"A computer lets you make more mistakes faster than any invention in human history--with the possible exceptions of handguns and tequila."
Monday, July 31, 2006
Saturday, July 29, 2006
Thursday, July 27, 2006
Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on the re-nomination of John Bolton to continue as U.S. ambassador to the UN are being held today. Although Republicans predict rapid confirmation, Democrats remain opposed and are threatening a filibuster if the Bush administration fails to turn over documents that were requested but never released during last year's failed confirmation effort.
Senator Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) said that Bolton "clearly has an aversion, in my view, to building consensus." Ranking minority member Senator Joe Biden (D-Del.) also highlighted Bolton's diplomatic deficiencies: "My concern is that at the moment of the greatest need for diplomacy in our recent history, we are not particularly effective at it."
For background on the hearings (including an assessment of Bolton by recently retired German ambassador to the UN Gunter Pleuger), see this story that appeared in today's Washington Post. The Post also has a transcript of the hearings available here.
"You can always count on Americans to do the right thing--after they've tried everything else."
Wednesday, July 26, 2006
Yesterday I posted a chunk of Daniel Gilbert's recent essay in the New York Times on retaliation, retribution, and revenge (which I subsumed under the more general heading of reciprocity). I also posted a link to Professor Gilbert's web site, which has an amusing section titled "Playing." A colleague who browsed the site suggested that I should read Gilbert's essay on global warming. (The suggestion is greatly appreciated, Dr. Rouse.)
Gilbert poses a question that, from a different disciplinary perspective, Dan Caldwell and I try to deal with in the first chapter of Seeking Security in an Insecure World. Why do we worry about certain threats and not others? More particularly, why do we often worry more about less serious threats than about more serious threats? As Gilbert points out, "we worry more about anthrax (with an annual death toll of roughly zero) than influenza (with an annual death toll of a quarter-million to a half-million people)." The short answer, according to Gilbert, is this: "Because the human brain evolved to respond to threats that have four features--features that terrorism has and that global warming lacks."
To find out what those four features are, you'll have to read the essay.
Tuesday, July 25, 2006
Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert suggests in a provocative op-ed in yesterday's New York Times that the way humans perceive things makes reciprocity difficult. After describing his childhood experiences sitting in the back seat of the car with his brother ("But he hit me first." "But he hit me harder."), he explains the phenomenon at work:
In a study conducted by William Swann and colleagues at the University of Texas, pairs of volunteers played the roles of world leaders who were trying to decide whether to initiate a nuclear strike. The first volunteer was asked to make an opening statement, the second volunteer was asked to respond, the first volunteer was asked to respond to the second, and so on. At the end of the conversation, the volunteers were shown several of the statements that had been made and were asked to recall what had been said just before and just after each of them.
The results revealed an intriguing asymmetry: When volunteers were shown one of their own statements, they naturally remembered what had led them to say it. But when they were shown one of their conversation partner's statements, they naturally remembered how they had responded to it. In other words, volunteers remembered the causes of their own statements and the consequences of their partner’s statements.
What seems like a grossly self-serving pattern of remembering is actually the product of two innocent facts. First, because our senses point outward, we can observe other people’s actions but not our own. Second, because mental life is a private affair, we can observe our own thoughts but not the thoughts of others. Together, these facts suggest that our reasons for punching will always be more salient to us than the punches themselves--but that the opposite will be true of other people's reasons and other people's punches.
Not only are there psychological barriers to reciprocity, but responding proportionally presents a challenge as well. Gilbert writes:
In a study conducted by Sukhwinder Shergill and colleagues at University College London, pairs of volunteers were hooked up to a mechanical device that allowed each of them to exert pressure on the other volunteer's fingers.
The researcher began the game by exerting a fixed amount of pressure on the first volunteer’s finger. The first volunteer was then asked to exert precisely the same amount of pressure on the second volunteer’s finger. The second volunteer was then asked to exert the same amount of pressure on the first volunteer’s finger. And so on. The two volunteers took turns applying equal amounts of pressure to each other’s fingers while the researchers measured the actual amount of pressure they applied.
The results were striking. Although volunteers tried to respond to each other’s touches with equal force, they typically responded with about 40 percent more force than they had just experienced. Each time a volunteer was touched, he touched back harder, which led the other volunteer to touch back even harder. What began as a game of soft touches quickly became a game of moderate pokes and then hard prods, even though both volunteers were doing their level best to respond in kind.
Each volunteer was convinced that he was responding with equal force and that for some reason the other volunteer was escalating.
