Tuesday, June 21, 2011

True Story

Here is a true story which involves and reveals the character of bureaucracy. In the midst of a disagreement over a possible benefit, one that had been awarded to others at this particular place of business but not to others, one of the "others" who had been denied this benefit argued that fairness and generosity argued in favor of him getting said benefit. But, the Bureaucrat in charge argued, that would set a bad precedent because it would allow others to claim the same or similar benefits on grounds of fairness and/or generosity and that this could not be allowed to happen. To which, said "other" responded, "Well, I guess it would be bad and/or inappropriate to set a precedent of acting on the basis of fairness or generosity!"

Isn't it amazing how bureaucrats are trained and rewarded for thinking? To think that making decisions on the basis of fairness and/or generosity would set a bad precedent can only be understood if one understands that BOBs, Basic Old Bureaucrats, do not and are not allowed to act as if they were human beings. They are taught and rewarded for thinking like computers, as of course are the rest of us as well. How should one think to increase one's chances of passing MCAS if not like a computer? And then, after training and rewarding people to think like computers, we wonder why they behave like robots. And, beyond this, when people do what seem to be utterly irrational things, we don't even sense that these acts are actually acts of rebellion, little acts of rebellion but acts of rebellion nonetheless.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

"If Wishes Were Horses, Beggars Would Ride"

"In Marja, as elsewhere across much of the south, the reduced presence of the Taliban has allowed people to return to work and an Afghan government to emerge, however tentatively. Yet the greatest shortcoming — one the military buildup was not intended to address by itself — is a lack of strong Afghan institutions to fill the void left by the Taliban retreat.

"Even as the local government expands and begins to earn the support of the population, there remains an intense distrust of President Hamid Karzai’s government. Afghans continue to have doubts about whether it can deliver on its own once Mr. Karzai’s foreign backers begin to withdraw, and they express a deep unhappiness over the corruption, cronyism and ineffectiveness that undermines any progress made on the ground."

This is from the NY Times, Sunday, June 12, 2011 and is an analysis of the situation in Afghanistan which claims that the Taliban there has been, almost, defeated. But it reads exactly as articles read years ago analyzing the then "situation" in Vietnam, to the point, always, that "there was light at the end of the tunnel." Of course, there was not and what marred the analyses were myths, delusions that we bring to these situations and which blind us to what I like to call "real reality." One such myth is that the establishment in Afghanistan, represented here by the Karzai government, wants "strong Afghan institutions." This implies that the Karzai government wants strong, national institutions so it can undertake reform and "build a genuine nation." But the Karzai government, like any government anywhere, does what it does to keep itself in power. What is here labelled "the corruption, cronyism, and ineffectiveness that undermines any progress" are policies that the Karzai government uses to maintain itself and its allies in power. Other policies are not endorsed because to do so would undermine the Karzai government.

Underlying this delusion is another one, viz., that government, especially a national government, is inherently, consistently a tool for reform and that when such a government fails, it fails because of obstacles placed in its way by other "forces" or those who want to maintain their perks at the expense of reform. Think about it: Whenever reform is mentioned in the U.S., isn't it almost always in the context of nationalizing a particular phenomenon? Want education reform? Well, we get No Child Left Behind or a Race to the Top. And, of course, as we are told, these programs have nothing to do with politics, that is, with maintaining the power of those who are in power, dislodging others from power, or keeping others out of power who might be threatening to take it.

But what if this is not the case? That is, what if a national government and those who control it are more interested in preserving their power and their privileges than in genuine reform? What if our thought that a national government and those in control of it are genuine reformers is not a thought at all but is a "wish?" As the old saying has it, "If wishes were horses, beggars would ride."

