Saturday, December 27, 2014

Fools, Holy and Otherwise

They came from far and wide... by ship, train, automobile, on horseback... some even on foot. They were young, idealistic, and inspired by an idea... a movement... something that promised to change the world for the better. And when at last they arrived at their destination, they had guns thrust into their hands by the communists and Freemasons, and were sent out to fight Franco's army and the Catholic Church.

The event was the Spanish Civil War, and the individuals in question were part of a children's crusade – more-useful-than-average idiots who were seen, by the cynics rehearsing for World War II, as a propaganda medium as well as cannon fodder. And they had the enthusiastic support of the folks back home, wherever “home” happened to be. (Remember, this was in the 1930s when communism, especially of the Soviet variety, was seen by many in this country as the most promising model for the future of mankind. The New Deal was just the first step.)

But why bring up this dreary and depressing bit of history now? Because I was reminded of it by reading about the successful recruiting efforts of the Islamic State – soon to be known as ISISaFAWKUYB, or Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and For All We Know Under Your Bed – the latest bogeyman in what appears to be an unending parade of “terrorist” organizations. (Our propaganda apparatus seems to be able to pop these outfits out like litters of puppies every few months. No one has ever heard of them until they show up on the evening news.)

But here's the point. They are a military organization, for certain – although how “terrorist” they are depends on what side you're on and where your interests lie. They have apparently managed to grab on to vast stretches of territory that were supposedly defended by the crack troops trained, armed, and funded by our own military and the American taxpayer. (I guess it worked about as well as any other government program.) And they are also, apparently, engaged in just a little of what we used to call “hearts and minds” work (before that term became synonymous with massacres). And, of course, they are energetic, bright-eyed, and absolutely certain of their beliefs and of the ways in which they act upon them. And thus, in these respects at least, they resemble pretty much any revolutionary movement down through history. Those movements tend to attract the young, who are idealistic and tend to see things in absolute, black-and-white terms (substituting politics and “ethics” for religion, in most cases).

But for ISIS, religion is an absolute, so you can't expect their movement to attract too many poli-sci majors from large American universities. (They're too busy worrying about “sell-outs” -- first Russia, then China, and now Cuba. Thank goodness North Korea is hanging tough!) What they do attract, though, are Moslems or those with Moslem aspirations who are looking for.... let's call it “purity”. Purity, lack of compromise, and militancy – combined with that great connective tissue of all successful revolutions, cohesion (or fellowship, companionship, “comrades in arms”, however you want to think of it -- “Those were the days, my friend”, etc.). That is, they are looking for something that most modern armies of conscripts and/or mercenaries don't have – a raison d'etre, a cause, something to believe in, something to make sacrifices for.

And are these motives bad? They are certainly common enough – maybe essential – in the history of religion; how many saints can you name who were “moral relativists”? And at some point after the Reformation these motives were shifted over to politics – the new religion to replace the old. Enough has been said about the “religious” nature of political movements, starting with the French Revolution and going up through Communism and Fascism. And now we again see religion as a prime motivator, violating all standards of political correctness. True belief is a force to be reckoned with – a “force multiplier” in military terms. And it's great when you agree, but scary and bad when you don't. But in any case, it does tend to unite people, at least at the early stages of a movement, until the pragmatists take over, followed by the cynics. You see this basic trajectory in the Soviet case; the Third Reich didn't last long enough to run through the entire cycle – it was born fanatical and died fanatical. In our own case, the pragmatists were in charge from the beginning; when the cynics started to take over is a good question, but I would put it, at the very latest, at the start of the Vietnam War era. Everything from then on has been politics – skillfully disguised, at times, as patriotism to make it more palatable to the unwary, but pure politics nonetheless.

But there's another point to be made. What ultimately appeals to youth, and to older people of a certain disposition, is not deep philosophy, or even ideas – it's revolution per se. It's the process – the stimulation – the excitement – the savor of storming the battlements (literal or political). People have been known to radically change their ideas and political points of view, but remain revolutionaries; one can call them shallow, but that would be like calling someone who enjoys driving but doesn't much care where he winds up shallow. There are people who are built for this sort of thing, and, quite frankly, even the most half-baked ideas can stimulate them to action if they're presented in the right way (with, ideally, the proper iconography – think media, film, TV, radio, posters, etc.). The most skilled promotion of revolution can be entirely content-free – all process, no product (or as Mao put it, “continuous revolution”).

And this, as in so many other instances having to do with world affairs in our time, catches the international elite totally off-guard. They are, if anything, the ultimate pragmatists – it's all about the bottom line, and anyone who argues differently is some kind of dreamer. The bottom line may be money, or power, or some combination of the two, but it's always about the material and never about ideas – to say nothing of religious ideals. To give the best example in our own society, we have the Neocons, who are self-styled patriots and “conservatives”, but who relish power above all. Or, to put it another way, can we really call the people who are turning this country into a monstrosity patriots? Our home-grown liberals, on the other hand, have never been patriotic; they see themselves as “citizens of the world”... but when you closely examine their motives and actions, you see a lust for power and control over others as their prime motivation. I would say that the main difference between liberals and “conservatives” in our time is that the former use money to gain power, whereas the latter use power to gain money. And I don't call that a radical difference in world view.

So what does the Establishment – any establishment, any regime – do when confronted with belief? What does it do when confronted with “fanatics”, “absolutists”, “dogmatists”... or, in the current lexicon, “haters” (which is what you call someone who has strong opinions that differ from your own)? The tools are varied, and are wielded with great skill by the propaganda apparatus, AKA the mainstream media. First you ignore them -- “just a bunch of nuts”... “a fringe element”... “kooks”... and so on. Then when they seem to be acquiring some small measure of power and influence, you start with the hard-core labeling: “Fascists”... “Nazis”... “fundamentalists”... “ultra-(whatevers)”. That, and some form of impugning their mental health, patriotism, suitability for public office, suitability for possessing weapons, etc. Then you start to allow for “strong measures” -- regrettable, but these people are dangerous! And this is a crisis! -- on the part of the police, FBI, CIA, military, etc. (But never the Border Patrol for some reason.) Oh, and – lest we forget – they are always accused of oppressing women, gays, and “minorities” in general; turn that up a notch and you get slavery, child molestation, drug dealing... wow, these are real baddies, and anything we do to stop them has to be OK. (To hell with “just war” theory.)

And yet, on the other side of this great reality divide, there are people who truly believe that a new world is being created, and they want to be part of it. And we might understand, if we had any vestige of principles or belief, but since we are all pragmatists and cynics now, we don't, and so we wade into conflicts without having the vaguest idea of what we are doing battle with.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Credit Where Credit is Due, Part 1: They Call Me Cuban Pete

After six years of the lying, cheating, stealing, and overall farce that defines the Obama administration, it's refreshing to see one thing coming out of that den of iniquity called The White House that actually makes sense. Two, actually – or let's say one and one-half. The first is the normalization of diplomatic relations with Cuba, and the “half” is the easing (but not total elimination – at least not yet) of prosecutorial zeal directed at users of marijuana. And some will say, well, this is, at long last, the “real Obama” -- returning to his roots as a community organizer, radical, liberal, outsider. Because, after all, six years in, what does he have to lose? He can offend anyone he wants to (and usually does) and get away with it, because he won't be running for office again, and maybe he wants to make a statement – especially one that will serve as contrast to his “inevitable” successor, namely Hillary Clinton, AKA Big Nurse. Maybe he simply wants to say that he hasn't totally sold out to the white male establishment. Whatever. I'd rather someone did the right thing for the wrong reasons than continue to do the wrong thing for whatever reasons. And in terms of the political and cultural distortions that have been a chronic infection in this society for decades, nothing stands out quite as starkly as marijuana “policy” and foreign policy when it comes to Cuba. They are holdovers from an earlier time; they were a mistake then, and they're even more of a mistake now. So pretty much any change is likely to be in the right direction – not that it will salvage the overall reputation of Obama & Co., but it will at least be part of his legacy. Just as even a stopped clock is right twice a day, even a bad president can do something right now and then, if only by accident.

To take Cuba first. The breaking of diplomatic relations and the boycott were ostensibly based on Cuba's conversion to communism, “only 90 miles from our shores”, and the confiscation of American assets (both legal and illegal -- more on that below).  And the missile crisis that soon followed (assuming it really was a crisis, and this can be called into question as well) did nothing to reassure the populace that they had nothing to worry about from that pipsqueak, cigar-chomping, bearded dictator an easy boat ride from Key West. But there were communist or communist-inspired countries all over the world at that time, complete with Russian “advisors” and Soviet military “aid”; did we boycott them? Did we break diplomatic relations? Not that I'm aware. Was it just about the military threat? Well, when you're talking about ICBMs, it matters little whether they are coming from 90 miles away, or 900, or 9000. And we had deterrent; the arms race was on, with all the talk about the “missile gap” and so forth.

