Friday, September 27, 2013

No True Martyr

The following came up in a Google+ discussion thread: "Anyone who faithfully followed all of the things that Jesus commanded his followers to do would likely be considered a dangerous fanatic."

Now, I'm not much of a student of the Gospels, but I have had four years of theology classes and that one was something of a head-scratcher. So I asked what struck me as an obvious question: "What dangerous fanaticism did Christ advocate?"

We went back and forth for another round, and then the discussion came to this:

"Try telling people that no, homosexuality isn't OK, and see how far that gets you. Try telling people that abortion is murder. Try speaking your mind about the things that are accepted by popular culture but are clearly abominable in the eyes of God.

Yeah, people will label you as a dangerous fanatic. I speak from experience."
At this point, I withdrew, not wanting to turn someone else's thread into a forum for this discussion, but that raised another obvious question: Where does Christ command that his followers go out and get into other people's faces about what they understand to be acceptable? In other words, where does Christ command that Christians "try telling people that no, homosexuality isn't OK" or that they "try telling people that abortion is murder?" Where is it written that "speaking your mind about the things that are accepted by popular culture but are clearly abominable in the eyes of God" is required of those who would follow Christ? I'm not familiar with any such passage in the Gospels - although I concede that there may be one.

But, that said, I'm pretty sure that there isn't anywhere in the Gospels where Christ commands his followers to expect that they won't be judged by the bad acts of the nominally Christian.

George Tiller was shot in the name of abortion being murder, Matthew Shepherd was beaten to death for being gay (although a new book calls that into question) and the Centennial Olympic Park bombing was motivated by religion. The perpetrators of these crimes were all nominally Christian. Whether they deliberately set out to do what they felt was God's work is debatable, but it's unlikely than any of them could reasonable escape the label of "dangerous fanatic." And many people associate what they did with a dangerous, violent strain of Christianity, not unlike that of the Ku Klux Klan.

The association between Christianity and dangerous fanaticism isn't born from "turn the other cheek," "love your neighbor as yourself" or "let he who has not sinned cast the first stone." It's born from a reasonable, if highly exaggerated, fear that opening with "telling people that abortion is murder" today could result in a doctor being shot or a clinic being bombed tomorrow. It's not reasonable to assume that a demonstrably pacifistic, generous Christianity would incite people to fear and distrust.

But Christians, like everyone else, are caught in the trap that "Christian" is a label - and it's one that people can take up for themselves. And despite the common "No True Scotsman" arguments that are often deployed to expel them, people who commit bad acts while claiming to be Christian are often considered Christian. And so it's quite reasonable for people to assume that someone who understands that Christ commands them to tell others how wrong they are may, just as others have done, take things beyond denunciations of the wickedness of others.

Martyrdom, for all its finality, often holds an allure, as proof of the ultimate in loyalty. And for that, we often commend and lionize the martyred. But simply because the wicked attack the righteous man does not mean the slings and arrows of those one considers wicked are proof of one's own righteousness. It's easy to see ourselves as martyrs, and in so doing, denounce others through placing ourselves on a pedestal. It's an impulse worth resisting.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Undeclared State of Welfare

The problem is that an attack on one family's livelihood is another family's food, clothing and shelter. Choose wisely...
According to one Paul Buchheit, the average American household subsidizes corporate interests to the tune of $6,000 a year. Now, for the record, I can't speak to the accuracy of this information. There are links in the article, but since it's somewhat secondary to the point that I'm about to make, I didn't check them all out. So this may be correct, or it may not.

But, for the moment, let's assume that we are shelling out, as a nation, somewhere in the area of $688,568,154,000 per year to float "corporate fat cats," as so many people like to call them. The question isn't, for most of us, whether this is right or wrong, but whether we are getting a reasonable return on that investment. Now, the default assumption is that since this is money that we don't need to spend, there is effectively no return. And for the majority of us, that's likely more or less correct. But, obviously, someone's getting that money - it's unlikely that most of the corporate recipients of the cash are simply sitting on it and not doing anything useful with it.

