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Entries for December 2006

December 29, 2006

Can the curriculum at Hogwarts be called science?

(Due to the holidays, I will be taking a break from blogging. Instead, I will be re-posting some of my more light-hearted essays, this week dealing with the Harry Potter books. New posts will begin on Wednesday, January 3, 2007.

I have somehow completed another full year of blogging. Over the year I have made about 250 posts, written over three hundred thousand words, and had a total of about 750,000 hits. In the process of researching for the posts, I have learned a lot.

I would like to thank all the people who visited, read, and commented. It has been a real pleasure and I wish all of you the very best for 2007.)

Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke makes the point that any sufficiently advanced technology will seem like magic to the naïve observer. This seems to be a good observation to apply to the magic that is practiced at Hogwarts. What seems to exist there is a world with highly advanced "technology", operating under strict rules that the inhabitants know how to manipulate. The more mature wizards seem to easily produce consistent results with their spells while the novices mess around until they get it right. This is not very different from what we do in the Muggle world, except that we are manipulating computers and cars that are controlled by knobs and dials and switches and keyboards, while the wizards use wands and spells. It is not a mystery to other wizards how specific results are obtained and what is required to achieve those results is skill and practice.

What is intriguing is that while the experienced wizards and witches know how to manipulate the wands and words and potions to achieve results that seem magical to us Muggles, they do not really understand the rules themselves. Hey don't even seem to be interested in understanding how their magic works. The classes at Hogwarts seem to be almost exclusively hands-on and practical, using trial and error methods, with no theory of magic. Hogwarts is more like a trade school, where they teach a craft. It is like a school of carpentry or pharmacy or boat making where you learn that "if you do this, then that will happen" without actually learning the underlying principles.

The world of Hogwarts is closer to the medieval world, where there were highly skilled craftsmen who were able to build cathedrals and ships without understanding the underlying science. Introducing modern knowledge and sensibilities into an earlier time period is a staple of fantasy and science fiction, and writers like Rowling, and Mark Twain with his A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court do it well.

An interesting question to speculate on is whether the magic the students learn at Hogwarts castle would be classified as science today. If we go back to Aristotle, when he tried to distinguish science from other forms of knowledge he classified knowledge into ' know how' (the ability to consistently achieve certain results) and 'know why' (the underlying reasons and principles for the achievement). It is only the latter kind of knowledge that he counted as science. The 'know how' knowledge is what we would now call technology. For example, a boat maker can make excellent ships (the 'know how') without knowing anything about density or the role that the relative density of materials plays in sinking and floating (the 'know why').

Trying to make the world of Hogwarts consistent with modern science would have been difficult. Rowling manages to finesse this question by making life in Hogwarts similar to life in the middle ages, with no electricity, computers, television, and other modern gadgets. Students at Hogwarts don't use cell phones and instant messaging. In one book, this kind of anachronism is explained by Hermione saying, without any explanation, that electric devices don't work inside Hogwarts. By artfully placing the reader back in a time when it was easier to envisage magic (in the form of highly advanced technology) being taken for granted in the world, and the tools of modern scientific investigation were unavailable, Rowling manages to avoid the kinds of awkward scientific questions that would ruin the effect.

Thus Rowling manages to avoid the science dilemma altogether by creating in Hogwarts what seems to be a purely 'know how' world. This enables her to let magic be the technology that drives the stories forward.

POST SCRIPT: John Edwards declares his candidacy

I tend to be a bit cynical about politicians from mainstream parties because both parties are pro-war and pro-business but John Edwards, who announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination in 2008, seems like a cut above the rest. In his announcement he said some encouraging things.

He pledged to "reduce the U.S. troop presence in Iraq, combat poverty and global warming" and "he favored rolling back some of the tax cuts provided to wealthy Americans under President Bush as well as enacting new taxes on the profits of oil companies." He also wants to guarantee universal health care for everyone.

He said that his 2002 vote to endorse the invasion of Iraq was a mistake and that "We need to reject this McCain doctrine of surging troops and escalating the war in Iraq. . .We need to make clear we're going to leave and we need to start leaving Iraq."

The issues he highlighted include "restoring the nation's moral leadership around the globe, beginning in Iraq with a drawdown of troops; strengthening the middle class and "ending the shame of poverty"; guaranteeing health care for every American; fighting global warming; and ending what he called America's addiction to oil."

That's not a bad platform on which to run. Here is his campaign website and below is a preview of his announcement.

If he gets the nomination and persuades Russ Feingold to be his running mate, that would be a ticket with real promise.

December 28, 2006

The problem with parallel worlds

(Due to the holidays, I will be taking a break from blogging. Instead, I will be re-posting some of my more light-hearted essays, this week dealing with the Harry Potter books. New posts will begin on Wednesday, January 3, 2007.)

Fantasy writers like J. K. Rowling who want to interweave the magical with the ordinary face some serious challenges. As long as you stay purely within the world of magic at Hogwarts, you can create a self-contained world obeying its own rules. But there is clearly some added drama that accrues when you can contrast that world with the world we live in, because that helps readers to identify more with the characters. Having wizards live among Muggles opens up plenty of opportunities for both comedy and dramatic situations. It also enables us to imagine ourselves in the story, to think that there might be a parallel world that we get glimpses of but do not recognize because we do not know what to look for. Maybe our neighbors are witches and we don't know it.

The situation faced by authors like Rowling in coming up with a realistic scenario that convincingly weaves the magic and ordinary worlds is not unlike the problem facing religious people who believe in a parallel world occupied by god, heaven, angels, etc. For this parallel religious world to have any tangible consequences for people in the normal world, the two worlds must overlap at least at a few points. But how can you make the intersections consistent? How can god, who presumably exists in the parallel universe, intervene in the natural world and yet remain undetected? In a previous posting, I discussed the difficult questions that need to be addressed in making these connections fit into a coherent worldview.

In Rowling's world, one connecting point between the magical and normal worlds is the pub The Leaky Cauldron whose front door opens onto the normal world and whose back has a gate that opens onto Diagon Alley, a parallel magical world. Another connecting point is at Kings Cross railway station where the brick wall between platforms nine and ten is a secret doorway onto platform 9 ¾, where the students catch the train to Hogwarts. A third is the house at 12 Grimmauld Place, and so on.

But this plot device of having gateways connecting the two worlds, while amusing, creates problems if you try to analyze it too closely. (This is the curse of many, many years of scientific training, coupled with a determinedly rationalistic worldview. It makes me want to closely analyze everything, even fiction, for internal logical consistency.)

For example, although platform 9 ¾ is hidden from the Muggles in some kind of parallel world, the train to Hogwarts somehow seems to get back into the real world on its way to Hogwarts because it travels through the English countryside. I initially thought that this countryside might also be in the parallel world, except that in one book Ron and Harry catch up with the train in their flying car, and they started off in the normal world. In another book we are told that Hogwarts is also in the Muggle world but that it is charmed so that Muggles only see what looks like a ruined castle. We also see owls carrying mail between Hogwarts and the normal world. So clearly there must be many boundaries between the magic and Muggle worlds. What happens when people and owls cross these other boundaries?

When I read the books, such questions are for me just idle curiosity. I like to see how the author deals with these questions but the lack of logical consistency does not really bother me or take anything away from my enjoyment of the books. Rowling is not sloppy. She respects her readers' intelligence, and she gives the reader enough of a rationale for believing in her two-worlds model that we can be taken along for the ride. The logical inconsistencies she glosses over are, I think, unavoidable consequences of trying to create this kind of parallel universe model, not unlike those encountered by science fiction writers striving for plausibility. To her credit, she is skilful enough to provide enough plausibility so that the reader is not troubled (or even notices) unless he or she (like me) is actually looking for problems.

But the problems Rowling faces in constructing a two worlds model that is logically consistent is similar to that faced by people who want to believe in a spiritual world that exists in parallel with the physical world. Since Rowling is writing a work of fiction and nothing of importance rides on whether we accept the inconsistencies or not, we can just close our eyes to these minor flaws and enjoy the books.

But the same cannot be said for the similar problems that confront two-world models that underlies most religious beliefs that have a god, because we are now not dealing with fiction but presumably real life. And being able to construct a two-worlds model (with gateways between the spiritual and physical worlds) that is logically consistent is important because it may determine whether people believe or disbelieve in a god.

It was my personal inability to be able to do this that finally convinced me to become an atheist.

POST SCRIPT: Going to church

Homer Simpson makes the case for not doing so.

December 27, 2006

The secular world of Harry Potter

(Due to the holidays, I will be taking a break from blogging. Instead, I will be re-posting some of my more light-hearted essays, this week dealing with the Harry Potter books. New posts will begin on Wednesday, January 3, 2007.)

After reading the latest book in the Harry Potter series (#6 in the series called Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) I got involved in discussions with serious aficionados of the series as to what might happen in the upcoming book, which will be the last in the series. I made my predictions but they were scorned by these experts since they knew I had not read the earlier books 1, 3, 4, and 5. (I had read #2 a few years ago.) The Potter mavens said that since the author had planned the books out carefully as one long, coherent story, what I was doing was like trying to predict the end of a whodunit after skipping two-thirds of the plot.

I had to concede the justice of the criticism and so the last few weeks I have been reading the entire series and am now in the middle of my last unread book, #5 Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I am now well on the way to Harry Potter geekdom, though I will never reach the uber-geek status of some. It has not been a sacrifice on my part since the books are well written and I have been kept up many a late night because I could not put the books down. Clearly J. K. Rowling knows how to spin a good story.

What has struck me in reading the books in rapid succession over a short period of time is how secular and rational the world described by the books are. This may come as a surprise given that they are about witches, wizards, hexes, curses, and all kinds of magic that violate pretty much all the known laws of physics.

But while the world of Hogwarts is one in which magical phenomena are everyday events, it does not seem to be at all religious or irrational. So far not a single character has revealed any religious inclinations and there have been no prayers or any form of organized worship of any kind. Sunday seems to be just another off day. I cannot remember even seeing the word "god" used, even as an involuntary exclamation or a swear word.

Christmas does occur in every book but it seems to be true to its pagan origins and is celebrated as a secular holiday, with decorations, Christmas trees, feasting, and the exchange of presents, but with no indication that there is any religious significance to it. The closest that anything came to Christianity was a mention of the carol O Come All Ye Faithful which has references to Jesus and god, although if one is not a Christian you would not know this since the words of the carol are not given in the book. Clearly the world of wizards and witches and goblins and other assorted characters has no need of god.

Even the magic that is done seems quite rational. While the laws of physics as we know them seem to be routinely violated, the fundamental methodological principle of causality (that phenomena have causes that can be investigated systematically) remains intact. Spells are highly structured and prescribed and you have to do it in a particular way to achieve the desired result. Potions have to follow specific recipes to be effective. Deviations from the rigid rules of operation result in aberrant results, the source of much of the humor and drama of the books. It seems as if everything, even magic, follows laws that govern their behavior, and everything seems quite rational. One gets the sense that so-called "intelligent design creationism" (or IDC), with its emphasis on unknown and unnamed agents acting in innately unknowable ways, would not get a warm welcome in the rationalist atmosphere at Hogwarts. IDC ideas would have a tough time getting into that curriculum too.

Many fundamentalist Christian groups object to the Harry Potter books because they are drenched in sorcery and witchcraft, which the Bible supposedly condemns. (Scroll down this site for some negative reviews.) They say that the books lure young children towards sorcery, which they identify with devil worship.

I think these critics are making a profound mistake. Nowhere do the characters, either good or bad, do anything that can be remotely described as worshiping anything. Good and evil are represented by people such as Dumbledore and Voldemort, not by deities.

The religious fundamentalists, if they want to object to the books, should be focusing on the fact that, as far as I can tell, the entire wizarding community consists of a bunch of thoroughgoing atheists.

POST SCRIPT: SCOOP - The name of the 'intelligent designer' revealed!

In an earlier post, I mentioned how the so called 'intelligent design creationist' (IDC) people were extremely careful not to identify their 'intelligent designer, using various circumlocutions to avoid doing so. I thought it was prety obvious that the intelligent designer was god and said so. But I now realize I was wrong. Reading the Harry Potter books, the truth suddenly came upon me in a flash when I realized that nearly all the wizards and witches also carefully avoided giving a name to someone and kept referring to him as "He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named."

The intelligent designer has to be Lord Voldemort. Remember, you read it here first.

December 26, 2006

Harry Potter's school life and mine

(Due to the holidays, I will be taking a break from blogging. Instead, I will be re-posting some of my more light-hearted essays, this week dealing with the Harry Potter books. New posts will begin on Wednesday, January 3, 2007.)

One of the appealing things for me personally about the Potter books are the similarities with my own education, which results in waves of nostalgia sweeping over me as I read the stories. I went to a single-sex private school in Sri Lanka that was modeled on the British boarding school like Hogwarts, although about half the students (including me) commuted from home. We were called 'day-scholars' which, looking back now, seems like a quaint but dignified label when compared to the more accurate 'commuters.'

