Sunday, January 29, 2006

Did anyone expect Iran to be the Big Winner?

...and now for another chapter of Predictions Registry please!

See an excerpt from BLUEPRINT FOR ACTION: A Future Worth Creating, the latest book by US Naval Academy Prof. Thomas P. M. Barnett.

In this portion, he discusses “Securing the Middle East with a Nuclear Iran?” raising a point that I tried to bring up three years ago, during the drumbeat-prelude to our intervention in Iraq.

At that time, like many reasonable people, I was willing to take at face value the statements offered by a man of Colin Powell’s stature, assuring us that his administration colleagues were mature and responsible people, who had properly verified overwhelming intelligence from multiple sources, before committing the greatest nation on Earth to a costly foreign adventure. While pushing and chivvying reluctant allies into action, they told of an urgent need to act now in order to eliminate a clear and present danger from Saddam’s impending use of Weapons of Mass Destruction. A need so imminent and dire that it precluded every alternative solution, other than direct frontal assault upon Iraq’s regime.

In fact, I was more amenable to such action than most people, for reasons of national honor. For twelve years, I had felt a burning sense of shame over what our country did to the people of Iraq, in 1991. Back when the southern Shiite majority rose up in brave rebellion against their oppressors, counting on our solemn assurance -- given in President George H. W. Bush’s name -- that we were “on our way.” Had Gen. Schwarzkopf been given twelve more hours... but those assurances were cruelly betrayed, planting seeds of bitterness that we’re now reaping.

My willingness to see Saddam toppled -- and those people finally rescued -- was not untempered by a wish to see it done right! In ways that befit the skill already shown by our diplomatic and military professionals, in the Balkans and Afghanistan. In both of those crisis zones, the objectives of American intervention were made clear, and measures were taken so that local forces would do heavy lifting on the ground, assisted by hi-tech US air power. Losses, both civilian and among US troops, were minimized (total US losses in the Balkans were zero), while some thinking was also applied to managing the aftermath. Above all, both of those interventions were planned in such a way that America’s alliances and military readiness were left intact, when the dust finally settled.

Let me reiterate that point. An absolute rule that should be followed, whenever the United States engages in discretionary military action overseas should be “can this mission be accomplished in such a way that leaves our world standing, our alliances, our inner social cohesion and our readiness intact?” Clearly, any endeavor that satisfies these criteria will also be both moral and smart. This is evident because, as we have seen, a combination of gross immorality and stupidity destroys alliances, national cohesion, readiness and our standing in the world.

With these desiderata in mind, I tried -- before the Iraq Invasion -- to approach every contact I had in the defense, intelligence and diplomatic communities, asking why we should go after Saddam without trying, at the same time, to increase our engagement with Iran?

Repeatedly, I asked: “Since Iran will benefit most from toppling Saddam, should we not use this as an opportunity to get something from the Iranians, in return? Is it possible that this blatant and obvious overlap in our national interests might be leveraged, somehow, to end the post-1979 enmity and restore some commonality of purpose?

Let there be no mistake about this. It is now clear that Iran benefitted more than any other party, from our efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2003, I called this likely outcome a no-brainer. It seemed obvious. Yet, I was called naive.

Here’s the suggestion I made then:

“With half a million Iranian troops just fifty miles from Basra, ready to liberate their fellow Shiites if only we pave the way, is there any good reason that any American boys and girls should die, in order to take the tyrant’s boot off Shiite necks? Either in a frontal assault or in policing the gritty aftermath?

“In the Balkans and Afghanistan, we combined US air power with local ground forces to achieve victory at low cost. Should we not at least consider doing the same in Southern Iraq?

“In any event, by helping free their fellow Shiites, by giving Iranians their revenge on Saddam, by removing the security threats on their borders -- and possibly by adding our own quick/painless apology for supporting the Shah -- would we not be offering Iran just about everything they asked for, and more? If they are sane enough to see self-interest -- deeming it more important than tantrums -- might they offer us something in return?

“Yes, they may not be sane enough to prefer self-interest. But isn’t it at least worth a try?”

====    ====    ====

That point merits repetition. When my defense, intelligence and diplomatic contacts said that “The Mullahs would never accept this.” I responded “What’s the downside of trying?”

So what if they reject the overture! We’d be seen by the world offering to kiss and make up. That’s good press! In contrast, the intransigent mullahs would be seen rejecting a chance to rescue their fellow Shiites and avenge a million dead Iranians. They lose face with their own people while we look like rejected peacemakers. And the downside for us is... what? Even a rebuff would have benefited us.

Alas, according to my contacts, the Iranian Option was never raised in the preliminary scenario planning stage, a time when all possibilities should be on the table. Not even mentioned. Because a brute force American drive from Kuwait to Baghdad -- followed by endless occupation -- had already been decided, at the highest level, even before orders went out for the CIA to find evidence for Iraqi WMD.

Moreover, in the political climate back then, the chief result of my question was that many DC acquaintances broke off further contact with me! One of them warned: “David, right now, this is not a town where ideas are welcome from anywhere but the top.”

Where, oh where, is that Predictions Registry? Now, pundits are talking about how “the biggest winner from our Iraq Incursion has been Iran.”

Um... duh? Can anybody look back and say this outcome shouldn’t have been obvious? Of course the winner would have to be Iran! Only... three years ago we could have made these Iranian benefits a matter of bargaining, and perhaps won concessions in return. Iran will dominate southern Iraq for a while... at least till the Shiite Arabs get sick of Teheran’s meddling -- a historically predictable eventuality. That was always in the cards. But it could have been a different Iran that reaped benefits from our intervention.

One where we used a successful military alliance to gain social and political influence. Perhaps even enough to let a million Iranian expatriates come home, adding their liberalizing influence to the rising Youth Movement... and...

...well, wouldn’t that have been worth aiming for? Especially since this approach would also have kept US forces mostly off the ground, in Iraq?

Instead -- and this diametrically-opposite approach needs noting -- at every opportunity, the Bush Administration has rattled the saber at Iran, choosing to rant about “axes of evil” or to hint that “you guys are next”...always at the very moment when harsh words can do the most harm to our image, our interests, our deteriorating position in that part of the world.

Go look up Thomas Barnett’s cogent analysis, and be glad that he is being read. Someday, we will be led by people capable of looking for win-win situations in the world. Instead of relentlessly seeking ways for us to lose-lose.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Misc items... plus libertarianism....

While some interesting argument continues re the most recent postings -- both about Intelligent Design and the administration’s abuse of our military (please feel free to continue in comments here) -- let me offer a few pieces of miscellany...

* See a fascinating article briefly summarizing the history of US efforts to stimulate and promote pan-Islamism, as a counter to the Soviets, during the Cold War... and how we are paying for shortsightedness today.

* See a fascinating article about the “bottle messages” that have gone out on various space probes.  I am on a committee or two with Jon Lomberg (see below) who has been involved in most of these endeavors.

“The Cassini probe, which is currently exploring Saturn and its moons, was launched with a DVD -- one containing 614,420 signatures. Meanwhile, a rather different message was imagined for the Huygens probe, now resting on the surface of Titan. Jon Lomberg, design director for the Voyager Record (see his Web site at, pondered sending a message aboard Huygens. His answer, arrived at with help from physicist and science-fiction writer Gregory Benford: a diamond wafer that would survive for billions of yeas after Huygens disintegrated. (Mr. Lomberg calls the wafer an effort to make "an artificial fossil.") The wafer would contain a photograph of people and photographs of astronomical objects intended to help a potential discoverer figure out how old it was.

“DeBeers donated diamond wafers and the "Portrait of Humanity" photo was taken, but Cassini went to Saturn without the message, which Mr. Lomberg says was scrapped amid NASA concerns about who'd get credit for the project and the fact that Fuji-Xerox had sponsored it. (He wrote an interesting article about the project for the journal Contact in Context -- you can read it and see the photo and read extensive ruminations etc at

I must thank “PiMal” again for linking us to "Political bias affects brain activity, study finds." I must say the MSNBC article fits nicely into the case I am making at:

 I wish I could interest researchers in broadening such studies, to a scale that might actually save civilization from today’s plague of dogmatism. (Anyone care to point the authors of this study toward my “Open letter...”?)

And now the political lamp is lit... but NOT in order to rant against the Monsters. Instead, it is to deliver a poke in the eye in a fresh direction. Well, somewhat fresh. As a contrarian, I like to be seen prodding almost as much at friends as at enemies. Hence I quite-willingly eviscerate fallacies of liberalism and libertarianism... and even science. The difference is that many of these pokes are aimed at flaws in these movements that make them less effective at combatting the real enemies of the Enlightenment. Consider my criticism an attempt to be helpful.

But of course it is more complicated than that. In fact, there are influential members of all of these movements who are - by personality and behavior - in effect enemies of the Enlightenment. But I digress...