So what was it really? Unlike most of the comparable cases, we felt that Cuba was, in some sense, our property – or at least it was within our immediate “sphere of influence”, and thus the Monroe Doctrine kicked in. But that wasn't the whole story by any means. Cuba was owned, all right – not by the U.S., but by the Mob. It was a border town writ large, bursting with gambling, prostitution, and all the other niceties that typify places where we have a “presence” but which are not, officially, our territory. And who, pray tell, happened to be president during those early years? John Kennedy, of course – and did his family have Mob connections? And did the Mob help put him in office with the help of Mayor Daley? And did the Mob expect him to “do something” about Cuba, take it back, and put them back in charge? I submit that these are rhetorical questions. And I also submit that it was his failure to take Cuba back that caused a whole lot of resentment in Mob circles, and which contributed to his demise. (There were many spoons in the pot on 11/22/63, but my guess is that the Mob's was one of the larger ones.)

So we learned our lesson with the Bay of Pigs, and the Russians learned their lesson with the missile crisis, and we wound up with a 50-plus-year standoff, with Castro thumbing his nose at Uncle Sam every chance he got... and college students putting posters of Che in their dorm rooms (as they continue to do to this day). So Cuba became a symbol of intransigent, in-your-face communism. Plus, we had a hotbed of Cuban refugees in Florida, and, with the possible exception of the Israel lobby, never have so few held so much political dominance over so many, particularly the Republicans, who morphed into the Neocons, who are still fighting the Cold War, because as long as a single communist, or even vaguely communist, country exists anywhere in the world, the Cold War is not over. Right? And this was despite Nixon's (a Republican!) opening up of China, even while Chairman Mao was still in charge. (Apparently a billion people on the other side of the world was less of a threat than a small island in the Caribbean.)

In the meantime, the more cynical, or pragmatic, or both, countries decided that Cuba was no big deal, and maintained diplomatic relations, trade, etc., while we held fast and gradually became more isolated in our fanaticism (as we are at present vis-a-vis Israel). And one would have thought that the breakup of the Soviet Union (with which we had diplomatic and trade relations, by the way) would have brought about a change of heart, but this was apparently not to be. Bush I could have done it... Clinton could have... Bush II could have... but no dice. And now comes Obama, and six years in, he, or someone, woke up and realized that we've been acting like a bunch of retards.

It also bears mentioning that boycotts seldom work. I say “seldom” because once in a while they do seem to work, as in the case of South Africa in apartheid days. (We haven't seen the final results when it comes to Iran, and now Russia, but I smell failure in both cases.) And it should also be pointed out that boycotts tend to hurt the ordinary people of the target country much more than the leadership or the elite. So doing it for the sake of “the people of _____” is pure malarkey.

And another thing – we always claim that our best weapon when it comes to “spreading democracy” is trade. The Russian bear is a mere cub compared to the big, brawny arms of American business – right? We say this, but we apparently don't believe it. I suspect that if we had not been so pouty and resentful all these years, Cuba would have risen out of the communist morass much faster – maybe completely by now. Fidel Castro would continue to be an icon, the way Mao is in China, but their economic system would be nothing like the one he envisioned and then created. (This is not a perfect analogy, given that he's still alive, but it would certainly have been worth a try.)

And what was more absurd than making friends with communist Vietnam, and granting them favored trading status, even though they defeated us in a war, but remaining stiff-necked with regard to Cuba? Yeah, I know – halfway around the world vs. 90 miles, etc. But Vietnam wasn't too far away for us to send our military over there to help a corrupt government, was it?

And I'm sure there are many other arguments besides. Even if it kind of made sense in the 1960s, it got old fast, and yet we held on because... well, because they shouldn'ta done that, doggone it! It's the principle of the thing, no matter how absurd or ineffective. Cuba was a thorn in the side of the American Empire, and it will likely continue to be for some time to come... and Obama is nothing if not an abject servant of that empire and all that it entails and implies. And yet, for some reason, he has seen fit to, again, make a statement. Maybe it's just to spite the Republicans – but that's OK too. Anti-communism, which was perfectly justifiable at one time, has degenerated into a racket; it's a war against something that no longer exists, or if it does, barely. We've got bigger fish to fry right now, and maybe this is part of what went into Obama's thinking.

It is also fascinating to consider that Pope Francis had a facilitating role in all this. One recalls the role Pope John Paul II had when it came to the breakup of the Soviet Empire. Of course, for the liberal media to give any pope credit for anything would be to commit the greatest of political offenses, and yet it happened.

And don't expect “academe” to be celebrating any time soon. Castro remains one of their heroes, standing high on their pantheon, and as long as Cuba stood “alone” against the forces of capitalism, it was considered an admirable – nay, ideal – society. (Can you say “free medical care”, boys and girls?) But with the likely welcoming of Cuba into the global... OK, North American... OK, our economy, there will inevitably be compromises and “sell-outs”, the way there were with China. So the heroes of the revolution will turn out to have feet of clay after all, seduced by the great American shopping mall. Sic transit gloria...

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Parliament of Fools

Oh, the indignation! The outrage! That sinking feeling that you've been made fools of and rendered obsolete, and you may as well pack up and go home, and leave the job of running the country to the people who are already in charge, and quit pretending you have any say in the matter. Yes, this is the “feeling tone” we're getting out of Congress these days, and even though it's nothing more than feelings, it's quite on target. Congress is obsolete, but their obsolescence is of their own making, since they have always found it more politically expedient to cede their Constitutional powers and privileges to the sitting president (whoever it happens to be at the time) and to the Supreme Court (by refusing to redefine its scope, which it has the right to do) than to take responsibility. The courage to speak up and defy the president might be found in, say, 1 in 100 at best – the rest are all too eager to robotically raise their hands in the best Supreme Soviet style, and to sign pretty much anything that's placed in front of them. And as for the theory that the American people elect the best out of their number to represent them, well... how many Congressmen are the slightest bit more intelligent, rational, and non-impulsive than the average voter? I prefer to think most politicians are sent off to Washington just to get them out of our face (and to get them to shut up as well).

There has to be a theory somewhere that explains all this. All I know is that we regularly send people to Washington because they appear to have ideas... some of them seem downright bold; courageous, even. But the minute they get there they're grabbed up off the street and taken in a windowless van to some underground surgical facility where a plate is implanted in their head which turns them into petty, thieving, submissive, compliant nobodies. It's like something out of a “body snatchers” film. And when asked to explain their transformation, they mumble something about “compromise” (also known as pleasing no one by trying to please everyone).

In the meantime, the presidency rides triumphant, having accreted unto itself virtually all of the meaningful and significant powers and privileges that the Constitution explicitly assigns to Congress – and much more besides. So Congress becomes a rubber stamp in the best Warsaw Pact tradition, and you will hear nary a whimper about this from anyone in that “august body” (but more than a whimper from people on the outside). And it's not as if Congress has ceased to “make laws”. It's just that their laws typically originate somewhere in the executive branch, and the ones that don't are subject to, first, veto, and second, being completely ignored by the president and his minions. And as if that weren't enough, the Supreme Court reserves (un-Constitutionally, I might add) the right to declare any law passed by Congress null and void, which they do with alarming frequency. So much for the delicate and exquisitely-designed “separation of powers”.

So what are we talking about here? A flaw in the Constitution, or a flaw in human nature? I say both. The Constitution was a marvelous document as long as men of good will were in charge, but it started, fairly early in our history, to fail various stress tests, chief among them being wars. Wars have a magical way of turning presidents into dictators, and when the war is over not all of those dictatorial powers are returned to whence they came; a good deal are held onto because, well, it's good to be king, and you never know when they'll come in handy again. And anyone knows it's easier to rule by diktat than by vote; tyranny is for lazy people.

But does Congress take this lying down? Not a bit of it! They pass various “war powers acts” which are designed to restore the balance of power – but those acts are ignored, and there's nothing they can do about it. Any American president determined to be a “war president” can ask, paraphrasing Joseph Stalin, “How many divisions does Congress have (compared to me)?” And the answer, of course, is zero. And this doesn't bother anyone in Congress on a day-to-day basis; they would just as soon someone else take charge and thus be responsible, accountable, and blamable when things go wrong. The ideal for a Congressman is to be elected, go to Washington, and go into a state of suspended animation until it's time to campaign for re-election; that way he avoids making mistakes and taking blame. His record is pure and spotless, because it contains nothing – but that is apparently preferable to taking risks. (And, please note, the voters agree with this premise, or at least behave as if they do. They would rather send a bland nonentity to Washington than someone with ideas, because ideas are – somehow – threatening.)

Oh wait, I almost forgot – Congress also has “the power of the purse” (and I'm not talking about hitting a masher over the head with it, although that might be more useful than what is actually done). The president can't do a thing – can't move a muscle – unless Congress approves the funds. Yeah, well... by the time enough palms are greased, and enough late-night phone calls are made, those funds generally get approved even if no given individual will say they approve. And in those rare cases when there's a “showdown”, and a threat by one or both sides to (Shudder! Shake!) “shut down the government”, Congress always buckles and the president always gets his way.