And here's where things become dicey. Some of the people who are receiving a slice of this money are everyday people. Suppose that through a sudden Congressional revolt (or attack of good sense, take your pick) all of these subsides were to vanish - tomorrow. What would the companies do? It's easy to talk about "corporations that have doubled their profits" in the aggregate, but I would actually be surprised to find that all of the corporations that were benefiting from this would actually be profitable without it. So it's likely that some of them would close, and likely jobs would go away. You could make the point that if every family had an extra $6,000 to spend, that other companies would move into the void. And that's likely true. But. There are a few factors to take into account. Some of that money would be spent on exports, and go overseas. Some of that money would go into bidding up the price of assets - it would go into someone's pockets, but wouldn't necessarily create jobs. And some of that money would go into bank accounts and under mattresses (or to pay debts), and thus be unavailable to be paid out in wages, in whole or in part.

And so it's likely that the removal of the nearly $700 billion in subsidies would result in some subset of the population losing some or all of their current income, and having poor prospects to immediately replace it. And those people would be very motivated to make common cause with "the 1%" to preserve their incomes. And help them in making other people fear for their incomes. And that's really what's at stake here. While segments of the Right and the Left may ally with each other to decry Crony Capitalism, it's the middle that sees a benefit in these subsidies - or at least fears feeling the pain if they're ended. Most people don't make deals that hurt them in the long run because they're stupid - they make them because they can't afford to walk away from them in the short run. Ending policies that effectively result in Corporate Welfare requires giving people that freedom to walk away, and not starve because of it.

So it won't be a question of whether or not we all pay the $6,000 per household - just a matter of who cashes the checks.

Monday, September 23, 2013

I Rage, Therefore I Am?

I have noted that hatred, like any number of other negative emotions, is, as I understand it, a sign of inserenity; or anxiety, if you will; something that we cannot change and will not accept. We cannot change the world around us to bring it into line with the way we feel that it ought to be, and we will not accept that people or circumstances that are not to our liking do not owe us anything different. While this perhaps tells us what hatred is, it does not explain to us why it is. What makes rage, bitterness and anger advantageous enough to the human condition that it survived the culling of evolution? Or necessary enough that it was built in by a divine plan? Are the benefits it brings to the human condition worth the costs?

Consider the picture above, pulled from Google+ yesterday. The hatred is palpable. But I wonder to what end? The vast majority of the teeming hundreds of millions of people in Southeast Asia and their relations and descendents scattered around the globe are unlikely to seek to change their lives and beg forgiveness for their supposed sins. The sun rose (and the rains fell) upon them this morning, just as they have for the days, weeks and years before. Why they need the approval of yet another random denizen of the internet is beyond me.

When I was a child, My father cautioned me against expressions of impotent rage (whether directed at people or things) by pointing out that simply demonstrating that I was angry did nothing to redress the source of my anger. Those that I was angry at were unaffected, and whatever had been done to arouse my anger was not undone. I was simply reminding myself of my own powerlessness. And, in doing so, I was undermining my own self-approval and comfort. Of course, the wisdom of adults is often lost on children, just as it is often lost on adults, and it was not until I was an adult myself that I could fully appreciate the corrosive effect of anger on myself.

Regardless of what we might understand that we need from them, people do not owe us anything. They do not transgress upon our just deserts when they behave in ways that we find unwarranted or even unacceptable. They are beyond our control. I do not know if being okay with that leads to serenity, or if serenity leads to being okay with that. Given the difficult road to either, I expect that it's somehow both of these at once.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Two Eons Hate

What is worth a great deal among people is hated by God.
It's a simple enough sentiment, and one that I've encountered time and again. Living in the United States, it's nearly inescapable. But, I find it nonsensical. Why would God hate anything? Or, to put it a bit differently, what could possibly inspire an omnipotent deity to as strong an emotion as hatred?

Of course, as someone who doesn't myself believe in deities, it's mainly an academic question. But I think that it's one that's worth considering because for many followers of Abrahamic religions, God's emotionality (especially it's "negative" aspects) is an important factor in their belief system, and thus can often be a driving force in certain behaviors that others (believers or not) find problematic. In my own understanding, the combination of omnipotence and omniscience would mean that a deity is perfectly capable of having the universe look precisely the way they wish it to. And while a common objection to this is that it violates human free will (to the degree that one does not believe in a deterministic universe), I'm not so sure of that.

