Thursday, April 29, 2010


"It is quite extraordinary how people can live with delusions big enough to transform illusions into reality, reality into illusions." Anwar Sadat. Recently, Arizona passed a law meant to affect illegal immigrants in a big way. But the NY Times, in an article printed today, April 29th, quotes some "illegals" that the impact will be small. Why it, despite failure after failure, that we Americans think that "getting tough" actually works?? Why can we not give up our "deadly paradigms?" Well, for at least a couple of reasons. One, these paradigms make it possible for us not to have to think too much. Just think how complicated our lives would become if we actually saw that that which we take to be "reality" is merely an illusion? You know, like the "reality" that lies behind the war on drugs. Second, these paradigms lead to what seem like simple solutions to our "problems." That is, these paradigms are "economical," in that they lead to "solutions" that policy makers and politicians and academics can endorse without having to persuade people of their worthiness. The "solutions" come cloaked not only in the authority of "government," but they come cloaked in the authority of "thoughtfulness" and "reasonableness." You know, like the Vietnam War or the current war in Afghanistan!!!

As I asked a class once, when talking about presidents' decisions to take what were almost universally described as "the moderate course of action:" Why is it that by taking these moderate actions, we end up going to extremes? Gee, could it be that what we take to be "moderate" is one of those illusions that transform or try to transform themselves into reality?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Deadly Paradigms

Link to this article from the New York Times from today, April 27, 2010 and take stock of how incredibly delusional our military people have become, under the influence of technology, here power point. People worry about kids playing video games when they should be worrying about real soldiers playing power point games and actually believing that they are "in the know." It would be comical if it weren't so tragic - wasted lives and wasted tax dollars to support the illusion that we know what we are doing in Afghanistan [and elsewhere] and that we are in control.

For more on this, there is an excellent book entitled Deadly Paradigms, by a guy named Shafer [available on Amazon] who investigates the counterinsurgency paradigm that was supposedly successful in Greece and in the Philippines, where success has been claimed. However, Shafer shows convincingly that those successes, such as they were, cannot be explained by the counterinsurgency paradigm that was guiding U.S. policy then. He also shows and helps one to understand why these paradigms, even or especially in the face of failure, continue to be appealing to policy makers, both professional and political, along with academics. It is an enlightening book, well worth a read.

Monday, April 26, 2010

"Standardized" v. "Quality"

How come it is that those who claim not to trust government to do much of anything. like George Will, trust it to know which teachers are "high performers?" Oh yes, now I remember: we have standardized tests to determine "high performing" teachers and students!! This is truly comical. "Standardized" has become synonymous with, confused with "quality." It really isn't worthwhile spending a lot of time arguing with people who cannot distinguish between "standardized students" and "quality students." Let me see: I want a team of "standardized" athletes. Or an orchestra of "standardized" musicians. Or, gee, wouldn't it be better if Bruce Springsteen had written "standardized" music! And I certainly wanted my children to be "standardized"!!!!! That way, they would fit right into, conform to, our increasingly "standardized" society!!! Maybe this confusion isn't so funny after all. Maybe it is just sad.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Sometimes the light's all shining on me

Had an insight the other day regarding our current political situation.

As I was reading a quote from a once prominent sociologist who claimed that a community could not be based on self-interest but had to be based also on some moral principles, it occurred to me that this was only partly correct. That is, while this may be true of communities, it is not necessarily true of governments or political parties. Then it occurred to me that the anger that is evident in our society today may be explained by the fact that "the people" have figured out that our governmental officials, especially our elected governmental officials [in both parties], govern based on what is in their self-interest(s), not on what is in our interests. Thus, both Democrats and Republicans are looking first and foremost to maintain the status quo, that is, their power and privileges, not to serve "We, the People." Whatever they do, that is, however much or however little they do, is based on a calculation of what they need to do to tamp down or stifle the popular insurgency that is flowing through "the people" at this time and, thereby, preserve their power and privileges. The rise and power of the Tea Party and the Republican response to that movement illustrate this rather clearly. The Republicans [witness Scott Brown's behavior] are trying their best to use the Tea Partiers but this requires that they try to co-opt those people. So, Senator Brown "missed" the rally in Boston because he was "too busy" to attend. He knows, as all Republicans know, that the Tea Party threatens those currently in power in that party.

