough of war to actually do something about it. And they have to get tired of socialism, and totalitarianism (even if it's just at an early stage).

But in JFK's time, as you may recall, "soft" socialism -- of the New Deal type -- was triumphant. The conservative movement was as minuscule back then as the Bolshevik movement was in 1903. And it might have stayed that way if "Camelot" had really lived up to its name... and if LBJ hadn't given the Democrats a bad name... and if Nixon hadn't missed the opportunity to end the war in 1969... and if Carter hadn't given the Democrats an even worse name. These were all things that energized the conservatives and gave them a raison d'etre -- and when they finally triumphed in the 1980 election, well... it wasn't long before the movement was taken over by a group every bit as radical in some ways as the Bolsheviks -- namely the neocons. We now had a major force in American politics devoted not only to the American Empire, but to aiding and abetting Zionism. (The FDR era represented a nexus of sorts, but that was from the left, and the State of Israel did not yet exist.)

So in a sense, today's politicians -- pretty much all across the spectrum -- represent just the latest manifestation of the same mainstream mindset as JFK. It's all about American dominance, and empire, and military might at all costs... and isn't it amazing how little has changed in 47 years! Yes, we did have an interregnum of sorts with Carter, and a "vacation from history" with Clinton, but those were only pauses in the otherwise continuous escalation of American Empire folly. We're now engaged in the longest wars in our history with the least probability of victory -- which is, of course, exactly the way some people want it. And it's that cynicism too that may represent something new under the sun. As deluded as our "war hawks" have always been -- going way back to the Mexican War -- no one was ever able to convincingly label them "un-American"... that is, up until now. JFK was certainly not un-American, and neither was LBJ, as evil as he was. Even their advisors represented a perverse sort of Americanism -- a kind of robotic, soulless, neo-Puritan version. And Carter may have been un-American in the socio-cultural sense, but I don't think of him as anti-American; that distinction had to be taken up, for the first time, by Clinton... and is now paraded around in plain sight, and boasted of, by Obama.

And one might ask, in this day of internationalism and globalism, what, precisely, is so wrong about being... well, maybe not anti-American, but at least indifferent? What is wrong with, for example, letting anyone who wants to cross our borders and set up shop in this country with no restrictions? Isn't it the ultimately humane, and democratic, thing to do? And what's wrong with the Supreme Court honoring case law from around the world, on an equal basis with our own? And what's wrong with our combining our resources with, first, Canada and Mexico, and then ultimately with Europe (as if they weren't having fits trying to deal with deadbeat places like Greece, Portugal, Spain, and now Ireland)? What's wrong, in other words, with "celebrating diversity" by, basically, erasing all borders, and eliminating all hateful and "racist" economic restrictions and distinctions?

Well -- one thing that's wrong with it is that no one else is doing it. Not really. Places like Germany are starting to balk at having to hold up town-drunk economies like Greece... and people are more and more starting to see outfits like the EU as just another manifestation of the culture wars -- the greatest attempt yet to deracinate people, and render all traditions and cultures null and void. There are movements worldwide to restore traditions -- folkways, if you will -- and keep them from going extinct. And this kind of pushback has been happening in this country for quite a long time -- but the power elite are just now starting to notice. (Consider the way the MSM reacted to the "tea parties".) And I don't suppose that, even with the most crushing form of totalitarianism, traditions can be totally extinguished. For instance, nothing could have been more totally anti-tradition than Mao's "Cultural Revolution" -- and it did manage to destroy much of the old China. And yet with the easing of restrictions, many of the old traditions magically came back to life. The old people sitting off in a corner had been keeping secrets -- and they remembered, and passed it on. And this is how I suspect it's going to work for us as well -- on the surface, it will be the Brave New World of socialism, ObamaCare, "diversity" (which is another word for deracination and cultural genocide), and perpetual war... but on another level, people will be keeping the flame alive. One can only hope.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Read My Apocalypse

Pope Benedict XVI, in an address to the recent Synod on the Middle East, named three major threats to the world today, of which one was what he termed “anonymous capital”. He described this, along with terrorism and drug trafficking, as “great powers of today's history”. I provide the quote (in translation) from the Chiesa web site:

“We think of the great powers of today's history, we think of the anonymous capitals that enslave man, that are no longer something belonging to man, but are an anonymous power that men serve, and by which men are tormented and even slaughtered. They are a destructive power that threatens the world. And then the power of the terrorist ideologies. Violence is done apparently in the name of God, but this is not God: these are false divinities that must be unmasked, that are not God. And then drugs, this power that, like a ravenous beast, stretches its hands over all parts of the earth and destroys: it is a divinity, but a false divinity, which must fall. Or even the way of life promoted by public opinion: today it's done this way, marriage doesn't matter anymore, chastity is no longer a virtue, and so on.”

“These ideologies that are so dominant that they impose themselves by force are divinities. And in the suffering of the saints, in the suffering of believers, of the Mother Church of which we are part, these divinities must fall, what is written in the letters to the Colossians and Ephesians must come true: the dominations and powers fall and become subjects of the one Lord Jesus Christ.”

Interestingly, another Catholic web site, Catholic Culture, has this to say: “The translation includes an awkward phrasing of one key point in the Pope's talk. In a reference to economic affairs the Holy Father denounced the approach in which the accumulation of capital is given preference over human needs. The translation in L'Espresso muddles this passage, speaking of 'anonymous capitals that enslave man.' In context the Pontiff is clearly not saying that the capital itself is anonymous-- a meaningless phrase in any case-- but that those who manipulate capital may be heedless of how their activities affect individuals.”

Well... with all due respect to Catholic Culture, I don't think it's at all “meaningless” to call capital “anonymous”. And I don't think that the Pope was "clearly" not saying that there is such a thing. And what would the term "anonymous" mean otherwise? Would it refer to anonymous individuals manipulating known capital, out in the open? But that would make no sense. No, I think the Pope knew exactly what he was talking about here, and that the translation reflects that. So I'll stick with the “anonymous capital” idea... with the thought that someone might just possibly have gotten cold feet somewhere along the line when it came to the translation and its interpretation. After all, the Pope's remarks were “unscripted”, and he has no fear of the truth... whereas other people down the line might have found reason to pull back. It wouldn't be the first time this has happened -- for truth to be watered down a bit, in order to avoid trouble. For the Church to denounce the destructive effects of known, overt capital manipulations is one thing... but to pull the veil away from that which is hidden – that involves a whole new level of daring and risk. The Pope is willing to take that risk -- but the same cannot be said for everybody in the Church; there are too many vested interests -- and too much fear.

So to proceed with the discussion -- no one is likely to dispute terrorism – a great mover of people and a challenge to empires -- or drug trafficking – a great mover of wealth – as “great powers”. But it's striking that he referred to “anonymous capital” -- not “capitalism”, note (which, I'm sure, disappointed a lot of the “liberation theology” types)... in other words, not a theory or a system or a formal structure, but an entity, and one of great, if hidden, power. An autonomous entity, in fact -- a law unto itself (not unlike the "intelligence community"). One commentator said that the Pope's remarks were an attempt to “lift the veil in a rather bold way on what is now occurring in our world... on the hidden truth behind the appearances and lies of our time”... and that the remarks constituted an “apocalypse”, in the sense of “a revealing of something hidden from most of mankind.”

Now, if terrorism and drug trafficking represent false divinities, isn't it also possible to see anonymous capital as a divinity – albeit an evil one? The idea gives one pause. Certainly there is worship of capital... it has its high priests and its houses of worship (can you say “Federal Reserve”, class?)... but this term seems to attribute to it some demonic power – a notion I'm perfectly willing to accept. One clue is that the accumulation of wealth is an addiction, even at the highest levels; it does not satisfy, but continues to create its own need for more. Thus, it has no purpose other than itself. Even the greatest accumulator of wealth on earth is, ultimately, its victim – because, after all, what can one man do? How can a person justify, or rationalize, the accumulation of wealth beyond a certain point; how can he do it justice? There is much talk of “social justice” -- but there is also such a thing as justice to one's own resources; it's called stewardship. I don't have any problem “stewarding” my modest income, and I imagine I could do justice to a bit more... but how does one properly steward billions of dollars? And especially, how does one justify, by any criteria, the accumulation of wealth through hidden, secretive, improper means? Can it be true that, as Balzac said, “behind every great fortune there is a crime”? I don't think this is necessarily true in theory, but current events provide ample support of it in fact. Not all capitalists are corrupt, and corrupting, exploiters... but those tendencies are certainly seen in many, if not most, cases. Once again, when wealth becomes addictive – when it becomes its own justification and its own goal – things get distorted. A man buys a 50-room house. But how many of those rooms can he actually live in? How many horses can he ride? How many cars can he drive? You would think diminishing returns (psychologically) would set in – but they never seem to. I think of the scene toward the end of “Scarface” where Al Pacino is sitting at a desk heaped high with cocaine powder. It was a good metaphor: Power, money, drugs – ultimately all amounting to the same thing.

