Thursday, November 06, 2008

Friendly Advice

With all the problems that Obama will face as he takes office, prosecuting members of the previous administration for their many violations of the law will surely be a low priority. It would seem vindictive and unnecessary. If I were a principled and canny Republican, however, I would insist on a full accounting with all the trimmings even if it meant that some of my friends and colleagues did hard time. Allowing the guilty to escape may seem like a good thing from a partisan point of view, but what it would actually do is establish the precedent that the executive can get away with anything. The last administration invented a utopian solution to many of its problems by essentially legalizing crime, but the Republicans won’t like it when and if the Democrats play by the same rules or lack of rules. I won’t like it either.

I’d like to believe that the people who are currently taking power are morally better than those who they are supplanting, if only because they don’t have to meet a very high standard to do that. However, I also suspect that part of the reason the old order broke the law so freely was not simply a function of their ideology, which at its margins was pretty close to a combination of the Fuhrer Prinzip and a Tammany Hall license to steal, but also resulted from a generally low level of competence. Criminals tend to be stupid and conversely the stupid tend to be criminals. Just as man-eating lions are usually just the animals too old and sick to take their proper prey, dangerous men are often simply not clever enough or disciplined enough to achieve their aims in a constructive, lawful manner. For all their jabbering about John Galt, nothing so characterized the outgoing bunch more than its consistent mediocrity. They weren’t good at much and stole because they didn’t know how to earn. But even if the new men and women turn out to be more able, even considerably more able, and therefore capable of accomplishing their aims without cheating, the power of precedent is so great that I’m afraid that the executive will continue to abuse the Constitution under their charge. If Chaney and Gonzales go to prison, that will be less likely. Maybe somebody at the National Review could make this point in a featured article…

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

In Backgammon, It’s Called the Running Game

McCain is suspending his campaign for the moment and calling for a postponement of the Friday debate. The dramatic (or erratic) moves are understandable granted the marked decline in his fortunes that has taken place over the last ten days or so as the financial crisis made even the lowest information voters notice how badly his party has handled the economy. He’s in the situation of a chess player with a bad position who complicates the game even at the cost of making inferior moves—a perfectly rational strategy that many losing candidates have tried, though it does seem to work better in chess than politics. McCain’s desperation did not just begin, however.

The Palin nomination was already a capitulation to circumstances, a Pearl Harbor attack that inflicted temporary pain on the enemy but probably guaranteed defeat. So long as McCain had real faith in his prospects, he kept his distance from the crazy right faction of his own party and tried to run as a moderate. By signing up Palin, he ensured himself of the fanatical support of 40% of the country; but he also gave up on winning the middle. The most probable result of his surrender to the Culture War right is an increased prospect of losing less badly purchased at the cost of forgoing any reasonable chance of eking out a win.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Der Alte

John McCain got confused again last night in an interview about American foreign policy towards Latin America. The details aren’t particularly important—nobody really thinks McCain is unaware that Spain is in Europe. He’s not Palin, after all—but the episode and the somewhat panic-stricken way his spokesmen covered for him is getting to be routine. There’s nothing mysterious going on. McCain is simply getting senile, a fact that is hardly surprising in view of the man’s age and medical history. Time, torture, boxing, cancer treatments, and heavy drinking will do that to you. And blaming the guy is also beside the point since he has far more serious things to apologize for than mere decrepitude. The question is, do we really want to witness a long process of increasingly embarrassing public gaffes, all relentlessly denied and covered up by the PR sharks while a subterranean succession-struggle plays out in the White House basement? That wouldn’t be a very pleasant spectacle even in settled times, but it might be fatal in an age in which great power competition is awakening from its post-Cold War slumber and economic and environmental crisis require an energetic response.

