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Archive for October, 2012

I just ran across an article that said hurricane Sandy reminds us how much we rely on governments to protect us. It even used the storm to say arguments criticizing the nanny state are wrong-headed. Geez. One doesn’t know where to start with statements like that. The government doesn’t protect us: we protect us. We establish various public institutions to carry out numerous cooperative activities, just as we form private institutions to carry out other cooperative activities. We don’t say that business corporations protect us, as if they have some sort of life apart from us. Neither should we ever regard government as some kind of abstract, protective entity that exists apart from us.

Yet we seem to have an in-built instinct to regard government as a replacement parent. When we leave home, who will take care of us? When we’re on our own, don’t we need someone to watch over us and help us out when trouble comes? The world is dangerous, and we don’t want to be alone.

If you’ve read The Jeffersonian long enough, you know this way of thinking is dangerous in the extreme. The state as it has developed is not your friend. Of all the threats you will face in your life – from nature, from criminals, from financial uncertainty, from people who act like your friend but turn out to be otherwise – an over-powerful, out of control state is the biggest threat of all. Little Red Riding Hood, acting by herself, could not escape the wolf – no matter how the wolf dressed up.

Consider other stories to see how deeply we crave and appreciate protection, both as children and as adults. Hansel and Gretel is a particularly scary tale, as an evil stepmother conspires to force the poor woodcutter to take his children out into the woods to abandon them there. Only the children’s ingenuity, courage, and perseverance save them: no one else will do it. Children love this story, frightening as it is, because brother and sister defeat the wicked witch on their own. They stick together and find a way out.

Hansel and Gretel had no guardian angel – not even their father would protect them under pressure. Cinderella was equally miserable, except her stepmother kept her close by. As Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters exploited her, abused her and ostracized her, she kept a cheerful outlook and hoped for better times to come. Her fairy godmother, equipped with all kinds of supernatural powers, arranged for her to meet the prince, so that one day she should be queen. Cinderella did have someone to look after her, and her guardian spirit came through.

The more we look for this theme of protection from harm, the more we find it in our stories. Lassie was so popular with children and families because its theme so consistently told this story. The heroic collie would brave anything to protect Timmy. Lassie rescued the vulnerable little boy from fire, flash floods, kidnappers, or whatever else might bring ruin. The dog looked out for Timmy and brought him through every danger.

One of the most compelling stories for young people in American literature, To Kill a Mockingbird, relies on this theme. “Hey Boo,” says Scout as she recognizes Boo Radley standing in the corner. He has just rescued Scout and her brother Jem from Bob Ewell, who aimed to kill them as they walked home from a Halloween party. “Heck, someone’s been after my children,” says Atticus when he calls the sheriff. Shortly afterward, Atticus thanks Boo: “Thank you for my children.” Mr. Radley – the amazing guardian angel, the mysterious neighbor who stayed inside until he heard the children cry for help – responds in silence.

Dumbledore and Harry’s parents through all seven Harry Potter books, Odysseus when he returns home to Penelope in the Odyssey, Moses’ leadership of his people in Exodus: we can find this theme of protection and bravery everywhere. Our favorite stories show the theme’s power to compel our hearts and our attention.

Let’s return to government and the kind of protection it offers. You won’t find stories on that theme in our literature. I recently completed Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, a book that – like her others – has a lot of wisdom in it. By her account, the French serfs in the fourteenth century wanted so much to see their king as their protector. They knew the king and his nobles exploited them. Taxes, warfare, robbery, all kinds of injustice flowed from society’s top ranks down upon the poor. The underclass resisted and revolted, several times. Even so, they hoped the king would come through to protect them. The king even dramatized his protective role at public festivals. Despite all contrary evidence, the people perceived the king, ordained by God, as the sovereign power who could redeem them from apparently inescapable misery.

Here’s the last instance I want to mention, a story filled with so much horror for grown-ups they cannot stand to face it. Some months ago I watched a film titled Explosive Evidence, which investigates why two steel framed skyscrapers in the World Trade Center exploded on September 11, 2001, and why one skyscraper imploded. A segment toward the film’s end explores why people resist the conclusion that gravity did not bring these buildings down. “It can’t be true,” they say. One woman, when she realized how the buildings fell, took a long walk outside her office building. She said she could not stop sobbing as she walked block after block.

She became so upset because until then, she had thought of government as her protector. The idea that it could be anything else wrenched her world view, forced her to see that it did not necessarily act as a replacement parent. She felt as Hansel and Gretel felt when they overheard their stepmother persuade their father to take them into the wilderness to let them starve. But for that bit of eavesdropping Hansel would not have brought bread crumbs with him. From beginning to end, Hansel and Gretel managed to save themselves because they learned the truth, about their own home and about the witch’s home. Like the woman in Explosive Evidence, we must recognize the truth about where we live, and use our wits to save ourselves.