Similarly, Obama had to co-opt the left wing of the Democratic Party to get them to support his version of health care reform. Witness how Obama co-opted Dennis Kucinich and got him to sign on Obama's alleged reform of health insurance after months of Kucinich opposing that "reform." Witness also Obama's continuation of Bush's policies in Afghanistan and Bush's educational "reforms" - despite but actually because of opposition from the Democratic left wing. To preserve the power and privileges of the current Democratic power holders, who are decidedly not "left wing," Obama had to continue Bush's policies, that is, to protect himself from a left wing revolt. Prediction: Do not expect an appointment to the Supreme Court that will be a genuine alternative to the conservative appointees of recent and not so recent years.

We live in what Aristotle would label an "oligarchy," that is, a political order in which the wealthy few are in control. However, because the underlying political order, the "constitutional order" as we would say, is taken to be a "republic" or "representative," the oligarchs (a) are in a tenuous position almost always and (b) must pretend to be "representative."

But now, for several reasons, the "game is up." "The people" are aware of the "games" being played - hence, the popularity of "conspiracy theories," for example. And "the people" are angry and are rising up against the established order. "The people" feel betrayed - because they have been betrayed, over and over and over again. It will be interesting to see how this plays out this November and beyond. "May you live in interesting times," is an old Chinese curse. And we might be about to find out why it is a curse.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Politics of Will

I have learned something from Marilyn Young's book, Vietnam Wars, that has puzzled me for some decades now. That is, why, even knowing how fruitless our war in Vietnam was, why did presidents continue to pursue that war, and at great expense both in terms of human beings killed and maimed and in terms of money?

As Young explains it, this behavior stems from the idea that the war was a battle of wills, that is, our will versus the will of the Vietnamese. Note well: This perspective empties the situation of such phenomenon as history or even geography. That is, this perspective abstracts from what common sense would call reality. If we, the United States, just show the Vietnamese that we are willful, that we have the will to continue the war, upping the ante as we go, then they, the Vietnamese, will give up the battle. Our will will defeat their will, bend their will to our desires. This is a way of thinking that is devoid of such considerations as Vietnamese history and, which is the same thing, the Vietnamese people. As one Vietnamese historian said after the war was over and we were meeting with some Vietnamese to try to figure out what went wrong, what mistakes were made: "For the Americans to think that the Vietnamese were playing some Chinese game in the war, was not a mistake. Anyone with almost any knowledge of Vietnamese history would know that the Vietnamese don't play games for the Chinese and have not for centuries. It was as if the Americans had lost their minds."

When politics is reduced to "will", a contest of wills, as opposed say to a contest of "peoples" who have histories and who reside in certain places and who believe certain stories, then it is all too easy for those who are trying to show their will power and that their will power is stronger than "the other's" will power to engage in what can only be called inhuman actions, in bloody and gruesome actions, actions that inflict great harm not only the other but even on oneself. When one tries to prove how tough or strong one is, s/he invariably ends up proving how stupid or delusional s/he is.

Those presidents had to continue their pursuit of what they knew was, at best, a long shot because they had to prove, over and over, that they and we had will power. Because if you don't have will power, you have nothing. And if you don't assert your will power, over and over, chaos will be the result. And of course even or especially if you inflict great harm on the other and even or especially your own then you are proving you have will power. "We have so much will power that even sacrificing large numbers of our own in a cause most likely lost does not deter us."

It is madness as near as I can tell, utter and sheer madness.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Frank Rich column

Here is Frank Rich's column from Sunday, April 11, 2010 entitled "No One Is to Blame," in which he writes about, among others, Alan Greenspan's attempts to duck responsibility for the financial meltdown that followed hard on his tenure as head of the Federal Reserve, where he was reputed to be a genius. Rich correctly points out that despite Greenspan's attempts to obfuscate by saying that no one saw the meltdown coming, that that is just bogus. More than one person saw it coming, just as many saw that the "intelligence" leading us into Iraq was fatally flawed and just as many saw that our war in Vietnam would end in defeat.