So really, Congress is powerless, hopeless, and ridiculous. It doesn't even have a clearly-defined mission any more – at least not one that can't be readily taken over by someone else (in the executive branch, with far more efficiency). But they have to be kept in business for the sake of appearances – because we're busy “spreading democracy” throughout the world, based on the premise that our system is the best ever devised by man, and besides, look at how well it works, etc. Besides, if the president dissolved Congress the way leaders in other countries can dissolve parliament, and established himself as dictator, he'd still have to deal with the courts. (But how many divisions do they have, hmmm? You can see how long a two-branch system would last – about as long as it would take the president to have the Supreme Court demolished.)

So if it's all for show, and everybody knows it, why all the fuss over the CIA? Well, you don't have to dig very far down to figure out that the fuss isn't about the CIA per se, or even about anything it does or has done, but whom they did it for, namely George W. Bush and his team of Eeeeevil (as Rush Limbaugh would say) Republicans. Do you honestly think Dianne Feinstein would be freaking out if these offenses had occurred under a Democratic president? Please. They wouldn't even be holding hearings. What they seem to forget, of course, is that the CIA under Bush and the CIA under Obama are.... mmmm... probably just about identical. “Oh, but Obama told them to quit doing those naughty things!” Well, maybe he did and maybe he didn't, but it hardly matters. The CIA is going to do things their way no matter what, because they are accountable to nobody, and that includes Congressional committees and presidents. Oh sure, every once in a while they'll offer some low-level chump up as a sacrificial animal, but that's only to satisfy everyone and keep the pitchfork-wielding peasants at bay. The notion that Congress can “reform” the CIA is like saying that sheep can “reform” wolves.

And some will say, to be perfectly frank, that this is, maybe, the way things ought to be. After all, the CIA is full of smart, dedicated people who are not only much smarter than anyone in Congress, but probably much less corrupt (at least in the material, vs. moral, sense). And I am not one of those who believes that the CIA, along with other intelligence agencies, constitutes a “parallel government”. Most of what the government does matters little to them, or not at all. They don't mind letting it just fumble and lurch along on its merry way. What counts is power, connections, information – and, most of all, The Game. Give the intel guys a game to play, and they're happy. Start to criticize, or attempt to thwart, the game, and you get push-back, which is what is happening right now. Not only push-back, but push-back directed at the same wretches who gave them all that power (and money) in the first place, namely Congress. What ingrates!

So yeah, the CIA thing is just the latest in a long line of insults – the immediately previous one being immigration policy, and before that Obamacare, and waging war on Syria (which, fortunately, got vetoed by Putin – doing the job the U.S. Congress should have done). Obamacare, for that matter, has reared its misshapen head again because of the Gruber kerfuffle – which has added a new expression to the American lexicon. Getting “Grubered” is defined as getting lied to by the president in order to get a bill passed by Congress (them again!). And as to who to blame for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they've been going on so long that no one knows, any longer, who to blame – so they wind up blaming no one (an ideal outcome if you're a president or an ex-president). Unlike homelessness, which magically disappers whenever a Democrat takes over the White House, wars have a pesky way of lasting, and being highly visible (not to mention costly).

And it's not as if this is anything new. Who, among American liberals and Democrats, does not basically blame the Vietnam war on Richard Nixon, even though he inherited it from Johnson who inherited it from Kennedy? Someone who is only "anti-war" as long as they don't like the guy in the White House isn't really anti-war, are they? And someone who is only anti-CIA if we're talking about stuff that happened when someone from the other party was in the White House isn't really anti-CIA, are they? And the trouble with Congress – one of many – is that they are regularly subject to this sort of completely irrational, politically-based thinking... and they don't even realize it, or see it as a problem. “Of course we hate everything the other side does, and of course we love everything our side does!” It has nothing to do with moral absolutes, or principles, or even coherent policy. And yet we keep electing them, again and again. But maybe, at this late date, it doesn't matter, since they have given away any power they may have once had, along with all discernible integrity. Rather than rely on Congress to do the right thing and dissolve itself, maybe it's us who should be the realists and just pay attention to the president and his empire, and reserve Congress for occasional comic relief.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Wrong Stuff

The headline: “Top General: Americans Are Increasingly Lacking The Smarts And Fitness Needed To Join The US Army.” Here's the story:

What we're seeing here is a statement of frustration on the part of the guy whose job it is to recruit cannon fodder... oops, I mean... a crack fighting force to defend the American way of life against “terrorists” and other assorted baddies. Now, to begin with, there is nothing new about this problem; we've had it at least since the end of the draft and the beginning of the all-volunteer Army. And even prior to that we had the problem that a lot of the draftees simply weren't smart enough to successfully occupy positions in the Army, even that of the iconic infantryman, AKA “grunt”. One Vietnam-era answer for this dilemma was something called Project 100,000:

As it turned out, soldiers brought in under that program, AKA “Cat IV's”, numbered way more than 100,000 – more like well over 300,000. Why such a high number? One reason was that the military was morphing into a social program – give people a job, get them out of the ghetto, and so on. Good for the economy and all that. And was that program a success (aside from the negative racial overtones)? Most people at the time, and since, have said “no”.

So lowering standards didn't work, and when the Army became all-volunteer the recruiters really started to feel the pain, only alleviated in times of economic distress. (Desperation vs. patriotism as a recruiting tool – we still haven't quite decided which we prefer.) Add to this the fact that even the “simplest” Army jobs have become increasingly high-tech, with digitization adding another level of complexity to jobs across the board. The typical soldier trudging along with his backpack and gun in our time is carrying an array of computers and gadgets that make conditions in the Vietnam era and earlier seem downright primitive. And they have to know how to operate all that stuff. Add to this an increasing emphasis on small-unit operations, anti-terrorism, and operations in urban terrain, and cognitive and decision-making demands become even more severe.

So what's a recruiter to do? It's no wonder they feel helpless at times. But what this story reflects is not so much an immediate problem of how to fill the ranks as a societal phenomenon. According to MG Batschelet, the main issues are that too many of our youth are either fat or stupid (or both). Not that he, or anyone else in the Army, publicly expresses it that way, of course; that would be too insensitive. And even the obesity problem is described as something that the Army can deal with if need be. (It's amazing how much weight you can lose in basic training at a Southern post in the summertime.)

Then we have the problem described, euphemistically, as “moral disqualifications over an increasing range of criminalized behaviors”. Reading between the lines, my guess is that drug convictions constitute the bulk of these disqualifications. But note the expression “increasing range of criminalized behaviors”. Why is it increasing? Could it possibly have anything to do with the “War on Drugs”, which has, effectively, criminalized large segments of the population, mostly in the interests of the “corrections” racket (which I've discussed at length previously). When you create a nation of criminals in order to satisfy a political/economic agenda, you can hardly complain when so many people who might otherwise qualify for the military turn out to have “moral” issues. (And no, I don't think it has anything to do with sex. In our time? Please.) Even if we're not always talking about drug convictions per se, we would still be talking about ancillary convictions related to the drug trade, like petty theft.

And who was most complicit in creating this nation of criminals? Legislatures at the national, state, and local level... over-zealous police... fanatical prosecutors... Puritanical judges... the usual cast of characters, in other words. To confirm this, look no further than today's headlines.

But wait, there's more. We also have “erosion in academic qualification” and “declining high school graduation rates”. To sum up, “slipping educational standards of Americans is the most worrying trend for the future of the US Army”. Well, OK... so, whose fault is that? One has to remember that our public education establishment is entirely a creation of liberal politics – of a liberal, “humanistic”, “non-judgmental” attitude toward education, where just showing up is enough, everyone gets a prize, and no one is allowed to fail. (So many of our public schools are, in fact, little more than free day-care centers.) We've already seen the impact of these policies in the private sector, with the problems many firms have hiring qualified people. We've created, in effect, an educated elite (mostly in the “technology” sector) and allowed the rest to descend to the level of the “lumpen proletariat” -- few skills, low motivation, no hope, no change. And this has all been in service of a political agenda – maximize the number of people in the “dependent class”, thus maximizing the “mission” of government, thus aiding and abetting collectivization and totalitarianism, AKA the “welfare state” or the “nanny state”. And, bottom line, maximizing the power and influence (and wealth) of politicians and bureaucrats, and of their cronies in the “private” sector.

And this is all perfectly jolly – or so our politicians seem to believe – until it comes down to the military, where there's not as much room as there is in the private sector for inadequacy, incompetence, and failure. And then it suddenly becomes a big deal. Apparently, in order to protect the mass of civilian serfs, wage slaves, and tax receivers, we have to have a highly-skilled and “professional” military... composed of the same people. How is this supposed to happen? At what point do we find this parting of the ways between heroes and zeros?

Another way of putting this is that what the military needs – military “values” -- was, for many generations, compatible with what the larger society had to offer. But this is, apparently, no longer the case – and as I said, the situation has been building since at least the 1960s, the time when (coincidentally – ahem!) liberal ideas of “education” gained the upper hand.

So what's the answer? Well, on the side of manpower requirements it might help to re-think the idea of “perpetual war”, which is the basis for much of our foreign policy. It might help to get our troops out of every nook and cranny on the planet, and assign them to real defense rather than empire-building. That's on the “demand” side. On the “supply” side, it might help to reinstate standards in public education, including standards of competence for teachers – but that would involve waging another kind of war, namely on the teachers' unions, and who has the appetite for that? (One answer would be to draft them into the military. But then we'd only wind up with the same problem, or worse.)