Of course it is possible that McCain’s mental state is better than it appears to be, and the remarkably uninformed or merely strange remarks he makes reflect his previous level of ignorance rather than the advent of dementia. If so, his age remains a serious issue because one can hardly expect a 72-year old to learn on the job—heck, I’m 63 and you can’t teach me anything! McCain is certainly not going to rethink his assumptions or listen to new ideas. What you get it is some fraction of what the man was ten or twenty years ago; and if that wasn’t all that much to begin with, you can’t expect that McCain will turn out to be an American version of Adenauer, Mandela, or Gladstone.

By the way, is it decent or patriotic for Republicans to support the candidacy of an obviously incompetent man? Why do they keep nominating people like that?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Proverb from the Chinese

The Federal bailout of AIG is demonstrating an important point: the alternative to regulation is not laissez faire; it’s socialism.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

You Can’t Get Behind the Man Behind

A right-wing hippy of my acquaintance was giving Obama trouble the other day for trying to buy votes. I didn’t immediately get what she meant, until she explained that the Obama tax plan, which, according to her, would reduce the tax bill of families making around $40,000 by a couple of thousand, counted as a bribe . I was going to point out that the McCain plan, which would save billionaires something like half a million a year, was presumably pretty motivating for them as well. In fact, the issue had little to do with pandering. The lady simply doesn’t believe that income tax should be progressive in the first place. Along with astrology, astral bodies, acupuncture, and seventy-two other kinds of woo, she buys into the flat tax mythology, presumably because, due to a failure of nerve, she chickened out of going all the way to belief in the flat earth. To be fair, she actually doesn’t believe in any kind of income tax. Indeed, for her the very idea of an income tax is so unconstitutional, even an amendment to the Constitution couldn’t make it constitutional.

To me it very much matters to make the following point clearly: Obama’s tax policy is not buying votes or anything of the sort. In favoring a tax system that redistributes wealth, he’s simply supporting policies that are an integral part of the general outlook of the Democratic Party as they are of most political parties of the left, center, and moderate right all over the world. Similarly, Democrats are hardly pandering or buying votes when the call for universal health care. They’ve been calling for that since Truman’s time at least. If you are opposed to progressive taxation, health care, or indoor plumbing, you are of course perfectly within your rights to do so; but it hardly seems fair to equate support for such things with what Republicans do when they grudgingly come up phony health care schemes or float the notion of a gas tax holiday they don’t believe in themselves. That’s pandering. What Obama is proposing may or may not be wise policy, but it is in line with what he and most Democrats think is right.

Now Democratic candidates certainly hope that people will vote for them because of the benefits they will gain from their policies. I’m not clear what’s wrong with that. Or is the problem that the wrong sort of people will benefit? After all, Republican policies are also aimed to benefit somebody, just not the majority of people. The structural difference between the two parties is that the more democratic party doesn’t have to lie as much as the oligarchic party to get elected by popular vote. McCain is setting some kind of record for bald-faced lying on television; but the fundamental reason he is lying is not a character flaw, but a deep political necessity. When Democrats get dishonest, as they surely do from time to time, it is a moral defect. It isn’t a part of the partly platform.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A Whiff of Sauerkraut

It is a misunderstanding to suppose that human beings descended from chimpanzees or gorillas. In reality, both modern apes and modern men have a common ancestor, albeit one that would have struck an observer as distinctly apelike. Anybody who suggests that the current administration is analogous to Hitler’s regime falls into a similar error. Bush and his cohort are obviously not Nazis. They simply share a common ancestor with them, namely, the Second Reich. Bush is not very much like Hitler, but he’s quite a bit like Kaiser Wilhelm II and he’s surrounded by quite a few Ludendorff wannabes—McCain is more in the tradition of Hindenburg, a dullard who looks good in a uniform. Unfortunately, many of the people with a spiritual kinship with pre-1918 Germany are not part of the Bush administration or even necessarily Republicans.