But Rich only sees part of the phenomenon. People like Greenspan get away with this stuff because "blame" in not concept that governments recognize. In fact, it is only a bit simplistic to say that "government" was created in order to remove "blame" from the political arena as a relevant category. Simple example: Hamilton in the Federalist Papers argues that what is needed in government is an "energetic executive," one who possesses great powers and who is willing to use them. Now, think about it. If "blame" is to remain a relevant political or governmental category, how likely is it that an energetic executive will exist? Or put it this way: Which is more conducive to creating and maintaining an energetic executive, a political discourse in which "blame" is a central and relevant category or a political discourse from which "blame" has been excised? Clearly, it is the latter. Without having to worry about being "blamed" and all this entails, executives will be more likely, in fact even encouraged, to act in ways that are morally dubious. And, of course, this is what Hamilton meant when he spoke of an "energetic executive," one who would be willing and able to act in morally dubious ways, allegedly for the good of the polity.

I wonder how this is working out?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

What Else is New?

This is from a column in the New York Times, today, April 7, 2010. The "alternative strategy" for the war in Afghanistan is merely a repeat of the US strategy in Vietnam in the 60s and 70s. It did not work then and it probably won't work now. After all, as in Nam, the US has to leave at some points, while the Afghans don't and of course won't. Also, the column, which recommends getting tough with Karzai or even getting rid of him, reflects the same delusional thinking that prevailed in Nam, viz., thinking of leaders not as reflections of the broader situation in the country but rather as variables that can be changed at will. To say Karzai is corrupt is misleading in that what Karzai is is what the situation demands him to be to maintain his power and the power of his government. "Corruption" in Afghanistan, like corruption in Nam, is not like a tumor that one can cut out as one would cut out a tumor from a human body. Corruption there, just like the corruption in the US, is part and parcel of the political system. In order to get rid of it, it would be necessary to create a new political scheme - which is why ending "log rolling" in the US never seems to work.

"The United States ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, was guilty of understatement last fall when he told Washington that “Karzai is not an adequate strategic partner.” Still, getting rid of Mr. Karzai at this point wouldn’t be easy, and any major upheaval would clearly imperil President Obama’s plan to start withdrawing American troops next summer.

The Marja offensive, however, may have shown us an alternative approach to the war. For one thing, it demonstrated that our Karzai problem is part of a broader failure to see that our plans for Afghanistan are overambitious.

The coalition is pursuing a political-military strategy based on three tasks. First, “clear” the guerrillas from populated areas. Second, “hold” the areas with Afghan forces. Third, “build” responsible governance and development to gain the loyalty of the population for the government in Kabul. To accomplish this, the coalition military has deployed reconstruction teams to 25 provinces. We may call this a counterinsurgency program, but it’s really nation-building."

Friday, April 2, 2010

An example of "intelligent government".

A passage from Marilyn Young's The Vietnam Wars illustrates how "intelligent" those who run our government can be! The passage also illustrates what happens when politics comes to be seen in tactical or managerial terms: Politics becomes banal. And this stuff is true!

"In an effort to harness the power of the word against the NLF charges that Diem was an American puppet, John Mecklin, the new head of the U.S. Information Service (USIS) in Saigon, announced a 'Name the Enemy Contest' to his Vietnamese staff in the spring of 1962....Mecklin offered a top prize of 3,500 piastres (U.S. $47) for a name that would 'describe the enemy in his true light, and will tend to turn the people against him.'...What was needed was something that would

