Friday
Apr292016

The Barrel of a Gun 

“Every Communist must grasp the truth, "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun." Our principle is that the Party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command the Party. Yet, having guns, we can create Party organizations, as witness the powerful Party organizations which the Eighth Route Army has created in northern China. We can also create cadres, create schools, create culture, create mass movements. Everything in Yenan has been created by having guns. All things grow out of the barrel of a gun. According to the Marxist theory of the state, the army is the chief component of state power. Whoever wants to seize and retain state power must have a strong army.” MaoTse-tung, 1938

Mao was wrong. Political power does not grow out of the barrel of a gun. More specifically, he was reasoning backwards, even as he offered up the real answer in his speech. Guns don’t shoot all by themselves. They need to be picked up by people willing to use them. These people also must be willing to face other people who also have guns. Just as important, these people must be motivated to keep those guns pointed in the “correct” direction. That is, away from those who wish to be in power.

Mao notes that his party created schools, culture, and mass movements. There is the key to his rise to power.

Power comes from the strength of a story. Mao and his followers spread an extremely compelling story about reversing a social order. The massive peasant underclass of China, trodden upon for centuries by a small elite, was ripe for a story that put them above the landlords and aristocrats. Mao put them at the moral apex of his story, virtuous by their humble birth, virtuous by their struggle, and virtuous by their fight against the elite. He offered them a vision of a world where they would have self-determination, equality, prosperity, and justice. As we know in hindsight, it didn’t quite work out that way. After a string of social and economic disasters China embraced oligarchic capitalism, creating political and financial elites to replace the old aristocratic one. And yet the Chinese government persists, albeit with modified economic policies. The story has been modified to be more western, the bait has been dangled again, and so far the combination of carrot and stick has kept the masses in line.

 To repeat, for emphasis, political power comes from telling people a compelling story, a story that orders the world in a way that makes people want to do your bidding. The story has to take into account the existing mindset of the people in question. The Taliban and IS (ISIS, ISIL Daesh) have compelling stories, whether we like them or not. They are straightforward stories about belonging, good, evil, rules of conduct, action, and reward. They key into the existing religious and social beliefs of the population. The governments of Iraq and Afghanistan have muddled, nuanced, essentially false stories based on a mode of thinking alien to the inhabitants of those areas. Of course Iraqi troops folded in the face of inferior ISIS forces. They had no compelling reason to risk their lives.

One of the (many) reasons the American Civil War was so bloody is that both sides had stories that were convincing to their participants. Men walked upright into hailstorms of lead because they were convinced of the righteousness of their respective causes.

Today, members of the Taliban and IS take suicidal risks, and sometimes commit deliberate suicide, in pursuit of victory. They treat opponents and their fellow travelers with unflinching brutality. They tolerate harsh conditions. This implacability is both militarily effective and demoralizing to their opponents. They have the group cohesion vital to winning a political and military victory.

Any attempt to “win” in the Middle East should have started with the question of the beliefs and motivation of the people who live there. But of course, this approach doesn’t set up the hog trough for military contractors or resource extraction companies. A strategically half-assed, decade-plus military slog doesn’t do anything for American, Afghan, or Iraqi security, but it increases the profitability of a set of military and “security” firms.

To be absolutely pragmatic about it, we should look at the self-image of the countries we deal with in the Middle East and ally with those that have at least some potential for long term cohesion. This requires us to acknowledge that the Sykes-Picot Agreement is reaching the end of its lifespan.

Sykes-Picot was the initial agreement between the winning powers in the First World War on how to carve up the then prostrate Ottoman Empire. Sykes-Picot and the other agreements that followed it allowed the U.S., the U.K., and France to carve up the Ottoman Empire into convenient sections for the extraction of oil. Of course, most of these boundaries had no connection with how the people who lived there understood their world. Iraq is a mishmash of religions and ethnicities, as is Syria. Under stress, the citizens of these countries tend to revert to loyalties other than the nation state.

Iran is one example of a nation state with good cohesion. Iranians are Persians, not Arabs, which is more than a pedantic distinction to Iranians themselves. The Persian culture has a long and continuous history and the present boundaries of Iran are roughly in line with long historical precedent. The Iranians are overwhelmingly Shiite, and governed by Shiites. This is no small thing. One of the major political flaws in both Syria and Iraq has been the governance of a religious majority by a religious minority. From what I have observed, Iranians identify as Iranians, even when they have internal conflicts.