But let's analyze this notion of “anonymous capital” a bit more. All the capital that we see operating in public, on an everyday basis, out in the open – in the stock market, in commercial trade, in small businesses, in small banks and investment firms... that's not what we're talking about here. We're not even talking about the public, above-board activities of the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve, or outfits like Fannie Mae. Anonymous capital, is, by definition, anonymous – no one knows where it is, in what form it's held, or who controls it. And yet it seems to exert influence – maybe total influence – on the capital that we're aware of. If you want to talk about cause and effect, anonymous capital is the cause and “known” capital the effect; it certainly can't be the other way around. And another question is, what are the relative proportions of anonymous to known capital? One point of view would be that most of what goes on in the world of finance is either known or knowable, and that wealth that has been secreted away in Swiss bank accounts (to be metaphorical about it) is in the hands of the few. And this might have actually been the case at one time, but I suspect that it is no longer – in fact, I suspect that the vast bulk of the world's capital at this time is, in fact, anonymous. What we see, and know about, is no more than the tip of an upside-down iceberg, with the vast weight of anonymous capital pressing down, and exerting massive (and highly-programmed) force on the rest.

But there is, in fact, another possibility, and I will call it “leverage”. Accumulated, concentrated wealth in the right (or wrong) hands can exert much more force on people and events than scattered, unfocused wealth. Think about a million people with $1000 each... and then about one person with $1 Billion. The same total amount – but those million people have no influence as individuals, and probably not in the aggregate either... whereas the billionaire very definitely has influence, if he's smart enough to use it (and let's assume that if he has it, he's smart enough). So perhaps the weight of the invisible part of the iceberg consists not only of sheer quantities of wealth, but of less-tangible factors – leverage, influence, connections (political, religious, family, fraternal, etc.), and just plain social dominance (through persuasion or violence, or some of each). But in any case, there are, as the Pope said, great powers at work in today's world, and anonymous capital is one of them (and possibly the dominant one).

What is my evidence? Well, for one thing, the financial and economic movers and shakers of our time all seem to be working for, and under orders from, invisible masters. They are always disappearing for days at a time to parts unknown, and coming back with new schemes. (I call it “checking in with the home office.”) We see this in the frequent and never-explained sudden changes in policy and “strategy”. What was touted as a good idea last week is suddenly off the table – and a “better” idea has taken its place. But the public is never told why – at least not in any convincing way. So this is the influence of unknown forces, and they operate in particular to put our so-called leaders – politicians – into a perpetual state of whiplash. They are forever behind the power curve, on the defensive, and trying to make up for lost time... and I believe this is an intentional ploy by the powers that be to keep them off balance... and humble. They are, after all, servants – and servants need a frequent updating as to the wishes and intent of their masters... and an occasional whipping if the occasion warrants (think: Biden in Israel).

Another piece of evidence is that anonymous capital will occasionally make a brief appearance – like a whale breaking the surface of the ocean only to descend, once more, to the depths. This happens in the financial and currency markets, when “deals” are suddenly made between known persons or entities, and persons and entities unknown. Anonymous capital rears up, mows down everything in its path, then disappears again, having absorbed and absconded with another large chunk of known resources. It's kind of like the rogue tax collectors in Medieval times, who would simply ride into a village, grab anything of value, and ride off again – and what could anybody do, because they were “government officials” with licenses and charters from the king. So much of the evidence for anonymous capital is in the frequent taking, or skimming off, of known assets – the fact that, for example, billions of our tax dollars percolate up through the system then mysteriously disappear... and no one in government seems to know where they disappear to. It's more than "government waste and inefficiency" -- it's a vanishing act. Note that the military is a particularly good conduit for this, since it provides a path for our wealth to travel overseas, where it vanishes as a matter of course. Our money lands in the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan and simply vaporizes -- and no one is responsible or accountable. And as for foreign aid – well! That has to be the most intentional, and blatant, means of turning our money into someone else's ever devised. I don't think most of it ever gets to the “intended” country at all – it's simply transferred directly into the Swiss bank account of the African dictator in question (speaking only semi-metaphorically this time).

Want more evidence? And speaking of Africa – did you ever wonder where all of those rag-tag rebels, and insurrectionists, and guerrilla fighters in the Third World get all that high-tech, state-of-the-art weaponry? They have to live off the land and sleep under bushes, and poop into a hole in the ground, but their weapons are top-notch. And it is never explained where it all comes from. I mean, we know where it's made (mostly in the U.S., Russia, and Israel) but how does it get from there into the hands of guys out in the jungles of the Congo? And why? My answer: Anonymous capital. Someone buys the stuff and sees that it gets shipped to the right “trouble spots” and into the right hands. And as to the “why” -- well, let's start with “population control”. Isn't that Job One of the elite powers that be in Europe and America? To see to it that all the ravening hordes of sub-Saharan Africa are, somehow, turned back from their impending demographic triumph? I mean, you can talk all you want about mineral rights, and “blood diamonds”, and all that – and those are all factors. But I really suspect that the paramount agenda item is to – not to put too fine a point on it – kill black people. And what better, and non-controversial, way than to supply them with as much firepower as it will take for them to finish each other off?

Who, for that matter, supports any revolution anywhere in the world? Why is it anyone's business other than the people in the country in question? Because whoever you support winds up owing you a big favor – and if they win, you stand to collect. And that payback may be in the form of resources, cheap labor, or power... or maybe just submission to the Culture of Death (think: government “family planning” programs all over Latin America). And why, for that matter, does big business in the U.S. support candidates from both parties? That way they are always on the winning side. It's not a matter of principle, or ideas, but of power.

Another blessing that anonymous capital has heaped on the Third World is birth control. Who pays for it all? Certainly not us – at least not directly. And by the way, how about all those mysterious tropical diseases, plagues, and epidemics that many decades of medical aid seem to have been unable to eradicate? How about plain hunger, for that matter? Food costs money, but so does famine – i.e. the creation of situations (political, military, economic) that create a famine-friendly environment. Who's in charge of that department? Because I doubt, very much, if the situation would be as bad as it is without considerable outside influence. The fact that, at any given time, large numbers of Africans are refugees ought to tell you something.

Oh, and how about drugs and terrorism – the Pope's other two plagues? The drug trade is lucrative, no doubt... but where does all the money go? And what is it used for then? And these “terrorists” -- where on earth do they get all their weapons? From Saudi oil? Again, I think we're seeing the invisible hand of anonymous capital at work.

The generic point is this: Whenever you can't see, or figure out, where the money (from any enterprise or activity) is going, or where it's coming from (to support some other enterprise or activity), then you can suspect anonymous capital. Now... add that up, and you'll realize that anonymous capital is overwhelming in size and scope – or leverage, as discussed above -- compared to known capital. What operates in the open – more or less – is a pittance compared to what is operating in secret. It dwarfs, in quantity and/or influence, any nation's treasury, or GNP... any military budget on earth (even ours!)... any known assets of even the largest businesses or financial institutions. It's like the “dark matter” that, supposedly, constitutes the bulk of all matter in the universe – but is invisible and not directly detectable; it can only be inferred by means of indirect evidence. And yet, how can it not exert an overwhelming influence?

Now, one question that has me a bit puzzled is this. If one accepts that there is convincing evidence for the existence and influence of anonymous capital – and how can I disagree with the Holy Father on this issue? -- how is this capital held? In what form? Currency? (And if so, whose – and I don't think the answer is “U.S. dollars”.) Gold? Other metals? Gems? Certainly not perishable goods – and probably not real estate either; too bulky, too visible. (If you can see it on Google Maps, it's not anonymous.) Which reminds me – another place where anonymous capital shows itself, if only for a brief instant at a time, is the art market! That's right – and when you think about it, it's not an unlikely place. How many works of art sell for outrageous prices these days to “anonymous bidders” -- many of whom are from Russia and Asia? Are these people art lovers? Please. Twenty years ago most of them were street toughs who slept in their cars. No -- art is a good place to stash assets. They know they can get it all back, with ample interest, any time the need arises. Do you think the stuff winds up on the walls of palaces in Moscow or penthouses in Tokyo? Maybe some, but I'll bet the bulk makes it way into secure vaults, to age like fine wine until it's time to change assets again. In fact, I daresay that any commodity that is fetching completely insane prices has become a medium of exchange for anonymous capital – and art is at the top of the list, followed by antiques, vintage cars, etc. There's a lot of money chasing premium goods around these days – and I don't think there's enough gold, or precious stones, to soak it all up. When comic books start selling for a million dollars – well, you know there's a lot of desperate and lonely capital out there.

