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World War III

It is now December 31, 2030, and the end of the third World War is nowhere in sight. It came upon us unexpectedly, without warning, like a thief in the night. America spent the second half of the twentieth century fighting a war without bullets and preparing for a worse war with bullets. We thought we won the first, and that the second wouldn’t come, but it did come. It was just a few decades late.

It started, perhaps fittingly, in a manner similar to the First World War fought over a century earlier. Then, as now, the war started with an assassin’s bullet. This time, the victim was a prominent Russian politician, one of the few respected in the circles of both President Putin and in the capitals of western Europe. He was shot in a restaurant in Moscow, by a man who claimed to be a Ukrainian from the eastern half of the country where a civil war had been raging for ten years. Given subsequent events, it isn’t surprising nobody knows much about the man. Maybe he really was a Ukrainian agent. Maybe he was just some crazy who lost everything in the civil war. There’s a large minority in our own government that swears the man was a Russian agent Putin used to create a pretext for invasion. I don’t know, and we probably won’t know until after the war’s over, if ever, but three days later, the Russian army, which had maintained an intermittent presence on Ukraine’s eastern and northern border for most of the civil war, launched an all out assault. The Ukrainian forces were prepared, but overmatched. Everyone knew that Ukraine joining NATO was Putin’s red line, so despite Ukraine’s repeated asks, membership was never extended. In truth, nobody in Europe wanted to fight Putin over Ukraine, a country with little strategic or economic value to the Germans and Frenchmen that ran the EU. Moreover although Europe, and the world, had made great strides in renewable energy over the past half decade. Solar and wind power were better and more cost effective than ever, but the reliability issue never could be fully overcome, so Germany’s cities still depended on Russian natural gas to keep the lights on when the sun didn’t shine and the wind didn’t blow. Ukraine fell, and NATO did nothing in the immediate aftermath but issue some strongly worded condemnations.

It was an ugly choice, but history is filled with ugly choices. Still, the leaders of the world couldn’t be seen to be doing ‘nothing’, so an aging President Biden, perhaps remembering the more united, more civil world of his youth, proposed to cut off all trade with Russia besides humanitarian aid. Europe’s dependence on Russian gas, however, made that proposal a non-starter. Biden was furious, and the establishment was nervous. Biden had again faced a difficult primary season against a wave of opponents running to his left in 2024, winning the nomination with the lowest margin in history for a sitting US President. He then barely defeated Donald Trump in what was easily the ugliest, most vicious election in US history. It was widely believed that anyone other than Trump himself would have beaten an unpopular and visibly aging Uncle Joe. Trump’s bombast, crude language, and unpredictability remained a liability, but a new and ambitious crop of younger and more energetic Republicans had married traditional small government conservatism and nationalist flag waving with an anti-elite populism and a growing resentment of wealth inequality and the increasingly political behavior of multinational megacorporations to produce a new party populist/nationalist party who already had a stranglehold on middle America that the Democrats had little prospect of breaking. There were even small signs that Republicans were beginning to grow inexplicably more popular with the minority voters upon which the Democratic Party was now entirely dependent. The Democrats were now the last establishment party, and there were rumblings of a new Socialist party forming out of the radical younger members of Congress. War with Russia was not popular with either left wing Democrats or Republicans, so the prospect of a unilateral assault, even drone strikes and cruise missiles, was deemed impractical. Still, Biden and his backers felt they had to do something to avoid losing all credibility entirely, so with the support of a few opportunistic allies, notably Turkey, Hungary, and Poland, who despite belonging to the EU, paid little heed to dictates from Brussels. The US with its allies closed the Black Sea straits and blockaded Russian ports on it’s Baltic and Pacific coasts.

That, unfortunately, caused the rest of the dominos to fall. The blockade, combined with the dissolution of NATO, required a massive redistribution of American’s military and naval assets, and while the US military was still easily the largest and most powerful in the world, was no longer quite the juggernaut that was able to fight and win wars in two hemispheres at the same time. They had the best planes, the best tanks, the best ships, and the best trained soldiers but the best things are also the most expensive, so despite how advanced and awesome they were, there weren’t enough of them. The blockade stretched the US thin to the point of breaking, and another erstwhile challenger seized an opportunity.

The US had thought itself prepared for the Chinese invasion of Taiwan. After all, the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP, had at various times over the past seven decades declared their determination to reunite the democratic island with the mainland, peacefully if possible but by force if necessary. China, and Asia generally, had been the focus of US military focus for most of the previous fifteen years. President Trump is generally credited with turning American policy against China, but smart minds at the Pentagon and within the military industrial complex had recognized the threat years earlier with President Obama’s widely ridiculed ‘pivot to Asia’ shifting of American military assets in that direction. Trump simply did what he was best at, and aimed the public’s anger in that direction, to the consternation of the business establishment, who would have preferred to engage the Chinese quietly, and more importantly, profitably. Once the coronavirus emerged from a Wuhan wet market (or research lab, if you prefer that theory, there was never an investigation so nobody knows for sure), the writing on the wall was written in bold flashing letters for all the world to see. China and America would be enemies, and both sides acted accordingly. It wasn’t quite like the first cold war, but it was something approaching that, with both sides slowly piling up tariffs, sanctions, and angry words. Robust trade had persisted through the first half of the 2020s, but behind the scenes, supply chains were shifting, factories were being built elsewhere, and business leaders on both sides of the Pacific were conceding to the inevitable. Any trade that could be remotely connected to national defense, AI, or chip technology had long ago been halted by the Trump and Biden administrations, and the rest of the business world was slowly conceding that politics ultimately trumped profits, and the risk was no longer worth taking. In the summer of 2024, a housing bubble in the Chinese market burst and rocked their economy. America could have intervened to stop the crisis in a similar manner to how the Chinese intervened in the 2008 housing crisis to shore up the world economy at that time. Unfortunately, America was in no mood to do favors for the CCP, and President Biden, facing opposition from human rights groups on the left and America first populists on the right, did nothing. The Chinese economy crashed, and the world definitely felt it, as the NYSE recorded it’s largest drop by percentage since 2008, but the American economy had changed a lot over the last five years. They had, at great cost in terms of inflation, diversified their supply chains and introduced more resilience. The American government performed their usual song and dance of unemployment benefits and stimulus packages, and the caravan moved on. 

To say the Chinese were not amused would be an understatement. Leaving our proverbial fly open to blockade the Russians was, in hindsight, a colossally foolish move, but the rationale was that leaving Russia unchallenged might embolden China or others in the future, and that with the economy in shambles, President Xi would have his hands full just trying to cover his own butt. In hindsight, we underestimated the sway he had over his government and his people. When the moment came, he acted decisively.

The United States had prepared Taiwan and its people as best it could against a larger and fanatically determined foe, but China had prepared and planned well. The invasion came approximately two months after the initial assassination, and it couldn’t have come at a worse time. Now, the harried American President faced a hopeless dilemma. Abandoning Ukraine was one thing, but Taiwan was another entirely. With the largest semiconductor manufacturing plants, a significant share of the world’s total, America could not simple whistle along and pretend nothing important happened. China in control of Taiwan meant a substantial loss of technology that might well enable the Chinese to win the technology arms race that had begun to unfold. Losing Taiwan would be a hard blow to recover from. Biden was already facing backlash over the unpopular Russian blockade and the fall of NATO. Now, he had to endure smug I-told-you-so’s from hawks in both the opposition party and his own who had been beating the drums on China for most of the past decade. Still, both his own party and the opposition were sharply divided on the issue of what to do about the matter or whether to declare war. Biden, despite intense pressure from Pentagon brass and tech moguls, hesitated and left the matter to Congress. Congress, being Congress, dithered and debated for nearly a week before the decision was taken out of their hands entirely when Japan, whose own islands were under threat, Australia, which had endured the brunt of Chinese economic warfare for years and grown more openly hawkish, and India, which had benefitted greatly from shifting supply chains and could not stand by while China closed its vital trade route to Japan and the US, jointly declared war and pointedly asked the Americans for formal support. With three fourths of the so called Quad alliance, and most of their remaining relevant allies on board, the President and Congressional leaders called a closed door emergency meeting and emerged with a consensus. The next day, for the first time since 1941, the United States formally, and completely, went to war.

What followed was a flurry of mobilization laws not seen since in nearly a century. Business and financial leaders, realizing that saving what was left of the international order, and perhaps their own butts, was on the line, lined up patriotically behind the politicians and generals and declared their loyalty. Corporate taxes were raised to WWII levels. A personal wealth tax was levied on anyone with over fifty million dollars in total wealth, to pay for the war. An aging Bernie Sanders lamented ironically that he could have passed his wealth tax years ago, if only he’d been willing to go to war with half the world to do it.  Commodity prices were fixed, preparations were made to ration food, gasoline, and anything that required a microchip, (by 2025, that included most any product one could name more complicated than a screwdriver). Finally, the draft was reinstated, to the shock and horror of young adults, who thought such things consigned forever to history textbooks, and their parents, most of whom were too young to remember anything but their parents’ and grandparents’ stories of Vietnam and war protests. There wasn’t a huge need for so called ‘grunts’ as in previous conflicts. War wasn’t fought that way anymore, and America’s military brass, used to an effective, almost mercenary volunteer force, were uncomfortable with the effectiveness and ability of conscript soldiers. So, in the end, most of the draftees never even came under fire, serving instead as medics, technicians, drivers, sailors, computer specialists, radar operators, etc. America’s high tech force requires a lot of people behind the scenes to run efficiently, and fully mobilized against a near equal foe, it required a lot more.

It’s still debated whether and how much Russia and China coordinated their respective strikes on Ukraine and Taiwan, another question that will have to wait for the end of the war. There had been rumblings for years about a secret or not-so-secret alliance between the two, but never anything formal. What is known is that the two nations were friendly, had demilitarized their border, and uniformly opposed America in about every international issue. Both were known enemies of the US, and neither batted an eyelid or protested the others’ actions in even a minimal way. About a week after the formal US declaration, Chinese, Russian, and Iranian delegations announced the Greater Eurasian Prosperity League. The announcement coincided with the surprise Iranian invasion of Iraq and Turkey. Pakistan and North Korea were added a few weeks later and commenced hostilities with their traditional rivals India and South Korea, respectively. The American side never adopted a formal name, but the media started calling them the Democracy Alliance, and that stuck.  The fight between the free world and the Communist, or more accurately, the totalitarian world, that three generations of Americans had thought we avoided, was on.

That was four years ago, 2026. Now it’s 2030, and the war continues with no sign of stopping. Like the First World War, most of the territorial gains by either side occurred during the first few months. South Korea is gone, though a few hundred thousand citizens and the nation’s government in exile managed to evacuate to the Japanese island of Hokkaido. The images and reports from the last days of the heroic evacuation efforts stirred patriotism in the people and solidified public support for the war. Images of an evacuation effort that easily dwarfed Dunkirk, hundreds of civilian and military ships from dozens of Alliance nations along every beach and port along the Korean coast captured the resolve of free nations and peoples to support each other in times of strife. The humanitarian effort to feed and house the refugees became a major point of political emphasis and remains so even now, though leaders, and the people themselves, are increasingly focusing on resettling the refugees as the prospect of reengaging on the Korean peninsula seems increasingly remote. With Japan’s population declining even before the war, there is a place for the refugees, historic opposition to immigration notwithstanding.

After decades of promising to do so at any cost, Xi Jinping managed to unify China by seizing Taiwan. Most of China’s military assets had been developed and deployed towards taking Taiwan and controlling the vital trade routes of the South China Sea, a task which they accomplished in the first days of the war, though the South China Sea is mostly impassable for both sides at this point. China had no good answer to American, Australian, and British submarines. Of course they mined strategic areas, but our side always seemed to find a way around to harry shipping and shoot missiles full of propaganda over the island to instigate violent resistance. The Chinese continued to lay even more mines in an expensive game of whack-a-mole that continues today.

Of the allied nations that weren’t immediately overrun, perhaps none has suffered so much as Japan. With their entire nation in range of Chinese missiles, their goal from the start was one of survival. That was the reason they declared war in the first place. They viewed the acquisition of Taiwan as the first domino in a chain that would end with complete Chinese domination of the region. Unwilling to accept a subservient position to China, they fight on in the face of daily threat. It isn’t that missile defense systems don’t work. They have worked, much better than anyone had any right to expect. In the first few weeks, only a few missiles got through. Unfortunately, the Chinese changed tactics, firing hundreds of missiles at a time towards a single target. It’s simple math, the missile defense systems could only intercept so many before they were overwhelmed. We responded with more missile defense, but the Chinese are always building more missiles, and it became a battle of resources and manufacturing as wars often do. We’ve had to play catchup there, and we have, but not quickly enough to prevent modern day Tokyo from looking like London during the Blitz.

Other allies fared better. China’s hyper-focus on Taiwan and the South China Sea left them underprepared elsewhere. America’s navy might not be able to come close to mainland China, but with Australia and Britain, they still control the rest of the ocean. The Indian military enjoyed great success early in the war over the Pakistani military, largely owing to complete air and naval superiority in that theater. The planes and missiles we couldn’t use against China pounded the Pakistani forces into submission early in the war. Iran tried to send aid but was largely ineffective for the same reason. China attempted to send troops across their mountainous border with India, but they proved less experienced in alpine warfare, and when they made any progress, heavy airstrikes pushed them back. After a few months of that, the Chinese again changed tactics, staging a coup in Rangoon and establishing a friendly government in Burma to attack India from the West. That, too, had limited success. India’s total population was already nearly as large as China’s before the war, and it is much younger. By that point in the war, India’s army was even larger than that of the US, and they enjoyed superior numbers in nearly every engagement. In fact, they’re making some progress back into Burma at this point. That’s the likeliest, and probably the only, way we’ll ever be able to take the war directly to the Chinese mainland at this point.

Unfortunately, that’s about the only success the alliance has had. The Middle East is a quagmire that the alliance has largely avoided. Iran’s fomenting of various terrorist groups went deeper than we knew. The governments of friendly Middle East nations were on shaky ground to start with. With just a little push, most of them fell. The few who didn’t maintain a studious and strict neutrality, and they guard their borders well. Most of the region though is now in a state of low grade violent civil war. Nobody’s really in charge and the religious fanatics do all kinds of horrible things but nobody does anything about it because there are more important strategic priorities. Turkey was immediately beset on two fronts, Russia in the north and Iran in the East. The Turkish front, as it’s now called, was and is where most American ground forces were deployed. That said, half the country was lost before we could get all our forces deployed. Ankara fell within the year, and American and Turkish forces were pushed back within a few hundred miles of the straits. Hold the straits, has been the ‘must win’ for for the Alliance campaign to this point. To that end, America managed to persuade Greece to leave the EU. Being close to the fighting, they appreciated the threat of Russia, and many remained embittered about austerity measures imposed on the state after its economic crisis.

America’s few European allies achieved mixed results. Poland, seemingly against all odds, has managed to hold out, though they owe much of that to American air support, and tacit support from some of their fearful neighbors who remained in the EU. It’s also a fact that Russia, from the beginning, focused most of its power south. They have to spend several divisions just dealing with guerilla warfare in eastern Ukraine, at least that’s the rumor.  Hungary was losing until a popular coup unseated their President. The new government left the war quickly afterward, amidst accusations that Russia instigated the coup itself. Russia refrained from attacking the EU itself, but is instead using the Europeans’ now total energy dependence to influence decision makers, with some results. That the EU could join the Russians is every Alliance general’s, and much of the public’s greatest fear. Four years ago, I would have thought it impossible, but people underestimated how much, after dominating much of European politics for decades, anti-American sentiment had built up over the years. With no more NATO, people started expressing that sentiment with a great deal of vigor.  If the EU joins the war, holding the Black Sea Straits will be untenable. We’ll be pressed just to hold the straits of Gibraltar. Thankfully, the EU itself is as divided as it ever was, despite rumblings from Brussels. Though Western Europe has turned decidedly pro-Russia, the Eastern European nations that remember the Iron Curtain think differently. As much talk as there is of Brussels siding with the Russians, there’s probably just as much, if not more talk of the union breaking in half or dissolving entirely.

We thank God each day that the conflict has not gone nuclear, so far. Leaders on both sides of the conflict are mostly rational decision makers, so it is hoped that nuclear weapons will stay off the table. Both sides boldly declared early in the war that they would not be the first to engage the nuclear option. There was a scare, however, when it became clear Pakistan would fall to India. Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal was limited, but even the few they had could have done tremendous damage and created an environmental disaster. Modern weapons, even the weakest, of today, are far worse than Hiroshima. Fortunately, the Indian government knew the locations of the weapons sites, and American, British, and Australian special forces staged perhaps the largest covert military operation in history over the course of one night in 2027. It was a desperate move with enormous risks, but it saved countless lives on the Indian subcontinent. It may have saved us all.

