Wednesday
Nov122014

Putin’s Speech at Valdai 

This is a point-at post. I don’t have all that much to say except that you should set aside about 15 minutes and read the speech Vladimir Putin just gave at the Valdai Conference in Sochi. Vlad drops his gloves and wades into the U.S. like an NHL enforcer. The importance of this speech is not about belligerence, though. It is straight talk about Russia’s attitude towards the pseudo-unipolar world we’ve had since around 1990. The one sentence summary is that a unipolar world doesn’t work, and even if it did, the U.S. has massively screwed up the opportunity, so the rest of the world is going to make other plans.

Of course, Putin glosses over the sins of Russia. This is predictable. Nevertheless, as a critique of U.S. hegemony and a discussion of the consequences, it is valuable.

I should note that it has received almost no attention in the U.S. mainstream news media, despite the huge foreign policy implications.

At Club Orlov, here.

Sunday
Oct262014

The Politics of Desperation

There’s a dear old friend of mine, a former Marine, who forwards me emails that he gets from his conservative friends. Just to “light you up,” as he puts it. I oblige with rebuttals, Fisking the mostly fantasy-based talking points.

Recently he sent me a wild one, which got me thinking about the politics of desperation. This last email purported to be a summary of a couple of national television appearances (Face the Nation, in one case) by the Obamas. I’ll spare you the bulk of it, but one bit was about Obama wanting to change the national anthem to “I Want to Teach the World to Sing” and another bit was about Michelle admitting to attending flag burnings. The Onion could do no better. I mean, even if someone could conceive of the Obamas approving of those things, could anyone think that they were so lacking in political awareness that they would admit to these things on national television? It goes beyond being unhinged into not believing in hinges.

As other political observers have noted, it’s as if history began in January of 2009. President Obama does things that previous presidents have done and advocates for policies that previous presidents have advocated, but somehow his acts are cast as uniquely undignified, lazy, disrespectful, or misguided. Visit Snopes.com, the urban myth debunking site, and put “Obama” in the search bar for some entertaining mythology. The email rant barrage gives Nigerian prince scams a bad name.

It reminds me of a talk I attended earlier this summer, given by Dan Fenn. Dan is an old family friend, a longtime political observer, and perhaps the last surviving member of the Kennedy Administration. Although in his early nineties, he is still sharp and vital, working as a management consultant. He was speaking on the subject of the presidency, its relationship with congress over the years, and the difficulties experienced by the Obama administration.

One point that Dan emphasized was the outright heels-dug-in obstructionism of the Republican House and the filibustering Republican minority in the Senate, combined with a staggering lack of interpersonal respect from Republican members of Congress. Dan spent a few minutes on the source of that disrespect. It is racial, of course.

His point was about demographics. We are still a majority white country. I should note here that the definition of who is “white” has expanded over the past hundred years as various immigrant groups became more numerous and gained political power. The people who would now still be considered non-white are gaining numbers and it looks as if the people we now call white will no longer be a majority in 2050. It’s an inexorable demographic trend, and a certain subset of white people is panicking.

As Dan put it, if they could see Barack Obama as a one-off non-white president then he would only have to put up with run of the mill racism. In 2016 it would be back to middle aged white guys forever. This would be reassuring for both overt and covert white supremacists.

But no, what demographers know and white racists either know or sense is that this is not an aberration. The era of middle aged white guy dominance is slowly passing. This is a source of desperation that drives the absurd and vicious attacks on our first mixed-ethnicity president. Although I’m not a fan of his many Bush 2.0 policies, I have sympathy for him in this case.

Sidebar on covert racism: In a 2003 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, resumes with white-sounding names got 50% more callbacks than similar resumes with black sounding names. In another job hunting study by a sociologist at Northwestern University, young white men with felony convictions got more callbacks than young black men with equal qualifications and no criminal records. Being white was equal to eight extra years of experience. Welcome to post-racial America.

