The Casual Blog

Tag: Afghanistan

In Boston, seeing Dutch masters, Four Big Ideas, and some problems in Afghanistan

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I was in Boston this week for the annual meeting of the Association of Corporate Counsel, where I was a presenter in a session on open source software licensing, and a student at various other continuing legal education sessions. Boston was having its first cold snap of the season, and I had neglected to bring a coat. Brrr!

I managed a quick visit to the Museum of Fine Arts, which I’d only visited once before a long time ago. It’s a really good museum! I was keen to see an exhibit called Class Distinctions, Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer. I mainly wanted to see the two Vermeer works, A Lady Writing and the Astronomer. The Lady, who sits at her desk in a yellow fur-trimmed jacket, was ravishing. There were several excellent Rembrandts.

The exhibit was organized in sections according to the social classes depicted, starting with the nobility, through the merchants, and on down to the poorest. When they were made, the paintings served some of the same purposes as paintings today (e.g. status symbols for the high born), and sent elaborate social signals through the clothing, settings, and objects. My art history education was more oriented toward the formal properties of the works (color, line, texture, composition). This was instead approaching art more as anthropology, which seemed worthwhile.

One evening I met up with a couple of old friends from student days for a dinner at Puritan & Company on Cambridge Street. Through the years of career building and child raising, we’d almost lost touch. It was really gratifying to find that we could quickly reconnect. There was, naturally, news: jobs, travels, civic activities, kids, kids’ girl and boyfriends, parents, funny stories. The food (a southern, organic vibe) was good, too.

On the flight back, I was happy to see that I’d finally made it up the airline classification food chain at Delta to Zone 1 for boarding – that is, the first group (after families with children, business, first class, elite, diamond, service members, and others specially designated or needing special consideration). Well, it’s still good. I really like not having to worry whether there’s a place in the overhead bin for my carry on bag.

With some time for travel reading, I finished The Shape of the New: Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World, by Scott L. Montgomery and Daniel Chirot, and I recommend it. The four ideas are the thought systems of Adam Smith (classical capitalism), Karl Marx (communism), Charles Darwin (evolution), and Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton (American democracy). Montgomery and Chirot do a good job giving lively short bios and summarizing the thought systems. They also give helpful context, including predecessors and successors. The second half of the book discusses the counter-enlightenment, including fascism, Christian fundamentalism, and Islamic fundamentalism. There’s a lot here to chew on.

Speaking of chewing, a few days ago, the President announced that instead of wrapping up the long war in Afghanistan, as previously promised, he’s sending more troops there. I was really sorry to hear this, as I’d say our Afghan adventure has been mainly a disaster, but my view seems to be in the minority. For anyone who cares to think more about this, I recommend a piece by Jeff Vaux in the Huffington Post, which is a bit of a rant, but not uncalled for.

Here are some excerpts: “After 14 years of fighting -at a cost of over 2200 American lives, 20,000 seriously wounded, countless mentally damaged and a trillion dollars – it is obvious that we cannot accomplish our stated objectives. The Taliban cannot be destroyed and the Afghan people will not support a US-imposed government. …

“Today the Taliban controls or is contesting more territory than at any time since the war began. Outside Kabul and a few other areas where mountains of our money buy molehills of temporary allegiance, the government’s army and police are hated for their oppression and human right abuses. Its courts are crooked and criminally unresponsive, while Taliban justice — although harsh — is swift, works without bribes and legal fees, and is honestly administered. Warlords, paid for and armed by the CIA and the Pentagon, indulge in brutal behavior toward their people, including a delight in raping children, which the US army orders its soldiers to ignore.”

Is this being unfair? Are we forgetting some benefits that could possibly justify all this wreckage and pain? Are we Americans (or anyone else) somehow safer, or have we just provided more inspiration and anger to those inclined to hate us?

Warning: contains political content, and flowers

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There was a triathelon in Raleigh this morning, and the route included a road I was planning to take up to Raulston Arboretum to see the blossoms. So no go. I tried again in the late afternoon, and got to see the flowers in some wonderful golden sunlight. I’ve been learning to use the DSLR in manual mode without autofocus, and am just starting to feel comfortable taking full responsibility for the exposure. Most of these photos were taken with my Nikon 60 mm 1:2.8 macro lens. There was no postproduction Photoshopping of any sort. Pretty nice, huh?
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Being the President has got to be a pretty hard job. In addition to being hated with a white-hot hatred by many no matter what you do, your inner critic is also always there. You want to do the right thing, but what is the right thing? And when you’re reasonably sure you know the right thing, what if you can’t do it by yourself? Which of course is always the case.
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I really have many warm feelings for President Obama, and one of things that makes me proud of this country is that we elected him. But I’m so frustrated and disappointed with him. We’re still in Afghanistan, killing and being killed without any reasonably achievable objective, still brutalizing prisoners in Guantanamo, still imprisoning people and destroying families for victimless drug crimes, still running headlong toward climate apocalypse. We’ve instituted a surveillance state with the potential to rival Orwell’s darkest visions.