At this point, nobody knows how long the war will go or what winning would even look like. The nuclear option would seem to preclude a conclusive end such as we saw in WWII. If Hitler had had the bomb before the fall of Berlin, there’s little doubt he would have used it, and I don’t imagine Xi Jinping or Vladimir Putin are that much wiser and more humanitarian than Adolf, nor do I put it past the politicians in Washington to decide that rather than bow to the Orwellian technological uber-surveillance state that China has become, they’d rather rule a smoking ruin, so long as it’s free. There’s more than a few hyper-patriots out there who would agree with that sentiment. War can be ugly in that way, as some of us end up becoming much worse versions of ourselves. Still, I suppose even the darkest clouds have a silver lining. Nobody talks about polarization anymore, or red vs blue America, or rural vs. urban, or any of that. Cancel culture dried up in the face of a war against a state like China, that embodies so much of what’s wrong with censorship, and gone too, are the so-called culture wars over language or bathrooms or whatever other ridiculously trivial thing Fox News was going on about. Turns out, those issues really were first world problems, things we could afford to get angry about when there was plenty of food on the shelves, plenty of gadgets to entertain us, and plenty of politicians with no greater concern than winning the next election. The differences remain, but somehow, in the face of nuclear annihilation, whether one says Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays just doesn’t seem to matter, and when people are dying fighting governments that tell their people how and what to believe, ‘canceling’ people whose views are disliked has, well, fallen somewhat out of favor.

The only issue on everyone’s mind, quite properly, is the war, how to end it, whether to end it, and what happens after its over. Ending the war might mean accepting the status quo as far as borders are concerned, and as horrible as that is for the Ukrainians, Taiwanese, or South Koreans, that position is growing more popular all the time. There’s a growing sense that this is about the best we can get at this point. Nobody seriously believes we’re in any position to take back those territories anytime soon. With naval and air power being what it is, the opposite proposition, that the League might score a decisive victory that pushes America out of Eurasia entirely, is even more absurd. There is really no prospect of the League ever gaining naval parity, given that most of their capital ships were destroyed early in the war either by submarines, guided missiles, or high-altitude bombers. The historic military analogy of the elephant and the whale is a rather apt one for this conflict. Both sides probably realize that some sort of stalemate is inevitable and continue the fighting just to gain enough leverage for negotiating a favorable peace. Scuttlebutt around the internet is that the Chinese and Iranian regimes are ready to accept a status quo peace, but the Russians are pushing to continue the war until they can take the Black Sea straits. The hope from our side is, of course, to keep holding the line there until the League finally gives up on that objective.

Even if they sign a ceasefire tomorrow, however, we’ll still be facing decades of low intensity conflict like the Cold War of the last century. There’s no going back to the way things were. The war shocked a world not at all prepared for it. People didn’t think it could happen. We thought we were better, better education, better environment, better food, better infrastructure. We had all that, yes, but it didn’t really change what we were underneath it all, people, just people. We can see, now, that we cursed our ancestors and grandparents too freely for their perceived flaws, while mostly ignoring our own. We marched in the streets for diversity and inclusion and cried against racism on one side of the world, while people on the other side were being put in concentration camps. We twiddled our thumbs while our so-called leaders cut deals with villains for the sake of their own profits, and to keep Americans distracted by cheap goods made with slave labor. We valued profits and prosperity too much, our freedom and our fellow man too little. Maybe that’s too harsh, maybe that’s just four years of war talking, but everybody’s a little harsher now. Everybody’s a little on edge. Everybody knows someone who’s served or someone who’s died. Everybody’s seen the pictures from Tokyo, from Seoul, and we all get a little angry. A lot of people, maybe most people, blame the League and its leaders for ruining the world. There’s something to be said for that, but in the end, they’re just people too. It makes me wonder if theres something in our nature, something primal that we can’t change, that pushes, prods us, coerces us to form clans, tribes, and eventually nations, then fight each other for causes small and great. Whatever it is, it’s part of the human story. We thought we could continue the story without war. We thought we could discard the uglier, less pleasant parts of human nature. We aren’t the first to think we could dream up a better world and make it happen. I doubt we’ll be the last. Previous generations were wrong, so were we, and maybe future generations will be too. I don’t know. After four years of war, I’m just hoping there are future generations.

This is one of my favorite forms of fiction, where one writes about the future in the past, from a point of view even further into the future. It’s a kind of what-if exercise. It makes a good thought experiment in that it causes the reader to think about things they maybe wouldn’t think about otherwise. It also helps remind us that our present is the future of previous generations, and that our future will also be someone else’s past. It forces a shift in perspective, something I feel is sorely lacking in our modern world. I thought about putting this disclaimer at the beginning, but I felt it rather blunted the impact, so apologies to anybody confused.

Also, for the record, I don’t believe any of this will happen. There are a couple points that will be rightly regarded as significant leaps of logic. However, the basic scenario of a simultaneous invasion of Ukraine and Taiwan has been contemplated in op-eds before, and I’m dead certain that there are people in the Pentagon being paid a lot of money to devise strategies for this and other equally improbable WW3 scenarios. It’s not likely, but it’s a non-zero probability. Whether we would go to war over either Ukraine or Taiwan is a question nobody knows the answer to, maybe not even the President. It might be something he has to decide based on the circumstances in that moment. In the case of Ukraine, I’d say no, we won’t do much, because it has significant strategic value to Russia but little to anybody else. Taiwan, however, has a complicating factor. It’s well known that around 80% of the world’s chipmaking (microchips that is) comes from a Taiwanese company, and most of their manufacturing is done right there on the island. Considering how vital a strategic resource microchips are, there’s a genuine possibility that the powers that be in the corporate world and the military industrial complex (where the real power and influence are) decide that this is a ‘crossing the Rubicon’ moment, and we have to act. Further, the tech sanctions that the Trump administration began and the Biden administration continued have greatly hampered China’s ability to manufacture it’s own chips (Taiwan has the factories, but American firms hold the design specs, patents, etc.). The US government, understandably, doesn’t want the Chinese stealing that tech the way they’ve stolen other industrial technology, because those chips are a big part of its military advantage over the rest of the world.

The main reason I think this won’t happen is because I believe that, despite their rhetoric, the Chinese will not invade Taiwan, now or ever. It would ruin their international reputation overnight. They would face some sort of sanctions over the matter that might cripple their economy. Every nation in the neighborhood would immediately feel threatened and respond with a likely military buildup, and trade repercussions. Japan, in particular, I suspect would respond very strongly. More than this, the Chinese would face the same problems as anyone else trying to occupy territory in the modern world. Guerilla warfare and terrorism are extremely effective and notoriously hard to stop. They’d be occupying Taiwan, and while that nation is very small, it’s also very densely populated, a fraction of the territory of Afghanistan or Iraq but half the population. It’s not a given that their invasion would even succeed. As any military person will tell you, amphibious landings are difficult to pull off successfully even with experienced armies, and in this case, the geography favors Taiwan. The Chinese would probably succeed eventually through sheer numbers, but the cost in blood and treasure could be very high. All these factors, combined with the ambiguity of whether the US might retaliate militarily, should, I repeat, should act as sufficient deterrence for anything more than the usual saber rattling. It would be wholly irrational, in my opinion, and a historic mistake for China to take Taiwan by force, but just because it’s irrational doesn’t mean somebody won’t do it.

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Famous Last Words

What could possibly go wrong? It sounds like a cliche, the last statement someone utters before they do some stupid thing that results in their death. The fact that the statement is such a cliche, though, illustrates an important point. People often make mistakes, sometimes of the rather obvious variety. To an objective outside observer, it’s like watching a child that can’t resist touching a hot stove no matter how many warnings they receive. The consequences are predictable and obvious to any observer, and one wonders how humanity has survived to this point given such tendencies. The simple truth is that most of what we learn is through experience and nothing teaches like the experience of being burned.

One person making a critical mistake is dangerous enough. There’s only so much damage a single person can do. To really cause a catastrophe, you need to get a bunch of people together, because the possible harm increases exponentially with the number of people involved. Companies, towns, even entire nations can be destroyed by collective stupidity, or just individual stupidity on the part of leaders who get a lot of people to follow them. Leaders are supposed to know better, and generally the village idiot doesn’t get elected mayor, but that doesn’t mean a usually competent person can make a mistake (Napoleon Bonaparte, Julias Caesar, George III, etc.), or someone truly incompetent can end up in charge (Nicholas II, Louis XVI, Adolf Hitler). History is replete with examples of would be conquerors, tyrants, presidents, and kings who managed their kingdom into tragedy or complete collapse. After all, the usual qualification for being king or emperor or w/e was being the son of the previous one, and gambling on the genetic lottery doesn’t always have the best odds.

Fortunately, as nations grew bigger and more complicated, so too did their governments. The leadership of modern nations is considerably less vulnerable to individual stupidity because there are many checks and balances on the power of any individual person. Because modern nations are so large and complex, no one person can manage them, so power has to be divided horizontally by function and/or geography and vertically through layers of management from the President down to the local postman. It’s beyond any one person. For example, the President has an entire cabinet as his immediate subordinates to manage different functions of the government, and also dozens of advisors, aides, experts, and diplomats, who he must depend on to give him accurate information and good advice. There’s too many people, too much territory, too many variables, too much information, and too much going on at any one time for a single person to collect and keep track of, let alone manage. The government has hundreds of departments managing every conceivable function and duty with an elected Congress to set the laws that govern them and a court system to resolve disputes over the laws. Every individual that offers an opinion or sits on a committee tends to lower the chance something colossally stupid gets through. Many, many people have ample opportunity to stand up and say, ‘that’s a terrible idea’, and even if something gets through all that, a court in most nations can still clarify the particulars of a law or revoke it entirely.


Yet, every so often, and recently with distressing frequency, one of these stupid ideas does get through. So it was that I discovered a few days ago that the military had mandated the Covid-19 vaccine and would dishonorably discharge anyone who refused. I understand the rationale, as you don’t want a disease spreading through a military unit or a nuclear submarine that might be needed at any moment. All things being equal, this policy makes complete sense, but things are not equal. Things are political. Don’t ask me why the vaccine issue became political. I honestly don’t know. Maybe it would have helped if politicians of both political factions got together and presented a civilized and somewhat unified front, it would have helped. Still, people are not rational animals and when gripped by fear, of a predator, an enemy, or a disease, they are even less rational than usual. Once people decide something is political, however, it is, whether good sense or any government official says it is or not. Until someone invents a mind control device, one cannot make people believe whatever they please. The facts don’t matter. The truth doesn’t matter. The science doesn’t matter. Reason doesn’t matter, nor education, nor ethnicity, nor race, nor anything else. Regardless of how enlightened and wise and well intentioned a person or people may be, there will always be disagreement, there will always be pushback. It’s basically Newton’s third law applied to humanity. Action = reaction. Political questions involve people, and people are not rational, hence politics are not rational, and no amount of rationality or science or censorship or browbeating or anything else will change that. I often lament that I am cursed to live in an idealistic age with too many people that want the world to conform to their personal ideas of what is “good” and “fair”, and worse, think that such a thing is actually possible. It is not. It never will be. As long as there are people, there will be different beliefs, religions, factions, nations, cultures, tribes, and disagreement and conflict between all of the above. “Imagine” is a decent song by a great musician, not a realistic political philosophy any adult should contemplate. It’s a nice sentiment, in the same way Santa Claus is a nice sentiment. If you believe the world will ever be like that, I submit that you are part of the problem, and should grow up. Getting 100% of people to do a certain thing or believe a certain way is impossible in the same way it’s impossible to turn lead into gold. That anyone could contemplate either is a monument to the irrationality of our species, and that’s my point.


So no, not everybody is going to believe the vaccine is safe, or unsafe, or anywhere in between. Not everybody is going to get the vaccine, and no amount of browbeating and cajoling will change that basic fact. At BEST, you might raise the percentage of people who are vaccinated enough to reach ‘herd immunity’, whatever that means whether it even exists or not, and reduce the total casualties somewhat, but that’s all we’ve ever been doing, reduce the disease’s incidence at any one time enough so that hospitals aren’t overrun and people aren’t dying in the street. For the record, I don’t believe that was ever a realistic probability. There are things people could and would do if pushed to the edge, such as financially supporting hospitals to train new workers, converting existing facilities into temporary hospitals, calling out the National Guard, triaging to tend to those at greatest need. Would more people have died without lockdowns? Probably. How many? I couldn’t begin to guess, but I doubt anybody would be turned away. The standard of care might decline. Some tough choices would have to be made by doctors and nurses. More significantly, the health care system would have been far more stressed and I suspect a lot of money would have been lost by the health insurance industry, which is closely tied to the banking industry, and that could have triggered a worse economic collapse which would have cost the aristocrats huge amounts of money and political clout, and I suspect that’s what the politicians were truly afraid of, not a few thousand or even a hundred thousand more casualties among the sickest and oldest of the population. . I’ll say it again, politics is not rational, and it’s far more likely that people would have felt better about the responses to the pandemic and the vaccine had our politicians gotten together and presented a somewhat united front with a set of compromise policies that maybe nobody liked but everybody agreed on. That’s what mature adults should do in any crisis, whether it’s a mother and father responding to a child’s serious misdeed all the way up to a nation responding to a disaster. Obviously, that isn’t what happened, because American leadership was already failing before the pandemic, and it’s still failing now. Like a constantly bickering couple in a failing marriage, they just can’t help fighting in front of the people they’re supposed to lead, each undermines the other, and the children stop listening to either one. This is not new, and it’s not something I’m willing to lazily blame on Donald Trump. The ruling class and politicians of America were failing long before he arrived, and their collective failure is the reason someone like him gained power. People have so little faith in our ruling class and government as a whole, they are willing to throw in their lot with anybody different who comes along, be it an orange haired con man promising to drain the swamp or an ancient hippy promising to stick it to the billionaires. Both ‘the swamp’ and ‘the billionaires’ are obvious proxies for whoever is in charge in Washington or on Wall Street and that so much hate and anger are openly directed at the people who might be accurately described as ‘the ruling class’ or ‘the aristocracy’ should fill the halls of Congress and every Fortune 500 board room with mortal terror. What faith people have extends only to their own faction, red or blue, and the other faction is the enemy, which is worse than having no faith in anyone at all. Having faith only in your side ends up with a zero-sum game where there are ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. It’s civil war without the bullets, and maybe I should be grateful for small blessings, but just because there haven’t been any bullets yet doesn’t mean there never will be. We’re already most of the way there, and in this writer’s opinion, it’s really just inertia keeping the current system running, or in other words, all the tires are loose, the lug nuts are long gone, but the road isn’t quite bumpy enough that they’ve fallen off yet.


If America’s cold civil war were to turn hot, well, how would that happen I wonder? First off, you would need soldiers, because angry old men listening to talk radio don’t fight wars, no matter how angry they are. You need soldiers who are loyal to some angry old man, or in the case of rebellion and insurrection, you just need angry soldiers. How do you end up with angry soldiers? Well, people may not be rational but they still need to be motivated, they need some reason, real or imagined, to start killing each other. It doesn’t really matter what the reason is, whether it makes sense or not, or what the justification is. The usual historic reason for a war is that some king/emperor/warlord/dictator/etc. wanted some piece of land or other they didn’t currently possess, and the other side’s king/emperor/warlord/dictator/etc. didn’t want to voluntarily give up said piece of land. That’s the commonest reason, but it is by no means the stupidest, and the reasons or lack thereof for some wars are still debated by historians. Why did Genghis Khan suddenly decide to conquer most of Asia? Nobody knows but him. Why did, in 1914, every nation in Europe suddenly decide it was a good idea to spend the next four years slaughtering each other for no strategically identifiable goal other than not letting the other side win? Nobody can really say for sure. That’s for wars between nations, but violent rebellions and insurrections require even less, just angry soldiers who know how to wage warfare efficiently. Any dictator or tyrant who expects to live very long makes the loyalty of his soldiers his top priority. He knows that any successful attempt to topple the government is a lot more likely to come at the hands of trained soldiers than from his oppressed people. So, cutting loose a whole bunch of his troops for arbitrary reasons is something most dictators would avoid. A good tyrant requires one thing of his soldiers, loyalty, that’s it. Whatever the cost to get that loyalty is a cost he should be ready and willing to pay or he’s not likely to remain in power long.