I would contend that Iran is no more politically and culturally estranged from us than Saudi Arabia, and probably somewhat less. I mean, at least Iranian women can drive and walk around in public without a male family member. Their elections differ from ours in that mullahs rather than millionaires decide who can run for office. They and the Saudis support different groups of terrorists.

When I look at trends, I see Saudi Arabia becoming less stable and less careful of our interests over time. Iran seems to be inching towards civil reform and détente with the west. I’d like to see a slow, careful pivot towards Iran. Even if we didn’t follow all the way through, it would give our Sunni sometime-allies a signal that we are looking for fewer empty declarations of friendship and more real on the ground action.

Which are the cohesive states in the Central Asia and the Middle East? I’d put my money on Iran, but also the nascent de-facto state of Kurdistan. For all their recent turmoil, Egyptians still identify as Egyptians. Hey, they’ve been around for a little while. The Turks identify as Turks. And then there’s our problem child, Israel. Perhaps Israelis identify as Israelis a little too much. The semi-state of Palestine has the cohesion of shared misery, despite the PLO/Hamas split in leadership.

What about the petro-states such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates? Their histories vary, with Oman self-governing since the mid-18th century and Qatar only gaining independence from the U.K. in 1971. The real problem with the smaller states, tribalism and monarchy aside, is that large percentages of the populations are non-citizen foreign workers. Out of a population of 1.8 million, Qatar has only 278,000 citizens. The UAE has 1.4 million citizens and 7.8 million foreign workers. Oman does better with 2.2 million citizens and 1.76 million expats. Kuwait has 1.2 million citizens out of 4.1 million people. That’s working for the moment (at least for the citizens), but I don’t see these nations as stable in tough times.

This is magic wand waving, given our present government, but I’d like to see a “team of rivals” approach. Doris Kearns Goodwin explored Abraham Lincoln’s canny political strategy in a book of that name. Faced with political forces that threatened to confound his intentions Lincoln appointed a cabinet of politicos who distrusted and competed with each other. That allowed him to play them off against each other.

Under this admittedly improbable plan, the U.S. would have a sit-down with each of the cohesive states (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kurdistan, Egypt, Turkey, Palestine and Israel) and announce two things. First, that our support was now conditional (and possible, in the case of Iran). Second, that we now had a fixed budget of military, financial, and political support for this region, and that they would all be competing for their share. We’d be giving bonus points for human rights, non-intervention, not financing armed groups, and generally behaving well. We’d take away points for treating women like cattle and treating minority ethnic groups like insect pests. Fighting corruption and promoting transparency would be a big plus.

For example, Kurdistan and Turkey are at each other’s throats. We would tell Kurdistan to cut the crap with supporting PKK attacks on Turkey and to be satisfied with their present territory in northern Iraq. We would tell Turkey to start treating Kurds within their country with some consideration and to stop their double game – publicly opposing and privately enabling ISIS. Their internal policies are theirs to set, but don’t expect smiles, cash, and cooperation from us without some significant movement on these issues.

Likewise with the Saudis and Iran, Israel and the Palestinians, Israel and Iran, Egypt and its own people, and so on. The main thing is to let each one know that it isn’t indispensable and that we are willing to favor its rival. Then watch the fun begin. It would probably take some experimental misbehavior and consequences before things settled down. I imagine that the Kurds and Palestinians, being in the most tenuous positions, would show the fastest learning curve.

I don’t see Iraq or Syria ever returning to the status quo ante. They were political fictions held together by despotism. The minor oil states are political fictions held together by despotism and government subsidy. We should concentrate on working with the nations that have a strong story.

Thursday
Jan212016

A Review: Trump Tales of Terror 

Movie monsters don’t scare me. Jason, Freddie Kruger, Dracula in all his forms, rubber lizards, whatever. I’m a scientist at heart, no, at mind, and those things are fake.

However, years ago I saw a film by David Lynch called Blue Velvet and it kept me up at night. The villain was a character called Frank Booth, played well by Dennis Hopper. The character was a bit over the top, but not by much. The thing that got to me was that he was so plausible. He wasn’t superhuman in any way, just amoral, antic, sadistic, and ruthless. I know there are people like him out there. We hear about them in the news periodically. (I met one once, but luckily he was shackled and surrounded by state troopers at the time.)

Paul Bibeau, the mind behind Goblinbooks and The Black Book of Children’s Bible Stories has just e-published a collection of nine short stories about Donald Trump and the people who support him. It’s full of horrific plausibility.