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The Military Budget is Another Bubble

As students of the Austrian School of Economics understand, financial bubbles are caused by central bank monetary policy and government intervention in the economy.  The housing boom and subsequent crash in the first decade of this century is an excellent example of the Austrian Business Cycle Theory (the Austrian School’s explanation for booms and busts in the economy).

For more than 4 years between June of 2001 and September of 2005 the Federal Reserve kept its Federal Funds interest rate under 4 percent.  Artificially low mortgage rates resulted.  This coupled with large investments by the Bush Administration for low income homebuyers created the largest housing boom in American history.  As interest rates were gradually increased by the Fed, reaching a decade high of 5.25 percent in June 2006, investments in housing that were made at lower interest rates became unsustainable at higher rates.  As adjustable rate mortgage rates rose, defaults increased eventually causing home prices to plummet.  The housing bubble had burst.

Of course, pundits, politicians, mainstream economists, and others dependent on big government for their sustenance blamed the free market and deregulation for the housing boom and bust.  Yet, time and again in the Twentieth Century, from the stock market crash of 1929 to the dot com bubble of the late 1990s, the fingerprints of Fed manipulation and monetary price fixing have been all over every economic downturn and crisis.

Now, there are other bubbles in our economy that have yet to burst.  These are the bubbles that are insulated from bursting by politics.  They include higher education and defense spending.

In terms of defense spending, the political forces that protect it are currently working overtime to maintain that bubble.  In January, under provisions of the Budget Control Act of 2011, defense budget cuts totaling about $50 billion a year for the next 10 years go into effect.  Opponents of the cuts, like Senator Lindsey Graham are claiming “It would be like shooting yourself in the head. It would be the most destructive thing in the world.”  John McCain has even warned that the cuts would leave us unable to defend the country!

Then there are the threats of wide spread layoffs by defense contractors and the devastation to local communities like Newport News, Virginia that defense budget cuts would bring.  Corporate officials and community leaders have teamed up to decry the cuts based solely on the harm they would do to their bottom lines and tax bases without any regard for whether as a nation we should spend the money on more armaments.

After all, defense spending accounts for close to 20 percent of all federal spending.  The U.S. spends more on defense than the next 13 highest spending countries combined!

This enormous government bubble has been financed for years by deficit federal spending monetized by the Federal Reserve – in other words debt.  Since at least Reagan, military spending has been erroneously used as a fiscal stimulus to the economy, financing millions of jobs in the military-industrial complex.  And it has been used to launch several seemingly endless wars and other lethal adventures worldwide.

The country doesn’t need that much military and can no longer afford it.  As the real fiscal cliff approaches, political defenders of the military-industrial complex are going to find it more and more difficult to protect their bubble.  With hundreds of trillion of dollars in future unfunded liabilities on the books of the federal government, the only answer for Washington is to continue to print more money.  Eventually interest rates will rise increasing the interest payments on the debt.  More printing will occur perpetuating a financial spiral which will destroy what’s left of our economic system.  Cutting a measly $50 billion a year from military spending now should be a no-brainer.  But it probably won’t happen because anymore politics takes precedence over reason in Washington.

Kenn Jacobine teaches internationally and maintains a summer residence in North Carolina

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I am tired of Barack Obama asking me if I’m in. I’m tired of Michelle Obama asking me if I’m in. I don’t want to be in.

First of all, when did voting for president become comparable to a poker game? That’s the only circumstance I can think of for the phrase, “Are you in?” It doesn’t apply to swimming, or shopping, or even travelling. It means, “Are you ready to put up some money to play?” It’s nice the Obamas ask you to donate money right after they ask if you’re in.

As I think about it, the phrase asks, directly or indirectly, “Do you want to give me money?” This from a campaign that does not have any good ideas about how to remove us from the crisis we are in. As our foot hovers over the quicksand of revolutionary violence, our leader and his wife ask with smiling internet faces, “Are you in?” Click the Donate icon now to show us you care, because we care about you. Join with others who are happy and don’t know why.

I keep saying in these articles that we don’t have much time. Our time of turmoil has already begun, but big changes usually take generations to play out. Barbara Tuchman, in A Distant Mirror, writes about the Hundred Years War. It actually did last a century. Rome’s empire underwent construction for longer than a day – for many generations, in fact. Neither did it fall in a day, as Gibbon reminds us. Similarly, our great civilization will not fall in one generation, but it will end eventually. Nothing is permanent. We as citizens have to manage this transition the best we can.

So we have to ask, how should we deal with a state that has become sclerotic, self-serving, and corrupt? Think of Jabba the Hutt, who ran a criminal empire through his toadies and assassins, who entertained himself with slave girls and ate anything in sight. When Luke Skywalker returns from his training with Yoda, he confronts the gangster with cool confidence and insight: “This is your last chance, Jabba.” The gangster laughs and sends him through a trap door to fight his pet monster. Not long afterward, Leia strangles him.