Our government, our leaders, however, don’t think like dictators. They don’t think like Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, or Bashar Assad. They still think that America is ‘better than that’. That stuff doesn’t happen here, with our Constitution and our Freedom and our Democracy. They’ll learn, as other aristocrats have learned throughout history, that nobody is better than that, and human nature is immutable. I’m a big fan of the parable of the scorpion and the frog. I won’t retell it here so look it up if you want to be enlightened. It’s an old story about how all things operate according to their basic nature. A thing must be what it is that makes it that thing and not something else. If a rebellion can happen anywhere, it can happen everywhere. A human born in 2020 is not genetically different in any meaningful way from one born in 1900, 1500, or 1000 BC. Cutting loose a few thousand, or in the worst estimates, even a hundred thousand, trained soldiers, over a disease that will kill a few hundred seems like a questionable strategic decision. Keep in mind that soldiers tend to be younger and healthier than the average person, at the lowest risk of hospitalization and death. Add the stigma of a dishonorable discharge and you have several thousand angry soldiers with the best training money can buy now unemployed with a good reason to hate at least the current government. Even if most of them knuckle under and get the vaccine, it’s a fair bet that the percentage that don’t like that is around the same as the general population, 20-25%. So even though they may still be in the army, they may still be angry, and as Bashar Assad or Saddam Hussein or any other tinpot dictator will tell you, when the bullets start flying, people can change sides pretty quick. What happens when a government declares war and a quarter of the soldiers don’t show up or show up for the other side. A lot of dead kings and warlords would be happy to explain it.


So here we are, with our government blindly doing things that even a halfway competent thug warlord would know not to do, for reasons that, well, I’m not entirely sure what their reasons are beyond the stated reasons. Perhaps there are other reasons for a military vaccine mandate. Maybe it’s not really about the disease or military readiness, and more about seeing who is loyal and not. If that’s the case, maybe there are plans in place. Maybe they will surveil these refusers and make sure to prepare for anything they might do. Our leaders seem to retain considerable faith in our intelligence apparatus despite questionable results going back a couple of decades at least. Even if they’re planning for such a contingency, it’s an awful risk. Just using the FBI and/or CIA and arresting a bunch of people before anyone dies will have real consequences. It’s another little indignity that may influence whoever remains of our soldiers, and it will not go unnoticed or unexploited by divisive political forces. That’s the problem with where we’re at. The wedge is firmly planted through America’s people, and every little provocation pushes it a little further in. We’ve already had one “insurrection” this year, and I don’t count that because it’s more of a riot that got out of control because our hapless leaders did not prepare enough security. In Russia, or China, that sort of thing would never happen, because those governments do understand human nature, and how power really works at the basest level. There would never be too little security. There would be way too much, and there always is. A few thousand ordinary citizens storming the Capitol is not a real “insurrection”, but I suppose given how far removed our leaders have become from reality in general, perhaps some of them actually thought it was. Well, 5,000 soldiers storming the Capitol would be a real insurrection, and if the difference between the two wasn’t immediately clear, it would be when they started counting the bodies. In the wake of a real violent insurrection, not even the most idealistic media apologist for our incompetent corporate overlords, nor even the most strident flag-waving Patriot, would have any illusions left about what America is, and is becoming.


And that’s just one possibility. What if the few thousand soldiers don’t try to stage a coup, maybe they take over a town, or a small state with a sympathetic population. Maybe the governor calls out the national guard and half of them side with the rebels. How many men would die on both sides, and in a civil conflict, every casualty is an American, every citizen caught in the crossfire has their name and picture on the evening news. Don’t assume our military could easily or quickly resolve the conflict. There’s a reason guerilla warfare has defined nearly every major conflict of the past half century. It works. Consider that nearly two decades of fighting in Afghanistan to depose the Taliban and keep them out of power ended with… the Taliban back in power and an exhausted America turning tail and running because our leaders suddenly realized they can’t afford to spend any more money and resources on pacifying a strategically unimportant backwater nation when we might have to spend a whole lot more money and resources fighting China a few years down the road over things a lot more important, or more important to our leaders anyway.

Yes, it’s getting stupid here in America and it seems our military, the last institution that still commands more than token public trust is not immune to the profound political idiocy that is a far more dangerous and deadly plague than Covid. I can scarcely imagine what our leaders are thinking, or if they’re thinking at all. My personal opinion is that they’re infected with the same hubris that characterizes all aristocrats throughout history to one degree or another and to a far greater extent in wealthy and powerful empires. They are powerful people used to getting their way and who think they should always get their way because they know best. Whenever one side or the other gains power, they do whatever they possibly can with no regard for the other faction, seemingly not realizing or not caring that every election can swing the pendulum back the other way. Rather than accepting that neither side will get all of what they want, they keep trying to cut each other’s throats and hoping against reason they can acquire some type of lasting control of government. Neither side seems to understand the reality that using coercion and government power to attempt to control the opposite faction is likely to have the opposite of the desired result, and that even in the unlikely event one side or the other achieved some level of permanent control, it would only make things worse, because when people don’t believe they can assert their right to self determination through the political process, they will assert that right in other ways. That, for the record, is what I’m afraid of.

I personally am a pacifist when it comes to politics. I subscribe to the view that passive, nonviolent collective resistance and individual civil disobedience have shown historically to be the most consistently effective way to resist oppression, if people have the patience, dedication, and self-control to maintain it. I would wish that people everywhere could stand up for their rights and freedoms in the same way as a Gandhi or Martin Luther King, and that eventually, we might peacefully achieve as much or more than could be gained through violence, but wishing for a thing does not make it so, and patience, discipline, and self-control are in short supply these days. There’s also the grim reality that powerful people with power and influence rarely give it up without a fight, and the people who profit from a a global economic empire controlled from the megacities of Europe, Asia, and America are unlikely to allow people to reassert local authority over their lives, their laws, and their well-being without a prolonged struggle of some sort. The Neoliberals, or the globalists, or the capitalists, or whatever other nasty name you want to call them, will eventually fail, just like the Communists, the Nazis, the colonial empires, the Caliphate, I could go on… The question isn’t whether they will fail, but how long it will take and how much damage they’ll do in the process. The one thing the people have going for them is that they spend as much time fighting each other as they do fighting to keep their ruling system in place.

If I saw competence in our leaders, I’d be more worried. The Chinese government, now they’re competent, competent enough to build concentration camps and get most of their people to accept it, competent enough to get the world’s media corporations to self-censor content, competent enough to avoid any consequences for failing to contain an epidemic that infected the whole world, competent enough to use economic leverage to bully much of the world into quietly accepting all of the above and more, etc. They scare me, because they don’t believe in individual rights at all, and are extremely competent in the use of power to control and manipulate people and nations. The CCP are, to this writer’s mind, more dangerous than either the Soviets or the Nazis, and could not be defeated without great cost. They aren’t trying to change human nature, but manipulating it for the purposes of tyrannizing and oppressing their people, and that makes them worth worrying about.

Our leadership, though, can barely get out of their own way. Despite ample evidence over the past two years, people storming the Capitol or taking over sections of city, they behave as if everything was perfectly normal. They’ve already piled failures upon failures to get us to this point, and there’s no sign of stopping. The current President seems to me to be a nice old man, and it’s nice we don’t have to cringe at some stupid or impolite remark he made on an hourly basis, but he’s not really better as a President, or even very much different. It’s still the same ‘my way or the highway’, ‘we’re right and you’re wrong’, absolutism with a different set of absolutes. After all, who would dare challenge the government? The people won’t do anything. We’re the richest and most powerful people in the world, in the history of the world, with the world’s largest army and the best technology. We can force people to do whatever we want, and they can’t do anything about it. What could possibly go wrong?

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Divided we stand

A house divided against itself cannot stand. It’s a biblical precept most famously quoted by Abraham Lincoln on the eve of one of the darkest chapters in American history. Lincoln invoked the phrase two years before the war as something of a prophecy of things to come. He predicted, accurately, that cultural differences as stark as those that existed between the free states and slave states could not continue indefinitely in a single nation. I wonder if Lincoln imagined even then the amount of blood and treasure it would take to beat one side into submission, because regardless of how one feels about the cause of the southern states, that is what happened, and the cost was high. More Americans died in the first civil war than in both World Wars and Vietnam COMBINED. War is ugly, and civil war is doubly so. Whether the good obtained, an end to slavery, was worth the cost is a question for priests and philosophers and one I will not answer here. What I will say is that if I were in Lincoln’s position, I would probably have allowed the nation to peacefully dissolve then and there, not because of subsequent history. Indeed, given the USA’s importance in the subsequent century, it’s continued existence almost certainly benefitted the greater world. No, I would let the union dissolve then because of what I consider to be greater truths, human nature is immutable, actions have consequences, and a man with a gun to his head may do what he’s told, but that doesn’t mean he likes you.

Historically speaking, war doesn’t solve most problems. There are a few occasions where it does work. When the problem is a single man or a small group of people who, through some combination of charisma, guile, cunning, and luck manage to acquire great power, war is an excellent solution. One has only to expend enough power to remove said group. In a less enlightened technological age, this happened quite regularly. Most lands had some equivalent of a king and if his personality was strong enough, he governed by his own wit, or if rather he lacked in intelligence or will, some adviser or group behind the throne wielded real power. In either case, getting rid of the problem is as easy as getting rid of the man, and the two most common methods were assassination and war, and those familiar with history will know that both were far commoner than they are now. In the modern world, this is less common, but it can and has happened, in Nazi Germany for example, where a relatively small group of fringe politicians took advantage of a weak government and unique historical conditions to hijack an entire nation, turn it into a war machine, then unleashed it on the world. Imperial Japan was similarly controlled by a small group of military officials who held sway over the emperor who was regarded as a demigod. War wrapped up those problems quite nicely. The architects of Nazi Germany were killed, jailed, or driven into exile while the Emperor of Japan changed his mind when confronted with certain defeat and possible complete destruction, surrendering on the sole condition of his retaining his title, a condition necessary for his people to accept defeat. These are the exceptions and not the rule.

On the other hand, wars over religion, or culture, or race, or anything else more complicated than the whims of a few individuals never fix anything. A number of crusades were fought, nominally to free the holy land but more accurately as a counteroffensive to the advance of Islamic empires in the previous several centuries. Historians can and do argue ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, but neither side eliminated the other completely. Both Islam and Christianity remain to this day, and thanks to the vagaries of history and the short human lifespan, the once warred over holy land is now occupied by neither faction, but by the nation of Israel, which claims descent from a group that occupied that same area earlier still. Later on, many, many more wars were fought between Catholics and Protestants within Christianity, yet neither faction ever eliminated the heretics. Both factions remain, having decided, reasonably, that whatever differences may have existed, violence would not resolve them. One can look all over the world where these differences exist or have existed, Sunni and Shia, Hindu and Muslim, Hutu and Tutsi, etc. Has anybody ever successfully eliminated a culture, religion, or even a political difference, permanently, through war, ever? Our own civil war probably qualifies as the nearest thing to a victory. The slaves were freed and slavery was permanently ended in America. That was the goal, but we shouldn’t forget it wasn’t the ONLY goal. The north also wanted to permanently change southern culture away from its agrarian, plantation roots. They wanted to ensure that the newly freed slaves were educated and treated equally. The tool to achieve this goal was Reconstruction, an expensive and ultimately futile project which was almost universally opposed by the defeated white southerners through any and all methods short of violence, and which was ultimately abandoned twelve years later as part of a political compromise to resolve a disputed election, an afterthought for an exhausted north tired of spending money and political energy on it. The lesson to be learned here should be familiar to my generation. Nation building doesn’t work anywhere. Whether white, black, brown, or otherwise, people are still people. The Arab Spring failed because democracy doesn’t magically change people. Populations with large majorities of religious fundamentalists elected predictably fundamentalist leaders which was much worse for us than the military strongmen who were overthrown. You can’t make radical jihadists of the 2000’s into moderates any more than the reconstructionists could make southerners of the 1860’s be less racist. It doesn’t work that way. It never has. When, if ever, will humanity learn the lesson.

Why, you ask, write about this now? Because I see commercials advertising “end racism”. That’s nice and all, but why stop there? Why not “end greed”, “end violence”, “end crime”? It’s absurd on its face that any thinking, rational adult should entertain such a vapid statement of vague good intentions as useful or meaningful. It’s the public advocacy equivalent of a Disney fairy tale, a feel good story for innocent children who must be sheltered and protected from the harsher truths of the world. We shelter our children because they are young, still developing, and not yet ready physically or mentally for the sometimes cruelty and evil of the world. We should not, however, delude ourselves. There will never be an end to racism, any more than there’s an end to violence, or greed, or envy, or any of a number of other ugly human traits. Such is the nature of humanity, and it is immutable. Now, one could, of course, argue that I’m simply not considering all the alternatives. After all, if there were no racist people, that would end racism. Perhaps, if you believe, as some do, that tribalism and discrimination are not hard coded into our biology at a genetic level, then the task would simply be a matter of eliminating every racist person. Well, eliminating an entire group of people, even millions of them, has, in fact, been attempted before, but genocide, like war, has yet to prove successful. Now purging people because of their views is not the same as purging based on race, and one need not actually *gasp* kill people, just silence them to be sure their evil ideas don’t spread. Alas, this too has proven futile on every occasion. The various gulags and re-education camps of the last century did not eliminate the capitalist plague. Yet, some forlorn few are still attempting such solutions, like a certain nation which finds the Islamic values of a small portion of a distant province to be inconvenient to its totalitarian value system. One might have hoped after the defeats of the twentieth century, totalitarians everywhere might have learned the lesson and adapted more practical tactics, but alas, that elusive utopia where everybody agrees and nobody rocks the boat is too sweet a candy for too many to resist, and the harsh truth a pill too jagged and bitter to swallow. The truth is that there is no such thing as utopia, communist, capitalist, or otherwise. There never has been and never will be. It’s as much a fiction as pink unicorns, though unlike pink unicorns and fire breathing dragons, the lure of utopia is no innocent escape. It can, has, and will continue to inflict great suffering on a great many people simply because some people will go to great, great lengths to preserve their own delusions.

I write this now because, a month after the election, I see a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth from both sides. There’s a lot of division in this country. To put it another way, America is, as it always has been, a very diverse and multicultural nation. In most places, nations exist where cultures exist. Germany is a country. German is also a language, a culture, a people. The same could be said of France, Japan, or Russia. Most nations share a common history, nationality, and language. They share a set of values. They retain their identities as a member of those peoples even if they don’t happen to live within the current borders of the actual country. Not so for America. There is no unifying nationality, ethnicity, or religion. Our language, English, was borrowed from an older nation. America was a colony of England that declared itself a nation by fiat, and fought a war to gain independence, (which, actually, is probably one of the few things wars can accomplish). Never before had any such thing been attempted. Oh, there had been rebellions before, of conquered nations and peoples who rose up against their conquerors, of one religious faction against another, or one cadre of nobles against another, but the attempt to create a nation where none had ever existed was something new. The thirteen colonies that became the United States were already very different from one another in culture and values. Americans were largely, but not exclusively, English. There were large numbers of Germans, Dutch, French, Scotch, etc. as well. Those distinctions used to matter more. There was no black vs. white as most races agreed on the superiority of their own race back then. Still, even within the world of ‘whites only’, the founding fathers anticipated the fact that the country they were making would forever be one of widespread disagreement. That’s why our government was, and remains, so much more byzantine and opaque than most of the democracies of Europe or elsewhere. The Germans have a shared heritage, language, and culture that goes back further than the history of Germany itself to fall back on. America does not and this was known and planned for from the very start. It was anticipated by the founding fathers from the very beginning that the people of New York and North Carolina would disagree on almost everything at a fundamental level. The complicated government of powers they created, carefully divided and balanced among the three branches of the federal government and the state governments, was designed specifically for a divided nation of diverse parts that don’t agree on much at all.