I’ll leave you with the Minor Heretic’s Law of Email Probability. The number of recipients of an ad hominem email concerning a major political figure equals the number of nines in the probability that it is false. One email address equals a 90% probability of bullshit. Two addresses equal 99%. Three addresses equal 99.9%, and so on.

Monday
Oct132014

Getting Played, Again, and How to Predict the Future 

ISIS, ISIL, IS, Khorosan, and so on. It’s time for bombing again. Time for just a few boots on the ground again. Time for aid to doubtful “allies” again. Time for completely mishandling the situation, yet again. It’s time to get played again, by the propaganda masters in the deserts of the Middle East and offices in Washington, D.C., for they are symbiotic. Both need a legitimate enemy, the more hateful and frightening the better.

The timing of our about-face on Saddam Hussein (remember him?) was not random. We lost our legitimate enemy, the Soviets, and needed a new one. Hence our message to him, through Ambassador Glaspie, that “..your Arab vs. Arab conflicts are of no interest to us. We view them as an internal matter.” This, when he was massing troops on the Kuwaiti border, a week before invading.

This is why we never pressed our agreement with the Taliban government of Afghanistan to cooperate on the killing of Osama bin Laden back in 2000.  The military industrial complex and its servants needed bin Laden. He was so much more valuable out there somewhere.

Well, Hussein was hanged and bin Laden was shot, so what is the military-security-fear industry to do? 12,000 Sunni rebels have flowed into the vacuum created by our Shia-ization of the Iraqi state (de-Baathification, meaning purging Sunnis from the Iraqi military) and the near destruction of the Syrian state. They face 195,000 Kurdish fighters and a similar number of Iraqi soldiers, plus the Syrian military. And they are, somehow, an existential threat to us. So we are told. Billions of dollars surge into the accounts of bomb, missile, and aircraft manufacturers. Security firms get their share of the take. Looks as if the war on whoever is next in line will go on forever. 

How to predict the future of U.S. foreign policy: It will be done in the most expensive way possible. Effectiveness is irrelevant. Capital intensiveness is the predictor. This includes intelligence, military operations, humanitarian foreign aid, the works. Most of this money will be stuffed into the accounts of large corporations.

Bombs are the ultimate in planned obsolescence; make it (in secrecy), transport it, drop it, buy another. Political negotiations are labor intensive and capital light, and therefore undesirable to the military industrial complex.

This ties into the whole concept of supply side versus demand side solutions. The corporate conglomerate that runs this country prefers supply side solutions. Drugs? Spend billions trying to interdict the supply and imprison users and dealers. Oil? Spend billions protecting international supplies and developing domestic sources (even though we only have 3% of world reserves). Terrorism? Spend billions on weapons and surveillance.  Fail, fail, fail. If we spent a tenth of the money on demand side management, meaning drug treatment, energy efficiency, humanitarian aid, plus some effort at political reconciliation, we’d get better results. The problem, in the eyes of the CEOs, is that we’d spend a tenth of the money.

So, we get played again. The debate in the corporate media isn’t about a range of responses to ISIS, it’s about the range of *military* responses.

Here are a couple of ideas, thrown into the public debate like a pine tree air freshener into a sewage treatment plant.

Tell the Iraqi government to get some Sunnis into real positions of power and to rein in the Shiite militias or we’re out of there. No money, no weapons, the Green Zone empty. Reconciliation, REAL reconciliation, or they are on their own. If they don’t reconcile their factions the whole place will implode no matter what we do.

Tell the auto makers that they will double their fleet mileage in five years or we’ll nationalize them (in the case of U.S. manufacturers) or ban them. When they scream, point out that we are having a serious crisis and refer them to the companies that converted from typewriters to rifles in 1942. That would eventually lower worldwide oil demand by about 5%, which in turn would temporarily collapse the price of oil, leaving the Russians and the Middle Eastern monarchies extremely short of cash. Work out the knock-on effects for yourself.

Ban speculation in energy commodities. If you buy the futures, you have to take physical delivery from the tanker. That would knock 20-40% off the price of oil all by itself. See Russians and M.E. royalty, above.

