Friday, October 02, 2009

Roman Polanski and His Apologists

Admitted child rapist Roman Polanski was finally apprehended last week in Switzerland on an outstanding warrant for his arrest relating to his fleeing the United States prior to sentencing by a California court for his confessed sexual assault on a girl of 13. If you wish to read the documentation, the girl's grand jury testimony and Polanski's confession, please visit thesmokinggun.com. Amazingly, this unrepentent fugitive (to see an excellent article which explains just how unrepentent Polanski is go here) has received the support of some pretty big Hollywood producers, directors, and actors. They have written an abhorrent petition and applied their names and reputations to it. Among the notable signatories: Woody Allen, Martin Scorcese, Michael Mann, Terry Gilliam, and Wes Anderson (Harvey Weinstein has also gone out of his way to defend Polanski). I was already boycotting all Polanski films, but given the nature of his crimes, his completely amoral attitude concerning them, and the wording of the petition itself, I am now boycotting all future work of these other people as well. This sort of behavior, including the rationalizing, denying, trivializing, and excusing of horrific crimes, is unacceptable and for these people to brazenly assault the public (their ultimate benefactors) with fundamentally dangerous and immoral sophistry is as foolish as it is, at base, evil. In a free society, even justifying horrible crimes is not against the law, nor should it be, nor do we hold ostrakon meetings like the ancient Athenians. But all of us retain the right to ostracize with our feet and our wallets, I will be doing so, I recommend that whoever cares about punishing the worst criminals among us do so as well.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Tarantino’s Nihilism Ends World War II
By Alexander Marriott

Warning: Plot Spoilers Ahead, if you want to see the ‘Inglorious Basterds’ you may not wish to keep reading.



I see many movies, but am only rarely left in a position after seeing any film where I feel compelled to write a serious review of it. Today is such a day. On the recommendation of a friend, who wanted me to see both ‘Inglorious Basterds’ and ‘District 9’ (both of which held no appeal for me whatsoever based on trailer previews), I agreed to see whichever one of them he dictated with the understanding that if I liked his selection I would then see the other. Upon assuming I would probably dislike ‘District 9’ he instead went with ‘Inglorious Basterds’ as the surest way of getting me to see both films. This strategy of my well-meaning friend failed, below are the reasons why.


Before proceeding to the flaws of this particular film, I need to address the general tenor and outlook of the film’s director, Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino’s previous works (‘Reservoir Dogs,’ ‘Pulp Fiction,’ ‘Jackie Brown,’ ‘Kill Bill,’ ‘From Dusk Till Dawn,’ etc.) all display a very disturbing penchant for nihilistic portrayals of violence and humanity spliced with a knack for mixing unique cinematography and music to create some of the most indelible scenes of modern cinema. Occasionally, as in ‘Reservoir Dogs,’ there are characters portrayed who are not purely malevolent nihilistic violent pods, as that film was built around a plot involving an undercover police officer (played by Tim Roth) who was attempting to infiltrate and take down a ruthless band of thugs. Roth’s choices are the dramatic force which moves the plot along as he lies on the floor bleeding to death and we’re let in on the preceding action which led to this final series of moments (a typical Tarantino tactic). His work has, however, gotten increasingly nihilistic while pushing the envelope on stylized violence. The two ‘Kill Bill’ movies highlight this move, as he mixed a standard revenge plot with samurai sword fights, martial arts fighting, and a typical Tarantino hodgepodge of sadistic and darkly amusing characters.


Now to his most recent effort. Set during World War II, ‘Inglorious Basterds’ weaves together a couple of different stories (typical, again, of Tarantino). The first story we are introduced to involves a young Jewish girl, Shoshana Dreyfus, who barely escapes a frighteningly psychotic Nazi Colonel, searching for hidden Jews in the French countryside. After watching this colonel browbeat and terrify the brave French peasant who is hiding Shoshana and her family and eventually breaking the man into admitting his “crimes,” and then proceeding to murder the hidden family beneath the floor, we are introduced to the second main story line. Brad Pitt, portraying (if you want to call what Pitt does acting) a caricature of a hardass army lieutenant from Tennessee, organizes an illegal band of Jewish-American soldiers to be dropped behind enemy lines and murder “Nazis.” His speech, which is supposed to rouse them (and presumably us) to go on this mission is merely an odious appeal to racial anger (somehow, only Jewish soldiers are “really” invested in killing Nazis) and illegal homicidal violence. This is a key point. The German Armed forces, like all enemy soldiers in World War II (at least our enemies), were guaranteed rights under U.S. law due to Geneva Treaty obligations. Any plot to murder surrendered “Nazis” by us or anyone else would be, ipso facto, a violation of the laws of war. This is not meant as a paean to German soldiers who were fighting on behalf of a despotic cruel socialist regime of murdering racists, but the movie shows our “heroes” brutally and sadistically beating surrendered soldiers brains out with baseball bats. What is the point of such a scene? Some of my fellow moviegoers were prompted to laugh at this scene. Why? What is funny about watching a psychopath (and that is the only word for a man who would deliberately and in cold blood beat a surrendered man on his knees to death with a bat) beat a man to death and then dance around making ridiculous comments about being a slugger at Fenway Park? If this is comedy, then I shudder at the soul of the person who would conceive of it as such, and even more at those who would laugh. If it is not meant to be amusing, then what is it meant to be? Nothing. It is horrific violence, which does not create sympathy for the Jewish soldiers, quite the contrary. The surrendered German’s “crime” (at least the only one the movie lets us know about) was that he refused to point out the positions of his comrades on a map. That was his right (just like it was the right of Americans captured by Germans), he only had to give his basic information and then should have been shuffled away with the rest of the captured German rabble.


But the American racists who we are expected to cheer on, presumably because they are Americans and Jewish, can’t be made to abide these rules and notions of propriety. Their mission is couched in the very same racialist language that Goebbels and Hitler used (Pitt blathers about “the German” as if Germans were some separate and distinct form of humanity). This collectivist nonsense was not justifiable when the Germans employed it, nor when the Americans actually applied it in segregating their armed forces. But it is incredibly bizarre for a modern director to romanticize Hitler’s ideology in the words and deeds of Hitler’s fictional opponents (Pitt and company). I cannot imagine actual Holocaust survivors (let alone veterans of the Armed forces, Jewish or otherwise) reacting well to this horrific and insulting portrayal where they accept the notions which underlay the mass murder going on in the East.


Zoom ahead to 1944, Shoshana has moved to Paris and somehow owns a movie theatre (the explanation for this is peripheral and weak at best). She is attractive and living under an assumed identity to avoid detection from the Germans. Her beauty brings the attentions of a young German war hero who becomes smitten with her. He is the toast of the town as a movie produced by Goebbels about his exploits is set to premiere soon. The man pursues her persistently, eventually wrangling her into a meeting with Hitler’s propagandist (who Tarantino insists on making a grotesque caricature cartoon of a character, as if Goebbels as a serious figure would not condemn the man’s historical reputation effectively enough – see Kenneth Branagh and Stanley Tucci in ‘Conspiracy’ to see just how effective that is with two different but no less horrible Nazis) where he convinces Hitler’s number two to have the premiere at Shoshana’s cinema. Shoshana is then interviewed by the very Colonel who murdered her family. Shoshana is representative of what is left of Tarantino’s humanity. She is a sweet woman who has managed to survive and find some measure of private happiness with her assistant Marcel. Shoshana is no wilting flower though, she seizes the opportunity to have her righteous vengeance and plots with Marcel to burn her cinema to the ground while the Nazis have their premiere.