* For those of you who have friends with a libertarian leaning (don’t we all?), let me recommend that you have them drop by and especially the theory page at

Partly inspired by my 2002 address to an LP convention (half the delegates wanted to lynch me, prevented only by the other half who were giving me a standing ovation), several groups are trying to pull the Libertarian movement away from the iron grip of dogmatists... the same basic personality type that controls the GOP, the Greens, and keeps trying to control the Democrats. (So far, the Democratic Party remains the last American Institution marginally led by modernists, though only by a thread.) Platonist-essentialists who preach the drug-high of ideological purity at the expense of the pragmatic enlightenment revolution of Locke and Franklin.

As for the agenda offered at that web site, imagine the possibilities. An incrementalist-practical libertarian movement? One that does not grab lapels and scream at voters about how stoopid the average citizen is, for not realizing that all guv’mint is eeeeeevil? But instead offers to push a few, pragmatic steps toward the furtherance and empowerment of individual autonomy and citizenship? In other words, imagine, suddenly, a home for the 40 million somewhat-libertarian-leaning voters who now hold their noses and vote for the GOP, even though they despise Karl Rove’s Culture War.

I don’t agree with every single thing you’ll find at But it is a step. And it inspired me to add few minor points.

1. I find it effective to note that Natural Rights proclaimers are essentially Platonists, in that they follow the prescription of Plato -- and Marx and Strauss and most religions, for that matter. The deep philosophical underpinning of essentialism is that the imperfect senses rule out any value for pragmatism, or studying the gritty real world, because you will never get perfect answers. (See Plato's Allegory of the Cave.) Therefore, any intelligent person should turn away from gritty pragmatism in favor of essentialist argument and dogma. (Varieties range from logic to faith to incantations to “reason” to “objectivism” even! But it’s all the same under the skin.)

What is stunning is that anyone would swallow the core essentialist assumption: that our imperfect senses are somehow less reliable than the imperfect IMAGINATIONS that carry out so-called reasoning! If we are master self-deluders in the area of perception, often mis-interpreting real world events, shouldn’t that worry go double for self-delusion inside our own heads?

At least when you are dealing with the real world, there remains the ever-present possibility of delusion-correction through CITOKATE. But a dogma that takes memic residence entirely within neurons can be impervious, even to reasoned argument. Even to overwhelming counter-evidence. It can self-reinforce by provoking the release of addiction chemicals. This happens so often that any mature person is obliged to assume that it is reinforcing his or her best-cherished belief, especially if it it held indignantly, self-righteously. With certainty, in a world whose complex and contingent nature seems to preach the sermon of self-doubt.

2. Many of these arguments rage around unspoken assumptions about human nature. But what is our natural condition? Elsewhere I speak of Rousseau, Hobbes and Locke. Here I want to mention a fourth guy .... Thog. Our ancestor, the caveman.

We spent 99% of human generations living like Thog. In other words, the circumstances that channeled baseline human nature -- those for which our genes adapted and evolved... in other words, what is "natural" -- can only be understood by peering at our life during the Neolithic.

I defy anybody, while squinting at our ancestral life in caves -- or primitive wandering tribes -- to seriously support the view that this life was some kind of libertarian/freemarket/creative paradise, rather than a Lord of the Flies era of brutal bullying, perhaps occasionally moderated with a few chastening fables. Test: if that vast expanse really were an era of individual reification and freedom, why was there only glacial progress during that million years?

Progress -- and crude markets -- only began with the arrival of cities. And those cities were managed -- at first -- by brutally hierarchical governments, only a slim improvement on bully clans. The brutality only eased gradually, and markets improved, as progress fed progress and education empowered larger fractions of the population. Incrementally.

In other words, history supports the image of markets and freedom as EMERGENT PROPERTIES of complex systems that are called human societies. Some societies develop good methods that help these properties to continue emerging. For example the traditions of the pragmatic wing of the Enlightenment -- individualism and autonomy, freedom and suspicion of authority.

These memes HELP the synergistic advance of markets and progress, because markets and progress still have enemies. Especially in the kingly and priestly aristocratic modes that habitually seek to restore rule-by-hierarchy. The libertarian reflex (a version of SOA) is generally healthy and right. But we must not focus so hard on the memes that we forget the PROCESS.

And the process is undeniably incremental.

Which is why essentialists hate history! Especially any thought to humanity’s formative years, the million years when our nature took shape. Marx utterly ignored Darwin. So does Ayn Rand. As - of course - does every dogmatist of the far right. They like to grab a few choice historical quotations, pretend they are historically literate, and then ignore the gritty sweep of it all.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The "Crisis" and the Guard: Betraying America's State of Readiness

I seem to have struck a chord with the Ritual of the Streetcorner. I thank everybody who wrote in, both online and off. And yet, I suspect I am not reaching enough people to make this kind of thing worthwhile, timewise. I mean, who is listening, even at blog levels?

Still, opinionating is as addictive as indignation... and indeed, they are cousins. So I doubt I’ll have the will-power to stop.

Hence, the political lamp is lit.


For about two years I have been railing that military readiness should be an issue for the democrats, as it was for JFK in 1960.

Only with a difference. In 1960 the "Missile Gap" turned out to be overstated. But today's hollowing out of the US military -- chivvied and purged, attrited and drained -- is blatant and utterly treasonous. While contractors wallow at the trough, our actual levels of readiness have plummeted to levels not seen since before Pearl Harbor.

Can anyone claim that we would be ready to deal with a surprise attack, a call for help from some ally, or any other kind of emergency now? Better than, say, in the year 2000?

And now this.


Study: Army Stretched to Breaking Point By ROBERT BURNS, AP Military Writer Tue Jan 24, 6:43 PM ET

WASHINGTON - Stretched by frequent troop rotations to Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army has become a "thin green line" that could snap unless relief comes soon, according to a study for the Pentagon.

Andrew Krepinevich, a retired Army officer who wrote the report under a Pentagon contract, concluded that the Army cannot sustain the pace of troop deployments to Iraq long enough to break the back of the insurgency. He also suggested that the Pentagon's decision, announced in December, to begin reducing the force in Iraq this year was driven in part by a realization that the Army was overextended.

As evidence, Krepinevich points to the Army's 2005 recruiting slump — missing its recruiting goal for the first time since 1999 — and its decision to offer much bigger enlistment bonuses and other incentives. "You really begin to wonder just how much stress and strain there is on the Army, how much longer it can continue," he said in an interview. He added that the Army is still a highly effective fighting force and is implementing a plan that will expand the number of combat brigades available for rotations to Iraq and Afghanistan..."


What isn't mentioned is something even worse -- the near demolition of our nation's military reserves and National Guard. The plight of these working men and women, who have trained on weekends and sacrificed their summers, perfectly willing to leap to their country's need in an emergency... who are instead being used as sepoys, sent away from their families -- and the states that might need them in a real crisis (e.g. Katrina) -- is simply awful.

Even those who believe in the Iraq Intervention should admit now that it's "elective surgery" and not an "emergency". After collapss of the WMD and terror arguments, their only remaining rationale is "spreading democracy." Perhaps commendable, but critical?

We can argue the merits of this intervention on that basis. Fine. The professional units are for implementation of national policy. That policy may be ill considered and the top leadership incompetent, but at least one can envision it.

(My own view is “moderate”; I can see both the Balkans Intervention and Afghanistan as legitimate moves in a dangerous world. In both cases, the outcomes justified the judicious application of competent force. Indeed, I even felt that we had a duty to deal with Saddam, eventually, by coming up with a plan that would be calm, efficient, unhurried, ethical, overwhelmingly persuasive and smart.)

Having said all that -- and with a willingness to discuss judicious application of professional units in the skillful pursuit of legitimate national policy -- we are still left with the following observation. By no possible excuse is it forgivable to expend and use up our reserves without a genuine emergency.

Certainly this does not include the administration artificially invoking the words “war” and “emergency,” simply to suit its own purposes. (Would conservatives have swallowed that from Bill Clinton?) Not a self declared excuse, but the real thing.

The kind of crisis that unites a nation, instead of dividing it. (If half the country does not see “war”, or a critical foreign threat, then doesn't a burden of proof fall on those who do?)

The kind of emergency that republicans used to say our military was for, while decrying “adventures overseas.”

The kind of war that -- in all times past -- the rich cared enough about to be willing to help pay for.

The kind of war that we can conceivably fight clear of, with hope that normality may plausibly return. Instead of something so vague -- e.g. a “war on terror” -- that it can be extended forever, so long as anyone out there dislikes us.

The kind of emergency that might suddenly befall us, without warning, out of some semi-random direction. The way those 9/11 planes seemed to crash in upon us out of nowhere, taking by surprise. The kind of shock that we were told we would become MORE ready for, after 2001, instead of much less so.

That kind of emergency is what the reserves and National Guard are supposed to be for.

