Sunday, September 28, 2014

Putting Out Fire With Gasoline

I watched a brief excerpt from an interview given by President Obama on 60 minutes Sunday night. He was talking about our airstrikes against jihadists in the Middle East. What hilariously preceded and followed the interview excerpt was a Viagra commercial. Who needs Viagra? Would could be a better cure for erectile dysfunction for many American males than dropping bombs in the Middle East? I've noticed you get a new commercial every time you watch the video, so you will unfortunately not get to experience the irony I experienced first hand.

Here we go again. We are once more bombing evil doers in the Middle East. The evil "flavors of the month" are ISIS/ISIL and the Khorasan Group. Last Wednesday, in a speech before the United Nations President Obama vowed the US "will work with a broad coalition to dismantle this network of death." What are we going to do about the even greater number of people who will be radicalized by our attacks on ISIS and the other groups who are perceived as existential threats? We are trying to put out a fire with gasoline. Everything we do in that part of the world merely adds to the hatred of the United States. Are we going to see a replay of history, with the United States playing the part of Rome and the jihadists in the middle east playing the part of the Visigoths?

During the 60 minutes interview, President Obama was quoted as saying "There is a cancer that has grown for too long that suggests that it is acceptable to kill innocent people who worship a different God." Couldn't he be describing the United States? Don't we justify killing innocent people - make no mistake, we are killing innocent people who have the misfortune of accidentally being in our line of fire - by saying they worship a different God. In our case the god isn't in heaven, our god resides in New York's financial district. Does anyone doubt that our military industrial complex is riding high right now? Just look at Lockheed-Martin's stock price this past month, in case you have any doubts.

This past week, my son turned on the TV to watch a few minutes of NBC's The Today Show. The first story was full of hand ringing over Ray Rice's beating of his wife in an elevator. Immediately following a display of their heartfelt indigence over the Rice story, the normally cheerful team of lovable reporters excitedly told us how the US military was engaging in an all out effort to annihilate ISIS. Beating wives and girl friends is understandably shocking to our emphatic morning pals on the boob tube, but how can they jump into right into a report on the destruction of our enemies in the middle east without revealing some visible discomfort brought on by what should be a massive bout of cognitive dissonance? Last week a story about the cruel murder by a Sarasota, FL man of a Dachshund caught the attention of much of the nation.

Doesn't anyone see the irony? We are horrified at violence to a little dog, yet we don't seem to be disturbed by violence on a much more massive scale. Some the comments about the surveillance video showing the killing say that the person who killed the dog deserves the same treatment and that he should rot in hell. I've known many people, and they surprisingly often are right wing Republicans, who are horrified by violence against innocent pets, yet many of these same people cheer on the annihilation of human beings in a far off part of the world who we declare as enemies. Violence against an individual, even an individual animal, shocks us, yet our unspeakable violence against masses of people who we have dehumanized is somehow acceptable. 

I can't understand how our country never seems to be able to come up with money to help the poor, provide universal healthcare, or invest in scientific research, but when it comes to killing our enemies or bailing out banks we spend like there's no tomorrow. Medea Benjamin makes this point very powerfully in this recent interview with the folks from Democracy Now.

Why can't we ever hear such voices in the mainstream media? 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Small Is Beautiful

I want to start by mentioning the Scottish vote for independence. I have no skin in this game, but please read the excellent article on this subject by George Monbiot. The vote that Scotland is facing was brought to my attention by a request by David Bowie to Scotland via the beautiful, albeit undernourished, Kate Moss saying, "Scotland, stay with us." When it comes to contemporary music, I find David Bowie to be nearly infallible, however on the matter of Scotland's independence from the United Kingdom, I think he vastly misses the mark.

Kate Moss, upon accepting an award for David Bowie, 
delivers his plea to Scotland to vote to remain a part of the United Kingdom.

I've always had a soft spot for small nations, perhaps most for the smallest nations of all, the city states. It is the city states of Athens, Milan, and Florence to which we owe the greatest aspects of western culture. The German Kingdom of Saxony gave us Bach, the German Duchy of Saxe- Weimar gave us Goethe. Goethe, the poet, philosopher, and scientist - the German Shakespeare and more - opposed the German unity movement, feeling that Germany was fine as a loose association of kingdoms and duchies that shared much in culture and commerce but fiercely maintained their political independence.
Detail from a portrait of Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe by Joseph Karl Stieler
Below, I quote the text of a letter expressing Goethe's opinion on German National Unification.
I do not fear that Germany will not be united; … she is united, because the German Taler and Groschen have the same value throughout the entire Empire, and because my suitcase can pass through all thirty-six states without being opened. … Germany is united in the areas of weights and measures, trade and migration, and a hundred similar things … One is mistaken, however, if one thinks that Germany’s unity should be expressed in the form of one large capital city, and that this great city might benefit the masses in the same way that it might benefit the development of a few outstanding individuals. … A thoughtful Frenchman, I believe Daupin, has drawn up a map regarding the state of culture in France, indicating the higher or lower level of enlightenment of its various Departments by lighter or darker colors. There we find, especially in the southern provinces, far away from the capital, some Departments painted entirely in black, indicating a complete cultural darkness. Would this be the case if the beautiful France had tencenters, instead of just one, from which light and life emanated? — What makes Germany great is her admirable popular culture, which has penetrated all parts of the Empire evenly. And is it not the many different princely residences from whence this culture springs and which are its bearer and curators? Just assume that for centuries only the two capitals of Vienna and Berlin had existed in Germany, or even only a single one. Then, I am wondering, what would have happened to the German culture and the widespread prosperity that goes hand in hand with culture. — Germany has twenty universities strewn out across the entire Empire, more than one hundred public libraries, and a similar number of art collections and natural museums; for every prince wanted to attract such beauty and good. Gymnasia, and technical and industrial schools exist in abundance; indeed, there is hardly a German village without its own school. How is it in this regard in France! — Furthermore, look at the number of German theaters, which exceeds seventy … The appreciation of music and song and their performance is nowhere as prevalent as in Germany … Then think about cities such as Dresden, Munich, Stuttgart, Kassel, Braunschweig, Hannover, and similar ones; think about the energy that these cities represent; think about the effects they have on neighboring provinces, and ask yourself, if all of this would exist, if such cities had not been the residences of princes for a long time. — Frankfurt, Bremen, Hamburg, L├╝beck are large and brilliant, and their impact on the prosperity of Germany is incalcuable. Yet, would they remain what they are if they were to lose their independence and be incorporated as provincial cities into one great German Empire? I have reason to doubt this.
If only the Germans had heeded Goethe's wise counsel, how different our history would have been!