The insight we need is that this government is vulnerable. Its parts don’t trust each other. Its parts don’t communicate well with each other, partly because they don’t want to. They don’t want to partly because they don’t trust each other. Its parts engage in conflicts and self-protective activities that weaken the whole. The government – including the parts intended to strong-arm people – is not as strong as it appears to be. Like so many corrupt, vain leaders, it has no moral core, and its weakness becomes apparent only after it disintegrates.

The problem with so many theories of revolutionary change – theories from communist movements in particular – is you must use force to achieve your goals. Look at the long-term success of communist movements and ask yourself if they got it right. The movements failed, either before or after they acquired power. Reasons for failure vary. The key reason movements that use force fail is that they do not have legitimacy. When you acquire power by force, you wield it illegitimately.

Machiavelli wrote at length about how criminals like Stalin dressed up as rulers use power. In Italian politics at the time, you could not turn your back for a minute. Think of how the Corleones in The Godfather lived. Remember the security at the wedding in the opening scene? Machiavelli stated the first law of Italian politics in The Prince: In a world where people are cruel and untrustworthy, you likewise must use cruelty and force to achieve your object. If your object is to hold power until someone stronger and more ruthless knocks you off, it’s not bad advice. If your object is to wield legitimate power, to lead because others want to follow you, Machiavelli’s recommendations about use of cruelty and force could not be worse.

At the moment, our government and its leaders do not understand this point about Machiavelli. They do not grasp that their government is illegitimate, nor do they grasp that people perceive it that way. Not everyone perceives it as illegitimate, but enough do. Others are going to. The government’s pattern of behavior will force them to see it. That’s what happened to me. When it tortured people in the open – not once but all over the world – then defended the practice as legitimate, I asked, “What else is this government doing, in secret?” The answers to that question reveal a state more immoral and self-serving than you might imagine.

We have to prepare for the day when more people see that our government works for itself, not for us. That’s the definition of corruption: taking people’s money and using it to enrich yourself, pretending to serve other people when you actually serve yourself. That’s what people in China mean when they say communist party officials are corrupt. That’s what we mean when we say our government is corrupt.

So many people do understand how corrupt our government has become, but in general our country seems resigned to it. Certain groups, like the Tea Party and Occupy movements, display a sense of urgency about the problem, but given the reception these groups have witnessed, we might conclude that others don’t see what they see. Or we might conclude they see corruption, but don’t feel they can do much about it. That sense of resignation won’t last.

Yesterday on the radio I heard a gentleman named Thomas Cleary speak about Chinese history. Through millennia the cycle has been the same: complacency and corruption follow a period of stability and order. During periods of order, public officials try to honor Confucian principles of virtue and service. Corruption makes the rulers’ authority illegitimate, until stresses from within the kingdom and without bring a period of anarchy, confusion and suffering. At last a new ruler, often a military one, establishes a new dynasty, and the cycle begins again. Cleary noted that this cycle marks almost all societies.

We are a relatively new society, with less history than the Chinese. If Cleary is right, corruption is well advanced in our cycle. We see signs of weakness due to corruption, signs of resistance to authority, confusion about the future, and of course suffering. If you doubt the last point about suffering, think of the millions of unemployed men and women who sit at home today waiting for a phone call that will never come. Think of families who have lost their homes. Think of thousands of servicemen who come home from war to families who don’t know how to receive them or care for them, who after they escape death in battle crave it at home.

So our president asks me if I’m in. No, I’m not in. I’m an active opponent because you and the state you represent don’t deserve my loyalty. You and all the power you have gathered into the executive branch are going to fail. That is, the government you represent won’t persist in its current state. Don’t ask me for my money anymore. Meantime, citizens, let’s think about how we can hasten this period of transition to reestablish legitimate authority. We have better communications now than the Romans did. The pace of societal evolution has picked up.

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Arlen “Make the evidence fit the conclusion” Specter died today. People will say good things about him. They will praise his long service in the Senate, and they’ll speak admiringly of both his toughness and his independence. They will mention his service as assistant counsel on the Warren Commission in 1964, but they won’t dwell on it.

Actually, I wondered if they would dwell on it, so I googled Arlen Specter Warren Commission. Specter had a long career, and his tenure on the Warren Commission lasted only about nine months. What a significant nine month, though. During that time, Specter authored and supported the Commission’s single bullet theory. It became the lynch pin for everything else in the Commission’s controversial report.

In a way, it’s not fair to hold Specter to account for this theory. If he had not developed it, someone else would have. That is, someone else would have had to do it. The charge from the president, Lyndon Johnson, was clear: give me a report that validates the FBI’s conclusions and evidence. Specter’s theory accomplished that. It’s the only theory that would validate the FBI’s conclusions. The FBI decided within twenty-four hours of Kennedy’s death that Lee Oswald shot the president, and that he acted alone.