The Guard and reserves are not meant to be instruments of administration policy, but the robust manifestation of a united citizenry. They are noble remnants of the milita of old, eager to defend, though history shows that militia are far less useful in the projection of imperial power. They are the resiliency that America relies upon, in case we are struck by something that the professional anticipators failed to detect in time.

(Or are Cheney-Rumsfeld telling us that now their grasp of all potential threats is perfect? Need I ennumerate the times they have said that, across forty years, and proved wrong? Oh, tell it to Louisiana. Tell it to the Gulf cities.)

If they are used in the proper way, with maturity and true awareness of what they are for, the Guard and reserves cannot be depleted! Because an aroused America will refill the ranks, the way a unified country always has, whenever real crises erupted in the past! But not this time. Re-enlistments in the reserves are plummeting. More proof that most of us don’t see a crisis. No “war.” We're unconvinced.

What we see is brave and noble and decent militia men and women being used, spent, expended on international elective surgery. On a project that at-best is optional and should be done professionally, efficiently, and ethically, or not at all.

So why are almost no democrats raising these points? These arguments would be effective almost across the breadth of the political spectrum. And thus, they offer a way around Karl Rove’s contrived, artificial and treacherously divisive "culture war."

But political reflexes are dismal. Except for Representative Murtha, and maybe Senator Clinton, who else is speaking up for the abused Guard, or decrying our eviscerated state of readiness? Or standing up for the militia? Are liberals really so reflexive that they cannot even perceive an opportunity to win, the way JFK did, through patriotism?

Alas, it appears they might be.

So Rove is left with his flank protected, knowing that his opponents will not even try exploiting his most calamitous weaknesses, nor turn attention upon his most heinous treason.


Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Ritual of the Streetcorner -- Brin's exercise in humility.

I am finding the row over Intelligent Design vs Evolution fascinating and you are encouraged to continue it in comments here. Still, I think it’s important to answer one interlocutor who seemed to be replicating the old argument for cynicism.

In essence, it is always some variant on: “A cynic is an optimist who has snapped out of it and realized how awful people are.”One of the great cliches of all time. Heck, I’ve used it myself.

This is one of those shibboleths that I am resigned to having to face several times a year, for the rest of my life. Almost as much my trademark as CITOKATE... and based on similar underlying premises. I think many you have heard me (contrarian to all cliches) respond to this one with --

”What is a cynic who snaps out of it even FARTHER? Enough to realize that, despite the gruesomely stupid, self-delusional and abysmally corrupt aspects of human nature... things are getting phenomenally better. And have been for some time?

I mean, which is more amazing? That the Enlightenment is under threat from a collusive cabal of conniving aristocrats, imperialists and extremist nutjobs? Or the fact that this routine and utterly predictable alliance, which ruled every other urban culture for 4,000 years has been staved off repeatedly, till now, by a republic -- and a civilization -- that has kept combining redesign and renewal and revolution with an almost infinite capacity for resilience in the face of repetitious human nature?

Go do Brin’s Exercise... I command you! Go to a street corner, preferably one with a very busy four (or twelve!) way stop signage, where people must negotiate traffic rules every second, with little hand-flicks and nods. Do a slow 360. Notice all the things that are working! The quiet and efficient courtesies, the technologies, the tiny acts of honesty and cooperation. The hidden competence of a myriad professionals that make all the switches turn on time and fill the restaurants with food. Do not let a patch of one square degree pass your view without comment, or noticing something that you took for granted, before! If you finish the turn having counted less than a thousand miracles, start over!

People accuse me of being a flaming optimist, because I have a naively positive view of human nature. How absurd! No, friend. I am a flaming optimist because I understand just how wretched human nature is! I am uniquely qualified, as a student of all sciences, of history... and a licensed professional alternate world builder in Speculative History... and a person whose third cousins were all murdered by unprecedented rationalization and human savagery...

... as one who awakens every morning surprised that Cossacks have not yet burned my home, taken my wife and kids, tied me to a stake and ruined my proud civilization.

Not yet.

Hence the ferocity of my optimism, friends and co-rebels. Hence my deep and abiding disdain for cynicism. Because it isn’t helpful. And if it isn’t helpful in this fight, I have no time for it.

We have one hope. The Modernist Agenda -- combined with a little faith. It’s a program that’s worked so far. Indeed, we cannot properly fight for it without conceding -- indeed, AVOWING! -- that it has worked. Fantastically. Epochally. Better than any other program for living and working together.

Like everybody else, I am drawn to cynical contempt-for-the-masses around me. Masses who seem so dimwitted... who support imbecile politicians... who don’t know where Rwanda is or what happened there... who actually think we are at “war”... who raise such dopey, XBox-addicted brats...

...only then I do the exercise. I go to that street corner and start turning. And every time I finish one of those 360 degree rotations, noticing the myriad marvels all around me, the incredible courtesy and skill and competence that it takes to (ironically) make a civilization that is proof against the individual incompetence of countless fools...

... I find myself forced to make a concession. To accept that my inner drives must be wrong. To grasp that (as the best scientists say) I might be wrong.

And that is when I mutter, grudgingly --

”My neighbors simply... cannot be as stupid as they look.”

Yes, they look stupid. I am sure yours do, too. Perhaps, as individuals, they are. But when they are taken together, combined, made free to interact under rules that encourage decent cooperation and competition, something happens. We all get smarter than we ever deserved to be.

It is called an Emergent Property. And, friends, you live in comfort and wallow in information and freedom because of it. Moreover, the shortsighted dogmatists who hate complexity have no idea what it is that they are prescribing, when they offer their simplifying nostrums. What they are offering is to take it all away... and replace this marvel with rule by philosopher kings.

By platonist philosophers of left, right, libertarian and religious and weird. Dig deep and it's all the same thing. Dolts who would kill the goose that gives a flood of golden eggs.

Oh, yes, some of our neighbors are fools, after all.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Supporters of science must adapt, during the fight over "Intelligent Design"... Pt II

In our first installment, we discussed some of the fallacies that are all-too often committed by defenders of science, when they face challenges from outside the realm of accepted wisdom. These fallacies -- ably listed by O.S. Card -- are mostly versions of credential-centered laziness. One can acknowledge that scientists and humanists are... well... human, and thus are inherently tempted by all of the same kinds of abuses that tripped up other priesthoods and orthodoxies, even well meaning ones.

Science itself is well-tuned to minimize those abuses. It has by far the best track record for self correction and openness to new ideas. Still, countless individual scientists and supporters often fail the maturity test when dealing with outside challenges, ranging from UFOs to Cold Fusion.

The reflex to resort to oversimplification, dismissal and name-calling can prove especially counterproductive when a large part of the public sees nonscientists as underdogs, rising up to challenge an entrenched system of authority, as is unfortunately the case during today’s controversy over so-called “Intelligent Design.” By reflexively disdaining such challenges as mere superstitious, defenders of the Enlightenment only fall into a trap set for them, by promoters and perpetrators of “culture war.”

OtherTheoriesINtelligentDesignConsider the deleterious effects of allowing this issue to be couched as a strict, either-or dichotomy. Even if a majority of the American people line up (as they appear to) on the side of genuine science education -- even if ID is kept out of every public school -- this could leave a very large minority of the public convinced that -- according to a simplistic choosing of “sides” -- they must, perforce, consider themselves to be anti-science.

Some may shrug and accept this as a price of victory. I say we cannot afford to leave so many fellow citizens -- and their children -- out there, in the cold.

This is not an exaggerated or unrealistic fear. It is, in fact, exactly what’s happened in the political battlefield, within the United States. Extremes of both left and right have benefitted by a polarization of camps in which the labels “conservative” and “liberal” stand for a strict litany of set-piece positions. Specified dogmas that must accompany each other, like arrows in a quiver. Even if these sides swap positions of power -- if, say, the Democrats win the next election by a landslide -- the real losers will be citizens who see complexity and nuance. Those willing to use tools like mediation and negotiated compromise.

This general problem of radicalizion is well-illustrated by the ID debate, wherein the forces who are supposedly defending the Enlightenment appear determined to cede the right wing’s most effective and damaging assertion -- that science is a system of truth interpreted by a hierarchy of experts. In other words, a tower of dogma, little different than a church. One that seems rather bossy, even.

Overall, I appear to be saying much the same thing that Orson Scott Card did, in his article. And yet, I do not conclude -- as he appears to do -- that this is all simply a matter of chilling out. Like Card, I do not believe that we have to choose sides between faith and science, so long as the fundamental integrity of science is preserved. But others are pushing exactly this dichotomy between two sides that are Pro-God and Anti-God. And if we let them pose these as the only possible positions, then we all lose.

In order to wage this fight successfully, the first mistake to avoid is letting yourself (science) be portrayed as a strawman (a stodgy priesthood, defending an orthodox and flawed dogma).

The second grievous error would be not to study the opposition and understand their capabilities. Their strengths. In the case at hand, this mistake manifests in a reflex assumption that Intelligent Design is the same thing as an older foe -- Creation Science.

There are many overlaps between these two movements. But also enough differences to merit some attention and study.