So, to assume, as the analysis in the Times does, that Afghanis want genuine reform is to engage in wishful thinking. And we send our soldiers there to fight for a reform, for an end, that the Afghans don't share. I am not sorry to say that this policy, this war cannot succeed - just as it did not succeed in Vietnam and could not succeed there because the Vietnamese, all of them and not just the Communists, did not want it to succeed. We are not only opposed by the Taliban in Afghanistan but also by the Afghans in Kabul. Good luck with that. "If wishes were horses, beggars would ride."

Thursday, June 9, 2011

A Question

Here is a question that has been bugging me for a little while: Is Sarah Palin an aberration? She is treated as such by the media, at least the mainstream media but this does not answer the question necessarily. In my last post, I wrote about what has been called "willful ignorance," that is, an ignorance which is willed by its possessor and this because it does, in some ways, serve the person in question. And this kind of ignorance is hardly the preserve of the likes of Sarah Palin. Her willful ignorance might be or seem to be more visible, but this does not mean it is an aberration, something that is rather rare and not to be seen in other public figures. Take this quote from Ronald Reagan, made in 1982: "We [the U.S.] have never interfered in the internal government of a country and have no intention of doing so, nor have ever had any thought of that kind." And, perhaps even more remarkable, no one broke into fits of laughter when Reagan said this. And the invasion of Grenada occurred soon after Reagan made this statement. So, it would seem, that willful ignorance is pretty wide spread characteristic in these United States, being visible even among "We the People." So why this willful ignorance? What purpose or purposes does it serve? What purpose does it serve for our elites or for ourselves? I am not at all sure.

Perhaps for our elites it is a form of secrecy. That is, they chose not see and not to display that which seems less than admirable. In this way, our elites can hide things, actions or policies, that they don't want us to be aware of, e.g., nuclear power accidents. I suspected early on that the full story of the damage in Japan was not being publicized and now this seems to have been the case. But further, there have been far more nuclear power accidents than most of us are aware of. For example, in 1986 there were 2,836 accidents in 99 American nuclear plants, while in 1987 there were 2,940 accidents in 105 American nuclear plants. We have been uninformed on these accidents which were, of course, of varying degrees of severity. This is a form of willful ignorance, to be sure. Perhaps this kind of ignorance is needed, that is, needed because it is the only way we can go on believing in our kind of civilization, which claims to be "progressive." In order to maintain the illusion of progress, we must blind ourselves to our own situation. Our elites are willfully ignorant but so are we the people. It is, to say the least, an interesting state of the union, but not one is likely to hear from any president.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Random Thoughts on the Toughtlessness of our Politics

A lot of people are getting all exorcised about Sarah Palin's take on Paul Revere, making fun of her for her obvious ignorance. This is as it should be. But it should be recognized that her ignorance, her "willful ignorance," as it is called in a book entitled, "Voltaire's Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West," is merely more obvious than other examples. For example, President Bush I, in his inaugural address, said the following: "We know what works. Freedom works. We know what's right: Freedom is right. We know how to secure a more just and prosperous life for man on earth: through free markets, free speech, free elections." As John Ralston Saul says, "No one laughed at his absurd ordering of these three freedoms...[when] Bush could give primacy to free markets over free men, as if to say that the right to speculate in junk bonds is more important than the removal of slavery." [pp. 237-38] Bush's ignorance is just as great and just as willful as Palin's as he implies that free markets have as much importance as the abolition of slavery in the U.S. And, of course, to refer to "free speech" here is positively absurd as Bush and a host of other politicians have shown themselves willing to compromise our free speech on numerous occasions. As Saul says in the same place, there is a "void...in responsible leadership [that] has allowed an hysterical brand of simplistic politics to rise and take power on the back of truisms, cliches, and chauvinism, all of which fall below the intellectual level of Jenkins' Ear jingoism." [p. 237]

Saturday, June 4, 2011

How Do We?