As in Hogwarts, we had teachers (some of whom we liked and others whom we disliked), who mostly taught in a didactic style, and we did have punishments like detention, writing lines, and even canings. In my own school, only the principal and vice principals could officially cane students, though some teachers still resorted to painful raps on the knuckles with rulers or even slaps across the face. Our chemistry teacher, who was an exceedingly kind and gentle man, nevertheless could be provoked to fits of violent rage which completely transformed him for a short time into a raging monster, like the Incredible Hulk, during which he would lash out with the rubber hoses that were readily available in the laboratories, sometimes raising welts on an offending student's arm. The rage would subside as quickly as it was triggered, and the teacher would be immediately overcome with remorse, apologizing profusely and begging for forgiveness, which we always agreed to because we liked him. We were fascinated by his Jekyll-and-Hyde transformations.

We also had the system of 'houses', which involved the separation of students into separate groups (such as Gryffindor, Slytherin, Hufflepuff, and Ravenclaw), each of which had a master in charge. The boarded students (or 'boarders') in my school, like those attending Hogwarts, even had separate dormitories based on the houses. These houses were set in competition with each other, earning points for various achievements, These points were totaled at the end of the year, with a trophy going to the winning house, giving them bragging rights for a year.

The houses were a good way of encouraging team spirit and intramural competition, and provided opportunities for students who were not good enough to be in the school teams (or 'varsity' teams as they are known here) to still take part in a competitive program with their fellow students. I think that this system helped to increase participation of students in extracurricular activities because most students took seriously their responsibilities to help their house do well. The downside was that the competition could sometimes be too fierce, leading to churlish and unsportsmanlike behavior. The intramural quidditch games that take place at Hogwarts were mirrored in the cricket, rugby, and field hockey matches at my school.

We also had the 'prefect' system, which must sound strange to American readers. (Hermione is a prefect in book 6 and I too was a prefect during my last two years in school.) A prefect was essentially a student who was given authority over his fellow students. A prefect was selected by the master in charge of each house and appointed by the school principal. Very few students were prefects. We had special privileges that others did not, such as being allowed to leave school premises during the day and a special lounge reserved exclusively for our use. We had the power to enforce rules during the school day, at special functions, and at athletic events, and could issue punishments such as detentions to 'evil doers.' In earlier times, prefects at my school were also allowed to use corporal punishments (such as caning misbehaving students), but that was taken away before my time as the use of corporal punishments became more restricted.

At that time, we saw it as a great privilege and honor to be selected as a prefect. It was viewed as recognizing and building leadership qualities. Looking back now, it does not seem to be such an unadulterated good thing. I sometimes wonder whether the house and prefect system was not also a cheap means of extending the reach of the school administration by creating a free labor force of rule enforcers. The house system and the prefect system may also have been a means of enhancing teacher and administration control over students by weakening overall student cohesion, another manifestation of the 'divide and rule' philosophy that the British used so successfully to maintain control over their colonies but which often resulted in ethnic strife and civil wars when they left.

But at other times I think that I am reading too much into this, and seeing too many dark undercurrents in well meaning, if perhaps misguided, attempts at encouraging student participation and developing student leadership. Perhaps I should lighten up.

POST SCRIPT: A-wim-a-weh-heh-heh

Here's some YouTube fun for the holidays.

December 25, 2006

Harry Potter's school life

(Due to the holidays, I will be taking a break from writing new posts. Instead, I will be re-posting some of my more light-hearted essays, starting with those about the Harry Potter books. It was announced recently that the title of the final book in the series is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Original posts will begin again on Wednesday, January 3, 2007. Until then, season's greetings and best wishes for 2007 to everyone.)

I just finished reading the latest episode of the Harry Potter saga. I cannot claim to be a rabid fan since I have read only book 2 (Chamber of Secrets) and book 6 (Half-Blood Prince), although I have seen all three film versions, but they have all been enjoyable.

Reading these books reminds me of my own school days and of much of the British schoolboy literature I read as a child, especially the Billy Bunter series and the Tom Merry series, both written by the same author Frank Richards. (These books were produced at such a prodigious rate that there were suspicions that 'Frank Richards' was the pseudonym of a whole stable of authors just churning out the stuff.)

There was a rigid formula to these books, the main features of which the Potter series largely adheres to. The schools were all boarding schools, and the stories started with students arriving at the beginning of the academic year and having various adventures that fortuitously ended just at the end of the school year. (There was a complementary series of children's books by Enid Blyton which took place during the summer, with a group of friends arriving at their home town from various boarding schools, and having an adventure that ended just in time for them to go their separate ways the next academic year.)

The big difference between Harry Potter and the earlier Billy Bunter and Tom Merry series is that although the context of a British boarding school is the same, the Potter books are far better written, with complex plots and characters developed realistically, dealing with important issues of good and evil, and real human emotions. The books I read as a child had stereotypical characters (the smart student, the bully, the figure of fun, the lisping aristocrat, the athlete, the sarcastic one, etc.) who all behaved in highly predictable ways. Those characters were two-dimensional and never changed, never grew or matured. This was reassuring in some ways because you knew exactly what you were getting with the books, but you cannot enjoy them as an adult the way you can with Potter.

The earlier books and schools were also single sex and we young boys only read the books about boys' schools, while girls only read equivalent books dealing with girls' boarding schools. The only members of the opposite sex that appeared in the books were siblings who made cameo appearances. For all we knew, the books written for the boys may have been identical to those written for the girls with just the genders (and sports) of the characters switched, such was the rigid separation between what boys and girls read when we were growing up. There was no romance whatsoever in any of the story lines. Hogwarts, on the other hand, is co-ed, a major difference.

Another similarity between Potter and the earlier books is that the educational practices in all the schools are pretty conventional. The classes are run in an authoritarian way. As someone pointed out, Hogwarts seems a lot like a trade school, with students learning very specific skills involving potions, hexes, and the like, mostly by rote memory and repetitive practice, similar to the way the earlier books had students learning Latin and Greek. There does not really seem to be a theory of magic or even any interest in developing one. Some magic works, others don't, with no serious attempts to discover why. There is little or no questioning of the teachers or class discussions, or inquiry-oriented teaching.

Rowling is mining a very rich vein of British school literature. As we will see in the next posting, the world she creates is probably very familiar to anyone (like me) who grew up in an English-language school anywhere in the British colonies. What she has done is added magic (and good writing) to a tried and true formula. But since that tradition of boarding school-based fiction is not present in the US, it is interesting that she has managed to strike such a chord in readers here as well.

POST SCRIPT: Holiday laughs

Comedian Eddie Izzard gives some background on the Christmas and Easter holidays.

December 22, 2006

A new way, same as the old way?

There might still be options that are good for the Iraqi people but to achieve them we would have to forego the idea that the US can continue to occupy and control that country. One such option is to begin withdrawing all US forces immediately in as orderly a manner as possible while spending a huge amount of money to help rebuild the destroyed infrastructure of that country.

The reasoning behind this argument is that although there are no guarantees that it will succeed, people who have something of their own that they would regret losing are more likely to want to preserve it. Nothing more surely drives people to destruction and violence than the feeling that there is no hope for the future and that things are just going to get worse. This is what results in people being apathetic and fearful about, or giving tacit support to, the armed groups roaming the country wreaking havoc.

If people have jobs and functioning schools and hospitals, can walk in the streets and see signs of progress and chances of a better life, they are less likely to want to join the militias and death squads that are destroying people and things, and more likely to establish mechanisms for maintaining peace and security. All the money that is currently being spent on keeping the US military in Iraq in a futile quest for establishing permanent control would be far better used in improving the actual lives of Iraqi people.

But it is clear that this suggestion is not going to be accepted since withdrawing troops from Iraq is seen by Bush as 'losing' and he will not allow it, whatever the consequences.

But the reality is that Bush's options are disappearing fast. I don't mean options for 'winning.' Those have long since completely ceased to exist except in the fantasies of the pro-war extremists. What is disappearing for Bush are the options to avoid being crowned with the dubious honor of the US president who decided to wage a disastrous and elective war against a weak country and lost.

I suspect that at some point, probably late 2005 or early 2006, the realization must have sunk in to even the most fervent optimists in the administration that there was no victory to be had in Iraq. All the 'turning points' that had been so eagerly looked for, such as elections, the formation of a national government, one supposedly key military offensive after another, had all come and gone and the situation continued to deteriorate.

The only two options that remained were to expand the war to other countries like Iran and Syria in a desperate 'double-or-nothing' type gamble or to tread water until 2008, trying to persuade the American public that the situation in Iraq was better than it seemed, so that the problem could be handed over to the next president who would then be branded with the stigma of being the person who 'lost' Iraq.

What the Iraq Study Group report did was suddenly narrow that window of options. While Bush has plainly signaled that he is going to ignore the group's recommendations, what he finds is that the report has suddenly shifted the whole debate about Iraq in a way that leaves him very little room to maneuver.

The problems raised for Bush by the ISG report become immediately apparent from its Executive Summary. Starting with its opening sentence that destroys the idea that things are better in Iraq than they seem ("The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating."), it then urges scaling down military actions ("By the first quarter of 2008, subject to unexpected developments in the security situation on the ground, all combat brigades not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq."), ramping up diplomacy with Syria and Iran ("Given the ability of Iran and Syria to influence events within Iraq and their interest in avoiding chaos in Iraq, the United States should try to engage them constructively.") and ends by linking the whole Iraq problem to the Arab-Israeli stalemate ("The United States cannot achieve its goals in the Middle East unless it deals directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict and regional instability.")

All these points have been raised before. But until the ISG report came out, these ideas were dismissed as the ranting of extremists and defeatists. But since the ISG consists of solid establishment greybeards, the position they advocated has suddenly shifted this position from the fringes to the center, and has drastically narrowed the range of rhetorical options available to the White House. It should be noted that the ISG report was not calling for the withdrawal of all US forces from Iraq, providing further proof that the bipartisan goal is to have a permanent military presence in Iraq. So while the report can hardly be called radical, it still causes problems for the White House in several ways.

For example, the claim that things are great in Iraq but that the problem is that the media is not reporting the good news is no longer credible. The claim that things will get better soon is no longer believable. Just two months ago, when asked about how the US was doing in Iraq, Bush could assert that "absolutely, we're winning" but this week his spokesman said that the White House is not going to answer that question anymore. The very next day, Bush answered the question anyway, implying that he approved of chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Peter Pace's construction: "We're not winning, we're not losing."

This last statement shows how desperate his rhetoric has become, essentially reduced to bluster. It makes him sound more and more like the Black Knight in the duel scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The Black Knight, like Bush, is convinced of his own invulnerability saying: "I'm invincible. . .The Black Knight always triumphs." Then after King Arthur chops off his arms and legs, leaving just his torso and attached head on the ground, the Black Knight says: "All right, we'll call it a draw." (See video of that scene here.)

Under pressure, White House has been forced to say that they will come up with a new plan. Originally this new plan was to be delivered in a speech by Bush before Christmas but now that deadline has been pushed into the new year because of the claim that his widely publicized 'listening tour' of various relevant government agencies at the Pentagon and State Department is taking longer than expected. It is curious that this business of listening is being portrayed by the White House as something to be applauded. Shouldn't the president have been in constant discussions with these bodies all along about what to do about such an important matter as Iraq?

The fact that a president who boasts that he is 'the decider', who knows instinctively (and divinely?) what is right and wrong and what to do, who disdains policy wonkery, now proudly says that he is listening to all and sundry about what to do in Iraq suggests to me that this is just another stalling tactic until a new public relations program is put into place to buy yet more time. The problem is that it raises the expectations of the speech to unrealistic levels. After all these extended and high level discussions, Bush cannot go on TV and say that he has decided to not change anything. So any moment now we can begin to see an systematic effort to lower expectations, so that they can hope that even some minor changes in policy will be treated as if they were major moves.

At present, the 'new thinking' seems to be about how to find acceptable new wrapping for the same old policy. Even Donald Rumsfeld's final memo on the war on November 6, 2006 dealt a lot with the problem of how to present the war to the public.

We have also heard about the choices between the "Go Big, Go Long, or Go Home" options proposed by a Pentagon study group.

"Go Big," the first option, originally contemplated a large increase in U.S. troops in Iraq to try to break the cycle of sectarian and insurgent violence. . . That option has been all but rejected by the study group, which concluded that there are not enough troops in the U.S. military.
. . .
"Go Home," the third option, calls for a swift withdrawal of U.S. troops. It was rejected by the Pentagon group as likely to push Iraq directly into a full-blown and bloody civil war.
. . .
The group has devised a hybrid plan that combines part of the first option with the second one -- "Go Long" -- and calls for cutting the U.S. combat presence in favor of a long-term expansion of the training and advisory efforts. Under this mixture of options, which is gaining favor inside the military, the U.S. presence in Iraq, currently about 140,000 troops, would be boosted by 20,000 to 30,000 for a short period, the officials said.

Perhaps test marketing of the clearly favored "Go Long" brand did not go well, because it has now been replaced by new buzzwords, the "surge" strategy, which looks a lot like "Go Long" but with a new name. Perhaps it was felt that the public, anxious to get out of Iraq, would balk at "Go Long" with its implication of a long-term commitment, but might buy "surge" with its suggestion of a quick rise and fall, a very brief engagement.

