Archive for November, 2009

Afghanistan Doubts

November 26, 2009

Now that it seems likely that Obama will increase troop levels in Afghanistan, I’m forced to rely on my “gut” instincts in saying that I think it’s a mistake.  I have no choice.  My gut tells me that our limited goals for “victory” are still beyond our ability at this time.  Of course the reason I have to rely on my “gut” is because I don’t know enough about that country, and its history, to have confidence in my assessment of the situation.

But I have no other choice now. None of us do.  The President isn’t “dithering” on this.  Even the experts are hedging on it.

I felt a lot more secure with the “surge” in Iraq.  By trial and error — a lot of the second — we got to see what the people of Iraq wanted for themselves, and were capable of.  I saw how much they were willing to sacrifice, and what my eyes told me was encouraging: the Iraqi people could stabilize their country because they were a corrupt society.

That’s not a criticism.  For democracy to take hold, indeed for any stable system of laws to function, there must be a cohesive, strong segment of the populace who want stability and predictability.  They have families, and they want to provide basic needs, to prosper and to plan for the future.  If a society falls under the control of warring sects of fanatics, as happened in Iraq, the majority of people can no longer function in a normal way.  What the surge did, among other things, was to allow private and public Iraqi institutions to infiltrate and to corrupt the fringes of the fanatics, not the hard-core, in order to decrease the number of terrorist acts to a level that could be managed by the majority.

Bribery is absolutely essential for this.  The fanatics who are open to bribery have personal agendas that exist alongside their irrational zealotry.  They can allow themselves to believe that total victory is inevitable, so why not slow it down, just a little, to let themselves enjoy some secret material pleasures.  Another enticement, and one that can be even stronger than bribes of money, is the removal of rivals within the sect.  It is likely, in fact, that some of the arrests and killings of terrorist leaders in Iraq by Iraqi and U.S. forces came after tipoffs from other terrorists in the group.

But whatever the elements of corruption, at least of the political kind, the durability of the relationship depends upon the conviction, by both parties, that it can continue as long as the terms of the agreement are met.  This entails, by necessity, that the corrupted terrorists have a genuine faith that the stabilizing institutions of society will be able to keep them under control, in effect to neutralize all of their efforts to destroy the society that is buying them off.

I don’t think that can happen in Afghanistan because I don’t think it has evolved to that level of corruption, at least not yet.  The general population must have the will to fight the terrorist groups.  This took many years in Lebanon, and now Iraq (knock wood).  But Afghanistan is still stuck in a pre-corrupt stage where the terrorists of competing groups, including the Taliban, feel much less threatened by Afghan institutions that promote political and economic stability.  I admit that I don’t feel confident about this assessment.  I know even less about Afghanistan than I do about Iraq.  Perhaps my “gut instincts” are based only on a stereotype of all tribal cultures, namely that they consist of loosely organized tribes and clans dispersed over large, undeveloped areas that have very few centers of strong commercial activity.   In spite of recognition by the world community, no unifying national identity has yet taken hold within its peoples.  The rule of law will remain the rule of raw power, simple fear. 

If this is where Afghanistan is today, it looks very good for the Taliban.  They may be able to continue to terrorize the majority of the people, who have never been sufficiently inter-connected to develop stable, rewarding economic relationships.  Without these, no peaceful, durable political system is possible.  I don’t feel confident that a continued American military presence will tip the balance in favor of any indigenous Afghan class committed to political stability, which is the only way that the terrorists can be controlled, let alone eliminated.

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Censorship Won’t Work

November 10, 2009

Today’s NYTimes had an article about a controversial new book about Martin Heidegger.  The author, Emmanuel Faye, apparently believes that the German philosopher’s connection to Nazism so severely damages any value to be derived from his ideas that philosophy should disown him outright, and refrain from any serious critical evaluation of his work.  Although I haven’t read the book — and I’m not sure I’m going to — I can already see why this form of censorship will prove to be futile.  Specifically, the next battleground for theories involving racial superiority, as in Nazism, will not come from philosophy but from scientific research conducted for the purpose of eliminating racism.

I can understand Faye’s perspective.  He seems to think that there is harm in showing any of respect at all for the theories of an avowed racist, even if those ideas are expressed in the most sophisticated language, and convey a deep knowledge of the history of ideas.  And yet, doesn’t it seem odd that such a book would get so much attention when the most serious debates about racial superiority will be based on current statistical evidence of racial inequality, and not from critical analyses of the works of dead Nazis!