EvolutionFor one thing, ID assiduously avoids any reference to the Bible, or, indeed, any specific religion at all. This could be viewed as a clever tactic, in order to sneak past the bulwarks that have been erected between church and state. Indeed, many supporters and opponents of ID sincerely believe it is a wedge through which might squeeze the whole CS megillah. A means for later inserting a specific, reactionary church doctrine into state-supported schools. This suspicion is borne-out by documents published openly by the most prominent group pushing ID, the Discovery Institute, whose “Wedge Document”  is quite open and blatant about motives and long-term goals.

Still, there is another way of viewing this transformation of Creation Science into a new entity -- Intelligent Design. It could also be seen as a step in... well... evolution. As a clear sign of the ongoing victory of science over superstition!

One can see this plainly by looking not at the similarities between CS and ID, but at the differences. Above all, in the divergent attitudes that ID and CS express, when it comes to the subject of TIME.

“Creation Science” earned ridicule for the way adherents fought to ignore the overwhelming sweep of evidence showing that our Earth is over four billion years old. A position that became increasingly absurd -- even inane -- as more people became aware of the marvelous methodologies of science. You can pick up any rock -- digging samples out of mountains, seabeds or mines, anywhere on this planet, or even another planet -- take this sample into the lab, and use it as a crystal ball to sift through ages, catching glimpses of past volcanoes or impacts or sedimenting seas. The results will always fit spectacularly well into some portion of the vast, complex tale, with consistency to half a dozen orders of magnitude! Moreover, only a blithering ninny would still hold that all those fossils come from creatures drowned in Noah’s Flood! Isotopic dating techniques are just too good, too powerful, too overwhelmingly congruous and consistent, for any but the most ignorant people to clutch notions of a cramped, myopic creation, just 6,000 years old.

(Why supposedly reverent people would even want to do that -- casting a grotesque insult in the face of a Creator who has proved capable of doing so much more -- is a topic worth discussing another time.)

Alas, in their reflex to resist a foe, scientists have largely failed to notice a substantial victory -- or concession -- when it is offered to them on a silver platter. As it turns out, the top-most proponents of Intelligent Design claim to have no interest in disputing the scientific age of the universe, the planet, or even humanity. While they may evade the issue in order not to offend their most troglodytic supporters, many of the movement’s spokespersons -- when pressed -- will admit that they now accept -- as has the Catholic Church -- that time is no longer an issue. Either the “billions and billions” story is true... or else the Creator worked awfully hard to plant evidence that it’s true, in every smidgen of the Earth’s substance.

Moreover, to a large degree, top ID supporters no longer dispute the coalescing fossil record, which shows that evolution has, indeed occurred, resulting in a magnificent tapestry of species undergoing transformation and change, a story almost as relentlessly convincing as the tale of mineralogy and rocks.

Instead, they have zeroed in on one of the few large gaps, or unanswered questions, of evolutionary biology -- the problem of irreducible complexity in the most primitive wholly sufficient living cells. Lacking any research program of their own, or any large number of reputable scientists to call in support of an alternative, ID support groups have chosen to concentrate on hypotheses of “irreducible complexity” proposed by Michael Behe, a biochemist, and arguments by a mathematician, William Dembski, about “complex specified Information.” Tacitly (and perhaps temporarily) they seem willing to cede every other portion of the old Creation Science battlefield.

Why-Darwin-Matters-Shermer-Michael-9780805083064Now, many opponents of ID assume that these concessions are just tactical maneuvers, aimed at narrowing the wedge for penetration, so that the whole catechism of Creation Science can follow. And, for sure, some fundamentalists -- the aforementioned “troglodytes” -- must look at it that way. Indeed, according to the Discovery Institute’s own “Wedge Document,” this is the rationale used in seeking donations from genuinely anti-science forces in society. Certainly, the fact that the Institute funds no genuine research, concentrating almost solely on “culture war” battles, would seem to reinforce this point.

Still, it is wrong not to acknowledge genuine change on the other side, even when it is surficial and hypocritical. It is always a mistake not to study your adversaries, especially when they show signs of real adaptability. *

By dropping a whole slew of hopeless battles and useless baggage -- shifting their focus and concentrating on a few narrow points -- specifically, the problem of ex nihilio biochemical evolution of a fully complex ancestral cell -- the newly reconfigured ID movement showed some of the resiliency and adaptability that social conservatives have notably displayed in many other areas. (e.g. count how many politicians who once fought against Martin Luther King now display big portraits of him in their offices!)

An adaptability that liberals and scientists appear, sometimes, to sorely lack.

Indeed -- and alas -- many seem unable even to recognize the need.

* (Indeed, are the Enlightenment forces missing an opportunity to strike a powerful public relations coup? Suppose we were to seem forthcoming by explicitly congratulating the ID crowd for this suite of concessions. It might be possible to drive a wedge into their movement, for a change, and/or permanently lock the concessions in place! At minimum, it could force the Discovery Institute to backpedal and choose. Either they withdraw the concesions having to do with the vastness of time, in order to protect their base, or they must sacrifice their most hardcore supporters, in order to seem modern. This is the kind of "have you stopped beating your wife?" dilemma that is used by their side all the time. What poetic justice to turn it around, exposing hypocrisy at its source.)

Friday, January 20, 2006

Supporters of science must adapt, during the fight over "Intelligent Design"... Pt I

One of you wrote: “You once mentioned that Orson Scott Card should have a dog in the ID fight. Here's his dog. It appears to intersect with yours quite a bit, with, perhaps, some stuff you might consider a strawman or two.”

Hrmmm.. Card is a complex and interesting person. First an aside. He long ago began savaging me in public, I think perhpas because he’s irritated by the fact that we have fans in common. After many years of this, I began looking around for things to dislike about him too (I am only human), and found a few. (I have to look hard because I like to see the good in people, and Scott has plenty on that side of the ledger.)

OtherTheoriesINtelligentDesignWhat I have mostly criticized (and it is non-ad-hominem) is his apparent literary obsession with ubermenschen demigods, relentlessly returning to the trope of mutant superbeings who so-o-o-o-o regret having to impose their will on benighted/foolish humanity... for our own good, of course. And yet, Card’s are among the most interesting demigods around! Really angst-ridden and filled with painful doubts... that somehow never seem to prevent them from finally deciding to squish us, after all. Unlike Yoda, at least his midi-chlorian Ubers are willing to answer questions -- at prodigious length. I hope, if we ever are taken over by mutant Homo superiors, they will be OS Card characters, because at least they won’t enjoy it.

Enough about that lit-gossip. As for Card’s paper on ID, it is a superior piece of work, legitimately chastising the “either-or” dichotomy and authoritarian posturing that too many scientists have bought into.

Or, at least, the essay begins that way, before ultimately falling apart. To start with, he enumerates a number of responses that have been offered by Darwinists, in reaction to the community that promotes teaching Intelligent Design in public school science curricula. Here’s his list:

1. Intelligent Design is just Creation Science in a new suit (name-calling).

2. Don’t listen to these guys, they’re not real scientists (credentialism).

3. If you actually understood science as we do, you’d realize that these guys are wrong and we’re right; but you don’t, so you have to trust us (expertism).

4. They got some details of those complex systems wrong, so they must be wrong about everything (sniping).

5. The First Amendment requires the separation of church and state (politics).

6. We can’t possibly find a fossil record of every step along the way in evolution, but evolution has already been so well demonstrated it is absurd to challenge it in the details (prestidigitation).

7. Even if there are problems with the Darwinian model, there’s no justification for postulating an “intelligent designer” (true).

There is merit to many of these points.

For starters, Card is perfectly right that many scientists have acted childishly, in responding to challenges from outside their community of peer-reviewed doctorate holders. Some do resort to “credentialism” and “expertism” and other smug tactics. Carl Sagan was among the worst perpetrators of this almost ecclesiastical abuse of position, using authority and standing as cudgels against whatever he chose to call “superstition.” While evangelizing and sermonizing about the beauty and wonder of science, he would also assert a privileged position of wise authority, in terms that would have needed little modification -- just a little terminology-swapping -- to befit some ancient High Priest. Indeed, by making such claims, some of the best-known scientific spokesmen have walked right into a trap.

I have spoken elsewhere of our civilization’s obsession with the mythos of Suspicion of Authority - or SOA -- that pervades nearly all popular western culture. SOA had its modern origins in the same Enlightenment movement that engendered science, during an era of revolution against the old collusions of royalty and clergy that had kept our ancestors in bondage, for four millennia. Indeed, good science is fundamentally grounded in an enlightenment willingness to question established perceptions and accepted beliefs, challenging them to survive the give and take of reciprocal criticism and the experimental process. It cannot be over-emphasized that science was -- and remains -- the rebel phenomenon, opposing (and always endangered by) older habits of hierarchy and nostalgic dogma, that dominated nearly every other culture, keeping us shrouded in darkness.