Violence for the sake of violence continues to dominate the film as we see more murdering and bloodshed unfold, including a bizarre subplot involving a German actress who is a British agent and her attempt to infiltrate a British spy and Pitt’s thugs into the premiere and blow it up. Unfortunately, this is a Quentin Tarantino picture, so this plan goes awry in a humongous shoot-out at the rendezvous point, an allegedly deserted bar. Surprise surprise, it’s not deserted. And while the spy and his cohorts are able to bluster their way past the drunk German grunts in the place, no such luck with the creepy SS officer. When the masks are off if takes a couple of minutes of dialogue before the guns start blazing. Seconds later everyone is dead except the wounded German actress and one of the German grunts, who had been celebrating the birth of a son. Of course, Pitt then shows up and tries to get the actress out, going out of his way to assure that no one will get hurt (a clear lie given previous dialogue, and the fact that Pitt is playing an unscrupulous killer pretending to have scruples) all of which simply leads to the German actress killing the grunt after Pitt convinces him to let his guard down. Again, as he is a German soldier, I don’t actually have much sympathy for him, but Tarantino seems to go out of his way to make all of these scenes particularly sympathetic to the Germans, an odd paradox considering who the main characters are and what they’re doing and (theoretically anyway) why they are doing it.


So after Pitt is satisfied that our German frau is not double crossing them he hatches a plan worthy of his immediate demotion. He and two of his blunt instruments will pose as Italian film industry people, while they try to hide behind their pretty benefactor and sneak into the premiere with bombs wrapped around their legs. Obviously, this is doomed to failure, particularly since Tarantino has made the smartest character in the movie (aside from Shoshana that is) the German Colonel from the opening scene. This Colonel quickly figures out that the actress was at the bar massacre and quickly makes asses of Pitt and his goons who don’t speak any actual Italian. ***Here I must digress for a moment. Pitt’s character is an arrogant, violent, unthinking nabob who basically does whatever he wants paying very little heed to the consequences. I cannot be certain of why Tarantino wrote the character in this way other than that it represents the current fashionable elitist/European stereotype of what Americans, particularly those nebulous creatures who may disapprove of the current exalted leader, are like at their absolute worst. But since every American portrayed in the film is simply a variant of Pitt’s psychopath, we can only assume that he is not meant to be a curious outlier, but a representation of something fundamental about how Americans act or tend to be. Counter this to the brilliantly ruthless colonel and the elegant if fatally inept British spy, etc. What we are left with is the distinct impression that Americans are seriously and fundamentally flawed. But as I say, this is merely a digression based on a general gist I detected from watching the film, back to the review.*** Then he drags her into a room, shows her that he knows what she’s done with incriminating evidence, and then he strangles her to death. This is a painful scene to watch. Again, what is the point here precisely? Yes, he’s a killer, he strangles a beautiful woman to death. Why do we need to see her eyes and face as he crushes her neck? Tarantino already has set the man up as a horrible monster in the opening scene. This is gratuitous overkill, literally. This scene is merely one of many reasons why I will never view this film again, at least not in its entirety.


Of course, I said the film was set during World War II. It is not, nor does it pretend to be, historically accurate in any way. I actually have no problem with that. Historically set fictional alternate fantasies are fine vehicles for any decent and/or interesting plot and theme. Historical novels have been written with great profit for hundreds of years now with just this sort of result. Unfortunately, this film entirely lacks those things. I mention this because, of course, Hitler has decided to attend the film premiere, thus putting the entire German state leadership in one room. Shoshana’s plot, and Pitt’s idiotic substitute, now have the potential to end the war (in Europe anyway, you don’t even know that there is a World War going on by watching this movie). The Colonel, suddenly conscious of his historical legacy, decides that he’s going to jump ships, and demand terms from the Allies in return for allowing Pitt’s other two men (they are in the theatre) to carry out their assassination. The Allies, of course, agree to whatever he says and so he defects without warning the curiously non-existent security patrol at the theatre of impending disaster. Pitt, being the sadistic guy that he is in this movie, accepts this situation as a fact of life, except that he carves a swastika into the Colonel’s forehead as a sort of permanent scarlet letter of shame. A fitting punishment for sure, except that of all the people Pitt has had the opportunity to kill in the film (and has), no one has deserved it more than this Colonel. Why defy orders so horrendously and then stop short of killing the bastard? It makes no sense, but I’m not sure it’s supposed to (the movie could just as easily been titled ‘Stupid Basterds’).


Shoshana’s plot is, of course, the climax of the film. Rigging the theatre to burn down, she has her projectionist assistant, Marcel, lock the theatre goers into their unwitting crematorium (again, no security to thwart this, which is odd when the four or five highest ranking people of the Nazi state are in the room, but at this point Tarantino has added pointless silliness to the film’s other less than admirable attributes). Marcel then goes behind the screen to wait for a key moment when film of Shoshana interrupts the movie and tells the assembled Nazi’s they are going to be destroyed by a vengeful Jewess. While this is happening two other things are occurring: 1) Pitt’s two lackeys have discovered where Hitler is and are plotting in a nearby bathroom to kill him and 2) the young German war hero is attempting to force himself on Shoshana in the projectionist’s room where she is waiting for her “surprise” to begin. ***Another digression. The German war hero is being celebrated for having held up in a crows next and killed some 200 allied soldiers in a three day standoff before the allies abandoned their efforts to dislodge him. At one point, one character refers to him as a German “Sergeant York” a reference to the American World War I hero who single-handedly killing 28 Germans and capturing 132 more. There was also, of course, a movie made about this man called ‘Sergeant York’ with Gary Cooper playing the title character. There was a World War II parallel to this as well on the American side in the exploits of Audie Murphy who later starred in the movie about his own exploits, just like Tarantino’s fictional German. The clips we see of this film that is premiering look suspiciously like the sorts of things portrayed in ‘Sergeant York’ and I cannot help but think Tarantino is taking a swipe at that movie and those like it which lauded the heroic actions and exploits of American soldiers. I might be mistaken, but I wouldn’t put it past him. Back to the review.*** Of course, the “basterds” kill Hitler and Goebbels, riddling up the bodies with a few extra magazines of machine gun rounds for good measure, another needless scene which I guess we’re supposed to take sadistic joy in or laugh at? Who knows? When they aren’t pumping dead Hitler full of lead, they are taking random shots at the scrambling and now burning Nazis in the theatre below. Shoshana uses her wits to get away from the soldier so that she can protect herself by shooting him. She then shows her humanity by kneeling down to express regret over the unfortunate necessity of killing him as he lays there. But this is Tarantino, so no one ought to be surprised that the soldier then rolls over and kills her with his pistol before he himself expires. And so she does not even live to see her plot succeed. While all this has been happening, people have been throwing dynamite around like it’s going out of style (don’t ask why, it would make no difference if I explained it anyway) so when all of this has gone on enough—even Tarantino has a breaking point—all of that dynamite explodes and anyone who had been left alive is now tidily blown to bits. The actual ending of the movie is the carving up of the Colonel, but the cinema exploding is the more fitting end.