I usually deride the state's rights positions of citizens of the United States' southern regions, but perhaps they are truly on to something. The best nations in the world, from my perspective tend to be the smallest - think Switzerland, Luxembourg, Lichtenstein. San Marino, or Singapore. We hear little about these countries because they are prosperous and at peace. From Texas we often hear idle threats of independence. In the past, I have mocked such utterances with a shrug of my shoulders and a "good riddance." But Texas is a large state with a great deal of human and natural resources and a cultural outlook that doesn't fit well with other parts of the nation, particularly Washington, D.C. Maybe it would be better for them to split off. It might even be better for them to break Texas down into the city states of Houston, Austin, San Antonio, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Lubbock, and El Paso. The same might be said for California. The remaining states of the Union could just as well declare much greater autonomy. In fact, Goethe's Germany would be an excellent model for the United States. If our founding father's had had a larger measure of the sort of wisdom that Goethe possessed, perhaps they wouldn't have been so quick to dump the Articles of Confederation in favor of our national Constitution. I think North America would have been much better off if they had weathered the rough times that caused them to adopt a more centralized model for our government.

In summary, the most prosperous and peaceful places on Earth tend to be the smallest. The best pages in our history were written in small places: the city states of Greece and Italy, the kingdoms and duchies of old Germany, etc. Goethe saw the threat of unity on too large a scale, and history has proven him right. All peoples should follow Goethe's wise counsel, especially in this day of internet connectedness. We can achieve prosperity in small political entities. Small is beautiful!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

New technology is not necessarily the best solution to problems that are caused old technology.

There is a lot of excitement these days, shared by those in the pro-green and high-tech enamored camps, about electric vehicles (EVs). In fact I just finished reading alaudatory article on Elon Musk's Giga Factory published on one of the very liberal websites if regularly peruse. The Giga Factory promises to manufacture high capacity batteries that will be much cheaper than those currently on the market. Among other things, the article extols the virtues of imposing "onerous taxes" on gas-powered vehicles. I'm all for onerous taxes on gas-powered vehicles, but I'm not so gung-ho on EVs, since they are still (and likely will continue to be for quite awhile) charged mostly by electricity generated from burning fossil fuels. Incidentally, high-tech batteries and the vehicles they power require rare earth elements. Going from gas powered vehicles to EVs will merely result in shifting our dependence from one limited resource to another. The advanced economies of the West, and particularly the United States, have an insatiable craving for limited resources that is largely behind so much of the international unrest we are seeing today.
Our salvation rests more in the reduction of our consumption of resources than in the "greening" of them. We should in every way make it economically attractive to reduce sprawl and use the revenues collected from the high taxes on all "non-green" and resource hungry activities to foster more compact, pedestrian friendly communities. We should approach gas powered vehicles as we did cigarettes. It was a good idea to impose onerous taxes on cigarettes, and it is a good idea to tax the hell out of gasoline and gas powered vehicles. Also fostering a social stigma against driving anything, whether it be fossil or electrically fueled, would be effective in reducing the consumption of resources, just as the stigma against smoking had a revolutionary effect on reducing the consumption of cigarettes.
More tech is not a solution to our largely tech-caused problems. The decision to not smoke, to maintain a healthy diet, and to exercise regularly probably plays a larger role in extending life into a healthy old age than any medical advancements made over the past several decades. In the same way, living closer to work, school, and the marketplace will reduce carbon emissions and the consumption of precious resources and make life in America much more enjoyable and accomplish these goals more effectively than any high-tech developments in electrical power storage. I would even go so far to say that such a reallocation of resources would make our society far less violent, since more compact, pedestrian-friendly communities would naturally nurture better emotional health by reducing the sense of alienation that so many of our citizens are prone to, an alienation from society which instills a terrible feeling of loneliness and self-loathing that causes so many of them to strike out violently against fellow citizens.
In a healthier society, I bet we wouldn't need to have many of the discussions we are currently having about gun control and mental health. In the broader context, a significant reduction in our consumption of resources would bring about a shrinking of the US economic and military presence around the globe that would likely reduce the level of resentment (and the terrorism that it engenders) felt by people of other nations towards the United States.