Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Do you have a passport?

I've read that more than 3 out of 4 Americans don't have a passport. Not good. America's a big country and one of the most diverse on Earth. We went on a 2,500 mile camping trip around the national parks of the Southwest a few years ago, and it was great. But spending time in other countries provides more than a vacation, more than scenic wonders, more than kicking back at a nice resort. International travel can give you a perspective that's reinforced by physical sensations, personal experience...things you can fall back on later, for a kind of mental nourishment and perspective.

That's even true here in Silicon Valley. My spouse and I have friends from Russia, Ukraine, India, Kyrgyzstan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Japan, Scotland, England, Germany, Brazil, and the South (for me it counts as another country). But that's no substitute for breathing another country's air, having to negotiate currency exchange and all the myriad customs and procedures every country has, but which non-travelers take for granted.

We're going to Indonesia ourselves in a few days for a few weeks, traveling with an Indian, several Russians, and a Ukrainian. So we'll be getting multiple cultural perspectives.

People who discuss domestic American politics with no personal experience of how people and governments operate in other countries are flying half-blind--though they rarely realize it.

Of course a few weeks' vacation somewhere doesn't make you an expert. But if you balance that with reading up on that country, you can get a lot out of even fairly brief experiences. We honeymooned in Japan. Just 10 days there, going from Tokyo to the Japanese Alps to Kyoto and back on the bullet train. But I've seen literally hundreds of Japanese movies and studied the country's history and culture. The trip helped. The movies helped. The reading helped. Now at least when I want to consider the Japanese approach to a political issue I have the needed background to start.

So at least I'm eating my own dogfood.

And if you don't have a passport, get one. International travel doesn't have to be all that difficult. Go to an unfamiliar country for the first time with a group that's been there before. That's what we did with Indonesia. Now we're the ones introducing others to the country/language/culture etc.

Lastly, you'll never truly know what it means to be an American until you've traveled abroad.

Two Colorado districts recall Democrats who voted for gun control

What these recall elections reveal most of all is that their advocates' logic & facts are neither logical nor factual--but instead reflect a simplistic, emotionally powerful narrative that's pure propaganda--propaganda spoon-fed to them by their worst enemies, who they mistake for their best friends.

Their worst enemies aren't their boogeymen, the dreaded Gun-grabbin' Metrosexual College boy California Libruls all in cahoots with Uppity Drug-Dealin' Blacks. Their worst enemies are actually the hyper-rich corporatists whose insatiable thirst for More has grabbed away the rank-&-file Republicans' economic security...& then told them that owning an AR-15 with an extended magazine will make up for that.

But an extended-magazine AR-15 can't change the fact that the incomes of the richest 1% have soared into the stratosphere over the last four decades, while most everyone else's has stagnated or gone overseas. However, modern economics are incredibly complicated. Guns are simple, concrete, satisfying. President Obama was right--these people are over their heads trying to deal with modern life but are too proud to admit it, so they do indeed cling to their guns & their tribalized version of Christianity.

They think the rich, conservative politicians & pundits who look like them are like them. That's tribal thinking at work, & as every con artist from The Music Man to Wayne LaPierre knows, it works like a charm.

These NRA members have been played.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Arguing about religion

To me the real issue is whether people can construct a way to live ethically sans religion. Absent that, it's easy to see how someone religious would feel like attacks on religion are trying to pull the rug out from under him, leaving him with a meaningless, foundation-less existence if he loses his religion.

This is why an avowed atheist can't get elected President in America, and public opinion polls back this up--atheists are generally despised and distrusted by a big majority of Americans. They see atheism as the negation of all they hold dear.

Of course the very word--"atheist"--conveys negation. All it describes is what one doesn't believe, not what one does believe. So it's easy to see why the average American would think that atheists believe nothing.

Past that it's tough to describe to a religious person how one's life is organized--other than as a sociopath--if one is not religious. Most religious people believe that only religious people have the feelings of care for others, of empathy, of kindness that they and their co-believers claim exclusive possession of.

For me a person's stated beliefs are only meaningful as I see them acted on in our day to day existence. What you do is who you are no matter what you say.

So if someone's a jerk, whether they're a Catholic jerk or a Methodist jerk or a Zoroastrian jerk or an atheistic jerk, what I care about is their being a jerk. Ditto if they're nice guys, if they're interesting to be around, if their word turns out to mean something.