Those of us who lived through Vietnam have seen this before. General William Westmoreland kept asking for just a few more extra troops that would finally and quickly tilt the scales in that war. But once those troops went in, things did not get better, and yet they stayed. As a result of a repeated series of "surges" that flowed but never ebbed, the US ended up in 1968 with over half a million troops in Vietnam and still lost.

The dumping of Rumsfeld as Defense Secretary takes a little of the pressure off as people are usually willing to give a new person some time to figure out what is to be done. So that may buy about one Friedman Unit of time. Will the new Defense Secretary Robert Gates turn out to be another Clark Clifford (who replaced Vietnam War architect Robert McNamara in 1968) who came into office as an establishment war-hawk but then realized that the situation was hopeless and that it was time to pull the plug on that ill-fated war? Perhaps, but even if he does, Gates will have a tougher time pushing for de-escalation than Clifford had with Lyndon Johnson. Johnson had by then already realized that Vietnam was a lost cause that had doomed his presidency, so much so that he had decided to withdraw his name from contention for re-election in 1968. Bush, on the other hand, still seems to be convinced that as long as US troops are still in Iraq, that means the US (and hence him too) has not lost.

In the end, the only concrete result of the ISG report may have been to cause the White House to deep-six the phrase "stay the course." What the White House is probably doing now is searching for a new name for marginal changes in the old policy that will conjure up ideas of change and progress while allowing them to tread water for four more Friedman Units to tide Bush over until he leaves office in January 2009.

I suspect that in January 2007 we will hear Bush give a speech in which he announces "A New Way Forward" or "A New Direction" that will involve a new strategy called "surge". Or use other words if these words have become stale by then or don't test well with the public. And the main idea will involve an increase in troops because once you have eliminated the options of withdrawal (because Bush thinks it is synonymous with defeat), and keeping things the same (which has become politically untenable after all the expectations that have been raised), the only option you have left to show that you are doing something new when you don't have any new ideas is to raise the number of troops, even though this move is unlikely to change anything.

And war supporters will urge everyone to be patient and wait for the 'new' strategy to show results. The key question is how many more FUs the public will accept.

POST SCRIPT: The Blasphemy Challenge

The gospel of Mark (3:29) says that god will forgive anything except blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. The Rational Response Squad is offering a free copy of the DVD The God Who Wasn't There, (which is a pretty good documentary by Brian Flemming on the lack of historical evidence for Jesus) to the first 1001 people who makes a video blaspheming the Holy Spirit and uploads it to their website.

It looks like they have a lot of takers who not only are not afraid of losing their immortal souls but seem to be having a lot of fun doing it. You can check out their videos.

December 21, 2006

What went wrong in Iraq?

So what went wrong with the US plans for establishing a client state in Iraq? When historians look back on Iraq, they may well point to two key decisions: the first was to not go through the tried and true method of instigating a coup by military officers friendly to the US, and then after making the decision to mount an invasion, making the fateful decision in the immediate aftermath to disband the Iraqi army and the Baathist administrative structure that was running the country.

With the army and the Baathist structures still in place, it might have been possible to maintain order and stability in those crucial first few weeks after the invasion, to provide the Iraqi people with the day-to-day security they enjoyed under Saddam Hussein but without the political repression. Then once an orderly transition was achieved, it may have been possible to hand over power to a client Iraqi government that would allow the US considerable influence, but without the Iraqi people feeling that they were being directly dominated by a foreign power.

But once the Iraqi military and administrative structure was summarily dismantled, like Humpty Dumpty it could not be put together again. With the levels of anarchy and civil war rising as a result of this power vacuum, this leaves the US in the current mess where it can neither stay nor leave without appearing to lose.

So who was responsible for that disastrous decision to disband the army and the Baathist structure? The actual order was given by Coalition Provisional Authority leader L. Paul Bremer but it seems like this was too big a decision to have been made on the fly by someone at his level. One has to suspect that it was signed off at the highest levels of government, at least by Rumsfeld and Bush, and going all the way up to Cheney.

But it has long been established that no one in this administration admits to any mistakes. We have never been told what they might have done differently knowing what they know now. With an almost religious certainty they insist that they made the right calls all the way down the line.

But this is belied by the fact that the rosy predictions of success in Iraq have proven to be tragically wrong. Consider these predictions, all made in 2003 prior to the war's commencement:

* Feb. 7, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, to U.S. troops in Aviano, Italy: "It is unknowable how long that conflict will last. It could last six days, six weeks. I doubt six months."

* March 4, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a breakfast with reporters: "What you'd like to do is have it be a short, short conflict. . . . Iraq is much weaker than they were back in the '90s," when its forces were routed from Kuwait.

* March 11, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars: "The Iraqi people understand what this crisis is about. Like the people of France in the 1940s, they view us as their hoped-for liberator."

* March 16, Vice President Cheney, on NBC's Meet the Press: "I think things have gotten so bad inside Iraq, from the standpoint of the Iraqi people, my belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators. . . . I think it will go relatively quickly, . . . (in) weeks rather than months."

Now that things have started to go terribly wrong, those who enthusiastically supported the war and still think it was a great idea initially placed the blame on the media or the feckless allies of 'Old Europe" like France and Germany for not bailing the US out its mess (the latter being a curious charge since those countries predicted that invading Iraq would be a mess) but those attempts did not gain any traction.

Now they have split into two camps as far as assigning blame goes. There are those who say that the administration has bungled the conduct of the post-invasion occupation and now blame Rumsfeld and even Bush. (See here and here.) But others cannot bring themselves to turn on their idols, so their fingers are being pointed at either the Iraqi or American people.

The Iraqis are being blamed for being ungrateful wretches who are actually going to the extent of attacking the very troops who overthrew Saddam Hussein. Some of the people who blame the Iraqis are even calling on the US to teach especially the ungrateful Sunnis a lesson by throwing all its support to those Shia forces that are engaged in killing Sunnis. Of course, this kind of shallow thinking overlooks the fact that many of the Shia (such as the followers of Muqtada al Sadr) are also hostile to the US presence and have carried out attacks on the US. Also the Shia tend to be friendly towards Iran so backing the Shia forces actually strengthens Iran in the region, which is hardly consistent with the grand goal of overthrowing Saddam Hussein as the first step in a sweep through the Middle East that had Iran as the next target.

Those advocates who suggest that since the Iraqis are so ungrateful the US should simply encourage them to kill each other also ignore the enormous debt that the US owes the Iraqi people. The US helped Saddam Hussein come to power and actively supported him during the time of his internal repressions and in his tragic war against Iran. The US instigated and controlled the sanctions against Iraq from 1991 that reduced Iraq from a prosperous and advanced society to an impoverished one by the time of the invasion in 2003, resulting in the deaths of an enormous number of Iraqis due to the lack of food and medicine and other basic services. And the US has now, by its invasion in 2003, created conditions of anarchy and lawlessness and an additional huge number of deaths, as was seen by the Lancet study.

Those who are snarling at the Iraqis and calling for them to be punished for their ingratitude remind me of the psychology of people who take out their rage on their helpless pets or on infants who don't stop crying. There is something about seeing oneself as being very powerful and yet not being able to get others to do what you want them to do that drive some people into an impotent rage and lash out destructively.

The other tack that is being taken is to blame the American people. This has happened before, during Vietnam. When wars don't go well, it is tempting for those in power to say that it is because the people did not support it enough. The war was a great idea, the political and military leadership was perfect, but the people somehow let them down.

Stephen Colbert quotes and then hilariously satirizes those who takes this route, saying: "American people, you are losing this war. . .American people, you should be ashamed! The President went off and bit off a big piece of the Middle East, and like an eagle, brought it back to the nest, and he’s regurgitating it into your mouths. Why won’t you swallow? When history looks back at the actions of this president and the decisions he made regarding this war, you will go down as the most incompetent American public of all time."

Blaming the American public for defeat in Iraq by citing their lack of support does not really make sense since the loss in public support for wars (In Iraq as in Vietnam) usually occurs after the military campaign has gone sour. But what this argument seems to be hinting at is that even though the war is currently going really badly, so badly that the American public is fed up with it, there is something new that could be done that would dramatically change the tide of events, but cannot be put into practice because the public will not support this new push. The problem is that this brilliant new idea, often dramatically described as "one last shot" or "turning point" is never quite specified or is so outlandish ("Triple the number of troops in Iraq" or "Drop a nuclear bomb on Iraq/Iran so they know we mean business" or "Round up all the militants and throw them in prison or kill them") that it falls outside the realm of reality. Pushing for ideas that are not likely to be accepted enables its advocates to position themselves to avoid blame since they can then say that if only their idea had been followed, the war could have been won. Keeping alive the vague idea that other options exist enable the warmongers to delude themselves that theirs were the right decisions, but were foiled by poor execution or lack of will.

The brutal reality is that there are no good options left in Iraq that would constitute a 'victory' in the sense that the Bush administration envisions. And this brings us to the current options that are being floated to 'turn things around' in Iraq.

Next: The battle for rhetorical supremacy

POST SCRIPT: Iraq petition

Here is an online petition that you can sign that calls for an immediate withdrawal of US forces from Iraq.

December 20, 2006

The grand US plan for the Middle East

One of the things that always puzzled me about the Iraq war was the decision that was taken immediately after the fall of Baghdad to disband the Iraqi army and send them all home. This was a radical break with past US policies because the standing armies of other countries have always been the key element of past US attempts at changing the governments of other countries.

It is no secret that the US military industry provides a vast amount of the hardware for foreign armies. A large fraction of the warplanes, tanks, ships, armaments, and the other paraphernalia that foreign armies love to accumulate are sold to them by the US. On one level, this can be seen as a huge taxpayer subsidy to the defense industry. Much of the US taxpayer provided 'aid' to other countries (and this also applies, on a smaller scale, to other major weapons suppliers such as Britain and France) comes in the form of funds that are designated for weapons purchases that have to be bought from the aid 'donor' countries. So essentially much of US taxpayer 'aid' money ends up with US defense contractors, by being used by the foreign military to purchase US-made weapons.

But there is more to this transaction that just money and weapons transfers. When a foreign military purchases US weapons, it allows the US to build links between the foreign armies and the US military. Their officers need to be trained to use the weaponry and so form links with US trainers, to the extent of coming for regular visits to the US (such as to the notorious School of the Americas in Fort Benning, GA) and having US military and defense contractors visit those countries. The net result of such exchanges is the building of close relationships between the US and the foreign military, and this allows the CIA to relatively easily penetrate their ranks and either recruit agents or identify people they think would be sympathetic to US interests.

Having such links is valuable when the government of that country does things that the US strongly disapproves of because then the US can use those friendly officers to engineer a coup against the government and take over the reins of power. Since the military culture is to follow the command structure, the presence of a senior military person taking over the government enables the government to marshal the armed forces in support and crush any opposition to the coup by using brute force. The backing of the armed forces enables them to immediately take over the newspapers and radio and TV stations, arrest or kill opposition figures, and impose martial law and curfews until they have consolidated power over every aspect of that society.

This is what happened in Iran in 1953 when President Mossadegh was overthrown and Reza Pahlavi (the Shah of Iran) was brought in to rule, in Vietnam in 1963 when Ngo Dinh Diem was overthrown by the military, in Indonesia in 1965 when President Sukarno was overthrown by General Suharto, and in Chile in 1973 when President Salvador Allende was overthrown by General Pinochet, just to name a few of the more recent cases. Many of the military officers who supported Pinochet were graduates of the School of the Americas.

This was such a smoothly working system that it is not clear why it was not repeated in Iraq when Saddam Hussein went against US interests. After all, Hussein himself had achieved considerable power (though not the leadership) as a result of a coup in 1968, and finally took over in 1979 after forcing the 1968 coup leader (and later President) Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr to resign. There is evidence that Saddam Hussein was himself supported by the CIA from the early 1960s until the first Gulf War in 1991.

So why did the US not go back to its old playbook and find a cadre of junior and senior Iraqi officers who were friendly to the US to stage a coup against Hussein? One possibility is that they tried to do this and failed. It may be that Hussein, himself a protege of the CIA, knew only too well how it operated and was able to ferret out those officers whom he perceived as potential threats and eliminated them.

Another possibility is that the US was after bigger fish this time and that it was not really that concerned with Iraq itself except as a gateway to the grander prizes of Iran and Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Installing a puppet leader in Iraq via a military coup would merely give it control over that country's oil supplies but would still leave Iran under a government the US did not control, Saudi Arabia in the hands of a friendly but unstable oligarchy, and Egypt with a future that was uncertain once the current strong man Hosni Mubarak dies or is overthrown or leaves office.

The ultimate goal may have been to achieve control over all these countries and though them the entire Middle East. At least this was the vision presented to the Defense Policy Board, "a committee of foreign policy wonks and former government officials that advises the Pentagon on defense issues," that was headed by leading neoconservative Richard Perle in 2002 when it was briefed on this grand world view by Laurent Murawiec, a Rand corporation analyst who used to work for Lyndon LaRouche.

So perhaps it was this vision of Middle Eastern dominos (Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Egypt) falling one by one to US power and influence, giving the US total control of the world's major oil reserves, and at the same time neutralizing all the potential threats to Israel, that led the US to abandon its old policy of coups to change disliked regimes and go for the big invasion of Iraq as a dramatic show of US power. This would also explain why the attempts to form a broad UN military coalition for the invasion of Iraq (like that done for the first Gulf war in 1991) were so half-hearted. This long-term strategy was meant to establish exclusive US control of the Middle East in order to control the destiny of rival economic powers, and thus having other major powers come along for the invasion of Iraq would not be desirable.