And I guess we could make Army jobs simpler again – you know, go back to the Korean War era or something. Problem is, other countries wouldn't cooperate, to say nothing of non-governmental militarized entities like rebels and “terrorists”. Or – we could convert over to robots and drones at a faster pace, but we're already hearing murmurings that only “boots on the ground” can guarantee that we can hold a given piece of territory (to say nothing of taking it in the first place). (Or as one wag put it, how do you bomb people back to the Stone Age when they're already in the Stone Age?)

Yes, it is truly a dilemma – but it is one of our own making. A nation or empire that is hard on the outside (“force projection”) but soft on the inside (a vast leisure/underclass) is bound to fall; this has been the case since ancient times, and there is no reason why we should expect to escape this “iron law of history”.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Why It's Impossible to Write Good Opera Any More

I was thinking about this at the most recent Pittsburgh Opera performance, of Verdi's “Otello”. And what I realized was that writing good opera – or pretty much any opera – is a dying art, and the question was “Why?” You look at other musical forms and yes, they evolve over time... some grow more or less popular... technology has replaced live performance to a depressing degree... and so on, but the forms remain alive and retain a certain currency. And it's not as if no operas are being written; that's not the point. They simply don't have the emotional impact – the salience – of operas of the, let's call it, “classic” period. And why is this? Has human nature changed that much in a hundred years? Can plays, musicals, movies, television, the Internet, etc. possibly have replaced opera, or rendered it obsolete? I think to answer this we have to ask what gives opera its impact – it's dramatic force. (And I am, of course, referring to “serious” as opposed to comic, or light, opera – not that those forms don't have their rightful place.) Because the stories that operas convey are, by and large, quite simple and straightforward. There are plots, schemes, and intrigues, but it's all quite out in the open as far as the audience is concerned; there are surprises, setbacks, and plot twists from time to time, but few real mysteries... and it all gets tied up neatly in the end, unlike the modernist infatuation with ambiguity. Heroes are heroes (there are no “antiheroes”) and villains are villains, and... well, here's where we start to catch on to the essence. The point is that operas are, in additional to being great art forms, morality plays – and without the moral aspect they would seem vapid and pointless... beautiful, but with no soul. But to write, or compose, a morality play, you have to have a sense of morality. And, you have to be able to assume that your audience does as well.

As an experiment, take the basic plot of any opera and think about how it would play as a film or TV program. Betrayal, treason, adultery, fornication, murder? Strip it down to its essence, and the jaded contemporary audience would be bored to tears, simply because these things, and many other offenses against morality (not to mention decorum), are taken for granted these days. One hardly notices. (Well, maybe one does notice in the case of murder, but we've even become jaded about that, at least as a moral issue versus simply a case of particularly bad manners. Murderers in our time are not considered evil or immoral so much as badly brought up; all they really need is a hug.)

The almost universal reaction to the plot line of a typical classical opera would be “What's all the fuss about?” And if you take an opera, and remove the music, and the sets, and the costumes, that's precisely what most “modern” people would say. Why is adultery, for example, such a big deal – even though it is a major theme in many operas. And the idea of a “fallen woman”? Please. (Are there any women in our time who aren't “fallen”? And as to men, well... we've always been fallen, so that's not as big a deal. Yes, opera exemplifies the double standard when it comes to sexual morality! Stop the presses!)

“Now wait a minute,” you might say, “people are no more immoral now than they've ever been. It's just more out in the open.” Well, isn't that “being out in the open” also a moral issue? Doesn't it compound the offense when people don't care who knows, or even brag about it? It's certainly true that the human race has had its ups and downs in the morality department; I don't think that we live in either the best of times or the worst of times.

There is one difference, though, and that is the one between immorality and amorality. Immoral behavior is what happens when people know right from wrong, but do the wrong thing anyway – and this is what happens, nearly always, in opera. The villains know they are villains. They may brag about it, regret it, or be indifferent, but they know they are violating society's standards of decency. Amorality, on the other hand, is what happens when people literally don't know right from wrong, either from bad upbringing or some profound psychological flaw. Then you have what are called “moral imbeciles” or psychopaths. (The only true psychopath in classical opera may be Don Giovanni, but I would have to go back and have a closer look in order to be sure.) The problem with psychopaths is that they aren't conflicted; they never feel the pangs of conscience because they have no conscience – or, at least, no functioning one. They aren't rebelling because they have nothing (a Freudian would say a Superego) to rebel against. The result, paradoxically, is that they are boring. They may be fascinating for a while, like some predatory beast, but since they have no depth they are much harder to relate to (let alone sympathize with) than someone who does wrong even though he knows it's wrong – in other words, the common lot of humanity up until recently.

Eventually we tire of psychopaths and relegate them to some sort of societal freak show. People more like us are more interesting, except that there seem to be fewer “people like us” with each passing day. And this is not to say that psychopaths have taken over in all areas and at all levels of society (with the possible exception of politics and banking) – but that we have lost our grounding... our anchor. When people are set morally adrift they may nonetheless behave in a pseudo-moral or ethical way most of the time, out of sheer cultural inertia, or because they retain a faint glimmer of Natural Law. But when society in general – especially the public “face” of society, as represented by the news and entertainment media – has a ho-hum attitude about morality, then it will seem silly to most people (Ayn Rand would call them “social metaphysicians”) to protest or do things any differently. (If people can get away with all sorts of things that would have been condemned in earlier times, why be a chump and “cling” to outmoded standards?) And from this perspective, any attempt, through art, to uphold traditional morality seems “hokey” or naïve, even if the means of expressing it are still honored and respected.

And yet – the paradox is that we, or some of us, still attend opera performances... and some may even agree with the moral positions conveyed. Not only that, but there are morality plays being performed millions of times each day in movie theaters and on the Internet (by “gamers”). So there is a thirst for morality – for standards – and yet it has for the most part been relegated to fantasy worlds, where things can still be black and white without threatening some political agenda. Applying standards to the real world is too daunting, too messy – impossible, really.

And one might say, but isn't opera fantasy? Hasn't it always been? Perhaps this is true if we're talking about Wagner, but I find operas in general (I mean the classical sort) quite down to earth – quite realistic, actually, if somewhat simplified and boiled-down compared to the complexities and ambivalences of “real life”. Not only that, but the music, the sets, the costumes, the acting, and the staging all serve to amplify the moral issues – to bring them into sharp relief. (If a person is betrayed and sings about it, it has more impact than any amount of talking. A long, boring complaint using the spoken word becomes a memorable aria when sung.) It's no accident that those daytime TV dramas are called “soap operas” -- but they have suffered from the same moral erosion as the rest of TV, movies, etc. The bottom line is that morality is considered “unrealistic” in our time; to be, or feel, moral (in the vicarious sense) we have to escape reality.

So we have this fascinating phenomenon where we are, or can be, moral and upright in fantasy worlds but apathetic and relativistic in the real world. I see this as a kind of despair, as if to say that the world is off its axis and is beyond repair, so we may as well immerse ourselves in fantasy in order to satisfy that moral hunger, but resign ourselves to moral anarchy in the everyday world (which is rapidly shrinking as more people spend more of their time interfacing with fantasy).

If there's any good news in all this, it's that this moral hunger still exists for many people, no matter how limited its scope – which indicates, to me, that Natural Law is for real, and truly is “written on the heart”. But how depressing that it's considered irrelevant to modern life – even to the legal system, which has been taken over by moral relativism.

How we long to breathe the cold, clear air of truth, which includes a sense of right and wrong! (Because if truth is right, then untruth must be wrong. Right? Or is that just too logical?) And when we don't find it in society, or among our leadership, we satisfy that urge with fantasy – with pathetic “little liberties” that no government bureaucrat has yet caught us at. I would propose that the health of a society is correlated not only with moral behavior, but with the display of morality in entertainment and recreation. The more of our waking hours spent in morally neutral activities, the more danger we are in of further erosion, and of accepting even lower standards and worse “leaders” and exemplars in the future.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

When Bureaus Drop Their Drawers

It seems that one government agency after another is falling into disgrace after being exposed for incompetence . In some cases, even some “senior management” has been let go, so you know things are getting serious. And we're not talking about agencies no one has ever heard of, or loser agencies like HUD, or agencies populated by homicidal maniacs like BATF. These are serious outfits with a serious, and publicly acknowledged, mission... and while the mission may be unconstitutional in some or all cases, at least it is designed to answer a tangible need, and its failure has tangible consequences. In the last few months, the following have been shown to have feet of clay: The IRS; the VA; the Secret Service; and, most recently, the CDC. And this does not include agencies like the FDA and EPA, which chronically operate under a well-deserved cloud of suspicion.

