Friday, 28 April 2017

100 day Trump scorecard: Tactical victories, unforced errors, mostly incomplete

The world has not ended, fascism is not reborn and the enormous Washington machine carries on pretty much as per normal as US President Donald Trump’s first 100 days finishes on April 29.

A tradition of the US political system since Franklin D Roosevelt’s tenure, the first 100 days of a presidency receives tight attention by media and voters alike. Mr Roosevelt signed 76 pieces of legislation during this time, compared with Mr Trump’s 28 (along with 34 executive actions).

The US president has dismissed the 100 days premise on Twitter, calling the standard "ridiculous," while also outlining how much his administration has accomplished in its first few months. "No matter how much I accomplish during the ridiculous standard of the first 100 days, & it has been a lot (including S.C.), media will kill!" The term “S.C.” refers to the appointment of Supreme Court justice Neil Gorsuch.

"I think you can go back and find an area, one or two, and say, 'OK, well, he didn't do this.' But I think you have to look at it in totality of what he actually did get done," White House spokesman Sean Spicer says. The initial days were eventful, but plenty of work remains for Mr Trump.

At the end of his first week in January, the president signed a series of executive orders to enact campaign promises. They included plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), a fast-track for infrastructure projects, direction for building a border wall with Mexico, removal of federal funds for “sanctuary cities” and suspension of the US refugee programme.

All received loud opposition from Democrats, but the final order on refugees also led to blockages in the US court system which are yet to be resolved. Mr Trump responded to the criticism of the refugee order by re-drafting it in February. The order initially focused on halting movement from seven Middle East and North African countries, but was reduced to six in the second issuance.

In January, Mr Trump also extracted the US from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement following his “America First” policy. He cited serious concerns about low US workers from Malaysia and Vietnam wage competition.

The remaining 11 members of the TPP (including New Zealand) have tentatively upheld a reinvigorating the deal without the US. Japan, which spent significant political capital on the deal by breaking up its agriculture unions, is leading this effort along with Australia.

Other trade changes include a modernisation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which both Canada and Mexico say should be organised quickly. And although Mr Trump’s nomination for US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer is still unconfirmed, the office has been instructed to re-assess all trade deals for upgrade opportunities, to find the causes of deficits and to “identify trade abuses,” according to Mr Trump.

Another of his campaign goals was to halt hiring at government departments. To achieve this, he signed a 90-day freezing order for hiring federal employees, which was lifted on April 12. National security employees were always exempt from the order.

Mr Trump also entered office with an empty seat on the Supreme Court. He promptly nominated conservative judge Neil Gorsuch. The final confirmation process was achieved with the “nuclear option,” referring to a Republican alteration of the success threshold to 51 votes, rather than 60.

At Mr Gorsuch’s swearing in, Mr Trump said: “a new optimism is sweeping across our land and a new faith in America is filling our hearts and lifting our sights.” Another Supreme Court seat could be vacated this year.

Republicans also attempted to “repeal and replace” the Obamacare health legislation. Led by House Majority leader Paul Ryan, the effort came close but failed to gather enough votes. The party and Mr Trump will try again to replace the healthcare package next month.

Pieces of Obama-era coal, waterways and climate change policies were also either reversed or cancelled. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has received heavy criticism from the White House, including cutting its funding as part of the new administration’s fiscal budget.

That budget proposal aims to avoid increasing government spending, while increasing the US national security funds. To achieve this, Mr Trump announced intention to siphon money from the State Department and to slice programmes from other departments.

Republicans still hope to secure funding for the proposed border wall with Mexico, even as Congress is holding back the required money. Presently, the border wall is 930 kilometres long and the total length of the border is 3,201 kilometres. Mr Trump hopes to fill those gaps.

Along with Obamacare, three other major pieces of legislation are not yet completed. These include a national security strategy, a cyber-security executive order and a tax reform package. Regarding the latter, a handful of smaller actions emerged in April – review processes and winding back of banking measures introduced after the 2008 financial crisis.

However, Mr Trump reversed his intention to label China a “currency manipulator” after the Treasury Department did not allege China was committing such actions.

Throughout this time, Mr Trump’s political opponents attacked the administration’s alleged connections to Russia. In what essentially amounts to accusations of treason, they claim Mr Trump and his officials are colluding with the Russian government.

While no evidence has been submitted either of Russian hacking attempts on the Democratic National Convention (DNC) last year or of malicious and hidden high-level cooperation, the flow of Mr Trump’s first 100 days have nevertheless been undermined by the accusations.

A series of nominated department heads were hampered by unnecessary legal testimonies and delays in their confirmations. Some were even forced to step down or compelled to recuse themselves for ongoing investigations.

It was however revealed that the administration’s transition team was under surveillance during the 2016 election campaign by domestic intelligence services looking for Russian connections, yet no evidence of collusion has been discovered. Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was dismissed after it was found he lied about a poorly-timed discussion with the Russian ambassador.

Mr Trump also launched a series of missiles at a Syrian airbase following revelations of a chemical weapons attack in the country. Syria is receiving Russian military support and the missile attack has removed much of the energy behind the collusion allegations.

Finally, in the foreign policy realm, Mr Trump has sent his defence secretary on tours of East Asia, the Middle East and Europe to reassure allies in those regions and gauge any requirements of US diplomatic and military support in the coming months.

North Korea also continues to provoke with its nuclear programme. As it stands, the US intelligence community assesses Pyongyang will theoretically have the capability to send a nuclear-tipped missile to the Eastern seaboard of the US within four years. Mr Trump is hoping to carefully change the calculation of acceptable risk regarding the hermit kingdom.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

The EU, France and the welfare state

It’s not over yet. The recent French elections wrenched back into EU headlines the triple threads of immigration, welfare and unemployment which seem to be inevitably uncoiling the tapestry of the EU structure. The pot boils in Western Europe.

A February survey by UK-based Chatham House found 61% of French citizens are in favour of suspending immigration from Muslim countries. In response to the sentiment, Front National leader Marine Le Pen says if the enormous welfare programmes can’t be reduced, the only thing left is to restrict immigration. But her main target remains the welfare state.

This is a perfectly reasonable target, too. The welfare state is not a “moral imperative.” The policy is best interpreted in terms of the common human tendency to seek power. History suggests when the nature to seek power conflicts with the nature to help, the former generally wins.

Therefore, the former is stronger, and we should look to it first to explain social and political phenomena in our own time. If we ask: What is a “welfare” programme? Through the power lens, we can see it is simply clientism – vote-buying on a wholesale scale.

Note that power-seeking and help-giving don’t necessarily contradict each other. Both can be true at the same time – and typically are. Nonetheless, on a historical timeline set out on a level playing field, the preference for people to use help-giving as modes to power-taking is so lopsided as to be funny. As Bert Cooper on Mad Men said, “philanthropy is the gateway to power.” Right on, Bert. Have I mentioned before how excellent those first three seasons were?

And in 2017, I can assure you that everyone in the French government machine a) thinks they are “helping,” and b) is quite conscious of how real votes are obtained in French politics. They see the two as a beautiful synergy. As of course, they are.

Over the last two centuries, the world adopted the welfare state because the world adopted democracy. Conservatives fail to see this. (I am not a conservative, but probably a reactionary. I want both democracy and the welfare state gone.) The world adopted democracy, an Anglo-American form of government, largely because of the power and prestige of England in the 19th century and the US in the 20th. In every European country, the democratic/liberal faction was also the Anglophile faction.

The welfare state is a result of Europe being conquered by America – specifically, by the New Dealers. Washington faced no opposition to its ideas and today there is no real political opposition to the overall liberal system in Europe – there has been none for decades. Not that there’s much in the US, either. So the result is an implicit oligarchy.

(To see how the Anglo-Americans themselves progressed toward democracy happened, you might want to read Sir Henry Maine – one of the great scholars in comparative government and jurism – specifically his Essays on Popular Government (1893).)

When discussing these sorts of things, I think people make the common democratic fallacy of treating “public opinion” as an intrinsically ultimate cause. It’s not. To reverse what Andrew Breitbart used to say, politics is upstream from culture because the machinery of government works in one direction. Thus, today, Europeans love democracy and the welfare state. Even in Germany. Then again, in 1930s Germany, Hitler was only slightly less popular than democracy is today.