It is probable that this heady vision of remaking the political map of the world led the Bush administration to indulge in wishful thinking, to actually believe that they would achieve a quick victory in Iraq and be greeted as liberators, and that a grateful Iraqi public would welcome them and quickly set up a new government friendly to the US that would allow the US to maintain a huge military presence. With the crippling sanctions dismantled, the US would then be able to use Iraqi oil revenues to create a prosperous country, and that combination of US military power and rapid improvement in the lives of the Iraq people in a stable country with relatively free political structures would be the trigger for the people in neighboring countries to realize that they could have something similar. They would then also rise up against their own governments, confident that the massive US presence in nearby Iraq, along with the other major regional power Israel, would support them and deter their governments from retaliating with a brutal crackdown.

All this is admittedly speculation on my part, though not without evidence. But one can see how it could be a heady brew to a visionary with particular a type of ideology, such as the neoconservatives. Such 'big picture' people tend to see things in terms of the grand sweep of history. They are almost always so convinced and entranced by the magnificence of their own vision that they think that others will immediately embrace it too, and they do not want to listen to naysayers who see potential problems. They feel that they are on the crest of a wave of history that will sweep away all opposition, both domestic and foreign.

But if this surmise of mine is true, then that plan ganged seriously agley, as the poet Robert Burns might say.

Next: What went wrong with the grand plan?

December 19, 2006

The problem of Iraq

Now that the Iraq Study Group report [.pdf] has been delivered with great fanfare, there is a curious sense of anticlimax as various people ponder what is to be the next step in Iraq. As I suspected it would, the White House distanced itself from the report's recommendations since it essentially repudiates the premises of its current policy.

It seems clear to me that what we are going to witness in the near future is not any substantive changes in policy but we will see changes in rhetoric, in the way that the war is packaged. Hence it is probably a good time to closely examine the rhetoric of the debate.

The president speaks repeatedly of not willing to listen to the defeatists and says that the US will stay until "victory" is achieved and "the job" is completed.

But what does the word 'victory' mean in the context of Iraq? What could it possibly mean? In November 30, 2005, the White House defined what it meant by victory in the document titled National Strategy for Victory in Iraq. It makes for interesting reading, mostly for how far those goals are from what currently exists on the ground. It seems amazing that just a year ago some people in the administration were optimistic enough to have such ambitions.

If we forget about US interests and ask what is best for the Iraqis themselves, then it becomes easier to envisage a desirable outcome. What we would hope is that someday Iraq would become a stable, secular, democracy free of all outside military forces (including those of the US), with a legal and constitutional system that enables the various groups within the country to resolve their differences without violence, has protections for minorities, and allows for a just and equitable distribution of resources. Such a system would enable that country to use its enormous oil revenues to rebuild its ruined infrastructure of schools, hospitals, water, electricity, sanitation, and roads, to at least the levels it had before the sanctions that were imposed on it after the invasion of Kuwait.

While that is close to ideal from the point of view of the Iraqis themselves, I do not think that that completes the list of what the Bush government wants or means by 'victory.' Whatever the nature of the political and economic system that might come to exist in Iraq, I believe that the US government also wants an Iraqi government that will allow it to maintain a massive military and diplomatic presence within the country and to follow policies that are consistent with US interests. And it is this divergence between what is good for the Iraqi people and what is desired by the Bush administration that will prevent a peaceful resolution of this conflict.

The 'problem' with truly free and democratic societies like the one I sketched out for Iraq above, is that its governments tend to look after the welfare of its own people first and not the interests of its business and social elites, or the interests of other countries. Such governments (like that of former president Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran and currently Hugo Chavez in Venezuela) might decide that they are going to use their oil revenues in ways that are not necessarily in the interests of the US and also might pursue a foreign policy that goes against US interests. When we look at the history of such cases, what we see is the US actively engaging in changing governments deemed undesirable. The CIA successfully conspired to overthrow Mossadegh in 1953, replacing him with the client leader Reza Pahlavi and supported an unsuccessful coup in Venezuela in 2002 that failed to oust Chavez.

What the Bush administration probably fears most is a Chavez-like leader emerging in Iraq, who decides to follow a populist economic path of using oil revenues to improve the lives of its people, and pursue an independent path internationally. According to the brutal realpolitik outlined by George Kennan, what the US needs to do in its own strategic interest of controlling global resources is to create a client state in Iraq, by installing a government that will allow US military forces to have a permanent presence in that country and which will be subservient to US interests in making trade and foreign policy decisions, especially when it comes to utilizing its oil resources.

The Kennan vision, it is important to realize, is one that has tacit bipartisan support, which is why I have argued in the past that the US is a one party system with a pro-business/pro-war platform, and the main distinguishing features between the Democratic and Republican parties are on social issues. Many supporters of the Democrats are puzzled and disappointed that their party does not seem to recognize that the country, as shown in the last elections, has largely repudiated the Bush Iraq policy and is increasingly calling for an immediate withdrawal. Some think that the Democrats are playing a tactical game, that they really want the troops to leave but are not calling for it out of fear of not wanting to seem as if they have undercut the President in wartime. I think this view is mistaken. The Democratic Party (at least at the top leadership level) has always subscribed to the Kennan plan as well, and I think that they too want to find a way to keep troops and influence permanently in Iraq. The consensus amongst the business and political elites in the US around the Kennan view has always been strong.

And this is why neither the Bush administration nor the leadership of the new Democratic majority in Congress are anxious for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq. It is not primarily for fear of an outbreak of sectarian violence, though the more humane people may be also concerned about that. That violence is already occurring on a large scale, so much so that the daily lives of ordinary Iraqi has become hell, leading them to leave the country in droves, creating one of the worst refugee crises. This is about to cause domestic political problems soon as the number of Iraqi refugees wanting to come to the US will overwhelmingly exceed its quota. Things are so bad that it is reported that 90% of Iraqis think they were better off under Saddam Hussein

The real fear about a complete withdrawal from Iraq is the possibility of the emergence of some kind of nationalist leader who will take an independent stance with anti-US rhetoric, similar to Chavez and Ahmadinejad in neighboring Iran.

If that should happen, the American public is likely to be outraged. They will demand to know why the US spent close to a trillion dollars of US money and lost tens of thousands of dead and wounded US soldiers and contractors in order to end up with a government in Iraq that is perceived as hostile to the US. While there might be an immediate sense of relief if the US extricates itself somehow from the quagmire and brings all its troops home, once that initial euphoria is over, there is likely to be a serious settling of accounts in the US as people ask who was responsible for this massive fiasco, for the expenditure of so much resources for an outcome that is even worse for US interests that when Saddam Hussein was in power.

This is why Bush, being the kind of person he is who worries more about being seen as 'firm' rather than being right, cannot and will not make the decision to withdraw US forces from Iraq. If he does so, then he will be the one blamed for the ultimate 'loss' of Iraq. This is why the leadership of the new Democratic congressional majority also is not anxious to force the issue by cutting funds for the war, the only power over the conduct of the war that it has. They too do not want to be blamed for 'losing' Iraq. So we will continue to see a cynical policy of the Democratic congress making noises of disapproval and instituting some increased oversight of the Bush administration's actions, but still giving Bush whatever he wants to pursue his ill-fated Iraq policy so that when it fails, he and he alone, will bear the blame.

Next: The grand vision for the Middle East.

December 18, 2006

Food and the politics of power

In the previous post, I suggested that as the competition for resources becomes more acute, it is likely that military force will be increasingly used in a brutally transparent manner in order to maintain the current inequalities in consumption rates. This was not simply a guess on my part. It is based on historical precedent.

In 1948, George Kennan of the US State Department wrote what has since become a famous memo outlining in frank and stark terms what he saw as the main issue facing the United States in its newfound post-world war II role as the dominant economic and military force. He was officially writing about Asia but his analysis extends beyond that.

Furthermore, we have about 50% of the world's wealth but only 6.3% of its population. This disparity is particularly great as between ourselves and the peoples of Asia. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction.
. . .
In the face of this situation we would be better off to dispense now with a number of the concepts which have underlined our thinking with regard to the Far East. We should dispense with the aspiration to "be liked" or to be regarded as the repository of a high-minded international altruism. We should stop putting ourselves in the position of being our brothers' keeper and refrain from offering moral and ideological advice. We should cease to talk about vague and -- for the Far East -- unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.

Kennan's warnings have been borne out in the case of Iraq. The official "altruistic" reasons for invading that country (that it had weapons of mass destruction that needed to be eliminated, to spread democracy) have been exposed as shams but justifying the invasion in those terms has caught the US in a bind from which it cannot escape. In the wake of the collapse of both the invasion and its rationale, a guessing game has arisen as to the true reasons for the invasion. While many reasons have been postulated, I think applying Kennan's analysis provides the best lens through which one should view the problem.

Iraq was invaded in order to solidify US control of energy sources for the long-term future in order to maintain the current disparity in consumption rates. It should be emphasized that it is control of oil that is crucial, not its ownership or profits. Those who point to reasons like profits for the big oil companies or for Halliburton are taking a shallow view. It is not necessary to actually own the oil, since oil is a fungible commodity once it is on the world market. But by having its hand on the spigot, the US can control the economies of other countries, especially the emerging giants like China and the established economic powers like Europe and Japan which are also in the market for increasingly scarce resources. Remember that because of the food-energy equation, whoever controls the flow of oil also controls pretty much how well the world eats, which is the ultimate power. This is why I think that the US will never voluntarily withdraw from Iraq. Instead, it seeks to have a permanent presence there, in the form of military bases supporting a client state that is friendly to the US and dependent on it.

In his February 2004 Harper's essay The oil we eat, Richard Manning says:

The common assumption these days is that we muster our weapons to secure oil, not food. There's a little joke in this. Ever since we ran out of arable land, food is oil. Every single calorie we eat is backed by at least a calorie of oil, more like ten. In 1940 the average farm in the United States produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil energy it used. By 1974 (the last year in which anyone looked closely at this issue), that ratio was 1:1. And this understates the problem, because at the same time that there is more oil in our food there is less oil in our oil. A couple of generations ago we spent a lot less energy drilling, pumping, and distributing than we do now. In the 1940s we got about 100 barrels of oil back for every barrel of oil we spent getting it. Today each barrel invested in the process returns only ten, a calculation that no doubt fails to include the fuel burned by the Hummers and Blackhawks we use to maintain access to the oil in Iraq.

The increasing energy costs of producing food means that oil will loom even larger in politics. In Jared Diamond's book Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed, he analyzes the causes of the collapse of past societies. He is not concerned about political collapses, like that of the Roman or Byzantine or British and other colonial empires. Instead he is talking about the inability of societies to sustain their levels of population, resulting in those societies having drastic reductions in numbers, if not outright extinction. In each case, the primary driver was the inability to produce food in sufficient amounts.

I think that food is still the primary factor, though in the first world it has become buried under other forms of goods such as cars, iPods, and the like. And since food and energy are so closely related, the question of how we resolve the problem of energy production and use and distribution will become the major global problem, on a par with how we deal with climate changes and global warming.

POST SCRIPT: The obesity epidemic

In a short three-minute video clip, cardiologist Dean Cornish gives a quick overview of the obesity epidemic in the US and its damaging medical consequences, and also shows how globalization is increasing the levels of those same problems in the third-world. He argues that this is completely preventable.

December 15, 2006

The impact of modern agriculture on land use

Agriculture has only been around for about 10,000 years and the reasons for its success are not clear since the archeological evidence suggests that early farmers were, nutritionally speaking, not as well off as their contemporary hunter-gatherers. It may have been that since grains can be stored over years of bounty and used in lean years, farmers were better able to withstand adverse times and thus better able to sustain themselves over longer times than their rivals in lifestyles.

However, the rise of agriculture led to some serious distortions in the use of land. In nature, diversity abounds, for the simple reason that different plants species provide services for others. Some provide shade, others fix nitrogen, others protect from wind, others retain water, and so on, each enabling the others to flourish. So natural lands tend to produce a mixture of these various forms of life. The widespread growth of farming and the use of lands for single crops like rice, wheat, and corn marked a significant change since it stripped the land of its diversity.

These crops like wheat, rice, and corn have some advantages. Mainly they transform solar energy into bundles of carbohydrate energy that are tight, transportable, and relatively long lasting. Apart from the hydrocarbons like oil, these are the most concentrated form of energy. But in creating this new form of agricultural energy, we have been essentially drawing upon the reserves of energy created and stored in the land over periods of millions of years before the arrival of agriculture.

Most of this stored agricultural energy existed in the form of prairies. In his February 2004 Harper's essay The oil we eat, Richard Manning describes how energy from the Sun is stored in this particular form of plants.

A prairie converts that energy to flowers and roots and stems, which in turn pass back into the ground as dead organic matter. The layers of topsoil build up into a rich repository of energy, a bank. A farm field appropriates that energy, puts it into seeds we can eat.