Plus, it may be a mistake to assume that anonymous capital is ever “held” in any one form for very long. Just look at the currency markets – billions of dollars change hands every day, and all it usually adds up to is a few measly percentage points (or fractions thereof). But the point is, they're preserving capital – they're keeping it “working”, hot, and liquid – and available for whatever use they might want to put it to. Of course, “cold capital” has the advantage of being hidden away from prying eyes – and in that case you can be sure it's not in anything even remotely speculative. Speculation = hot commodities = turbulence = visibility. They can afford some visibility, but there's no way they're going to expose all, or even the bulk, of their assets on a regular basis. There's the market, and there's the coffee can buried in the back yard (back to metaphors!). The hidden masters of space and time (Tom Wolfe's term) play the market, but they also have their coffee cans. There are always funds available to support wars and revolutions – call it a form of investment. The return on investment? Even more capital (the addictive part), power, and, once again, ridding the world of excess people – of “useless eaters” (or non-eaters, as the case may be). And you can see how that last part resonates with, for example, people like Bill Gates. Where does so much of his money go? No matter what it's called, what he's investing in is a combination of utopia and euthanasia – ridding the world of excess people so the ones who are left can live an idyllic life (with broadband access). Nearly every super-rich person I'm aware of... and nearly every foundation started by super-rich people... seems to have this as a primary goal – to remake the world in their own image, and turn it into an exclusive club – a global gated community. And this is just the piece we know about – the piece that makes the evening news. But is there any reason to think that the priorities of anonymous capital are any different?

The Holy Father calls it a threat to the world and a false god... a form of enslavement... a destructive power. But surely if people are making money and accumulating wealth, how can that be destructive? Aren't they bringing order out of chaos? And as to “enslavement” -- aren't most of their slaves more than willing to serve, the way the “underprivileged” in this country faithfully play their part and support politicians who keep them in moral and economic chains? What world is being “threatened” here? These are questions that might occur to a member of the power elite who happens to read the Pope's remarks in a idle moment. There's certainly nothing wrong with their world – so why is this so-called “religious leader” complaining? Well, the answer, of course, is that their world is an evil one, based on evil premises and built on evil deeds – it is a mockery of a real, natural world in which the true nature of man is respected, and in which the sort of life appropriate to man is fostered and encouraged. It is, in fact, a totalitarian world in which the vast bulk of humanity are slaves – of widely-varying levels and standards of living, certainly – but slaves nonetheless. It is the very perversity of Lucifer, who preferred to rule in Hell rather than to serve in Heaven. These people have what is to them a kind of heaven – even though it necessitates its being a kind of hell for everyone else. But until humanity recognizes this “brave new world” for what it actually is, it will continue to grow in power and dominate their existence. If only even a small portion of the human race would read, and understand, and act on the words of the Holy Father!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Plains Truth

When I was roaming about the Northern Plains last month, I was struck once again by the apparent contradiction between the sturdy, self-sufficient character of the people and their tradition of populist, “progressive”, and even marginally radical politics. For every Joe McCarthy there were a hundred George McGoverns. And yet this seems like the part of the country most naturally suited to conservatism -- an area where strength, durability, and stoicism are necessary for survival, and where there is little patience with slacking, sloth, and parasitism. So what’s going on? Why this apparent contradiction?

I have gradually come to see that, in order to understand any given social trend, movement, or political force, one has to start with, first, geography -- the actual “lay of the land” of an area, its soil, its crops, its flora and fauna -- and, second, with the racial, ethnic, and religious background of the people. It doesn’t only matter where they are, but also where they came from culturally. There are reasons why Transcendentalism and Unitarianism rose up in New England, for example -- or Fundamentalism in the South -- or Protestant Utopianism in upstate New York. In each case, we see the outcome of pre-existing cultural tendencies -- attitudes and philosophy -- combined with national, local, economic, political, and even physical events. And each is worth a separate study… and many have been done. And, I daresay, not a few have been done on the Northern Plains -- but I’m not going after scholarly work here so much as speculation.

To begin with, what we think of as the “American” tradition of democracy, with its philosophical background and strong implication of individualism, is a better description of the tendencies of Anglo-Saxons (in both the Old World and this one) than of the other various groups that settled here. And the upper Midwest is much more a cultural product of Germany, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia than of the British Isles. Throw in some Central Europeans and Russians if you like; the situation doesn’t change. And it’s not as if people there don’t “care” about democracy and about “American” values; it’s just that those concerns are not as deeply rooted in their thinking -- their culture -- as they are elsewhere. The attitude toward forms of government, I suspect, is at once more casual and more practical than it would be among the more idealistic and utopian: What works is good, what doesn’t work “needs fixed”, and no one worries too much about what the Constitution says, or implies. There is, in fact, an immediacy about life in those parts -- when the hot, dry winds sweep across the prairie… or blizzards in winter… no one spends a whole lot of time debating principles of limited government. They’re all in the same boat, and it’s “first things first”. Compared to which, the relatively benign landscape and climate of New England and the mid-Atlantic region allowed time for such speculations.

So while I am not accusing the Northern Plains people of political indifferentism, I am speculating that they are, in some senses, less “idealistic”, less dogmatic, less fanatical about these things. And this, I submit, is at least in part a product of cultural heritage -- which tends to be high on the pragmatism scale and not as high on the ideational scale.

But then you have another factor -- alluded to above -- which is inherent in the geography -- the need to cope, on a more or less non-stop basis, with the vagaries of weather… to remain steadfast in the face of physical adversity (temperature extremes, wind, floods, drought, prairie fire, diseases of crops and livestock, etc.)… and to deal with the logistical challenges of transporting the products of labor across vast distances. And these factors do not necessarily foster an attitude of radical self-sufficiency -- the self-sufficient homestead is, I suspect, an extinct species in this area, even assuming that it ever existed at all. What grew up was, rather, an attitude of cooperation, division of labor, and even the pooling of resources, as appropriate -- a form of natural socialism, if you will, but socialism on the “light” side -- non-coercive, non-bureaucratic, non-hierarchical… a distributist model, if you will, not contrived but growing naturally out of the demands of the land combined with cultural attitudes and habits. And above all, it depended, still, on everyone pulling his (or her) own weight -- I can’t imagine that slackers, parasites, and fools were long tolerated.

So an attitude developed that, while cooperation was needed and was a good thing (not just a temporary or emergency expedient), it was not intended to relieve anyone of their natural duty to the community -- the need to contribute. And I also suspect that the need to “enforce” this premise did not arise all that often; in other words, these people were bred and brought up to carry their share of the load, and very few would be inclined to wander off the cultural reservation. And the few who did might be inclined to gravitate toward the cities, where the connection between work and eating is not so iron-clad (or obvious) as it is in the countryside.

And this was all well and good -- it “worked” within the bounds of the regional society. Thus, Northern Plains liberalism was born -- not as a school of thought, but almost as a kind of localized Natural Law. And this was easily translated -- again because of its distributist, non-hierarchical elements -- into populism. In other words, people did not need an elite, or a bureaucracy, or a complex hierarchy, telling them what to do -- much less one centered in the cities of the East Coast. There was a natural suspicion of “experts” -- of men with high foreheads and soft hands. One proved one’s worth by working… by bringing in the sheaves… not by giving advice and then taking a cut of the results.

So from this substrate there arose what was (and is) called “progressivism” -- which is essentially a codified form of natural socialism, mutual aid, what have you -- with a political overlay. The (mistaken) premise being, what’s good, and what works, for us, must also be good, and will work, for the entire country. And this is was ideational premise, to be sure, but I hesitate to call it "idealistic" because it was too firmly rooted in the reality of people and place. It had nothing on "pure" socialism or communism, for instance, when it came to utopian (i.e. delusional) thinking.

That was progressivism at the beginning. But it’s no longer synonymous with populism, and the best evidence for this is the “progressives” have, over the century-plus of their existence, made their ideals felt in a huge way, and have, for all intents and purposes, taken over many American institutions. But at the same time they have become separated from their roots; they have become “effete”, as Spiro Agnew would say. Progressivism is now more theoretical than pragmatic, and most of the theorists cling to the East and West Coasts… whereas the people whose heritage they have absconded with continue to inhabit “fly-over country”. The Democratic Party styles itself “progressive”, but its motley crew includes many varieties of the human (in some cases barely) species other than old-school progressives.

My impression is that the progressives were concerned primarily with social welfare (for the deserving) and economic egalitarianism -- not the radical leveling we see promoted from Obama’s White House, but certainly equality of opportunity, and, more importantly, opposition to the rule of capital, i.e. of “big business” and monopolies (including those granted by the government). But I don’t sense that they were opposed to private property, or to property rights per se. So the progressives were naturally pro-labor, but did not go as far as the Marxists, who declared that the sum total of the worth of all goods and services equaled the labor involved in producing them (with the implication that invention, technological innovation, skilled management, marketing, and creativity were worth nothing). And by the same token, they were not necessarily anti-religion, even if they did hold hierarchies in general suspect. (There are, in fact, ample numbers of Catholics in the Northern Plains; they are not all stoic lapsed Lutherans of the Garrison Keillor variety). And they were most definitely in favor of people working together for mutual benefit, in non-exploitative relationships -- even if they drew up short of purely communistic or communal models (that experiment was run primarily in New England and upstate New York -- at least until the hippie communes of the 1960s came along). They were, in other words, idealists, but of a more pragmatic stripe than the utopians who percolated up from the rich soils of upstate New York during an earlier era. And they saw government as, ideally, a means to an end; I don’t think many of them saw their ideal career path as involving a lifetime sinecure in Washington, DC the way many modern liberals do. They were more rooted in the land, and in the region from which they arose, and they did not forget, or choose to ignore, the core values of that culture.