Conclusion: public opinion is a function of whose military forces control the TV station, and not much more. The mass mind is a lever anyone can operate. If you find the public believing in one thing, you can be sure someone somewhere is instructing them in that one thing. So every democracy is in a sense an autocracy – whoever is in power, is in power. The question of what the proles believe is ultimately arbitrary and contingent, dependent as I said on military results.

So if we ask, as a matter of history, why French President François Hollande supported programmes which give money to migrants? One answer would be: M Hollande loves Syrians and wants to help them as much as possible. Another answer is: M Hollande was elected by a massive vote-buying machine, which specialises in purchasing the electoral loyalty of migrants.

Now, the truth is: M Hollande probably does love Syrians, in at least some sense. However, my historical assessment is that he knew which side his bread was buttered on, and if the butter had ever found itself on one side and Syrians on the other, I am quite confident as to which side he would have picked. Power is, after all, extremely tantalising to hominids.

Today, almost everyone accepts the first explanation: M Hollande wanted to take other peoples’ money and give it to migrants because he loves and wants to help them. However, if this explanation is widely held a century from now, I shall be disappointed – it’ll mean nothing whatsoever has changed.

Ms Le Pen’s solution so far is to “cut down on welfare dependency” but might not be enough. The better solution is much simpler and more effective. If Paris owes a beneficiary some payment or benefit, it should compute the actuarial value of the benefit, pay it – in present or future money – to the beneficiary and terminate the programme.

Notice how this thought-experiment exposes the difference between wanting to control people, and wanting to help people. It provides all the help, but none of the control. (Clearly, if the “entitlement” becomes an actual financial debt, it is no longer producing its former vote-buying effect.) My plan is unpopular with liberals and conservatives alike, so it won’t be enacted. At least, not by any democracy! But Ms Le Pen is on the right track anyway.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Who is making Russia policy in Washington?

The Russians must think the Americans are crazy. The sheer breadth of fictitious allegations about Russian bogeymen is a twisted logic driving events toward war. Wittingly or unwittingly, it’s unclear why the US is doing this. Is war really what it wants?

Three years ago Ukraine exploded into chaos. The legacy of this continues and generally flickers beneath the radar but it’s exceedingly dangerous: Nato is building up forces on Russia’s borders, particularly in the Baltic and Black Sea regions. The US has deployed its most advanced F-35A stealth fighters to Estonia, among a serious amount of other impressive military materiel.

Then there is “Kremlingate” in which Russia is said to have infected the 2016 US elections and continues to "puppet" US President Donald Trump. Russia is also blamed for boosting France’s Marine Le Pen candidacy over the pro-American Emmanuel Macron. The latest story emerges from a briefing by a US general that Russia is apparently colluding with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

In hearings last month, US officials implied Russia breached the Democratic National Convention’s emails, gave the contents to Wikileaks, which then released the emails to damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign and put Mr Trump in the White House. Washington says this constitutes an act of war, skyrocketing the whole debacle to an existential level. This is madness.

Despite media reports to the contrary, not a single piece of evidence has been released showing Russia had anything to do with affecting the US election. That two of the three largest US intelligence agencies (CIA and FBI) are “highly confident” is simply bogus. The one agency that could conceivably have done a forensic examination is the National Security Agency (NSA) and it says it was only “moderately confident.”

Think about that. You don’t marry someone based on “moderate confidence,” you definitely don’t go to war with Russia on “moderate confidence” and no one should be staging ridiculous theatre to destroy the presidency on “moderate confidence.” Besides, if I were American, I would find claims that Russia used propaganda to help elect Mr Trump deeply insulting. It is saying US citizens are mindless zombies ready to go anywhere Mr Putin leads them.

It might come as a surprise to some but Russia has its own politics. Across the spectrum, they are convinced America is preparing for war. Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev said in April, following a US missile strike on Syria, “we are on the brink of war” and that relations are “absolutely ruined.” Mr Medvedev is considered the most pro-Western of Russia’s leadership.

Also in April, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Russia. He has been categorised by US media as Mr Putin’s friend because when serving as chief executive of ExxonMobil he worked for six years to access vast Russian oil reserves. Mr Putin knows Mr Tillerson well. The Russians would never have made that deal if they didn’t think he was a serious, honourable and reliable man.

Mr Putin wasn’t supposed to be at the meeting because a lot of the political class in Russia didn’t want him to attend. But he turned up anyway and stayed for five hours. I think the conversation would have gone something like this: Rex, what is going on in Washington? What is this about Trump as our puppet? Tell me, who is responsible for making policy toward Russia?

That last question is a dark indicator of how broken the relationship appears. Consider Syria. Mr Putin needed to know if the US still accepts the position that the choice is between the Assad regime or the Islamic State. Russia assumed the regime is the lesser evil.

But after the missile attack, the US seems to be drifting. Whatever Russia’s military posture in Syria, it would be based on Mr Tillerson’s answer. I don’t know what was discussed but it wasn’t good. After the chat, Mr Trump announced relations are at an all-time low and Mr Tillerson solemnly said there was no trust between the two countries.

In all these narratives, Russia is the villain without exclusion. The castigation of Russia’s leader has been going on for nearly 17 years, getting shriller every year. It has re-awakened Russophobia and the blaming of Russia more generally, which in turn is tapping into old Cold War discourse. Every time, Washington decides it needs to further militarise its relations with Russia. This is madness.

The attempt to paint Mr Trump as a Russian puppet is convincing Mr Putin of nefarious intentions. He has publicly said someone is trying to provoke a war between the US and Russia, although he did not say who. He suggests powerful forces in Washington did not like Mr Trump’s policy of detente with Russia and are doing everything they can to scuttle it.

What we do know is that the US intelligence community has been leaking to the Washington Post, New York Times, CNN and other major media in ways that are not only highly detrimental to Mr Trump as a president but to his Russia policy as well. There is an obvious pattern here.

My concern is that Russia will overreact as it is prodded and prodded and prodded. The French have a saying for what's going on here: cet animal est tres mechant; quand on l’attaque, il ce defend. “This animal is very wicked; when you attack it, it defends itself.”

Forget North Korea, this provocation is more dangerous. At the height of the Cuban missile crisis at least satellite photos of Russian missiles were presented. There is zero evidence for Russian hacking today. Apparently, we have to take the intelligence community’s word on it and Iraq in 2003 suggests no one should be comfortable with that.

I’ll take one more turn of the wheel. Mr Trump’s presidency is being crippled by accusations of treason with no evidence. If this had happened to President John F Kennedy during the Cuba crisis, the only way to prove he wasn’t a Soviet agent would have been to launch nuclear weapons. This is madness.

So, when Mr Trump launched missiles at a Syrian military base, it was to show he isn’t a Kremlin puppet. It would be unwise to bash Mr Trump when he gets something right, and crushing the dangerous idea that Russia controls him at the minuscule price of 59 missiles was a good move.

But with all these messages, Mr Putin has no idea who is making policy in Washington. And if Russia’s pro-West faction is concerned, what might the Russian patriot faction be whispering to him? Mr Putin doesn’t want a new Cold War, neither does Mr Trump. But the Russian leader is right: Something is moving in Washington, something with sharp teeth.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Why enlightenment is in such short supply

I used to wonder why so few people enlighten themselves. Surely, if the benefits include self-control and power over one’s own soul, then everyone would be doing it? But I realise now that enlightenment means we have to come to grips with the fact that you and I could have been a Nazi concentration camp guard, a Rwanda machete murderer or a Mongol building a pyramid of human skulls in eastern Europe. The reason it feels so shallow and unconvincing when people say “oh, don’t worry, you’re such a good person” is because it sounds like wishful thinking. Like something an advertiser might say. And I don’t think people believe it.