The cost of using that topsoil for farming is apparent, according to Manning. "Walk from the prairie to the field, and you probably will step down about six feet, as if the land had been stolen from beneath you." This represent our using up of the world's long accumulated energy capital that has been stored in the soil. Jared Diamond in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (p. 489) similarly saw a visual example of this during a recent visit to Iowa where a church had been built in the 19th century in the middle of farmland. As a result of the land around it being cultivated over the years and using up the stored resources in the soil, the church now stands like an island about ten feet above its surroundings.

As we use up this soil this way, we have to replenish it using artificial fertilizers. "Oil is annual primary productivity stored as hydrocarbons, a trust fund of sorts, built up over many thousands of years. On average, it takes 5.5 gallons of fossil energy to restore a year's worth of lost fertility to an acre of eroded land—in 1997 we burned through more than 400 years' worth of ancient fossilized productivity, most of it from someplace else."

So after using up our inheritance that was in the rich soils, we use up our inheritance that was stored in the form of oil to cover up for the first loss, borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, so to speak. This process was accelerated by the arrival of what are called "wheat-beef" farming people six thousand years ago who, within the relatively short time of 300 years, became the dominant agricultural group, pretty much eliminating the hunter-gatherers. But single crop agriculture like wheat depletes the soils, leading to famines. Manning points out that between the years of 500 and 1500, "Britain suffered a major "corrective" famine about every ten years; there were seventy-five in France during the same period."

However, as these two countries became sea-faring colonial powers, they were able to use the riches of the colonies to reduce the famines at home. This also led to inequalities in resource consumption between the colonizers and the colonized.

But as the populations of these wheat-beef communities grew because of the abundance of food, they had to keep moving on, finding new sources of prairie grasslands to conquer and use up. After they arrived in the US, this drive to open up fresh lands happened here too, as settlers moved west searching for new land in order to tap its vast reserves of soil energy.

But at some point the sources of new land became exhausted. There were no new prairie frontiers to exploit. So then what happened? The 'green revolution' occurred in which genetic modifications produced rice, when and corn species that, combined with the use of increased irrigation and artificial fertilizers, produced three times the yield they had before. Most people might think that this was a good thing, since it enables the production of more food that can feed more people more cheaply. Manning argues that this is the worst thing to have happened.

One reason, Manning argues, is that it moved poor people off their own land while enabling their growth in numbers. "In the forty-year period beginning about 1960, the world's population doubled, adding virtually the entire increase of 3 billion to the world's poorest classes, the most fecund classes. The way in which the green revolution raised that grain contributed hugely to the population boom, and it is the weight of the population that leaves humanity in its present untenable position. . .[T]he methods of the green revolution . . . added orders of magnitude to the devastation. By mining the iron for tractors, drilling the new oil to fuel them and to make nitrogen fertilizers, and by taking the water that rain and rivers had meant for other lands, farming had extended its boundaries, its dominion, to lands that were not farmable."

It is clear that we cannot go on consuming resources at this rate. It seems to me like we have only three choices:

1. Perpetuate existing wide disparities in rates of consumption by the use of brute force. This will inevitably lead to more and more global conflicts, and an inevitable collapse as resources get used up.
2. Allow for increased rates of consumption globally as the newly emerging countries like China and India also start to consume at current first world rates. This will lead to an even more rapid global collapse than option 1 since resources will be used up even more quickly.
3. Reduce consumption rates in the first world while at the same time making resources more equitable worldwide so that we can bring worldwide rates to a level that is sustainable and yet provides the world's population with a decent although not luxurious standard of living.

While I favor the third option, that requires global cooperation and sharing, ideas that are not that popular these days. I fear that the other two options are more likely to be adopted.

POST SCRIPT: Middle East politics round up

The invaluable Juan Cole gives a handy round up on the state of play in the Middle East, including the emergence of Saudi Arabian interests as a big factor. He also discusses something that has not been emphasized much in the media, and that is the possible reason why Dick Cheney was "summoned" to Saudi Arabia just after Thanksgiving and was "read the riot act" by the Saudi king, and the abrupt resignation this week of the Saudi ambassador to the US.

The fact that the Saudis can snap their fingers and Cheney immediately gets on a plane and goes to get lectured by them is another indication of how weakened the US has become by its invasion of Iraq. At least we can be thankful that Cheney didn't shoot the Saudi king in the face.

December 14, 2006

The food-energy equation

In his February 2004 Harper's essay The oil we eat, Richard Manning lays out the basic energy equation that underlies food.

All animals eat plants or eat animals that eat plants. This is the food chain, and pulling it is the unique ability of plants to turn sunlight into stored energy in the form of carbohydrates, the basic fuel of all animals. Solar-powered photosynthesis is the only way to make this fuel. There is no alternative to plant energy, just as there is no alternative to oxygen. The results of taking away our plant energy may not be as sudden as cutting off oxygen, but they are as sure.

Scientists have a name for the total amount of plant mass created by Earth in a given year, the total budget for life. They call it the planet's "primary productivity." There have been two efforts to figure out how that productivity is spent, one by a group at Stanford University, the other an independent accounting by the biologist Stuart Pimm. Both conclude that we humans, a single species among millions, consume about 40 percent of Earth's primary productivity, 40 percent of all there is. This simple number may explain why the current extinction rate is 1,000 times that which existed before human domination of the planet. We 6 billion have simply stolen the food, the rich among us a lot more than others.
. . .
Part of that total—almost a third of it—is the potential plant mass lost when forests are cleared for farming or when tropical rain forests are cut for grazing or when plows destroy the deep mat of prairie roots that held the whole business together, triggering erosion. The Dust Bowl was no accident of nature. A functioning grassland prairie produces more biomass each year than does even the most technologically advanced wheat field. The problem is, it's mostly a form of grass and grass roots that humans can't eat. So we replace the prairie with our own preferred grass, wheat. Never mind that we feed most of our grain to livestock, and that livestock is perfectly content to eat native grass. And never mind that there likely were more bison produced naturally on the Great Plains before farming than all of beef farming raises in the same area today.

Humans cannot eat most of the naturally produced biomass each year since it is in the form of grasses and trees, so we destroy that biomass by clearing those fields and planting crops that we can eat more readily or, as is more common, to use as raw materials to produce food in other forms. But each of these things carries with it energy costs. As Manning points out:

America's biggest crop, grain corn, is completely unpalatable. It is raw material for an industry that manufactures food substitutes. Likewise, you can't eat unprocessed wheat. You certainly can't eat hay. You can eat unprocessed soybeans, but mostly we don't. These four crops cover 82 percent of American cropland. Agriculture in this country is not about food; it's about commodities that require the outlay of still more energy to become food. (emphasis in original)

It turns out that about eighty percent of the grain the United States produces goes to feed livestock and that it "takes thirty-five calories of fossil fuel to make a calorie of beef this way" and "sixty-eight to make one calorie of pork." Livestock produced this way creates high-quality protein no doubt, but at a cost. In addition, the US produces twice as much per capita protein as the average adult needs each day. This results in over-consumption which leads to fat, resulting in an epidemic of obesity, which now is second only to tobacco in being the cause of health-related problems and fatalities.

The higher you go up the food chain, the more energy that is wasted along the way. All of us know that instinctively but I had not fully appreciated the massive scale of wastage as you ascend each rung of that chain.

Eating a carrot gives the diner all that carrot's energy, but feeding carrots to a chicken, then eating the chicken, reduces the energy by a factor of ten. The chicken wastes some energy, stores some as feathers, bones, and other inedibles, and uses most of it just to live long enough to be eaten. As a rough rule of thumb, that factor of ten applies to each level up the food chain, which is why some fish, such as tuna, can be a horror in all of this. Tuna is a secondary predator, meaning it not only doesn't eat plants but eats other fish that themselves eat other fish, adding a zero to the multiplier each notch up, easily a hundred times, more like a thousand times less efficient than eating a plant.

As Manning sums up: "Prairie's productivity is lost for grain, grain's productivity is lost in livestock, livestock's protein is lost to human fat—all federally subsidized for about $15 billion a year, two thirds of which goes directly to only two crops, corn and wheat."

Even avoiding meat does not quite solve the problem since there are hidden energy costs in non-meat foods as well.

The grinding, milling, wetting, drying, and baking of a breakfast cereal requires about four calories of energy for every calorie of food energy it produces. A two-pound bag of breakfast cereal burns the energy of a half-gallon of gasoline in its making. All together the food-processing industry in the United States uses about ten calories of fossil-fuel energy for every calorie of food energy it produces.

It seems to me that if we are going to learn how to become better custodians of the earth's resources, we need to have a deeper understanding of how those resources are used. It seems like it would be advisable to emphasize the energy aspects of food in our educational system to create a greater awareness of where all the energy goes to and comes from. Right now, I think that students learn about photosynthesis as a purely biological process. Including the energy cycle along with it seems like a good idea, both educationally and in terms of creating increasing awareness of our relationship to nature and the Earth's resources.

POST SCRIPT: Letting Go of God

Julia Sweeney has a CD of her monologue about her drift away from Catholicism to atheism. She was interviewed by late night talk show host Craig Ferguson.

December 13, 2006

Saving resources

One of the things that appall me is the waste of food. Whenever I have to throw away food that has been uneaten, I take that as a personal defeat. As a result, the refrigerator in our home is relatively bare since it tends to have things that are likely to be used soon. Even then, I periodically go through the refrigerator and use up everything that is there and only throw stuff away if it is beyond salvaging.

I have the impression that in our highly litigious society, manufacturers have become highly conservative in labeling packages, fearful that they will be sued if someone gets ill. And as a result, the "sell by" dates are likely quite early and a lot of perfectly good food is thrown away unnecessarily because of people adhering strictly to them. It would be interesting to see what kinds of statistics are used to arrive at the "sell by" dates.

The greater waste occurs in supermarkets. Consumers are now so picky and demand such perfection that even slightly bruised fruit or other produce is thrown away by stores, even though it might be perfectly good to eat, because they think that consumers will not buy them. At home, on the other hand, if an apple or banana is bruised I, like many others, simply cut out that part and eat the rest. This is not because we cannot afford to buy more fruit, it is simply that I cannot bear to waste food. It seems criminal to me.

In Sri Lanka when I was growing up, even in the cities vendors of food would sell their wares in small open stalls (like the ones you see in the US along country roads in the summer and fall) and you would haggle with the vendor about the price. If the produce was pristine is quality, you would pay a higher price. The more damaged or older it looked, the less you paid. Anything that was not sold that day or likely to be sold in the future was consumed by the vendor's family and neighbors. As a result of this system, there was very little waste.

(The haggling over price was a kind of game that was played between vendor and customer and the scene over the purchase of a false beard in the film Monty Python's Life of Brian accurately captures the spirit of the game. I personally never had the heart to haggle since the vendors were obviously so much poorer than I and I felt that the small amount of money involved meant a lot less to me than to them. Hence I would simply go through the motions of haggling and would end up paying more or less the asking price. While it was more profitable for the vendors to deal with me, I also had the feeling that they thought I was not much fun.)

Food costs a lot in terms of the resources that go into producing it. In his February 2004 Harper's essay The oil we eat, Richard Manning analyzes the true cost of agriculture. Clearing out vast areas of land to increase agriculture has a cost, all the fertilizer we use to achieve high yields has a cost, and the mechanized planting, harvesting, transport and distribution systems that are used have a cost. The food we get at our stores has used up a lot of resources and it is a scandal how much of it we waste.

David Pimentel, an expert on food and energy at Cornell University, has estimated that if all of the world ate the way the United States eats, humanity would exhaust all known global fossil-fuel reserves in just over seven years. Pimentel has his detractors. Some have accused him of being off on other calculations by as much as 30 percent. Fine. Make it ten years.

This is a question that is looming larger and larger as countries with large populations that were once considered third world, such as China and India, are rapidly becoming industrialized and their populations rate of consumption are rising to first world levels. While we simply cannot go on consuming at the current first world rates, how we resolve this question to achieve a lasting, sustainable, and fair solution is not at all clear.

POST SCRIPT: Picking and choosing from the Bible

Stephen Colbert interviews Francis Collins and the discussion raises the key problem facing those Christians who are not Biblical literalists. (Collins is the head of the human genome project and a practicing Christian and the author of the book The Language of God.)

When Colbert asks him on which of the six days of creation god created DNA, Collins argues that some parts of the Bible are not meant to be taken literally. To which Colbert responds "If you throw out any part of the Bible, you throw out all of it."

This is why Christian fundamentalists reject the position of those who argue that the Bible should not be taken literally.

December 12, 2006

Reduce, reduce, reduce

Environmentalists use the phrase "reduce, reuse, recycle" to indicate the different ways that we can lower our consumption of resources in order to save the world. It is true that recycling has become more popular now, which is a good thing.

But we must remember that recycle is merely the third item on the descending list of actions to save the world's resources. The most important one is 'reduce' and I think we not paying anywhere near enough attention to that. If we really want to save the world, we have to focus our attention on the first item in the list: reduce.

Ever since I started reading Jared Diamond's book Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed I have been increasingly aware of how much we consume for just no reason. His book (which I will discuss in more detail in later postings) warns that when you look back at societies that have undergone collapse in the past (see, for example, my posting on the fate the befell Easter Island), one of the factors at play is that during times of abundance, people get in the habit of consuming resources that are in excess of what the environment can sustain during average or lean times.