With the universe as it is currently structured, I cannot walk on the ocean floor unprotected. Without some serious underwater gear, I'd be crushed before I made it that far, assuming that I didn't simply suffocate first. I have yet to meet anyone who considers this a check on my free will - it's simply a limitation of the human condition. Likewise the fact that humans are unable to fly, unaided, in the manner of birds. Or the idea that there are only Thirty-six Dramatic Situations, and that while one can mix and match them in nearly infinite varieties, there aren't any others to be found. None of these things is considered sinful - we simply haven't found a way to transcend those limits, and might not ever manage it. And, in theory, if one understands that the universe was the work of a designing intelligence, then it stands to reason that these limitations were deliberately built in (or at least not obviated) by that intelligence.

So given an understanding that humanity has limits, and that those limits do not impinge upon free will, having to deal with the whims of a deity can also be construed as a limitation of the human condition. And so if some factor of the universe roused God to hatred, why would he not simply expunge it as if it had never existed? A deity that is capable of literally anything (whether we could conceive of it or not) could easily make wholesale alterations to the fabric of reality without humanity being any the wiser. In other words, once you assume that literally everything is controlled by divine whim, it's perfectly conceivable that the day before yesterday, the Sun was a rather soothing shade of violet, and that in the intervening time not only was it altered to "yellow," but the entire universe was altered so that as far as every bit of matter and energy in all of reality is concerned, the Sun has always been "yellow." Would we consider such an alteration to be a violation of our free will? How?

Given this, it seems odd that a deity, when roused to hatred, would simply, well... hate. Rather, they would simply remove the offending bit of reality, and replace it with one more to their liking. So rather than "What is worth a great deal among people is hated by God," it is likely more accurate to say that "What is worth a great deal among other[, morally impaired,] people is hated by me." Because we don't have the capability to alter reality to suit us. We are, to reference Doctor Who ("The Face of Evil"), neither powerful nor stupid enough. Attributing hatred of things that we find morally or ethically problematic to God is a way of dealing with that powerlessness that simultaneously accepts and rejects it. We resign ourselves to the world as it is, yet align ourselves with an ineffable force that dislikes it, and will mete out justice at a later date.

Our hatred is a sign of "inserenity;" or anxiety, if you will; something that we cannot change and will not accept. In this regard it cannot be the sign of an omnipotent deity, which, by definition, can change whatever it chooses. So we are left with have no other options than to accept that the Universe does not owe us anything, and in this, to be at peace - or to rage uselessly against a reality that is not of our making.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Brace For Impact

So in other non-news, the Republicans would like to swing the budget ax, and chop about $40 billion out of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, otherwise known as Food Stamps. While there is plenty of shoutrage, there's little real surprise.

As I drifted away from being a consistent Democrat and into the netherworld of skeptical non-partisanship, I became convinced that both major American political parties were up to the same thing: Looking for ways to punish the other side's core voters and/or preventing the other party from using public funds to buy votes. But as I've taken a closer look at things, I've come to the conclusion that the Republicans might have a different, if related, goal in mind: crashing the United States economy. And really not out of spite, either.

While Republican rhetoric is often full of the idea that there are plenty of jobs (however menial) just waiting for anyone who wants one and is willing to put in even a modicum of effort to get one, the fact of the matter remains that there likely aren't really enough jobs to go around without some serious labor market reforms, which will have to entail abolishing both minimum wages and certain job protections. Prohibitions against people who enter the country illegally working would also have to be strengthened. Couple that with the large-scale removal of the social safety net, and the bottom falls out of wages, as competition for employment leads workers to undercut each other to find paying work.

And when the bottom falls out of wages, the bottom falls out of domestic prices as well, and a dollar becomes more, rather than less, valuable. Deflationary currency benefits savers. (And what are wealthy people other than big-time savers?) It also makes borrowing less attractive, as the dollars that debts are denominated it become more dear as time goes on. Lending becomes more profitable, but there are fewer people who want to borrow money. But then again, you don't need to constantly invest simply to maintain value. Depending on how you look at it, there are actually benefits to the public overall from arresting the constant march of inflation.