There’s a terrible beast inside of each of us. You can feel it sometimes, rising, wide-eyed. If you can’t accept that you could have been a Nazi, then I think you have absolutely no idea who you are. Imagining yourself as a Nazi is terrifying, but I don’t think you get any insight whatsoever into your capacity for good until you have some well-developed insight into your capacity for evil. In the cold, dark corners of your mind, there are motivations so terrible that they would traumatise you if they were ever revealed. Everyone knows at some level of analysis that this is absolutely true.

And you’d think since enlightenment is viewed as the medication for vulnerability and death, that everyone would be struggling as hard as they possibly could to be enlightened. But if the barrier to enlightenment is the development of the self-consciousness of the individual human’s infinite capacity for evil, then you can be immediately convinced about why enlightenment is in such short supply.

You see, evil and suffering are not the same things. For instance, cancer isn’t evil because it’s a natural part of living. Evil is what happens when a person – who already knows that a reality of nature exists – refuses to harmonise themselves with that reality. To harmonise yourself with reality minimises the inevitable suffering inherent in living as a vulnerable human being. To remove suffering entirely wouldn’t be a good thing because as vulnerabilities are removed, so too is removed the part of yourself that makes you human. Limitation and vulnerability is what makes it possible to have a story.

Evil happens when a person refuses to harmonise with reality and therefore exacerbates suffering. In other words, evil is the maximisation of suffering. A “correct” society as seen on that United Airlines plane is not the way to achieve this. Here we can see an environment in which the nature of reality was apprehended but then discarded in favour of an idealised reality.

Everyone on that United Airlines jet knows this is true. But still, evil entered the fuselage. You have to know – not feel, know – that evil isn’t some ethereal force wafting through the air waiting to descend on unsuspecting humans. It is a consequence of arrogantly refusing to a) accept that a reality exists, b) resigning yourself to that reality and c) doing the work in every moment of your life to harmonise yourself with that reality and reduce the level of suffering for you and others.

If you had stood up on that flight and yelled “stop,” chances are people around you would look at you weirdly – at worse you might be arrested for obstruction. That’s only suffering. Everyone suffers. It’s how you get through it that makes you a person. But not to stand up is the introduction of evil. There’s no way around this.

And yes, I know this risks placing you as the most important person in the world – a concept (narcissism) I’ve written against many times. I don’t think that makes it untrue. That you are responsible for ensuring evil does not enter the world in every situation you are privileged to occupy is precisely the insight of enlightenment. You have to believe that the reason bad things happen is because you and I are not good enough. We’re not good enough, and have a lot of work to do. We’re not good enough, and we know it. We’re not good enough. We’re not good enough.

No one can prove scientifically that everything we do actually, really, truly matters, but you have to believe it in the teeth of evidence. Otherwise, no one will stand up and people will be hauled off planes or to the Gulag. Suffering is going to happen anyway. You’re going to feel pain, there’s no hiding from it. Why not stand up right now and speak the truth? Nietzsche once said, “if I have a why I can endure any how.” And that’s exactly right. The things you do really matter. And the sooner we resign ourselves to this reality, the sooner we can go about removing some of this damn suffering.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Changing Trump’s mind on Syria

Directly after US President Donald Trump’s first real projection of force last week (cruise missiles fired against Syrian regime targets), his supporters complain he is listening to the exact experts he was supposed to ignore. But why does this complaint feel like such a waste of time?

Actually, a better question would be: who, exactly, are these experts? By what means did they achieve their positions of authority? Do their disciplines genuinely use the wonderful error-correcting quality of Popperian science? Or has this been, in some way, neutralised or bypassed? Was it never there in the first place?

Everything makes sense thinking about experts as a power caste, understood by using the Russell Rule (originally noted by Freda Utley about Bertrand Russell): the ruling caste are the people who say "we" when they mean "the government." The ruled castes always says "they."

This ruling caste enjoys obsessing about the negative aspects of life because, like all hominids, it likes power. Power in human societies is inseparable from responsibility: a person gains power by demonstrating they are sincerely concerned about solving problems. No problems, no power.

And these experts are definitely concerned. No one who has spent any time with these people can doubt their sincerity. This doesn't imply, however, their solutions will be effective. Mr Trump’s supporters agree: the solution is producing the problem it purports to be trying to solve.

For example, who hasn't suspected that democracy and the peace process are the cause of Syria’s ills? Don't you ever wonder what would happen in that part of the world if everyone decided to ignore it for a while? The experts didn’t want Mr Trump to wonder.

If you read the New York Times regularly and believe it is portraying an accurate picture of reality – obviously, it defers to universities in any case of doubt – you also believe that anyone who supports Mr Trump’s ideas is either ignorant, malicious or seriously deluded. And he is certainly out to lunch on many issues.

From this, people naturally conclude Democrats have better epistemology than Republicans. What this analysis is missing, I think, is a sense of the fundamental asymmetry between left and right in the modern American political system and how it impacts the presidency – and the world.

First, the right simply does not have an epistemological filtering system. It's only the American left that has genuine leadership institutions which work to frame the debate. There is no right-wing Harvard. There is no right-wing New York Times. There are only scattered circles of right-leaning intellectuals, generally poorly funded. The American university system speaks with one voice, and pretty much always has.

The only professional conservatives are neoconservatives, in other words, post-Trotskyists. Nothing at all survives of either McCarthyism or Patterson isolationism, both comical by pre-20th century standards, American or European. In short, American conservatism is a pathetic joke, and any liberal who worries about it is a paranoid.

In a society where scholars are the ruling caste, actual scholarship tends to vanish. The classical virtues of craft, originality and curiosity are virtually obsolete. They are of no use in the task of capturing the President’s psychology and expanding the state. Virtues leave little time for the organisationally valuable tasks of maintaining doctrinal purity, expelling dissidents and watching each other’s backs.

The place where these experts come from, universities, are no longer institutions of scholarship. They are revolutionary seminaries. Their product is cadre. Of course, it’s still possible to get a good education in STEM, but even there it is increasingly difficult to escape indoctrination.

As I wrote recently, ethnic minorities are ideal as cadre just as Ottomans selected and reared mainly Christian boys to serve as Janissaries. Children of the powerless classes have no reason to defect. They will be extraordinarily loyal warriors. This is why, if you're young, smart and ethnic, your ticket in life is written.

So Mr Trump has two sources of epistemology to choose from when making decisions. He can get his truth from the same place Mr Obama does. Or, as his supporters desire, he can get it from demotic folk wisdom, the Bible, common sense or whatever. You would expect the latter process to not be very reliable, and it generally isn’t.

What’s surprising is that it’s ever accurate. Yet there’s a pattern across the 20th century of this basically unintellectual side of the debate being correct, and universities being wrong. In economics, for example. This doesn’t mean it’s good to be an ignorant hick. It only suggests the “expert” system is not immune to epistemological corruption.

As the Syria strike now proves, it is a mistake to think electing Republicans will turn the US into Trumpistan. When a person votes Democrat, they are saying the people who have the real power should stay there. When they vote for Republicans, they are agitating and disrupting the system, albeit to a much lesser degree than most think.

There is one genuine, positive effect of voting Republican. It acts as a symbolic protest against the rule of universities. Progressives are very good at calibrating their demands to what the public will accept – I believe it’s one of Saul Alinsky’s rules. By saying, “we want Trump,” a voter implicitly says, “we have an issue with Maoist first-year indoctrination struggle sessions.” This doesn’t stop those programmes, not at all, but it strikes a little bit of fear into the progressive’s heart.

The way it typically works is that most of the ideas held by the ruling scholar caste are simply bad, whereas those held by its primary political competitor (the red-state bourgeoisie) are either unexpectedly sensible or profoundly awful. Traditions often work that way.

But complaints about the experts feel like a waste of time because the complainer inevitably becomes associated with low-status people. The result is a stable disequilibrium in which nonsense defeats sense. It's quite an ingenious design. Not that anyone designed it, of course, any more than someone designed, say, the ankle. But I think we can still be impressed.

However, experts know three things: One, their intellectual system is not capable of correcting itself. Two, it is possible to destroy it. And three, the red-state bourgeoisie is a productive, rather than a counterproductive, tool which can be useful in achieving this outcome. Now can you see why they wanted to change Mr Trump’s mind on Syria?