The single bullet theory holds that a bullet from Oswald’s rifle hit Kennedy in the back, emerged from his throat, then tumbled so as to cause multiple wounds to John Connally, who sat in front of Kennedy. If the Commission did not put forth this theory, it could not conclude that Oswald was the only shooter. Given the FBI’s initial investigation of what happened in Dallas, the single bullet theory, and only this theory, ruled out multiple shooters.

A good deal of evidence indicates that Specter’s theory is incorrect. Connally is not hit until after Kennedy is shot in the back: at least three seconds later, in fact. The film JFK, in a scene with courtroom graphics and drama, memorably refutes the Commission’s single bullet theory in Jim Garrison’s penultimate courtroom presentation.

I imagine LBJ and others were grateful for Specter’s ability to construct a halfway plausible theory, and his willingness to stand by such an implausible one. That is, if you wanted to believe the Commission’s report, you could hang your holster on the single bullet theory. If you found the entire report implausible, you would find little to admire in Specter’s theory, too. The single bullet theory became the kernel at the heart of the Commission’s report, the keystone of the FBI’s packet of conclusions and evidence.

Today Arlen Specter dies at 82, forty-eight years and a month after the Commission released its report. Specter was 34 at the time. I wonder if he proposed his theory as an act opportunism – please the boss to see where that will take you – or if he actually believed what he wrote. If he’s like most of us, necessity convinced him of its truth. You could ask why a smart guy like Specter would have bought a hare brained theory about an implausible single bullet, but another question presses even more urgently. Who could have redirected the Commission’s report? The answer to that is simple: no one. LBJ would get what he wanted. The Commission would give it to him.

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It’s Not Nice to Fool the Free Market

The economic woes of California are back in the news yet again.  This time it is high gas prices.  Of course, the Golden State usually has the highest prices in the country, but recently prices at the pump have skyrocketed – increasing on average by 50 cents in the last week and reaching almost $6 a gallon in some areas of the state.

The senior senator from the state, Dianne Feinstein has predictably called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the possibility of price gouging.  She, like all statist politicians, doesn’t understand the workings of the free market. When their statist schemes backfire, they immediately blame the usual faceless enemies – unscrupulous suppliers, manipulators, and speculators.  Once again the public is being subjected to this tirade when as always the fault lies with Feinstein and her ilk.

You see, California, as this commentator has written before, has a crippling regulatory environment.  The environmental fringe has hijacked state government and squashed all reason and economic sense.   Gasoline suppliers outside the state are unable to ease the burden of short supplies in the state because they are not equipped to produce the cleaner-burning gasoline required by bureaucrats in Sacramento.

And there is a shortage of gasoline right now in California because the state has just enough refining capacity to fill its demand due to stiff environmental regulations.  When Exxon Mobil’s refinery near Los Angeles experienced a power failure which cut production and Chevron’s plant near San Francisco suffered a crude-processing unit shut down due to fire, supply was curtailed and prices rose drastically.

Thus, Feinstein’s faceless, nameless perpetrators of higher gasoline prices are non-existent.  The cause of higher gas prices in California is a lack of supply produced by the policies of statist politicians like her.

In fact, to increase supply the first thing Governor Jerry Brown did was order regulators to relax smog controls and allow refiners to begin, earlier than usual, producing cheaper winter-blend gasoline.  His actions are an acknowledgement of where the real problem lies – with government policy, not fictitious bogey men.

The free market, like nature, is an all-powerful force.  Human manipulation of either spells trouble.  Politicians will always blame someone else when their manipulations go astray.  Whether it is higher gas prices, housing market busts, or a drop in the value of the dollar, they point the finger at unscrupulous suppliers, manipulators, and speculators.  Instead they should look in a mirror and then point their fingers.

Article first published as It’s Not Nice to Fool the Free Market on Blogcritics.

Kenn Jacobine teaches internationally and maintains a summer residence in North Carolina

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The So Called Presidential Debates are a Waste of Time

Like most Americans, I didn’t watch the staged media spectacle better known as the Presidential Debate.  It is not just because I didn’t have a dog in that fight; it is because to me the quadrennial political mini-series is nothing more than a rigged, wasteful use of an hour and a half of prime time television.

First of all, it is not really a debate but a glorified press conference.  Journalists hurl softball questions at the candidates giving each the opportunity to regurgitate their perfectly rehearsed sound bites.  Wouldn’t it be more worthwhile if Obama and Romney were allowed to go toe to toe by stating their positions, asking each other questions, and arguing the merits of their positions without any filtering from an aloof journalist moderator?  Better yet, wouldn’t it be more worthwhile if other candidates were allowed to participate and give Americans a chance to hear views other than the sanctioned Establishment line.