The problem is that getting there would be VERY painful - and the longer things go on, the more painful it becomes. My suspicion is that Republicans want to bring the pain now. Yes, this will also have the effect of punishing Democratic constituencies - poor people don't have much in the way of savings - the inability to save is what makes them poor. But the Libertarian school of economic thought says that without what many on the Right feel are artificial barriers to work, in the end, everyone will be better off. After all, prices HAVE to come down. Businesses won't be able to maintain their higher prices when people have less money to spend. And if you believe that a man who sells five potatoes wants nothing more than to sell six, it's easy to conclude that prices will continue to drop.

Of course, all of this relies on the chicken-and-egg nature of economics to shake out in a certain way. Also, as I've laid it out here, it's vastly oversimplified, since I suspect I could spend weeks explaining it all. But it all makes sense to me (which, according to my father, means that no-one else will see it this way). And in a way, it makes more sense than see the Republicans as reverse-Robin Hoods, who want to tax the poor to give to the rich - which isn't a really workable model, long term. Of course, it's possible that the political class is merely telling certain people what they want to hear. We'll have to wait and see.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013


Whether or not the Moon is a Harsh Mistress, I do not know. On the other hand, I'm quite sure that she's a petulant model, especially when there are thin clouds everywhere. I was able to monkey with this photograph a bit to bring out some of the detail, but there's still a big chunk of it that's plain blown out.

Next time, though. Next time...

Monday, September 16, 2013

Like Begets Like

Mark Twain is said to have noted that: "No man can be comfortable without his own approval." The lesson that I take from this is that we shouldn't condition our own self-approval. Yet, I do it all the time. I have a life-long habit of predicating my self-approval on my ability to be my ideal self, which tends to be a version of me with all of my negative qualities removed. Not the smartest idea that I've ever had, if for no other reason than I suspect that my negative qualities are born of the times in which I fail to grant myself my own approval. The ability to consistently make the choice to approve of oneself, warts and all, is a difficult one. It always smacks of giving myself a pass for my shortcomings, rather than working to overcome them. And so the future perfect becomes the enemy of the good in the here and now, and I find myself worrying about who I might become tomorrow, rather than accepting who I am today.

The path to peace with oneself and the world is a simple one - change what you cannot accept and accept what you cannot change. It's said that the wisdom to know the difference belongs in there, too, but I'm not so sure about that. One can only change what one controls, and in the end, the self is the only thing that one can control. The change is to learn to accept. Twain is also said to have noted that the Universe does not owe us anything - it was here first. Perhaps oddly, I understand that this applies to the self, as well. In my calmer moments, I understand that, like the Universe I was here before "I" was here, that I existed before I was cognizant of my own existence and in that regard, I do not owe myself anything in return for my own approval, regardless of what my Inner Critic has to say about it.

The self is strange. It is not a "thing," yet it is made up of things. But there is no single aspect that makes the self, no single thing that if it were removed, I would cease to be "me." And as such, I should not withhold my self-approval on account of not having them. If there is no faster way to make oneself miserable than to compare yourself to someone else, an idealized version of yourself also falls into that, whether it is a past self or a hoped-for future self. If I am always to be worthy of my own approval, then it must be as I am now. Perhaps this is the ultimate expression of being the change you seek. If I seek to change myself to accept myself, then myself must, in effect, become acceptance, rather than seeking acceptance. I can only be my ideal self through letting go of the concept of my ideal self.

I know. It sounds bizarre, circular and paradoxical (perhaps even pathological) to me, too. Yet, I think I understand it. The difficulty is to implement it. It's often characterized as an abyss, a dark and frightening place epitomizes the unknown, and thus our failure to reach it is characterized as fear. I have a different metaphor, one that more closely matches my own experience. It is, at its heart, a perpetual motion machine - the trick is, once it's started, to get it to the point where it is self-sustaining. While the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics aren't strictly applicable to the human mind, I've realized that I create my own sources of friction and energy loss that dictate that my self-acceptance often be fueled from without. And it is my need for this external input that creates desire, and that desire manifests itself in my attempts to exert control over the world around me, rather than beginning and ending with myself. That control inevitably fails (if for no other reason that understanding myself as controlling drives my Inner Critic), and the engine that fuels my self-acceptance stalls. Only when my self-acceptance does the work to drive my self-acceptance (and, in turn, my acceptance of everything else) can I succeed.