Hence, it can be profoundly ironic when the opponents of science find ways to reverse roles and portray an entrenched scientific “establishment.” One seeking to protect its authoritarian power and turf, insisting upon a rigid catechism of accepted Truth. Hierarchs obsessed with suppressing alternative explanations or brushing aside inconveniently contrary evidence.

9780316013338_p0_v1_s260x420Yes, there are imperious authority figures in science. And yet, all in all, these accusations tend to be deeply unfair. Scientists are busy, busy people, doing among the most important things, ever. The topics of their research, from biology to starflight, are deeply attractive to a well-read public and to their credit, many scientists and science-journalists strive to share popularized accounts, on TV and in journals like DISCOVER Magazine. No prior “priesthood” ever worked so hard to share deep insights and include the average citizens who ultimately pay for it all.

Still they are very busy. So it is natural for their hackles to rise when they are chivvied and harried and sniped by indignant outsiders who express Suspicion of Authority to an indignant and unreasonable degree, insisting on attention being paid to this or that or the latest kooky thing. If as little as 98% of these “unconventional” notions are meritless or meretricious, one might hope that the remaining 2% will get attention from experts, in the due course of time. Yet, is only natural that scientists sometimes duck for cover, not only in their labs, but by using the same dismissing language toward all unsolicited, uncredentialed input, even by sincere and educated citizens with interesting questions to raise.

How to solve this problem? There is a desperate need for some system of merit that allows and encourages good ideas to rise up, outside the establishment, so that the best can legitimately demand attention, while denying credence to mere distracting dross. For this reason, I have long been a supporter of the Society for Amateur Scientists (

Having said all that, those of us who have worked in science know that no other system ever succeeded so well at compensating for flaws in human nature. Yes, powerful scientists, being human, cannot help sometimes throwing their weight around. On the other hand, bright graduate students desire nothing more deeply than to discover some chink or flaw in accepted paradigms, just the sort of tumultuous discovery that can make a reputation, forever. While human nature does keep pushing in one direction, toward priest-like hierarchies of dogma -- and this trend can be abetted by political pressures -- science still remains remarkably free of reactionary corruption. No other system has ever put in place as many counter-forces and incentives to shove the other way, constantly renewing the drive for innovation and change.

Alas, these subtleties are not well-known outside of academia and the lab. Given the prevalence of SOA in mass culture... and the palpable power of science in the modern age... it is only natural for tales of authoritarian repression to gain some romantic credence. Much of the UFO community, for example, revolves around paranoid fantasies, claiming that hundreds - even thousands - of the very best scientists and engineers might cooperate with a 60 year program, secretly investigating the greatest discovery of all time, without anyone blowing the whistle or breathing a word in all that time. Talk about fantasy!

Getting back to specifics, one of the underlying emotional appeals made by proponents of Intelligent Design has been to tug at this image of stodgy, establishment high priests, busy protecting a rigid dogma by repressing competition, resisting even a fair discussion of alternative ideas. As I described in another chapter, the ID community plays this card well, by appealing to the twin notions of completeness and fair play. (“Why should students be prevented from hearing all sides and deciding for themselves?”)

What can be profoundly irritating and counterproductive is when scientists inadvertently feed this image of ID as some kind of righteous underdog, instead of helping the public to see it as the stalking horse for a powerfully reactionary coalition. This cannot be done by oversimplifying or creating a strawman. As Orson Scott Card rightfully points out, Intelligent Design (ID) differs - in important ways -- from old style Creation Science (CS).

Next time we will deal with some of those differences, pondering whether those opposing evolution are, in fact, demonstrating it, in action, as they change and adapt to different social, educational and political circumstances.

See: Other Theories of Intelligent Design: Intelligent Design is Only One of Many Alternatives to Darwinian Evolution 

Thursday, January 19, 2006

misc technical... plus only a LITTLE politics...

(I promise! ;-)

While I’m finding time to do other things... accept these items from the Arlington Institute... followed by a couple more with the political lamp lit...

* Japan Puts Its Money on E-Cash -- (Washington Post -- December 28, 2005)  A cashless society? Japan seems to be nearing this, as experts cite the rise of e-cash as a reason for a drop last July in the circulation of yen coins, the first decline since 1971. Using cell phones that transmit infrared signals, Japanese consumers are whisking through checkout lines, buying everything from sushi to furniture without ever yanking out their wallets. Similar electronic money concepts are being tried in North America and Europe. Analysts say the Japanese version requires some fine-tuning before it can be exported.

* Is 7-Million-Year-Old Skull Really Human? -- (Harvard Gazette -- January 10, 2006)  Who or what was Toumai? Those who found his skull in 2001 insist he is the oldest human ancestor, a small fellow who lived by an African lake some 7 million years ago.

*Farming the Monsters -- (The Australian -- December 28, 2005) About 20 million people around the world are spending time in so-called massively multiplayer online role-playing games. These online spaces are not only adding users, but are growing economies that interact with the real world. One game, Second Life, has its own currency, convertible to US dollars at a fluctuating exchange rate, and users can buy the virtual currency with credit cards or sell it for real dollars by check or PayPal transfers. Its 60,000 users trade $US2 million monthly, making its economy about the same size as that of South Pacific island nation Tuvalu.

* Navy Tests Look-to-Talk Device -- (Wired -- January 11, 2006)  The U.S. Navy is field-testing a new short-range communications device called LightSpeed that could soon let sailors talk securely up to two miles away, just by looking at each other. The device uses infrared, similar to that of a television remote control, to transmit audio and visual information. To overcome range limits, LightSpeed connects to ordinary binoculars and uses the optical lenses to amplify the signals. Then soldiers on either end can simply plug headphones and a microphone into their binoculars to talk to one another.

* Broken Ice Dam Blamed for 300 Year Chill -- (New Scientist -- January 10, 2006)  A three-century-long cold spell that chilled Europe 8200 years ago was probably caused by the bursting of a Canadian ice dam, which released a colossal flood of glacial meltwater into the Atlantic Ocean. Two new papers, using different computer models, show that the massive freshwater flood accounts for evidence of the sudden climate change, which cooled Greenland by an average of 7.4C, and Europe by about 1C. It was the most abrupt and widespread cool spell in the last 10,000 years.

* The Hydrogen Gold Rush is On -- (Wired -- December 28, 2005) Todd Livingstone has a plan to solve the energy crisis by capturing huge amounts of energy from lightning. The idea itself is not new. But Livingstone has added a unique twist. Using lasers to capture lightning bolts, he wants to channel them through a large tank of water, producing near-limitless amounts of hydrogen. The implications, says Livingstone, are "mind-boggling." Put up a network of lasers in a lightning-prone area like Florida, he says, convert that energy into hydrogen, "and we could create more energy than the world needs."

And now, something so outrageous you will not believe your eyes. Actual notes in the handwriting of Philip Cooney, then chief of staff for the Ehite House Council on Environmental Quality, meddling in scientific reports in order to alter their meaning for political purposes. (Where is Cooney now? Oh, working for Exxon; why do you ask?)

Finally, the most important item...

One of you wrote in to say that there are signs, at long last, of a rising by decent American conservatives, against the monsters who have taken over their movement. The best sign so far is not (alas) coming from those “200 prominent conservatives” who I have yearned to come forward, and who could save this country, but from the heartland, where all true solutions must arise.

See Republicans for Humility by Dr. William Frey.

If more Republicans step up like this, there may even be a GOP worth salvaging, when it all comes crashing down. But now if people like George F. Will keep clinging desperately to illusions. Using mealy-mouthed euphemisms, e.g. “regretable,” “foolish” and “tragically flawed“... instead of vastly more apropos phrases like “treacherous,” “loony,” “demented-out-the-wazoo.”

I like, especially, the following quotation:

"....It really depends upon how our nation conducts itself in foreign policy. If we're an arrogant nation, they'll resent us.....but if we're a humble nation they'll respect us."
. . . - George W. Bush, October 11, 2000

for another, less explicit take on this theme see:

...finally-finally (for real this time...)...

. . . "You agree that this president is one of the top two or three most incompetent in history?" - Right wing financial talk show host Larry Kudlow, to a guest, last Tuesday, on MSNBC. Unheard of?


Wednesday, January 18, 2006

An Important Speech for the 21st Century

I have other things to post. But this item is more important.

I want to help share one of the most important speeches (so far) of the 21st Century. When you read it, you will see why I think so.

Al Gore has long been somewhat of a "Brin alter ego" -- in that his obsessions seem to be somewhat nerdier versions of my own, from pragmatic environmentalism to a fierce dedication to open systems of accountability. Yes, I dip and swerve into some wilder directions than he is allowed to -- for example into self-indulgent Jeckyl-Hyde intervals of flaming (if heretical) libertarianism. I see glimmers of similar leanings in him... though covered by the cautious shell of liberal policy-wonkitude. Whatever.