Everything else came later. The idea of the USA as a unified whole arguably didn’t event exist before the civil war. The union has never been particularly stable, or unified. That’s the aberration, actually. The United States was only ever ‘United’ when they had an enemy to fight. Two World Wars and the Cold War gave everyone a common enemy, and it wasn’t just the US, either. We had allies then, and it’s no coincidence that the divisions within our own nation have occurred as our relations with cold war allies have also decayed. When there is no enemy at the gate to fight, there is little incentive to put aside the differences between us that crop up. We have common threats, this is true, but history would argue plagues only increase things like racism, xenophobia, witch hunts, etc. Plagues, to borrow a political phrase, are dividers, not uniters. Further the ‘existential’ threat of climate change is so complicated most people can barely understand it, let alone unite against it. The problem with nebulous, intangible threats like plagues and weather disasters is that reasonable minds can and do disagree on the level of the threat and what, if anything, can or should be done to mitigate the threat and whether the prescribed remedy is better or worse than simply doing nothing at all. On the other hand, when a foreign leader declares “We will bury you”, it doesn’t take a climate scientist or epidemiologist for the average person to understand the danger. We have Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and Stalinist Russia to thank for America’s century of unity. With our enemies defeated, we are now free to turn our considerable wrath upon one another. We’re back to what should be thought of as historical normal for a nation as large and diverse as America. We’re divided because we’re different. There’s nothing wrong with that. America is a huge nation, both geographically and demographically, the fourth largest by area and third by population. We’re a diverse nation. Even the common designation ‘white’ includes descendants of English, Scotch, Irish, German, Dutch, Spanish, Russian, Polish, Italian, etc. We have been and continue to be a nation of immigrants from one place or another with very little in the way of common heritage. Why should so large and diverse a people agree on anything? Why should politicians expect them to? I would suggest

The recent election reflects this harsh reality. There was no Trump landslide, nor was there any blue wave for Democrats. Neither party is a monolith, either. Each party represents a coalition of different groups and interests and most individuals don’t agree with a single party down the line on every issue. The divisions that exist between Americans are deep, and neither side is anywhere close to a victory. Yet both sides seem to share a similar strategy. Gain control of both Congress and the White House, then ram their agenda down the other side’s throat while they can. This can work in the short term. It’s largely how Obamacare got passed ten years ago. It’s largely how Trump got his tax cut two years ago. But actions have consequences, and every hostile political act demands recrimination. For every one sided bill or executive order that one side passes, the other feels slighted and when they get power, they retaliate. Nobody is even trying to compromise. Nobody is listening to the others side, and every election starts to feel like an existential contest for both sides, which come to think of it, sounds a lot like a civil war, and as long as we’re well balanced, nothing will happen, but if one side ever got a permanent advantage, like say, some extreme Democrats hope to achieve by granting statehood, and two senators, to D.C. and Puerto Rico, well, that changes the calculus, and threatening to submit a large minority to the whims of a hostile enemy permanently. Well, actions have consequences, and when people are threatened with the destruction of their culture and way of life, when their values are assaulted, then no matter how wrongheaded they may be, they will fight. Similar concerns led to the first civil war, but we forget our history, we grow impatient with our countrymen who disagree, and we walk down the same roads again and again. The thing nobody seems to understand is that who’s right and who’s wrong is quite irrelevant. Enforcing conformity to any set of beliefs, cultural, religious, political, or even scientific has a cost, and it’s a very high cost, and I never hear much about that cost in the diatribes of the far right or far left. Oh, they talk about how much the other side’s sins will cost, but never their own, and too many blithely assume the cost will be paid in money. It will cost not only money, but homes, businesses, towns, suffering, and blood.

So what would a civil war look like today? Would it be like the first one, with rival states seceding and staring at each other across an easily identifiable front? I doubt it. A civil war in modern America would be a lot like other civil wars around the world, like Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, etc. There would be fluctuating zones of control, constant low level violence, checkpoints outside major cities, sieges, atrocities, starvation, IED’s, terrorist attacks, crude or not so crude chemical attacks, all the fun things that modern warfare has invented would be happening next door instead of on the news. Some states would remain relatively stable, and others would be split violently. Borders would change with every border skirmish. There would be blue cities under siege in a red countryside toward the middle of the nation, and there would be armies of police sent to secure food for the masses of the urban belts in the northeast. It’s unlikely that our military would take one side or the other in its entirety. Even if it did, it wouldn’t make much difference. Our military could barely handle Iraq’s civil war, and Iraq is a relatively small nation. Our failure there has made us, quite properly, more cautious about intervening in Syria, Yemen, etc. Not to mention that Americans have more guns per capita than any other nation on earth. Think it’s hard rooting out a group of insurgents in a desert in Iraq? Try it in a dense forest in Kentucky, against an enemy with better guns than the Iraqis, better technology, better explosives, and with inside knowledge of military tactics, or if you prefer, fighting in the streets of the inner city against gangs that grew up there amongst a hostile population, again with better guns, tech, and explosives than most foreign insurgents. Clearly, if the decision to go to war was questionable in 1860, when the most advanced weapons were repeating rifles and artillery shells, it is completely insane to even contemplate in our modern age of guerilla warfare, terrorism, homemade explosives, and weapons of mass destruction. The cost of a modern civil war in the USA is so high it would be impossible to calculate, and that’s assuming it stayed confined to the US. How long would it take for Mexico and Canada to be dragged into the conflict? How many other foreign powers would interfere? The first world war started with the assassination of an Austrian Prince by a Serbian separatist. Might a modern civil war in America set off another? Given our position economically and militarily, I think it’s nearly certain. Surely neither banning abortions nor completely eliminating fossil fuels is worth the hundreds of thousands or millions of lives lost. If people really think these causes are worth fighting World War III, then all of us have already lost.

The thing is, it doesn’t have to be like this. Conveniently, we already have the solution to much of our division built into our government. It’s that same complex division of powers that makes our government so slow and inefficient. It’s called federalism, the division of powers between the state and federal level. It’s the electoral college, which is working exactly as intended. It’s the division of Congress into a House of Representatives based on population and a Senate purposefully not. The small population states like Delaware and Georgia feared that they would have no voice in a new government and they refused to sign any constitution with all representation based on population. Lo and behold, over two hundred years later, the exact situation the founders planned for is occurring. If we held a new constitutional convention today, does anyone believe Iowa, Vermont, or Montana would sign onto a document that only allocated representatives by population. The problem is the federal government has too much power, more than it was ever meant to have, more than the founding fathers planned for, because, in their wisdom, they understood that human nature is immutable. Without checks and balances, a small but dense population could dominate a wide area, something common in Europe of that era, or conversely, a small minority with control of crucial strategic locations or resources could overrule the will of the people. They designed a system where neither could easily occur. That’s why our government seems slow, inefficient, and clumsy. It’s also why it still functions at all. It’s nigh impossible to get complete control of the government without broad public support both demographically and geographically, and that’s not a defect, it’s a feature.

For the record, I didn’t vote in this year’s election. I won’t do the math for you, but voting in national elections is akin to spitting in the ocean. Had I voted I would have voted for Biden for President and McConnell for Senate, for approximately the same reason. They both seem old enough and wise enough to still have some respect for the institutions that have held our disparate parts together for two centuries. They both seem to understand that the constitution is a model we should follow, not an obstacle that prevents ‘our side’ from ‘wining’ or ‘getting our way’. The whole idea that we should regard the other party, the other states, the rednecks or city slickers, as enemies is dangerous and we should all be afraid of where that road ends. The election showed how evenly matched the two sides are. Who’s willing to kill or silence approximately half of all Americans to advance their politics? Show of hands? Anybody?

It comes down to leadership. Our leaders, both parties, should understand that there is no such thing as complete victory for either side. Thinking ‘total victory’ is even possible paves the way to more intense politics, worse divisions, and ultimately, the likely violent destruction of the United States. Some argue we’ve already passed that point. For all our sakes, I hope and pray they are wrong. I believe there is still hope, but I also know we cannot venture much further down this road of trading bitter recriminations and paybacks with every change of which party is in the White House or Senate. We can argue about who started it, but somebody has to break the cycle of retribution or it WILL eventually spiral out of control beyond anyone’s ability to stop it. It will take both sides. I hope President Elect Biden and Senator McConnell can restore some semblance of cooperation and competence to our government. I hope they will work together to show that our leaders can still compromise and get things done. They have the tools to do so. They can focus on progress first where there is broad agreement, and then compromise on other issues. The thing about compromise is it won’t make anybody happy, but it will allow us to move forward. It’s no fun, but that’s the responsibility of leadership. There is broad popular support for spending on infrastructure projects like roads, electric grids, and broadband. We have, for the first time in decades, a real enemy on the world stage. The totalitarian government of China is incompatible with the notions of freedom and individual rights that are written into our constitution. We need to invest in technology to win a technology race that is every bit as important of the space race in the 1960’s. We need to bring back at least enough of our manufacturing base so we are no longer dependent on foreign nations which are unfriendly even if not outright hostile. Above all, we need to find the issues we can agree on, act on them, and try our best to allow each other to disagree on the rest. It may be difficult to stomach that California lets in so many immigrants and gives them all kinds of services. It may be equally difficult to accept that Kentuckians care more about having cheap electricity than the temperature in Guatemala. We may not like what other people believe. It may seem morally wrong. It may actually be wrong, but we have to set that aside, because at the end of the day, none of us is perfect, nobody is right about everything, and we can all be collectively or individually wrong. None of us are gods, none of us are anything less or more than human beings, frail, fallible, trying to do the best we can, and that goes for everyone, even ‘experts’, even politicians, even Donald Trump. Maybe the people we don’t agree with make us angry, but angry enough to kill? That’s a question each of us should ask ourselves. We have to learn to accept these harsh truths about each other or, sooner or later, we’ll start silencing one another, arresting one another, and at the end of it all, killing one another.

It’s time for America to grow up and behave like adults. Nobody gets everything they want. Nobody gets their way all the time. We have to discuss issues, debate, and ultimately compromise without hatred or demonizing the opposition. We have to learn to accept our disagreements rather than trying to erase them. These things will be difficult, for our leaders and for us. We must learn how to accept losses gracefully, or we’ll all lose much more than we can fathom. Above all, we must all think about how far we’re willing to go, what price we’re willing to pay, to gain ‘victory’ for ‘our side’, because in this writer’s opinion, the cost is so high it should be unthinkable, and in this kind of conflict, nobody wins and everyone loses.

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Social Distancing

Social distancing. It seems to be the rallying cry of the year 2020. Stand six feet apart. Don’t travel out of town. Stay at home whenever possible. Avoid bars, nightclubs, and other crowded venues. Limit the capacity of indoor businesses. No more fans at sporting events. Wash your hands often and wear a face covering. I heard the advice just the same as the rest of you. My general reaction was ‘OK, I’ll do those things. I do most of them anyway. This is no big deal. Yawn’. I hate crowded places. I can count on one hand the times I have entered an establishment that could credibly be called a ‘bar’ and I’ve never even considered going to a nightclub. I tend to shop at odd hours to avoid crowds anyway so I’m unlikely to notice the change. Same with restaurants, I avoid the rush. I’m already a dedicated hand washer and I don’t mind an excuse to get even more neurotic about it. I like my sports, but I mostly watch on TV, and if it’s only on TV for a while, that’s OK by me. The mask is a minor discomfort, but not worth raising a big stink over.

No big deal right? Wrong! Everybody is nuts. A lot of people are out of work. It’s been two months since George Floyd and people are still rioting. Could be because they’re all jobless now thanks to lock downs and legitimately have nothing better to do. Arguments about mask wearing are considered political discourse with all the inherent problems. People are a little less friendly, a little more tense, and everybody is wondering how soon things can go back to “normal”.

Whatever social distancing means, it’s clearly a very big deal for a lot of people. It’s rather a reversal of the usual order of things. Social distancing isn’t hard for me. It’s my default setting. I do this all the time, naturally, as easy as most people do the opposite. All my life I’ve been the odd duck swimming against the current, standing too far away from people. All my life I’ve been listening to people say ‘you should get out more’, or ‘you should be more sociable’ or some other ‘helpful advice’, but social distancing suits me just fine. It’s ‘normal’ that I struggle with. I have to admit, it’s sort of nice having the shoe on the other foot for once.

It’s a bit petty of me, I admit that, but this is something of a ‘touche society’ moment for me. The tables have temporarily turned and now everybody else gets to experience the pressure to change their natural social inclinations. Am I chuckling a little watching people struggle with this, especially the younger generation? Honestly, yeah, I am. Now the rest of the world gets to try having to be like me instead of the other way round. Quite a refreshing change, even if its only temporary

Now, before you run me through the grinder or accuse me of being flippant or unsympathetic, hear me out. Yes, people are dying. Yes, it’s awful and I’d rather Covid-19 had never happened (or at least stayed contained in China like it should have under a less authoritarian government; see the post a couple entries down). Yes, this is the first time anything like this has happened to several generations of people. Yes, the economic effects are serious and will be felt for months and years to come. I get all of that, but let’s state facts. Covid is serious but it isn’t the black plague. Even if everybody eventually gets it, and we probably will, only a relatively small percentage will die. That’s a tragedy, but so is a hurricane, or a tsunami, or a war. People die unexpectedly from all sorts of accidents but it usually doesn’t put people so out of sorts.

Part of the problem is probably how our government handled the situation, but I think the greater problem is that people really are under a lot more stress. It’s not just the constant bad news and updates on the death toll. People are also being asked to change their behavior. Social distancing takes an effort for most people. It’s difficult, uncomfortable, and nobody knows how long it will have to last. Giving up a trip to the local bar may be meaningless for me, but it’s a big part of a lot of people’s social lives, especially young people. You can give it up for a while, yes, but for a year or longer waiting on a vaccine that may or may not ever come. It’s really not surprising. Asking people to give up significant portions of their lives for months and years is asking a lot, especially for a disease that everyone concedes is rarely fatal and often not even felt by younger people. Add to that the fact that all this sacrifice, all the lockdowns, the mandates, the restrictions, etc. isn’t going to keep people from getting the disease forever. It’s only going to slow the spread so our hospitals don’t get overwhelmed, kicking the can down the road so the system isn’t flooded with too many hospitalizations at once

Covid-19 isn’t exactly the black plague. It’s not the worst disease to come down the pipe. The fatality rate could be as high as 1%. To give you a comparison, the fatality rate for smallpox was 30%, meningitis is just below 15%, ebola’s fatality rate varies from 25% to as high as 90%. The reason this particular molehill has been made into a mountain comes down to two facts that make covid-19 a problem. Fact 1: the virus is highly infectious, spreading quickly and easily from person to person, even those who don’t develop symptoms. Without shutdowns and social distancing, a lot, maybe most, of the country would have already gotten the disease, so many that a lot of people would have died at home from a lack of medical care, and nobody wants that. Fact 2: our entire healthcare system, from medicine to testing to the manufacture of PPE has been optimized for efficiency and profit but NOT resiliency. The system works well under normal conditions but can fail catastrophically under stress, or put more simply, if too many people get sick at once, there aren’t enough hospitals or doctors or nurses or medicine to go around. The reasons for that state are complicated and will take work to address. Excessive corporate greed, lack of accountability, prioritizing profits over emergency planning, too much globalization and not enough local sourcing, too many people moving too easily across national borders and insufficient means to keep track of them all, failure to stockpile crucial supplies, the list goes on and on. What to do differently next time and how to fix things so a pandemic doesn’t become a civilization level crisis is a longer discussion one our society will have to address eventually, but there’s not much we can do in the short term to change it.

What can we do now? Most of us can’t do much other than social distancing, and even that isn’t going to save every person from covid-19. Whatever choices our leaders have made or will make, they won’t be ideal. You can’t fight a pandemic without casualties and costs any more than you can fight a war and bring every last soldier home. The world doesn’t work that way, and life isn’t fair. No matter what we do, a lot of people are going to die. That’s been inevitable since the first covid passenger got on a flight out of China, but that should not be daunting to us. The fact is that the risk of death is with us every day. To live is to risk death daily. We could die in a car accident, drown swimming in the ocean, or even fall down the stairs, but we still drive to the beach from our multistory homes and/or second floor apartments. We could keel over from a heart attack doing nothing but sitting in front of the TV. There’s room for reasonable people to disagree on what constitutes an ‘acceptable risk’. Some people don’t mind risking getting covid if it means they can continue to work and make money. Some people will empty their savings to stay at home waiting on a vaccine. Nobody has to be right or wrong either. We all have different risk tolerances, and that should be OK.