Then there is the fact that once again the major parties have nominated two candidates for president who are quite similar.  Whether it’s Social Security, corporate bailouts, endless wars, or government spending, Obama and Romney agree more than disagree on most issues.  Isn’t it time that other views besides the one that has gotten us into our economic mess, endless wars, and erosion of constitutional liberties be allowed to be heard?

Lastly, as is always the case in the debates, several important issues were totally avoided.  What about our military’s continued drone war that has left hundreds of civilians dead in Pakistan?  What about the failed War on Drugs that has made America the number one jailor in the world?  Okay, the first debate’s focus was domestic policy, so killing innocent foreigners was outside that realm, but the violence engendered, the lives ruined, and the constitutional liberties destroyed by Washington’s decades’ long insane drug policy could have been broached.

Then there was the avoidance of the gravest issue currently facing our country – namely the role the Federal Reserve plays in our economy.

“Give me control of a nation’s money and I care not who makes the laws.”

Mayer Amschel Rothschild, founding father of international finance

And yet, in an hour and a half debate on domestic policy, the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, and quantitative easing were not mentioned a single time.  The Federal Reserve, the institution whose job it has been to protect the value of the dollar, has been responsible for the greenback losing 95 percent of its value since 1914.  Ben Bernanke, who has perhaps more influence over the economy than anyone else in Washington, doesn’t seem to have a clue about how the economy works.  He has a history of totally missing the mark with predictions.  This includes everything from, “At this juncture, however, the impact on the broader economy and financial markets of the problems in the subprime market seems likely to be contained”, on March 28, 2007 to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, “…will make it through the storm” to his stating that “The Federal Reserve is not currently forecasting a recession” on January 10, 2008 as the economy was spiraling into a massive downturn.  These were not little misses.

But perhaps the greatest dereliction of presidential debate moderator Jim Lehrer in the debate was not asking the candidates anything about the Fed’s failed quantitative easing programs.  How can that be since Bernanke just announced that QE3 will last in perpetuity?

The Fed has already expanded the size of its balance sheet by 223 percent so far by buying financial assets from banks.  In so doing, it has injected trillions of dollars into the reserve accounts of those banks.  But, these purchases have not produced a healthy economy like Bernanke predicted.  In fact, Philadelphia Fed President Charles Plosser expressed a negative view of Bernanke policy recently when he indicated that, “Inflation is going to occur when excess reserves of this huge balance sheet begin to flow outside into the real economy”.  For his part, Bernanke has always maintained that he possesses the know-how and tools to siphon out excess liquidity to prevent inflation when the time comes.  But, Plosser doubts the Fed will be able to act boldly enough since it has “absolutely zero experience” unwinding what has been put in place.

Given the state of continuous quantitative easing that our economy has been subject to, its utter failure to accomplish its stated goal, and the dour forecast by the Philly Fed Chairman as to what will result, how was this not an important area of inquiry for Lehrer to pursue with Obama and Romney?

At the end of the day, the so-called presidential debates are a waste of time.  Run by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, no candidates other than their own Republican and Democratic nominees are permitted to participate.  Given that both are usually quite similar in their positions, the American people are provided with little choice.  Finally, because many critically important issues are avoided, the debates contribute very little to the national dialogue on what needs to happen to turn our country around.  For that hour and a half we would be better off if the networks had aired reruns of the most popular mini-series instead.

Article first published as The So-Called Presidential Debates Are a Waste of Time on Blogcritics.

Kenn Jacobine teaches internationally and maintains a summer residence in North Carolina

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I wrote a while back about the fishiness factor for political crimes. When Jack Ruby walks up to Lee Oswald on a Sunday afternoon and shoots him on TV, that displays a high fishiness factor. You want to know why he did that; you aren’t likely to accept some lame-brained answer. Why would Ruby shoot Oswald two days after the president died? What’s the explanation?

More recently we want to ask, why did Pakistan harbor Osama bin Laden? We all saw how miffed Washington was about that. The journalists commented how this discovery put a new strain on our relationship with Pakistan. That was about it. We make a hugely significant discovery, and no journalist tries to get to the bottom of it. How fishy is that?

The fishiness affects two levels, of course: the discovery itself and our reaction to it. We watched Ruby assassinate Oswald, but we didn’t dig into why he did it. We find bin Laden in a Pakistani compound, work up some indignation about that, but seem oddly incurious about why we should find him there.

Unlike Hussein, harbored by a farmer in a hole near Hussein’s hometown, Osama bin Laden lived rather openly in a large house with a wall around it, in Abbottabad. As Asra Nomani describes the place:

He wasn’t found in a cave in Tora Bora, Afghanistan, but rather in a comfortable home in a hill station that could be a mini-Colorado Springs, Colorado, of Pakistan, complete with a military academy, numerous military installations, a St. Luke’s church and the Taj Majal Cinema.

