A member, and hoping to stay that way, of the reality-based community

02 December 2010

Again with David Brooks...

...and apologies for being so late to the party.

David Brooks really knows how to miss the point. After psychoanalyzing Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, he decides to use the occasion to obliquely criticize his employer for not respecting "the World Order" in deciding what to publish, or not. He decrees that the pinnacle of civilization is "order" in opposition to "chaos", that the leaked documents pose a threat to said order, and uses the particular case of the cables purporting to describe the reaction of American and Arab diplomats to the problem of Iran.

Fundamentally, Brooks praises said diplomats for reactions that are neither novel nor brave: American and Arab diplomats alike wisely express concern that Iran is as powerful as it is, and seek council or seek to provide it regarding how Iran can be deflected or opposed. For reasons that are completely left unspoken, Brooks imagines that 1) Iran is not aware of this set of reactions, 2) that American (and thus in his eyes by extension world) security is threatened by this exposure, not least because the relationships on which American and Arab security depend are threatened.

This is absurd. There is nothing new here. These are opinions that have been publicly and openly expressed by many people in all of these governments for literally years. So, to pretend that the public revelation that these same opinions have been expressed by functionaries of more than a few governments is somehow going to threaten the "order" on which our civilization depends is to imagine things that are not true and that cannot be true. Worse, the idea that order is dependent on secrecy and political chicanery is disturbing and wrong.

People (in democratic societies at least) are best served by diplomacy that is open and honest about the goals of the society and about the methods used to attain those goals. To wit: in the 1950s and 1960s, the United States government, under administrations of both major stripes, used assassination and support for insurgencies to overthrow more than a few governments (Chile, Iran, and Congo come immediately to mind, but one suspects I've listed only a few out of many). The governments that we supported in the aftermath of these "successes" killed many more of their citizens in the name of "order" than the governments they replaced. In fact, with the exception of Chile, very few of these countries have recovered from the disorder we sowed.

Secrecy in diplomacy (and in diplomatic skulduggery) did not serve "order" in these cases, or their close relatives. It undermined it. Perhaps not in the US. No doubt there were a few American "interests"-- read: businesses-- that benefited, in the short term, from Iran's government being beholden to the US government for being in power. I doubt, thought, that any amount of money would make a difference to the many families who lost their loved ones to the Shah's secret police. And it's difficult not to believe that the attitudes that allowed our government to think it was OK to overthrow the democratically elected governments of Chile or Iran is the same attitude that allowed it to lie to us about the situation in Vietnam or Iraq, so we'd end up bankrupting our treasury and throwing away tens of thousands of American lives (not even counting the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese or Iraqi lives throw away).

The sooner we recognize these things, and demand openness and treaties (voted into place by the Senate) as the way to conduct diplomacy, the sooner we'll begin to live in peace with the rest of the world. No, it won't end the war in Afghanistan immediately. But it might keep us out the next "Afghanistan", or "Vietnam", or "Iraq".

07 April 2010

Move along. Nothing to see here.

@Jimcat: This doesn't necessarily diminish the value of the rest of your position, but fission was discovered only in 1938 (albeit by [Jewish in at least one case] Germans). It was only hypothesized as possible in 1934.

Nevertheless, fission was an extremely new fact, and the fact that enormous (possibly historically incomparable) resources were necessary to proceed to building a weapon in the time available based on that technology probably made it likely than only a few nations had the resources to contemplate the effort, never mind bring it to fruition in the midst of a war.

FWIW, if the rest of the political developments post-war had proceeded apace without the US having developed and used a nuclear weapon in WWII, I feel confident we would have had a nuclear war circa the Cuban Missile Crisis. Why? Curtis LeMay wouldn't have seemed so insane— no one would have known just how bad it would be, and some one would have pushed the button, which would likely have meant everyone pushing all their buttons.

All of which is to say: @Misterben: I think you're mistaken regarding deterrence. It is exactly because deterrence works through mutually assured destruction that you are correct to say that, "[i]t's like we're the world's biggest suicide bomber." Only "we" is anyone who starts a nuclear war with another nuclear power, and we aren't "like" the world's biggest suicide bomber— we are the worlds biggest suicide bomber.

The real question you have to ask yourself is, "would I submit to nuclear blackmail if I couldn't respond in kind?" If the answer is yes, then you may find yourself never understanding those of us who prefer the tension of possible conflagration to the reality of submission.

I'm not suggesting this is a perfect result. It isn't. It's just the least bad result given the cards in play. Someday, probably after my atoms have dispersed permanently, maybe we'll find a way to resolve this problem. Maybe it'll be through that dreaded one-world government (Oooh! Scary!). Maybe not.

Which brings me back to Ed's actual point: the Rs are just sure that if they look like their shitting their pants thoroughly enough, people will be scared of a change that will, 1) cost their political contributors a few bucks, 2) have no other meaningful result. Because, honestly, all this really says is we won't obliterate Venezuela, or Cuba, Somalia, or some other country full of brown-skinned folks no matter how much fun their juvenile troglodyte supporters might think it'd be when they get uppity. Iran and North Korea? Well, you just never know, now do you?

06 April 2010

A letter to David Brooks

Dear Mr. Brooks—

In your columns (like today's— 6 April) you often express unbridled optimism about the future of the United States. All too often, in thinking about what you've written as compared to the universe of data available on the subject, I find myself wondering why you dismiss the view that we have serious problems that we are ignoring because we can't imagine the answers.

I can't help but think that this blog post ("The Collapse of Complex Business Models") and more importantly the work that it references (Joseph Tainter's "The Collapse of Complex Societies") hint at the challenge the present state of Western society faces. We've built an edifice that works very well for the top 10-40% of Americans and Western Europeans. It even works OK for another 20-30%-- their lives are vastly better than their ancestors just three or four generations removed (with all but a few exceptions born of squandered gains).

As any investor knows, though, past performance is no guarantee of future gains. We are at a point where we must change so much about our society-- not least how we use and create the energy we need to support our (historically) lavish lifestyles-- but the systems we've put in place to support our societies have ossified. De-constructing them (and re-constructing their more flexible replacements) will require real sacrifice from the elites. Yet still the elites pretend otherwise.

I can't help but see works such as the one you wrote today as being a shining beacon of foolishness in a world filled with dark and murky truths-- it looks good and gives everyone a warm fuzzy, but it's a false lead and presages doom.

13 March 2010

"i want to call requests through heating-vents,/and hear them answered with a whispered, 'no.'/to crack the code of muscle, slacken, tense./let every second step in boots on snow/complete your name with accents i can't place,/that stumble where the syllables combine./take depositions from a stranger's face./paint every insignificance a sign./so tell me nothing matters, less or more./say, 'whatever we think actions are,/we'll never know what anything was for.'/if 'near is just as far away as far,'/and i'm permitted one act i can save,/i choose to sit here next to you and wave." -- "(Manifest)", the Weakerthans

6 years. Seems like forever. Seems like minutes. And still totally awesome.