But for all this, progressivism did get folded into the broader liberal movement, which also included urban labor, radicals of all sorts, minorities, big-government socialists (not a total redundancy, as I’ve tried to demonstrate) -- in other words, the “rainbow coalition” that has characterized the Democratic Party in recent decades. So in a sense, the progressives constitute a core, but a neglected core; infatuation with big government and centralization has taken over, and while economic collectivization has not yet been realized, political and social collectivization is a fact of life -- because with collectivization comes power (for those in charge of the collective), and power is, as Henry Kissinger so truly and cynically said, is the ultimate aphrodisiac.

But if progressivism succeeded, after a fashion, even in compromised and co-opted form, what of populism? The problem with populism is that it’s even more phobic about organization and hierarchy than progressivism is. It is, unlike both liberalism and conservatism, anti-authoritarian. There was, after all, a Progressive Party -- whereas all the populists have at present is a nebulous “tea party”, with no central organization and no agreed-upon platform. Plus, the “tea party” has committed the fatal error of operating within the cold, clammy sphere of the Republicans… which is a death knell all by itself, regardless of the results of the recent election. The “tea party” may not have been stillborn, but it is being exposed in infancy, in an attempt to kill off its ideas (incoherent as they are) and neutralize its influence in national politics… and the guiltiest party in this effort is the Republicans. The Democrats/liberals/mainstream media may be doing all the lampooning and character assassination, but it’s the Republicans who are administering the kiss of death even as we speak.

Now, there have certainly been other populist movements and events in our lifetime -- the campaigns of Gene McCarthy (a good Northern Plains man, note), George Wallace, and Ross Perot… the Ralph Nader brigade… in fact, virtually all “third-party” movements have been, arguably, populist in nature -- not surprising since all were reacting to the two-party, i.e. one-party, establishment and all of its pomps and works… its hypocrisy and tyranny… its power-madness. But as I indicated above, the moral strength of populism is also its political weakness, which is why populist movements per se simply never succeed. They may serve to challenge the establishment for a while, and get a few people upset, but in the long, or even medium, run they don’t have the resources to have any permanent impact. And this is not to say that certain, what I will call pseudo-populist movements can’t have an impact; think of organized labor and the civil rights movement. But these were hierarchical, sophisticated, and politically astute… and their actual membership was, as it turned out, a highly limited, elite group… whereas populists tend to be a bit disorganized, incoherent, and overly-emotional. A greater touch of “street smarts” and, frankly, cynicism might help -- but it would also be a contradiction.

To sum up, progressivism seems to have validity -- to “work” -- within certain demarcated geographical/cultural areas, but when it attempts to go nation-wide it winds up being co-opted and corrupted. In other words, the reality check that happens when it comes up against "diversity" is enough to take the wind out of its sails. And populism is just too nebulous to be anything but an expression of frustration and dismay when faced with the world as it is. And yet progressivism -- the progressive impulse -- seems to survive, not in its original form but in a recognizable descendent, in the Northern Plains. And this, I contend, is because that area of the country is still culturally coherent and geographically distinct (if no longer isolated) -- and this, in turn, is based on the eternal verities of land and climate as well as cultural archetypes; do I dare say “soil and blood”? Because this is what it appears to be. And yet, the minute the progressive impulse extends itself beyond that geographic and cultural region, it encounters a new reality -- that represented by the Democratic Party. And that reality is one of people -- countless hordes -- who love the idea of massive government, because their very lives depend on it… or so they believe. They want the government to do everything for them, from cradle to grave, and they don’t care how many freedoms or liberties they have to give up in order to make this so. Security is not only a priority; it’s the only priority. And in order to realize this new, decadent version of utopia, not only does government have to be massive and all-encompassing, it has to be extremely hierarchical, with millions of career government officials and employees. There has to be a huge tax-gathering apparatus, with a huge law enforcement/incarceration apparatus standing behind it. And then we have foreign affairs, where progressivism finally grinds to a halt, assuming it has survived this far. If you can’t even impose your notions of progress on the rest of the U.S., how are you going to impose them on the rest of the world? So this is finally left to the mainstream liberals and neoconservatives, who are well-practiced in such matters -- even if their success rate is abysmally low.

And yet, all of these failures and setbacks do not seem to blow back as far as their source; the people of the Northern Plains seem to preserve their vision of the way life ought to be, and to pursue it to the best of their abilities… and in most cases, from what I was able to observe, they succeed. And yet, there must be a sort of chronic puzzlement as to why it simply doesn’t work anywhere else, when it works so well there -- which is to say that they greatly underestimate the effects of land and culture, which is almost a definition of provincialism. If you live in a certain place, and are of a certain cultural type, you take those things for granted -- they are part of the baseline, and are thus somewhat invisible. Then the reasoning becomes not “because of who and where we are” but just “it’s only common sense”. But it’s not common sense -- obviously, because so few people have it. And yet if this ever completely sank in, would the Northern Plains people be edified… or just depressed? Better to let them be who they are and where they are, and let the rest of the country worry about its own problems… and leave the theoretical progressives feeling like orphans in a storm, because they are quite literally men (and women) without a country.

The Paper God That Failed

I've been speculating for quite some time now that the stock market is, basically, a sucker's game – unless, that is, you are an insider, in which case it's not a game at all but an easy way to separate people (primarily of the middle-class persuasion) from their money. Right, sure – all too easy to dismiss as the rantings of a paranoid blogger. But listen to Gail Marks Jarvis, a personal finance columnist for the Chicago Tribune, writing in yesterday's paper: “... the average investor has finally wised up and understands he can't beat those guys.” This is not her talking, but someone who e-mailed her on the issue. What she says is this: “Many individuals have come to see the stock market as a rigged game, with Wall Street using the small investor and taxpayer as pawns.” And get this – pension fund managers, no less, “sense that Wall Street has conjured up increasingly complex products that investors can't understand because they are opaque – or designed specifically so that only those who constructed them can analyze them and derive a profit.” Or, one might say, it doesn't differ in principle from three-card monte.

Now, what's remarkable about this is that a columnist writing for an establishment newspaper is bringing it up – not as an example of right-wing tea-party paranoia, but as a perfectly respectable, or at least understandable, point of view. She's not arguing, in other words. And this, to me, seems like a breakthrough of sorts. It's all about seeing the man behind the curtain labeled “Wall Street”, and seeing that the emperor of the same name is wearing no clothes. Why, if this idea catches on... imagine! The stock market might revert to once again being the plaything of the rich, with the more modestly-endowed keeping safely out of harm's way. This is the way things used to be, if you go back far enough. I'm not sure if the “Roaring 20s” were the first stock market craze for the middle class, but they certainly set the pattern – now we have day traders working frantically at their kitchen table, between the toaster and the butter dish. And they actually think they can do better than the insiders, who have computers capable of making billions of calculations per second loaded with every conceivable piece of relevant data on every firm on the Stock Exchange pumping out buy/sell/hold recommendations. Of course, I've heard it claimed that the pachyderms in the business are at a disadvantage because they don't have the agility or flexibility to make quick decisions and act on them – not to mention which, their decisions involve large enough chunks of stock that they can actually impact the market... whereas this cannot be claimed for any one day trader, or, I would guess, for all day traders combined. But I say that whatever advantages might accrue to a small, kitchen-table investor would be more than outweighed by the sheer volume of information the big guys have at their disposal. Plus, there are economies of scale involved as well. A stock “flip” that would not be worth doing if you had 10 shares might be very well worth doing if you had 100,000. And it's the cumulative sum of those flips that constitute a large portion of the typical day's profit.

But there's more to it than information and flexibility. In this business, it's not what you know, or even who you know – it's who you _are_ that counts. Someone one commented that all trading is insider trading; the rest isn't trading at all, but gambling. From the point of view of the outsider, the stock market is pretty much the same as a casino. In a casino, the results are (allegedly) determined randomly, according to probability. In the stock market, the results are anything but random but, because you (the outsider) have little if any information to go on, they might as well be. One is reduced to buying stocks the way some people bet on horses – because they like the name. I would imagine that the very best-informed day trader or independent investor is still woefully ignorant compared to the average insider. And this doesn't mean that the outsiders can't occasionally make money – but it has to be attributed more to dumb luck than to smarts. Of course, any successful gambler is convinced that he (or she) has developed a “system” of some sort; some of them even write books about it. And, according to probability theory, some of these “systems” are going to work – some for quite a long while. But eventually, they're going to crash, and the “genius” who came up with them is going to wonder what went wrong. And I'll imagine there are any number of “geniuses” out there who thought they had it patented when the Dow was at 14,000 – only to find, soon afterward, that the situation was totally out of their control, and they didn't, in fact, know anything.

Add to this the high probability that, the higher you get in the stock market pecking order, the less of a gamble – the less speculative – things become, until it gets to the point where everything is pretty much of a sure bet. And why is this? Simply because, as many people now believe, the stock market is a rigged game, and the small investor (i.e., the outsider) is no more than a sheep for the shearing.