To back to 1963 again, we didn’t seem that curious to know why Oswald went to the Soviet Union, or what he did as a Marine while stationed in Japan. We seemed equally incurious about Jack Ruby’s connections with organized crime or the Central Intelligence Agency. When we learn years later that Oswald worked with both the FBI and the CIA, and that his killer had a similarly complicated background, you say, “Really, I didn’t know that. That makes you wonder.”

We don’t want to wait that long before we find out why Osama bin Laden rested so comfortably in Abbottabad. How long was he there? Who protected him? How did he get the house? Who betrayed him, and why? These basics shouldn’t be that hard to discover. Why would I even ask questions like that, a year and a half after his death? In our open system, wouldn’t we know those basic facts about our quarry?

Actually, we know a little about bin Laden’s betrayal. It’s an interesting story about familial jealousy, but you won’t find details in follow-up reports. You won’t learn how information travelled from bin Laden’s household to either his protectors or his assassins.

We know these basics. Osama bin Laden worked for the Central Intelligence Agency back when Afghanistan’s mujahideen fought the Soviets. That’s not so surprising, as bin Laden was a prominent member of the mujahideen. On the other side, Pakistan’s military intelligence service, the ISI, has worked closely with the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Taliban, you’ll remember, won power in Afghanistan after the Soviets left. The Taliban hosted bin Laden and his training camps in Afghanistan in the years before 9/11. That’s why we fight the Taliban now.

Throw in one more factor, and you can see we should wonder why we found bin Laden in that compound, near one of Pakistan’s best known military academies. The CIA and the ISI have worked together for a long time. Our military intelligence found bin Laden living under the protection of Pakistan’s military intelligence, in a place where all the principals go way back. The CIA, ISI, and al Qaeda could just as well have had a reunion at bin Laden’s compound. I don’t know if the Taliban would have accepted an invitation to attend – perhaps the ISI could have convinced them it wasn’t a trap. Instead, Navy Seals and the White House planned an assassination. That produced a lot of blood rather than the more pleasant beer and champagne.

Let’s get curious, folks. When we smell a fish, let’s unwrap the newspaper to see what’s inside. We may want to bury those packages to fertilize our garden, but in fact our republic doesn’t thrive on crimes and secrecy. It needs more openness than it has received recently. We have the tools to publish what we find out. Wikileaks was one of those tools. The whole internet gives us an advantage in the fight for openness. We have to use it.

Look what happens instead. LBJ puts out the Warren report. People look at its size and its authors and say, case closed. Wikileaks publishes outstanding source material, including documents about our back channel dealings with Pakistan. The government shuts Wikileaks down, charging it with espionage. Instead of mounting a vigorous defense of Wikileaks, we citizens seem to agree that Julian Assange should be tried for espionage and treason. We have to be aggressive when we defend our freedom. Wikileaks is not the enemy here. Our own government means to destroy us.

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By now you’ve probably read about the school district in Texas that wants to spend some large sum of money to outfit its high school students with RFID chips in their identification cards. RFID stands for radio frequency identification. Yes, indeed. You can now track students wherever they go. It’s not enough to have metal detectors, hall passes, detention areas, lunchroom monitors, bells to mark periods of the day, thick rule books, positive and negative reinforcement for good and bad behavior, report cards, hall monitors, closed campuses, various punishments for sundry infractions, and quasi-judicial disciplinary procedures. Now we have radio-frequency identification cards that you are supposed to wear around your neck. Are the students institutionalized or what?

Here’s the big question no one wants to think about that much. Students who receive this institutional treatment spend their entire adolescence and then some in schools that train them to be passive and compliant. They are supposed to be ready for adulthood when they leave those schools. Whether they depart for college, a job, or some other destination after commencement, many eighteen year olds leave home at this point. If we want them to be compliant citizens – in fact, so compliant we could hardly call them citizens, what would we do? We would create high schools like the ones we have now.

A lot of high school students would not even question the emphasis on obedience, monitoring, and control in their high schools. It’s all they know. From age eleven or so – when they enter middle school – through their high school years, the institutionalization becomes habitual, part of the daily routine. The only substantial difference between high school and middle school is that high school is bigger.

Another scary thing is that a lot of parents seem to like schools that operate like quasi-prisons. They like the lockdowns, police officers in the hallways, the locked doors and the check-in procedures. All these measures seem to keep the students safe. Parents like that. Keep people scared, and you can do anything to them. Keep them on edge, and they’ll accept anything. When you create a secure environment, you create an environment that is easy to control. When you create a controlled environment, you can give people the illusion of safety. Meantime, the balance of authority tips strongly toward rule-based behavior and away from unpredictable, freer modes of action.

If you wonder why adolescents seem to be under so much stress, look at the unnatural environment they encounter every day. It ain’t Summerhill. It’s not a place where they can grow towards freedom. It is a place that cultivates the qualities they’ll want to have as they adapt to a country that used to honor freedom and wide participation in public affairs. Now it encourages compliance, resignation, and keeping your mouth shut. Ask the people who joined the Occupy movement. Try to give voice to your discontent, and you’ll feel a police baton come down hard on your back. If you didn’t learn to keep your mouth shut in high school, well, we’ll teach you now.