Defund a few gold plated weapons systems and sink the money into nationwide energy efficiency programs. Aim for a 20% reduction in oil use. See R’s and M.E.R., above.

But this won’t happen. Go back to the link under, “Billions of dollars surge into the accounts of bomb, missile, and aircraft manufacturers.” Look at the timing of stock price increases of all the major players in the military supply chain. Middle East chaos isn’t a bug, it’s a feature.

Everything I write on policy comes back to corporate power and money in politics.

Saturday
Sep062014

The Courageous French Soldier 

The other day I was consuming some Twitter and read a tweet by Dan Snow, a historian who hosts on the BBC. It was the 100th anniversary of the Germans first aerial bombing of Paris during WW1 – five small bombs and some “Surrender!” leaflets. All the responses were some variant on “Hur-hur-hurrr, cowardly Frenchmen surrender!” This kind of sneering has become more common since the French took a pass on joining the invasion of Iraq.

Ca suffit!

Even the most minimal survey of military history will show that French soldiers have maintained, and suffered from, an excess of valor. The fatal flaw of the French military has been incompetence among the generals.

Writers as far back as Aristotle have commented on the excessive bravery of the Gauls. The Roman historian Polybius considered them braver soldiers than the Romans.

At the battle of Agincourt in 1415 mounted French knights charged into a hail of English arrows and perished by the hundreds. After witnessing this, thousands more French knights on foot immediately pressed another attack and were slaughtered as well. It was a case of pride leading to tactical incompetence, but the French had no lack of bravery.

During the Napoleonic wars at the turn of the 19th century French troops often advanced in column, that is, a mass of men perhaps 40 files wide. The 40 men in the front line, along with the two or three lines behind them, bore the brunt of enemy fire and had a low chance of survival. And yet they did bear it, and carried Napoleon almost as far as Moscow.

In the First World War the French command had a theory of the “offensive à outrance” or the    “attaque à outrance,” which translates roughly as “attack to excess.” The French military operated by a handbook written by a misguided student of General Foch, which advocated constant massive attacks. The gallant French soldiers charged to their deaths again and again. Charles de Gaulle later wrote about the first French assault into Alsace:

“Second by second the hail of bullets and the thunder of the shells grew stronger.  Those who survived lay flat on the ground, amid the screaming wounded and the humble corpses.  With affected calm, the officers let themselves be killed standing upright, some obstinate platoons stuck their bayonets in their rifles, bugles sounded the charge, isolated heroes made fantastic leaps, but all to no purpose.  In an instant it had become clear that not all the courage in the world could withstand this fire.”

The story of the French 137th Regiment and the so-called Tranchée des Baionnettes (Bayonet Trench) is illustrative. During the fighting around Verdun in 1916, the 137th was surrounded and partially obliterated by German artillery. Quoting Alistair Horne from his book, The Price of Glory:

“It was not until after the war that French teams exploring the battlefield provided a clue as to the fate of 3 Company. The trench it had occupied was discovered completely filled in, but from a part of it at regular intervals protruded rifles, with bayonets still fixed to their twisted and rusty muzzles. On excavation, a corpse was found beneath each rifle. From that plus the testimony of survivors from nearby units, it was deduced that 3 Company had placed its rifles on the parapet ready to repel any attack and — rather than abandon their trench — had been buried alive to a man there by the German bombardment."

“Cheese eating surrender monkeys,” indeed.

Of course, what garners the most abuse for the French is their (temporary) defeat by the Nazis at the beginning of World War 2. Again, it was a case of bad strategy.

During the 1930s the French had committed much of their military budget to the static defenses of the Maginot Line along their border with Germany. Some members of the French general staff had advised against static defense, emphasizing tanks and air power. They were overruled by General Petain and other veterans of the failed attempts at dynamic warfare 25 years earlier.