It does stray into the supernatural. However, it only strays into that hazy, dimly-lit area between the truly magical and the truly mentally ill. The narrators are unreliable by definition, so it is hard to tell between demonic possession and dissociative identity disorder.

We get to spend some time inside the minds of Trump himself, a beauty queen obsessed with murder, a paranoid loner, an artificial intelligence entity, and a bored suburban family man who joins the local right wing militia. There is the rise of the surveillance state and the slow fall of empire. All the stories are full of the ordinary, or what passes for ordinary in our era.

Bibeau has clear prose, good dialogue, and an eye for subtle description. His horror isn’t the horror of the beast crashing down the center of the street. His is the horror of the slight movement in the corner of your eye, or the realization that the mistake you just made has more momentum than you have strength.

H.P. Lovecraft and George Saunders adopted a baby boy, named him Paul, and brought him up right.

I recommend Trump Tales of Terror for your late night reading pleasure. It costs a dollar at Amazon, which is an absurdly good entertainment value proposition.

Thursday
Nov262015

Potatoes and Family 

My business buys insurance through a local agent who happens to be a Bosnian Muslim immigrant. He grew up during the Balkans war in the 1990s. He just sent around Thanksgiving greetings to his clients which included a couple of stories from his childhood. With all the bigoted idiocy about Syrian immigrants being spewed by national political figures I thought that his missive would be a fine antidote. With his permission, here it is:

 

    Hope you have a lot to be thankful for.  I am thankful for many things, including discovering crossfit, but far beyond anything else I am thankful for joys of being a dad to my son William!  But when I stop and think about having a son I often think of my dad who passed when I was 21.  And I get choked up, and I am getting choked up typing this, so I wanted to share what the spirit of thanksgiving and family love means to me.

    When I was 10 or 11 I noticed how huge my dad's legs were.  One day we were just laying around and I remember making a big deal about it, I bugged him, asked why/how are his legs that big... (this is not because I was small, my dad genuinely had big legs) he just smiled and moved on...  Later on, we packed a loaf of bread, some meat, little water and we went to forest.

    We walked for a long time, and eventually sat down to eat.  We started a small fire and grilled the meat.  We ate nothing that day and I don't know if the meat was that delicious or if I was just really hungry, but I couldn't stop eating.  I remember commenting on how great meat was, and how hungry I was.  My dad ate nothing, I ate everything.  I wanted him to eat too, but he said that he wasn't hungry and wanted me to have it all.

    I enjoyed that meal, I enjoyed that day with my dad.  Maybe it was that same day, maybe little there after I thought how big his legs are, one leg the size of me, and he isn't hungry?  I knew he was starving, but he wanted me to eat everything because I was enjoying it so much.  I also knew I would not give away food, but he did.  I knew how much I loved him, but that day it was so clear to me how much he loved me, and it was the type of love I couldn't understand.  My dad stayed hungry so I could eat and to me when I think about ultimate love this is what comes to mind.

    I grew up during civil war and there were times when food was scarce.  One winter, I think I was in 8th grade, so technically after the war but life after the war was just as hard as during war.  That winter all we ate was just one meal a day and it was potatoes of some sort.    I went to school hungry, did not eat at school, and as I am walking up from school to our house I am just praying.  I just thought if I pray hard enough, God will hear me and bring food to the table.  I come home and my mom is setting up a table for us to eat.  As I am waiting at a table for mom to bring food, praying intensifies.  Please have her bring something other than potatoes.  I start thinking of reasons why I deserve more than potatoes, please just today I want more than potatoes.  I close my eyes, silently stuffing as many prayers as possible before she brings food out to the table.  I open my eyes to the sight of baked potatoes, not enough to fill me in.  Defeated, I put my head down and start crying, but I didn't want to cry, so what got out of me were groans, and a few tears.  My dad asked if I was OK, and I say yes, hiding my face.  I look up to see my sister laughing, mom and dad content.  Feeling of gratitude slowly overpowered everything I was thinking earlier because I realized how blessed we were for being together.  So what if I was hungry, we had each other and we love each other and nothing else mattered, and I became grateful to have potatoes, some people were not lucky to have that, some people lost their family.