The unusual abundance was usually because of two reasons. One was that they experienced a period of good climate, with a nice mixture of rain and sun that enabled them to have exceptionally bountiful harvests and made them forget what it was like when things were not so good. This encouraged them to consume at a high rate and maintain high rates of population growth. Then when bad weather of other types of problems struck, they were not prepared to deal with the resulting deprivation, and the social structure collapsed.

The other situation was that when people discovered a new and lush land, they thought that the lushness was because the soil was very fertile. In reality, the soil and climate was quite inferior but the lush vegetation they encountered was the result of slow growth over a very long time, and not due to the land's ability to replenish itself rapidly. Hence once the new arrivals had cleared the land and harvested a few good years of agriculture, the land went barren. He points to Australia as an example of poor soil that fooled the early European settlers into thinking that the soil was highly fertile, leading to the current environmental problems there.

In the case of the Earth, what we are doing is more like the second case, except on a much longer timescale. The Earth has tremendous resources that have been generated over billions of years during which the resources were not consumed but were allowed to accumulate, like interest in a bank account. These resources are either finite or replenish themselves at a very slow rate. We are like new settlers that are living off the benefits of billions of years of acquired wealth that is stored in the Earth. But we are simply consuming it as if the good times will last forever.

A good financial metaphor is that we are not treating the Earth's resources as capital that should be invested wisely so that it can be preserved and even grow over time so that our children and grandchildren can have an even better life than we have. Instead, we are treating the Earth's resources as if it were income. The way we live is like that of heirs to a fortune who are spending their inheritance on a wild binge of partying. We are simply running through the Earth's capital, living beyond our means. And in doing so, we will reach a time when 'we' (by which I mean the human race) become broke.

As Diamond points out, the fate of past societies that treated their natural resources as income and not capital is not pretty to contemplate. The only advantage that we have over them is that we have the knowledge of what caused those collapses in the past and if we take those lessons to heart and are wise custodians of those resources, we can avoid their fates. The choice is ours. But do we have the will, let alone the wisdom?

One problem that we encounter is the inherent conflict between reducing consumption and the voracious needs of capitalism. It seems to be an article of faith of capitalism that society benefits when people spend more money to buy more stuff. The massive advertising industry is there to manufacture fake needs and drive up consumption. The holiday season we are currently in is a good example of this madness. The media actually celebrates when the shopping season breaks previous records for expenditures. This is supposed to be 'good for the economy.'

This feature of constantly increasing consumption cannot be part of a sustainable economic system. I suspect that it happens to be a peculiar manifestation that has evolved and taken deep hold, like a weed infestation in a garden, but that societies can function perfectly well with a model that emphasizes reduced consumption and increased conservation. It seems to me that we should be designing our economic systems to serve the very long-term needs of society, and not tailoring our society to meets the needs of present day economic systems.

To emphasize the importance of reducing our rate of consumption, perhaps we should start by taking a cue from real estate agents. When asked what are the three most important things about a property, they say "location, location, location" in order to emphasize the importance of this one thing that dwarfs all other factors. We should similarly change our environmental slogan from 'reduce, reuse, recycle' to 'reduce, reduce, reduce'. That way we might stop deluding ourselves that our recycling efforts alone, worthwhile though they may be, are sufficient to prevent a future global ecological collapse.

POST SCRIPT: The paradox of choice

There is no question that in the affluent industrialized first world, people have a wide array of options to chose from for almost all aspects of their lives, whereas in many parts of the third world, people have almost no choices. Barry Schwartz argues that this abundance of choice in the western world has actually lowered the quality of life for the people who have all these choices, and that everyone would be better off if some of the options were shifted to the poorer countries.

It is an excellent little lecture, worth watching.

December 11, 2006

Are we owners or custodians?

In the previous post, when I said that my generation had been poor custodians of the world, I used the word 'custodians' deliberately.

I think there is a big difference between those who see their relationship to things in terms of ownership and those who see it in terms of custodianship.

The ownership mentality sees things this way: "If I earn money, that money belongs to me and I am free to do what I want with it. Similarly, anything that I buy with the money is mine to do with whatever I like." In this view, if I am a millionaire, I should be able to buy five huge homes around the world, each of which uses vast amounts of resources to build and maintain but are empty for most of the time, fly around in my private planes, drive around in huge cars that I replace every year, buy lots of clothes that I discard soon after, and so forth. The feeling is that I have a right to do this because I 'own' these things and bought them with my own money.

This sense of ownership also extends to the Earth and its resources. Although no one, of course, owns the Earth, the fact that I feel I am entitled to use up whatever resources that go into enabling my lifestyle means that I essentially feel entitled to the ownership of those resources as well.

Contrasted with this attitude is the custodian mentality. This says that we never really 'own' anything. Everything we have we are custodians for, given the privilege of looking after and using until we pass them on to the next user. When I go to a store and buy something, I am essentially buying not the object itself but the right to be its custodian. I get the right to use it exclusively while it is in my care but I also have the responsibility to look after it well. The same applies to the Earth and its resources. We are custodians of it and charged with taking care of it, not its owners to do what we like with it.

I am fortunate enough to have paid off the mortgage on the house I live in. If I think of myself as the 'owner' of the house, then I am free to do what I like with it, consistent with the zoning laws of my community. If I like, I can trash it. If it thus loses value, that is my own business and no one else's. I can even raze it to the ground and build either a new house or leave it as open space. In the ownership mentality, it can be argued that the only considerations that should influence my decision is whether it is beneficial to me, since I am the 'owner'.

But surely I have a responsibility to the Earth and my neighbors and my descendants as well? Trashing the house or destroying it so as to put up a bigger new home, even though my children have gone away to college and my space needs are less, would not be a good decision for a custodian of the Earth to make since it would be a waste of resources, even if it led to an increase in my property values and made me personally richer.

The same questions apply to every purchase I make. When I pay for a car, I become a custodian of the vehicle as well as the resources that went in to making it. Hence I have a duty not to waste it but to take care of the car and make it last as long as I can. The same with clothes.

If we cannot shift our thinking away from thinking of ourselves as owners to thinking of ourselves as custodians, the fate the Jared Diamond describes (in his book Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed) happening to past collapsed societies could well happen to us. Those societies that collapsed did so because segments of those societies short-sightedly thought in terms of their own interests and not of the long-term viability of the entire community.

Since in this case it is the Earth itself that we are custodians for, we will have nowhere else to go to escape if we fail to act as good custodians.

POST SCRIPT: Russell's Teapot

Just a reminder that every Monday the website Russell's Teapot puts out a new cartoon. These cartoons are funny but are not just gags. They also contain a lot of interesting information. Last week's cartoon ("Who put the X in Xmas") dealing with Christmas myths ties in nicely with my series of posts on the dubiousness of much of Biblical history. To make the cartoon image larger, keep clicking on the cartoon image.

December 08, 2006

The age of consumption

Some time ago I was having breakfast with a few friends and during the casual conversation I said that I felt that our children and grandchildren would judge our generation harshly for what we have done to the world.

One of my companions was surprised and after a moment's thought told me why she disagreed. She pointed out that our generation (the so-called 'baby boomers' although I hate cute labels like these) had brought about advances in civil rights, greater equality for women, more tolerance for gay and lesbian lifestyles, and made tremendous medical advances that had resulted in finding cures for some diseases and even the elimination of some.

I agreed with her on all these points. But my concern was more about how we have treated the Earth's resources, its environment, and its climate. I have written about global warming before and will write in the future about the consequences of our actions on the environment, but what I told her was that I feel that the people of my generation have not been good custodians of the resources of the planet. We have been so wasteful and profligate with the planet's resources that we are risk leaving future generations resource poor.

My friend challenged me on this too. She pointed out that our generation has become more conscious about recycling in a way that our parents never were.

This is also true but I think that the advances that we have made in recycling have been more than dwarfed by our massive increase in the consumption of resources. There is no doubt that the current generation of people in the first world has the highest standard of living ever. All the scientific and technological advances that we have been witness to in our own lifetimes have resulted in us being able to possess lots of material goods.

But what this has spawned is even greater levels of consumption. Some increase in consumption is inevitable and even desirable because it means that more people are able to live better lives. No one would doubt the merits of the increased availability of potable water, more food and less hunger, more widespread availability of indoor plumbing and electricity, homes that are better able to withstand the elements, and so. All these things enable those people who are currently living in poverty and squalor and susceptible to disease to live better and healthier lives. Increases in consumption to achieve these ends are clearly desirable.

But what bothers me is the increase in consumption just for the sake of it, just because we can. I am referring now to the kind of lifestyle that is driving people to build huge mansions and own multiple homes on vast areas of cleared land that are vacant most of the time. I am referring to a culture that sees consumption for its own sake as something desirable, where luxury is flaunted, where people feel the need to buy new stuff before the old stuff is completely used up, and where waste is endemic.

This is a disease that afflicts the affluent and also those members of the middle class that aspire to the affluent lifestyle. The media celebrates celebrities and corporate tycoons living lavish lifestyles. This infects the middle classes who seek to emulate the very rich by also living an extravagant lifestyle. The global reach of the media creates similar desires in the affluent classes of the second and third worlds, who also live high consumption lifestyles, which creates similar pressures on their middle classes, and so on.

A lot of this consumption is not based on any physical needs but instead seems to result from a competition to flaunt wealth and consumption, for show, to let others know how 'successful' we are. This attitude is like a virus that has spread all over the world.

As a result of all this wasteful and image-driven consumption, I worry that we are rapidly using up the world's resources without even the benefit of a better quality of life. I worry that at the rate we going, we are going to leave future generations very resource poor.

POST SCRIPT: Analysis of ISG group report

Senator Russ Feingold gives a good summary of the few strengths and the many weaknesses of the report put out by the Iraq Study Group.

And editorial cartoonist Oliphant gives his perspective on the responses to the report.

toles.jpg

December 07, 2006

'Tis the season to be petty, fa la la la la, la la la la!

Now that the season to wage culture wars over holiday symbolism has arrived, Tom Tomorrow reports on the kind of petty and absurd incidents that this ridiculous hyping of the 'war on Christmas' spawns.

I was a grocery store, waiting in line to check out. The man in front of me approached the cashier with a cart full of groceries. The cashier said "Happy Holidays!". Well, it goes without saying that the man was furious at this. How dare she not say "Merry Christmas". He literally stormed out of the store in anger, leaving his groceries behind for the employees to put away. As he was leaving, he said "I'll never shop here again!"

Whatever our views on this topic, can we at least all agree to not take our annoyance out on employees such as shop clerks and cashiers and waiters? These people are usually underpaid and overworked (especially during this time of year), usually have no say about company policy on how to greet people, and are routinely treated with lack of consideration, if not discourtesy and outright rudeness. People should never use their power as customers to vent their spleen on such employees, who have no option but to bite their tongues for fear of losing their jobs.

I thought that I would repost something from November 30, 2005 that deals with my own views on the silliness of such culture wars.

"Merry Christmas" or "Season's Greetings"?

In a comment to a previous post on Thanksgiving and Christmas, John made an interesting observation. He said that, given his reading of my political and religious leanings from my blog, he was surprised that I had used the term "Christmas shopping season" instead of the more generic "holiday shopping season," since I am obviously not a religious person.

I must admit that I was taken by surprise by his comment. I had written "Christmas" season almost without thinking because I see it as such. But perhaps I should not have been surprised because I am also aware of how touchy the issue of Christmas has become.

For example, somebody named John Gibson has actually written a book called The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought. And Bill O'Reilly, who can always be depended on to waste his outrage on the trivial, has declared that he is going to "save" Christmas by bringing back the greeting "Merry Christmas" and fighting those stores that have promotions saying "Season's Greetings" and "Happy Holidays." A guest on his show suggested that these more generic greetings do not offend Christians, to which O'Reilly replied "Yes, it does. It absolutely does. And I know that for a fact. But the smart way to do it is "Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Season's Greetings, Happy Kwanzaa."

Meanwhile, Jerry Falwell, in a fierce competition with Pat Robertson for the Religious Doofus of the Year award, says that he too is fighting to save that holy holiday and that he'll sue and boycott groups that he sees as muzzling Christmas. Finishing a strong third for that same award:

American Family Association President Tim Wildmon,...wants to see "Merry Christmas" signs displayed prominently "if they expect Christians to come in and buy products during this so-called season."

And he isn't worried if they offend people who aren't Christian.

"They can walk right by the sign," Wildmon said. "It's a federal holiday. If someone is upset by that, well, they should know that they are living in a predominantly Christian nation."

So John was quite justified in being puzzled as to why, in this climate, I was so casually tossing the word Christmas around when everyone seems to be so touchy about it.

To be quite honest, I don't know whether to laugh or cry when I see people like Gibson and O'Reilly and Falwell and Wildmon getting into a lather about what is the proper thing to say at Christmas. How can adults waste their time on the trivial when there is so much other stuff to think about?