Perhaps all the sniping is a result of the shared frustrations from all the socializing people can’t be doing. There’s been a lot of controversy about so called ‘covid parties’, and a lot of shaming and finger pointing towards the young people arranging and attending them. Young people, though, like most people, aren’t stupid. They understand risk and they know that they are more likely to die from a number of things besides Covid. They know that, and they want to party, so they do. Their behavior is rational at an individual level, and I, for one, am not going to condemn them over it. Still, there’s a counterargument that the young people get covid and then expose others who are more at risk. That sounds like a reasonable argument but it’s not the end of the argument. A young person might counter by saying, ‘so quarantine grandma. Let her be locked up in her house because she’s ‘at risk’. There are advocates for such an approach. Why should everyone have to sacrifice so much for so few when there are other ways to tackle this problem. Why not identify risk groups and sequester them until a vaccine is found. The cost would arguably be much lower than what we’re doing now, and fewer people would be affected. Either way, whether we sequester our old folks and cancer patients and other at risk groups, or whether we restrict parties and require masks, somebody is being inconvenienced.

It’s not as simple as it seems. Is it better for a few people to make large sacrifices or for everyone to make smaller ones? How do we decide which is better? Do some peoples rights count more than others? Is freedom more important than safety? Is it more important than lives lost? The answer might be different for an affluent business person with a savings of several hundred thousand dollars vs. a single mom living paycheck to paycheck. A lot of people believed that freedom, even someone else’s freedom, was worth dying for when the Civil War was fought to end slavery. It’s not a simple issue. We all have different perspectives, and we have to leave room for others to disagree. Kids going to covid parties and people who refuse to wear masks are not evil, bad people. They just have different ideas about what’s an acceptable risk. They balance the scales of freedom and safety differently Does that put others at risk. Yes, it does, but living in a free country means accepting the risks that come from free people exercising their personal rights. Balancing collective issues like public health with individual rights is among the most difficult issues for a free people. Reasonable people can, and should, disagree, but demonizing and finger pointing demeans us all and reduces serious discussion to a shouting match where nobody wins and nothing is ever settled.

It’s been said that one man should not pass judgement upon another until he has walked a mile in the other man’s shoes. This proverb comes from Native American culture, though to be fair, there are other versions from other cultures. It’s one of those little lessons we learn from stories, called aesops by some after the apocryphal Greek purveyor of fables (though parables would be a more accurate term) that told a simple story to illustrate a profound lesson. This one is about empathy, appreciating the feelings of others, understanding that the next man’s experiences are not like my own, that he faces his own problems, his own struggles. It’s also about simple humility, accepting that each of us is only human, and since nobody has all the answers, we should listen to each other instead of reflexively passing judgement on everyone we meet. It took a long time for me to understand that the people who urged me to be more ‘social’ and to be less ‘distant’ were not trying to taunt me or ridicule me or force me to conform to some idea of ‘normal’. Most probably thought something was wrong with me, and knowing how they would feel if they spent as much time alone as I did, they gave me advice they thought would be legitimately helpful. They didn’t understand how different I was, and I possessed neither the confidence or self-awareness to explain. Either way, that realization allowed me to let go of a lot of resentment I had carried around a long time.

I’m humble enough to admit I don’t know what the ‘right’ way to respond to Covid-19 is, or whether there is such a thing as a right way. If there is an optimal path, I doubt we’ll be able to figure it out until years later. The fact is nobody knows the the right response. Nobody has ever gone through this before. We’re facing the unknown, and nothing’s scarier than the unknown. Let’s all be humble enough to realize none of us have all the answers. Let’s give each other space to disagree while we’re socially distancing.

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The Easy Way Out

Electricity, Water, People….

 

Name three things that follow the path of least resistance.

Some things are funny, some things are true, and some things are funny because they’re true. Most things are funny when Johnny Carson says them, and I used to love those old sketches where he puts on his ridiculous turban, reads three seemingly random words, and then gives the punchline, some unexpected commonality or question that they all answer. Funny or not, it’s hard to deny that most people do the easy thing in most situations. People are always looking for easier ways to do almost everything, and that isn’t a bad thing. That’s why we have all kinds of technology, everything from smart phones to jet airplanes. Almost every invention represents a successful attempt to make some aspect of our lives easier. It’s all about getting more results for less effort. We even have an economic statistic to measure it, productivity, basically the total of our economic output divided by the number of people. People are more productive than ever before in history, and getting more productive all the time. In fact, we’re so productive that at this rate, we will soon reach a point where our various inventions do so much of our work that there isn’t enough work to keep everyone employed, at which point our leaders may just throw up their hands and give everyone money to spend (universal basic income), because it’s…wait for it… easier than coming up with some scheme to give everyone some kind of life sustaining job. It’s kind of funny when you think about it. We wouldn’t be so productive and efficient if we weren’t so unfailingly lazy.

Unfortunately, our tendency towards laziness isn’t always a good thing. There are some problems that, by their very nature, defy easy solutions, problems like racism. Nobody can honestly say racism isn’t an issue in our society. It’s a problem, and it’s not a uniquely American problem. It’s a human problem, and like most other aspects of human nature, it’s hard to change. Changing a person’s mind is harder than building a robot, or an army of robots. There’s no instruction manual, no algorithm, no surefire way to change somebody’s attitude. There’s no shortcuts, no quick fix, no way to increase your productivity. Some people can be persuaded to change, and others can’t, and there’s no way but one mind at a time.

So, when I hear things like “We need to eradicate systemic racism”, I’m skeptical that such a goal is realistic, or possible at all. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Some battles are worth fighting even when they can’t be won. In such battles, we should be wary of our own tendency to take the easy way out. Our current climate of racial awareness sprang from the death of a black man at the hands of a white officer. The officer has been arrested and one hopes he will be punished for his crime. Still, this example is hardly an isolated incident. Racism, felt or subconscious, among police officers seems to be a serious problem, and the fix won’t be easy. It isn’t something that can be fixed by Congress passing a law or the President issuing a statement. There’s very little actual law enforcement at the federal level. It’s a few departments like the FBI, or ICE, with a very limited actual jurisdiction. Some law enforcement is at the state level also, but the vast majority of officers, and the vast majority of incidents, are locally controlled, by whatever city or county. That’s thousands of people serving in hundreds of cities and towns throughout the US. Some are better and some are worse, but none of them are the same and all will have unique problems based on local laws and conditions. If this problem is ever going to be solved, it’s going to be solved slowly, one department, one officer at a time. There will be no declaration of victory, no major news story, just a lot of individual people doing the hard work one policy shift, one city council vote, one police chief replacement, at a time. Forget about eliminating racism in society. Even the limited task of reducing racism in policing is difficult, a long hard slog of unrewarding, unheralded slow and steady progress.

That doesn’t stop people from looking for an easy way out. NASCAR bans the confederate flag, The Washington Football team changes its name, Confederate statues being taken down.

Name three easy things to do that show an opposition to racism but don’t actually do anything to improve the lives of minorities.

I suspect that the only thing the above three things will accomplish is to make a few (probably white) people feel better about themselves. Knocking down a statue is pretty easy. All it really requires is a truck, some rope, and the permission of whoever owns said statue, or if you don’t mind going to jail, just the truck and the rope. It won’t change the historical fact that slavery happened. It won’t erase any of the real prejudice and discrimination that black people of today face. It won’t change much at all really, but it’s clearly anti racism, and it’s easy. Banning a symbol like the confederate flag is almost trivially easy. It just takes the leaders of an organization agreeing to ban something. It won’t really change the attitudes of any of the people who fly that flag. It won’t make them less racist. It’s more likely to just piss them off, which may or may not be constructive in the larger picture. Changing a team name just requires one person, the owner, to make a decision. Even if the owner doesn’t want to budge, it’s a business and enough financial consequences will probably change his mind. It won’t change the historical fact that European colonization decimated native populations with disease and conquered them one by one over a span of several centuries. It won’t give any Native Americans any of their land back, nor will it erase the results of several centuries worth of legitimate grievances. Still, it’s easy, so why not?

Don’t get me wrong. I actually favor two of those three things. I’m leery of banning Confederate flags because censorship sets a dangerous precedent. True, it’s not the same as the government banning flags, but for many reasons, some discussed below, we shouldn’t get into the habit of reflexively banning things we don’t like. The Washington team name should have been changed years ago because the entire issue is trivial and meaningless. Changing the name puts an end to it forever and we can all move on to more important things. I particularly favor the removal of confederate statues, because I always considered them rather ridiculous. It’s odd when you think about it. After all, the south lost, and the world is better for the result. The USA that won two World Wars and defeated Nazism and Communism would not exist if the south had won. Maybe that’s a biased view, but the victors always write the history, and we don’t honor the leaders of any of the other countries we’ve beaten in wars. I doubt anyone would favor putting up a statue of King George III, or Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, despite the fact that both of them could legitimately claim, like the confederates, to have ruled part of the historical United States at some point or other and could legitimately claim to enjoy the support of some significant segment of the local populations of the territories in question.  I suspect a lot of these confederate statues were put there as a way to remind outsiders (including white outsiders) that even though the south lost the war, we still don’t like you. They couldn’t carve a giant middle finger pointing northward so they settled on statues of generals and soldiers instead.  They probably should never have been erected in the first place. That, at least, was the opinion of General Robert E. Lee, probably the most commonly depicted confederate leader. Yes, in what is one of those little ironies of history, Lee opposed confederate memorials and would probably want the several hundred statues of himself in various small southern towns taken down. He wanted America to reconcile as a nation and not carry the seeds of division into the future. If the man himself didn’t want statues of himself, who are we to argue. Lee’s objections aside, I doubt, the statues mattered much then, or will matter much now. Putting up statues didn’t make the south any more racist than it already was. Taking down statues won’t make our country any less racist now. Neither will banning confederate flags or changing team names. There are decent arguments to be made for all these things, but the idea that these things will really make a difference against racism should not be one of them. Symbols don’t create the things they represent. It’s the other way around.

The bottom line is this. Erasing the symbols of racism won’t change racist attitudes. It’s not a new tactic. The Soviets tried to ban symbols of religion. There’s still plenty of religious Russians but not too many clamoring for the return of the Politburo. The Chinese government is still doing this, in Tibet, with Falun Gong, and worst of all, in Xinjiang ‘education camps’ for Muslims. Despite their Orwellian, high tech surveillance state and brutally efficient government, they won’t succeed either. This never works, yet no matter how much history passes, some things mankind never seems to learn. All the way back to Egyptians, Hebrews, Assyrians, and Babylonians, numerous conquerors have tried to replace the gods and traditions of conquered people with their own only to create militant minorities that never really go away. The few conquering empires who tolerate or incorporate the beliefs and traditions of locals, like the Persians, Mongols, and Romans, last centuries. Still, many before and since refuse to heed the lesson of history and continue to try because it was, and always will be, pretty easy to knock down a statue.

Our modern life, with all its devices, technologies, and conveniences has gotten all of us used to getting things the easy way, so we’re confused when confronted with something that can’t be solved that way. Changing attitudes, shifting cultures, is very hard. Our instinct is to treat those who hold differing views as enemies, suppress their attitudes, censor their speech, punish their beliefs. It’s a fault we all share, rich or poor, black or white, religious or nonreligious, Democrat or Republicans. It’s our tendency to take the easy path that dooms us to fight the same battles over and over. Really changing attitudes like racism is hard. Tolerating people whose attitudes turn your stomach is hard. Listening to opinions that make your blood boil is hard. It’s easy to love your friends, your family, the people that look, act, and think like you. Even the wicked love those who love them. Loving your enemy, tolerating the thing you can’t stand, listening to the words you will never agree with; that’s the harder path, and the only true path to peace.  The end of racism won’t come at the behest of kings, popes, presidents, or pop stars. Change like that only comes from the people. People will either change it themselves, or they won’t. Destroying symbols of hate doesn’t destroy hate. Only love can do that. We should remember that before we pat ourselves on the back for knocking down statues.

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Grasping for Words

I’ve been struggling to come up with a blog entry for about a week now, trying to decide what I could or should say about the death of George Floyd. For starters, I will point out the obvious. Watching the video is physically sickening. The video is one of the most awful, gut wrenching things I’ve ever watched. It’s a murder, committed over a span of nearly ten minutes, complete with the victim begging for his life. The most similar experience I can register in my lifetime was when I watched Passion of the Christ. I’m even struck by the parallels between the last words “I thirst”, “I can’t breathe”.  That’s the closest emotional equivalency for me, but this was not a reenactment of ancient history, but a recent event, a poignant reminder that no matter how much we advance in technology, our human failings remain. And it was so senseless, so needless. How can a person, a police officer, be so indifferent to suffering, that he can listen to a victim begging for his life, and yet not even care enough to remove his knee from the victim’s neck. It makes me angry, so angry I wanted to jump through the screen and tackle the policeman. I wished someone, anyone, would intervene. I would like to think that if I ever witnessed something similar, I would at least try to intervene. It’s hard to say what one would do in hypothetical situations where courage is required, though. Would the bystander effect have taken hold. Would the uniform and a fear reaction deterred me? I don’t know, but it probably wouldn’t have done any good, with three other officers basically standing guard watching it happen. Maybe that sounds silly, and it probably is silly, but those were my honest thoughts. I can honestly say I hate that policeman, and hate is a word I do not use lightly. Whatever he gets, it’s probably better than what he deserves.

This visceral reaction makes it difficult to put my experience into words. I’ve always been more comfortable talking and writing in the realm of thoughts and ideas, where words have precise meanings and I can be thorough and exactingly accurate. Feelings, rather, are comparatively untidy, blurry things, defying precise understanding. Perhaps that’s why I rarely speak about my feelings. Indeed, most people would describe me as an exceptionally detached and dispassionate individual, in keeping with the stereotype of Asperger’s. In fact, it has been theorized by some that people with Asperger’s lack empathy. I can’t speak for others of course, but based on what I’ve read and learned, I would say it’s more accurate to say we don’t experience empathy in the same way as others and we don’t express our feelings as visibly as most others. My emotional experiences are intense, but usually private. My personal, unscientific theory is that my emotional reactions are more powerful than others, and because of that, I learned from a very young age to suppress most of it so I’m not a crying mess all the time, and that this suppression of emotion is the cause of many of my other psychological problems. I still have vague memories from my early youth of going to the verge of tears when someone stepped on a bug. It’s harder to get to me these days. It takes something powerful to generate an emotional response in me anymore, and the Floyd video has such power. It has such power that it demands a response, even from me, and something beyond the intellectual musings I usually offer. There is only so much that can be endured before it is too much, and this is too much, too much for any of us. It has to stop. 

I can relate, therefore, to the protesters, even the ones breaking windows and looting stores. That’s how angry the video made me personally. I’m inclined to forgive crimes against property. I was raised to believe, and still believe, that there is a profound gap between crimes against property and those against people. What is a few broken windows or stolen TVs against a man’s life or against systemic oppression. People are more important than things, more important than money. Things can be replaced, but lives cannot. I lament the loss of small business owners who lose their livelihood and dreams when their business, burns. Many of them are minorities themselves, and many serve precisely the underprivileged neighborhoods where protesters live. That, however, is where my sympathy ends. I frankly do not give a shit how much stuff is stolen from the corporate stores. Let it burn, I say. If we looted every Wal-Mart in America, it would barely put a dent in what they owe to this nation. They would still have a long way to go before they paid for the full impact of their cheap merchandise, low inventory, underpaid employees, tax evading world. It’s not hard, honestly, to follow the money from massive retailers to overpolicing. George Floyd’s alleged crime, passing a counterfeit twenty dollar bill. Ahmaud Arbery’s crime, selling individual cigarettes in violation of local ordinance. Breonna Taylor didn’t even commit a crime, but happened to be present when police officers broke into an apartment looking for drug sellers. So there it is. Drug sales and trivial property crimes. Is this worth civilian lives, or the lives of police officers. I’m okay with spending whatever it takes to catch murderers and rapists, but to have people dying over trivial crimes is just absurd to me.

You may notice I’ve written quite a bit without speaking about race or racism. The main reason for that is I don’t think I’m properly qualified. First, is my Asperger’s. Collective, social concepts like race are difficult for me to fathom, and always have been. When I first learned about it in school, I remember thinking how utterly stupid and counterproductive this thinking is and wondering why anybody would ever behave this way. It has always seemed an absurd and rather hollow concept for me, and I think that’s because I don’t sort myself into this or that social group and then tie my group affiliation to my self worth in the same way that I gather ‘normal’ people do. That’s probably related to my Asperger’s, yet race always struck me as egregiously pointless. Some social concepts, like nationality or religion, make a certain amount of sense. After all, people from different religions have different and sometimes contradictory beliefs, and nations have always struggled against one another for resources and influence, all the way back to when humans had tribes and clans instead of nations. By contrast, race seemed to be just a way for groups of people to discriminate against each other using an unimportant and arbitrary physical trait that has nothing to do with anything. There is more difference between breeds of dog than races of humanity, genetically speaking, so there is no basis for distinguishing between races. That has always been my thoughts on the subject, and since youth, I have viewed people with overt racist beliefs as the lowest common denominator of idiot and people to be avoided as a general rule.