    My father-in-law celebrates every holiday, every birthday, makes a big deal out of every occasion.  I don't believe in birthday celebrations so I asked him why are you celebrating your birthday man, why do you care so much?  "Why do I care so much?  Do you really want to know?  Do you really think I care about birthdays and all these celebrations?  What do you think this is all about?  This is all about having family together, when would we get together all at once and share this joy, we are lucky that we can do this, and I find every opportunity to have us together."  My father-in-law also stayed hungry so his kids could eat, and he understands the power of family.

    I think this deserves an ending that will bring all of it together, but at the risk of being cheesy it's best I stop here.  I think you get the point, plus William is banging on the door, it's time for my break.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday
Nov122015

Phil Scott’s 20-20 Trust 

(This one is about two months overdue. Your Minor Heretic has been busy, alternately cajoling and hammering on large machinery. I’m happy to report that the floggings did increase morale and that the machinery is now running.)

If you’ve been following Vermont political news at all you know that Lieutenant Governor Phil Scott is officially in the race for governor. I listened to an interview with him on Vermont Public Radio back in mid-September. One of the topics was the problem of Scott’s ownership of DuBois Construction, a company that does business with the State of Vermont. As governor this would present a conflict of interest.

Actually, as Lt. Governor it presents a conflict of interest, so there’s another story. For the moment I’ll focus on the potential problem.

Scott explained that he would solve the problem by turning over the operation of the company to a blind trust. This makes no sense at all.

People who hold public office sometimes put their financial holdings in a blind trust. An investment advisor takes over the holdings and buys and sells stocks, bonds, and other assets without informing the public official what is in the portfolio. Thus the official’s self-interest is generalized to a healthy economy. There is no reason for the official to favor one business or business sector over another. At least, that’s the theory.

Let me emphasize before going further that conflict of interest is always judged on appearance. Absent mind reading abilities, nobody can tell whether an official’s actions are influenced by an investment. In this particular case, we might assume that Phil Scott is honorable and still raise objections to an appearance of conflict of interest. The same rules apply to everybody.

That said, the idea that Phil Scott could put a single company into a blind trust goes against basic logic. Despite his absence from day to day operations at Dubois, he would still know that he owns the company. He has stated that he intends to go back to running the business after eventually departing politics. He would have a definite interest in the continued prosperity of the company. Decision makers throughout the state government would also know this. How screamingly obvious. It’s not a blind trust if you know what’s in it.

I don’t know whether to question Scott’s judgment or question his opinion of average voter intelligence. Wherever the non-baked idea of a single-asset “blind” trust came from, he should drop it. Getting back to the present problem, if the governor running a business that contracts with the state government is a conflict of interest, how is the lieutenant governor in the same situation not a conflict of interest? Phil Scott needs to remove Dubois Construction from the business of government contracts.

Friday
Sep252015

Pope Francis Dodges the Big Issue 

Your Minor Heretic has been busy wrestling with large mechanical things for a while, but all the feel-good PR about the papal visit has gotten me feeling disgruntled and heretical.

Yes, Papa Frank has been saying the right things about poverty and climate change. Fine, thanks. It’s always fun to see the far right tie themselves in knots when a conservative authority figure breaks ranks. However, His Eminence has failed to address child sexual abuse by the clergy and his church’s historical and present efforts to protect the child rapists in its midst. When a parishioner can’t trust the church to protect children from sexual abuse, really, what use is that church?

The pope even stuck his foot in it by publicly sympathizing with the clergy over their suffering due to the child abuse scandal. Huh? Survivors of priestly abuse were appalled.

I wrote about this back in 2008 and not much has changed since then. One point I covered then was that Catholic canon law required an oath of secrecy from anyone involved in a sexual scandal. Violating that oath “even for a greater good”, such as notifying the police, resulted in excommunication, “latae sententiae, ipso facto.” The Latin means that the person who complains to the police that a priest raped their child would be excommunicated without any process, at the moment of the commission of the act.

I looked up latae sententiae excommunication and there are a number of things that will get you instantly booted from the church. Throwing away a communion wafer is one of them and assaulting the pope is another. Heresy as well, so I’m out. Raping a child is not. To paraphrase a line from the movie Cool Hand Luke, “What we have here is a failure to excommunicate.”

If Pope Francis wants me (along with many other Americans) to dredge up a few warm and fuzzy feelings for him, he could issue a papal bull declaring any cleric committing an act of sexual abuse to be excommunicate, latae sententiae, ipso facto. If tossing a sanctified cracker in the trash warrants it, raping a child should pass the test for expulsion.