Who will be conducting this research?  That remains to be seen, but you can be sure that it will be seized upon by politicians for their self-promoting agendas.  The thrust of the controversy will concern why there is such a disparity in the apportionment of wealth between the races.  And it will concern “wealth” in the broadest terms, because the debate will also try to explain disparities in crime, disease, population demographics and access to public resources.  Liberals will argue, naturally, that racism is the cause of this inequality, and that only through government action to “level the playing field” will the injustices of racism be removed.  After all, the liberals say, no matter how you try to characterize the motives of a racist, it always comes down to conscious bigotry in the end.

But of course those same statistics will be “explained” differently by their opponents.  It has to be, because the statistical evidence of racism will surely be used to justify the consolidation of power in the liberal camp.  The simplest, and most obvious way to fight it will be to use the same statistics to promote the theory that the races really are different, and that the inequality is scientifically based on the weakness of the inferior race. 

Both sides will have plenty of ammunition.  The liberals, you see, must include controls in their studies which will be meant to validate their scientific integrity.  This is the only way they can show that no other factor except racism could possibly explain the disparities.  However, inevitably, those same controlled studies will be turned upside down, and used as weapons against the liberal perspective.  Look, their opponents will say, the results of the controlled studies clearly show that racism was not the cause. 

With so much power at stake, you cannot avoid this debate, and it will only become greater and more bitter in the future.  The accumulation of vast computer-indexed databases of statistics will guarantee the legitimization of this mode of inquiry. For racism is the perfect rationale for government to demand the surrender of every remaining unit of privacy from our lives.  And it will go on and on, long after the name of Martin Heidegger is forgotten.

The Cost of “Recovery”

November 2, 2009

I don’t want to exaggerate the significance of today’s Op-Ed piece by Paul Krugman.  The title, “Too Little of a Good Thing,” says it all, namely that the TARP stimulus did its job of stopping the free-fall of the economy, but that unemployment will continue to plague us for years because it was too small to reverse it.  These are familiar themes of Krugman’s, and he treads them again here.

Beneath the surface, however, beats the heart of his philosophy.  For him, the economy will always suffer as long as we restrain government from managing it effectively.  We do this, he believes, by overly relying on the free market, which will always serve the interests of the rich, and tamp any effort to re-direct the flow of wealth in a more equitable manner.

While I do not accept this goal as a primary function of government, I won’t take that further today.  The more immediate problem is the underlying assumption behind it, namely that government regulation — I would call it “intrusion” — is always a positive, or at worst a neutral act, and that it should only be judged by how effectively it pushes the numbers in the right direction.

Although I am not alone in finding this assumption invalid, the reasons I cite today are purely personal, and depend upon a conception of the individual’s enjoyment of his or her freedom to negotiate one’s own fate in the marketplace.  Government involvement in the economy always affects our ability to make personal choices, whether as a consumer, a worker or an employer.  The economy is, at base, dependent upon people making these choices from what is available.  As consumers, we choose what to buy, and from whom to buy it.  As workers or employers, we enter into voluntary relationships “at arm’s length”.

The intrusion of governemnt — whether from stimulus money in a financial crisis, or any other regulatory scheme — always imposes a barrier, or filter, between us and our independent economic decisions.  This is both the blessing and the curse of free enterprise.

I’m not saying that the paternalistic conception of government is of no benefit.  Government can and should protect us from the dishonesty, fraud and damage caused by the private sector when it is motivated purely by profit.  But an overreaching paternalism is always a loss of freedom, of the liberty to interact with the full community by relying on one’s judgment alone.  But Krugman and his supporters see nothing of this.  To them the “health” of  the economy can be assessed solely by experts who will look only at numbers on charts.

Unfortunately, these government actions are often necessary to clean up the mess made by market forces run amok.  We are still in the middle of that cleanup, and it’s not time to stop yet.  The economy is nowhere near recovery.  I’m only saying that the loss of liberty is real, not imagined, not just a morsel of conservative propaganda. Those who value liberty and independence will always chafe under government control, no matter how stabilizing the outcome.  But the discomfort is not just a minor annoyance.  It penetrates deeply, and I don’t need conservative zealots to tell me how it feels.  It is not “neutral”.


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