Tarantino’s World War II fantasy ends with the only (Marcel seems like a nice guy, but he’s an extension thematically of Shoshana) redeeming character dead and some sort of vague suggestion that the war (in Europe) was ending. What is the point of it all? Is it supposed to be a comedy? It is poor taste to say the least to make light of this particular historical epoch if not done with particular care and finesse. Yes, it matters a lot when people who were alive during the period and dealt with the real consequences of the period are still alive. That may not seem fair, but too bad. Tarantino’s nihilism would not be justified if applied to the Civil War or some other conflict either, but personal insults tend to hurt more than those made to those who are long dead and buried.Tarantino has never been a fan of those two words though: care and finesse. Why are we supposed to watch this two and a half hour bloodfest? What do we, as audience members, get from it? What is the theme of this movie? As far as I can tell, the theme is nothing. Nothing, other than that large pointless shoot-outs are “cool” to watch and that sadistic murdering can be funny if the murderer is a Jew and the victim is a German. The war itself is utterly lost. The casus belli for this imaginary illegal racist American killing squad—the holocaust—is also curiously absent. Perhaps because that might beg the question of why such a squad was not sent some place where the Nazis they happened to be killing were those involved in murdering Jews in massive numbers instead of marauding the French countryside murdering petty German soldiers. The movie is a pointless exercise and a waste of time. That would be bad enough if it were not also perniciously violent (I am not in any way opposed to dramatized violence, but like anything else, context is the key point) and ultimately profoundly disrespectful of the people who were actually victimized by German, Italian, Vichy, Japanese, and Soviet tyranny in this era and the brave men and women who fought against it from numerous countries around the globe. Tarantino should stick to making nihilistic fantasies set in fictional nihilistic places with his fictional nihilistic characters and stay out of the actual real life world setting filled with—yes—horrible evil and violence and murder and death and rape and destruction, but also filled with heroes and goodness and love and all the things that make life worth living and that give us hope when we confront those who would seek to destroy our lives, liberty and happiness. Were the world of 1941-1944 actually populated by Tarantino’s ‘Inglorious Basterds’ the outcome of that titanic struggle would hardly have been any bullet ridden Hitler and Goebbels. There would have been no struggle at all.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Letter Sent to Senators Reid and Ensign, and the Honorable Shelley Berkely of Nevada

If you haven't already written to your representatives in congress, please do so during the recess.


6 August 2009

Dear Senator Reid,

As you consider the prospect of “reforming” healthcare over the congressional recess I would like to share my views with you, as one of your constituents. I am twenty-five years old and a doctoral candidate in American History. I spend most of my time examining and studying the early political and intellectual history of our republic. I do not normally feel compelled to write to my elected representatives, though I always take the time to consider contemporary issues and elections seriously as a concerned and engaged citizen of the republic.

At the conclusion of our Revolution, those various figures great and small whom we generally call “Founding Fathers,” faced as scary and uncertain a future as any faced by any group of men in the history of the Western world. This is not needlessly melodramatic, but a simple fact. No sizeable republic had existed anywhere outside of small enclaves in Italy, Switzerland, and Holland for well over seventeen hundred years in the days of ancient Rome. Self-government and, more importantly, limited government, was, at best, a noble dream. Whether it could work given the nature of men, the precarious position of the United States in a world soon to be consumed by the fires unleashed in Revolutionary France, and the contradictory institutional arrangements among the sections of the new republic was anything but certain.

The early government of the United States was not limited in scope, power, or activity because of weakness or inability to marshal resources not gained until the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. It was limited deliberately. Not because the Founders or anyone normally views it as a good thing that people don’t have employment, healthcare, food, education, or anything else commonly assumed to be a “right” today. It was limited because these items, items which are produced by other citizens, were not seen as the legitimate “rights” of other citizens. All men have the fundamental right to their own persons and the products of their own labor. They do not, however, own the products of other men by right. The critical development signified by the American Republic was the notion that government was instituted for the expressly limited purpose of protecting individual rights, including the fundamental rights of property.

Healthcare, no matter how vital we may think it is, is not a right. It is a service and/or series of services produced and offered by a whole host of our fellow citizens. One such citizen is my sister, a registered nurse in Clark County. This is not a question of prices and costs, but of rights. The government has been improperly intruding into the economy for over one hundred years now, with sometimes horrific effects, recently on display in the last year or so. The healthcare field is no exception to our mixed economy nightmare; it has been actively meddled in for decades from Medicare and Medicaid to the creation of HMOs, creatures of government interference. As awful as this situation is, the government is now considering, under pressure from President Obama, making matters much worse.

The government has no business getting involved in health insurance, even under the “benign” rhetoric of the current plan before congress. There is no mandate for this in the Constitutional charter ratified by the people of the United States in 1787-1789. Your job is, explicitly, to live within the confines of that document or to amend it for some non-delegated purpose. Creating a government insurance program is not a delegated power of the congress. There is a reason for this beyond the more primitive state of human healthcare in the late eighteenth century. A person cannot have a right to the products and services of another. That situation is normally called slavery. It was not compatible with human liberty when the republic was founded, and it is not compatible now. Such a situation is founded upon force, not liberty. It is, at base, fundamentally unjust and not worthy of this country. You should be working to rid the republic of all vestiges remaining that suggest force is a proper way for government to interact with the citizens who are its lords and masters.

Do not turn the American Republic, the republic of Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison into the “bread and circuses” nightmare of Imperial Rome. If we go down that road any further, there will be increasingly little chance that we will find our ways back. Our situation today of affluence, power, and technological dominance over nature was not an accidental development, nor is its continuation at all assured. Your actions now matter immensely. History will judge whether you acted, like the heroes of other epochs, to guarantee a rebirth of liberty, or whether you pandered with other people’s money to “guarantee” services provided by yet others. As a historian, I am as certain of how this moment will be recorded as one can be. One path is glory, the other is ignominy. Please consider these matters and please choose wisely.

My regards,
Alexander Marriott

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Musings from the Road

In the finest tradition of modern historians, I am currently on the road, researching my dissertation at various archives around the country. So far I have been to the New York Historical Society, Princeton University, the Library of Congress, the University of Virginia, and tomorrow the University of North Carolina. The remainder of the trip will be taking me to the Abraham Lincoln Museum and Library in Harrogate, Tennessee, the Filson Historical Society in Louisville, Kentucky, the Indiana Historical Society, the University of Rochester and then back to Princeton to finish up what I was doing when I passed through there earlier.