It is well known that the American system of postgraduate education follows a German model. Unfortunately, the Ph.D. is not the only institution we borrowed from them. Our military was formed on a German model. If you read old American army textbooks on the conduct of war, you’ll find that our ideas of how to deal with insurgencies are distinctly Teutonic, featuring bland instructions to take civilian hostages and burn down villages. The similarities are small wonder since the infantry manuals recommend, with footnotes, no less, the methods the Germans used against French guerillas during the Franco-Prussian War and against the Herero in Southwest Africa. Of course all modern militaries borrowed a lot from the technical innovations of the German military. What worries me, however, is not that our men go into battle in German helmets or that we have a general staff, but the way in which the military has become for us as it was for the Germans: the moral model for national behavior.

The German Empire was characterized less by an ideology than by a set of practices, a general admiration for authority and violence, and a tendency to automatically justify any action by appeal to military necessity. Long before Bush and Chaney dispensed with international law, the Germans were abusing prisoners, engaging in preventative wars, and using terror weapons such as gas, not because a threat to national survival justified these transgressions but because victory was thought to depend upon them. The precedent for our occupation of Iraq was the German occupation of Belgium and Eastern Europe in the years 1914 to 1918; and the methods of occupation were not dissimilar either, i.e., they were both characterized by the extraordinary levels of incompetence and corruption that are routine in areas run by military fiat. The Republicans may give lip service to the virtues of a competitive market economy, but in giving carte blanche to the military industrial complex they are really opting for a command economy.

The Teutonic/American idealization of the military has a disastrous effect on strategy, which, contrary to the usual bleat, is not about winning victories. That’s simply not the point of rational policy. It’s the object of a game of tin soldiers. Serious strategy may certainly include resort to violence, but the German example shows what you get when you make a fetish of the glorious decisive battle. Before World War I, the military philosophers of the Reich endlessly dreamed of repeating the triumph of Hannibal at the Battle of Cannae and contemplated with rapture (if not tumescence) the neat diagram of his paradigmatic double envelopment. They spent much less time noticing that Carthage lost the war. Many Americans also make a fetish of purely operational and technical military efficiency as if a big, smash up victory solves all problems. Of course, at least in the case of the Second Iraq War, it was the civilian authorities who imposed this mind set on the military and not the other way around since many professionals in the American army have a far more adult conception of war and politics than the average right-wing politician.

In the absence of a sense of specific purpose, a military will more or less inevitably pursue the abstract, almost tautological goal of absolute power. That’s what happened in Germany before World War I. In the quest for the ability to crush all enemies, the Germans guaranteed a non-stop arms race that they could only lose and alienated much of the world. Our situation is similar. We keep pouring money into the military, not to defend ourselves from any particular threat, but in pursuit of the dream of total world dominance. Now it may be that we can afford to spend more money on arms than the rest of the world put together, though I doubt if that will remain possible indefinitely or even very much longer; but unless you plan on actually dominating the world, all the money you spend over and beyond what it would take to remain safe is in any case a sheer waste. Worse, since the other countries are aware of what we are doing and will take steps to match our endless build up. The most important strategic consequence of the anti-ballistic missile program, for example, is likely to be an increase in the number of Russian and, more importantly, Chinese weapons aimed at us. Our endless quest for overwhelming power also has the effect of encouraging the development of non-conventional ways to thwart our power. Terrorism is the most obvious asymmetric response. There will be others.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Northern Lights

Obama is certainly wise to avoid commenting on the Palin situation. It’s not a good idea to interfere when your opponent is committing political suicide. You will only impede the process. But I strongly disagree with the idea that private citizens are somehow out of line when they address the many policy issues that are raised by recent developments. Democrats aren’t the ones who like to hide under beds with tape recorders. We are entitled, however, to read the papers.

To be absolutely clear, nobody on the planet is trying to give a pregnant teenager a hard time. We are simply pointing out

a. The rampant hypocrisy of Governor Palin in regards to sex education and abortion. c.f. bragging about her daughter's supposedly free choice and also her own free choice about her own pregnancy even though she is on the record as opposing the right of any woman to have a choice in such situations.

b. The way in which the whole affair points out the stupidity of abstinence only sex education.

c. The willingness of Palin to mislead the public--she only fessed up to the family problem because of pressure from Daily Kos and a few other journalists. She obviously planned to keep her daughter's pregnancy quiet until after the election.

d. The political cynicism of McCain in making a rash and spasmodic decision about a running mate for temporary political advantage.

e. The remarkable ineptitude shown by McCain and his staff in handling the whole affair.

f. The way in which picking Palin reflects McCain's subservience to the radical Christian right. Far from being a soaring eagle, he is only a bird in a gilded cage.