Now, one thing you will find in nearly all of these cases is politicization – or, let's say, over-politicization, since no government agency can possibly be entirely free of politics, because, after all, it was created by politicians for political reasons, and answers to politicians. I'm referring to the process by which political considerations begin to erode, eat into, and eventually override the original mission, to the point where the agency and its functions turn into a political arm of the party in power. And there is nothing new about this, I hasten to add; the phenomenon was already in full bloom during the New Deal. But in these times, places that should be “above all that” are showing that, far from being above it all, they are mired in it.

And the thing is... well, I guess we're still naïve and childlike when it comes to these things, because there is always great shock and dismay with each new revelation. Perhaps we should be more cynical and world-weary, the way the Europeans are; they expect corruption and self-serving in government, and when it happens it's, ho-hum, pass the vino. But we persist in expecting better – in expecting our leaders to act like... well, like exceptional people rather than the way ordinary slobs would act if you gave them a huge amount of money and power, with little or no accountability and rewards that have nothing to do with performance.  We have not, in other words, fully come to terms with human nature and its inevitable corrupting effects on any sort of collective activity, government being the first and foremost. It's not that politicians are inevitably worse than anyone else (though some seem to be), it's that they are weak, venal, and easily seduced. For them, power is an opportunity for self-advancement and vainglory, and if the public accidentally gets served once in a while, well, that's OK too, but we can't have too much of it, because then they'll only expect more.

The other thing to bear in mind as these stories trickle down from the seats of power is this: What is the nature of bureaucracy, and of bureaucrats? Well, for starters, Job #1 of any government agency is self-preservation, and some of them spend the bulk of their resources on that one thing – just staying in business, keeping their jobs, perks, and pay. There is a “mission” somewhere, of course – you know, the ostensible reason the agency and its program were created – but it is easily obscured by day-to-day survival needs. And why is this? Well, it starts with budgets, and at any given time every government agency is working on a handful of budgets: Executing this year's, finalizing next year's, proposing budgets for 2, 3, 5, 10 years out, and so on. And when it comes to execution, there is such a thing as “budget defense”; if you're not spending this year's money fast enough, someone is going to come along and take it away from you – and take it from me, there are people in the government whose primary function is to keep an eye on the budgets of nearby (in organizational or mission terms) agencies to see who might be ripe for the plucking.  And when they spot an easy mark, they go whining to someone up the line and say "Hey, those guys aren't spending their money, and here we are with all sorts of wonderful programs that are underfunded.  Waaah!"  And it gets results.

Then, on top of budgets, we have personnel issues – authorized positions or “slots” -- and the main goal there is to maintain grade level (which implies salary). And again, as with budget, this is a 24/7/365 job; it never ends. But just maintaining positions isn't enough either – you also have to maintain actual live bodies. But – you might say – aren't these the same thing? No, not in government. You can have authorized slots but no authorization to actually fill them... or, less frequently, you can be authorized to hire people but have no authorized slots to put them in.  And this is usually because the different types of authorization are done by completely different agencies.

Incredible, you say? Grossly inefficient? No argument – but I guarantee that this is how the government works (or doesn't work) on a day-to-day basis. 

And we still haven't gotten around to the actual mission! First we have to talk about hiring – and a government manager can't just go out and hire anyone he or she wants for a given position. Oh no. There are lists... there are people referred to as “stoppers”, i.e. forced out of another agency because of a reduction in force, and they become first in line for your opening, even if they are clearly less qualified than any number of other candidates. Then there is the “point system” where you get points for being a veteran, or for having any of a myriad of handicaps or demographic (i.e. “minority”) characteristics. I used to joke that the ideal job applicant in government would be a lesbian albino Inuit paraplegic – and this is not as exaggerated as you think. A person with those credentials could get a job anywhere in government, with any job description, at any rank, no questions asked – and why? Because the “human resources” office of the agency would get to check off multiple “affirmative action” boxes and look fantastic when the next audit rolled around.

So – if that's the impenetrable jungle called “hiring” in the government, what about “firing”? That's an easy one – there's no such thing. Oh, technically there are policies and procedures when it comes to “termination”, but the requirements are so onerous than managers are typically unwilling to even start. And this, by the way, holds true whether the employee is a union member or not. (I do recall one manager who spent most of his time for an entire year in order to get rid of one incompetent subordinate. Did the mission suffer as a result? Perhaps – but he (the manager) said that, hey, if that's what the system demands, that's what it's gonna get.) What is more typical is that the “dead wood”, “retired in place” types are put in a corner (figuratively, and sometimes literally as well) where they won't get in the way, and allowed to wait out their time undisturbed. The risk in this case is that a given office in an agency may become a kind of rest home or day-care center for these types, with the result that the entire office is sidelined and its mission (assuming it even had one) is transferred over to a group whose members still have a pulse.

And these are, by and large, threats from without; I won't burden you with a discussion of the everyday internal plotting, scheming, undercutting, and backbiting, because I don't think that government is at all unique in this regard.  

OK, so... where were we? Oh yes, the mission. Now, assuming there is any time left after all the above considerations are dealt with, the competent or at least semi-competent remnant has an actual job to do. So what can possibly go wrong at this point? Well... this is where politics rears its ugly head.  Because, as I said, every program in every agency has some sort of political implications, some more obvious than others.  And if you doubt this, just try terminating a program or putting an agency out to pasture -- then you'll find out where the vested interests are, and they are invariably vocal in their protests, and know exactly who to protest to.

But the real trouble starts when someone in Congress, say, develops an "interest" in your program, and decides that they need a briefing, or to make a visit -- and these events often result in some sort of, let's say, "suggestions" as to how to "improve" the program, or how to "restate" the statistics in order to support a political agenda.  And this is usually a gradual, erosive -- or corrosive -- process, and with each cycle through the political checkpoint the agency and its programs become more and more politicized, until what they are accomplishing (if anything) is little more than validating someone's political stance.  And when some snooper starts asking questions, we see the well-practiced process of "damage control" AKA "covering your butt".  Damage control becomes necessary when an agency is, basically, caught with its pants down (usually not literally).  It's sort of like the old saying, "You can't cheat an honest man" -- an agency that is doing its job properly should not have to cover its butt, but one that is politicized will spend an inordinate amount of time doing just that. 

So this is that stage that the agencies mentioned above are at.  They cooperated in their own demise as honest brokers -- in many cases starting years or decades ago -- and now that they're caught and exposed, it's as if all of the misdeeds happened at once, overnight.  But this is not the case; it's the result of a long, drawn-out process.  The deeper one digs, the more clear it becomes that the corruption is chronic and profound -- and the main question at that point is, can this agency be saved?  Or would we be better off just closing it down and starting over?  (This has been seriously proposed with regard to the IRS, for example.)  The problem with that, based on historical evidence, is that you can close an agency down but the people in it will just scuttle off and hide somewhere else, and continue to cause damage.  Plus, that original mission may still be needed, and it will be transplanted over to a new agency or turned over to some other agency, which starts the cycle over again. 

People who say that the main problem is the size of government are ignoring the things that inevitably happen in government, regardless of size -- and these are based on human fallibility and concupiscence.  These things can never be entirely eliminated, but a combination of reducing size and clarifying missions would certainly help -- along with simply closing agencies that no longer have a mission that makes sense, or that have made such a shambles of their mission that it must be declared "mission impossible".  You can't stop the politicization process, but making it possible to not only fire people but actually force them out of the government once and for all would be a major step. 

Then there's the question of term limits.  (Did I mention that I had a dream?) 

Monday, September 29, 2014

The K-12 Killing Fields

“School shooting” -- a term that appears more and more often in the headlines, almost to the point where we're tempted to say “Ho hum, another one, hope it's nowhere around here [quick check of location], things are going to hell, etc. What's for dinner?” Yes, even this – unheard of in any past era – has become almost expected, like some sort of seasonal natural phenomenon. And we get the usual hand-wringing and pointless babbling, all of which reflects an attitude of victimhood and helplessness, and a refusal to delve into the real causes. The only question that is consistently asked is the wrong one, namely: What is wrong with “our society” that “allows such things to happen” by refusing to confiscate everyone's guns? But even that is usually drowned in a sea of “grief counseling”, “healing”, “moving on”, and teddy bears.

Now, I don't mean to sound cynical; after all, tragedy is tragedy, and it happens to individuals, not groups or societies. But to remain on a superficial level and not ask the hard questions is to, basically, give up on finding answers and on really doing anything about the problem.

The most obvious question, which is begged over and over again, is this: Why schools? And, more specifically, why public schools? When's the last time you heard of a shooting at a private, Catholic, or Christian (i.e. Evangelical) school? I can't think of a single instance. Naturally enough, most of the perpetrators are themselves students (in the school in question or one nearby), though there are some exceptions. But ease of access is not enough to explain the statistics – nor is the fact that the public schools have a much larger enrollment than all other types combined. It has to be – it seems to me – something about public schools per se that invite this sort of... let's call it “rage” (and rage, as we all know (or ought to) is most commonly a result of helplessness and frustration). The shootings are typically planned, sometimes far in advance... preparations are impressively complete at times, although an escape plan is seldom included since – also typically – the perpetrator has pretty much planned to be killed in the process – to be, in effect, a martyr to his own ambiguous cause. And they all have reasons, and those reasons typically have to do with bullying, or at least having been a “loner”, albeit usually a fairly intelligent one. “Over-sensitivity” -- on the opposite end of the scale from being a bully, I suppose – is an almost inevitable trait, along with being somewhere on the Asperger's scale.