New York City was, as always, tremendously exciting and fun. I was staying at the Travel Inn Hotel on 10th and 42nd streets in Midtown Manhattan, which is about two blocks from broadway and the theatre district. The walk up to the historical society was a few miles, but I enjoyed it quite a lot. It's always great to see all the people going about their business in Manhattan. So many people from so many places doing so many things. It boggles the mind to consider all of the myriad activities of such a host, but that power to boggle the mind is one of the things I love about New York City. I saw the revival of Schiller's Mart Stuart while I was there. It was an interesting production. Only Mary and Elizabeth were in period costume, while the rest of the characters were in business clothing. Elizabeth, played wonderfully by Harriet Walter, stole the show with a delightful performance. I must say, my only substantial objection (I would have prefered everyone in period dress, but oh well) was that Elizabeth's evasions of responsibility were played up for laughs instead of the deadly serious dodges of reality and responsibility (with deadly consequences for much more than just the poor Queen of Scots) that Schiller intended them to be. The sense of a tragedy was compromised, and while this is my only real objection to the production, it is a serious one.

Princeton is a beautiful town, and the University is gorgeous. The procedures to get into the manuscript room are a bit tedious and the photography policy is downright silly. But, all of that aside, I enjoyed working there a great deal. Unfortunately it was at this point of the trip that my computer really began melting down. The monitor began fading in and out and doing all sorts of weird stuff. It had been doing this sporadically for a little while, but a moderate amount of jiggling and playing around usually got it to stop after a minute or two. But now it was becoming endless. But I was leaving for Washington and hoping that it would stop.

The Library of Congress is a wonderful place to work. Surprisingly laid back once you get through all of the security, the archivists are very helpful and you can photograph to your heart's content. I did not achieve all I wanted to while there, but I expect to be back over the Christmas break to finish up. Tragically, the computer died for good and I had to purchase another one. Also tragically, my metro pass got demagnetized, forcing me to purchase another, and I also overspent on the commuter train!!

Western Virginia is some of the prettiest country in the United States. I finally saw James Monroe's house, Highland. It was quite small, particularly compared with the large mansions of James Madison at Montpelier and Thomas Jefferson at Monticello (not to mention George Washington's Mount Vernon) but it was still very nice. Curiously, the only bust in the whole place that I saw was a large one of Napoleon Bonaparte. Monroe was perhaps the most radical supporter of the French Revolution among the founders (certainly among any of those who made it to the Presidency), and his daugther was good friends with the children of Josephine (Napoleon's first wife), Hortence and Eugene. The University of Virginia is amazing and Charlottesville is a very pretty little city. I enjoyed working in the Special Collections Library very much and found lots of interesting letters and pamphlets there.

North Carolina is hot. I can't say much more about it, the archives are closed on the weekend and I'm staying about 70 miles from Chapel Hill. I'll be there all day tomorrow researching and hopefully getting through all the things I need to get through. On Tuesday I'm off for the Cumberland Gap!

The trip has been lots of fun and very expensive. I traveled with my roommate Emily for the first leg of it to DC, she's studying the Holocaust in French North Africa, and that was wonderful. She's one of my all time favorite people. Then I stayed with my colleague Hannah and her parents in Staunton, VA, which was great. I've stayed with them before and we always have a good time. Now I'm alone until I meet up with my glorious benefactors in Indiana and proceed back to Las Vegas in the longest possible imaginable route. I will update again from the road and perhaps share some of my thoughts on our illustrious leader's attempts at attaining his ends.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

How “Historic” is the 2008 Election?


The American Historical Association (AHA) held a special panel at its annual conference this year considering the above question to which it invited six very prominent historians to offer insights and opinions. Surprisingly, I was not among those invited, but having read half of the responses made available in the most recent edition of the AHA’s magazine, Perspectives, I think another opinion is in order, one based on slightly different premises than those offered by the invited panelists.

First of all, the question is fundamentally flawed. Any event for which we have some sort of human produced evidence is, ipso facto, historic. What the question means to ask is: “How historically important is the 2008 election?” This may seem a small point, but you will notice that all three of the available essays deals with any and every piece of historically (ir)relevant detail before moving to the issue all three of them care most about, i.e. will Barack Obama’s election produce the fundamental statist changes each of them think is desirable and needed in these times? All seem optimistic that it might, but most of them are cautious not to “jump the gun” given their historically minded familiarity with past disappointments.

But assuming for the moment that history is not simply the march away from limited government to a statist utopia of supplying “equality” to all from all, then one must put prior experience and our best guesses for the future into an honest narrative of events. All three of the available AHA essays are very clearly partisan, which should not necessarily be a problem, but all of them say things which indicate a supremely uncritical attitude towards the meta-narrative constructed by the Democratic Party to explain current events and the previous administration. Jacqueline Jones says at one point: McCain’s campaign “evoked both the Cold War of the 1980s and the culture wars of the 1990s—an attempt to divide the country into warring camps: us v. them, straight v. gay, native-born v. immigrant, rural v. urban folks, conservatives v. liberals, “Real Americas” v. all the rest.” David Levering- Lewis, a man who seriously attempted to contact W.E.B. Du Bois’s ghost for his monumental two-volume Pulitzer Prize winning biography, contends about the election’s finals months: “Absent the breathtakingly sudden collapse of unregulated capitalism and the GOP candidate’s eerie economic unsophistication manifested in the final campaign weeks, neither Obama’s position on the Iraq war nor his insurance prescriptions for health care might have given him a clear electoral-college victory.” While Julian E. Zelizer blandly recapitulates: “The dramatic collapse of the financial and housing markets, as well as the crises in key industries like automobile manufacturing, has raised serious questions among many Americans about the effectiveness of several core conservative policies: tax cuts, deregulation, and unrestrained free trade.” The AHA billed this “discussion” of the 2008 election as some sort of “forum,” chaired by a very able but also very leftist historian, Eric Foner. Each and every essay they have so far released (and there is no particular reason to expect the other three historians to say anything substantially different) is not just an encomium to Obama, but to statism more broadly. This is fine if that is what the AHA is interested in doing, but “echo chamber” might be a more appropriate name for such a session. “Forum” suggests some sort of open discussion of at least mildly opposing views before an open and uncommitted crowd of spectators.

For any historian to pretend that the last eight years, which witnessed some of the most sweeping extensions of domestic federal power and spending ever witnessed in the history of the republic, was some sort of capitalist tyranny of no regulation and unrestrained trade is to create the most empty of strawmen. From the Ted Kennedy endorsed and approved No Child Left Behind Act (2001), to the reactionary and foolish Sarbanes-Oxley Act (2002), to the Medicare Prescription Drug Act (2003), to minimum wage increases in 2007 and 2008, as well as ever more bloated farm subsidy bills, the Patriot Act (2001), etc, etc, etc, the last eight years was merely an extension of big government. It is to either be woefully ignorant of basic economics and the simple facts of reality, or to maliciously mislead others to contend otherwise. I repeat: the Bush years cannot be characterized as anything other than a wholesale, eight year expansion of the federal government’s domestic powers and activities. To the extent that President Bush did anything particularly capitalistic, it was almost entirely confined to the realm of tax rate manipulation (temporary rate cuts) and the negotiation and passage of tariff reduction packages with Central America and Columbia. Deregulation was certainly not the order of the day in the years between 20 January 2001 and 20 January 2009. If government enactments are not enough to prove this point, please feel free to ask anyone who owns or operates a business anywhere in the United States (something historians never do, or even care to do). As someone intimately familiar with business owners, I already know the answer to this question all too well. Historians can certainly be partisans, but if they wish to be taken seriously outside of cloistered conferences once a year where no one except (maybe) other historians listens to what they have to say, they need to show that they are able to evaluate the facts of reality in an independent manner and not simply regurgitate partisan talking points and the rankest of misleading propaganda. Of course, this would not be an issue if Republican propaganda were being foisted at an AHA conference because the historians there would dismiss it as that and move on with brutal efficiency (as they should).