Take the recent (or still current, depending on who you believe) financial crisis. The Dow plummets. People start to sell. It plummets some more. More people sell. And no one knows where the “bottom” is; it is 8,000? 7,000? 2,000? Maybe it will go all the way to zero! So panic sets in. And finally the day dawns when all the “little guys” have fled the market, having taken substantial losses, and that's the point at which the big boys move back in. (They were, by the way, the very first to sell, which is what set things in motion in the first place.) So they buy back in, at bargain prices, and sure enough, the Dow starts creeping up again – attracting, first, the least timid outsiders, then the moderately cautious ones, then the conservative ones, who might even be tempted to take money out of bank accounts (or out from under mattresses) and sell their gold in order to get back into “the market”. But here's the point – their money has already gone into the pockets of the big players, who have already realized a tidy profit and stand to make even more... until the day dawns when the market is, once again, full of midgets who don't know anything, and the cognoscenti are flush with cash (and enough residual stock to start the next round with). At which point, some stunt is pulled that turns things around and starts the next decline... and the process just repeats itself, with dull familiarity. It's this constant churning that works to the advantage of the insiders and the disadvantage of the small investors – and the government, needless to say, is complicit in the churning process. How could it not be, since it has become no more than a wholly-owned subsidiary of Wall Street? If you can find me more than a half-dozen high-ranking members of the Obama administration, or a half-dozen Congressmen, who aren't owned – lock, stock, and barrel – by big business and banking interests (both domestic and international), and Wall Street, I'll eat my hat; I just don't think it can be done.

Now, as I've said on other occasions, there are worse things than the stock market – or any securities market of any sort – being under the steady, firm hand of the Regime. For one thing, it means that none of them is ever going to collapse. There will be gains and declines, which are part of the churning process – the “a middle-class outsider and his money are soon parted” process. But of what use would it be to those in charge if the entire structure came tumbling down? This is their primary cash cow – their life blood. So there are mechanisms in place to reel things in when they even hint at getting slightly out of control; both "ceilings" and "floors" are determined in advance -- but of course that information is only available to the members of the inner circle; the rest of us have to guess.

So the system in these times depends on the, what I will call “trickle-up effect” by which surplus cash is periodically harvested by the elite and stored up in barns. When one considers the tax burden, and the corruption burden, and the government waste and inefficiency burden, on the middle class – clearly the bulk of their labors go to feed their masters in New York, Washington, and so forth. As comfortable, tranquil, and anesthetizing as life might be for middle-class Americans, they are really only enjoying a fraction of the wealth they create through their labors; most of it is siphoned off, at a hundred different points and in a thousand different ways. This is why I refer to the lot of the American middle class as “glorified slavery” or “slavery lite” -- they are, in fact, working for other people the bulk of the time – the faceless, nameless elite and their proletarian wards – but are left just enough to imagine themselves prosperous, and – what is more important -- “free”.

And this is what makes this article remarkable. Someone is actually calling out the financial establishment in an establishment newspaper – or, at the very least, quoting a number of people who all have the same suspicions without tarring them with the usual brush that has been working overtime on the tea partiers, Glenn Beck, etc. Jarvis calls it a “protest movement”, and points out that even stock market rallies have lost some of their power to tempt the unwary. And people have also come around to the idea that the banks and the government are in close collusion – and, in fact, might even be two different facets of the same entity. And what this adds up to is that the cash cow – at least a small portion of it – has gone on strike. The problem is, what, then, do people do with what little they have managed to save? When I was a kid it was all about banks and savings accounts; it was a red-letter day when my father actually started buying stocks, and even then they were individual stocks, not mutual fund shares. It was nothing like the craze of the 1920s, but it was something, at least – and the middle class gradually climbed on the bandwagon and never looked back... until now.

And I'm not claiming that the stock market, or the whole concept of publicly-held stocks, was a scam from the start. The chances are that there were once perfectly legitimate reasons why someone would seek capital, and investors, to back a legitimate and promising enterprise. And there are still cases like this, I have no doubt. But the core of the thing has degenerated into a game, and a scam – not the wild speculation of the 1920s, but a slow drip upwards of wealth... and it's disguised, of course, under a cloak of “volatility” and “unpredictability” and “chaos” -- but if that is so, then why do some people always seem to wind up on top? And why are they always the same people? And why are they always insiders? If the playing field is truly level, you would expect the large players to take as many hits as the small ones – but this never seems to happen. And in fact, in an enterprise of this magnitude, it's hard to see how it could. After all, there has to be control – iron-fisted in some cases – to keep centrifugal force from taking over. It's like foreign policy – behind all the apparent chaos there's a mailed fist. The dividing line can be operationally defined as the difference between knowledge and ignorance – or, to put it another way, between being loss-proof and being win-proof (or, winning only if you're unusually lucky). Any village idiot these days can provide names of financial and business entities that made out like bandits as a result of the “recession”; they are obviously on the up side of the line, as are all the people who, through it all, managed to – shazam! -- buy low and sell high in the stock market. The people who feel used, exploited, and done to... well, they're below the line, and they're in the vast majority, of course... and the “tea party” consists of no other type. But at least the tea partiers and the people whom Jarvis cites are vaguely aware of their situation; everyone else is a sheep to the slaughter.

See, I don't think you have to know all the intricacies of the market to know in whose interest it is operated. It has become all too obvious of late – and in a way, this is a good thing. Because if enough people lose faith in the stock market, they will start seeking out other means of preserving capital. They might even start demanding that the interest on bank accounts keep up with inflation (and that it not be taxed)! They might take an even more serious look at gold and other metals. In other words, things of real value might become popular again, now that the paper god has failed.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Kamikarzai

Life's tough when you're the standard bearer for the American Empire. But Gen. David Petraeus is up to the job – even when he has to deal with the likes of Hamid Karzai. This is a guy who redefines the meaning of “unwilling allies” -- not only does he seem determined to thwart all of our best efforts in his flea-bitten country, but he's starting to get more, and more publicly, friendly with his supposed enemies – and ours, needless to say – namely the Taliban. The latest outrage (as far as Petraeus is concerned) is criticizing U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, and putting Petraeus in what is termed an “untenable” position. Well, sure – when your allies debate, criticize, and quibble with your every move, how are you supposed to defend them from their enemies? I mean from our enemies. I mean from themselves. Whatever. And when they show signs of wanting to make nice with said enemies, well... does this make _them_ our enemies as well? It's all so confusing...

What has Petraeus expressing “astonishment and disappointment” (strong words coming from a stoic military type) is that Karzai is now calling for the U.S. to “reduce military operations” -- you know, the ones that kill more Afghan civilians than enemy “fighters” and “terrorists” -- and to “end U.S. Special Operations raids in southern Afghanistan”. More specifically, the Afghan leader (if there can even be such a thing) is objecting to night raids – you know, those operations where you can't tell the enemy from the natives -- not that it isn't impossible enough in broad daylight. In fact, there are even rumors that Petraeus is becoming petulant and threatening to resign. But hey, he's a good soldier, and good soldiers cheerfully ride into the valley of Death – or at least send someone else to do the riding. And as Tennyson so succinctly put it:

Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Someone had blunder'd:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.

This is, of course, true of all wars, and none more than our current folly in southern Asia. Clearly someone has blundered, and many of the soldiers know it. But at least the Light Brigade had identifiable enemies who wore uniforms and carried flags! Who are we fighting? “Cowardly” insurgents, dressed in burlap and smelling of rancid butter. And as Tennyson put it, “All the world wondered” -- but this was not even an anti-war poem! He saw honor in their folly. The marvel is that, to people of that era, there was glory even in defeat – and even in disasters that stemmed from futile attempts to build empires. These days we are not so romantic. What would the war in Vietnam have been, after all, if it were not for “body counts” and souvenir ears lifted from the enemy dead as proof of victory? (And sure enough, we now have soldiers being court-martialed for having made off with various and sundry insurgent body parts.)

The problem is that, whenever we make war on foreigners on foreign soil, we quickly acquire their cultural habits, no matter how unsavory. We become, in other words, what we behold. In fact, it can almost be said that if we don't, defeat is assured. Well... defeat may be assured anyway, and that may be what has Gen. Petraeus acting so thin-skinned. He's smart enough to know a lost cause when he sees one, even if that goes against all of his military training. The Afghan government has become like a house of mirrors – who is for real, and who isn't? Who is on our side? And even worse, who doesn't care one way or the other? Because Karzai and his cronies (friends and family) are very busy these days situating themselves, and adopting a stance that will insure their survival, no matter who wins. I believe it's called “triangulation”, and it's a perfectly understandable – traditional, even – strategy in that part of the world. You do as “third world” people have always done – collaborate when collaboration is in your best interests, and then turn around and make friends with the other guys when they seem to be gaining the upper hand. This is the response of people to empires, and to empire-builders. It worked for the far-flung colonies of the Roman Empire... it worked against the Crusaders... against the British... against the Nazis... against the Soviets... and now it's working against us. But Gen. Petraeus is upset, because it's not _nice_. It's not sportsmanlike. And it defies the ideational basis for our involvement over there. Don't these people believe in democracy? In “freedom”? Well, the answer, of course, is a resounding “no”. What they believe in is family, friends, tribe, and creed... and mostly in saving their own skin. And it has not escaped them what happens to collaborators once we leave. All they have to do is study the Vietnam situation to confirm that. If we can't, or won't, finish the job, then the job gets finished by someone else – and they're finished as well. The Vietnamese generals and politicians who were on our side, and who managed to escape the clutches of the Viet Cong, wound up running delicatessens and restaurants in Arlington, Virginia. Those who didn't manage to escape got “due diligence” from the communists. 'Twas ever thus. No one likes a traitor, and whoever winds up on the losing side in a civil war is, by definition, a traitor – seek no further than our own Civil War for evidence of this. And the only suitable punishment for traitors is death – not Lincoln's bland assurances of “malice toward none” and “charity for all”. It didn't happen back then, and it's not going to happen this time either. Among the many strengths of third-world people are long memories and a zeal for vengeance. (We, on the other hand, are ambivalent on the vengeance issue and have no memory at all.)