There are, no doubt, many forces quite separate from the President’s own desires that are driving these horrors and disasters. He probably regrets them. But like it or not, he’s the President, and that’s where the buck stops.
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The President’s speech at West Point this week proposed to reframe our global mission for the foreseeable future as stamping out terrorism. Is this less absurd than fighting to obliterate communism, or more? Is there any chance that we will ever kill every crazy fanatic that would like to do us harm? Does it really make sense to make this our mission?

So, you ask, have I got a better idea to address the real menace of the homicidal religious fanatics? I thought a bit, and had an idea: we change their minds. We get them to see things from our point of view. That would about do it, wouldn’t it? We help them to see that the idea of blowing up people as a suicide bomber and then being a martyr and having the 72 virgins in paradise is just nutty, and so they stop murdering people.
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You see the problem, of course: how do we change their minds? True, we do not currently have the technology to do this. We have amazingly little knowledge of why people think the way they do about the need for Sharia law, jihad, or most anything else. We assume it has to do with their culture and upbringing, with economic disadvantage and resentments, but we can’t frame those out with precision. More important, we have no precise knowledge of how to address and prevent really bad ideas, like racism or religious intolerance, or really bad acts, like suicide bombing.

Or anything else, for that matter. But what if we created a major program with some billions of dollars to figuring this out? And we’re already spending millions and millions to understand the brain and human behavior. If we treated it like the Apollo program, eventually we might get there. Instead of killing terrorists, and thereby creating new terrorists, we’d change their minds.
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This sounded like a good idea, but after a little more thinking, I realized it would probably be disastrous. If we replaced our vast ignorance of the causes of human behavior with perfect knowledge, we’d be even worse off.

Think about it. What if we figured out how to make everyone agree with us? What if our government, or any government, had the necessary tools to prevent opposing thoughts and eliminate all anger? Would that government happily tolerate reasonable people who advocate, say, a major change in abortion policy, or drug policy, or climate policy? Has there ever been a government that happily tolerated opposition? Once we got the terrorists minds under control, who would be next? Overly vocal dissidents?

My budget solution: end the wars (Iraq, Afghanistan, and Drugs)

Yesterday the newspapers reported that the last U.S. soldiers would be out of Iraq by the end of this year. When the U.S. invaded Iraq eight years ago, I thought it was a terrible mistake, and everything I’ve learned about it since has strengthened that conviction, as thousands of U.S. soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis lost their lives, and as we increased our exposure to financial collapse by spending more than 800 billion borrowed dollars.

It’s good news that it’s over, and I wish I could feel happier about it. We’ve wreaked a lot of havoc in Iraq, and now we’re stopping. Have we learned anything? That’s doubtful. As a society, we’ve hardly thought about it at all.

As an undergraduate at Oberlin College, I had a concentration in political theory. I read Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Montesqieu, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Adams, Marx, Nietzche, Bentham, Mill, Arendt, Rawls, and a lot of other interesting and challenging thinkers. For a long time, though, I had my doubts as to whether I’d learned anything at all useful.

Eventually, I came to the view that I learned one very useful thing: critical thinking. Engaging with lots of powerful ideas that were all, at least to some degree, wrong or unworkable helped develop a mental toolbox. This toolbox is useful in recognizing the weak points in arguments, discarding unfounded assumptions, and sometimes in making better decisions.

War is powerfully attractive at certain times and places. I am not immune to that attraction. Like lots of kids, I’m fascinated by weaponry (especially tanks and fighter jets), and I find military history interesting. But something in my moral education left me with the settled view that killing sentient beings is deeply tragic, and in most cases morally wrong.

Add this ethical orientation to a skeptical turn of mind, and maybe I can see through the attractions of war to the underlying horror more easily than most. Or perhaps I’m kidding myself. In any case, I have a high degree of confidence on the right way to go on this. While we’re wrapping things up in Iraq, let’s also quit sending our kids to kill and be killed in Afghanistan. There is no good reason for that war, either. We’ve spent more than $450 billion on it. Let’s stop the physical and financial bleeding.