What is likely to change from the past administration to this one are marginal issues. The Republicans did not enact cap-and-trade regulation because they weren’t sold on the factual issues related to the cult of man-made “global warming,” not because they thought such a system was an unconstitutional extension of government power or a fundamentally immoral action (they did, after all, create the EPA). The Democrats will undo those restrictions on government power that were put in place by President Bush, not because he suddenly got cold feet about big government, but instead because he asserted some ridiculous mystical doctrine which prevented him from acting in good conscience. The Republicans did not create a government health care system only because of a vague and ill-defined notion that the quasi-private system currently in place “works better.” Only a few of them actually consciously and seriously contends that a public system would be immoral and unconstitutional. Like the Democrats, Republicans do not dispute the right of the government to act in these matters. They merely quibble over the marginal issues of how and where to act. These various marginal issues will mean a great deal to some people, but in terms of principle, they are not nearly as antipodal as these historians and other partisans like to pretend.

As for foreign policy, Bush spoke (sometimes and inconsistently) with a big stick, but nearly always threw carrots at everyone, even our enemies. Only Afghanistan and Iraq were made to pay for the attacks of September 11, 2001, even though the ideological, financial, and support structures, networks, and governments behind those attacks lay in other/additional countries (Iran being pre-eminent). President Obama seems likely to continue the inept and weak-kneed actions of the United States as regards our various enemies, but seems intent on dropping the pretext to the correct rhetoric President Bush was occasionally committed to trying to formulate and use. This “change” is merely one of superficial appearance and nothing more. If that’s all it takes to ameliorate a world flummoxed, baffled, enraged, and annoyed by our behavior in the last eight years, then the world is populated by people even more disconnected from reality than even I imagined (this applies just as much to the populace of the United States unfortunately).

So the question: How historically important is the 2008 election? Obviously, like the three historians whose opinions the AHA has released, we cannot know the answer with any degree of precision in 2009. Given that the history of our republic has been marked by two related but contradictory developments, the extension and protection of individual rights for all Americans and, simultaneously, the evolution and growth of government power and the state at the expense of the individual rights of some Americans for the “security” of others, Obama’s election is likely to be important in the following sense. When the mixed economy faltered, the party alleging fidelity to economic freedom intervened massively and disastrously and was replaced by the party alleging no such fidelity when the American people were required to choose. That the nominee of the party that won happened to be black is of historically minor importance (the key to that development historically occurred over 40 years ago). The historically significant point will be whether or not he succeeds in pushing through the legislation on healthcare, carbon emissions, taxes, etc. that he has indicated are his primary objectives domestically. But as far as the history of the republic goes and has gone for the last 80 years, President Obama’s objectives are not different in essential principles than those of any of his predecessors. He wishes to extend governmental controls and the concomitant initiation of force into the economic and private lives of American citizens. No president in living memory would disagree with that.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Homo Economicus



As if the actual economic news, that is, the actual numbers and facts about the greater/general economy weren't depressing enough, there is the interpretation of said data by the media, business commentators, and political types to contend with. Also, there are myriad policy suggestions being "debated," suggested, passed, and implemented. And through it all, principles have taken their usual back seat.



There are a few main areas where I have some big time bones to pick however. They are 1) capitalism, 2) Keynes vs. supply-siders, 3) "stimulus" packages, and 4) doing "something" vs. doing "nothing."





Capitalism



It is often said in this present recession that a main culprit was capitalism. The argument runs that rapacious, greedy, and unregulated people in the financial markets and elsewhere ran hog wild while erstwhile pro-capitalist regulators appointed by a pro-capitalist president (Bush) gave a nod, a wink, a nudge, and a "say no more!" and then dutifully turned their backs on the resulting "free market" in derivatives or whatever. The remarkable thing is that this narrative is uttered in perfect seriousness and with a straight face. Not only is it as if capitalism ever actually existed in the United States (which at its peak of economic freedom in the 19th century was, at most, highly capitalistic), but it's as if capitalism existed in someone's actual lifetime. Not only that, within the last several years even! And here all of us capitalists were despairing about the mixed economy when we had capitalism all along!

Of course in reality, all this "capitalism is at fault" and "capitalism existed" stuff is non-sense. No sector of the American economy, except the black market, is unregulated. No sector functions without a federal agency and bureaucrats looming over it with regulations, statutes, and people ready to levy fines and penalties whenever legally required to do so. Jail awaits for whatever economic "crimes" are deemed most heinous. I know I felt safer without Martha Stewart prowling the streets. Most of these sections all have State agencies to deal with as well. The notion that the American economy is a free capitalist economy is a subterfuge, accepted even by erstwhile friends of capitalism, foisted by capitalism's enemies. The American economy is, like nearly every economy in the Western world, a mixed economy. It has free, competitive and capitalistic elements, in some cases quite a bit more than other Western economies. It also has closed, public/government, command elements which are anything but capitalism.

To say capitalism is at fault for the current situation is like blaming God for it. Sure, many people believe it exists, but it, in fact, does not. Or there has certainly been no credible proof offered by claimants, for either, that they exist. And that which does not exist cannot properly be blamed for anything. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are government created and supported corporations operating under government laws and regulations which required them to do certain things (i.e. lend to high-risk people in order to meet an arbitrary government mandated goal of housing ownership) with the explicit guarantee that if and when the shit hit the fan, i.e. now, the government would merely tax, borrow, and print enough money to cover the losses. This is capitalism? Certainly not. It is merely symptomatic of the return -- a return which began a long time ago -- to the machinations of planners and manipulators that existed in the age before capitalism's tragically brief triumph (to the extend that it had one in the late 18th and early 19th centuries). Colbert, Richelieu, Buckingham, and Raleigh could not have concocted better schemes to use public/private firms to effect arbitrary government goals and policies which then greatly distorted not only the most directly effected markets, but the whole economy as a result. The infamous "South Sea Bubble" was mere child's play.