And what, pray tell, does Gen. Petraeus feel most thwarted about? According to an article in yesterday's paper, the success of his counterinsurgency strategy is “key to his hopes of being able to show significant progress when the White House reviews the situation in Afghanistan next month”. In other words, it's about officer efficiency ratings! Again, not all that unusual if you're talking about the modern military. After all, the battleground is littered with top-ranking generals who have been relieved of duty for having “failed” in places like Afghanistan – places where success is, basically, impossible. So yes, the military is a scapegoat for the follies of politicians – as always. And no general wants to be known as the guy who was benched, like a star quarterback who doesn't live up to his potential (or salary). You may retire to that palatial home on a golf course, but that black cloud of defeat will always be hanging overhead.

But let's get back to Karzai & Co. for a moment. I've already commented that there is no word for “corruption” in places like Afghanistan – it's simply the way things are done, and always have been. They consider us hopelessly na├»ve and foolish to believe things can, or ought to be, done any other way. But at the same time they take advantage of our naivete and our willingness to pour our own resources into their dry, thirsty sands – and into their sweaty hands. They will use us until they tire of us, at which point they'll turn up the heat and hope we respond by leaving. But this may be where Karzai has miscalculated. He's assuming that the day will dawn when we will leave his country voluntarily – after all, hasn't Obama promised as much? But the reality is that we have now adopted a policy of perpetual war, which requires no rationale except itself. When we run out of reasons for being somewhere, and fighting, we fall back on excuses based on inertia, “sunk costs”, and “not cutting and running”. In other words, it becomes a matter of pride, and nothing else. Except that there _is_ something else, and that is the pressure of all the groups, entities, and people who want us to stay over there for reasons of their own – and it is that combined pressure that keeps us from doing the sensible and rational thing.

Now, I suppose, in the long run Karzai doesn't care whether we leave voluntarily or are thrown out by his “friendly enemies” in the ranks of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. His preparations will remain the same in any case – to subtly converge with those elements until, when the last American has left those shores, no one can tell the difference. It happened in Cambodia, for example – the “good guys” wound up standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Khmer Rouge, because, after all, they did have one thing in common, which was hatred for foreigners and a perverted kind of national pride. Didn't we work with the Italian Mafia in order to defeat Mussolini? And didn't we rehabilitate plenty of ex-Nazis the minute the Cold War started, in order to defend our interests in Germany? So you see, there really is no such thing as an eternal enemy; even we believe that – or at least act as if we do. And yet when we see the same attitude developing in a place like Afghanistan, we get upset. All that's happening now is that Karzai is becoming less secretive about his long-term plans. He believes that, sooner or later, we will have to leave... and, being a patient and inscrutable semi-Oriental, it matters not whether that day is a year away, or ten years, or a hundred. The main thing is that some day there will be an un-occupied Afghanistan, and he wants to be ready to defend his interests and those of his inner circle.

What Karzai most assuredly doesn't care about is what was referred to as an upcoming NATO “summit... that will begin to set a timetable for transition.” The key words here are “summit”, “begin”, “set”, “timetable”, and “transition”. Add them up and they spell, basically, nothing – a heap of conditionals, in other words. And if any one of those conditionals is violated or not met, well, the whole deal is off and we're staying, damn it! And we dare those jellyfish in NATO to do anything about it. I mean – we're already talking about 2014 rather than 2011. In fact, with every year that passes, we up the ante by at least two years – which, mathematically, is a good operational definition of infinity. But NATO has to get together and engage in what Churchill called “jaw jaw”, because, after all, that's their job (and the only one they have left, since the Cold War ended). And of course Karzai will attend because, hey, that's where the Afghan GNP comes from – that and heroin. And he will smile and shake plenty of infidel hands, because that's just what one does in those situations. And then he'll go back to Kabul and have a good laugh with his buddies around hookah pipes, the way Stalin threw parties after Yalta. The Yankees have, once again, been snookered.

The article concludes thusly: “'I think it's (Karzai's) directness that really sticks in the craw,' another NATO official said. 'He is standing 180 degrees to what is a central tenet of our current campaign plan.'” Well, yeah – his ways are most certainly not our ways. After all, we are the occupiers and he has to live there. We are fighting our war our way, for our purposes, on his soil. But again, people in that part of the world are patient and long-suffering. And they can see that the bottom is gradually falling out of the American Empire. There is not enough money in the world to keep it going for as long as our politicians and generals would like. Sooner or later there will have to be a day of reckoning. Karzai is just trying to make sure that it is a day of reckoning for us, and not for him.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Drive-By Blogger Returns!

Headline: “Home With Foot-deep Piles Of Rats Coming Down” -- I thought they were talking about the Democrats in the House of Representatives, but no such luck...

So Obama's backing down on his “timetable” for getting out of Afghanistan. Whoa – didn't see that coming. Anyone with a grain of sense could have told you that this “timetable” was a hoax from Day One. The “plan”, as always, is that we're going to stay until doomsday... or until we're unceremoniously thrown out, the way we were from Vietnam. No other scenario is being seriously entertained by the White House, Congress, or the military.

Please notice that the “tea partiers” are already being marginalized by the establishment Republicans in Congress – and the next session won't even start until January. So... we can say, with confidence, that the “tea party” has crested, and is already past its high water mark. The few declared tea party candidates who were elected are doomed to huddle in a small cluster in some cold, dark corner of the Capitol until they are mercifully voted out of office, or leave of their own accord. Thus endeth another noble but futile episode of populism...

But at least we'll have Rand Paul in the Senate, and if he's anything like his old man, it should make for some interesting debates.

And what is it with these cruise ships? The problem is, they are one of the few places where the First World meets the Third World, and the results aren't pretty. The passengers, of course, are from the First World, and the crew, except for those at the very top, are from the Third World... which means that most of the people doing most of the work on the ship are from cultures with values, habits, and priorities drastically different from those of the passengers... and the results keep showing up in all the various “incidents” and mishaps that occur aboard, and to, cruise ships. For example, let's say you're on a cruise where most of the crew are from Country Z. What it means is you have to put up with Country Z's habits of sanitation and cleanliness – which is as if you were actually in Country Z (but without the required regimen of shots). At least that's my take on the matter...

So Obama escaped the wrath of the electorate and betook himself to Indonesia, where all he had to worry about was an erupting volcano. I'm sure he prefers the volcano...

And here's another shocker. According to Philip Giraldi, writing in The American Conservative, the Stuxnet computer worm “was created by the Israeli government... to target the Iranian nuclear program.” Well, this was the first thing that came to my mind when the story broke – but the American MSM have yet to connect the dots, at least in print. But here's something else of interest – Stuxnet is specifically designed to attack the Siemens operating system. Now Siemens, as you may know, is a German firm that, according to Wikipedia, “was involved in funding the rise of the Nazi Party and the secret rearmament of Germany. During the second World War, Siemens supported the Hitler regime, contributed to the war effort and participated in the 'Nazification' of the economy. Siemens had many factories in and around notorious concentration camps to build electric switches for military uses. In one example, almost 100,000 men and women from Auschwitz worked in a Siemens factory inside the camp, supplying the electricity to the camp.” So... Israel manages to not only thwart a current enemy, but exact a bit of “payback” on one of their old enemies. Damn, life can be good when you're that smart.

Now it turns out that the cholera epidemic in Haiti may have been started by United Nations “peacekeepers” from Nepal. But “no one is investigating the cause” because “the case is politically sensitive”. Oh yeah -- can't afford to offend those Nepalese, they might kick our butts. Or at least throw a few aging hippies in jail. (Let's also not forget that Nepal is one of the few countries left on Earth where leprosy is alive and well... not to mention Maoism.) But at least it forces me to modify my assessment of the U.N. I used to think it was a totally worthless organization, but now I see that it's involved in population control – the hard way.

It looks like Nancy Pelosi will be going the way of King Lear... or maybe Nero, or Caligula. She will not – or so she says – go gentle into that good political night, but will fight like the harpy she is to maintain even the most pathetic level of power. But such is the makeup of the liberals of our time – they are all about power, and very little if anything about actual ideas – meaning, ones that are valid and that might work.