Of course, whispers my Inner Critic, this could all be Cargo Cult Self-Psychology - wishful thinking driven by ignorance and self-delusion, and buttressed by insufficient questioning, doubt and honesty - in which I mimic the actions that I think I should take without really understanding what I'm doing. We'll see. If nothing else, I'll learn something about mental Thermodynamics.

Sunday, September 15, 2013


For all that we don't like to think of ourselves that way, the United States is often a nation of bullies. "You're different, and that's bad," become sufficient excuse for us to take out our own lack of comfort with ourselves on people who have made different choices than we have or are just plain not like us. And just like any group large enough to be on the public's radar is too large to not have any jackasses in it, it's also too large to not be seen as a target.

So here we have another article on how atheists feel bullied by Christians. It turns out to be Christians because the overwhelming majority of Americans who claim some religious identity are, not surprisingly, Christians. Therefore, there are some jackasses in the group. But there's something more to it than that. Whenever an article like this appears, and has a comment section attached, you can pretty much rest easy that someone's going to make a blanket statement about how Christians are a bunch of meanies. And that, invariably, leads to someone else making a statement about how true Christians are loving and tolerant, and it goes from there.

Leaving aside the common One True Scotsman fallacy that any invocation of "true Christians" often entails, I often find myself suggesting that maybe we shouldn't expect Christians to be unconditionally accepting of their more (or completely) secular brethren. Something to which people respond as if it were the lowest form of slander. I don't view Christians as necessarily being bigoted haters. But I recognize that the somewhat Manichean outlook that many denominations espouse creates conditions that are ripe for conflict.

There are a fair number of Christian sects that understand themselves to have a monopoly on spiritual truth, and have an understanding that only through knowing and accepting the truth can one be spiritually healthy (and perhaps that there is active danger in believing falsehoods). It's unsurprising that they might take exception to people promoting an alternative viewpoint. I have no more expectation that my doctor to be tolerant of what he considers quackery. It doesn't mean that he's actively intolerant; he feels that he has a job to do, and I understand when he resents people coming along and making that job harder by spouting what he sees as harmful falsehoods. There's a difference in him being okay with people who distrust modern pharmaceuticals, and him being okay with someone attempting to get me to stop taking my blood pressure medications in favor of some untested snake oil, or whatever. While I think he would be a bit saddened by the first, I think he'd be actively put out by the second, perhaps to the point of hostility. (Just as there are people who fervently believe that modern medicines are all about promoting illness and dependence and are hostile to those who purvey them.)

And this is often the dynamic that I see at work between American Christians and Secularists. Each accuses the other of leading the unsuspecting astray - either away from God into the clutches of the Devil or into superstition and ignorance. And so even if both sides understand that it's perfectly acceptable to believe whatever you chose, they tend to see evangelizing as dangerous. And from there it's a short step to see bullying one another as less about persecution of people who are different than it is about protecting the unsuspecting. Which is often, ironically, an easy way to tell ourselves that it isn't bullying.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Dances in the Dark

Paul Saffo, in his essay "The Ghost Dances" used an old Native American ritual named the Ghost Dance as a metaphor for modern anxiety around technological change, and the cultural changes that often follow. Early in the essay, he describes the modern Ghost Dance as: "a painful and contradictory accommodation that at once reaches back to grasp disappearing cultural norms while simultaneously rejecting and embracing disruptive alien novelties."

The man known as Mule, who is currently traveling throughout California on foot, accompanied by three pack mules that carry their supplies, is perhaps a particularly apt example of this. Mule sees suburban sprawl and ever-increasing development of public lands as a threat not only to his "off-the-grid" way of life, but to the way that we were all meant to live. But to get his word out, he's felt the need to have a website and a Facebook page, and he carries with him cellular telephones, voice recorders, a digital camera, GPS and a tablet. He simultaneously rejects the increasing commercialization of the Web, yet believes that without it, he doesn't have a voice in our modern world. He is concerned, and perhaps rightly so, that his use of technology to preach against modernity will come across as hollow and inauthentic.