As the practise of lending to risky people and not imposing a cost for that risk (i.e. much higher interest) is contrary to sound business practise and contrary to reality (for it is certain that many of these loans would never have occurred without government interference) the government set up an affront to reality -- essentially a contradiction. Now, only if incredibly lucky could the government and the rest of us escape the consequences; by which I mean, some how some way, people otherwise deemed bad loan risks would almost to a man actually prove otherwise. Reality is not a kind opponent. Fighting her is, like fighting the collectivist Borg in Star Trek, futile. The contradiction corrected itself and these loans became "toxic;" as in, no one was ever going to be paying them back. The ramifications of hundreds of billions of dollars of these toxic assets, guaranteed by an irresponsible government with the complicit support of its citizens who have never once stood to halt these encroachments, these regulations, these interventions, is now all around us.

Of course banks won't lend whatever money the government gives them. They have learned a painful lesson. Any business being run by people in their right minds ought to be cautious if they survived intact. Financial institutions far-sighted enough to realize this was not a good deal to begin with are certainly not going to suddenly switch from the astute decision making they have thus far shown and begin making a plethora of hasty and ill-timed loans merely because politicians want their voters to stop yelling at them. Until these bad loans work their way out of the system, leaving behind the wreckage of everything and everyone they have consumed, no one should expect "easy" credit nor should they desire banks to continue bad loan practises.

One note here before moving on. Not having access to "easy" credit is not the same as not having access to credit at all. It merely means that the price of money (interest) and the terms of loans will be higher and stricter. This is an expected correction to the mistakes we have just witnessed. The government pumping in money is merely going to delay the return of reality and create more miserable problems in that some of the institutions will not learn the lesson and make more disastrous loans and cause more of these same episodes.


Keynes vs. supply-siders

The prognosticators on "both" sides of the political spectrum seem to only consider two schools of economic "thought." One, associated with liberals and Democrats, and typified by the economic ravings of Paul Krugman is based in the tradition associated with the British economist John Maynard Keynes. Keynes, of course, the guru of the great depression who advocated abandonment of long-term thinking, rejected the gold standard, and promoted "who cares about inflation" government spending as a way to jar an economy back to life, is like a bad penny. He has more lives than "Toonces the Driving Cat;" every time one assumes that Keynesian economics has died finally, there it is again. The "alternative" to Keynesian economics, often associated with conservatives and Republicans, and built around Milton Friedman and Arthur Laffer, advocates manipulation of monetary policy (interest rates, the printing press, etc.) and tax rates to promote economic growth and job creation, while avoiding the alleged inevitability of an unregulated "boom/bust cycle" of capitalism.

These are both simply policy alternatives which embrace the same fundamental principles. If you don't believe that then I suggest you read Rush Limbaugh's laughably absurd editorial from the Wall Street Journal of 29 January 2009. Limbaugh's bipartisan "stimulus" is merely to "spend" the same $900 billion that's currently bandied about for the package on capital hill (see more on this below) but more evenly between President Obama's Keynesian preferences for random government spending on anything and everything and Limbaugh's supply-side preferences for tax rate manipulation. Both approaches are impossible without first accepting the premise that the government has a right to interfere in the economy, expropriate wealth, and redistribute it at will for whatever purpose. Limbaugh's "half" of the package may be more amenable if one is forced to accept one part or another, but he's willing to spend non-existant money, nearly $500 billion, on Obama's stuff while he's at it. He is countenancing, but with slightly different distributions, the premise of having your cake while also eating it. What is the point of cutting taxes while also spending half a trillion dollars you don't have? Taxes will just have to be raised later to pay it back, with interest, and avoid a default crisis.

Notice as well, that while the Democrats in congress and the white house are expounding new regulations and agencies in the package they are proposing, the "alternative" ideas expounded by the Republicans include no regulatory and bureaucratic reductions. You might say that this is because of their minority status -- they need to ask for and get what is realistic. But when they were in complete power of both the law making and law enforcing branches, Republicans still did not do either of these. In fact, they did just as their opponents are doing, just in different areas, or even in the same areas but in different ways. Window dressing never cost so much.

The reason is obvious. While they may dispute which regulations and manipulations are better and which chips should go where, they do not dispute the principles upon which the regulations, manipulations and chip shuffling are based. Keynesians and supply-siders, far from being widely divergent intellectual enemies, are merely different sides of another bad penny. The bitterness between them? No one wants to be on the side facing the pavement.


"Stimulus" Packages

Stimulus packages are the order of the day. Bush had them, a couple of them at various times actually, and under our new regime of perpetual change, we still have them, only bigger. Theoretically, or perhaps more appropriately, rhetorically, a stimulus package is supposed to "stimulate" the economy sort of like hitting a joint in precisely the right way in order to cause the desired reaction. The problem with stimulus packages as they are conceived of in Washington, D.C., and the current one in particular, is that it's not precisely clear what is being stimulated. To say, let's pass a bill to stimulate "the economy" inevitably begs an obvious question: what part of the economy? The government does not have enough resources to "stimulate" the whole economy even if it wanted to do so, and thus the law of scarcity requires choices to be made and for preferences and priorities to be defined. In so doing, squeaky wheels and crying babes inevitably win out, regardless of any actual stimulus effect.

The classic example of the current package is the tens of millions of dollars going to the National Endowment for the Arts. When pressed for the conceivable reason why and the related question of how this will stimulate the economy when hundreds of billions directly to banks and consumers failed is simply, "artists are losing jobs too." I'm still shocked that artists have jobs in the first place considering the state of modern art, but that's beside the point. Anything and everything anyone, in Congress, can think of has made it into the bill. Unemployment benefits are being expanded and extended, which will have the result of keeping people unemployed longer while also increasing the number of unemployed since it's now even more attractive than it had been. Medicaid is being extended from the poor to the unemployed, again, making the latter status even more palatable. State governments are being subsidized so that their poorly planned and deficit-ridden budgets are either greatly ameliorated or even "balanced." Public works projects of every shape and size, which are merely temporary jobs for mostly skilled union workers, litter the bill at every turn. Contraception is funded under the horrific notion that more people cost the government more money in benefits and entitlements and should thus be discouraged. The list is endless and woe unto those brave souls at Citizens Against Government Waste, The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere who are trying to sift through it all.

Actually stimulating the economy? This bill will stimulate statists, collectivists, hippies, acolytes, "artists," and whoever else gets a piece of it, but the economy? No.


Doing "something" vs. doing "nothing"

President Obama and nearly every other talking head, jabbering congressman, and self-proclaimed "expert" bewails the danger of doing "nothing." Of course what they mean by nothing is: not passing any new regulations, stimulus packages, taxes, etc. But not doing those things, of course, is doing something (doing nothing is literally impossible without all of us dieing), just not the something the President and his mob of drones desire.

Many somethings could be done, including the current trading game between tax manipulation and runaway spending. But one could easily imagine a government deciding to wait and see what happened under the previous round of bailouts and legislation, to see if that "worked" before deciding the next response, if any. That would be something.

One could imagine a government deciding to scale itself back to be within itself a little more. To start saving and paying down its debt a little like most of its responsible citizens are currently attempting to do.

And one could dream of a government learning from its many and wide mistakes, and reversing course, deregulating (gradually to avoid chaos) the various sectors of the economy, withdrawing itself from monetary and tax manipulation.......yes, one can dream.