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

United Airlines offers you a look into your broken soul

Who wants to see something ugly about themselves?

The recent United Airlines fiasco reminded me of Canadian columnist Mark Steyn’s point that the reason the 9/11 terrorists were able to subdue three enormous aircraft full of people was because air travel is as close to a regulated utopia America has ever created.

People are treated like children no matter how many flights they take. Everything on an aircraft is organised by the tightest regulations. As a passenger, your only job is to buy the ticket and sit still. In case of emergency, do nothing and wait for the authorities. The safety lessons are, as Fight Club said, the airline’s way of assuaging the fear of flying – an illusion of safety.

But on 9/11, those docile passengers followed the rules perfectly despite the fact that in front of them stood sweating, nervous men armed only with craft knives. They all died as a result. However, the passengers on United Airlines flight 93 ignored those rules. Whether those few brave individuals thought they were saving lives on the ground or their own necks doesn't really matter. What counts is they acted as individuals because the system had failed them in the only way that matters.

That fourth aircraft, the one that crashed in Pennsylvania, is the exception that proves the rule. As Mr Steyn notes in America Alone:

“The first three planes were effectively a flying European Union, where the rights of the citizens had been appropriated by the FAA’s flying nanny state. Up there where the air is rarefied, all your liberties have been regulated away: there’s no smoking, there’s 100% gun control, you’re obliged by law to do everything the cabin crew tell you, if the stewardess – whoops, sorry – the flight attendant’s rude to you, tough, if you’re rude back, you’ll be arrested on landing. For thirty years, passengers surrendered more and more rights for the illusion of safety, and, as a result, thousands died. 
“On the fourth plane, Todd Beamer and others reclaimed those rights and demonstrated that they could exercise them more efficiently than government. The Cult of Regulation failed, but the great American virtues of self-reliance and innovation saved the lives of thousands: ‘Let’s roll!’ as Mr Beamer told his fellow passengers.”

This week shows quite clearly, I think, how airlines haven’t evolved much over the intervening years. If anything, they’ve added more regulations. The intelligence scooped from a Special Forces raid in Yemen now means passengers can’t take laptops aboard aircraft travelling from a group of suspected countries. Everyone accepted this as fine. No problem, keep moving.

Water also needs to be requested in silly little cups, for exactly the same reason: intelligence suggested bottled liquid could be explosive precursors. So to continue the illusion of safety, airlines began regulating how passengers can drink the most fundamental building block of life. No one questioned this either.

Now a 69-year-old man flying the same airline as Todd Beamer was dragged off a flight because the staff made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. The flight was apparently booked to capacity, but a few United Airline staff members needed to be aboard. A randomised selection of passengers was chosen and offered hundreds of dollars to vacate their seats.

One doctor refused because he needed to get to his destination, presumably for emergency medical reasons. But those droning, robotic flight attendants were on auto-pilot, and the decision was made to force the man off the plane using police officers. Not other flight attendants. Police officers. Think about that. Also, those officers saw nothing wrong about doing this. Think about that as well.

United Airlines chief executive Oscar Munoz says while he is “upset” to hear about the event, the airline crew had simply been following “established procedures.” I’ll let that sink in.

The first thing you might ask is: why didn’t anyone volunteer in the doctor's place? I’m sure a few people did put their hands up to offer, but why didn’t they insist? And why didn’t the flight attendants change their minds?

If you’ve read any Solzhenitsyn the answer should be clear. Everyone was following rules. A catastrophically unethical action was taking place, and no one did a thing. I’m sure these people will scream indignantly that they are not bad individuals. But they are wrong, I saw the videos. Please do not misunderstand me. I am not saying the plane was full of evil people. I am saying being on that plane turned everyone into a moral monster.

I don’t care if a policeman says the rules are clear. I don’t care if five policeman demand you sit back down and do nothing. I don’t care if the seatbelt light flicks on and your pupils have already dilated in calm obedience. Rules do not, and should never, obviate the reality of following a moral injunction. And you know what those are.

God may be dead. But none of us is willing to shine a torch into the abyss to see just how abyssy it is. Those authority figures and regulations serve one purpose: to forgive you for the sin of staying quiet. “It’s not my fault, that’s just the way the system works.” Well, 20 million Ukrainians would disagree.

Forget the easy criticism of asking the staff to take the next flight. Did anyone stop to think why they couldn’t just grab a few pillows, tie blankets together as a makeshift seatbelt and sit at the ends of the aisle? They wouldn’t even have to sit on the aisle, blocking everyone’s path. There’s always floor space in these modern jets.

But that would require independent thought and, horror of all horrors, a circumvention of regulations to make something work. Sure, there’s a legitimate fear of a lawsuit. Is that really worse than beating a man and dragging him from the plane, though? Didn’t think so.

There’s something about the way air travel represents the pinnacle of state control that makes this docility and banality of evil inevitable. The doctor paid for his seat. He submitted to the regulations. He gave up all his rights. Still the authorities, following nothing more than those damn regulations, tore him away. Because according to the system, at no point did anyone do anything wrong.

The only thing a person owns, regardless of environment, is the ability to act in line with their moral intuitions – in the teeth of consequence.

You can’t see it, but the problem is religion. I doubt the majority of passengers believe in Jesus, and yet to a person, they all deferred to signals of the Omnipotent Other, broadcast as it always is by the semiotics of uniforms, regulations and certifications plastered throughout airport terminals and right there on the backs of the reclining seats. That power you see is the state – and it owns your soul.

Because of their belief in the Omnipotent Other, the passengers voluntarily gave up their individuality while performing a cell-phone ritual of absolution in real-time for their inaction. A camera won’t protect your soul. The guilt always stays with you. Always. It never goes away. Never. You have to let it motivate you to change your life. You have to become the kind of person who stands against the hurricane of regulations to scream “Stop!” You have to become a better person.

That's one interpretation, anyway, but I am telling you now, it is the only one that will save you.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Trump's message of 59 precision missiles into Syria

In the wake of a limited US strike on Syria, in which two US Navy destroyers fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Shayrat air base in western Homs, the Kremlin reportedly pulled a 2015 agreement with Washington designed to avoid military collisions in Syrian airspace. Later, however, US military officials say Russia agreed to maintain the deconfliction hotline on Syria meant to contain midair collisions. 

However, now the Russian Defense Ministry says it is suspending its deconfliction efforts to avoid aerial confrontation with the United States in Syria starting April 8. Russia has reportedly sent a note to the US defence attache in Moscow, informing the US government of the suspension. 

Earlier, Russian President Vladimir Putin says he considers the strikes an act of aggression against a sovereign government in violation of the norms of international law, and under a far-fetched pretext. The incident will cause significant damage to US-Russia relations, a spokesman says. Meanwhile, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman says the US strikes were planned well in advance and that the chemical weapons attack simply provided an excuse for the United States to attack. And a Russian Defense Ministry spokesman says Moscow intends to strengthen Syria's air-defense system.

On the other side, the US Department of Defense is investigating whether Russia was involved in the April 5 chemical weapons attack on rebel-held territory in the town of Khan Shaykhun in Idlib province, senior US military officials say.

A US defence official also says Russian frigate Admiral Grigorovich RFS-494 had crossed through the Bosporus on April 7 and is now in the eastern Mediterranean. Russian officials say the frigate was heading for the Syrian port of Tartus as part of a routine trip.

Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vladimir Safronkov spoke April 7 before the UN Security Council, which is trying to find a diplomatic solution to the ongoing situation. Safronkov told reporters the council had reached a deadlock and says the "negative consequences" of the action would rest on the shoulders of the United States.

Interestingly, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu says Washington informed Ankara before carrying out April 6 missile strikes. Mr Cavusoglu told reporters US ambassador in Ankara John Bass contacted the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs directly and that other anti-Islamic State coalition members had been informed as well. The foreign minister also claimed to have spoken with his Russian, French and German counterparts about the matter.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says the cruise missile strikes do not represent a change in US policy toward Syria. The United States will rely on negotiations in Geneva to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Mr Tillerson says. Russia has failed to deliver on its commitments made in 2013 to secure Syria’s chemical weapons, adding that Moscow has been either complicit or "simply incompetent" on the matter. 