Your beliefs are your business. Your actions are society's business. I will infer your real beliefs from your real actions, and that's what I'll go on.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Bomb Syria.

Today, with the self-righteous blinders on our hindsight, we condemn Neville Chamberlin for his policy of "peace in our time" appeasement of Hitler.

This is unfair to Chamberlain, to a degree--because he was expressing the will of the English people at that time. World War I had exhausted the English and killed a generation of young men in the trenches of Europe. The last thing they wanted was another war. So they demanded peace at any price, at any sacrifice of anyone who wasn't English.

They paid an enormous price for their shortsightedness.

Now Assad isn't Hitler. Syria is a patch on the 3rd Reich powerhouse. The price of our standing aside will be lower than the price England paid, and Assad at his worst will murder far fewer people than Hitler did.

At the same time, however, the price of our involvement would also be a patch on the price England paid when it was eventually forced into WWII, kicking and screaming. At least they didn't roll over like puppy dogs, like the French did.

The real point of the comparison is that the English were dead wrong in 1938 and didn't realize it.

America's doves-on-Syria are equally wrong. Their efforts to minimize what Assad is doing, to claim we can't tell whether the other side didn't really do it, to say it's none of our business, are all--for the most part--efforts to rationalize an unwillingness to expend any of our treasure to save the lives of people-who-are-not-us.

The far Right are at once hawkish and isolationist. This isn't a paradox, because both are consistent with being tribal. And Syrian women and children aren't included in what they see as our tribe. As good tribalists they're unable to empathize with innocent civilians who aren't part of our tribe, and we haven't been attacked, so their hawkishness isn't triggered.

Plus many of them are sufficiently racist that they're inflamed with a permanent, seething rage at that Uppity Negro in the White House. If he's for it they're against it--almost without regard to anything else.

The far Right are pacifistic. It's amazing to see their moralistic posturing against the American government for thinking of attacking one of the worst governments on Earth--while letting that Worst Government off the hook--is truly amazing. These people are not isolationist. In fact they tend to downplay the importance of national sovereignty--they believe we should give Mexican citizens American citizenship practically for the asking, because the Mexicans are poor and suffering.

Well the Syrians are poorer and suffering vastly more. But it will take acts of war to save those suffering Syrians.

Which means that for the Far Left, others' suffering doesn't matter if it would require action by our armed forces to right the wrongs involved.

This is simply cowardice.

The people who oppose hammering the Syrian government say the President hasn't thought through the potential consequences, which are unpredictable. But they aren't fully unpredictable. Russia isn't going to go to war with us over this because they possess a grossly inferior military establishment relative to ours. We would do to them what they did to Georgia. Syria isn't going to declare war on us, any more than they declared war on Israel when Israel took out missle shipments headed for Hezbollah.

We can't predict who will win this three-way civil war in Syria. But we can predict what will happen if we do nothing, given that Syria is being actively supported by Russia and Iran and the rebels don't have what they'd need to shoot down the government's choppers and jets or take out its tanks.

Right now the Russians are running their mouths about America's weakness. That isn't reason enough to start shooting, but it is a factor that will come into play in other situations. The notion that we're a paper tiger tends to make other governments misunderstand what America can do when sufficiently roused. But you have to use your warmaking power least when others are most convinced you will use it where you say it's important to you.

Both action on Syria and inaction over Syria have long-term consequences. The pity is that we're now suffering the long-term consequence of the previous Republican administration's military recklessness and arrogance. That consequence will go on for decades. This is not, however, an excuse for America withdrawing to our borders and telling the world to go hang itself. Which it will without the moral and physical force of the world's most powerful country continuing its thankless but necessary--for US--role of World's Cop.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

As for Syria, America is the world's Shabbas Goy

Around the world, nobody civilized wants Syria's dictator to be allowed to murder over 100,000 innocent civilians--thousands with nerve gas.

And around the world, nobody civilized wants their government to go to war with Syria to stop the dictator and his allies.

And around the world, nobody civilized wants to ask America to stop this mass murder of civilians.

They want America to stop the mass murder without the world's permission.