The Wehrmacht did an end run around the strongest parts of the Maginot Line and the Luftwaffe flew over it. Still, French troops engaged in the tenacious defense of the strong points, some units fighting to the last man. The French were defeated in weeks, not due to any lack of courage, but adherence to outdated ideas.

The French weren’t even unique in their strategic errors. “The generals are always fighting the previous war” has been true for many nations in many conflicts. Considering that the most recent surge in anti-Gallic slander was prompted by their refusal to join in our invasion of Iraq, perhaps their strategic drought is over. So, I say, enough. Let’s stop this libel against the French.

Saturday
Aug302014

Violence; A few cheerful thoughts 

In light of all the ongoing violence in the news, I thought I would finally get around to writing about a book by Randall Collins, Violence; A Microsociological Theory (hereafter VAMT). Collins, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, studies the face-to-face interactions that build up into what we call society. I wrote earlier about his book Interaction Ritual Chains.

To recap the foundation of his theory: We spend our lives engaged in interaction rituals, most of which Collins calls “status rituals,” these being involved in group membership and position. Much of what we do has a constant subtext that runs,

“We are members of the same group, right?”

“Yes, we are, and these are our relative status positions in that group.”

This happens every time we interact with another human being. Through this group solidarity we attempt to extract what Collins calls “emotional energy,” that positive, energizing, affirming sense of self. By the time we reach the end of childhood we are firmly patterned to seek this group solidarity with everyone we meet. This makes perfect evolutionary sense, as we are a species that has survived on the strength of our gregarious nature.

This is why Collins’s book VAMT tells us that everything we thought we knew about violence is wrong. Popular media (films, television, books, what passes for news) tell us that interpersonal violence is a constant threat, that it is easy for even ordinarily peaceful people to devolve into violence, that violence is contagious, and that humans are naturally predisposed to violence.

On the contrary, Collins proposes that this impression exists because of the demands of narrative drama and sampling bias. “Nothing happened” doesn’t make the headlines and peaceful cooperation never sold tickets.

Certainly, Syria, Iraq, Libya and eastern Ukraine are not vacation spots right now. However, even organized violence is affected by the problem of status ritual.

Collins observes a natural resistance to interpersonal violence. He observes two things. One, most personal confrontations devolve into bluster and display rather than overt physical violence. These verbal standoffs don’t make the news, of course. Compare “Man stabs roommate in argument over TV remote” vs. “Two men trash talk each other in dispute over TV remote, one finally hands it over.” Two, only a small percentage of people are both willing and competent to commit violence.

After watching hundreds of hours of film and video of mob violence, as well as studying photographs, police records and personal accounts, Collins finds that in a riot by 10,000 people, about 9,900 will be standing back watching, 75 will be close to the action shouting, and 25 will actually be fighting and breaking things.

The same goes for soldiers at war. Historically, large numbers of soldiers end up being essentially spectators, rarely using their weapons. A minority actually fire, and only a percentage of those actually fire effectively. When interviewed, soldiers in a platoon all agree on which of their comrades are the aggressive ones. An interesting fact that I will get into later is that soldiers firing crew served weapons, where a group of soldiers cooperates (heavy machine guns and mortars, for example) fire more consistently and competently than soldiers with individual weapons. The U.S. military has spent considerable time and effort on training individual soldiers to actually fire their weapons consistently in combat.

Bringing us into the news, police officers act in a similar way. Most officers rarely draw their sidearms, rarely fire them, and rarely, if ever, get a physical force complaint against them. A small percentage of officers draw their weapons often, get into physical confrontations regularly, and accumulate complaints of excessive force. Again, as with soldiers, everyone in their group can identify them as the aggressive minority. As with soldiers, the percentage of people in this group is in the low single digits.

On the other side of the law, street gangs have a few members who are the enforcers. The other members will fight if absolutely necessary, but there are always one or two violently charismatic individuals who are the go-to guys.