So... a missile of unknown origin heads heavenward off the coast of California and no one, including the Defense Department, knows where it came from or why it was launched. Of course, they're putting out the usual lame “explanations” -- sort of an updated version of the ubiquitous “swamp gas” of the 1950s UFO sightings. But not to worry! “There is no threat to our nation”, say the wise men of NORAD. But how do they know? I mean, garsh, it coulda been launched by North Korea... or Iran... or Mexican drug lords. I don't feel at all comfortable with their bland reassurances.

Is a Happy Meal without a toy an Unhappy Meal? This seems to be the intent of the nannies and scolds of San Francisco... except... wait! Do you mean to tell me that there are actually children in San Francisco? And that they eat Happy Meals? And for that matter, that there are McDonalds in San Francisco? Now I'm all confused. What's SF going to do about these implications, now that their dirty little secret is out? How are they going to regain respect? I can't imagine their surviving this blotch of ordinariness.

Pat Buchanan points out, once again, that the biggest sufferers in the Iraq war are Christians. To which I reply, once again, that this doesn't faze American Evangelicals – ever-faithful supporters of the war – in the least, since the Christians in question are Catholics.

China is on our case again – this time about the upcoming purchase of Treasury bonds by the Fed – which is a slightly sneakier way of simply printing more money, i.e. intentionally causing inflation. See, China is still holding just too darn much paper denominated in American dollars – and silly them! Too bad, so sad. It's not that that they care about our economy per se – or our future. As far as that's concerned, they'd be just as happy seeing us sink into the ocean. But all that U.S. Treasury paper – ack! I'm amazed the guy who dreamed up the idea of buying it all hasn't already been executed (maybe he has -- does anybody know?). I mean, it seemed like a good idea at the time... until some real collectivists started infiltrating the American financial establishment – and thus the irony. We're acting like the communist countries used to act when it comes to money... and the nominal communists don't like it one little bit. So it's their karma we're talking about here... but the price we pay to teach them a damn good lesson might be a bit high.

Well, Keith Olbermann spent his obligatory few days in the doghouse for having made campaign contributions – a truly shocking act, compared to his mild-mannered and measured tones when speaking of Republican and/or conservative candidates and politicians. This is a guy who wants Bush, Cheney, McCain, Palin, and the tea partiers roasted on a spit – but that's perfectly OK with MSNBC; that's only “opinion”. But to actually give money – why, shame shame! And BTW, I'm looking for a new “hypocrisy meter” since my old one recently burned out from overload...

Another milestone in what I call the “pathologization” of America was reached the other day when Tourette's Syndrome was presented as a defense in a murder case. The individual in question became famous the first time around for having an uncontrollable case of the hiccups as a teen... but that problem has now been parlayed into a murder defense. I look forward to the day when all Americans have been declared “ill” and thus not responsible for their actions. At that point, there will no longer be any need for murder trials because there will no longer be any such thing as murder – only “uncontrollable impulses” brought on by an “illness” -- and the jails will be emptied, and replaced with neuropsychiatric wards. Kind of like in the Soviet Union, now that I think of it...

The Army continues to grope around for an answer to the suicide problem among troops. The latest study aims to develop an “evidence-based plan” for suicide prevention. I guess that term is meant to distinguish it from a speculation-based plan, or – more likely – a political correctness-based plan. I'll say it again – the best insurance against suicide is having a feeling of meaning to one's life. And there is nothing like experiencing the utter absurdity of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to severely compromise that feeling of meaning. Our troops are not philosophers, or political scientists – but they are very human, and as such are burdened with the normal psychological needs of humans everywhere... but this is a fact that our military seems determined to ignore, as it sends them into impossible, degrading, brutalizing, and demoralizing situations. Joe Snuffy may think he's going off to war to defend the folks back home – but once he gets over there, he realizes that our exertions amount to anything but. And this is where the crisis of meaning comes in, and where the suicide issue appears. But will the military's “study” come within a mile of identifying this as a factor? You can count on it avoiding this issue at all costs – because, after all, the military is supposed to “stay out of politics”, which means they will continue to serve as unthinking, passive victims, and never understand what is happening to them or why -- but come up with endless "studies" in order to feel like they're doing something about the problem.

And BTW, to the Loser Hall of Fame – recently graced by the arrival of World Bank/IMF protesters -- must now be added this grotesque band of idiots who call themselves Furries. One article describes them as “people who dress or act like animals” -- well, the dressing part is fairly novel (except for football team mascots), but the acting part has been around forever – especially if you're talking about fraternities at large state universities. Frankly, I prefer the “Animal House” version to this new mutation. At least -- to paraphrase W.C. Fields -- a frat boy wakes up sober... but a Furry remains an idiot for life.

Mohammed would be the most popular name for boy babies in England if it weren't for the 12 different spellings of the name. Kinda reminds me of what happened when the Appalachian Scots-Irish enlisted in the army during World War I – many were illiterate or only semi-literate, and they had come up with all sorts of local, idiosyncratic spellings for family names, many of which survive in phone books to this day... including in Pittsburgh.

“Gubernatorial candidate Tom Tancredo [of Colorado] says President Obama is a bigger threat to the United States than al-Qaida (speaking of many different spellings!) or terrorism." What he allegedly meant was that Obama was a bigger threat to the Constitution than al-Qaida or terrorists – and this is hardly a controversial statement. It isn't terrorists who threaten the Constitution -- it's how our government reacts to terrorist acts or threats. But even if he had been speaking more generically, it would still be true – if you're talking about the traditional American way of life and core values. The “terrorists” don't have designs on our way of life or our values – despite what the government propaganda apparatus claims. All they want is to get us out of the Middle East... and our little dog too (i.e., Israel). Obama, on the other hand, most definitely has designs on our way of life and our core values – and the attacks are likely to continue even in the light of recent election setbacks. True believers are like that – and we have one in the White House again, after way too many years' worth of cynics. But, to give cynics their due, at least they don't have an ideological agenda – and in these times, that's more often a good thing than a bad thing.

Israel recently announced that it was going to require all non-Jewish immigrants to declare their loyalty to Israel. And this caused all sorts of consternation among Palestinians and others. But frankly, I don't understand why they're so upset. After all, the very same loyalty oath to Israel is required of anyone running for national office in the U.S. -- and no one seems too troubled by that. These Palestinians are just way too thin-skinned, it seems to me.

Ah, Philadelphia! How lovely is thy name... and how unlivable is thy city. Recently, a vigil being held for a teenager struck and killed by a garbage truck was marred by gunfire which wounded four more teenagers. Now, it's always possible, I suppose, that the Pittsburgh media cherry-pick news from the other side of the state, just to make Philadelphia look as bad as possible, and Pittsburgh look good by comparison. And it's not as if things like that don't happen here – au contraire. But this constant drumbeat of blight, mindless brutality, corruption, anarchy, and absurdity that comes out of Philadelphia causes one to think. After all, it's a Quaker town – or used to be. And the Quakers have always been at the forefront when it comes to progressivism, social change, and especially that marvelous political-social mutation called “urban renewal”. So in that sense, not only is Philadelphia the city that the Quakers built, but it's the city the Quakers – or those who think like them – continue to "build". If the Washington, DC inner city is the apotheosis of liberal New Deal politics and policies, then Philadelphia is the same thing for the Quakers. It is a laboratory -- Exhibit A when it comes to the ultimate consequences of their world view. At least, this is my position until proven otherwise.

George Will recently commented that Jimmy Carter “seemed miniaturized by the presidency”. Well... not exactly. Carter was already a miniature on the day of his inauguration. What he did was to miniaturize the office of president – a feat which was, fortunately, reversed by Reagan.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Fearful Asymmetry

One of my favorite lines of poetry is that which begins William Blake's “The Tiger”:

Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

And it is this “fearful symmetry” that comes to mind when I consider our entanglement in the Middle East. Most of the wars of the 20th Century – at least the ones we were involved in – featured “our” armies – those of the U.S. and our allies – doing battle against the other side in a more or less “symmetrical” fashion. This not refer to equal numbers or firepower, but equivalent methods -- which is to say, although the causes and goals were in direct opposition, there was a uniformity of sorts in "theory"... in how war was waged. It was army against army (or navy against navy, air force against air force) using very similar tactics. Everyone was in uniform... they all carried flags... they all represented actual countries – places one could find on a map. What was called guerrilla warfare was the exception rather than the rule, and occurred primarily in the context of home-grown partisan attacks on occupying forces. And there was another sort of symmetry as well – a “fearful” one indeed – in that, despite claims to the contrary, the armies were fighting on behalf of secular values and entities – nation-states, political beliefs, and “ideas”. And this was actually considered an improvement over the “religious wars” of an earlier time, which were also wars of ideas, but of ideas grounded in religious belief. How refreshing it was to have all that nonsense over and done with, and be reduced to the straightforward, clean, rational struggle of ideas! -- or the even more primitively refreshing idea of territory. The secularists and materialists never had it so good. It was, “may the best political system win” -- and this was particularly the case in World War II and in all the hot and cold episodes of the “Cold War” (in which I include Korea and Vietnam). And victory – when and if it was achieved – would invariably be counted as a victory of ideas, rather than of faith or creed: democracy over monarchy, capitalism over communism, and so on. The materialistic premise that it was the duty of the state to impose its “system” over other states was unquestioned (as it is today) – and sure enough, the victors got to impose – or try to – their ideal form of government over the vanquished. Thus, World War I “made the world safe for democracy” -- even though it led directly to the imposition of Bolshevism over Russia and National Socialism over Germany... and World War II (AKA “let's get it right this time”) made the world safe for communism, which its adherents claimed was simply another form of democracy. But who was to say? Every communist state was styled a “people's republic” -- but wait, wasn't the United States also a people's republic? That's certainly what the Founding Fathers claimed... and they were echoed by Lincoln, among others. And when it comes to ideas, let's admit that socialism – broadly defined – had the upper hand throughout most of the world in the aftermath of World War I. It was our version (the New Deal) vs. the Soviet version vs. the Third Reich version. Clearly, some new terminology was (and still is) needed that satisfactorily differentiated among the different versions – you know, the “good” kind of socialism vs. the “bad” kind vs. the “not so bad” kind.