And yet the victims seem, most of the time, to be chosen at random; they are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. In other words, the perpetrator does not seek out the bullies who've been persecuting him, instead blaming the student body as a whole for, I suppose, having an “atmosphere” of bullying and intolerance (the way so many sectors of our society allegedly have an “atmosphere” of racism or sexism, even if there is no tangible evidence). There are, after all, in society at large, bullies and those who aren't bullied but who tacitly go along with bullying, i.e. either approve or don't object. (This is a phenomenon frequently discussed when the topic of Nazi Germany comes up, for example. The “silent majority” -- the great, gray middle – may not commit crimes, but they are silent in the face of crime, preferring to protect their own interests rather than “get involved”.)

But are the schools themselves bullies and persecutors? Don't they exist primarily to teach the “3 R's?” Well, no – not in our time. It's no accident that the video of Pink Floyd's song “Another Brick in the Wall” showed a parade of schoolchildren in grotesque masks filing through a dark factory and then plunging into a giant hopper – all to the tune of “we don't need no thought control”. Preparation for good citizenry is less about tangible subject matter than about attitudes and feelings – and public school teachers identify themselves as “agents of change” (and proud of it).

So perhaps the question should be not only what the public schools do on an ordinary, daily basis, but what they represent or symbolize – especially to people who prefer to “connect the dots” rather than drown their sorrows in sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll (or team sports). The school shooters may have diseased minds and twisted thought processes, but they at least get this much right: The public schools represent the Regime... “the man”... the system... and what used to be called the “establishment” before the people who used that term became the establishment. The public schools are rightly seen – and not just by the deranged – as the cutting edge of society's campaign against true freedom, true liberty, and true individuality. They are a key component of the propaganda apparatus, and the first one the average citizen is likely to encounter (unless they overdose on PBS while still toddlers). And for the “normal” among us, they are no threat, because we have already -- by the time we enter that gaping door on the first day of kindergarten – been sufficiently softened up; we have become little authoritarians. We are unlikely to rebel, except for a few pathetic gestures in early adolescence; and, most importantly of all, we are unlikely to ever question the basic premises upon which our system (political, economic, social) is based. The outlier, however, has little if anything to lose by questioning the party line... by wondering whether we all live in the “matrix”. They value their own individuality, flawed as it may be, over group identity; they are unlikely to ever become political animals or “good citizens”. And yes, the system is designed to tolerate (if not encourage) a certain small percentage of outliers; they act as a safety valve, and mostly as an example the Regime can point to and say (to all the others), “Now you don't want to be like that guy, do you? A geek, a loser, a disruptive influence? No, of course not. Now drink your Kool-Aid and be quiet.”

But then a small percentage of these alienated types – the truly wretched souls – get it into their heads that the only way to express their rage against the machine is to kill off some of its other victims, albeit the willing ones. And like terrorism, their act doesn't teach anyone anything (although it should); it just increases the sum total of fear, alienation, and insecurity in the community. And they (the perps) might say, well fine, I'm showing these people how things really are. Maybe on some level that's true, but who will argue that the lesson is worth the price?

Now don't get me wrong; it's still their fault. You can't water down evil by ascribing it to a group, or a race, or “historical grievances”. And frankly, I've never had much regard for the “insanity defense”. Doesn't it implicitly assume that most murders are committed by sane people? And can that possibly be true? I would say it's false by definition. But having said that, there are certainly environmental factors contributing to violent acts; very few are completely random. And what sort of environment have we created in our time? One where the individual feels increasingly helpless and exploited, so tries to assert himself through risk-taking and “extreme” activities, clothes, tattoos, piercings, and other lifestyle choices – anything to show that he still has some small measure of control over his own existence. (And if you want a veritable fashion show of extreme looks, seek no further than the nearest public high school.) What I'm saying is that when you have a society that exerts control over every aspect of life... that attempts to eliminate all sources of danger or hurt feelings... you're going to get a reaction. The human organism is not programmed to accept, and be grateful for, a completely stress-free existence; we crave danger and risk, and when we don't get it in the normal course of things we create it – and by doing so we, and others, may become victims.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Eyeless in Gaza

One of my early memories when it comes to “the news” -- radio news in this case – is that of listening to stories about “fighting in the Gaza Strip”. This would have been at least as far back as when I was in junior high school in the late 1950s. I had only a vague idea of where the Gaza Strip was, and knew very little of the historical background, but it was obvious that that place was nothing but trouble... and here we are, fifty-odd years later, and very little has changed.

Recently, a correspondent of mine called my attention to an excellent interview with an Orthodox Jewish rabbi – a former executive director of the American Jewish Congress and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, no less, who expressed grave doubts as to the morality of Israel's actions in this latest confrontation. A transcript can be found at:
Please go to that site and read the interview if you have the time; it is very worthwhile and enlightening. Then, as to my own comments and observations:

To begin with, when one is confronted with an impossible situation -- diplomatically in this case -- one has to go back and dig a bit to figure out how it got that way.  In the case of Israel, it was all based on Zionism, i.e. the notion that the Jews had a "right" to Palestine that superseded all other rights, not only of other claimants but of the people who already lived there.  This was, in turn, bolstered by the myth of "a land without a people" -- and how could this possibly have been true?  Any idiot could have seen through that scam.  And yet they made it stick.  And, as far as they're concerned Palestine was, in fact, a land without a people -- i.e. without any people who really counted.  (This was especially true in light of World War I, which put an end to the Ottoman Empire and made Arabs into second-class world citizens, which they continue to be to this day, at least as far as the U.S. and Europe are concerned. And by extension, Islam is a second-class (at best) religion, which explains a lot of our attitude and propaganda vis-a-vis the Middle East. We claim that we are only fighting “radical Islam” and “terror”, but our military is subjected to an endless stream of “orientation” propaganda that, basically, identifies Islam in general as the enemy.)

Now, this is not to say that the Jews didn't suffer greatly prior to and during World War II.  But the notion that this gave them the right to just move in (anywhere on earth) and take over, and set up a country, does not automatically follow -- although this was certainly the reasoning at the time and continues to be.  (We forget that, historically, Palestine was not the only location proposed by the Zionists for a Jewish homeland, even though it has much more historical salience.)  But on the other hand, what were they supposed to do?  Go back to Europe?  That would have been awkward at best -- although some did.  Move to the U.S.?  Again, many did, but that was apparently not good enough -- especially given all the supposed racist, fascist, anti-Semitic tendencies floating around this country, which American Jews are always quick to point out even though it's minimal, in my opinion. (Poor Joe Biden is just the latest poster child for “latent antisemitism”, but he gets exactly zero sympathy from me because he is an equal-opportunity offender.)

So yes, it was high time for a Jewish homeland, and if you suggest that they owe it all to Hitler, you'll get great indignation, but in some sense it's true.  Would Zionism have ever won if it hadn't been for the Holocaust?  That's an imponderable of history.  But one thing is certain, it would certainly have never won if it hadn't been for the support of England and France -- and, less directly, the U.S.  England was, I suppose, glad to get Palestine off its hands, because it was nothing but trouble (owing, to a great extent, to the efforts of Jewish terrorists).  So they could get a number of tickets punched at the same time by simply turning it over to the Jews, with the cooperation of the U.N. and us, etc.  And again, the people who already lived there didn't count -- and it also didn't count that the new country would be surrounded by hostile Arab/Islamic states.  Now, anyone who expected Israel to be self-sustaining under those conditions was smoking something mighty powerful, and it wasn't a peace pipe.   

So Blunder #1, for the U.S. at least, was not only allowing this to happen, but encouraging it -- and, by implication at least, signing on for eternal life support of Israel no matter what.  So right away, after a decision of that magnitude, the law of cognitive dissonance requires that we never question Israel's strategies, tactics, or motives -- to say nothing of its right to exist.  That is off the table, period!  We've invested too much, in other words -- which is one reason why we keep exerting and straining ourselves to "help" them come up with diplomatic solutions to their Palestinian problem -- even though we know that no one over there wants peace.  What they want is to get rid of the other guys.  So we don't even have the option of walking away and retaining some of our self-respect -- not that bolstering John Kerry's self-respect is very high on my "to do" list anyway.