Meanwhile, US Rep Adam Schiff, the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, says the White House does not intend to conduct additional air strikes on Syria, though it is reserving its options. 


So that's the news, but it doesn't tell us much about why this strike took place or what it means. It looks like the US struck Syria in a measured, strategic way and it sent a message. But what was the message? And was it really limited to the Syrian regime?

It certainly wasn't a display of US resolve. Every time the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons in the past, Washington deferred to inaction, even when it said this would constitute a "red line." Admittedly, that was during Barack Obama's presidency and by many reports, Mr Obama thought he was smarter than the foreign policy establishment and tried to outplay them at every turn. He felt scorned after the poorly-thought-out Libyan intervention in 2011 and didn't want to fall into the trap of listening to CFR and Brooking so easily again. History will be the judge of him.

The new US president hasn't had enough time or headspace to deliver his position on Syria, although the major theme of his presidency already seems to be a continuation of the two prior administrations, with a little alteration. So before this week, it was safe to assume his implicit position on Syria was the same as Mr Obama's, and this proved to be true. 

In this case, Mr Trump decided delivering on the "red line" threat would be a good idea and proportional to the regime's activities. This means the strike should be seen as Mr Trump seizing a perfect opportunity to put his marker down as being different to his predecessor. A military response to chemical weapons use has good optics for his supporters: "Obama wouldn't do what was necessary, but I will."

Was the message about the strength of the US president? Surely his power to simply order the launch of 60 cruise missiles from a pair of loitering destroyers in the Eastern Mediterranean at will broadcasts the executive's capabilities? Not really. The president has more power over the use of US forces than over domestic policy, but it's not total. He still has to sign off major operations with the Senate. Of course, Mr Trump will use the military as coins in the popularity slot machine, but any jackpot is beyond his power to control. The US is a martial culture, so it likes seeing strength, but its translation is not up to the Pentagon. That's up to State. So far the two are aligning on this, so aside from the easy critical dig of civilian deaths, both Washington factions are nodding their heads.

Perhaps the message was about the terror of chemical weapons? I don't think anyone disagrees sarin or chlorine in the mouths of children is a chivalrous way to conduct battle. But two things don't quite make sense here. 

One, there is good reason to believe Mr Obama's final decision not to intervene in Syria five years ago can't be blamed on just reticence or cowardice. Reportedly he received a briefing soon after the chemical weapons release by the US intelligence community. The information was delivered with high confidence that during all the capture and recapture of territory over the prior few months, jihadist rebels had secured some chemical weapons. Then, aided by bumbling Turkish intelligence officers, the rebels had used those weapons against a civilian area to make it look like the regime was responsible. 

The motive was obvious. Both the rebels and Turkey wanted the US to get involved. Mr Obama was in a tight situation because he'd promised intervention but now learned he was being goaded. It was only when the Russians stepped in and offered to destroy the regime's chemical weapons stockpile did the US president have his way out. This version of events won't be confirmed for 30 years until the classified vaults open, but it does fit the puzzle of why Mr Obama halted.

(As an aside, Mr Tilerson is correct. Either the Russians are incompetent with their destruction programme or they are devious. Russia certainly would have intelligence officers in position among the Syrian military to know about any strategy to use the weapons. But of course, this depends on whether the regime actually dropped the weapons or whether it was another bluff. The US says it knows which aircraft were used to release the weapons, but that's what it said after the last incident as well. The fog of war is a damn pain.)

Two, why are chemical weapons worse than conventional weapons? I mean, when you think about it, having a limb blown off or shrapnel pepper the face would be just as terrible and life-changing as chlorine burns in the throat. And an explosion is just as deadly as chemical suffocation. There's actually no reason to think the US really cares about chemical weapons usage, in itself. But it does tick a few juicy boxes. 

After all, when the US says a regime is morally evil and should be removed (like Bashar al-Assad's), and it's not obvious why that regime is worse than any other, it has to be made clear to the audience (the "international community"). And what better way to do that than to arbitrarily choose chemical weapons as the mark of horror? Anyone willing to use them axiomatically is a bad actor and must be stopped.

But I want to point out how this diverts attention from the use conventional weapons. Because, after all, if conventional weapons aren't as bad as chemical, then the US can use TNT with impunity and still remain a moral actor. Furthermore, if chemical weapons are the worst weapon in combat, then no one will remember that the US is still the only nation to have used nuclear weapons in battle. Conveniently, the only weapon type the US hasn't used in combat is chemical.

(It also pays to remember that chemical weapons are the least efficient type of weapon available. They require exquisite environmental conditions to operate. The slightest gust of wind will push the toxic cloud from the intended target area, perhaps even back onto one's own troop positions. The explosion of the artillery shell or missile might burn the compound and change the chemical signature, rendering it inert. Sarin, for instance, is extremely vulnerable to heat. And when used outdoors, the quantity of chemicals needed to saturate an area would be so great that the mere impact of the shells would probably do more damage than the chemicals they release.)

So what is the message? 

I think this should be attached to Mr Trump's phone call to Taiwan after his inauguration. The new president is announcing to a belligerent world that he is willing and able to do things differently. He can do things others can't, he sees the world's rules in a strange way, which specifically means he understands there are no "world's rules," that rules are decided by those with power for their own benefit. 

It shows how Mr Trump is not unpredictable at all. The president has consistently said the US needs to be tougher on Syria. Mr Trump didn't wake up the morning of the strikes and change his mind. He told us his intentions clearly, months ago. So look at this from the eyes of the Chinese president, who just so happens to be meeting Mr Trump in Florida today. The Chinese have seen the same pattern: what Mr Trump says he is going to do, will be attempted, so you better get in front of him to talk. 

That's the message on the tips of 59 cruise missiles. When Mr Trump says he is going to act, you can double down and split the tens. I think a lot of people around the world will appreciate this predictability, even Washington's adversaries. The danger of Mr Obama wasn't his ineptitude, arrogance or reticence. It was his unpredictability. The kind of unpredictability that makes the world a more chaotic place than it needs to be. 

When the US was attacked on 9/11 its adversaries drew a collective breath. They had no idea what the US would do in revenge. Afghanistan was an obvious target, but when Iraq was invaded, Iran and Libya suddenly got very quiet. Libya actually surrendered its WMD programme to appease an angry Washington, and that strategy worked until 2011. Meanwhile, Iran froze all its operations in the region because it was convinced the US was going to roll its battle tanks up the Alborz and Zagros mountains.

In the real world, goodwill doesn't maintain order nearly as well as predictability. Any parent knows this. Mr Trump just showed the world it can relax. So long as you listen to his words, you'll know what's coming. Would Hillary Clinton have sent the missiles? Probably. The point is the US said it would act and it followed through. Geopolitics often boils down to simply this: acting within the natural limits. That's not just geography, it's human nature, too. Order arises only from predictability. That's a good message.



At this level, it's hard to know why some missiles failed. According to reports, between 60 and 70 missiles were launched but only 59* found their targets. Syria has a robust air defence network, which is why the US hasn't intervened in the country on a large scale, even though it wanted too. (For comparison, Libya had only a handful of operational SAM sites in 2011, whereas Syria's network is made up of dozens of redundant static systems, and an unknown amount of mobile vehicles.) In such a threat environment, and with no SEAD (suppression of enemy air defences), the correct tactic is to launch with an overwhelming number of projectiles to saturate the targeting computers of the network. The SAMs will still launch, but with too many incoming targets it won't be able to hit them all. It's a crude way of pushing munitions through a SAM network, but it's standard US airstrike doctrine.

Of course, the Russians are known to have S-300 and S-400 SAM systems in at least two locations in Syria. Their radar fans sweep in most of the Syrian coastline and about half the interior country or more. I imagine after the US warned the Kremlin of its airstrike, the operators turned those systems on. Why? Because it supplies the Russians with a unique opportunity to test their new systems against modern US unmanned aerial vehicles (cruise missiles). The Russians had a bit of a grey area in their system's intercept capabilities, in that they don't know for sure they work against modern US munitions. But it also would have given the US a similar opportunity. They would have positioned electronic intelligence (ELINT) platforms to listen to the Russian systems and suck up valuable intelligence about how the S-400 talks to other missiles and its base TELs (transporter erector/launchers). 