As for me personally, I just can't take this matter seriously. I have never been offended by other people's religious beliefs. Perhaps it was because I grew up in a multi-religious society, had friends of other faiths, and celebrated their religious holidays as well as my own. It does not offend me in the least when people wish me greetings that are specific to their own religious traditions or in some neutral terms. What is the sense in being offended by someone who is wishing you well? The words do not matter in the least. It is the sentiment behind it that is important.

I have always liked Christmas as a holiday, especially its focus on children, and its message of promoting peace and goodwill among people. I am glad that even people who do not share its religious orientation still share in the peace and goodwill message. I do not appreciate the fact that it has become largely a merchandizing tool.

I simply do not care how other people view Christmas or how they express their views and it amazes me that some people are using it as yet another means of waging a cultural war. Why are some people so touchy? When someone wishes me "Season's Greetings," I take that as a thoughtful gesture of friendship and caring and I am touched by the sentiment. The same goes if they wish me "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Hanukkah" or "Happy Kwanzaa" or "Happy Solstice" or any other greeting from any other religion. I return the greeting in kind, even if I am not a believer in that faith, because all that such an exchange signifies is that two people wish each other well. If someone says to me "Merry Christmas" and I reply "Same to you," this is not an affirmation of faith any more than "Season's Greetings" is an act of hostility to religion. To take such greetings as a challenge to one's beliefs and start a fight over it is to demonstrate churlishness to a ridiculous degree. O'Reilly and his partners in this stupid battle need to grow up.

I am talking here about how the holiday is interpreted in the private sphere of person-to-person interactions. If some company puts advertisements in the paper and tells its employees to greet customers by saying "Season's Greetings," why should it offend me? The same thing if they order their employees to say "Merry Christmas" instead. That is not something that bothers me, because such mandated greetings are not borne out of personal care and concern but are just marketing tools and are meaningless in terms of content and intent, whatever the words used. It is in the same category as the mandated "Have a nice day." You can always tell, by the eyes, the tone of voice, and the smile (or lack of it) if the person is genuinely being friendly or simply saying it because it is required. The actual words are immaterial.

If Bill O'Reilly gets all warm and tingly when a store employee is forced to say "Merry Christmas" to him and gets angry when that same employee is forced to say "Season's Greetings," then he is a man in need of serious therapy because he clearly cannot distinguish the real from the counterfeit. I hate to be the one who breaks the news but he should realize that the employee probably does not care for him personally, whatever the greeting.

The question becomes different when we talk of the public sphere because then we are talking about the government taking an official stand on religion and this raises tricky political and constitutional issues. There it seems to me to be appropriate to be scrupulously religiously neutral because I am a believer that a secular public sphere is the one most likely to lead to peace and harmony between diverse groups. Governments are supposed to be representatives of everyone and to single out one particular religion or ethnicity for preferential treatment is to create discord.

But when it comes to private exchanges between people, we should all relax and let people express their good feelings for one another in whatever way they choose and are most comfortable with and not try to make it into a battle for religious supremacy. You can always tell when people genuinely mean well and when they are pushing an agenda, whatever the actual words used. We should learn to accept the former gracefully and ignore the latter.

POST SCRIPT: Holiday punditry

We started with Tom Tomorrow and we can give him the last word too.

December 06, 2006

A national disgrace: The case of Jose Padilla

There is perhaps nothing that exemplifies the disgraceful contempt displayed by this administration for law and human rights than the way they have treated Jose Padilla, the man labeled by the government as a 'dirty bomber' although the indictment that was finally brought against him says nothing of the sort and has been reduced to vague charges of being involved with terrorism. But because of the huge amount of government propaganda surrounding his arrest, he will always be thought of in the public mind as having planned to detonate a radioactive bomb in an American city.

The news article by Deborah Sontag in the December 4, 2006 issue of the New York Times reveals the depths to which the government has sunk in its cruelty to this man. This is something that will be a source of shame for a long time, if it isn't the case that we have lost all sense of shame already.

In an affidavit filed Friday, [Andrew Patel, one of his lawyers] alleged that Mr. Padilla was held alone in a 10-cell wing of the brig; that he had little human contact other than with his interrogators; that his cell was electronically monitored and his meals were passed to him through a slot in the door; that windows were blackened, and there was no clock or calendar; and that he slept on a steel platform after a foam mattress was taken from him, along with his copy of the Koran, "as part of an interrogation plan". . . [The lawyers] argue that he has been so damaged by his interrogations and prolonged isolation that he suffers post-traumatic stress disorder and is unable to assist in his own defense. His interrogations, they say, included hooding, stress positions, assaults, threats of imminent execution and the administration of "truth serums."

As Digby points out:

I think isolation and lack of a sense of time and strange repetitive interrogations may be even more cruel than physical punishment. The belief that it will never end, that you've lost all normal sense of personhood and control --- that your mind is being stripped away and there's nothing you can do about it --- must be terrifying.

This one telling detail alone illustrates the extent to which the government will stoop in its cruelty. To take him to a dentist, in addition to shackling his legs and manacling his hands, the government put on thick noise-blocking headphones over his ears and blacked-out goggles over his eyes so that Padilla would not see or hear anything from the outside world while making the trip, thus keeping his isolation from humanity complete. Even the guards' faces were hidden behind plastic visors because how terrible it would be if he should make eye contact or even exchange a smile with another human being, or that he should see the sun or trees or hear birds or even a bit of music from a passing car. Experiencing those sensations would have the disastrous effect of reminding him that he was a human being and not just a collection of cells subject to experimentation on the effects of sensory deprivation.

Of course, those seeking to justify this kind of treatment will employ the usual trope to justify execrable behavior and point to someone who might do even worse: "al Qaeda wouldn't take their prisoners for a root canal." They will try and portray Padilla as someone who is actually being treated well and is just a whiner complaining about minor discomfitures. But Digby sees through this bogus toughness.

I know that all the tough guys on the right will say that Padilla is just being a typical whining malcontent but I have a feeling that most of them would crumble into blubbering babies after five minutes in his position. This treatment is extremely inhumane.

It seems like Padilla is already a broken man, so destroyed psychologically that he is unfit to stand trial. In his affidavit, Mr. Patel said, "I was told by members of the brig staff that Mr. Padilla's temperament was so docile and inactive that his behavior was like that of 'a piece of furniture.'" He was denied access to any lawyers for 21 months so that even now he is mistrustful and unsure whether his lawyers are on is side or are secretly working against him. Furthermore, according to the New York Times report:

Dr. Angela Hegarty, director of forensic psychiatry at the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens, N.Y., who examined Mr. Padilla for a total of 22 hours in June and September, said in an affidavit filed Friday that he "lacks the capacity to assist in his own defense."

"It is my opinion that as the result of his experiences during his detention and interrogation, Mr. Padilla does not appreciate the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him, is unable to render assistance to counsel, and has impairments in reasoning as the result of a mental illness, i.e., post-traumatic stress disorder, complicated by the neuropsychiatric effects of prolonged isolation," Dr. Hegarty said in an affidavit for the defense.

No one has better expressed outrage over Padilla's treatment and the cruelty with which the government is treating so-called enemy combatants than Glenn Greenwald. He is also amazed that a country that prides itself on being a nation of laws has sat back and let this happen not only without an outcry, but with some sectors even cheering the government on. And if this can be done to Padilla, who is a US citizen who was arrested within the US, think what must be happening to those unfortunates who are not citizens or who were captured abroad or are being held in foreign prisons.

As Greenwald says:

As I have said many times, the most astounding and disturbing fact over the last five years -- and there is a very stiff competition for that title -- is that we have collectively really just sat by while the U.S. Government arrests and detains people, including U.S. citizens, and then imprisons them for years without any charges of any kind. What does it say about our country that not only does our Government do that, but that we don't really seem to mind much?

Along those lines, it is hard to express the contempt merited by the drooling sociopaths who not only endorse this behavior but, with what can only be described as serious derangement, laugh about it and revel in its cruelty and its lawlessness.

In a subsequent post, he examines the reasons for the public apathy on this issue and points to the disgraceful attitude taken on this issue by Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post.

This is the reason why. Over the last five years, the media (with some notable and noble exceptions) essentially embraced the central premise of the Bush administration -- that in order for us to be protected, we must place our faith in the Leader and know that he is doing Good, because he wants to protect us.

He may err at times. He might even go a little too far or be a little zealous in what he does to make us safe. But there are Very, Very Bad People in the world who want to kill us -- Padilla is "accused of plotting a dirty-bomb attack"! -- and the Leader needs the power to get his hands dirty and take care of them. The last thing we should be concerned with is what the Leader does to them.

Greenwald gets it exactly right. What is happening is a disgrace.

POST SCRIPT: Staying in Iraq "until the job is done"

As the Iraq Study Group delivers its report today, the Daily Show looks at all the advice the Bush is getting and what he is likely to do.

December 05, 2006

Return of the best and the brightest?

Many years ago, David Halberstam wrote a book about the Vietnam war called The Best and the Brightest. In it he pointed out how the architects of the Vietnam war under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations were considered brilliant thinkers and strategists, successful in many other fields before they entered government. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara came from being the head of General Motors and was supposed to be a real genius, brilliant with numbers and having a reputation as a formidable thinker and strategist in the corporate world. Others like McGeorge Bundy and Walt Rostow were also seen as the very smart people.

And yet, as Halberstam pointed out, this did not prevent Vietnam from becoming a total debacle. It seemed that all the brilliant minds and their strategizing could not prevent the US from sliding slowly and painfully into defeat. The problem was, of course, that strategy cannot save you when the underlying political decisions are bad. In Vietnam, that bad decision consisted in sending in forces to prop up a corrupt minority government in the face of an insurgency that was determined to oust the foreign US forces and had already defeated the French colonial power. The insurgents even had the support of a substantial fraction of the local population, as well as the backing of the significant standing army of North Vietnam, which in turn was headed by the wily General Giap. This combination of factors almost certainly doomed the US to a bad end. In such a situation, all that strategizing can do is perhaps determine what is the best way to leave.

I was reminded of those days in the current breathless speculation around the Iraq Study Group (ISG), the body headed by James Baker and Lee Hamilton whose report on what to do about Iraq is eagerly anticipated within establishment circles and is due to be released on Wednesday, December 6, 2006.

What struck me is this extraordinary situation in which the US government is seemingly outsourcing an important policy and military decision to a group of people outside the government. As Robin Wright of the Washington Post reports: "In the history of U.S. foreign policy, there's been nothing like it: a panel outside the government trying to bail the United States out of a prolonged and messy war." What does it say about the level of competence of this administration when the president, asked about what he plans to do about Iraq, says that he is waiting to see the recommendations of outside groups like the ISG?

The composition of the ISG is also interesting. It was formed by a hitherto obscure outfit called the US Institute of Peace which says on its website that it is an "independent, nonpartisan, national institution established and funded by Congress." The ISG group membership seems to be composed of your standard issue, run-of-the-mill politicians (one could even label them political hacks), except for former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. None of them seem to have any expertise with the Middle East.

Robin Wright says that "The panel was deliberately skewed toward a centrist course for Iraq, participants said. Organizers avoided experts with extreme views on either side of the Iraq war debate." This sheds an interesting light on the Washington mindset which venerates "centrism" or "moderates," without those words having any operational meaning other than simply standing for a very narrow range of opinions around the status quo.

Exactly what, for example, might constitute an "extreme" antiwar view? Since no one is seriously suggesting that the US government surrender to the Iraqi insurgents or re-installing Saddam Hussein as the Iraqi leader (even though an increasing number of people, including UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, are saying that average Iraqis are worse off now than they were before the invasion), one can only conclude that what the ISG considers an "extremist" view is that calling for a complete withdrawal of US troops beginning immediately. Thus the deck has already been stacked to produce a report that will not disturb the status quo, since it has eliminated one option that is widely supported.

The ISG group has supposedly listened to 'expert' advice given by four 'Expert Working Groups' and a Military Senior Advisor Panel.. But there is some cynicism as to whether the expert panels are just window dressing for a pre-ordained conclusion. As one member of one of the expert groups says: "[The ISG] doesn't have to take any of our recommendations. . .They can come up with something entirely different. I wouldn't be surprised if that's what they do."

In fact, although George Bush has said that he is looking forward to hearing what the commission is going to recommend, the very fact that he has been so outspoken in what he will and will not do seems to have caused the ISG group to try and tailor its recommendations to what they think that Bush may consider accepting, rather than what the expert groups might suggest are the best options.

One of the curious things about the ISG is the murkiness of its origins. It suddenly appeared in March of this year. Its website says that this "effort is being undertaken at the urging of several members of Congress and the White House welcomes it." Who are these members of Congress? It does not exactly say and I have been unable to pinpoint exactly how and why the ISG came into existence. The only person I could find who is named as an initiator is congressman Frank Wolf (R-Virginia).

One possibility is that this murkiness is deliberate in order to hide one of two possibilities. The first is that the White House, despite its public statements of confidence about how well things are going in Iraq, privately agrees with those who say it is a disaster and is now seeking a face-saving mechanism to extricate itself from the mess without actually admitting they have blundered. This means that they have already decided what they want to do and the ISG will provide them with those options, but the White House does not want to admit that the ISG is merely a front group.