The point here is not that anything other than what is happening now will happen, but that these other alternatives are "something" and not "nothing" as everyone keeps saying. They may not be the "something" you or they support, but to pretend that this current proposed solution is the only one, is ridiculously and maliciously false.

Ironic that in this age of enlightened "change," the old shamelessness of false alternatives, fearful hectoring, and outright deception continue without missing a beat.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Since I am almost always putting mostly, if not entirely, serious posts on this blog I thought I would digress a little and post something for everybody that I did for another forum. Facebook, a social networking site once reserved for college students and now open to all, has a thing going around inviting people to list 25 random factoids about themselves. Obviously this, while potentially serious, is a way to let people into some of the more personal and bizarre things that differentiate us all, even more than we are already, as individuals. I participated and below are my factoids, enjoy!


1. I stole pieces of the Turkish railroads that T.E. Lawrence and his Arab Legion blew up in the first world war, and no, I'm not returning them to the kingdom.

2. For some reason, probably because I don't think that they are, ipso facto, pure evil, people in college always suspect me of being a Republican. I am not. I do not affiliate with any political party and while being intensely political, modern politics disappoints and disgusts me no matter what letter happens to follow your name.

3. Because I live(d) in Las Vegas for so long people naturally assume I gamble all the time and live in strip clubs. FALSE. I gamble only when people insist on taking me to casinos for that express purpose and I've only ever been to two strip clubs in my entire life, once for a bachelor party and once because some relatives wanted to see one (they were not impressed and left after 10 minutes).

4. A frequent question when people see my room for the first time is "have you read all these books?" A fair question I suppose, but some of the books obviously displayed are dictionaries, who in god's name reads the dictionary? The answer by the way in no, I'd say I've read somewhere in the range of 35-40% of my holdings.

5. What do I consider to be a "turning point" in a relationship for it to become "serious?" Well, saying "I love you" is all well and good, but I'd posit that burping and farting in front of one another and being neither embarrassed nor offended is actually the "big" moment. That's right ladies, now you know what to look forward to.

6. Writing a dissertation is a lot like pursuing a woman, there's lots of careful studying and planning, patience and thought. And in the end it's completely in somebody else's hands. Unless you decide to quit, in which case this analogy is pretty useless.

7. I hate self-deprecation and yet I employ it all the time to defray a constant critique of myself made by others, namely my alleged arrogance. I'd make a new's years resolution about it, but I oppose picking random days to suddenly start altering one's behavior. Besides, it's not my fault I'm better than you! ;)

8. I love 18th and 19th century clothing, if I could wear it all the time, I would.

9. Would I have conspired to kill Caesar on 15 March 44 BC? Yes, yes I would have.

10. So the most exciting thing about coming to graduate school in new england was that I would be in the land of dunkin donuts again. I've been there maybe five times and they've since opened them in Vegas, go figure.

11. Since I'm an atheist I enjoy reading the holy legends of all active religions the same way religious people read the holy tales of the greeks, as myths and legends. So if Jesus came back from the dead, wouldn't that make him a zombie in the parlance of the present? If so, Voodoo and Christianity may become the syncretic super religion the world has been waiting for.

12. When I first became interested in history, I was swept up in the glory that was, or so I thought at the time, Napoleon Bonaparte. Over time I realized this was an error, and now I despise the man with something bordering on the feeling one has for an intimate that has severely betrayed and disappointed them. Bizarre I know.

13. I've only ever seriously kissed two women in my life. I've half seriously kissed countless others.

14. I was so caught up with youthful exuberance as a lad for women's legs that I used to kiss Tina Turner's when her music videos came on TV.

15. I collect busts. That's right, you heard me. Most are still in my room in Las Vegas, but it's a decent collection.

16. At one point in my life I was not fond at all of reading. What turned it around? Young Indiana Jones novels.

17. I never beat the first Super Mario until I was an adult.

18. Which is better, James Bond novels or James Bond movies? The answer is obvious to anyone who has read all the former and seen all the latter. I am such a person and the answer is, without doubt, the novels. The Sean Connery films however are still great.

19. My favorite run of the mill story plotline? Revenge tales, and here I mean a guy who has a legitimate reason to seek it, not some robber who is pissed at his partner for screwing him over or something. Christians may prefer vengeance in the hands of the lord but not I.

20. My favorite city in all the world is Chicago, the home of the world's greatest sports team the Chicago Cubs.

21. So Obama keeps comparing himself to Lincoln, like an ass, but not to the other President from Illinois, U.S. Grant. The Ku Klux Klan Act and the 15th Amendment aren't good enough or something? Oh yeah, something about me, I like Grant and am acerbic!

22. If I could be Vice-President my first goal would be to task NASA with sending me to the moon in order to solidify our territorial claims there. I would just hope there were no tie votes in the Senate!

23. I did not sleep the night before my Ph.D oral exams, and while I started off decently, by the end of the three and a half hours i just wanted to crawl onto the table and go to sleep. Unfortunately I then had to pick up a friend from the airport and then went out to celebrate with friends. The moral here is sleep before your orals, nothing I stayed up studying was a damn bit of help.

24. I am committed in theory to procreating one day, but no time soon, I am temperamentally unfit to raise a child at this time. Sorry ladies, I'll let you know when I can be your baby's daddy :P

25. If I could punch one "intellectual" in the face (assuming it would result in no lasting harm to them or me, and assuming that I suddenly became the sort of person who would do such things) it would without a doubt be Noam Chomsky/Howard Zinn/Gore Vidal/Al Gore. OK, so there is more than one intellectual I would punch in the face and, also, that last one made it in by mistake, Al Gore is by no means an intellectual.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Leave Iranian "Terrorist" Organization Alone

Today's Wall Street Journal ran a story today concerning an impending legal challenge to be launched by an Iranian dissident group called "Mujahedin e-Khalq" (MEK). They will be challenging the designation by the State Department under former Secretary of State Rice that they are a terrorist organization. This group has recently won similar lawsuits against the British government and the European Union, much to the dismay of the regime in Tehran and Qom. According to the news article, the group has been charged by the State Department with such "terrorist" acts as assassinating senior Iranian officials and bombing overseas Iranian [diplomatic] missions. The article goes on to say that the group has renounced it's violent past and is more concerned now with bringing outside pressure on the government in charge in Iran. However, even if they were still engaged in the aforesaid activities, the fact that the U.S. government would designate such acts as terrorism merely underlines two related problems with current U.S. strategy in the war. The first is not properly identifying the enemy while the second is prioritizing negotiation and diplomacy with our actual mortal enemies above eliminating them.