What I do believe, as a physicist/scif author, is that there must be a parallel world that diverged from our own, in 2001, at the very start of a new millennium.

In that parallel place, America is respected and at peace, its internal cohesion and readiness to face external threats is undiminished, citizen freedoms are assured and their government is held utterly accountable. It is also astoundingly efficient. We came very close to having that world...

...and a nation almost in tears from placid boredom, having to endure a president who is smart and good and oh-so mature... and fantastically un-diverting. It is (despite the boredom) a happier parallel reality, where we have cinched out belts, invested in science, rolled up our sleeves, and beckoned the rest of the world to follow. And they have followed.

Well, except for the Red Loonies. In that world, they are apoplectic, to the point of near implosion -- angry over “foreign adventures” and "utopian experiments in so-called nation-building." Those bizarro-graystaters are even more lividly dedicated to culture war than they are here, in our world. Because, lacking our experience, they still nurse an illusion that neoconservatism has some overlap with conservatism, that jingoism is patriotism, that the letters GOP stand for honesty and fiscal restraint, and that the world and nation would have been far better off, if only George W. Bush had won.

Indeed, so apoplectic that the world I am describing might NOT be better, after all! Might there already, in that other place, have erupted such an explosion of resentful, self-hypnotizing Timothy McVeighs -- seeing black UN helicopters behind every sunspot -- that civil war has already ensued? Might WE be the better, wiser version, as more and more chastened Americans learn the hard way an important lesson... that commies aren't the only kind of dogmatic dinosaurs that trample markets and freedom and common sense and basic human decency?

That the far-right, too, can go abso-freaking-lutely out of its cotton pickin' mind?

I will not post all of Al Gore's speech up here, at the top level. It is too long.

But I will post it in comments, below. I hope you get the time to read it. This is what we could have had. A man who actually spent his college years learning stuff, and acquiring a lifelong curiosity. A man who correctly disapproved of our foolish error in Vietnam, but went anyway, following grunts into danger. A man who promised to reduce the size of government, and was the only one in the last hundred years who actually did that. A man who can see that the Earth needs tending, while the poor of the world can only lift themselves amid a booming economy. A politician who is not known to have significantly lied.

A grownup.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Happy birthday, good old Ben...

A Pause to Honor Old Ben...

I would normally leave a provocative post like the last one at top position for a few days, to generate discussion. But something else merits timely posting.

Today is the 300th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Franklin -- my 18th Century hero. (I have a few other heroes. But they are spread pretty thin.) In fact, we named our first born after him, even though “Benjamin” is supposed to be reserved for your last born.

This is a clear case where one death in childhood would have profoundly altered human history. I cannot think of a single person who was more important. If John Locke was godfather of the pragmatic-modernist Enlightenment, then Franklin was its dad and mentor, meddling and training most of those who set out to transform theory into practice, turning it into a vigorous Grand Experiment.

Moreover, he proved that martyrdom is, at best, a lesser beneficence. Far better to change the world and elevate everyone... while having a really good time! Take a minute to appreciate this fellow. How lucky we were to have him... and how unlucky that his kind were so rare -- or readily squelched -- during the millennia that came before. Today, his potential may reside in some poor Bengali slum kid, or a million other flickering flames, across the globe. People who would be burnt alive in any other culture.

We can argue over how best to nurture such flames. But not over whether that should be a fierce dedication, one that all of us should share. Stay burnable. Help others to be.


*Speaking of polymaths, here are some snippets from the fecund Ray Kurzweil:

---Crouching Tiger, Hidden Robot Astrobiology Magazine Jan. 14, 2006 ** The 2005 Fourth British Computer Society's Annual Prize for Progress towards Machine Intelligence has been won by IFOMIND, a mobile robot system that demonstrates intelligence as it meets a new object in its world. IFOMIND reacts initially in an "instinctive" way to its first perception of an unknown object that it encounters; at first it is...

--- Taiwan breeds green-glowing pigs BBC News Jan. 12, 2006 ** Scientists in Taiwan say they have bred three pigs that glow in the dark. The pigs are transgenic, created by adding genetic material from jellyfish into a normal pig embryo. The scientists will use the transgenic pigs to study human disease. Because the pig's genetic material is green, it is easy to spot. So if, for instance, some of its...

--- Google is already working on a massive and global computing grid. Eventually, says Mr Saffo, "they're trying to build the machine that will pass the Turing test," in other words, an artificial intelligence that can pass as a human in written conversations. Wisely or not, Google wants to be a new sort of deus ex...

--- A "doomsday vault" designed to hold around 2 million seeds, representing all known varieties of the world's crops, is being built 1000 kilometers from the North Pole by the Norwegian government to safeguard the world's food supply against nuclear war, climate change, terrorism, rising sea levels, earthquakes and the ensuing collapse of electricity...

--- Dogs do as well as state-of-the-art screening tests at sniffing out people with lung or breast cancer. The research raises the possibility that trained dogs could detect cancers even earlier and might some day supplement or even replace mammograms and CT scans in the laboratory. The dogs correctly detected 99% of the lung cancer samples, and...


* Some of you have taken to sending me items on the side. That’s fine. But you know I will share the choice bits here, and you could, as well. I am assuming you want them posted at the topmost level and/or you don’t want your names mentioned. Fine.

One of you wrote in about OS Card’s recent missive on Intelligent Design. I may comment on that one soon. First, some miscellany...

*Another of you offered this startlingly cogent (though possibly offensive) political jpeg. It oversimplifies, but lays bare the staggeringly unprecedented levels of hypocrisy.

*And finally, someone wrote in with this gem: “The national leaders of campus conservatives of that era included many of today's prominent Republican leaders (Karl Rove, Grover Norquist, Jack Abramoff and Ralph Reed were all national leaders of College Republicans). It is almost ... creepy ... what an incestuous little group they were -- and are. They were outcasts and they came of age with a collective chip on their shoulders, seething at their mainstream peers (who were probably having a lot more fun than they were). Their views were shockingly extreme and they have spent their lives seeking the power to have their world view prevail.”

I never thought of it that way, before. All those frustrated and goggle-eyed campus rightwing geeks, who could never get a date... are now in charge of the world’s only superpower. No wonder they are so busy not only getting even with all the ex-hippies... but also sticking it to the suave “normal” republicans! This may explain the dramatic and diametric veer away from old-style GOP isolationism into a level of utopian international adventurism that would make John F. Kennedy look positively prudent! In fact, the parallels with JFK are vastly closer than any comparison with, say, Dwight David Eisenhower.

Ah... Alcibiades...

Monday, January 16, 2006


First a warning: This is yet another of my infrequent, extravagantly speculative appraisals, guaranteed to poke-in-the-eye assumptions that are held dear by partisans along the entire length of the hoary old Left Right political axis. That axis, inherited from the French Assembly of 1789, is unworthy of 21st Century minds. It is an impediment to clear thinking... and especially about the current topic at hand.

Or How World Governance May Come About by Surprise

­ by David Brin


Americans tend to feel uncomfortable when they are asked to look at the vast sweep of world history.

Part of this discomfort may arise from a sense -- nurtured ever since the Revolution -- that everything was supposed to change with the establishment of our "city on a hill." All those tedious cycles of imperial conquest and oppression... of civilizations rising only to collapse, a sullen litany stretching from Gilgamesh to Napoleon... had been rendered obsolete. Right?

Generally following the tradition of the Enlightenment philosopher, Rousseau, many utopian idealists -- both liberal and libertarian -- have nursed a firm belief that just the right social tweaking might release inherent human creativity and goodness, ending all types of oppression forever. The exact nature of this tweaking can be a matter of great dissension; for example, liberals and libertarians wrangle over the role of government in achieving this grand transformation. Caught up in disputed details, they tend to ignore a deeper, shared assumption... that social transformation possible at all! That simple prescriptions and straightforward measures might help propel everybody into a new and better civilization.

No wonder most branches of American idealism share a common distaste for history's primary lesson -- that human nature is inherently a tough and resisting nut to crack. Obdurate tendencies toward dogmatism, cheating, and rationalization-of-force are not only features of Western Civilization, but of every people and era.

Persistent and relentless patterns of imperial, feudal or tribal abuse has worked against individual freedom everywhere, in a trend that spanned all continents and centuries. This inconvenient historical fact frustrates and confuses the central liberal -- and libertarian -- notion, that society can be quickly reformed, by following a simple road map. (If it were that simple, would not somebody have done it, by now?)

Hence, the past must either be romanticized or ignored. Interestingly, history gets no friendlier a reception on the other, grouchier side of the personality aisle.

American cynics generally ascribe to Rousseau's competitor, Hobbes, who maintained that traditional values and hierarchy-imposed order are essential, in order to prevent inherent human nastiness from running riot. In other words, devilish human nature does not need to be unleached. Civilized life depends utterly upon proper supervision and control.