In other words, everything follows from that one bad choice back in the late 40s -- and yet most people will tell you that we didn't have a choice, that a Jewish homeland was going to happen no matter what, because of the Holocaust, which we didn't do enough to prevent (the "guilt card" being played at that point), plus all American Jews were in favor, etc. etc.  Well... logically, once we made that initial choice, it's perfectly true that everything that followed made perfect sense -- right up to and including resurgent radical Islam (AKA "terror") and its war on us, and our war with it.  Because Israel became, overnight, a very large thorn in the side of the Arab/Islamic world (literally, if you look at a map), and they could never "get used to" its existence, and they could never forgive us for aiding and abetting it.  So over time, various segments of the Islamic/Arab world became radicalized to varying extents, the most extreme version to date being ISIS, or whatever they're called at the moment.  (Remember when the most radical terrorist on earth was Arafat?  Those were the days!)  And things went into a cyclic mode, where the Arabs would do something, and Israel would react, and the Arabs would react to that, and so on ad infinitum -- the Gaza situation just being the latest in a long line.  And when it comes to "proportionality" -- well, what does it mean when each side really wants the other wiped off the face of the earth?  In that case, even total war would be "proportional", as it was for Hitler vis-a-vis the Jews.  He didn't just want the bankers, professors, and businessmen out of the way -- he wanted Anne Frank too.  That's total war, fans.  So according to that ancient -- Old Testament, if you will -- attitude, Israel should simply line up a bunch of bulldozers at the border of Gaza and start rumbling toward the sea until there is nothing left.  Well?  Isn't that what everyone really wants?  And the thing is, they could probably get away with it -- at least as far as the U.S. government is concerned, except for one small thing, and that's the small remnant of Jewish morality (Old Testament again -- but a different part) that has served to stay their hand to some extent. The irony is that after all that has happened, they are still concerned about their “image” -- in the U.S., Europe, and the world in general, but maybe most importantly to themselves. Contrast this with the moral stand represented by Rabbi Siegman -- by which I mean a real moral stand, faith-based, not the mythical "moral high ground" occupied by secular Jews (including the Israeli leadership) based on the Holocaust and antisemitism down through the ages.

The basic choice in question is this:  Which is more important, Jewish morality or Jewish tribalism (as represented by Zionism and Israel)?  Now, some might say, but aren't they the same thing? -- and there are certainly countless attempts to "spin" Israel's actions in order to make them appear moral, i.e. not just the actions of a country with enemies trying to survive the only way it knows how.  And yet morality, it seems to me, ought to transcend questions of race, ethnicity, nation -- even of religion itself, if we want to talk about Natural Law.  In other words, "is it not written" that some things are evil, or bad, in all times and in all places, and no matter who does them?  Obviously, this is a minority point of view in these times or moral relativism (which really means amorality), and in most places, but it's one that people of faith tend to agree on.  The supreme irony, of course, is that morality from on high -- i.e. from God -- is something that the Old Testament Jews "discovered", and passed on (perhaps not entirely willingly) to Christians, who passed it on (quite unwillingly) to Moslems.  So the "people of the book" all agree on this -- or at least they did at one time.

Ironically, the current troubles in the Middle East involve believers (the Islamists) waging war on nonbelievers (most Israelis and most of us).  But even this can serve to explain a few things.  For example, why was ISIS able to so easily, and rapidly, take over large swathes of Iraq and Syria?  Because they stole all that American equipment?  But the Iraqi forces had that equipment first.  OK, then -- because they robbed banks?  Right.  They were full of Iraqi money.  No, it's quite simple -- they were fighting for an idea.  A wrong one, or an extreme one, arguably -- but people fighting for an idea will always be more effective, other things being equal (or even if not), than people who are just doing it for money, or because they were forced, or for fun, or to show off, or whatever.  Ideas are a "force multiplier", as the saying goes -- and the more radical the ideas, the more likely they are to succeed in this way.  Recall Mohammed's conquest of the Middle East and North Africa?  How about the Crusaders?  How about the Spanish Conquistadors?  All fighting enormous odds.  How about the American colonialists vs. England?  The Bolsheviks?  The Nazis?  And yes, how about the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong vs. us?  How about the Afghans vs. the Soviets?  These are all cases where the winners should not have won -- should not have even come close to winning -- if manpower and resources were all that mattered.  On the other hand, why do armed forces that should know what they're doing, and should be able to accomplish something, tend to vanish in the face of an enemy attack?  (Think the Iraqi army of the present day.)  They're fighting for all the wrong reasons -- or for no reason at all. They are “summertime soldiers” who cut and run when the going gets tough. They run, hide, and blend in with the populace, while the ISIS types stand up on the highest available hill and wave their black flags.

So if Rabbi Siegman represents traditional, Old Testament-style Jewish morality, he is clearly in the minority not only vis-a-vis Israel but also vis-a-vis American Jews, who have been seduced into tribalism as well as materialism and, if not outright immorality then at least amorality.  And, I hasten to add, there are Jewish voices of dissent on this issue, one of the more prominent being the Neturei Karta organization.  But they are drowned out by not only mainstream Jewish organizations, but by Israel's facilitators in the media, politics, government, etc.  It is encouraging, though, that there are chinks in the armor, and that more and more people both here and overseas -- including Jews -- are starting to question not only Israel's actions in Gaza and elsewhere, but asking even tougher questions.  For example, is the State of Israel one gigantic mistake?  Was it doomed from the start to be an amoral, bullying presence in that part of the world?  Or to put it another way, could Israel survive if it strictly adhered to the same Jewish moral concepts that American rabbis, teachers, and writers are so fond of citing?  And if the answer is no, what then?  Do we get a civil war of words among Jews (assuming we don't have one already)? And what will the consequences be in the long run?  

And, if Israel represents the "best and brightest" of Judaism, but if it turns out to be an amoral establishment, then what does this say about Judaism?  Is Israel's failure Judaism's failure?  To the extent that Jews "cling" to Israel as their last, best hope in the world, this would seem to be an unavoidable consequence.  And yet, asking the world's Jews to distance themselves from Israel based on moral considerations?  Especially when we (the U.S.) won't?  That just seems wilder than any pipe dream.

Rabbi Siegman reflects this dilemma when he says, "When one thinks that this is what is necessary for Israel to survive, that the Zionist dream is based on the repeated slaughter of innocents on a scale that we're watching these days on television, that is really a profound, profound crisis -- and should be a profound crisis in the thinking of all of us who were committed to the establishment of the state and to its success." 

But it's not just about Israel and the "moral high ground" -- or any ground at all.  It's also about the U.S.  If our original support for an Israeli state was a blunder (in both practical and moral terms), haven't things just gotten worse in the meantime?  And hasn't what I call "the Israel bill" -- the amount of American wealth that has been squandered on Israel and on the results of that "eternal alliance", including 9/11 and the "war on terror" -- eaten a hole in our economy (amounting to many trillions of dollars) that can never be filled?  Haven't we, in other words, not only placed ourselves on the same questionable moral level as Israel, but also insured our own economic doom because of this relationship?  And some people will say, well, that's what we get for having gotten involved in the first place -- except the people who got us involved are long gone, and we're the ones suffering the consequences.  Others will say, "but it was worth it" -- and into this category I place the Evangelicals.  And sure, if preserving the State of Israel as the key to history is your top (or only) priority, and you're willing to see this country go down the tubes as a result, then OK -- but you should at be honest about it, "man up", and move to Israel, it seems to me. And I don't mean just go over there for a couple of weeks and cruise around on air-conditioned tour buses; I mean take up arms and fight, the way American communists did in the Spanish Civil War.  

Still others will say it's karma -- or something like karma.  It's not just about a single blunder back in the late 1940s, but about an entire history of bad ideas, or good ideas with bad consequences, or just human nature taking over and neutralizing all of our fondly-held ideals.  This is also possible.  At any rate, it has become the case, on many levels, that "as Israel goes, so goes the U.S.", for good or ill.  Our "eternal alliance", while it makes for great speeches, is a two-edged sword, and we are finding ourselves on the cutting side more often than not.

So, in this sense, while Israel is responsible for its actions in Gaza, so are we, because they could not do what they do without our support.  And we can't just dismiss or excuse it with some lame statement like "well, it's only temporary", or "things over there aren't the way they are over here". The Israelis talk about “existential threats” -- why don't we?  Doesn't our own self-preservation count for anything? Our politicians are forever claiming that there is "no daylight" between us and Israel, in any respect -- so OK, that basically means that Israel and the U.S. are, for all intents and purposes, the same country... which means that anything they do, we have also done, and vice versa.  This fact has not escaped the attention of the rising number of skeptics and protesters world-wide (including, as I said, plenty of Jews).  Will their efforts bear any fruit?  It would be great if they did, but you'll excuse me if I have my doubts. It is just possible that, rather than being in a position of making history, we are in the position of being trapped by it. And it's not as if what might come after – after the deluge, as it were – is any better. Russia and China are keeping an eagle eye on the proceedings from their front-row seats, waiting for opportunities to take advantage of the situation; they have their agendas the same as we do. A fundamentalist Islamic Middle East and North Africa – and its extensions into South and Southeast Asia and even Europe – is not likely to be a good neighbor. We and the European colonial powers thought we had long since “tamed” Islam, but now it appears that we just drove the radical elements underground for a while – or, worse, did things that aided and abetted said radical elements, or even, in some cases, created them. And these are people with a world view that we can barely comprehend – absolutist and uncompromising. And yet, the same could be said of some elements on our side. Suddenly it seems that the “reasonable people” are in the minority, caught between two armies of fanatics. Perhaps the “rule of law” and “triumph of reason” were only brief episodes in an otherwise grim and violent historical saga.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

One Last Gesture of Defiance

It doesn’t take any great stretch of the imagination to conclude that the Republican Party is “dead meat” on the national level -- i.e. when it comes to the presidency.  And I’m not being pessimistic here; the Republicans richly deserve extinction since their sins are great and many.  Not that the Democrats are any better, but one must admit that the Democrats are still, in some ways, a party of ideas, wrong though they may be.  But the cold facts, as many have pointed out, are that the Democrats have demographics on their side, and the Republicans don’t.  We have evolved into a system where more than half the populace are tax receivers, as opposed to tax payers… and more are being added to their ranks each day.  It’s not just that more are being born -- ironic, since the Democrats are nothing if not the party of “population control”, AKA abortion (free and on-demand).  Thousands of immigrants -- call them “illegal” if you like, even if Obama and the media won’t -- are crossing our borders each day, and they are, at least if one believes Rush Limbaugh, guaranteed Democrat voters (once they all come of age if not before).