For these and many other reasons, the Palin problem is not going to go away, nor should it. But, once again, nobody, except Mrs Palin, of course, is guilty of willfully putting a pregnant teenager through the wringer.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A Face the Color of Sepulchers

The issue that matters in the forthcoming election is not about foreign policy or health care or, more generally, the choice between Neoliberalism and Social Democracy, though these and many other issues are in play. The great question of the day is about whether the United States will be an ethnic state dominated by white males or an inclusive state where everyone is welcome and citizenship depends upon allegiance to a set of ideas. If McCain, wins at a time when his party has made a mess of everything for the last eight years, the reason can only be that a decisive mass of Americans has opted for a racial definition of membership in the nation. It’s almost as if the Republicans, driven by an unconscious logic, have selected a candidate so obviously inferior in order to make things as clear as possible. Just as committed monarchists best show their principles by supporting the birthright of a moronic prince, nativist Conservatives want to make the point that even a senile mediocrity is preferable to a brilliant and dynamic black man so long as he is white. And McCain is perfect for that role.

I don’t mean to claim that there aren’t lots of other reasons that people will vote for McCain. If you are very well off, the Republican tax plan and hostility to unions will mean money in your pockets. The Republican foreign policy is also a meal ticket for a significant group of people. And there are plenty of non-racist innocents who continue to believe against all the evidence that the Republicans stand for small government, sound economic policies, and individual rights, though their actions mark them as cynical authoritarians. If there are any rational reasons to vote for McCain, however, they have to be balanced against the consequences of going down the road of culture war. White supremacy, which really means the dominance of a certain kind of white, has no future. Whitebread Americans are shortly going to be in the minority in this country, and the Republican policy of us versus them is going to look pretty foolish once the tables are turned and they decisively outnumber us. I suppose somebody might argue that the Call of the Blood really is more important than the merely rational appeal of Enlightenment ideals; but from a practical point of view, cultural politics is a dead end. A multi-cultural America may well fail, but a monochrome America is not possible and just saying never is a prescription for disaster. Voting Republican at this historical juncture is simply unpatriotic.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Trouble with Evil Enemies

There is remarkably little daylight between the policy positions of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama but their more rapid partisans talk about their intraparty opponents in much the same way that Martin Luther described the Pope. I hope and mostly expect that most of this bad feeling will drain away. How are the feminist supporters of Clinton ever going to explain to themselves support for a candidate like McCain whose hostility to women’s interests goes a long way beyond a desire to overturn Roe vs Wade? Still, the vehemence of the rhetoric during the Democratic primaries calls for a more specific explanation than the usual bit about politics being all about hating.

Over the last two decades American politics has been dramatically coarsened by the increasingly pathological behavior of the Republicans. Long before Bush and Company established their authoritarian kleptocracy, the Congressional Republicans had decisively broken with the normal rules of engagement that had governed politics for most of the last century. The dynamic core of the Republican party isn't simply made up of people you disagree with. It really is a criminal conspiracy that lies, steals, tortures, and kills—everybody laughs at Kusinch’s omnibus bill of Impeachment but they do so out of cynicism or as accomplices and not because the accusations are not largely true. Opposing our domestic evil empire by any means necessary is the obligation of all Americans and, for that matter, all decent human beings. A Manichean episode in our history has, unfortunately, the side effect of promoting a Manichean approach to all political disputes so that Keith Olberman trots out his Edward R. Murrow imitation to denounce a Clinton campaign gaffe in the same terms as the actions of a war criminal who ought to die in prison and not just lose a primary.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Good Omen