Secondly, as a white person, I don’t really have to suffer the effects of systemic racism. As a member of a majority group, however involuntarily, I don’t get the short end of the racism stick. The effects of racism usually fall upon whatever group is in the minority, although there are a few examples in ancient history when the opposite has happened. I can’t speak to what minority communities experience. As a white person, I can’t really truly experience racism in the same way an African American could, even if I were ‘normal’. Social science even has suggested that a lot of racism occurs at a subconscious level and thus, I may be saying and doing racist things I’m not aware of. This would actually not surprise me at all as I often run afoul of ordinary social convention without intending to, even as an adult. Since my youth, I’ve often been guilty of saying inappropriate things simply because I have no built in social compass. What I do have is learned from years of practice, and my success is predicated on remaining mostly quiet in social situations. I often wonder how many times growing up, I might have offended my African American friends without realizing it. I also wonder whether they didn’t say anything because of how prevalent racism is in society. I feel doubly unqualified to say much about race, yet one cannot discuss George Floyd without acknowledging how race plays a role in policing.

What, then, should we do now, is the question? I think, for starters, it is incumbent upon us white folks, first and foremost, to listen to the voices of the protesters, particularly African Americans. We white folks probably won’t ever really ‘get’ racism, so we should listen to the people who suffer from it. Instead of suggesting our own solutions, let’s listen to our minority communities. Let’s listen to their ideas for how to change police and policing. Let’s put minority leaders in positions of authority and give them control over how and how much their neighborhoods are policed. I’m always in favor of more local control and this is no exception. Let’s put people in control of their neighborhoods, down to the street level, and let’s give them the authority. Let’s stop talking and start listening. Let’s listen to the voices crying out in protest, and let’s help them find new ways forward. Until I saw the video, I didn’t realize it was this bad, and I feel like anything I say will fall short of what’s necessary, so I’ll leave it to more qualified voices to decide what changes are necessary.

All I can say with conviction is that our leaders have failed catastrophically and completely during most of my lifetime. Too much power wealth and power is concentrated in the hands of a few who seem woefully unequal to the task. As citizens, we must hold our leaders accountable for their failures. That’s what protests are about. That’s what riots are about. They are about power, who has it, and who doesn’t. At bottom, widespread protests and riots are about reminding people in power that their power requires our consent. There is nothing more American than getting in the streets and demanding change from our government and accountability from our leaders. The right to assemble and petition the government is part of our constitution, the first amendment. Nationwide protests, even to the point of rioting, are both good and necessary. So long as they are not engaged in physical violence against other human beings, so long as their ‘crimes’ consist of broken windows and stolen stuff, I will never have a critical word for protesters. Target can replace their broken windows and stolen inventory. Nobody can give George Floyd back his life. Protests, riots, can be ugly and chaotic, but they are a necessary part of the democratic process. The murder of George Floyd shows what’s wrong with our country. The following two weeks, the protesters in the streets, average people of all colors, creeds, backgrounds, rising up to demand change, gathering despite the risk of coronavirus to address the wrongs of our nation.  That’s something to celebrate. That gives me hope, because it tells me that people still value life, and want to do what’s right, even if sometimes our leaders don’t seem to care about anything but GDP growth and stock prices.  I’ve written before, and maintain here again, that we’re a lot less divided than the media would have us believe. The real divide is between the elites that run this country and the average people, black, white, and otherwise, who live there. I grew up in a mostly white county in Kentucky, where I still live, and we even had a protest here in Benton Kentucky. I don’t see much overt racism here, and I’m not sure I would recognize it if I did given my limitations, but the county has a reputation in the area as being a hotbed of racism. Still, we even had a Black Lives Matter protest here. Here’s a link.

http://westkentuckystar.com/News/Local-Regional/Western-Kentucky/Peaceful-Protest-Held-in-Benton.aspx

It was only a hundred or so people, but given the population of the county could fill less than half the seats in an NFL stadium, that’s something at least. The police blocked off the court square and everybody stayed peaceful. If most of us agree that Black Lives Matter, even in the land of guns, good ole boys, and confederate flag waving idiots, there’s hope for us yet.

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The Return of History

I’ve only witnessed a couple truly significant historical events in my lifetime. One was 9/11, an event that, while traumatic, turned out to be an isolated incident. The other was the fall of the USSR and the end of the Cold War. The End of History. That’s what one intellectual called it. The evil empire was fallen. Good had triumphed over evil, hope over despair, freedom over oppression, and prosperity over poverty. A new era of peace, prosperity, and freedom had arrived. No more wars. No more oppression. We were on our way to a harmonious globe where militaries, armies, and borders were an artifact of the past. It didn’t work out as well as we planned. For most of us, it didn’t work at all.

I was nine when the Berlin Wall came down, and eleven when the Soviet Union collapsed. I had enough sense of history and intelligence to realize in an intellectual way the historic importance of these events, but being young and emotionally even less mature than my age, I didn’t really feel it. Even were I more normal, I couldn’t experience that moment the way my parents must have, who remember duck and cover drills. I have only vague notions of what living in that world was like, under a constant fear of nuclear annihilation. The USSR of the late eighties was already well into decay and the threat of nuclear war had already begun to fade. I can only imagine what people who had lived under that cloud must have felt, a sense of relief and exhilaration as decades of lurking fear suddenly collapsed. No more war, no more conflict over ideology, and a rising tide to lift all boats. I wonder if, after decades of fear and weariness from the struggle, in that moment of irrational exuberance, we declared victory prematurely.

After all, the USSR may have collapsed, but you can’t defeat ideas by knocking down statues or collapsing governments. Communism, after all, didn’t die as an ideology, and really communism was never the problem. Marxist ideology was simply used to dress up and rationalize a much older idea, an idea as old as humanity itself, that people are tools that exist to serve the the state, the kingdom, the Empire, etc., that ‘society’ as a whole is what matters. People don’t have rights. They aren’t smart enough to have freedom. They need guidance from people wiser and ‘more civilized’. Left to themselves, they’re just dumb beasts, so the state, the king, the emperor, the wise and benevolent rulers will decide what’s best for the group. No matter the justification, that line of thinking always ends the same way. Whether the noble and powerful appeal to Marxist utopianism or Hobbesian pragmatism, the result is always the same, a small group of privileged and powerful people make all the decisions for everyone else. That idea was already ancient by the time of Marx or even Hobbes. The American values of individual rights and freedoms are, historically speaking, a fairly new idea. American freedom, at the country’s founding, was the exception, not the rule. Of course our founders didn’t go far enough. They allowed slavery and ending up paying for that failure in a bloody war. They did what practical adults do when faced with disagreement. They talked things out and compromised where they had to in order to build a new nation very different from any nation of that era. Though imperfectly implemented by imperfect people, the ideas that founded the United States were a fundamental departure from European tradition, and they impacted the French Revolution which occurred just a few years later, and helped to light a spark that would move the world towards democracy and freedom. Perhaps it was understandable then, at the end of the cold war, people perceived that they had reached the summit, that the long struggle for human rights and freedoms had been one, that those earlier ideas of commissars and comrades, bourgeois and proletariat, nobleman and peasant, patrician and plebeian were defeated forever. In the broader context of history, however, it was inevitable that some other threat to freedom would come from somewhere without or within. Freedom is not free. It never has been and it never will be.

There was something else that happened when I was nine. I’m a very visual learner, and I was doubly so when young. Images tended to make more of an impression on me than words then. Probably why I gravitated towards movies, television, and video games rather than books. There was one particular image that captured the spirit of the Cold War for me. It was a famous photograph of a democracy protester standing in front of a tank column, standing up for freedom. Most of us have seen the famous photo. It really captured my idea of what it meant to stand up for freedom. To a young American boy, a single man standing up to a column of tanks, demanding his freedom. That’s what America is supposed to stand for. That’s what the Cold War was about, but that didn’t happen in Moscow, Prague, or East Berlin, it happened in China.

I don’t know what happened to the man standing in front of that tank. Maybe he really did stand there and get run over. Maybe they just stopped, arrested him, and sent him to prison, never to be seen again. Maybe he’s still out there somewhere living anonymously. Who knows, but that image always captivated me. Nobody actually knows for sure what happened to the so called ‘tank man’, though there are theories and speculations about his possible identity, but in truth, we aren’t even sure of his name, and there’s a simple reason why. China was not a free country then and it still isn’t. They had no independent press. They were not allowed to criticize their government. The Chinese government did what authoritarians through history have always done. They forcefully put down the protesters, and the entire incident was censored and swept out of public view. To this day, most of the Chinese people have never seen the photo, because their government still decides what they can and cannot see. Their government decides what words they can read, what internet searches they can make, what foreign products they can buy, and a lot of other things as well. In America, we believe that all people everywhere have individual human rights, and that government’s job is and should be to guarantee those rights against oppression both foreign and domestic. In China, the opposite holds. The state is all powerful and the individual exists to serve the state. Some still call it communism. They call it “Socialism with Chinese characteristics”, but whatever you call it, it’s the same old tyranny. The colors may change through the tapestry of history, but the pattern is rather predictable. In China, a small group of wise leaders, in this case the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP, decides things for everybody, and the ordinary citizen has no rights for himself, and very little influence over national leadership. China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, was not elected by anybody except a small committee of important party leaders. He recently abolished term limits so he can stay in power indefinitely. Starting to sound familiar yet?

A lot of people smarter than myself had a plan. They thought if we traded with the Chinese government, if we welcomed them onto the world stage, they would gradually move towards a more free and open society. It’s easy to criticize in hindsight, but I honestly wonder why anyone thought this. I can’t think of any historical examples of this happening nor any underlying psychological principle that economic prosperity leads to freedom and greater human rights. There’s no obvious connection between trading, economic success, and individual freedom, other than the fact that the one country that based itself on individual freedom happened to have a lot of both. There were and are nations that are both poor and relatively free, and there were and are nations that are autocratic, repressive, yet also wealthy and technologically advanced. It should not be forgotten that at the outset of World War II, Germany was the most technologically advanced nation on earth, and among the wealthiest by most measures. They had largely recovered from the Great Depression by investing in infrastructure, production, and research. At the same time, they built maybe the most evil regime in human history. Had Germany not been defeated, would some magical force have liberalized their society? I doubt it? Should we have stood up to Hitler earlier in the decade, before he started a global war. Certainly, as soon as we recognized what he was and the kind of world he wanted. America now faces a similar dilemma, because once again, we find ourselves dealing with a nation that now, at this very moment, has millions of people in concentration camps.This China is very different than the one we hoped for.

Let me be clear. I don’t blame the Chinese government for the coronavirus. Even if it came from a research lab, that represents a failure of safety protocols, an accident, a most horrible accident with dire consequences, but not an act of war. I do blame the Chinese government for attempting to cover up the threat and silence dissent from their own citizens. I do blame them for placing their information control before the lives of their citizens. I blame them for failing to be open and honest with the world about this threat. Instead of letting international authorities see what was going on, they shut everyone out so they could control the narrative. This, after all, is what police surveillance states do. They control and manipulate information to advance their particular agenda. They jail protesters. They silence dissent. The government’s agenda and image comes before people’s rights and even their lives because individuals don’t matter. Only the group matters, only the state matters. Does anyone honestly believe that if the virus had started here, our media wouldn’t have seized on it immediately? Our media may not be up to the standards of previous generations, but at least it is still free, and people are free to disagree with it. Nearly anywhere else, coronavirus would have been an international news story, as it should have been, because most of the world either has a free press, or doesn’t have enough power to shut out the free press of other nations. America, and most of the world’s people, believe people have the right to information not controlled by the government. If the virus had originated in Germany, England, India, or Brazil would those nations have cut off an entire region and prevented any information from coming out? I doubt it.

We thought China had changed since 1989. We thought that even though their government might be authoritarian, we could trust them to act responsibly as a global citizen. We were wrong. We probably should have seen this sooner. We know that the Chinese have occupied Tibet and suppressed their culture and religion. We’ve watched for several years as the CCP sent ethnic minorities into what they call “reeducation centers” (read concentration camps). Last October, they brutally put down pro-democracy protests from people demanding the rights the CCP supposedly guaranteed them when Hong Kong was annexed in 1997. The CCP are making victims of their own people. It turns out China hasn’t changed much after all. They’ve gained wealth and significant military power, but that famous Tienanmen Square photo could have come from three months ago as easily as thirty years ago. This begs the question, did the cold war ever really ended, or did one side just forget what it stood for and decide to stop fighting?

Because the Chinese didn’t stop. They knew they couldn’t match the US militarily in 1989, so they used a different strategy. They feigned friendship to engage the world, and to use the world’s trading network. They built themselves up economically. They built factories and ports and infrastructure. They subsidized entire industries and manipulated currencies to become the lowest cost producer of a whole range of goods. They made themselves into the world’s factory. They bought foreign companies to access new technology, and stole whatever they could. They manipulated foreign businesses into participating in this process when they dangled the carrot of artificially low cost production and a potential market of billions to sell to. Is it any wonder corporate CEOs whose vision is both narrow and profit-focused took the bait? China’s goal all along was self sufficiency, technologically and economically, and they are very nearly there. Once they don’t need the world, the mask comes off, and we see the real villain lurking behind. 

Now in the midst of a crisis, America can’t produce enough virus tests, personal protective equipment, drugs, ventilators, the list goes on. The corporations that could produce some of these things even had to be forced to do so through an archaic wartime law. So much for corporate social responsibility. It bears remembering that the US won two World Wars not because our technology was better (it wasn’t), nor because we had a bigger military (we had almost none at the start of either conflict). We won because we produced more tanks, guns, and planes faster than our enemies. Does anybody believe we could outproduce China today? If China suspended exports to America, we would be scrambling to find ways to get the supplies that are not manufactured anywhere else. Do we trust the CCP that far? That’s not the only card they can play. Many of the rare earth elements needed for electronics are only mined there. Yes, we do have them in the USA, but, surprise, it’s more expensive to mine them here, because we have those annoying rules about worker safety and preserving the environment, which cuts into corporate profits. So America has no mines operating. Sure we could build some, but how long would that take, and who’s paying for it? Further, the Chinese hold massive amounts of treasury securities. They could wreak havoc on our economy by selling them off. They use the same tactics with other nations, using debt as an economic weapon to get their way. They’ve been practicing economic warfare for at least two decades. As they need us less, they’ve been doing it all these things a lot more openly. Trump may be an irritating, hateful, blowhard, and he may have hurt the country in dozens of other ways, but he realized what China was doing before many of our so-called experts. 

In hindsight, one is forced to recognize the brilliance of the Chinese strategy. They looked farther ahead than the CEOs who only looked at profits and losses or our politicians, who didn’t care who did what as long as the ‘economy’ as measured by Wall Street bankers, stayed strong. As a nation, we wasted time and money on endless conflicts in the hopeless quagmire that is the Middle East while we wasted our political capital on fighting such critical issues as microaggressions, trigger words, who can use what bathroom, who can marry whom, and businesses not saying ‘Merry Christmas’. Clearly, we were a nation with some very misplaced priorities.

That has to change, and soon. We can’t fight another superpower if we can’t stop fighting each other over who is offending whom and whose feelings get hurt. Yes, it’s important to have those discussions, but let’s not lose sight of the bigger issues. Let’s find some issues we can agree on, like the need to rebuild America’s infrastructure and manufacturing base, the need to attract the best and brightest minds from around the world through a more enlightened immigration policy, the need to control our technology and prevent it falling into the wrong hands and being used against us. We can even reach compromises on tough issues like emissions reduction and energy if both sides can suck it up and compromise. Maybe the democrats allow a few more dams and nuclear plants to be built alongside those windmills and solar panels and maybe the republicans concede to some kind of carbon tax since we already tax almost everything else anyway. We can’t afford not to resolve these issues, because for the first time in thirty years, we have an adversary, and this adversary is a lot more formidable than the USSR was.

The task before us is daunting. This opponent is not like the Soviets. Russia as a nation always had geographic and economic disadvantages that made it an unlikely superpower. China has no such disadvantages, and based on what we’ve seen so far, their leaders are a lot smarter than the Soviets were. They have more vision. They’ve been weaponizing economics for a long time and they’re very good at it. They have the technology, some of it stolen, to track every citizen through their phone and build a new kind of super hi-tech surveillance state that would make Orwell blush. We have to stand up to the CCP, or accept a world where “reeducation centers” are an acceptable solution to social problems. We should be prepared that our old nemesis, Russia, may choose to throw in their lot with our new one, contributing a still formidable military and vast amounts of territory and untapped resources.