This is a major reason why it probably wasn't a good idea to deploy F-22 Raptor aircraft to Iraq last year. The Russians have their own ELINT platforms and have likely been learning a lot about how the fifth-generation strike aircraft talk and hide while in the air. 

The costs of the above would have been known to both parties, and because the US chose to conduct the mission, it's likely the benefit outweighed the intelligence it just handed to the Russians. On the other hand, perhaps the US was also practising with its own jamming technology against the new Russian SAM systems and wanted the Russians to turn their systems on so it could pinpoint them. The USS George H. W. Bush is conducting supporting operations in the 5th Fleet Area of Operations (AOR) and was last seen on April 5 tucked up high near Basra at the top of the Persian Gulf. So the US has plenty of  EA-18G Growlers at its disposal for just this role. It's not known how many other electronic warfare air platforms the US has in Iraq or other countries in the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean.

*BBC reports only 23 missiles of 59 launched hit targets

Friday, 7 April 2017

Al-Qaeda was correct about the US all along

Have you ever noticed how intellectuals remain quiet about the three most significant instances of US military projection: WWII, WWI and its own Civil War? Talk about the freakin' elephant in the freakin' living room. This is more like a mammoth in the hallway cupboard.

If you look at US foreign policy in the last 150 years, two facts stand out: 1) all US wars after the Mexican War, including World War II, were counterproductive for American interests, 2) all the wars occurred because they attracted a broad base of support from people who assumed they were improving the world.

Lately, there is a new trend in which foreign factions backed by US military strength are only backed by one of the two US political factions. Iraq and Vietnam, for instance, are effectively US civil wars by proxy. As al-Qaeda's 2IC Ayman al-Zawahiri told us, the victory of the Democrats in 2008 was due to the efforts of the mujahideen. The lesson is: any shared interest defines an alliance, whether or not the allies intend it.

The American empire is a product of two agencies: State and Defense. Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon. Except in WWII, WWI and its own Civil War, State is Harry Potter (a literary foil) and Defence is Draco Malfoy. DoD's role is to take the fall. When people talk about the "empire" as though DoD is Harry Potter, this is really just State talking (the New England establishment). 

The Filipino-American, Korean, Vietnam and Iraq wars were all ones in which American political factions supported opposing sides. Only in the first did the "militaristic" side prevail unambiguously, largely because its domestic enemies hadn't really gotten it together yet.

The "antiwar" movement in the US in the 1960s didn’t exist. There was a pro-Saigon faction and a pro-Hanoi faction. The latter won. Its proxy soldiers were considerably more brutal and ruthless than its opponent's. But the final battle was still fought on Capitol Hill.

The reason you never hear intellectuals talk about the three big wars is that in those wars, the military and the establishment – DoD and State – were on the same side. The US establishment actually wanted to win.

As a result: (a) the military won decisively, (b) there was no guerrilla resistance, (c) there was no concern for civilian casualties and collateral damage, (d) diplomacy was abandoned and (e) unconditional surrender was demanded and achieved. As in everything, the strong defeat the weak.

I am all for honest isolationism or neutralism. But the people who want US troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq are not honest isolationists. They are State Department shills. They believe in "soft power," the "international community" and "engagement." In other words, in a world ruled by mafiosi with US aid, whose so-called leaders are appointed and removed by gentle nudges from Foggy Bottom. The world full of thousands of Pakistans.

The 13 Colonies of the New England establishment
But don’t listen to them. Of course empire and conquest work! They have worked for the entire course of human history and are extremely effective and profitable. And when something works for the entire course of human history and then stops working in the last fifty years, I smell a very, very large rat. When Dan Carter misses a conversion, c'est la vie. When he misses ten conversions in a row, either he’s throwing the game or someone has narrowed the uprights.

Despite what the media says about Afghanistan and Iraq, conquering and governing a country – as opposed to "liberating" it and creating "democracy" – is not difficult. A hundred years ago, Britain occupied Egypt, an Arab country of 20 million people, for 20 years. With five thousand soldiers. Funded entirely by the Egyptian taxpayer. That country was such a nice place to live that bohemians lived there as if it was Prague.

The apparent impossibility of conquest in the post-WWII era is artificial incompetence. It is a theatre performance produced for your benefit.

The US military suffers “defeat” in backwards, third rate countries like Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan because it is operating under a doctrine designed to fail. It was not soldiers who produced the Puritan Christian vision of the "international community." Soldiers aren’t to blame for being unable to create it out of dust, jungle and camels. They tried damn hard to achieve this impossible dream, but they were on the wrong side – of the Potomac.

If the US was a unified, effective actor which actually intended to conquer and civilise Iraq and Afghanistan, it would abolish the native puppet governments, place all restive areas under martial law, create military formations with US officers and indigenous troops, create civilian governments with US executives and indigenous employees and do what the British did in India, Egypt, Burma, etc.

Yes, the US military should leave Iraq and Afghanistan. But it should leave not because it is impossible for a modern military to defeat a bunch of ill-disciplined tribal warriors. It should leave because it is fighting a US political civil war by proxy. One, this is just sick. And two, the right place to fight a civil war is always at home.

So the war in Afghanistan will end when the US military, shackled by the restrictions imposed by its more powerful political enemies, is defeated by self-detonating Islamist crazies and the progressives seize complete control of Washington.

Bizarrely, State will keep this terrible cycle of incompetence going because it has foreign clients of its own, such as the Palestinians, the Darfuris, Syrian “rebels,” etc. Nor will the progressives find it easy to ignore unwinnable wars which are perceived as bipartisan. And they cannot stay in power forever.

These wars will probably only end when the bond market rebalances and the US suffers the financial consequences of its irresponsibility. Ideally, this will lead to the end of democracy and a period of military rule, during which the purpose and structure of Washington can be re-evaluated from first principles.

If this happens, I am confident those new rulers will realise that "foreign policy" does not serve the interests of anyone but those to whom it provides, and the budget for this bloody project can simply be zeroed and removed.

Everyone’s used to hearing propaganda against DoD, but few people can pick up propaganda from State. That’s a skill everyone needs to learn. When you hear someone talking about "creating social change," it is the progressives and State scheming for power.

People crave power, rationalising it as responsibility. After all, no one can achieve power by promising to enslave his followers. It is always about improving the world, at least from the perspective of likely supporters. The fact that if they obtain this power, it may not have the good effects promised (or increase their personal reproductive success) is quite irrelevant to the genes that instruct them to behave in this way.

But at this point, it must be clear that democracy is to power as a lottery is to money. It is a social mechanism which allows a large number of homo sapiens to feel as if their individual views impact the world, even when the chance of such an effect is negligible.

Years in the future, today’s leaders won’t look nearly as sincere. Insincere leaders are very rare because homo sapiens are finely tuned to detecting insincerity. It is much easier to fool others if at the same time you fool yourself.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

The NZSAS shouldn't be tried under international law because it doesn't exist

It’s worth pausing on Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson’s charge that the NZSAS should be investigated for possible war crimes under international law. As the authors recently stated in an interview:

“This is the time to face up to wrongdoing. In fact, international law requires countries to investigate their own breaches, including potential war crimes. The government and military have failed to do this… 
“We asked human rights lawyer and former chief human rights commissioner Margaret Bedggood to read the book before it was published and her response is printed on the back cover. She says the alleged actions and decisions described in the book, ‘if confirmed, would seriously breach international human rights and humanitarian law and could amount to war crimes,’” they say.

OK. Repeat after me – there is no international law.

As William Slomanson wrote in Fundamental Perspectives on International Law, states are not obliged to abide by international law unless it has expressly consented to a particular course of action. This is an issue of state sovereignty, and even in a "borderless world" it'll take some time before national sovereignty can be fully eroded.