Back in the run-up to World War II, a German general was asked who would win the approaching war. “Whoever isn’t allied with the Italians.” Looking at a photo of Joe Lieberman’s mournful face the other day, it occurred to me that his defection to McCain had its positive side. Of course, no one can categorically assert that the man is the true anti-palladium; but he sure didn’t do Gore any good and if I were a Republican, I’d want him to endorse Bob Barr.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Whig History with Real Whigs

I was maybe two-thirds of the way through Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought when I heard that the book had won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. This work, the most recent installment of the Oxford History of America, covers the period from the end of War of 1812 to the end of the Polk administration. In the single sentence of this 855-page the reviewers singled out, Howe writes, “This book tells a story; it does not argue a thesis.” I don’t know if anybody much believes this expression of innocence, however; for, though Howe is indeed a storyteller and a very good one, his tale is narrated in continuous counterpoint to three previous and equally magisterial accounts of the same era: Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s The Age of Jackson, Charles Sellers’ The Market Revolution, and Sean Wilentz’ Rise of American Democracy. In the Bibliographical Essay at the end of his book, Howe writes “All three books celebrate the Democratic Party of the time as the agent and defender of democracy against its Whig rival. I disagree with these works…” The mechanical operation of this disagreement takes the form of highlighting the technological and economic benefits of the emerging market economy during the first half of the 19th Century (against Sellers) and soft pedaling the chicane and class interest of the Whigs (against Schlesinger and Wilentz). This is not an illegitimate or unfruitful strategy—every history means by leaving things out—but Howe does sometimes sound like Henry Clay’s campaign manager. The more interesting thing, however, is that he also sounds like Barack Obama’s campaign manager.

Arguments between historians about events that happened hundreds of years ago often come across as allegorical debates about contemporary politics. Howe is an Englishman, but his reinterpretation of Jackson and his enemies is highly relevant to the redefinition of the American party system that has been going on for most of my lifetime. I don’t know if one can reasonably claim that the Democrats have become the party of John Quincy Adams, but they are surely now the party of Lincoln. In the process of absorbing all those Southerners, the Republicans have not only absorbed the racism that was a hallmark of the Democrats right up to FDR, but also adopted as their own Jackson’s lawlessness, demagoguery, and glorification of violence. They have also revived the spoils system—big time as Chaney would say—so that the election of every new Republican president has become the occasion for a riotous looting of the Treasury by thieves in suits. Meanwhile, the Democrats, who are hardly angels, are at least aware that you aren’t supposed to act like that and have taken over the role of defenders of fiscal sobriety from Republicans whose notion of public finance currently owes a lot more to Huey Long than Howard Taft. The Democrats have become the dour proponents of individual and collective responsibility—the realities of universal health care, effective environmental stewardship, and improved educational availability will turn out to be anything but a free lunch—while the Republicans have become the advocates of something for nothing. Go ahead, buy a Hummer. Something will turn up.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Not that I Haven’t Written it Before

Whoever gets the Democratic presidential nomination, we can be sure that the television talking heads will line up behind McCain once the issue is settled. Unfortunately, their obvious prejudice will matter because the vast majority of Americans get their news and from a mass media that is owned by six corporations. There is no monopoly on the dissemination of information and ideas in the United States, but there is a monopoly of the means of propaganda. While our press is not completely unfree, it is just not the case that we have a free press, which is to say, we don’t have a press free enough to maintain a decent country.

The problem is structural. While the television personalities surely bear a moral responsibility for what they have inflicted on the country and the world, our journalism is not mediocre because its personnel are mediocre. The causation runs the other way around. The plum jobs are straight up trades of self-respect for money and airtime. Who else but a contemptible person would be willing to front a gossip hour and call it news? Only dubious characters need apply; and when, as happens once in a while, somebody shows a little integrity and rebels, they end up with a teaching job.