We will face great challenges. We are not starting from a good position economically, and we have a lot of ground to make up in terms of matching China’s manufacturing base and infrastructure. It won’t be cheap. We will immediately find ourselves in a technological race similar to the arms race of the last war, and we must do whatever it takes to win, just as we did what it took to win the space race. What could the CCP do to expand their surveillance state with artificial intelligence. Can we afford to lose that race? We must spend to ensure our military is prepared for this adversary and this threat. We cannot afford to keep fighting the last war. Future wars are as likely to be fought in space or cyberspace as on traditional battlefields. Above all, we cannot afford to waste more resources on the hopelessly corrupt nations of the Middle East. They seem incapable of letting go of their affinity for religious fundamentalism and repression. We should not be engaging with them either.

We will face an entrenched business community that stands to lose billions on what they have already invested in China and lose access to that market. Already the billionaires and multinational corporations that spent millions building factories in China are marshaling their remaining political clout to advocate a return to business as usual. They don’t want to pay for the lack of vision that led them to spend billions in a country led by an authoritarian government, and they’ll try their best to steer our course back towards the status quo as if the virus never happened. Just pretend we didn’t see an attempt by a police state to cover up a health disaster. Just pretend that their actions didn’t put the world at risk. The voices of economic reason, as they will declare themselves to be, will say things like ‘decoupling is impossible’ or ‘we can’t undo globalization’. Let’s not listen. After all, what if Washington and Jefferson had believed the experts who said it was ‘impossible’ to overthrow the British crown. What if Lincoln had believed it was ‘impossible’ to free the slaves? What if Martin Luther King had believed his dream was ‘impossible’. Impossible is just a word, a word often used by people who want to avoid making the tough choices, the right choices. Some people would rather sacrifice our values to save their stock prices. Some people, to save their personal fortunes, would pay instead with the soul of our nation. Let’s not let them. Something is only impossible until it isn’t.

Let’s demand our leaders, be they Republican, Democrat, or Independent, put our values first. Let’s demand our leaders bring some manufacturing back, and let’s make sure that globalization in the future means trading with nations that are friendly, environmentally responsible, and most importantly free. The USMCA was, IMHO, a good start. Let’s work on similar deals with other allies like the U.K., Japan, India, and South Korea. Let’s recognize Taiwan, who should be the world’s model of how to handle the coronavirus crisis, but is denied a voice in international bodies like the WHO because of China’s claim to the island. Let’s guarantee Taiwan’s freedom against a hostile China. Let’s strengthen our ties with other nations that share our common spirit of human freedom, and reject those that do not. Let’s demand better of our leaders now and in the future. The era of putting profits before principles needs to end immediately and decisively.

I’m almost forty, and maybe it’s naive, but I’d like to believe the America of my early youth isn’t just a ghost of history. I’d like to think that we as a nation can still come together and stand for something, even when we don’t agree on everything. I’d like to think we can resist the radicals on all sides and confine them to the fringes where they belong lest they sell the freedom hard won by generations of Americans for the sake of whatever extreme dogma they preach. I would hope we can come together and work out compromises like rational adults rather instead of throwing tantrums like spoiled children who don’t get their way. We’ll see if America is up to the challenge of another cold war, because one side never really stopped fighting, and they aren’t going to stop until the rest of the world bows to their ambitions. Doing business in China means accepting that censorship is OK, dissidents get arrested, and ‘reeducation centers’ are not concentration camps. The information control is perfidious. The CCP is already trying to influence the speech and conduct of foreign citizens (see last October’s NBA controversy), companies, and governments (see Chinese diplomatic attempts to influence the EU’s coronavirus inquiry). The implied threat is economic retaliation the way governments once threatened military action. Warfare has changed a lot throughout history, but it’s always been there, and I don’t anticipate it ending anytime soon. History, it seems, hasn’t ended after all.

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Capital G

I used to stand for something, but forgot what that could be… trading in my god for this one, and he signs his name with a capital G.

-Nine Inch Nails, “Capital G”

I’ve not written here in a long while for a reason. I’m trying to finish the final book of my series, a task I am failing in a most epic way. I am in a state where I can barely stand to open the file. Everything I write sounds awful to me when I reread it, so I’ve rewritten the same four or five chapters, I don’t know, ten or more times at this point. I’ve tried reading more fiction to stimulate my imagination, switching to more story-based video games and less strategy stuff, doing more yard work for exercise. I even got a new dog to replace the one who died last summer at only six years old (This wasn’t the only reason I got a new dog or even the most important one, but I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t a factor. His name is Yoshi, by the way, and he’s wonderful).  I’ve even gone back and reread the Lord of the Rings, one of my original sources of inspiration. Nothing seems to be working. So, my thinking now is maybe by writing something, anything, I’ll jog myself from my writer’s block. 

I also haven’t been inspired to write about anything else. I don’t feel any need to write about the many typical subjects I enjoy, like sports, video games, music, etc. There are already so many excellent sources for those subjects, and most of them say more or less the same thing, that I don’t feel I’d be adding much by joining the chorus. If there is value in my writing, it lies in my unique perspective on life, in the oft discussed differences between myself and the vast majority of humanity.  Today, I happened to be inspired by a video sent to me through email. It’s a little bit funny, a little bit angry, a little bit practical, and surprisingly enlightening. It reminds me of the comedy ranting of the late George Carlin, and the video contains a similar level of profanity, so you have been warned.

Like the aforementioned comedy of George Carlin, I find this profanity laced tirade both funny and at the same time profound. It makes one laugh, and also makes one think, and both of those things are good, and hard to accomplish.

I’ll briefly summarize for those who couldn’t take the profanity or the thick New York accent. He’s basically saying that, yes, he’s grateful for the $1200 stimulus checks, and it will help, but he’s also saying that it’s not nearly enough to keep a lot of people going. He particularly dislikes the notion of mortgage payment ‘furloughs’ which he explains are agreements to delay payment for a month, or in this case, three months. However, he points out that at the end of the three month furlough, all the money that was delayed is due at that point, immediately. The problem seems obvious to any intelligent person, and he says as much in a much more animated way. How does one who has not been paid in three months suddenly come up with three months worth of mortgage payments. This is a problem the average fifth grader could identify.  It sure would be helpful if our government had some kind of, you know, plan to get people through this without massive bankruptcies, foreclosures, homelessness.

What’s funny is he’s only suggesting extending mortgages so people don’t get dumped on with several months payment due at one time. He’s not even suggesting that *gasp* the banks actually forfeit a couple months of mortgage payment income for the greater good of our nation, nevermind that’s exactly what every American under a quarantine or stay at home order is doing. He’s just asking the banks to delay payments for a while and not ask for a lump sum whenever the crisis has passed, but even that seems to be a bridge too far. God forbid the banks lose money for any reason or even *zomgz* go bankrupt. We can’t have that, now can we. It would be a travesty of epic scale. Worse than nuclear war or the zombie apocalypse. People wouldn’t know what to do. We’d all be wandering the streets in a daze because of the lack of billionaires and banks to guide us. Where would we be without mortgage based securities, amortization tables, or compound interest. Civilization would come to an end and we’d all be eating rat meat over garbage cans within three months, so whatever we do, let’s make sure the banks don’t lose money.

I have to wonder when we got to the point where we prioritized bank profits over everything else. It wasn’t in 1929, when banks were allowed to fail and many did. It certainly wasn’t in the 1933, when we passed the law that created the FDIC to ensure the savings of bank customers, not owners, would be protected if a bank failed. It wasn’t during the rest of the 1930’s, when  Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms focused on building up our infrastructure and putting people to work, not bank profits. It certainly wasn’t during World War II, when businesses and private citizens alike worked together and sacrificed together to win a global war. It wasn’t even like this in 1985, a time when every town had its own independent bank or credit union, and most of them were small enough nobody cared if a few stupid ones overextended themselves, and that rarely happened.

Yet, here we are, the same place we were in 2008. The government bailed out the banks, and like the spoiled children of overly permissive parents, they learned nothing. A relatively small disturbance, part of the economy, not the whole economy, shutting down for a couple months sends them to the verge of bankruptcy. We can’t possibly suggest the banks forgo a few months of profits, or even delay them. Just asking them to wait three months is nearly too great a burden to bear. Nobody outside of crazy people on the Internet (and maybe Bernie Sanders, the patron saint of crazy people on the Internet), would dare suggest that loan payments be partially forgiven.

It’s interesting that nobody in the media seems to be making suggestions like this, or pointing out problems like these. I have not heard any politician calling for anything beyond the ‘furloughs’ mentioned in this gentleman’s rather justified rant. It’s not just impossible, it’s inconceivable, and yes, unlike Vizzini I know the meaning. It means we cannot even consider the possibility. The very idea is beyond us. Our thinking is now so constrained that anything that inconveniences the moneyed elite, the multinational corporations, the wall street banks, etc. is automatically out of consideration, and the strictest taboo. Trump may sit in the White House, and he is awful in a number of obvious ways, but he doesn’t really run the country. The ugly truth that nobody can quite grasp is that nobody runs it. We are living in a version of Orwell’s 1984. Granted, it is not as nasty, or ugly, or unpleasant, as what was written. Like many if not most fiction writers, Orwell resorts to hyperbole largely to prove a point, but a gilded cage is still a cage. Like a minimum security prison, it can seem fairly comfortable by some measures. Maybe that’s why we don’t easily make such a comparison? Still, like in that book, we feel powerless, and most of us, for all intents and purposes, are powerless, because nobody runs our civilization anymore. The system runs itself, and that system is driven by a word that starts with a G. It isn’t generally capitalized, maybe because nobody likes to acknowledge how much power it has over us, but it certainly has enough influence in our world to warrant it.

The title, by the way, comes from a song of the same name and the quote is part of the chorus. It’s a mildly political song by a band called Nine Inch Nails. They are a little bit too hardcore for my tastes usually. This song was actually one of their more radio friendly hits. There’s some profanity, but if you made it through the video, this shouldn’t bother you.

https://www.metrolyrics.com/capital-g-lyrics-nine-inch-nails.html

There was a small controversy when the song released over what the title, “Capital G” referred to. This was during the War in Iraq when George W Bush was president, and he was (arguably) even less popular then than our current president is now, so a lot of people speculated the Capital G referred to George Bush, but the songwriter, Trent Reznor, disputed the claim at the time. No, he was referring to the real driving force of our society, something bigger and more powerful than any one man, something with as much power and influence, and many would say more influence, than God Almighty. Reznor later clarified what should have been obvious from the lyrics.

I imagine anyone who knows the song or read the lyrics knows the answer at this point. It’s obvious when you think about it. It’s one of those things that, I suspect, makes people uncomfortable to talk about because in our society, it’s inescapable. It’s one of those things about life that we don’t particularly like, but accept because we can’t change it, or at least don’t know how. That’s not all we know. We know things used to be different, better in many ways. We can’t put our finger on what changed, or why, or when, or how we got to this point in history, but we know there was a time when “Capital G” didn’t run the whole country along with most of the world and everyone in it basically unchallenged.

The answer, of course, if it must be stated outright, is Greed. What drives banks to leverage themselves so aggressively to maximize profit rather than saving for crises such as the one we now find ourselves in? What leads to market speculation that creates bubbles, crashes, corrections, and recessions? What force ensures the most unscrupulous, the most covetous individuals in society receive the greatest rewards and accolades? What drives companies to replace American workers with cheap foreign labor, or even machines? When was it that this one force became so powerful that it fairly drowns out all other concerns?

If you’re waiting for me to provide an answer, you’ll be disappointed, because I have none. I can’t escape it either. I sell compatible printer cartridges, most of which are made by factories in China, (where unions and the businesses themselves are both ultimately run by the ruling party), or other foreign nations where labor is cheap and, by extension, disposable. The printer manufacturers use similar factories to make their own nearly identical cartridge, and then mark them up many hundreds of times above what it costs to make them, using legal devices like copyrights and patents to attempt (so far unsuccessfully) to monopolize the market for consumables like ink and toner then force consumers to pay whatever they decide to charge. I often say they could put me out of business tomorrow if they simply priced their consumables at a reasonable profit margin. They won’t, though. They’ll continue to try to use various forms of suggestion, coercion, and legal tactics, to discredit and force out compatibles, and compatible makers will continue to try to outmaneuver them, and I’ll continue to buy them from cheap foreign factories. I will rationalize that I’m saving my customers money, and that’s very true. I’m not making anything close to the fortunes that HP and Canon are making. It’s a good rationalization, but it’s still a rationalization. For whatever reason, this is what we’ve come to.

We’re all guilty, and we’re all innocent, but we’re not all equally so. As Spider-Man might suggest, with great power comes great responsibility. It’s up to those who have the power to be leaders, to at least try and rise above the system. Me, I’m nobody, just another peasant. Never aspired to be much else. Like my ranting video inspiration, I won’t be giving back the $1,200 stimulus check. I’ll take whatever I can get, just like everyone else, to get by as well as I can and I’ll help my family if and when needed. Maybe people who are much better off than me should do more. Maybe the banks should voluntarily forgo a few months profit for the good of the nation, but even if they can do that without going bankrupt, they won’t. They won’t do any more than they have to, no more than the government forces them to do, and that probably won’t be much at all. After this long post, I think we all know why.

We used to stand for something, now we’re on our hands and knees…

 

 

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One Year Later

It’s now been a few days over a year since the tragic shooting at Marshall County High School that snuffed out two promising young lives. One of these was a neighbor of mine, Preston Cope. I knew him as a polite, well spoken young man who treated others kindly. Our dogs loved him and so did everyone who met him. He was a promising young man from a loving family. He loved playing in the woods and learning baseball from his father. I will miss watching him grow into the good man I know he would have been. Our world is diminished now that he’s gone. It still makes me angry, every time I think of it.

Nobody is debating what happened. Everyone knows what happened and who did it. The perpetrator is known and identified. There are witnesses, video, plenty of evidence. There’s no mystery, and the prosecution has very little to prove. There’s just the tragedy of it, and the lingering question, Why? That’s the question I’m left with. What leads an innocent child to turn into a mass murderer? That’s the thing that I find disturbing. With most murders, there’s a clear motive, money, revenge, jealousy. We can understand motives like that. They can be found in our oldest stories. They persist through generations. They reflect our human failings. They are familiar. We’re familiar with people killing people out of rage, jealousy, anger, over money, love. We’re also familiar with war. People kill each other by the thousands and millions in conflicts between nations over land, resources, and power. Recent tragedies however, seem to lack purpose. Columbine, Heath, Sandy Hook, Parkland, Aurora, etc. all share a common characteristic. They leave us wondering why. We have the how, the when, the where, but we’re missing the motive. There doesn’t seem to be a very good reason, even years later. Some talk of bullying, some of self-esteem. Some blame the parents, the schools, or the guns themselves. Many try to use tragedies to score points for unrelated political causes. None of this is new. No indeed. Murder is old, bullying is old, the blame game is old. These tragedies are new. That means something has changed. We all know it, we all feel it, we can see the results of it, but we can’t put our finger on what it is. I would suggest that we may be asking the wrong questions. Perhaps instead of asking why, we should instead ask ‘why not?’.

I admit I’ve followed the Marshall County shooter, Gabriel Parker, in the news. To hear the reasons he gives for murdering his classmates is chilling. He suggests that it was an ‘experiment’. He asserts that he is an atheist and that he believes all life is meaningless. He just wanted to see what would happen. In other words, there’s no ‘why not’ for him. He certainly did not consider prison a sufficient deterrent. If a person is determined to commit a crime, there’s little we can do to stop them. Maybe there’s just no saving some people. Maybe there’s no explaining evil. Maybe I’m wasting my time trying to understand. Still, I have to wonder if children killing children doesn’t say something about the world we as the older generation have given them.