Traditionally, America's homegrown variety of conservative cynics have tended to push isolationism, disengagement, and distrust of foreigners. This central theme was most recently expressed in the nineties by critics of the Clinton Administration who decried the "...naive, discredited and utopian fantasy of so-called nation building."

(A position that soon became bitterly ironic, as the Bush Administration suddenly veered into its own set of quasi-utopian rationalizations, pouring more time, blood and treasure into "nation building"... attempting to plant democracy, in Iraq's rocky soil... than all previous efforts combined. A flip into almost transcendentalist, missionary zeal that seems to have much more in common with Trotsky than Taft.)

And still, history gets ignored, except as a source of isolated anecdotes. Because, if you take in its vast sweep, there is plenty of evidence to support both cynical and idealistic interpretations of America's role in the world, during the last 200 years.

Can the monumental national sacrifice of the Civil War -- when tens of thousands died to make others free -- help to balance sins committed against Native Americans? Was the Monroe Doctrine a utopian endeavor to keep European powers from dominating the Western Hemisphere, or a realpolitik grab, to preserve a US sphere of influence? After the Spanish American War, public hand-wringing kept Cuba and the Philippines from becoming "colonies," though the practical difference in outcome was hardly black-and-white.

History may be murky, but it is not ambivalent about the basic lesson.

What it boils down to is not a disagreement between cynicism and idealism, at all. Both the far right and far-left are rife with dour and grouchy folks who -- at the same time -- lay claim to the purest mores and scruples. Indeed, that very purity of goal and spirit is their common, underlying theme.

Both extremes share an especially bitter spite toward their true opposite -- a pragmatic temperament that found its greatest incubator in the American experience.

The pragmatic wing of the Enlightenment was originally inspired by John Locke, who (in effect) told both Hobbes and Rousseau that they were romantic, oversimplifying fools! Human nature is not inherently devilish or angelic, but a complex mixture of the two.

Any reasonable person, who has not become a slave of ideology, will tell you this. Just have a look at your neighbors. Or in a mirror. Some traits we inherit from dismal caves or rapacious kings. Others aim for what would be the most noble aspirations. Both themes come woven together, in such a complex way that no simplistic dogma can adequately describe or separate the threads. At least, not without killing all the good parts.

According to Locke, it does not matter if you are a follower of Karl Marx or Ayn Rand, or any other would-be social programmer. No purist dogma can ever chart a course through the morass of human nature. Rather, dealing with this muddle requires a step-by-step process of incremental discovery. Learning -- by hard experience -- what methods work and which ones do not. These methods include everything from higher levels of education to institutional compromises that blend market regulation with citizen empowerment. Moreover, because would-be cheaters will adapt to any environment, only constant innovation will continue to thwart our inner devils -- the parts that eagerly find any excuse to exploit others -- while leaving our creative angels free to thrive, in both cooperative efforts and zestful competition.

This process -- experimenting and gradually finding out what works -- has involved thinkers and doers, as diverse as Adam Smith and James Madison, Roosevelt and Hayek, Marshall and King. A melange, as diverse as their methodologies. But all of them displaying the same trait that makes for successful science. A willingness to doubt and test your own theories.

Does history support the incrementalist approach of Locke and the pragmatic modernists? One that takes a little truth from idealists, and some from cynics?

The notion that human betterment is achievable…

...but the road will not be simple or easy.

Despite the murkiness of history, the distilled pattern seems to support Locke and the pragmatists. Indeed, when you focus close to home, measuring the American Experiment against the dour litany of four millennia, the glass appears to be at least half-full. Especially comparing it to Rome or Babylon, or any other empire of the bloody human past.

It is also half-empty, when you contrast the progress so-far against our vague dreams of how-things-ought-to be.

Of course, all of this relates to the over-arching topic of how best to defend the pragmatic-modernist enlightenment, at a time when it is under attack from every end of the so-called- political "spectrum"... from every style of dogmatic romanticism. But it has to do with much more than the study (or ignoring) of history.

It also has great bearing on where we go next. Specifically, how will this current cycle of history come to an end?

All eras, cycles and historical epochs do end, after all. Even if the United States manages to cling to its position of world leadership -- bringing about a second "American Century" -- is there even a remote possibility that this will happen using old methods and old ways? Can Pax Americana (or the "American Peace") truly do a better job of error avoidance than the great powers that came before?

After all, Pax Brittanica and Pax Romana seemed all-enduring and most brilliant just before they fell.
In the next section, we will talk about the new mania for an "American Empire" and the psychological trap this represents. And yet, I am not totally opposed to all versions of "Pax Americana." Unlike all others, this imperium has earned substantial credits, on the plus side of its historical ledger. Not enough to merit endless world domination... but perhaps enough to deserve some residual leadership and respect during the coming age of transition.

As transition to Whatever Comes Next.


Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Pax Americana as midwife for ... Whatever Comes Next

See a very interesting article, Mirage of Empire, in the New York Review of Books, where John Gray, Emeritus Professor at the London School of Economics, reviews two books that promote the notion of an America as Imperium:

--Imperial Grunts: On the Ground with the American Military from Mongolia to the Philippines to Iraq and Beyond,  by Robert D. Kaplan and

--The Case for Goliath: How America Acts as the World's Government in the 21st Century, by Michael Mandelbaum.

Kaplan is one of the most profoundly weird thinkers of our time. I find him to be bizarrely attracted to really, really bad ideas. Like this idea that America has any business modeling its “Pax Americana” after any imperial periods from the human past.

Let there be no doubt, this is exactly what was preached by Leo Strauss, that ungrateful wretch of a fugitive from devastated Europe, who had the nerve to lecture at happy, progressive, pragmatic and successful America, that we really oughta copy all the wretched philosophical errors that had made his home continent a debacle and a festering sore. Of course today’s neocon adventurists ate it up, especially the platonist rationalizations about “philosopher kings” who needn’t answer to those they rule, have no need for accountability, and who are duty bound to lie like mad, whenever the mood strikes them. Again, read about a guy named Alcibiades.

9781586484583_p0_v1_s260x420And yet, as usual, I take a position that does not fit either left or right. Just because the neocons are flipping loony for wanting anything like a traditional “empire”, so is the left for refusing to recognize that we are still in an imperial age... and the for the near-term, anything other than some kind of Pax Americana is simply unthinkable. The alternatives are simply unthinkable. In his review, Gray rightfully points out many flaws in the notion of an American Imperium that is at all comparable to those of Britain and Rome.

But he does no better than Kaplan and Mandelbaum at addressing the key role of Pax Americana as midwife for Whatever Comes Next. (WCN)

We have maybe a decade, at best. The technological and military superiority that America now clutches desperately can be hoarded, it can be squandered, it can be thrown around in “imperial” bluster...

...influence to help design WCN... a version that will remain forever loose, according to American tastes, rather than a bureaucratic “world government” in the EU style.

A WCN in which individuals have standing, instead of the present “international order” in which only states and corporations have any voice at all. A WCN which can safeguard the Earth and our children, without becoming a bossy nanny, from which there is no escape. Even now, despite the quasi-deliberate way that the Bushites have torched esteem for the US, all over the world, America still has the influence to help guide WCN in the right directions. But will it?
..or it can be carefully spent, using force judiciously to maintain peace while using

Not while the left refuses to recognize a duty. Or while the right is obsessed with adolescent thumping.

==On Accountability and Government==

And finally, the following gem about accountability and human nature:

“Government ought to be all outside and no inside . . . Everybody knows that corruption thrives in secret places, and avoids public places, and we believe it a fair presumption that secrecy means impropriety."
           - Woodrow Wilson

If we could create a panel of all of our past presidents and put them on TV, I bet most would be fuming right now,especially Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Ike. But two of them would be giddy and happy. James Buchanan and Warren G. Harding. Can any of you guess why?

Come on. It’s easy.

==Miscellaneous Items ==

Your phone records are for sale Chicago Sun-Times January 5, 2006
 The Chicago Police Department is warning officers their cell phone records are available to anyone -- for a price. Dozens of online services are selling lists of cell phone calls, raising security concerns among law enforcement and privacy experts. To test the service, the FBI paid $160 to buy the records for an agent's cell...

 Data Mining 101: Finding Subversives with Amazon Wishlists applefritter Jan. 4, 2006
An individual with access to the Internet can develop a fairly sophisticated profile of hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens by using data mining of free and publicly available resources, such as's vast database of wishlists, as programmer Tom Owad has proved. He extracted names and cities for readers of "dangerous books" to show...

'Robot agents' to help settle disputes The Register Jan. 6, 2006
The e-Dispute system provides fast online arbitration, mediation and conciliation services to help organizations quickly resolve disputes. e-Dispute's online collaboration tools include video, audio, live-chat, e-forum, text and transcript capabilities with full case management, fact assessment, analysis, and weighted issue/interesting...

Monday, January 09, 2006

(misc items...and a slowdown)

I am going to be downgrading to blog a bit, partly in order to emphasize writing that helps feed my family.

Still, I hope to get to that religion piece soon.