If Jack McCoy were a real person, I expect he’d want to indict several TV anchors on 250,000 counts of second-degree murder for their guilty complicity in electing Bush. It was a clear-cut case of depraved indifference homicide since putting a person like that in charge of a nation had foreseeable consequences. From a policy point of view, however, what’s needed is political action to break up an intolerable concentration of media power in irresponsible hands so that honorable and intelligent people can again find an audience. We need to break up G.E., Time Warner, CBS, Clear Channel, Fox, and the rest and to do what ever else is necessary to ensure that all points of view have access to mass markets.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Translatio Imperii

Chalmers Johnson, echoing an old theme of political philosophy, points out that a nation clings to empire at the cost of eroding the domestic liberties of its own people. He praises the British for giving up their empire and thereby preserving a liberal form of government. As a general proposition, I agree with Johnson; but I think he gives the British rather too much credit because their renunciation was made entirely more palatable because they ceded dominion to a kindred people who spoke their language and shared many of their values and institutions. The translation of empire was a family affair. If the United States ever brings itself to forgo hegemony, this consolation will not be available.

The really alarming thing is not that the next imperial power will not be Anglo-Saxon or even Western, but that there is no obvious heir to the throne of any kind. India and China are obviously rising powers, but it is rather hard to imagine them attaining anything like the pre-eminence the British enjoyed in the 19th Century and we’ve had since World War II. It will be a tremendous accomplishment for them to maintain their own unity and prosperity in the face of exhausted resources and environmental degradation. Projecting power globally is probably beyond their capabilities and, aside from attaining specific purposes such as securing oil, wouldn’t be in their national interests. In any case, the Chinese and the Indians simply don’t have the Messianic ideologies necessary to aspire to universal domination. Marxism is out of gas, and Indian cultural nationalism is intrinsically parochial. We’re willing to blow foreigners to smithereens in the name of Democracy. What would the Indians kill for? Ahimsa?

Imagining a world without a master requires more imagination than most of us can muster, and it is far from clear whether international commissions and regional condominiums can keep maintain order for very long. Chalmers Johnson is famously unhappy about the hundreds of bases that the United States maintains throughout the world, but what would actually happen if we gave up all those imperial outposts? I take it that’s anything but a rhetorical question, and it’s not a question for Americans only.

Old and decaying empires last as long as they do because the surrounding powers find it safer to preserve them than to deal with the chaos that would follow their destruction. The U.S. is not yet the sick old man of North America, but it is remarkable how willing the other countries have been to indulge our national vanity while underwriting our national debt. Apparently the legacy hunters want the geezer to survive, at least until they get to sneak a look at the will and assure themselves that they’ll inherit something valuable and not just a bunch of bills.
So Who’s Bitter?

The rural/working class population of the United States is hardly homogeneous. To a considerable degree, what we're really talking about here is the culture and politics of one big slice of the pie: Southern whites, whether in the South or in their diaspora. For them, as it was for Jackson, Polk, or Jefferson Davis, freedom just is the right of white men to do what they want, no matter the foreseeable consequences to other people or the health of the planet. Minorities and women can go hang or be hanged, as the case may be; and aggressive military adventures are automatically justified and enthusiastically promoted because they enlarge the domain of the real America. This group tends to gestures of adolescent rebellion combined with de facto cringing subservience to their betters, heroic levels of substance abuse, and an absurd glorification of noise, ignorance, and violence. The sentimental or hysterical worship of an idol named Jesus doesn't do much to moderate this bad behavior. Indeed, the Fundamentalist strain of Protestantism actually excuses pathological folkways by blaming avoidable failings on original sin. The continuing problem of American history is how to civilize this bunch or, failing that, how to limit the damage they do to themselves and the rest of us. For more than 200 years, the South has punched above its weight in American politics. To Hell with their purported bitterness and the cynical interests that incite and exploit it

Saturday, April 12, 2008

One Hundred Years of Hebetude
Senator McCain did not in fact endorse a hundred-year war in Iraq. He imagines a future in which we maintain a peaceful military presence in the country in the same way we have kept large forces in Germany and South Korea since World War II. Unfortunately, even on a favorable (and accurate) interpretation of his much-debated remarks, the strategy he endorses reflects a serious misunderstanding of history and Real Politik.