But this isn't his only worry.

There is always a balance between people's freedoms, and the needs of a community.
Mule's lawyer, Sharon Sherman
The fact that Mule has a lawyer is indicative of another, conflicting, Ghost Dance. Saffo also describes Ghost Dancing as a way of assuaging the fear of making the wrong choices by outsourcing choice to an in fallible higher authority. The fact that a man traveling through California with three mules provokes complaints and calls to the police is perhaps a variation on this, as the unnerved residents of the communities that Mule passes through seek to force him back into the mold - and life - that he rejects. Their mold and their life.

I think that, sometimes, our communities become too caught up in a perceived need for everyone to be like us - to see the choices the collective "we" makes as ironclad imperatives, and therefore, other choices as somehow dangerous and threatening. Given time, this metastasizes into a need to coerce others into acquiescence and conformity, allowing ourselves to purchase our own self-acceptance through the conviction that the choices that we have made are not only the correct ones, but the only ones, and that to reject those choices (and by extension, to reject us) is to invite destructive anarchy. We cast ourselves as the infallible higher authority that must be obeyed for Order to prevail. The collective "we" Ghost Dances for reassurance. And woe betide those who refuse to follow our tune.

Our willingness to adopt a way of life that frays easily when people choose otherwise is a recipe for conflict. When we set the needs of our communities directly (and more or less intentionally) at odds with the freedoms of others, we have a recipe for, for lack of a better word, tyranny. It becomes easy to enlist the majority and its power to harass and bully those who won't give us the satisfaction of mirroring our ideal selves back to us. And then we marvel, worry and rage over the conflicts that arise.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Pants On Fire

One of the paradoxes of politics is that many people consider politicians to be master manipulators - but only when it come to fooling other people into doing something that turns out to be wicked. But manipulation is like any other tool - it doesn't care what you use it for, and I'm starting to think that we're watching a masterful plan come together on the international stage.

As soon as I'd heard that the Russian Federation was floating an idea that the al-Assad administration in Syria place the regime's chemical weapons stockpiles under international control to be secured and destroyed, I started to suspect that the Obama administration had a different agenda than the one they were publicly pushing. And when I heard this morning that it was because the Russians were running with an idea that Secretary of State Kerry had tossed out during a press conference, I was convinced.

As I see it, the con goes down like this. After having publicly delineated a Red Line with Syria over the use of chemical weapons, the United States is now in the position of having to appear to do something. And so the President begins to stir the American war machine to life in defense of the Geneva Protocol (The Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare). Alarm bells go off everywhere. Here and abroad, people mobilize to oppose the United States going after the al-Assad administration, even while they condemn the apparent use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians. But no-one offers any alternatives. The international community is, as usual, worthless. Since both Russia and China have Veto power in the United Nations Security Council, they can protect the al-Assad administration simply by blocking any resolutions that might have any teeth, or even simply be embarrassing.

And this is where the scheming comes in. The United States also has a Security Council Veto, and that means that it's not possible for the Russians and the Chinese, despite whatever opposition they may have to United States action, to pass a Security Council resolution condemning same. The United States was free to play Bad Cop and chew the scenery with gusto - which they have to do for the plan to work. Now, all they needed was a Good Cop.

[MARGARET BRENNAN (CBS)]: [...] And secondly, is there anything at this point that [Bashar al-Assad's] government could do or offer that would stop an attack?

SECRETARY KERRY: Sure. He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that. But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.
Press Conference by [Secretary of State John] Kerry, British Foreign Secretary [William] Hague
While this statement has been widely reported as "unplanned" and "a gaffe," the fact of the matter is that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov picked up on the comment within hours and took it to the Syrians; and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said that they welcomed the suggestion. Now, both the Russians and the French are drafting resolutions that would have Syria turn over its chemical weapons to the international community.