The second possibility is that the White House is still in such a state of denial, and that this detachment from reality has so alarmed even those people close to the administration (such as Bush's father), that they cobbled together this commission to put further pressure on the White House to try and get them to face the facts rather than continue to wallow in delusions.

My guess (and it is only that) is that it is the second option. This is because the latest leak from the ISG says that they will "recommend withdrawing nearly all U.S. combat units from Iraq by early 2008 while leaving behind troops to train, advise and support the Iraqis." Support for my guess comes from the harsh pre-emptive attack on the ISG from the most fervent and last-ditch supporters of the Iraq war, such as the Weekly Standard, the National Review and assorted columnists.

Given that Bush seems to think that leaving Iraq would mean that he has failed, that he has said that it will be up to future presidents to decide when and whether to withdraw all US troops, and "I will not withdraw even if Laura and Barney are the only ones supporting me", I predict that after the ISG presents their report to him he will say, "Thanks, but no thanks" and go on doing whatever he wants. Of course there is a little wiggle room between "all troops" and "nearly all U.S. combat units" to allow him to reverse course but, as Bush has famously said, he "doesn't do nuance" and I doubt whether he will exploit that particular loophole.

Perhaps the last best hope for this country is that Barney looks like a smart dog. If he can be persuaded to turn against Bush, Bush might finally realize that his Iraq policy has been a failure.

POST SCRIPT: The God Delusion

Watch an excellent interview of Richard Dawkins talking about his new book The God Delusion on the BBC show Newsnight.

It is so refreshing to see a low-key interview in which the interviewer is thoughtful and quietly tries to probe the author about ideas, rather than engaging in a debate. There is no interrupting and no crosstalk and no grandstanding, and yet the questions posed were challenging. It was so unlike a lot of talk shows where the host sees the show as a vehicle for expounding his or her own views, rather than having the guest elaborate on their ideas.

December 04, 2006

The time to negotiate

In William Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar (act IV, scene III), there is a memorable passage that goes:

There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

As usual, Shakespeare captures well the sense of drama of arriving at some crossroads in one's life where one can sense that one is on the cusp of events, where subsequent events can unfold in dramatically different directions depending on the decision one makes. Should we seize the moment and take the chance of achieving great success? Or do we, because we fear the consequences of failure, hold back and play safe and thus end up missing the chance for glory?

Part of the reason that quote has resonance with so many people is that we can all recall points in our lives when we were required to make an important decision quickly because events were moving rapidly. Should we go with the flow, take it at the flood, or should we hold back? The consequences of our decisions may not have been as momentous as the rise and fall of nations and armies, but they were important to us nonetheless.

The same holds true for the leaders of nations. It is easy to look back with the benefit of hindsight and see where bad decisions made at momentous times have led nations and leaders astray. But at the same time, one can learn lessons from those failures. And the lesson that I draw is that the time to negotiate peace and grant concessions to your opponent is when your own side is very strong, your adversary is weak, and it looks like you can easily achieve an outright victory without conceding anything at all to those who oppose you. The more you seem to be invincible, the more you should be willing to negotiate.

But unfortunately, the temptation is strong for those leaders who see themselves as invincible to do just the opposite, to dismiss talk of negotiations and try to achieve a crushing victory. And in doing so, they often fail and in subsequent negotiations have to concede a lot more than they would have had to do earlier.

In Sri Lanka, for example, with its long running ethnic conflict, the older generation of leaders of the Tamil minority were asking mostly for a weak form of federalism for the country, with some form of regional autonomy and equal standing for their language along with the language of the majority. But at that time, the majority Sinhala community had all the power both legislatively and militarily and thus did not feel the need to concede anything significant. When a nascent Tamil insurgency subsequently appeared as a result of the breakdown in the political process, the government still felt it could crush it militarily. But by trying to impose their will by force, they bred an even stronger Tamil insurgency that is now paralyzing much of the country and has fought the government forces to a standstill. In any future peace deal, if it hopes to end the conflict, the majority Sinhala government will have to concede a lot more now than it would have had to do thirty years ago.

The same thing applies to US actions in relation to Iraq and Afghanistan and Iran. Before the US invaded Afghanistan because of the presence of al Qaeda there, the government of that country tried to negotiate with the US about how to deal with the al Qaeda in their midst but these offers were brushed aside seemingly because the US felt (correctly) that it could easily overthrow the Taliban government militarily. Thus they felt no need to engage in negotiations.

But now the tide has turned and the Taliban is coming back with a vengeance. Now it is apparent to all that the US and NATO forces are stretched thin in that country and are barely hanging on. The recent NATO summit in Latvia could not even drum pledges of support for the 1,000 more troops that the NATO commanders on the ground have been pleading for for months.

It is not unthinkable that the US will soon have to negotiate with the Taliban in the near future. In fact, just last week, the Pakistan Foreign Minister (and Pakistan is the country most intimately involved with Afghanistan and thus most likely to know the true state of affairs there) stunned some NATO foreign ministers by suggesting that "the Taliban are winning the war in Afghanistan and Nato is bound to fail." He further went on to urge "Nato countries to accept the Taliban and work towards a new coalition government in Kabul that might exclude the Afghan president Hamid Karzai."

It is becoming increasingly likely that the final resolution of the situation in that country will be on much weaker terms for the US than it might have achieved before the invasion or even just after, when the US was perceived as being strong.

The same thing applies to Iraq. Before that country was invaded, the US was perceived to be strong. Iraq had been weakened by years of harsh sanctions, the UN inspectors had access to that country, and Iraq was no threat at all to anyone. But then the US made the decision to invade, despite the efforts of that country to negotiate to avoid war, and the result is plain to see. US troops in Iraq are now stuck in the middle of events they no longer control and it is not hard to see that the eventual end result in that country is far worse than what might have been achieved by negotiating instead of invading.

Then take the case of Iran. Shortly after the fall of Baghdad, the Iranian government offered to negotiate with the US, in which they were willing to lay everything on the table. Clearly they were concerned about US strength and the possibility of being the next on the list of the 'axis of evil' countries to be invaded. But those overtures were brushed aside. Now the tables have turned. With the US forces stuck in Iraq, it is Iran that is in a position of strength and it is the US that will have to initiate talks with them, and ask them for help is solving the Iraq mess. The US will go into these talks in a much weaker negotiating position than it could have had just three years ago. All Iran has to do is watch from the sidelines while the US position gets weaker by the day.

The same holds true for the Israel-Palestine situation. There was a time when Israel seemed invincible in that region and could have negotiated from a position of strength for a two-state solution that would have included complete withdrawal from the occupied territories and the internationalization of Jerusalem, in return for full recognition and peace treaties with all its neighbors, a viable Palestinian state, and Palestinian acceptance that their refugees relinquish their right to return to their homes within Israel that were annexed when Israel was created.

But instead Israel used their military strength to build more illegal settlements in the occupied territories, trying to create a fait accompli that precludes a two state solution. Like in Sri Lanka, the lack of progress in the political front has led to the creation of a militant alternative. Recent events with the Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza have shattered the myth of Israeli military invincibility and if history is any guide, the powerful sense of injustice and resentment fed by the occupation will breed an increasingly strong resistance to Israeli occupation. Although the power relationships have not been reversed in that situation and Israel is still very powerful militarily, the perception of the balance of power has undoubtedly begun to shift away from Israel.

The lessons seem to be clear. The time to seek negotiations and make deals is when you are strong or perceived as being strong. But alas, it is precisely at moments of such strength that leaders fall for the temptation of thinking that outright military victory can be grasped. And while some kind of military victory can be achieved by the stonger power in the short run, when dealing with peoples and nations which harbor a deep sense of injustice, such victories often turn out to be Pyrrhic, bringing eventual ruin to the victor.

The passage from Julius Caesar which started this essay actually has the speaker urging going for total victory because of perceived military superiority. On the eve of a climactic battle against Mark Antony and Octavius, it is Brutus who says to his ally Cassius:

Our legions are brim-full, our cause is ripe:
The enemy increaseth every day;
We, at the height, are ready to decline.
There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

I can well imagine that the neoconservative advocates of immediately going to war with Iran might find in these words a stirring affirmation of their strategy of invading one country after the next while the US still clings to the remnants of its reputation of strength. But we must remember that Brutus, the person who spoke those resounding words and went for military victory, was ultimately overextended and defeated.

What should be 'taken at the flood' is the decision to talk and negotiate a just peace. Otherwise we too risk defeat at the next Philippi.

POST SCRIPT: Real table tennis

Most people in the US think of table tennis as a casual game, going to the extent of giving it the childish name of ping pong. But take a look at the game when played by real experts.

I saw the Chinese national team play in Sri Lanka when I was in college. Our own national team was hopelessly outclassed and only scored points because of the graciousness of the Chinese players who did not want to humiliate their host opponents. But the Chinese team also played exhibition games amongst themselves, like the one in the video, and they completely blew everyone away with their skill, technique, and amazing reflexes.

December 01, 2006

The Bible as History-5: Why the Bible was invented

(See part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.)

If much of the history reportedly recorded in the Bible prior to about 600 BCE is false, why were the stories invented? Why did the ancient scribes make up all this stuff? Daniel Lazare in his March 2002 Harper's article False Testament points out that it is not simply that they were deliberately lying, in the way that would be shameful for any modern chronicler of supposedly factual events. They were not the early equivalents of people who would be currently drubbed out of the historical profession for their actions. Lazare suggests that they were working under a different paradigm, with a different concept of truth.

To say that the Jerusalem priesthood intentionally cooked up a phony history is to assume that the priests possessed a modern concept of historical truth and falsehood, and surely this is not so. As the biblical minimalist Thomas L. Thompson has noted, the Old Testament's authors did not subscribe to a sequential chronology but to some more complicated arrangement in which the great events of the past were seen as taking place in some foggy time before time. The priests, after all, were not inventing a past; they were inventing a present and, they trusted, a future.

They also may had practical reasons for making up certain specific stories, such as the one which had them as exiles returning from Egypt and capturing the land of Canaan from its then inhabitants, instead of the story supported by scientific evidence which has them arising out of an indigenous people of that region, separating from the other indigenous peoples in a manner similar to speciation. Lazare says:

One reason may have been that people in the ancient world did not establish rights to a particular piece of territory by farming or by raising families on it but by seizing it through force of arms. Indigenous rights are an ideological invention of the twentieth century A.D. and are still not fully established in the twenty-first, as the plight of today's Palestinians would indicate. The only way that the Israelites could establish a moral right to the land they inhabited was by claiming to have conquered it sometime in the distant past. Given the brutal power politics of the day, a nation either enslaved others or was enslaved itself, and the Israelites were determined not to fall into the latter category.

The main driving force for the invention of the Biblical narrative may have been the advent of monotheism around 650 BCE, which required quite a different worldview from the earlier polytheistic ways of thinking.

Monotheism was unquestionably a great leap forward. At a time when there was no science, no philosophy, and no appreciable knowledge of the outside world, an obscure, out-of-the-way people somehow conceived of a lone deity holding the entire universe in his grasp. This was no small feat of imagination, and its consequences were enormous.

Monotheism had been advocated earlier by some priests but had not been rigorously enforced by the rulers of Israel and Judah. But when the northern land of Israel was conquered in 722 BCE by the Assyrians, the priests in the southern land of Judah used that as a propaganda tool and blamed that defeat on the fact that the people of Israel harbored a multiplicity of gods, thus incurring the wrath of the one true god, which by the kind of happy coincidence that always accompanies such assertions, happened to be their own god, of course. They argued that the conquest of Israel by the Assyrians was because god was punishing them for this transgression. (This is a remarkably similar tactic to what is adopted by current-day radical clerics like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson when they blame the events of 9/11, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis and the like on the anger that god feels because of homosexuality or abortion or whatever sex-related obsession they think god has.)

The priests also claimed at this time to have found 'the book of the law' (which is now known as the book of Deuteronomy) in a temple and told Josiah about it.

The priests' strategy seemed to have worked. As a result of this warning and what was in the book, King Josiah of Judah purged his own land of all other gods to avoid the same fate. But as is often the case, god did not seem to be appeased by this act of obedience and further disasters befell the people of Judah. Even after the strict enforcing of monotheism, the people of Judah were also conquered and sent into captivity and exile in Babylon in 586 BCE. The early Jewish priests were not the last religious people to try to interpret political developments and natural disasters in ways that served their own ends, only to find that following their advice did not prevent future disasters and setbacks.

A reason why the advent of monotheism might have led to the Bible is given by Lazare: "A single, all-powerful god required a single set of sacred texts, and the process of composition and codification that led to what we now know as the Bible began under King Josiah and continued well into the Christian era."

Thus began the creation of a single narrative that sought to retroactively create a past, justify the present, and to lay the groundwork for a new social order in the future.

Of course, we should not assume that just because there are better historical records after 700 BCE or so, that what the Bible records after that period is completely accurate. The process of massaging the Biblical text to create a particular message did not end with that initial compilation. As I wrote about earlier, the fact that the Bible had to be copied by hand until the advent of the printing press by Gutenberg in 1440 allowed it to be changed over a period of two thousand years to serve various agendas as it was handed down through the generations.

The Bible should not be taken seriously as history. Instead it should be seen more as a guide to what, at various times in the past, people believed, how they perceived themselves, and how they wanted to be perceived by others.