It's a win-win. You get to demonstrate against the hated Big Bully of the World while America does the unpleasant, deadly work without which Syria's dictator will never stop--not as long as anyone is left alive in Syria who opposes him.

Meaning that America is the world's Shabbas Goy.

In strict Orthodox Judaism, from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday, you aren't allowed to do secular things like turning on the AC or the radio or getting takeout from the Chinese-To-Go place on the corner. But you can let a Goy (non-Jew) do it for you. But only if you don't ask him. He has to guess what you want, because asking him would break the rule.

That's us. War is so horrible. And Europeans know this from millennia of wars fought on every square foot of European soil, over and over and over. The last war fought on American soil (apart from Oahu and the Aleutians) was 150 years ago, and it's still being refought on the downlow by the revanchist Southerners who are now the hard core of the Tea Party and hence of the GOP--in part because it was on their soil that the war was fought. No real wars have ever been fought in the state I live in, not since the dawn of history. So for me the Civil War is a history book thing--especially since I don't see blacks as The Other.

Imagine what it's like for the Euros. Practically every sizeable plot of arable land could have a plaque commemorating some battle or other--maybe a bunch.

And of course Syria is a very tricky situation with more than two sides. You've got the Sunni majority pitted against everyone else (mostly Shiites and related sects). You've got the educated and the middle class and probably a solid majority of Syrians who want a secular democracy--at least as secular as Turkey's. You've also got Islamist militants who want a theocracy couple with exterminating Christianity and the Shiite branch of Islam in Syria. You've got the Christian minority who are terrified of a post-dictator Syria treating them like post-Saddan Iraq has.

You've also got the bad reputation the Republicans gave America with their trillion dollar (over time) invasion and occupation of the country that hadn't attacked us, based on trumped-up charges and an activist but incurious President telling the world "Trust us." In addition you've got the same administration's incompetent, attention-deficit mishandling of Afghanistan. All within the last decade or so.

And the world has mass murder and mayhem going on elsewhere as well--the Eastern Congo, Sudan, China's stealthy ethnicide of the nation of Tibet. Though weapons of mass destruction aren't being used anywhere else to my knowledge.

At any rate anyone around the world who opposes American intervention in Syria can give a lot of reasons for waving placards and denouncing those Warmonger Americans.

I'm sure Dr. Assad the Ophthalmologist is touched by all the support he's getting. If you look at the demonstrations around the world you'd think it was the Americans who were dropping nerve gas on thousands of noncombatants including small children. This is eased by the fact that the murdered civilians aren't Europeans, aren't Anglo Whites. They're Muslim, so they're part of the vast Other whose lives and deaths appear not to be very meaningful to most Rich World inhabitants.

But in the last analysis I think a majority of the rich world's populations want us to stop Assad from using WMDs and then blame us for whatever we do to accomplish that--even if killing a hundred civilians saved 10,000 lives that would otherwise have been lost.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Best quote from the Sunday talk shows today

About the Republicans clamoring for President Obama to go to Congress about whether we should strike Syria over its use of WMDs:

"The dog has caught the car."
        --David Axelrod

However, that said, I worry that President Obama may not be familiar with the principles of war as laid out by Von Clausewitz, the 19th century Prussian officer who's still the most-quoted military scientist in the war colleges.

And I think Von Clausewitz would say that "proportionate" strikes are useless. What's useful is DISproportionate strikes. If our strike hammered every major fixed installation Syria's government has got--took out its air defense system, cratered every one of its airfields, took out every chopper and airplane they've got that's findable, and much more. The nice thing about attacking a country instead of a nongovernment operator like Al Qaeda is that every national government has lots of fixed assets that are much easier to target.

That said, politically speaking, however the Republicans construe President Obama going to Congress as him blinking, him being weak yada yada--if they don't OK this strike they're going to be the ones who are American fries-eating surrender monkeys--contrary to the Republican Party's self image as the swaggering, macho tough guys.

And if they do OK this strike they can't blame him for the results afterwards, because they'll share in those results for better or for worse. Not to mention the fact the Republicans used WMDs as the pretext for invading another country and socking America with the trillion-dollar tab--and that little boo-boo is doubtless why the Brits refused to side with us this time around. A Republican administration made a mockery of America's credibility with the world, and we'll be playing the diplomatic price for that for decades.