So… does this mean that the Republicans are delusional when it comes to the presidency, and they might as well just give up?  Not even have a convention?  No nominee?  Well, in a perfectly rational world this might be an option, but we can’t expect them to just give up and lie down to be trampled by the forces of collectivism.  But their platforms have, of late, been pretty pathetic -- mostly “me too-ism” with the message “We’re almost as compassionate as the Democrats”, or compassionate in a different way, or something.  (And why vote for that when you can vote for the real thing?)  Because it’s all about feelings any more, and even though the Democrats have ideas, their appeal is all on the feeling level -- the politics of envy… of race… of “identity”… of class warfare… of victimhood.  They have a ready-made model for the way things ought to be -- or a number of models, actually, ranging from Scandinavian socialism to Soviet- (or even Maoist-) style collectivism and totalitarianism.  Not that they identify it in so many words (they’ve even quit identifying themselves as “liberals”, and have returned to the nostalgic, good-old-days term “progressives”), but that’s what it amounts to.      

Every domestic political issue of our time boils down to the same thing, basically -- “compassion”, which is the sole property of the Democrats, versus capitalism, “greed”, “hate”… you fill in the other dozen or so buzz words.  And the Democrats have not only a solid demographic base -- growing every day, as I said -- but a united front in the form of politicians, the media, academia, the entertainment industry, the arts… really pretty much everyone except the “heartland”, fly-over folks who are ignored and belittled more now than they were in the glory days of the New Deal (and the slightly less glorious days of the Great Society).  White, middle-class, non-ethnic, male, heterosexual, self-supporting Americans are under siege, not only in the demographic sense but also in the cultural sense; their day is past, and when they are all dead and gone and the rough places have been made plain, well… then we might, if all goes as planned, have a one-party system, not unlike… oh, let’s see… ah yes, the Soviet Union, or Nazi Germany, or China, or any number of other examples of good governance -- and we’ve seen what splendid results come out of those types of systems.  Democrats long for the day when the party is the government and the government is the party; it would make things so much simpler… so much more humane… so efficient.   

And it’s all about class as well -- as always.  The dream of collectivists down through the ages has been to eliminate that annoying, pompous, complacent, bourgeois middle class and to replace it with a people’s paradise, overseen by benign and enlightened leaders.  And never mind that there are “populists” on both sides -- think Occupy vs. Tea Party.  The populists of the right are obviously misled and mistaken, and have to be educated out of their Medieval delusions -- by force if necessary (the job, first, of the public schools). 

But -- you might say -- when it comes to immigration, haven’t we always been a “nation of immigrants”?  True enough.  But there’s a difference.  The immigrants of old -- let’s say of the great wave in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries -- came here expecting to work.  And work they did -- harder, in most cases, than the native-born Americans.  They came to get the blessings of a “free country”, but had to earn them as well.  And those “huddled masses” who showed up in the old days were not showered with gift baskets of benefits and entitlements the minute they stepped off the boat.  They had mutual aid societies, brotherhoods, and charitable organizations staffed by people who would have been called social workers if the term had been invented -- but what they got from the government was, to use a Yiddish term, bubkes -- i.e. little or nothing.  So they clawed their way up the social and economic ladder, and many of them succeeded in a spectacular way.  But they could almost all claim to be self-made -- i.e. not merely wards of the state. 

All of this began to change in what is called the Progressive Era, and it reached a fever pitch with the New Deal… but that was still nothing compared to the Great Society, with its full-blown welfare state… and that was still nothing compared to what we have (or are trying to have) today. 

But -- you might say -- aren’t these good things?  Isn’t compassion, even if the term is widely abused by demagogues, an intrinsically good thing -- the best of humanity, in fact?  People helping people, etc.?  Setting aside all Constitutional issues here (just as the Constitution itself has been, basically, set aside and relegated to the dustbin of history known as the National Archives), I propose a single word, or concept:  sustainability.  And no liberal can argue with this, since “sustainability” has been a kind of shibboleth by which one defines the merits of anything involving natural resources.  Oddly enough, however, it’s very seldom applied to economic issues.  No one ever wonders -- at least not out loud -- what happens when everyone becomes a tax receiver and there are no tax payers left.  And this, in turn, is based on the premise that government is the source of all wealth and prosperity… that’s it’s a kind of magic cornucopia that even without input is capable of infinite output.  More sober economists will contend that, in fact, the government doesn’t -- cannot -- produce wealth at all, that’s it’s basically parasitic, and owes its very existence to the dwindling proportion of productive citizens.  Government cannot produce wealth, it can only redistribute it (while keeping a good chunk for itself) -- and human nature being what it is, productivity tends to decline when people discover that they can live almost as well not working as they can by the sweat of their brow.  But this is an insight that has escaped the attention of nearly everyone in government as well as their facilitators in the media, academics, etc.

So the question is, how can the Republicans, especially given their ambivalence and demonstrated impotence on these issues, compete with this notion?  The answer is, they can’t.  The stars of  “talk radio” and Fox News can scream all they want, but they won’t change anyone’s mind on these issues.  Either you subscribe to some sort of economic sustainability concept -- however vague -- or you don’t, and in our time most people don’t. 

How, then, will it all end?  Are we dealing with some basic laws here, not unlike the laws of physics?  Or will benign UFOs swoop down some day soon and shower us all with gold bullion (in which case, gold will be worth no more than tinfoil)?  Where, in other words, is the escape hatch that will save us all from our folly? 

Fortunately (or not), we have many examples from the 20th Century as to how this kind of thinking turned out.  We have the Soviet Union, with its starvation, deprivation, and gulags… and we have Mao’s China, where it was necessary to exterminate hundreds of millions of people just to break even.  Or on the extreme end, we have Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, which committed what I call “auto-genocide”.  And yet, even those benighted societies turned around eventually, with varying degrees of success, and the process continues.  What is left of the hard core -- the true believers?  Arguably, North Korea -- a people’s paradise if ever there was one -- and, to a lesser extent, Cuba.  And what do you know, not a day goes by but what some Democrat doesn’t hold Cuba up as an exemplar.  (They aren’t quite as enthused about North Korea, although I expect that they secretly look upon the Kim dynasty with burning envy.)    

So what’s a good Republican to do?  Muddle along with those ciphers in Congress known as “the Republican leadership” (You know, those guys who were born without a spine, like the never-seen character on “Saturday Night Live”)?  Embrace the Tea Party?  The problem there is that it’s not a real party, and its ideas lack coherence.  It’s “agin” plenty of things, but what is it for?  All I ever hear are vague concepts and memes.  Plus, it has a huge Achilles heel called “foreign policy”, which I won’t belabor at this point. 

A search for honest, unapologetic conservatism might take one back to the Reagan era… or to Goldwater… or to Robert Taft.  And that would be a start.  But those strategies would still run the risk of being contaminated by nationalism (as opposed to patriotism) and empire-madness.  No, what I propose is making a clean break -- going all the way.  Rather than throwing the libertarians bodily out of the convention, welcome them with open arms, sit at their feet, and learn.  By which I mean, learn sound economics, sane foreign policy, sustainable (that word again) domestic policy… and, most of all, regain some self respect.  The libertarian philosophy contains much of what the Republicans have fought for in the past, with varying degrees of success, but without all of the accumulated baggage that has, in effect, doomed the Republicans as a party and as a political force, except on the strictly local, and occasionally state, level.  Best of all, it would yield up a real position… a platform… a philosophy of government.  And yes, it would guarantee a crushing loss in the 2016 election, but better to retire from the scene with some self respect than simply as a confused pack of losers.  And who knows, it might plant some ideas in some people’s heads -- ideas that might be remembered, and even come to fruition, after the deluge is past (although that may take years… decades… even generations).  It would be a way of saying to the Democrats, “This is where we stand.  It’s honorable, it has a historical basis, and it works.  Your program, on the other hand, is deceptive, cruel, unsustainable, evil, tyrannical, designed for your own glory and enrichment, and, ultimately, doomed.  And we want nothing to do with it.”

Now that would be an act of defiance.  It would be “TV worth watching”.  And it will never happen.  The Republicans have brought a curse upon themselves by being pale imitations of the Democrats, and they are suffering the appropriate fate.  They are complicit in their own demise.