But then a funny thing happened in the aftermath of World War II. The “set-piece battle” concept declined in popularity (except perhaps in Korea) and was replaced by the guerrilla model, where “insurgents” and “fighters” on one side started waging war against more traditional forces – and this is why Vietnam was so disorienting. The other side didn't fight “fair” -- I mean, heck, they didn't even wear uniforms... and they did cowardly things, like disappearing into the underbrush after battles, or, even worse, “blending in” with the local populace (probably because, in most cases, they _were_ the local populace). And thus was born the concept of “asymmetric warfare” or “unconventional warfare”, and our military – and that of our allies – had to make painful adjustments, which have still not been completed. We still march (or fly, or ride) in with banners flying... in full uniform... soldiers weighted down with 100 pounds of gear... massive firepower at the ready... and are met by scruffy, lightly-clad combatants who are at times indistinguishable from the populace but whose "improvised" weaponry, when properly applied, is at least as deadly as our own. And thus, we find ourselves, contrary to our gentlemanly ideals, fighting not just armies but real people – citizens, “natives”. This is where we find ourselves in Iraq and Afghanistan, and this is why it “feels” like we're fighting... well, basically, everybody. Not just people in uniform, or carrying weapons, but everyone else besides – even women and children. And this, of course, gives the other side a golden opportunity to accuse us of waging “total war”... of brutality, atrocities, and all the rest of it. And the fact is, each side has a point – but simply realizing this doesn't solve anything.

And then, to add to the overall discombobulation, we're now faced with what we call “terrorism” -- which is, first and foremost, the way poor countries, or people, wage war against rich countries or people. It is basically their way of moving the conflict from their land, and their doorstep, into our land, and onto our doorstep. (And why "terrorism" causes more terror than "conventional" warfare is lost on me -- you're just as dead either way.) And this is particularly galling to us Americans, since, after all, our ideal vision of warfare is something that is fought elsewhere – certainly not on our own soil, and certainly not against our own citizens, i.e. those not in uniform. So there is a great sense of unfairness about it all – except that, to the other side, it's eminently fair. If we have the right to invade their territory and kill their people indiscriminately (or so they contend), then why don't they have the same right? And in particular, why don't they have the right to fight back against what they see as intolerable occupations and cultural, economic, and social warfare against them and their way of life? Don't take my word for it – just listen to, or read, what outfits like Al Qaeda say every time they pull off an attack. Do what Bush and Obama and all the others refuse to do, namely listen to what they say and take it seriously.

So this is part of the “new” asymmetry, but the other part is, I believe, even more profound. We're still fighting, allegedly, for ideas – for “democracy” and “freedom” and so forth, but always with a completely materialistic basis and ideational – dare I say philosophical? -- premises, whereas they are fighting not only for their culture and their traditional way of life, but for faith and creed. And this is where the gap in understanding is greatest. They're fighting a religious war – you know, that nasty old thing that we thought we had long since done away with. Why, even the Catholics and Protestants of Europe eventually managed to work out ways to coexist – except in Northern Ireland. And Catholics and Orthodox and even Muslims had it worked out, more or less – until Yugoslavia broke up. But those crazy Islamists in the Middle East, well, how do you deal with people like that? Ah, I have it – call them “Islamofascists” -- that'll show 'em! That'll impress the world and convince them that our cause is just – because, after all, wasn't “fascism” dealt a death blow in Europe by our victory in World War II? Well, of course, that sort of moronic name-calling doesn't impress them one iota – and rightly so. I imagine that a few of them even remember that the “fascists” of the World War II era were dead-set against the Jews... and guess what, so are they. So they might even be proud of the term, and wear it like a badge of honor.

The point is that when it comes to “ideas” versus faith – no matter how atavistic or benighted we believe that faith to be – faith has a way of winning out in the long run. After all, it is intimately connected with race, ethnicity, geography, language, and culture -- all the connective tissue of human life on earth – whereas no one can make that claim when it comes to “democracy”. Democracy, at least as practiced in the United States, actually stands in opposition to ethnicity, geography, language, and culture (although not race, for some strange reason). It is an idea, pure and simple... an abstraction... and an absurdity in many of the more traditional corners of the world. What is “democracy” when you have a religious hierarchy that is reflected in the way ethnic groups, tribes, villages, and even families are run? Are there any true believers in democracy who can hold a candle to true believers in a faith that has an other-worldly frame of reference? How many suicide bombers, for example, do we have on our side? My offhand guess is “none”. Even Japan, which was an extremely militant and secular-seeming state leading up to World War II, was able to come up with kamikaze pilots; how many did we have? See, the problem with fighting for ideas is that one wants to be around when the fighting is over, to impose and implement those ideas on the losers. Getting killed in battle sort of spoils things in a way. Whereas for the “faith-based” warrior, as with the Crusaders of old, you can “win” by dying just as effectively – if not more so – than by staying alive. (I refer again to the Japanese, and their horror of surrender.) So again, how do you deal with people who even have a totally alien idea of what constitutes victory or defeat? Even a “secular faith” like Maoism had its limits, when it came to self-sacrifice... whereas with militant Islam it seems to know no bounds.

Our usual answer to this dilemma, of course, is to exercise brute force and an overwhelming advantage in power – weaponry and mobility (“nation building” having been exposed as a total scam). It becomes a matter of our iron vs. their blood – and it seems to work at least some of the time. We managed to tame the Japanese tiger, and convert them to our way of life (politically, I mean). But will the same thing be said some day when it comes to the Middle East? The only Islamic country I can think of that has made that transition is Turkey, and that was done voluntarily. No one forced them to secularize, or to deracinate themselves – they just thought it would be in their best interests. They wanted to, after all, be part of Europe – and Europe was not about to put up with that old-fashioned religious nonsense. But no one else over there has followed suit – not really. For every national leader who mouths good Western democratic words and ideas, there is an undercurrent, right outside the palace walls, of reaction – of traditionalism, of the old ways... of “clinging”, in Obama's word, to the Koran. They would literally rather die than become like us – simply because they consider us materialistic, secular, and degenerate – and, again, rightly so. (This is, by the way, not why they hate us – it's why they despise us. They hate us because we're on their soil. If we got off their soil they'd still despise us, but I don't think they'd waste much time making war on us, no matter what our politicians and media types claim.)

So in their book, there is nothing the least bit shameful about fighting for faith and tradition... and nothing shameful about carrying the battle into the homeland of their enemies, AKA “terrorism”. Whereas we prefer to fight for anything but faith and tradition – and I say this despite the “Christian”, actually Protestant, actually Evangelical, undertones to our exertions in the Middle East. We are formally and overtly fighting for ideas, but if you ask any number of our own troops (and mercenaries) they will admit that they are, in fact, fighting for their version of Christianity and against Islam – not against “terrorism” but against Islam, period. And the Islamic world hears this, and knows this, and responds accordingly. The problem is, we may make those claims “off the record” but when it comes down to cases we don't act that way – we don't go all the way... we don't meet them on their own terms, because we can't; it's simply not in our makeup. It's not part of our own “tradition”, which is nominally Christian but is, in fact, materialistic and ideational. Plus, our efforts in that region are driven by people – the powers that be – who are anything but Christian. They use Crusader imagery and ideas to motivate the troops, but they're in it for the usual things – power and money.

And I would be remiss if I didn't mention Israel in connection with all this. The Moslems may be fighting a religious war against Israel... but is Israel fighting a religious war? How many Israelis, especially those in positions of power, are truly religious? I think the answer is that they are fighting for the tribe, as they have been doing down through the ages – and at this point in history the tribe is synonymous with the State of Israel. Certainly, the Jewish religion is correlated with Israel; how could it not be? But is it the driving force? I daresay that if every Israeli were a secular Jew, the situation would not change in the slightest. But at least – to give credit where credit is due – they are fighting for a race or tribe, and not for “ideas”; that's our job, apparently. So this introduces still another level of asymmetry – a three-way misfit – an ideational nation (us) fighting true believers (the Islamists) on behalf of a by-and-large secular and non-ideational tribe (Israel).

And we wonder why things aren't working out over there.