Terrorism, by which I mean the use of any tactic designed to strike terror and fear into the civilian population of an enemy, is a tactical approach or even a strategic decision made on the part of a belligerent state or group. To fight a war on it, as such, would be to condemn ourselves and every other country that has ever made the strategic decision to make a war terrible for the civilians of an enemy nation in order to get them to quit/surrender. War, particularly if existential survival is at stake, sanctions all tactics whether we want to admit it or not, so long as those tactics are aimed at bringing the war to a quick and successful conclusion (i.e. punishing the enemy for initiating force or threatening it, and guaranteeing to the extent possible that they never will do so again). Our enemy is not terrorism anymore than it is flanking maneuvers or amphibious landings or paratrooper invasions. Our enemy is the people and states currently employing terrorism to kill and subdue us. They are Islamic radicals and fundamentalists who literally believe that an imaginary super-being commands them to kill those who don't believe in their delusions and martyr themselves if necessary in order to wipe non-believers and enemies of the faith off the earth. As the United States is clearly and obviously the most powerful nation of the western world, the part of humanity which has clearly staked itself (in fits and starts, inconsistent and half-hearted) to advancing humanity, civilization, reason, science and life -- in essence, everything Islam and its fundamental adherents are against -- we are ipso facto their prime enemy. They understand this implicitly and they occasionally identify it explicitly. Western post-modern hubris and self-immolation is so advanced that our so-called intellectuals scoff at this motivation as "simplistic" (as if identifying, let alone hating, the essential characteristics of a competing civilization were a simple and easy task to perform) and instead point to some alleged "imperialism" in our foreign policy as the "real" cause of these people's discontent. This explanation is, for reasons I will not go into in depth here, fraught with historical inaccuracy as well as being logically quite convoluted.

Since our diplomats and leaders cannot properly identify our enemy, and instead have targeted a tactic, every use of said tactic is now illegitimate regardless of context. Now I'm no expert on what MEK's goals are or what they would do with Iran if they somehow toppled the Islamic theocracy in power, but I do know that the current Iranian government is a radical Islamic terror regime par excellence. They have waged an open and deadly war against us from the very inception of the regime and we have responded as lamely and as meekly as anyone could from Carter forward without exception. MEK is a group that has every right, as human beings resorting to their natural right to throw off tyranny and revolt, to assassinate government officials and target its representatives in Iran and elsewhere. To do as the Iranian government wishes and to condemn MEK for waging a war on evil (tyranny and the kind of anti-reason, anti-life policies of the "Islamic Republic of Iran" are about as evil as anything that exists today) is repulsive and reprehensible. I'm not saying we should support this group, but we certainly should not punish them for doing the proper thing in attacking an illegal, oppressive, and tyrannical regime we don't even officially recognize.

Of course, our reason for doing this is to curry some diplomatic points in order to diplomatically dissuade the Iranians from developing a nuclear weapon. Our diplomats and their bosses seriously believe this can work, as seriously as diplomats believed that they could resolve the crisis in the Balkans in 1914 and as seriously as Neville Chamberlain believed he could diplomatically "dissuade" Adolf Hitler. We continue to use diplomacy on a regime that declared war on us thirty years ago. This begs an obvious question: when will we realize they are not screwing around? We need to start taking some lessons from MEK about how to deal with those in charge of Iran and not a moment should be spared in our education. However, all that I've been discussing is leftover Bush policies. His replacement was elected to soften his predecessor's alleged hawkishness and to rely on "diplomacy first." President Obama is unlikely to do anything approaching what is appropriate in this matter without another attack from the Iranians on us or an ally, I just hope too many people do not have to die for his (and his predecessor's) errors and false hope in diplomacy.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

"Proportional" War is a Prescription for Never-Ending War: Israel vs. Hamas, Hezbollah, Fatah, etc.

As everyone is no doubt used to hearing, every time there is any sort of flare up in the never-ending conflict between Israel and her various enemies, is that Israel's actions are not "proportional." By this it is meant that while Hamas or whomever fires unguided rockets into Israel, possibly killing someone, possibly not, the Israelis retaliate with precision guided bombs and tanks which, while localized, are more deadly than the above rockets and tend to kill targets other than those the Israelis are after (whereas anyone is a target for Hamas, they're just hoping their rockets hit something human and preferably Israeli). Invariably, the shoddy weaponry of a dilapidated organization like Hamas kills fewer Israelis than the high tech firepower the Israelis deploy in response. This, to many of the allegedly educated peoples of the West, somehow constitutes a serious "problem." But questions arise. First, why is it a problem and second, what is the solution if it actually is a problem.

Much of the media coverage, it will be noted, assumes a giant fact not in evidence, principally that the lack of "proportionality" in Israel's response is a problem. That Israel has the power to fight a war where they lose as few as possible of their own people and kill as many as possible of their enemies should be neither surprising, nor should it constitute a problem. It is, ipso facto, the goal of all combatants to achieve this end to the best of their ability. The whole twisted logic of the suicide bomber is bent towards this end, one sacrificial martyr can wipe out hundreds in one fell swoop.

This of course does not mean that there never could be a problem of proportionality in foreign affairs. To suggest a ridiculous example illustrates the point. It would hardly be a properly rational response to hear news of a diplomatic insult and then order a nuclear strike on the offending government. The reason this is not a "proportional" response is that while annoying and even serious, a diplomatic snub of some sort does not constitute the use of force which would be required for a retaliation of any sort, nuclear or otherwise, to be justified. Israel is not reacting out of hand, they are meeting force with force. That Israel is far more wealthy, sophisticated, powerful, and advanced than their enemies is the fault of their enemies, not Israel, and it is their enemies who should pay the price for initiating force against a far superior enemy. The very fact that so few people have died in Gaza, a very small area with over a million people crammed into it, is a testament to just how much tip-toeing the Israeli armed forces are doing considering the wholesale destruction they are easily capable of. If a people or government abhors the results of war as we are led to believe the Palestinians do, they have a curious way of always provoking conflict.

Let us pretend for a moment that this "proportional" critique is legitimate. What is the solution? So Hamas plans to fire rockets into Israel. What does a "proportional" response entail? Must it be equal? Should the Israeli's forget that they have precision guided munitions and instead construct the inferior arms of their enemies to use against them? How would Israel firing unguided rockets into Gaza help this situation? Both sides would just be randomly bombing each other's civilian populations ad nauseum. When would it end? Has it ended so far?

The Israeli's have only ever achieved progress with their neighbors by beating them in war, thoroughly, and gaining recognition and respect that all the western diplomatic pressure in the world could not achieve. In every effort they have made where they restrain themselves and accept the notions that they, even while being attacked, would be in the wrong responding in whichever way they choose to minimize their own casualties and maximise those of their enemies, they have found themselves the losers. One only need think back to the operation against Hezbollah in Lebanon where this bleating whine of "proportionality" actually produced a retreat by the Israeli army before an inferior force. The conflict has been never-ending because the Israeli's never deal with it forcefully enough or because when they try the international diplomats step in to stop them, though the important player their is the United States. Every President since Nixon has thwarted moves and initiatives by the Israeli's to deal with its existential threats by threatening to halt arms shipments. It's a shame that we should do so unless we have some sort of interest at stake which would be harmed by Israel winning. If so, what is it? I have heard of none whatsoever, but I will keep my eyes and ears open for when it suddenly materializes.

In the meantime I will continue to hope that people realize that the only way to end a war is to make it so terrible for one's enemy that they either decide to quit or they die in it, not by playing a ceaseless game of tit for tat. No war ever ended that way and no war ever will.