Ditto on the war on drugs. This week’s (Oct. 17) New Yorker has a piece on the subject by Michael Specter. (Unfortunately only the first few paragraphs are available without charge online.) It starts with a discussion of Portugal’s experience of decriminalizing drugs ten years ago and treating addiction as a medical problem. “In most respects, the law seems to have worked: serious drug use is down significantly, particularly among young people; the burden on the criminal-justice system has eased; the number of people seeking treatment has grown; and the rates of drug-related deaths and cases of infectious diseases have fallen.”

Specter gives a balanced account of Portugal’s experience, and including quotes from critics of the change. Their criticisms seem mostly based on their belief that drugs are evil. Fine. But in Portugal lots of law enforcement and political leaders have given up on the idea that treating drug use as a crime can possibly succeed.

There was another good anti-drug-war piece this week by Doug Bandow, a fellow at the conservative a Cato Institute published in Forbes and republished by the Huffington Post.
According to Bandow,

Perhaps the most obvious cost of enforcing the drug laws is financial. Government must create an expansive and expensive enforcement apparatus, including financial and military aid to other governments. At the same time, the U.S. authorities must forgo any tax revenue from a licit drug market.According to Harvard’s Jeffrey A. Miron and doctoral candidate Katherine Waldock, in the U.S. alone “legalizing drugs would save roughly $41.3 billion per year in government expenditure on enforcement of prohibition” and “yield tax revenue of $46.7 billion annually.”

This cost is appalling, and it doesn’t even count such costs as ever expanding prison systems, corruption of law enforcement and government, breeding organized crime, and of course the human costs of broken families and lives.

But I see a little ray of hope. The national debt problem has come to be viewed as both serious and impossible to solve. However true that may be, it has created a sense of desperation in Washington. It’s just possible that drug war diehards could come to accept drug legalization as a necessary revenue-generating measure. This was part of what led to the repeal of Prohibition — the realists won the argument that we needed the tax revenues from liquor. Legalization, combined with a sensible regulation and taxation system, could make a significant dint in our budget shortfalls. Add that to ending unnecessary wars, controlling excessive military costs, cutting farm subsidies, getting health care costs under control, and voila!

Religious intolerance in Afghanistan and Raleigh

I’m not a big fan of either the Bible or the Koran, though I don’t think it’s a good thing to burn either of them. Burning any book as an expressive act seems angry, hateful, and benighted. I imagine that if I thought a book contained unusual insight or beauty that meant something to me, I’d be pissed off if someone burned it.

But I wouldn’t murder them! Much less join a mob to murder random people who had nothing to do with the burning! In Afghanistan this week, hundreds of Muslims have rioted and killed several United Nations employees and injured hundreds of westerners. The reason? First, a plainly disturbed fundamentalist preacher in Florida burned a copy of the Koran a couple of weeks ago. Then political and religious leaders in Afghanistan publicized the event.

What’s up with these rioting Afghanis and their random killing? Do they mean by this to show the world their love of Islam? Their hatred of invading westerners? Are they expressing their anger at the violence, corruption, and poverty that engulfs them?

Harnessing religious zeal, ignorance, and intolerance for political purposes is nothing new. In this case, it appears that Hamid Karzai, the beneficiary of billions of American taxpayer dollars, has again shown his appreciation for this benevolence by encouraging the most radical elements of his society toward anti-western violence. This raises yet again the good question: what in the name of all that’s holy are we doing sacrificing our children’s lives (1,521 so far) and almost $400 billion in Afghanistan? But I’ll shut up. Nobody seems to want to talk about this, I guess because it’s depressing. But isn’t the solution here really simple?

Moving on to more cheerful news: our local paper, the News & Observer, ran a front page, above-the-fold story this morning about North Carolina unbelievers coming out of the closet and attempting to build a more positive image. A billboard campaign with pro-humanist messages has been rolled out by the Triangle Freethought Society. A few local citizens who are otherwise unfamous have lent their names, photos, and four or five words, like “Science is my co-pilot!” or “Freethinking moves America forward!”

It will be interesting to see whether this helps promote tolerance, which would be good. It could certainly serve to smoke out intolerance, of which there is plenty. An example: the North Carolina Constitution officially disqualifies from public office any person “who shall deny the being of Almighty God.” This provision should be held invalid under the U.S. Constitution (Art. 6), though I’d hate to have to test that before a Bible-believing federal judge. The point is, there’s a long, strong tradition of intolerance in these parts for non-mainstream views on religion.