Also, a few misc items...

I highly recommend this review of 25 top stories from THE GLOBALIST, some of which are real eye-openers.

Author/inventor Wil McCarthy has just posted a a free, annotated, multimedia edition of Hacking Matter on his web page This is one of the most innovative and fascinating ideas to come along in years. The topic if serveral novels and nowa bona fide patent.

It was reported this week that that $800 million in terrorism-preparedness aid to states will now be handed out based on risk-assessment rather than as it's currently being done, that is, based essentially on patronage.

The Times doesn't say until the 19th paragraph is that the new risked-based program represents only about 25 percent of the $3 billion in overall federal anti-terrorism grants. The rest is still just pork.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Preventing Tyranny: Part Two

Face it... the “War on Terror” was won by the heroes of UA 93... on the very same day that it began! Since then, we have been told that “terror” justifies a reversal of our principles, a shirking of all accountability, abandonment of diplomacy, pissing upon allies, frisking us and humiliating us in airports, suspending civil rights, spying on private citizens without warrants, demolishing our military reserves, purging the officer corps, dissipating our readiness for new crises (currently at an all-time low), politicizing all of our intelligence agencies, and dozens of other measures that add up to a gradual creep toward Big Brother.

the political lamp is lit...

Following up on that article by Jonathan Schell, The Hidden State Steps Forward, in The Nation, here are two key points that need further elucidation, (continuing from Part 1.)

The first of these, Schell only alludes to.
The other, neither Schell nor anyone else seems able to make clear--

HIDDEN-STATE1. One of the greatest unmentioned scandals of this era is our near total lack of a legislative branch of government. The GOP majorities in both houses are simply uninterested in deliberating, in governing, or, indeed, in pursuing any agenda other than graft. They do not even try to push forward the “conservative” social agenda! (e.g. there have been no substantial efforts to affect abortion or science education or even the so called“War on Christmas.”)

Dig it. The only broadly assertive agenda pursued by Congress in this 21st Century has been to pass bills that benefit rich friends, ranging from huge aristocratic tax cuts to the greatest pork barrel frenzy in all of human history. A drive that has been so broad and intense that noncompetitive, no-bid contracts are being granted at a higher rate PER YEAR than happened during the entire Clinton Administration. (And this is capitalism?)

Beyond vampirism, the congressional GOP appears to have no interest in governing, legislating, or exercising its sovereign power of advice and consent. Take these examples of legislative nonexistence:

(a) G.W. Bush is the first president in US history to use his veto power only once after 5 years.

(b) The House Government Reform Committee issued a grand total of two subpoenas on Bush Administration officials in five years, in contrast to more than a thousand issued for former Clintonian officials.

 (Again, all those subpoenas, plus a billion dollars in related efforts, resulted in a total number of Clinton-era indictments, for malfeasance of official action, amounting to ZERO. No indictments, whatsoever. I am sorry, but this fact of a TOTALLY non-smoking gun is the ghost at the neoconservative banquet. Will anyone else ever even mention it?)

(c) Actual hours spent by members on the House and Senate floor, in quorum session, or in active committee session, have not been this low in a hundred years. Yes, that is a hundred years. (This week, the Senate President Pro Tempore was reduced to talking to himself, in an empty chamber.) (Of course, this frees up plenty of time for mischief, like trawling K Street for pork-corruption dollars.)

democrats-republicans-wage-warOf course, this situation is closely related to gerrymandering. The latter led to the former. But it’s all part of the same stew.

In effect, our legislative branch does not exist... it has become a joke... because it has been sinecured into irrelevancy, just like the Roman Senate, during the era of Nero. No other comparison does justice to what has become of the august Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America.

See these contrasts laid out in: How Democrats and Republicans Wage War.

2. All of today’s “emergency” measures are being justified on the basis of a state of war that does not exist. Not only was war never declared, but there is no emergency at all!

Seriously, Iraq does not count.

Whether you think the Iraq Intervention is

(i) a great crusade (rightwing madness), or

(ii) it was totally wrong to topple Saddam (lefty madness), or

(iii) it’s a noble endeavor to spread freedom, that is being well executed (neocon madness), or

(iv) toppling Saddam was a moderately desirable - if totally optional - goal, that has been intolerably booted by monstrously venal incompetents (the position of any pragmatic moderate American)...

...whichever of these things you believe, the simple fact is that this foreign adventure has nothing to with being “at war”... at least not in the sense of justifying other Bushadmin endeavors in proto totalitarianism. Or allowing the “Commander-in-Chief clause” to be used as an excuse for presidential whim to over-rule all law.

After all the dust settled from the “WMD Fiasco,” and putting aside all the suspected ulterior motives (including those turgidly promoted by Michael Moore), what are we are left with? Only this.

The BEST POSSIBLE explanation for our presence in Iraq is a somewhat acceptable surface goal of nation-building after toppling a brutal dictator. (Neocons will never mention that, pre-2000, they savagely rebuked the “failed and hopelessly naive doctrine of so-called nation-building.” Nor will they mention that Saddam was their own boy, from start almost to finish.)

Wars-Emergency-PolicyYes. It is possibly a worthy objective to try and replace Saddam with a democratic Iraq. (Liberals who deny this only shoot themselves in the foot.) But even if we do accept this goal, the intervention is without question an example of voluntary and elective surgery. Something to which the word “emergency” can in no way be attached with any justification, whatsoever. Surgery that could have been timed to our convenience, that should have been professionally planned to achieve maximum goals while minimizing deleterious costs and consequences for all concerned, starting with our troops, our alliances, our social cohesion, our budget, our people, and especially the Iraqis themselves. (See my posting: Wars of Emergency vs. Wars of Policy).

What this totally voluntary war most definitely is NOT is a situation dire enough to warrant even the most minuscule abridgement of our citizen rights.

Indeed, we Americans have NEVER had that kind of emergency... though at least during the Civil War and WWII there was some basis for argument. Today?

Any attempt to excuse executive lawbreaking in the interest of urgent security is nothing more or less than a travesty.

No, Iraq is a distraction.

Only one relevant fact might contribute any support to the “emergency” excuse.

That fact was 9/11...

... and that fact is getting very, very tired. Elderly, in fact. Five years old and not a reasonable justification for anything, anymore. (Five years after Peal Harbor, we had won WWII! So, what does mighty, imperial America have to show for the last five years? How long must a quag-mire before it reflects upon the competence of our leaders?)

And yes, I can see the obvious! The terrifyingly obvious.

If ever a day comes when this argument gains strength -- when the American people start asking ”what emergency?” -- that’s the very moment to be wary!

Suppose people start to notice that the 5 years (or 6 or 7) before 9/11 were safer and richer and happier and less divided and more free than the equivalent period after. Suppose people start to notice that all of this creeping tyranny is justified by just ONE act of terror that might have been a fluke, and not a “war” after all. Certainly not a “war” on the scale of the Cold War... though we are being asked to accept worse restrictions on our rights than ever during the danger from Soviet Communism.

Suppose people start asking why we should stay in panic mode -- enduring spying and frisking and spiralling debt and relentless secrecy - when things have actually been pretty good for a couple of decades.

Well...then won’t we almost be BEGGING for another “incident” to conveniently happen? In the nick of time. To stoke and maintain the fabricated state of “war.” To let the emergency continue.

Stand up. This year. Stand up.

We don’t need doctrinaire leftists, organizing an ideologically rigid Democratic Party to march off - like eager lemmings - toward another of Karl Rove’s prepared cliffs. What we need is something that is even BETTER than shifting a million voters from the right hand side of an electoral chasm over to the left-hand side.

Even if the Blue States win this new civil war against the Gray States -- singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic and restoring accountability to public life -- we will all lose if that is the basis for American politics in the 21st Century.

What we need is 200 prominent American conservatives to denounce this madness. Or 200,000 who are not prominent. Either way, a small number of decent Americans who are willing to do for their country what liberals did, in 1947, when they saw their duty, gathered their courage, and turned their backs on left-wing commie madness, proving that their patriotism could rise above mythologies of dogma.

miracleof1947If liberals could do that, in 1947, why are there no conservatives yet (except maybe Ben Nighthorse Campbell) willing to do the same thing for their country, today?

Just 200 prominent conservatives could save the United States of America, more effectively than adding two MILLION more democratic voters! Because they would not only change the balance of power and kick out the kleptocrats....

...They would also rescue the soul of American conservatism. By helping to end the cynical, heartless, treasonous, divisive and artificially induced “culture war” that is tearing a great nation apart.

This point cannot be overstated. If each of us recruits just ONE such decent conservative, getting him or her to notice where duty lies... it may happen in time to save the soul of genuine conservatism, before this nation plunges into real class warfare. Before the seeds that have been sown by Rupert Murdoch sprout dragons more ferocious than he never imagined.

Stand up.

====    ====    =====

Return to Part 1: Preventing Tyranny

See also: How Democrats and Republicans Wage War