We live in an increasingly cynical, materialistic age. For better or worse, science has been raised above religion, philosophy, art, and relationships in our society. We dissect every problem under that materialistic lens, picking apart every aspect of our world and of ourselves hoping to glean some insight. We dissect, we analyze, we reduce everything to its barest and most simple form. We cite studies from prominent universities, research papers in scholarly journals, and double-blind studies. We talk of genetics, mental illness, psychology, and brain development. We marginalize traditional religion and spirituality in general in favor of cold hard empirical data. We judge others by how much they produce and how ‘useful’ they are to society. We assign value according to income, and accept the stratification of our world into the haves and the have nots. We increasingly replace people with machines because the latter are cheaper and easier to control. We have built a world of things, of money, of profits, of mechanistic regularity. The problem is that this world isn’t just ours, it’s also the world we pass to our children. The world they are born into molds them in countless ways, and there’s only so much any parent can do. When we send the message that people are worth only what they produce, that a person’s income signifies their value, that people are no different than animals, that humans can be easily replaced by machines, our children perceive. Should it come as a surprise that some of them choose to carry such principles to their most extreme logical conclusion? After all, if all life is meaningless, if we’re nothing more than bags of meat walking around for a while before we die, if nothing we do matters, why shouldn’t we just go about murdering one another? If there’s no God, and our feelings are just an illusion provided by electrochemical reactions in our brain, why should murder be any different than any other act? If morality is a social construct, a result of our herd instincts, why should any individual recognize any moral authority? Why not do whatever we want, whenever we want? Why not just light a match and watch the world burn? Why not? Too many of our children are finding no answer to this fundamental question.

I see these tragedies as a sign of the times we live in, the test that our generation faces. Most of us are well aware of how our environment, our reality, can shape our thoughts, feelings, and ideas, but few acknowledge that the opposite also holds. If we continue toward a world of pure materialism, where money is king, science is god, and scientists are priests who hand down gospel truth to the world, the more Gabriel Parkers we are likely to have. To be fair, science and those who enshrine it have answers to life’s profound questions, but not everyone will accept those answers. If society excludes and marginalizes the alternatives, if there is no room for disagreement, then we are no better than the crusaders of our past who fought over the right way to worship. If we continue to assert that men and women have no special value, just intelligent apes, no different than animals or maybe even robots, we should not be surprised when our society comes to look more like the packs of wolves or troops of baboons from which we are descended. It is no coincidence that the development of religion accompanied the rise of civilization. When we consider the answers to life’s deeper questions, when we expand our minds beyond what is plain and sitting right in front of us, we take a step away from the beasts that we were. We aspire to something greater. Regardless of the answers we come up with, regardless of who is right or wrong, when we ask questions about the meaning of life, the nature of the soul, the unique nature of humanity, we move towards being more than we were before, something better than just bags of meat, and what is more human than that struggle. That unique struggle is an important part of the human condition, and we ignore our spiritual impulse at considerable peril. How strange it would be if we came full circle as a species, rising above the apes and animals to build great civilizations only to decide it was all a mistake after all and go back to killing each other on the whim of our instincts.

I’m not telling anyone individually what to believe. Each of us has a right to choose his or her own beliefs, to answer life’s questions in his or her own way. I believe that freedom is important. History speaks to those who listen, and when one group attempts to impose a single set of beliefs on the whole of humanity, history speaks of tragedy, tyranny, oppression, and hate. This world has seen enough crusades and crusaders, and we should all embrace love and acceptance before judgements, lest we recreate history’s tragedies. The dogmas of materialistic science are still dogmas, justified or not, and imposing them upon the world will ultimately create the same conflicts that every other dogma has created throughout history. Imagining that we are so much more enlightened than the generations before is, that our truths are so much more unassailable than our ancestors, is the conceit of every generation. It speaks more of our hubris than of the truth. Let us choose instead to remain humble. Any of us may be wrong. Let us listen and understand each other rather than preach and proselytize.

There is much in our society that could lead children to the conclusions reached by one Gabriel Parker, but that does not negate personal responsibility. Holding people responsible for their actions is the first and most important element in building a world where life has meaning. The assailant deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison. That, at least, will uphold the meaning of the lives lost. Excusing his conduct for reasons like youth or mental illness would send the opposite message. In the coming months and years, people will use excuses like these to attempt to excuse the perpetrator or reduce his culpability. Every detail will be inspected and analyzed. Every excuse will be put forward, and that is part of the problem as well. We pay too much attention to the bare facts and not enough attention to the messages we send. We agonize over single brushstrokes while we paint a picture that is increasingly bleak and grim. We analyze every leaf and branch of the tree while the forest burns around us. The landscape we paint, the forest we care for, is the one our children will inhabit.

We must remember that our children are always watching, listening, and learning. When materialistic ‘facts’, money, and objectivity become more important than the emotional and spiritual well-being of actual people, we invite tragedies like this. Children reflect the world we give them, and in them, we see our own failings. School shootings are a warning that we are failing our children and ourselves. We are all responsible. We create their world, their entire reality. We should, above all, be sure it’s something worthwhile, wholesome, and good. If it isn’t, that says more about us than them. Children need to be taught the value of human life, they need to inherit a world where their lives, and all lives have purpose and meaning, whether the data says so or not. The alternative is a world where nothing matters, everything is relative, and shooting into a crowd is no different than swatting at flies. A world where everything is stripped down and reduced to cold materialistic facts is not one many of us would want to live in. Each of us should pause and consider how our words and actions shape the next generation, and fundamentally shape the world around us. We should be quicker to affirm the sanctity of life and the importance of our human souls, rather than so quickly give voice to our doubts. In this cynical age, we must work harder to check our cynicism. This will be a difficult path. It may require us to stand against the powerful and the influential. It may require us to hold our ground against popular opinion. It is always harder to swim against the current, but for the sake of our children, we must alter our course.

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Truth isn’t Truth

Or so said Rudy Giuliani to an interviewer last month. The interviewer responded with the typical level of shock, and even started to argue the point, going so far as to suggest that the statement would wind up an internet meme. It probably will spawn multiple memes, actually, and no two of them will have exactly the same motivation or meaning, and that, actually, is the point that New York’s former mayor was awkwardly attempting to make. It isn’t that truth isn’t truth, it’s that truth isn’t Truth. The capitalization is important, because it shows a subtle, but critical difference.

As for the context, They were discussing whether President Trump should or shouldn’t testify before the special counsel investigating whether or not the candidate Trump did or did not have contact with a Russian official and whether such contact involved discussing Russia’s alleged intervention in the election of 2016.Whew, what a mouthful that was. Fortunately, or unfortunately, as your preferences go for my readers, I’m not going to write an entire essay on the President or the investigation. I don’t care one way or the other, because it doesn’t really matter. Issues like this are, like the Lewinsky scandal, a show for the partisan viewers, the equivalent of a baseball game between the political parties where zealous partisans can ooh and ahh at each new twist in the case in the same manner as a sports fan when the home team hits a home run. If the Republicans win, they won’t be able to do that. That’s my take on that situation.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, this entry is about philosophy. Indeed, I’m going to take Rudy’s statement on its face, because its something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to lately. When I heard that Giuliani had made such a statement, it actually increased my respect for the man. I already respected him for his leadership of the city of New York after 9/11, but this showed me that he actually has a deeper grasp on the meaning of truth, the nature of humanity, and the inseparability of the two. You see, if we add the capitalization truth isn’t Truth, then Rudy is right, and almost inarguably so. Indeed, philosophers have been debating the fundamental question ‘what is truth’ for thousands, yes thousands, of years. There are dozens of schools of philosophy, each with divisions and subdivisions thereof. As you might expect, they don’t all agree. Some are religious, others not, some dodge the question entirely, while some posit that there is no legitimate answer. So, when Rudy Giuliani says that truth isn’t Truth, he is demonstrably correct. The search for Truth has been happening for millennia, and will continue for the foreseeable future.

Many of you may not know I have considered myself a philosophical rationalist, since I’ve known the meaning of the word. Rationalism, broadly speaking, means I believe in searching for truth through meditation, logical thought, and careful consideration of the answers to fundamental questions. Rationalism stands opposed to empiricism which instead looks outside the self, to the physical world, for answers. It’s an argument that goes all the way back to Plato and Aristotle, and there are many, many variations under the broad umbrellas of rationalism and empiricism, but I came to my realization through a more plebeian vehicle.

What crystallized my position on the issue was actually a movie, “The Matrix”, a movie which posits a world where humanity has been placed in pods and fed an electronically simulated reality by machines which use the humans as a power source. It’s a suitably ridiculous concept subject to numerous reasonable logical objections, but we’re talking about a sci-fi movie. As often happens, a bit of real wisdom slips itself into the absurdity when a question is articulated by the character Morpheus. He asks of Neo, and of us, “How do you define ‘real’?” His answer is illuminating “If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, taste, and see, then ‘real’ is just electrical signals interpreted by your brain.” At the time, I was enrolled in a philosophy 101 class, and I had a teacher point out that we could all be in the Matrix, right now, and we wouldn’t know it. I’ve always been a skeptic, a doubter, by nature. I don’t trust easily. I don’t take things at face value, I ask questions. I question peoples’ motivations, their reason, their prejudice, their authority, and society as a whole. Most of all, I question myself, for how can I hold myself to a lesser standard. If I were in something like the matrix, how would I know, how would anyone ever know, how would science prove or disprove that particular hypothesis? Would the revelation come as the result of arduous scientific research, or of a vision from heaven easily dismissed as psychosis or drug induced hallucination? I didn’t seriously believe we were all in a simulation, but I couldn’t completely discount the possibility.

Over the years since, I’ve considered many other questions, both mundane and profound. I remain intrigued by philosophy and by the deep sciences that attempt to explain the nature of the universe, and though exploring those questions often leaves me physically tired and mentally exhausted, I am still drawn to it, perhaps as a way to challenge myself in a way most of  life fails to do. I encountered various points beyond which I can make no satisfying conclusion based on logical thought alone, intractable problems with no obvious solution, logical paradoxes, unexplained realities that defy what statistically ‘should’ be true. I started finding them everywhere, even in simple things.

Consider this statement. Either it will rain, or it won’t. This must be true, because it exhausts all possibilities. Both things can’t be true at the same time, except they actually can. I can say with a fair degree of certainty that it is raining, while simultaneously holding that it is in fact also not raining. This is not an example of doublethink, but rather a question of perspective. At any given moment in time, it is raining somewhere on planet earth, and it is also not raining somewhere. So, without further clarifying the statement, either it will rain or it will not, by specifying a particular area, the statement can be both true and false at the same time. I have discovered that many of the questions I asked myself depended upon my particular perspective. If I asked the question differently, it suggested different possible answers. Truth is, to a large degree, dependent upon one’s perspective, one’s individual thoughts, one’s philosophy, their underlying assumptions. As demonstrated by the above example, even the language by which a question is asked can change the answer.

Often the answer says more about the person giving the answer than about the question itself, or about any truth their answer might contain. We are all prisoners of our own assumptions, our experiences, our genetics, our heritage. I’ve often been wrong in life. I used to believe there was a person named Santa Claus living at the North Pole, but no more. My eyes tell me that the chair I’m sitting on is solid, but scientific inquiry tells me that it is not solid at all, but in fact composed of tiny particles which are joined together chemically, but are composed mostly of empty space. The chair I’m sitting on, scientifically speaking, is mostly empty space. If something as obvious as solidity is, in fact, illusory, what else might be wrong with our understanding? As humans, we are prone to error, our senses deceive us, we each hold unconscious biases, assumptions we’re not even aware we’re making.

Those are just the problems of individual perspective. How much more or less fallible are we likely to be collectively. The conventional wisdom would suggest that many people are more reliable than one, but why and how did we decide on conventional wisdom, and is it correct? If biases exist for individuals, why not groups of people? We know that people have a tendency towards conformity. We are aware of some of these biases, and we have names for them, names like racism, sexism, anti-semitism, etc. What other biases might exist within groups of people? Might some be so pervasive that they effect the whole species without anyone realizing it? It is possible. On a more fundamental level, what are the limits of our perception? What if the characteristics by which we understand our world, color, size, mass, energy, force, light, gravity are not the only characteristics of the universe? What if those are just the things we happen to be able to perceive and measure? These are just a few of the questions I’ve pondered over the years. No matter how I approach the problem, I can never reach a certain answer. My inability to ever finally settle on any one particular philosophy led me to a somewhat counterintuitive idea, and it’s rather similar to what was expressed by Mr. Giuliani, that truth isn’t Truth, or rather truth, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, a concept Mr. Giuliani tried vainly to explain to the interviewer. Many, perhaps most, are just convinced they are right, that their truth IS the Truth, the only Truth, the unquestionable Truth.

For someone like me, who believes exchanging and discussing our ideas is how we grow as people individually and collectively, the idea of all mankind uniting under a single Truth is anathema. I find there is a certain kind of arrogance, a haughtiness, in the declaration of Truth, a tyranny of Truth that enables the worst aspects of humanity to surface. If we decide there is an absolute, unquestionable truth, whether religious, philosophical, or scientific, it leads eventually to the denigration and ultimately the suppression of competing ideas. Every dystopian fantasy begins the same way, when one particular group decides to impose a Truth on others, and succeeds in doing so. This is where we get stories like 1984, where truth is decided by the party and tightly controlled. Truth becomes the motivation and justification for indoctrination, thought control, reeducation camps, and in the worst cases, the purging of all dissidents. We don’t have to travel very far in our history to find examples. I don’t need to name them.

Our modern technology and our current culture is not immune to this tendency. I’ve written before on the idea of ‘scientific heresy’ where dissenters to a popular theory are unceremonious labeled as lying heretics, and cast out into the wilderness of scientific thought. Like religious dissenters, they are assigned a derogatory label ‘pseudoscience’, and generally ostracized from the ‘respectable’ people. To the proselytizers of scientific truth, this is justified because they have evidence, but this raises further questions. It sounds reasonable, but who decides what counts as evidence? Why is a double blind study more reliable than the rantings of a madman? We all seem to agree that it is, but why do we think that? Ultimately, I think it comes down to the assumptions we make. In order to have a beginning point for any knowledge at all, we have to accept certain assumptions without question. We have to assume we’re not in the Matrix, or dreaming, or part of some kind of simulation, or, what I suspect is an endless list of other possibilities. We assume the measurements and conclusions we observe outside ourselves,  what we see, hear, smell,  and deduce through scientific study are a reliable way to uncover Truth. Put another way, in order to claim truth, or believe anything for ourselves or anyone else, we must make some leap of faith, however small. We all have faith, but most of us don’t have the courage to name it as such.

To me, the appearance of this same pattern in many different philosophies, religions, creeds, and nations, suggests the urge to elevate and promote some ideas while denigrating and exterminating, others is not a distinguishing trait of any particular creed, religion, or philosophy. Rather, it is a quality of humanity in general, and as it is a bias we all seem to share, we should be particularly wary of it, slower to judge others, and quicker to question ourselves.

In the news, one often hears of a “Post-Truth Era”. This is, I suspect, meant as a derogatory towards people whose ideas tend to question the absolute Truth of those who use the term. It seems to imply that the preachers of truth are unquestionably right, that they act solely for the good of all, that they alone know what is best for their fellow man, In a world of unquestioned Truth, all who disagree must be marked for the evil that they are, hated, reviled, and cast out. I would more accurately describe it as a “Polarized Truth Era”, where two sides, each hell bent on making sure its own Truth triumphs, fight with each other in every way short of outright violence.

It is also a very dangerous time, because regardless of who wins, we all suffer when ideas, even the most ridiculous ideas, are suppressed. What we seem to lack in this era is any degree of humility. Too many are too convinced of their own certitude. We really should understand by now, that regardless of how much evidence we collect, there remains the possibility, however great or small it may be, that we are wrong. Many who have come before us have been equally certain of their own correctness. They were certain the world was flat, certain the earth was the center of the universe, certain the ground they walked on was solid and continuous. What do we think of their certainty now? If anyone asserted such things today, they would be laughed at, but it begs the question, will future generations be laughing at us? To me, that seems all but certain.

If a real “Post Truth Era” were to come, I would be first to welcome it. You see, a world without absolute Truth is a world of absolute Freedom. A world without Truth is a world without reeducation camps, propaganda, or thought police. It is a world without excommunications, witch trials, heretics, or crusades. A world without Truth is a world where each of us, both individually and collectively, can look at the world around us, search our own souls, and decide what we want to believe. It is a world where we can talk to each other and explore each other’s ideas, rather than simply shouting at one another about what is or is not “True”. It is a world where we can accept and love one another, regardless of differences, where we can try to understand each other, rather than convert each other. It is a world where many different ideas can coexist, compromise, thrive, and grow from one another. It may be difficult, because diverse ideas encourage us to think, change, grow, evolve, and those processes are often frightening. We can make it better by consoling, rather than condemning, one another. This writer looks forward to a day when many more of us will accept the notion that truth isn’t Truth.

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