A simple question recurred to me as I read in the NY Times today, June 4th, that another Catholic school, this one in Harlem, is closing: How do we maintain a democracy without democratic institutions? That is, without institutions that serve or promote social equality? Colleges and universities, at least most of them, have become increasingly elitist, drawing their students from the upper or upper middle classes whenever they can. Public schools are under attack. "Privatizing" schools is highly attractive these days. Does anyone really think that a system of "privatized" schools will promote social equality? I don't. So the question recurs: How do we maintain a democracy without democratic social institutions?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

American Politics, Progressive Politics

I am re-reading a book, Deadly Paradigms [published 1988], and am finding it rewarding regarding American politics. This book is concerned with American foreign policy, particularly with what is called "counterinsurgency theory" which is part of political development theory. These theories seemed to "take off" in the 1950s and 1960s, before crashing and burning as it were. However, they were not abandoned despite failure and one task that D. Michael Shafer set for himself in this book was to explain why these theories persisted. And, in fact, they are still persistent today as is evident from our "activities" in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of course, in the latter country, General Patraeus has been lauded for recreating counterinsurgency as a strategy that will, finally, "work" in Afghanistan. There are many reasons to think he is wrong.

Here are some passages that deal with political development theory, focused on foreign policy but which could be applied to domestic politics as well.

"[Political development theorists] turned to cultural diffusion and a beachhead model of change. It began with an initial contact with modernity, generally in the form of colonialism. Thereafter modernity spread as modern ideas and institutions demonstrated their superiority to the old. Eventually a modernized local elite developed making modernization a self-sustaining process by which the modern center sought to penetrate and absorb the passive, traditional periphery. While this process would be traumatic, theorists saw no serious obstacles. Fragile traditional societies would surely shatter on contact with modern states, while the dynamic modern mind-set would seem a 'genuine liberation from the stuffy closets of theocratic traditionalism.'

"Attention focused on the critical period of transition extending from modernity's breakout from the beachhead to its consolidation in a modern nation-state. In particular, scrutiny rested on the small cadre of modern elites and the 'proto-centers' which would in time constitute the modern states of the Third World. Thus, declared C.E. Black, the consolidation of modernity depends on 'the desire...of modernizing leaders...to mobilize and rationalize the resources of society with a view to achieving greater control, efficiency and production.' Likewise, asserted Yusif Sayigh, if the underdeveloped are to develop, they must be 'shaken rudely by social and political shocks administered deliberately...by their social-minded leaders.'

"Not surprisingly, attention turned to nationalists as nation-builders and their problems converting protostates into fully actualized modern ones. At issue was 'how to build a single coherent political society from a multiplicity of 'traditional societies;' how to increase cultural homogeneity and value consensus; and how to [develop] among members of a political system...a deep and unambiguous sense of identity with the state and other members of the civic body.' In this process legitimation was critical since 'if leaders are...to direct a society to higher levels of performance, their words and actions must carry an aura of legitimacy.' Theorists studied many ways of generating legitimacy, but all such studies embodied the diffusionist assumption that the ruling elites offered the only possible source of integration. This focus on legitimation granted de facto legitimacy to those elites, who thus by definition possessed the authority to shape their societies, if not yet the means to do so." [pp. 57-59]

Now the centrality of elites to this understanding, not just of political development in other places but of politics in general, fits well with the progressive view of politics according to which the political arena is seen as an arena where great men compete for great power in order to undertake great projects in the service of remaking, or "modernizing," society. And the "beachhead model" can be used to describe the American political scene with Washington, D.C. being seen as the "beachhead" wherein reside these elites who will "direct [our] society to higher levels of performance...achieving greater control, efficiency and production." And, of course, those who stand in the way of ever greater power in Washington, D.C. are often represented as "hicks" or "rednecks," that is, as those who prefer the "traditional" to the "modern." The question never is, Should we abandon the traditional?, in this view of politics but rather, How should we move beyond the traditional? And this is merely a technical question; in sum, the question, "What works?" But what if abandoning "the traditional" is undesirable? Then if we discover what actually works, we will be guaranteeing our failure. In other words, "success," the seeming pursuit of most moderns, is really "failure."