Collins describes the buildup to violence as one filled with confrontational tension. The tension is between the desire of an individual to win a conflict and that person’s lifelong practice of establishing group solidarity with others. To attack someone physically is the ultimate expression of rejection from one’s in-group. It goes against our social programming. In order to fight, individuals have to go through a set of rituals to break through this barrier. They also generally have to have an audience that supports the idea of fighting.

On a topical note: Having read VAMT, reading about a police officer in Ferguson calling black protestors “fucking animals” was both unsurprising and illuminating. It was an indication that the virtually all white police force had long since identified the black population as an absolute out group. No need to overcome confrontational tension before violence when there is no such tension to begin with.

In VAMT Professor Collins also introduces the concept of the “forward panic.” We are all familiar with a backward panic. It’s the disorganized rout of a group of people rendered weak by fear. The opposite effect happens when a group prepares itself emotionally for physical conflict and then encounters weak resistance or none at all. The group is all dressed up with nowhere to go. Two examples at the opposite ends of the scale: The “Rape of Nanking” by the Japanese army in 1937 and the beating of Rodney King by police in Los Angeles in 1991.

In the case of Nanking, the Japanese were expecting the level of resistance justified by the defense of a major city and prepared for a major battle. When the Chinese army collapsed after token resistance, surrendering in large numbers, the Japanese broke through the barrier of confrontational tension with a huge amount of energy.  What resulted was what Collins calls a moral holiday. The slaughter and mistreatment of both soldiers and civilians was akin to mass insanity on the part of the Japanese and took weeks to run its course.

In the case of Rodney King, he had led the police on a high speed chase before offering token resistance to arrest by multiple officers. Keyed up and ready for a fight, perhaps even a gun fight, the officers unleashed hugely disproportionate force on King, several of them beating his prone body with nightsticks. A supportive audience of fellow officers stood around and witnessed the event.

Collins observes that when equal forces meet face to face, neither turning aside, both with equal emotional energy, what usually results is a non-violent standoff. In mob violence, physical attacks tend to involve isolated, retreating individuals attacked by small groups. He expands on this in a useful article on his blog, “Tank Man, and the limits of telephoto lenses; or, how much can individuals stop violence?” 

His advice is that in a confrontation, your face, your eyes, and your voice are your best defense. Never turn away from a confrontation, because that allows an aggressor to avoid engaging with you as a person.* He notes that when police are in full forward panic mode, people who turn away and run are more likely to be beaten than people who non-violently stand their ground and attempt to verbally engage the police. That can re-channel the interaction into a status ritual.

*(Why did the Storm Troopers in Star Wars wear that utterly useless all-covering white “armor”? To deny them faces so they could be slaughtered by the heroes without qualm.)

Back to the crew-served weapons: The reason that these weapons are used more effectively by soldiers is a function of two factors.  The group solidarity in the face of confrontational tension reinforces the soldiers in their actions. As important, it allows the soldiers to focus their attention on each other rather than the enemy. Firing becomes less of a confrontation and more of a group effort. The marching formations and coordinated pike and musket drill of centuries past were similar in their group enabling power. Simply moving in physical coordination with others is a powerful status ritual.

Amidst all the violence we see in the news, it is reassuring to think that interpersonal violence actually requires quite a bit of effort to initiate. More than that, it requires a specific series of events to precipitate, and can be derailed at a number of points. Or, for that matter, prevented at a number of points. One of the main points of VAMT is that violence is not the inevitable result of culture, poverty, or childhood abuse. It is situational, and we can plan and structure our society to trend towards some situations and away from others.

Just to bring this into the topical realm, in light of the police shooting Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri, here’s a question: How many police officers do you know, and know well? If you aren’t a police officer or related to a police officer, the answer is probably zero. I wouldn’t be the first to observe that over the past few decades law enforcement officers have become an insular subculture. Cops socialize with cops; civilians –the rest of us – socialize with civilians. That goes a hundred-fold in communities such as Ferguson. I don’t have a glib answer for this problem, but I have an idea that it involves day to day social interactions. That’s what makes us see each other as allies rather than enemies.