Hatred of atheists is almost certainly much stronger than, say, hatred of minority races or gays. And so it’s not surprising that most non-believers in these parts keep a low profile. But views on minorities and gays have changed in the direction of greater tolerance in recent years (which is not to say the work is done). It’s possible that there could be a quiet increase in tolerance for non-believers. Hats off to the brave souls willing to test that proposition with their own names on billboards. I hope they stay happy and safe.

Fear, courage, and the costs of misunderstanding 9/11

This week I heard an NPR report on the U.S. Army’s recruiting station in Philadelphia called the Army Experience Center.  It offers video war games and helicopter simulators to prospective recruits, and it sounded entertaining for adolescent males.  The report suggested that it had been a great success in getting kids to sign up.  It would, of course, be unacceptable to say straight out that war is fun and give this as a reason for enlisting,  but the Experience Center has found a workaround to that dilemma.  It sends the message of fun without saying it.

There’s probably no way to persuade every teenager that war is something to avoid if at all possible.  Even with the fullest possible disclosure, it isn’t possible for a non-combatant to fully comprehend the shock and horror of battle, or to appreciate completely the resulting trauma.  Adolescents are in general both inexperienced and eager for adventure.  So an Army Experience Center devoted to the sights, sounds, and smells of exploding and dismembered comrades would probably not dissuade all potential recruits.  But that sort of full disclosure would be more appropriate, and more fair, really, to those being asked to consider sacrificing their lives.

The Army Experience Center not only exploits the desire for adrenalized fun, but also the more noble aspiration to be courageous in a righteous cause.  We all like to think we’d be willing to stand up to a fearsome enemy, and we’re all proud to confront and overcome our fears.  Few of us ever test ourselves in mortal combat, but we cultivate little bits of courage in lower risk activities.  That’s one reason people like scary movies:  it’s a safe way to experience blasts of adrenalin and demonstrate courage. Some sports do the same.

But the longing for excitement and nobility is the mother’s milk of demagogues.  Fear mongering is the time honored way to motivate choices that become policy disasters.  People love to be frightened, and to imagine a heroic solution.  This explains the most politically powerful fear narrative of the past decade, which is now known simply as 9/11.  I originally thought 9/11 just meant a horrible crime by a handful of religious fanatics, and I still think that’s what it should mean.  But the term became shorthand for an existential threat conceived of as a powerful, organized force capable of destroying the American way of life.  Despite the lack of connection to objective reality, this 9/11 idea has transformed American life.  We view ourselves as under siege by radical Islamic bombers.  There are, no question, a few such crazies about.  But our response has been massively disproportionate, at an enormous cost, in money spent and lives lost.

Last week the Washington Post reported on the vast spy bureaucracy that we have created and paid for with our tax dollars.  There are 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies that work on counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence in some 10,000 locations.  Since 2001, in the D.C. area, 33 complexes for top-secret intelligence work have been built or are under construction, with square footage almost equalling three Pentagons.  There are an estimated 854,000 people with top-secret security clearances — more people than live in Washington.  Every day the National Security Agency intercepts nearly two billion separate e-mails, phone calls, and other communications.

Never mind the lurking civil liberties concerns for the moment, and let’s just talk about money and safety, costs and benefits.  Obviously the cost of all this is huge.  So what do we get in return?  That’s classified, of course.  Based on press reports, though, it appears that we don’t get much for our money.  We hear now and again that an inept fanatic or little band of them has been arrested, but that’s about it.

According to Nicholas Kristof of the NY Times, “The war in Afghanistan will consume more money this year alone than we spent on the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican -American War, the Civil War, and the Spanish -American War — combined.”   In short, this war is stunningly expensive, and is contributing to enormous budget deficits.  It seems fair to ask whether the money and lives we’ve expended have made our country any safer, or have any prospect of doing so.  It seems reasonable to consider whether our violence is simply driving the recruitment efforts of the fanatics who hate us.  And it also seems worth reconsidering whether the 9/11 threat — that is, a threat of existential proportions that justifies a military response — actually exists.

But the 9/11 fear narrative is still very strong.  In recent weeks public support for war in Afghanistan has dropped, but there’s still a taboo against discussion of the fear mongering at the roots of the war. Confronting it would involve unsettling some cherished beliefs, which would surely result in accusations of lack of patriotism.  Fantasies of courage will not accomplish anything.  Addressing this deep problem will take real courage.