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Here’s another article that suggests we’re in trouble in Afghanistan due to cultural insensitivity:

In Afghanistan, cultural cluelessness can be deadly

The range of culturally insensitive actions seems pretty broad in this account: speaking rudely, ridiculing Afghan soldiers, home invasion, disrespect toward women, dropping bombs on civilians from the air, shooting people. Not surprisingly, Afghans have come to resent these insensitive actions during the ten years we have tried to wrap up our war against the Taliban. They say they don’t want us there anymore. Even Karzai says it. He indicates he’d rather deal with China or India, even Russia, though he knows that once we leave he’ll probably have to depart, too.

So that’s what we’ve come to after ten years. The soldiers we’re supposed to train keep shooting us. Honestly. The instructor says, “Here, take this rifle and point it at the target. Take aim and squeeze off the round.” A few hours later, the Afghan recruit takes aim at the instructor’s buddy, who is relaxing with friends, and blows him up at close range. That’s some training program. We give you the gun. We give you the ammunition. You load up the weapon and shoot us.

So many articles repeat facilely that these green-on-blue killings occur because of misunderstandings, arguments, grudges, personal vendettas, and the like. That doesn’t sound right to me. First of all, the reporters who write these reasons don’t seem to know any more about individual cases of murder than I do. They seem to be writing down what other people have written down.

More importantly, the reason for shooting an American or any NATO soldier has to be more consequential than some personal dispute or other. The hatred must run so deep. The shooter knows that just a few seconds after he fires, he’ll be dead on the ground, too. Most green-on-blue attacks are suicide attacks. The killer takes multiple bullets to his body almost before his victim hits the ground.

No Afghan soldier will say to himself, “I don’t like that guy. He dissed me this morning. I have a new gun here and I’m gonna finish him off.” It can’t be that simple. The Afghan soldier doesn’t know American culture any more than Americans know his. He expects some difficulties when he works with foreign soldiers. Moreover, the Afghan soldier is homesick, just like the American soldiers. He wants to return to his family, too. When an Afghan soldier makes a decision to pull the trigger, when he decides when and where he’ll shoot an American, he knows he’s going to die. He knows he won’t ever go home again.

Would you make a decision like that over some dispute in the mess hall? Would you give up your life because some American soldier jerked you around and made you angry? Give the Afghan soldiers some credit. They are not that impulsive. When they decide to trade their own life for an American life, they make that decision in their heart. No one can force them to it. They draw pay from the Americans, not the Taliban. If an Afghan soldier pulls the trigger – knowing that a coffin is his next stop – antipathy, anger, enmity and hatred for Americans run to his core.

Here’s a story of how palpable this hatred is. One American soldier had guard duty with an Afghan soldier. All night, at their post, the Afghan soldier shouted at the American, “Get out of here! We don’t want you here! Go home!” He shouted the words over and over and over, in his ear, all night. The American tried to ignore him, but it’s hard to remove your mind from abuse like that. You certainly can’t do your job as a guard when all you can hear is invective from the soldier on duty with youo. At last, toward morning, the American told his Afghan counterpart to shut up. A dispute followed. How predictable is that? Somebody probably noted the incident as cultural insensitivity.

This incident left the American soldier so shaken he wrote to his father about it. That’s how we know it happened. He said he could feel the Afghan soldier’s hate as his counterpart harangued him. He could feel it radiate, hear it in the Afghan soldier’s voice, until it entered his heart and made him afraid. He wrote that he was afraid he would not come home, that one of the Afghan soldiers he was serving with would shoot him. Shortly after he wrote the letter, an Afghan soldier murdered him. Think how this soldier’s father felt, holding the letter and a photograph of his son.

One can hardly say this American soldier, who sensed how he would die, was blameworthy. He just wanted to stand guard duty and go back to his bunk. He tried to get the soldier on duty with him to stop shouting in his ear, but he couldn’t. I imagine he could hear the Afghan’s rage building. The American had become a focal point for the Afghan’s deep anger for – who knows what? For all the bad things Americans have done during this war.

You see references to Americans’ cultural cluelessness so often, you’d almost think that if we got clued in, the murders would stop. If we got clued in, we would stop killing Afghans. If we stopped killing Afghans, the green-on-blue murders would eventually stop. What’s significant is that right now, nearly everyone in the country hates us. Even the corrupt political operators in Kabul, who skim American dollars like cream, dislike us. It doesn’t matter whether you’re Pashtun or otherwise, you want the Americans gone. It may be the only thing the tribes in this riven country agree about: get rid of the Americans. Leave us alone, let us settle things ourselves – just get out of here.