The Obama administration is openly skeptical of this plan. While it's easy to see this as simple war-mongering or anti-Moslem suspicion, the fact of the matter remains that you can't successfully be the Bad Cop if the subject doesn't believe the aggressive and negative stance being taken. And for the Good Cop's gambit to work, the subject must fear the Bad Cop.

Whether or not the United States is deliberately working with other international actors to play the Bad Cop, is beside the point. The United States has deliberately staked out a position that struck many people as rather extreme for the circumstances, and left a wide area of acceptable outcomes on the table for someone to pick up. Whether through pre-arranged planning, manipulative baiting or sudden inspiration sparked by a "careless" comment, they moved into the neglected "center" position.

Of course, the necessity for such a dangerous gamble is based on the idea that United States could not, itself, have simply opened with a resolution similar to what the Russians and French have put forward. Without that, this comes across as simply willfully (or ignorantly) reckless. And I suspect that where many people come down on that will depend on their opinion of the President, and how cranky they are about the feeling that they were played, along with the Syrians. The idea that the Obama Administration blundered into a workable solution is already taking hold among political conservatives, and will likely prove just as durable as the idea that the President was born in Kenya - and somehow managed to falsify all of the documentation needed to prove eligibility for the highest and most scrutinized office in the nation in pursuit of a hidden Socialist agenda.

But, despite what many on the political Left thought of President Bush, and the political Right think of President Obama, naïfs don't make it into the White House. And almost no-one, not even the President's biggest supporters, think of the man as guileless. I think that in this case, he and his advisers put on their liar's hats to good effect.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Crooked Frames

Ilya Pozin penned an interesting column on LinkedIn about a week and half ago, and in doing so, painted a big, red bullseye smack in the middle of his forehead. His prescription that people devote part of their Sundays to prepping for the work week ahead was met with withering scorn.

I wonder if Mr. Pozin was surprised at the reaction to his article. I certainly see where he's coming from, as an entrepreneur. The business world never sleeps, and if you want to keep up with it effectively, you never really get "a day off." If "thank God it's Friday," rings true for you, you're likely not doing something that you love enough to want to do the work that it's going to take to keep up. Being an entrepreneur or CEO is not a trivial undertaking. These are people who put in some VERY long hours, and likely, aren't in a position to completely ignore things on Sundays because they can't force all of the various parties that they do business with to do the same. While it's true that even the high-powered must take some time away from the office, and have a bright line between their work and home lives, it's unlikely that they simply box out the weekend as a block, and leave it at that. And, more than like, many of Mr. Pozin's critics understand that.

But I think that Mr. Pozin primed people for a negative reaction to this article with the title: "Why Productive People Work On Sundays," and the opening: "Sundays aren’t just for rest and recuperation. When used wisely, they’re actually the perfect way to start your week with a bang." (Emphasis mine.) Whether or not he meant it that way, I think that a lot of people took him to be saying that people who do not use Sundays to prepare for the week ahead are being unproductive through an unwise use of their time. People (especially Americans) are (very) sensitive to being excluded from virtues in this way, and tend to respond badly. And so the responses were predictable, especially those where people framed spending Sunday as a work-free day as a matter of necessity, rather than choice.

Bucking conventional wisdom isn't easy under the best of circumstances. And when that conventional wisdom is backed up by people's self-interest, that hardly counts as the best of circumstances. A good point, incorrectly framed, can easily become lost in the negative reaction to the framing. "What you say" is always important, but "how you say it" can never be taken for granted.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

I Only Count Four

"Here's what I'll tell you. I'm tired of the U.S. getting involved in every country's individual disputes. As sad as what happened is, I do not intend to support the resolution. The reason I'm hesitant there is I would ask you to give me a little bit if leeway in that if we have intelligence that shows those chemical weapons being transferred to Hamas where they could potentially be used against Israel, then I would be in favor of destroying those weapons."
Representative Austin Scott (R-Georgia)
"Rep. Scott: Tired Of U.S. Getting Involved World's Disputes"
States that begin with the letter "I."