'influence the Vietnamese people to regard the enemy in the most important (in your view) of the following ways: with contempt, as arrogant bullies, as foreign and/or Chinese puppets, as common criminals, with ridicule so the enemy loses face, with hatred, as traitors, as hypocrites, as crackpots or madmen, as children playing soldier, or as bloodthirsty murderers. Or perhaps the right answer is something that a Westerner would never think of? Maybe the term should be related to the way they dress...or the way they behave, or address each other, that can be made to look ridiculous or evil. Perhaps a colloquial peasant term implying disgust or ridicule? Or a term about the way they lecture everyone for hours and make villagers under their control learn silly songs and slogans.'" [p. 92]

"Rebranding" the enemy - that should work! Of course, what this ignores is the fact that people's impressions are linked to reality, to their experiences. For example, if the NLF was not seen as "the enemy" by "the Vietnamese people" - and the NLF was entirely Vietnamese - then this house of cards falls of its own weight or lack thereof. And this points to another delusion we Americans had, viz., that we spoke of some Vietnamese as invaders while we did not speak of ourselves in that way! So some Vietnamese had "invaded" their own country while we Americans, who were the foreigners in this scheme, had not "invaded!" This is the kind of "logic" that is unlikely to persuade anyone as it is so divorced from reality. But then we actually believed that South Vietnam was a nation and that we had created it in 1954, ignoring centuries of history and even the contemporary situation. Apparently, we thought that Ho Chi Minh was popular because he was "charismatic" or because he had good PR, not because he understood his country's situation and aspirations and he represented something real about the Vietnamese and Vietnam.

Again, I believe the same scenario, basically, is being played out in Afghanistan today. Afghanistan is the product of centuries of history and to think that we, as foreigners, well-armed foreigners, willing to kill even the innocent, can create a new "Afghanistan" is delusional. Or to put it more bluntly: It is madness, the kind of hubristic madness that explains our war in Vietnam. First the gods make crazy those they would destroy. Old saying....worth pondering.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

More from the Vietnam Wars

A rather lengthy but useful passage from The Vietnam Wars, by Marilyn Young, illustrative of how we Americans "think":

"There were 800 American military personnel in South Vietnam when Kennedy took office and 16,700 when he died in November 1963. The National Liberation Front [NLF] controlled the majority of villages in the South when Kennedy took office; they continued to do so in the year of this death, and basic American policy was also unchanged. After a decade of intense engagement in Indochina, the categories of America's understanding of the Third World remained pristine of historical experience. The abstract mythological model, applicable to any nation, upon which United States policy based itself, reflected not so much ignorance of the history, culture and society of others as indifference. This in turn reflected American history, culture and society, which had always denied that traditions and social constraints had to matter. The United States had created itself and it could help other nations do the same. The United States declared South Vietnam a new nation, born in 1954, and did not take seriously the evidence that this new nation was really half of an old one, whose long struggle for independence against outside invaders informed the social and personal imagination of every Vietnamese. Vietnamese society was insubstantial to U.S. policy makers except as it must be overcome, its cities modernized, its passive peasantry urbanized, its government placed in the hands of strong men, though not too strong to be removed when necessary. In time, no doubt, South Vietnam would even be ready for democracy. Meanwhile, there were technological answers for every problem and managerial solutions to every crisis." [p. 103]

Not only was the United States' policy unaffected by historical experience, it was also unaffected by historical knowledge, as Young makes clear here. Historical experience and knowledge does not matter insofar as one thinks that there are techniques by which one can "manage" or control the world. Robert Strange McNamara, his real full name, was appointed Secretary of Defense because he was a "manager." He knew, or thought he knew, how to manage human beings and, to him, it did not matter if those human beings were American or Vietnamese, auto workers looking for higher wages or soldiers and citizens fighting to unify their country. Management is management by this mindset and historical, social and cultural factors are, ultimately, unimportant. And this is why McNamara could never see himself as an imperialist. Managers don't lord it over others; they just manage them! The means might change - higher wages in one case, napalm in another - but it was still just "management."

This is relevant today, in Afghanistan. Obama thinks he can manage Karzai and his brother....just as McNamara and others, JFK included, thought they could manage Diem and his brother. The world turns and turns and seems to repeat itself almost as if there is really only one human story, a story that is perhaps not so changeable as we Americans would like to think. For real.