The treachery of these murders remains. The Afghans have a deep tradition of hospitality – they take good care of their guests. For Afghans to murder soldiers who came over to help them tells you something. The shooters don’t regard us as helpers, let alone guests. They regard us as enemies. The shooters believe their families and friends will honor them for their sacrifice. They do not regard their act as treachery at all. They regard it as a small victory in a fight to rid their country of occupiers.

Two thousand lost servicemen is a lot of deaths. Twenty-seven months until we leave in December 2014 is a long time. I saw an article by Frederick and Kimberly Kagan in the Wall Street Journal that argued, “Don’t leave Afghanistan after we have made so much progress. We can still win the war, finish the work we started there.” As I scanned the article, I wanted to know what that work was, where we would be at the end of 2014 that is different from where we are now. The best the Kagans could offer was, we have to run down the Taliban. We have to clear them out! We have to disarm them, defeat them, destroy them. The argument didn’t say why we should do that. It didn’t say why that goal was worth the trouble, why it was worth the blood of one soldier whose father waits back home.

We want to ask why a goal that seemed such a good idea ten years ago remains a goal we want to accomplish now. Yes, the standard line is that we have to get rid of the Taliban to deny al Qaeda a safe haven in Afghanistan. Given what we’ve learned since 9/11, given what has changed, this argument is absurd. Our soldiers in Afghanistan know it, yet they continue their work the best they can. When will the soldiers’ military and civilian leaders acknowledge the game is up?


Read Steven Greffenius’s recent book, Revolution on the Ground, second in a pair that began with Revolution in the Air. Download to your Kindle or Kindle app at Amazon.com.

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How American exceptionalism became a contested concept in the culture wars is an interesting, significant story. I only know part of the story, and don’t plan to piece together the parts I don’t know tonight. I’ll say this much: 175 years ago, Tocqueville said Americans were exceptional, and we believed him because he was right. Now we want to ask whether he’s still right, whether we should believe him yet. One hundred seventy-five years covers a lot of ground. Perhaps we were exceptional then, but are no longer. Or perhaps we’re exceptional in some ways now, but not in the same ways we were then.

I mention Tocqueville because he was the first to write about American exceptionalism at length. In fact, we had 175 years to become exceptional before he wrote about it. Back then, exceptional meant different from Europeans. Europeans came over to this side of the Atlantic and became different. In fact, that’s the reason many came to America: here was a place you could change.

Now we try to keep people out. We’ve tried to do that before, but we seem more determined about it now. We never erected a high fence before. We didn’t round people up and deport them in such great numbers. Nativism has always been ugly, but people kept coming here in large numbers nevertheless. That’s why you saw nativism in the first place: people were coming here in such high numbers. Now we want to take people who are already here and get rid if them.

When people say immigration reform, I’m not sure what they mean, but I don’t think it’s something good. When people use the word illegal as a noun, as in, “We don’t like illegals around here,” I know what they mean. They know what they mean, too.

So, does American exceptionalism just come down to our thinking we’re better than other people? Is that all it means? Honestly, Tocqueville might have said as much, but he could have saved himself a lot of words if that’s all he had to say. It appears to be the limit of our thinking now. The critics say, “Obama doesn’t think we’re better than other people. We don’t want a leader who thinks we’re just like everyone else.” Perhaps when a country has come down as far as we have, people have to swagger a bit to compensate.

Here’s where a belief in American exceptionalism truly gets us into trouble: when we think bad things can’t happen here. If you believe that, then people with power can commit crimes and tell you they didn’t. If you give liars the benefit of the doubt, they will take advantage of you. They will get you to participate in their lies, to endorse them, prop them up and make them appear real. Ask Earl Warren. Ask Colin Powell. Some people cannot decline to participate. Ask the taxpayers who paid for our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the families who lost a son or a daughter over there.

Theologian James Douglass title his book about Kennedy’s assassination, JFK and the Unspeakable. Some acts are so evil, we cannot speak of them. What if 9/11 were a false flag operation? Would we have the will to speak of it? How many people would want to place a truth like that in front of their eyes?

When I read Jesus’ words in the New Testament, “the truth will make you free,” I wasn’t sure exactly what he meant. It could be another general statement about the means of redemption: believe that I am the Son of God, and I will free you from death. The saying means more than that, though. At the least, it means that falsehood will make you a slave. If we believe the things that powerful people tell us, they will enslave us. They won’t control us they do other private property, but they’ll control us sufficiently that they won’t suffer constraints on their own freedom of action.

That should be enough for tonight. I won’t try to bring everything I’ve said in this post together. I will say that if our concept of American exceptionalism prevents us from discerning the truth, if it makes us believe liars and disbelieve truth tellers, we have descended a long way from the days of Jacksonian Democracy. Of course liars existed then, as did corruption in high places. The question is whether we would give liars and criminals the benefit of the doubt, or how much we would tolerate them. If we want to save our freedom now, we have to track down the truth with no partiality about what we find.

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