I do not see Israel on this list. Were they admitted to the Union when I wasn't looking? If not, why are Israel's problems something that the United States' has to do something about when no-one else's are? Israel has an army, an air force and a navy. If they're concerned that the Syrians might allow chemical weapons to wind up in the hands of someone hostile to them, and the United States can't be bothered with "every country's individual disputes," let them deal with it.

I understand that Israel is, for the United States, the exception to the saying that nations do not have allies, they have interests. The United States has taken broad responsibility for protecting Israel from everything from outside threats to breaking international laws, seemingly in return for nothing other than hastening the Christian End Times. Yet we keep trying to jump start a peace process as if we were an impartial third party. Maybe if we stayed out of that "individual dispute" and allowed/forced the parties to work it out for themselves, the process might actually get somewhere, and our desire to wash our hands of the problems of other nations would seem less hollow.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Peace In Our Time

Secretary of State John Kerry told House Democrats that the United States faced a “Munich moment” in deciding whether to respond to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government.
Kerry’s derisive comments on Assad and his reference to the 1938 Munich agreement between Adolf Hitler and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain — after which Chamberlain infamously declared it would lead to “peace for our time” — showed the hard line the White House is taking in its drive for congressional approval of the Syrian resolution.
John Kerry to Democrats: ‘Munich moment’
It seems to me that the single best argument against the constant comparisons of today to 1938 can be summed up in a simple question:

Do people still judge the United Kingdom on Prime Minister Chamberlain’s actions? Is the international community still convinced that London will sit on its hands because of Munich?

It seems to me that regardless of how apt or inapt comparing President Obama to Prime Minister Chamberlain is, the fact remains that Chamberlain’s actions and stance on war stopped being relevant more or less as soon as he was no longer in office, and people don't treat them as relevant today, and likely haven't for decades now. When Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, they did so because they sincerely believed that the islands rightfully belonged to them, not they looked back on the Munich agreement and determined that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher would necessarily be just as invested in a peaceable solution.

Why should President Obama’s actions today have any more bearing on what people think the United States will do 50, 20 or even 5 years from now? Why should anyone believe that a nation that can turn over nearly the whole of its elected government in the span of a decade will behave the same way over the years? Arguments about the credibility of the United States and how history will look at these events are misguided (when they aren't simply disingenuous) for these reasons. Leaving aside the fact that, like any other nation, the United States tends to place its perceived security and economic interests ahead of moral consensus, a nation is not a person. And to the degree that nations are consistent in their behavior, it’s not because their leadership is locked into the paths that their predecessors have taken.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Don't Worry Charlie - I've Got an Angle

Behind every nation's military interventions, there is an agenda, even in the cases of "good" wars. The United States is not alone in this. It's vanishingly rare for nations to expend resources and lives solely for moral concerns. Agendas may be primarily political in nature or they may be driven by security concerns or what have you - and they're not always hateful conspiracies against the cause of right and justice.

The issue that United States has right now is that more or less no one believes that President Obama is motivated solely by the plight of the civilian population of Syria. (Then again, neither is anyone else.) Yet his now widely understood as unwise and naïve "red line" rhetoric on the use of NBC weapons in the conflict is fueling claims that both his and the nation's credibility are on the line. But the United States has already lost the credibility war - the very fact that so many people, within the United States and without, sincerely regard the talk of chemical weapons as cover for a nefarious (and possibly trivial) plot is proof of that. The idea of the United States as a heroic defender of freedom and democracy has faded into the distant past, and been replaced by an image of a powerful, yet waning, nation that lashes out around itself; cloaking increasingly desperate attempts to preserve the power, prestige and hegemony that its faltering economy depends on in the soaring, threadbare rhetoric of peace and justice. (While, at the same time, insisting that it be above the judgment of other nations.)

I don't think that anyone suspects that, left to its own devices, the Syrian Civil War will end well. (After all, name one that has.) There also seems to be a widespread lack of confidence that the situation can be de-escalated in a manner mutually acceptable to everyone involved by any outside parties, alone or in concert. This has created a dynamic where it is taken for granted that outside intervention will assuredly do more harm than good, providing the basis for a general understanding that any action must be self-serving.  But since a clear national interest (for anyone) is so difficult to identify, the assumption that there is a hidden (and destructive) agenda becomes the default.