The real issue is there are no international statutes and no international enforcement agencies other than the UN, which enforces nothing unless the US military says it can. The UN cannot make law. International law has norms, and to the extent two sovereign nations in a dispute agree to appear before an international court and have their dispute resolved does not imply they are obligated to do so, or that failure to do so would be illegal.

And it can't be illegal because there isn't any international law that would make it so. Just because the UN passes a resolution, does not mean it has the force of any national law, and governments are free to ignore it. It isn't illegal to ignore it because things can only be illegal if a law prohibits them, and there is no international body in existence with the power to make international law.

UN resolutions aren't worth the paper they are printed on, including human rights treaties. They are all worth nothing. Do people really think the New Zealand government or the US government care about some dumb UN resolution? Does any nation?

Sovereign states care about their own laws. A government is concerned about human rights treaties to the extent some subsection of its own code describes how its soldiers can and cannot treat enemy combatants.

If the government doesn't act in accordance with its code, they are breaking domestic law and will have to go to court to defend themselves. Individuals who break that law can go to prison if they are convicted. But they wouldn't be convicted of violating the Geneva Convention, only of violating their domestic laws.

The only, repeat, only reason Wellington abides by an international treaty or resolution is when it becomes part of its domestic law through enacting legislation. The moment the enacting legislation is repealed, the treaty is broken, and there is no international recourse.

This is important because by believing in modern international law, Mr Hager considers war yucky and harmful to children. No one has the right to make war, any more than they have the right to pollute the environment or call a black gentleman a nasty word. This attitude is growing only stronger – if he is not correct now, he will be soon.

However, I seriously doubt he wants a return to classical international law because by those terms New Zealand’s participation in Afghanistan – and perhaps even violent reprisals against a population known or suspected to be harbouring enemy guerrillas – is perfectly reasonable. I know that’s hard to hear but war isn’t about playing fair. It’s about ending resistance as quickly as possible.

By any sane metric, the Afghanistan war was a no brainer. Forget the whole 20th-century. Apply only the standards of 19th-century international law – or 18th-century, or even 20th-century international law before World War II, or any other freakin' time in human history – and you'll have a zillion certified legitimate reasons for New Zealand to fight Afghanistan.

The European imperialists wrote the textbook of classical international law. Emer de Vattel was the canonical authority from about the mid-18th-century to the end of the 19th. These two paragraphs below get as close as possible to its essence. Note that “natural” means natural law:

“The laws of natural society are of such importance to the safety of all states, that, if the custom once prevailed of trampling them under foot, no nation could flatter herself with the hope of preserving her national existence, and enjoying domestic tranquillity, however attentive to pursue every measure dictated by the most consummate prudence, justice and moderation. Now all men and all states have a perfect right to those things that are necessary for preservation, since that right corresponds to an indispensable obligation. All nations have therefore a right to forcible means for the purpose of repressing any one particular nation who openly violates the laws which Nature has established between them or who attacks the welfare and safety of that society. 
“But care must be taken not to extend that right to the prejudice of the liberty of nations. They are all free and independent, but bound to observe the laws of that society which Nature has established between them; and so far bound, that, when any of them violates those laws, the others have a right to repress her. The conduct of each nation is no further subject to the control of the others, than as the interests of natural society are concerned. The general and common right of nations over the conduct of sovereign state is only commensurate to the object of society which exists between them.”

Under classical international law, a sovereign can’t escape responsibility for anything of importance that happens on its soil. If the attack comes from Afghanistan, it is an Afghan attack, regardless of the internal structure of Afghan government. Thus, the casus belli is quite clear.

Clearly, the Taliban government in Afghanistan was willfully and knowledgeably sponsoring al-Qaeda (just as the Serbian government sponsored the terrorists who committed the outrages at Sarajevo). Despite the camouflage of plausible deniability produced by the absence of a formal organisational link, clear chains of responsibility exist.

This is the thing about the pragmatist. 20th-century pragmatism, so far as I can tell, is just another name for what was once called casuistry. It is a process of thinking that can derive whatever result it needs.

So, in 1945 the New Zealand military was fine with incinerating Germany and Japan, whereas in 2010 it was immoral for the New Zealand military to shoot back at a house in Afghanistan if the house shoots at them.

This is far too short a timeframe for such a drastic moral shift, don’t you think? Something suspicious is happening here. Many people were living as adults in both years. Imagine how their supple consciences have had to twist…

Monday, 3 April 2017

How Mexico got its violence

Geopolitics moves slowly in Latin America. But the new US president continues to focus the international spotlight on the region, so it’s worth unpacking how it got this bad.

The truth about Latin America is that it suffers from the effects of 200 years of revolutionary ideology. Where did those ideologies come from? Do you really have to ask? “Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States.”

The Mexican Revolution was a feature of the same division as in the US between mainstream and radical liberals (Woodrow Wilson and Eugene Debs). It mirrored almost perfectly the Mexican factions Carranza and Zapata. The only indigenous Mexican forces were people like the Cristeros, who enjoyed no Anglo-American base of support.

All of Mexico’s working institutions date to Spanish rule (which is why anything that isn't ugly is called "colonial"). Things broke down in the 19th century after revolutionary Enlightenment ideology of Anglo-American origin destroyed first colonial, then clerical and aristocratic rule, leading to a zillion very, very nasty civil wars.

It's darkly humorous that today, with Mexico as the world capital of decapitation, anyone could admire the Mexican Revolution. If Woodrow Wilson and his ilk hadn't been so intent on "teaching Mexico to elect good men," Porfiriato and peace could have lasted another century.

And don’t get me wrong, I'm not defending the Spanish conquest. It would be cool if the Incas and Aztecs had been left alone, not that they were paragons of respect for human rights, you know. (Or do you know?) I'm simply observing how the quality of government by the late pre-revolutionary period (18th century) is a lot higher than the quality of government in the 19th and 20th-centuries by almost any sane metric.

For instance, I believe the main role of government is suppression of civil violence. If a government fails at this, it doesn’t matter what it succeeds at. Imagine Mexico’s progress over the last two centuries without its political and civil violence. Don't forget, the first university in the Americas was founded in Mexico City in 1551, almost 100 years before Harvard.

I would suggest two ways of interpreting this perspective. One is that the continuous low-level violence in these postcolonial societies is not due to their similarities with actual colonial societies, but how different they are.

Continuous low-level violence is non-existent when formal power is identical to informal power. When the patron is actually an encomendero, there's no reason for forced labour (the distinction between "forced" and "unforced" labour is academic to an unskilled farmer) to involve violence, because he has the formal right to command and can ask the lawful arm of the state to assist.

Whether or not the encomendero should have this power is a separate question. But note what happens when you try to remove these feudal indigenous structures: it’s driving nature out with a pitchfork. When the patron is just a strong man, not an actual government official, his power is not policemen and soldiers, but thugs and brutes.

Second, consider that everything you know about the colonial period comes from the enemies of colonialism. Imagine if everything we knew about Jews came from people who hated Jews. Every Jewish crime would be played at maximum volume and associated with the entire Jewish race. Which is exactly how the Goebbels press worked.

Seven-time President of Mexico Porfirio Díaz: Wherefore art thou?
In other words, the 20th-century image of colonialism is just an extension of the good old Leyenda Negra (Black Legend) style of tendentious, nonobjective historical propaganda that demonises Spain. It'd be a shame to create strong conclusions about the region after hearing only from the prosecution.

Latin America’s story is certainly tragic. I hope Mexico can find its way to a new Porfiriato soon. The first step would be expelling the US Embassy and pretending there's nothing but ocean north of the Rio Grande. Mexico is blessed with energy and food security, and it touches both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, so it can tell Washington where it can put its fatherly advice. It just needs more cultural self-confidence.

Until that point, I'm quite confident the beheadings will continue. Political order is taken for granted until you find you don't have it, and then it's quite difficult to restore without applying a level of force comparable to what the thugs are producing. Mexico isn't alone in this problem.

In all functioning societies, the weak are ruled by the strong and rebels are repressed or killed. When this principle breaks down, the only thing that can follow is chaos. After a century of revolution, Mexico needs martial law the way a camel that's just walked across the Sahara needs a drink of water.