The forces we keep in Europe and Northeast Asia have generally been understood to be defensive in character since no one seriously believed that the U.S. had the power or the will to use them as a springboard for military expansion—the Pax Americana worked as well as it did not only because we were powerful but because our power had obvious limits. The soldiers in Germany and Korea were not the vanguard of a potential invasion. They were hunkered down. They had, and to some extent still have, the role of hostages, reassuring our allies that any attack on them would automatically be an attack on us. A couple of divisions in the Fulda Gap probably couldn’t hold back the Soviets, but their sacrifice could trigger a nuclear response and that represented a credible disincentive. Meanwhile, propaganda aside, the Russians and the Chinese were not threatened in their own spheres and everybody benefited from a situation in which boundaries were frozen in place—I note that the postwar period is the longest stretch of time in recorded history in which no army crossed the Rhine with evil intent. Unfortunately, none of these considerations apply to an endless American occupation of Iraq.

We’re not in Iraq to fend off the aggression of a neighboring nation. There is no Soviet Union or Red China staring at us across the ridgeline of the Zagros. The notion that large military formations armed with terror weapons are necessary to fend off terrorism is really quite peculiar when you think about it: it’s a little like employing cavalry against submarines. While our existing bases in the Persian Gulf might possibly be characterized as defensive in purpose, the enormous facilities we’re building in the Mesopotamian desert are obviously intended to support further interventions in Iran and Central Asia while securing privileged access to petroleum resources. I doubt if Iraq can ever be a safe place for American soldiers. Insurgencies wax and wane; and enough bombs and troops can keep a lid on things for months or years; but the inflammation is probably incurable so long as the foreign body remains lodged in the victim. But even if the people of Iraq could somehow be so browbeaten as to peacefully accept foreign domination, the rest of the region and the rest of the world would surely view the big bases as a perpetual provocation if not simply as a modern version of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Which is why McCain’s hundred-year plan is the dumb idea of a rather dumb man.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Practical Monadology
Perhaps because I’m doomed to be a philistine anyhow, I’ve embraced programmatic philistinism as a way of rethinking philosophical concepts. For example, I propose to consider human freedom, not as an edifying postulate that can only be defended by complicated transcendental maneuvers but as something that becomes merely obvious once you stop imagining that freedom is evidence of our celestial provenance. So far from evincing our kinship with the angels, human free will is an intensified version of the functional autonomy that goes along with being an animal.

I got to thinking about human freedom most recently while watching a cable show about a maximum-security prison. In one sequence, six or seven burly guards had to equip themselves in elaborate armor to safely subdue a not particularly large man. Even with all their gear, they had a terrific struggle on their hands. It simply happens to be the case that human beings are extremely hard to control by direct means, a fact which, like our descent from some sort of monkey, ought to be as clear to parents as to prison guards.

Except for the most extreme and uncharacteristic situations—high security prisons and locked insane asylum wards—people are ruled by rewards and punishments. Even when the rhetoric in play involves whips and hot pokers, people have to be persuaded by enticements and sanctions. No society could afford to manage the behavior of very many individuals with the physical methods used at Pelican Bay. Short of simply annihilating people, the worst tyrant in the world is obliged to address the purposes of his victims, though the purposes at issue may be mere survival or the avoidance of present pain. A forteriori, no one get useful work out of workers by main force.

You are out of luck if you’re looking for a magic kind of free will that is as uncaused as the decay of a neutron and yet intimately rooted in the personality of the willer. That kind of free will is a conceptual chimera, an Unding, useful only to inspire Sunday homilies or give the executioner a good conscience. Chasing such metaphysical dreams may distract us from noticing the zoological reality of garden-variety freedom or exploring its very significant implications. It matters very much that the individual components of human society interact primarily by final rather than efficient causation. We may not inhabit the kingdom of ends mandated by the ethical system of Immanuel Kant, but we aren’t pool balls on a pool table either and that’s simply a fact.