Historical research is hard work, but hard work isn't always useful work. And hard work only to service a political agenda, is just busywork. The perspective of Western academia in 2017 is valid but also narrow by historiographic standards. It takes more effort to step outside this tradition – especially in Latin American studies – but when you do so you may be surprised at what you find.

Of course, it's not unusual for people living in a historical period to misunderstand it completely, generally as a consequence of political corruption. This is as true of the late Roman Empire as of the late Soviet Union. My feeling is that historians of later eras will understand our world much better than we understand it ourselves.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

How to make a bad person

When my Irish friend arrived a few years ago, she expected Hobbits and bungees. Or maybe Hobbits on bungees. Instead, her first memory is seeing warning signs reminding people not to hit their kids or shake babies. What sort of place needs to remind its citizens not to abuse children?

I told her hitting a child is already illegal. It's called assault. That for some strange reason we didn’t acknowledge it until parliament passed a special law against it. I support this law, whether it's enforceable or not, because at the very least parents who hit their kids now know they’re breaking a law. And even though they think it’s a dumb law, it serves to marginalise them from society, and I'm all for marginalising assholes who hit kids.

There is always something else a parent can do. If the kid is about to play fit-the-fork-in-the-power-outlet, grab the kid and pull them away. Two-year-olds don't understand reason, true, but it may surprise you to learn how many children who weren’t smacked do not kill themselves in electrical outlets despite being curious. The logic that kids are too dumb to figure out the world is a failure to understand how kids think. Children process the world differently from adults, but they do process it.

Unruly kids who are smacked might become model and well-behaved children. It’s also quite possible for those kids to be horribly maladjusted, however. The objective of parenting is not to raise well-behaved children. In my opinion, it's to raise insightful, independent, open minded people who will make a positive contribution to their world. Given the prevailing circumstances, that may require them to agitate, instigate, and otherwise behave poorly in society. Good behaviour isn’t always desirable in a good citizen

And it’s worth asking what else happens in the child’s mind after being struck? Perhaps they learn how to use violence to get your way? Or if the child knows they’re actions will result in violence, maybe they’ll hide it more effectively. So the lesson becomes how to be more deceitful to do whatever they want and not get caught. A child will also learn that the only people to pay attention to are the people who can hurt them. Isn't that precisely the opposite thing a parent wants a kid to learn?

This passage from The Last Psychiatrist has an excellent point:

"After seven or eight or twenty five "not acceptable behavior" monotones, Dr. Dad can't take it anymore; he explodes. "Goddamn it! What the hell is the matter with you?! What are you doing?!!" All the anger and affect gets released, finally. The problem -- the exact problem -- is this: the explosion of anger came at something relatively trivial. Maybe the kid spilled the milk. 
So now the four-year-old concludes the worst thing he did all day was spill the milk -- not kicking his brother, or lying or stealing. Had he not spilled that milk, Dad wouldn't have gotten angry.   
Add this up over, say, a year: mostly flat, neutral monotones, peppered with unpredictable yelling patterns, inconsistent explosions, and now the kid can't form a hierarchy of good and bad. In fact, what he learns is that good and bad are defined almost exclusively by the reaction he gets from others (e.g. Dad) and not the behavior itself.   
You say: 'but the kid's not an idiot, he's going to know that stealing is worse than spilling milk.' Well, how is he going to learn that, except from you? You say: 'just going through life -- every kid eventually learns it.' Yes, they learn that it is worse, but not why it is worse. The conclusion is that the hierarchy of bad and worse is determined by the severity of people's reactions.
You say: 'the solution is Dr. Dad needs to work on maintaining his calm, and not exploding.' Well, it's not going to work: he's human. Eventually the electric bill will be too high, or his wife cheats on him, or he has the flu, or he's stuck in traffic all day. And he'll explode (or, the alternative: he'll check out. "I'm not dealing with this anymore.") 
Contrast this with the reaction of, say, a hypothetical "angry Dad" who has six beers a day after work: he's always pissed off. Always. Even though he flips out over spilled milk, he flips out over everything. The consistency of his anger makes the anger attributable to him -- "Dad's insane" -- not to you or your behavior. You don't infer from this that what you did is good or bad, you'll have to learn that elsewhere. 
But just as you've identified Dad as "Angry Dad" you might also infer that he hates you, that you are a bad person. This is clearly not a good thing, but the point is that you develop an identity from it, you get defined (negatively.) The inconsistency of the parent's anger is confusing. Why this thing, and not the other thing? Why so much consistent (same kind and amount) affect talking to an auto mechanic yet so little affect -- especially consistent affect -- with me? 
So you have a parent who works long hours, tries hard to be neutral even in punishment, gives little in the way of emotional information about a kid's identity, but is so obviously clear about other people but who once in a while explodes, inconsistently, over unpredictable things. 
Here it is again, where it all goes wrong: the child develops an identity which is about the reactions of others. 'People's opinions of me are based on how I make them feel.'"

Let me put it this way. Parents smack kids when they are seven years old for misbehaving, but they stop corporal punishment when the kid reaches 14 because she’s "grown out of it." Bullshit, at 14 she’s finally big enough to kick your geriatric ass and impose her will on you, so now you change the rules. This sends another message to the kid -- don't trust your parents, because all they really want to enforce is control.

The old "spare the rod, spoil the child" isn't wisdom. It's a stupid pithy phrase substituting brevity for thought. Is there a reason we shouldn't apply this phrase to adults? If I see you “acting out” by running a red light or cutting me off in traffic, is there a reason I shouldn't follow you home and kick your ass? Oh, because if I do it's called assault.

If you have to hit a kid more than once, the hitting obviously doesn't work, or the first time would have been enough. You’d think a kid would get the message. But somehow they don't, isn't that funny? Why do you think that is?

I'll tell you why. Because the child integrates violence into their relationship with the parents. If the smacking stops, then to the child it means the relationship is fraying. The parent has lost interest, does not care and is becoming distant. So they act out in order to get hit again. The child learns that smacking = love.

There is only one reason parents smack children: because the parent has lost the ability to control themselves and want to strike. The parent is overcome with frustrated anger and hits not as a way of defusing the situation, but as a way of blowing it up. The parent joins in the escalating cycle the child is experiencing.

In other words, a parent who smacks a child is an adult too dumb to outsmart a kid.

It’s a problem with the parents, not the kids. I've seen parents hit their kids in supermarkets and restaurants, and I stand with the kids. I wouldn't listen to a fucking word those parents said either.

The problem is threefold. First, hitting destroys any trust the kid had in the parent. He views the parent as a natural force to be avoided -- a function of fear, not trust. Second, the application of smacking is almost always inconsistent and correlated strongly with the parent's foul mood. It teaches that the punishment system is something to be subverted. It trains kids how to get away with things, not reasons against doing those actions in the first place.

Third, it conflates love with pain and abuse (sometimes you have to hurt the things you love, and sometimes the things you love have to hurt you). The lesson is: hurt is part of love. But it's not. It's a pathology. If you love something, you should take the time to understand it. If you subconsciously resent something, then it's easy to beat the shit out of it. Get my drift?

I'm not talking about physical punishment, I'm talking about hitting. I see nothing wrong with "drop and give me twenty" type of punishment. It teaches that exercise can be a way to control a kid’s behaviour, blow off some steam. And it helps them see how they may be misbehaving because they need more exercise. But more importantly, it preserves their bodily integrity, boundaries and personal space.

And of course children hit each other. Humans are animals and below a certain age, they don’t have the social skills to organise each other's behaviour. So they get frustrated and lash out. Children hit because they lose control of their anger. But they’re just kids. Monkeys hit each other too. A few years later they’ll learn to communicate more effectively with each other and stop resorting to violence.

Whereas children who are smacked develop an entirely different relationship with violence. The violence becomes part of their reasoning, not a function of its breakdown. They integrate it into their personality and never grow out of it. They simply learn to deploy their behaviour more effectively without getting caught.

Again, parents don’t know how to raise kids because unless they’ve done it before. So buy a damn parenting book or talk to a child psychologist. I hate how an Irish girl’s first impression of this country is child abuse.