Needless to say, there are some implications of this research for international politics (if one can make the levels-of-analysis leap). Gilbert suggests some of the implications in his essay. It's well worth reading.
Monday, July 24, 2006
Sunday, July 23, 2006
Early in The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America’s Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11 (pp. 7-8), Ron Suskind describes what it's like to walk in the shoes of someone on the front lines of the "war on terror," perhaps those of an intelligence analyst:
From their shoes, you can actually feel the soft turf of a shifting landscape. Changes with each step. Walk a while, and you begin to know enough to sense what you don't know, or can't be sure of, as well as the few helpful things that have been discovered and verified about how the world’s terror networks now operate, and how they are evolving. You know that the enemy is everywhere and nowhere, crouched, patient and clever, watching how you move so they can move in the opposite direction, the surprising direction, undetected. You whipsaw between grudging respect for their methodology and murderous rage--if you only get your hands on the courier, the cell leader, the top lieutenant, then they'd know suffering. And tell all. If only. And then you could sleep, at least that night, because you’d know where to aim the armed aerial drone or the muscled-up unit with the night-vision goggles--so much firepower, built up and ready; so few clues about where to point it. Or so few good clues, solid clues. Plenty of noise, God knows, leads galore, piled to the ceiling, and you spend half your life chasing nothing, garbage. Everything starts to look suspicious: whole groups of people with their strange tongues and habits and deeply held certainties prompt alarm, because the ways they move from anger to rage to violence are not so very clear, and if one out of a hundred, a thousand, makes that jump you’re talking an army--a vast, invisible army--un-uniformed and moving freely through a marketplace where anything can be found and tried--unbelievably destructive stuff--all click and buy, with downloadable manuals. And you haven't seen your wife, or husband, or kids, or whoever you care about in weeks, or months; and while you thrash this way and that, everyone you meet, including your bosses, asks "Are we safe, are we safe yet?"--even people who should know better--while you miss everything: the baby showers, the school plays, the weddings and funerals. And you look for handles, a framework from the familiar, to make sense of the solemn insanity of this life, deep inside the so-called "war on terror," and you realize you're neck-deep in a global game of Marco Polo, in an ocean-sized pool--but all of it deadly serious, winner take all. It's terrible in that pool. Especially when it's deathly quiet--the way it is in the months after 9/11--and no one is answering when you yell "Marco," and you only feel the occasional whoosh as your opponent silently passes, and you snap around while images of burning buildings and exploding planes dance behind your closed eyelids.
The breathless style of this passage is not the norm in The One Percent Doctrine, but it does a good job of providing some sense of the problem that Suskind seeks to describe. So far, the book merits the decision I made to move it past several of the works that have been on my reading list for much longer.
Saturday, July 22, 2006
- Executive Branch Dominance
- Excessive Emphasis on the Military
- Lack of Empathy
As Johnson aptly notes (p. xvi), "The sins of American foreign policy have roots that extend more deeply than just the controversial decisions of the second Bush administration." As an example of this point, it's worth noting that when President Clinton traveled to Rwanda to offer an apology for the United States' failure to respond to the genocide in 1994, he disingenuously apologized for American ignorance rather than for the nation's lack of empathy. Still, the current administration seems to be breaking records--and perhaps counting on some cheap grace.
One day after Senator George Voinovich (R-OH) announced his change of heart concerning Ambassador John Bolton, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist urged "swift action" on Bolton's re-nomination. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled to hold hearings on the nomination beginning on Thursday.
Bolton may have won over Senator Voinovich by his performance to date, but an article to be published in tomorrow's New York Times makes it clear that Bolton has been making more enemies than friends at the UN.
Warren Hoge of the Times writes that "the Bush administration is not popular at the United Nations, where it is often perceived as disdainful of diplomacy, and its policies as heedless of the effects on others and single-minded in the willful assertion of American interests. By extension, then, many diplomats say they see Mr. Bolton as a stand-in for the arrogance of the administration itself."
But that's not the only problem. As his critics warned when he was first nominated for the post, Bolton has all of George W. Bush's diplomatic skills (except perhaps for the ability to talk tough with his mouth full) with none of his frat-boy joie de vivre.
To illustrate Bolton's undiplomatic methods, Hoge recounts a recent episode:
Six ambassadors separately offered similar accounts of an incident in June that they said captured the situation. All were from nations in Europe, the Pacific and Latin America that consider themselves close allies of the United States, and they asked to speak anonymously in commenting on a fellow envoy.
Mr. Bolton that day burst into a packed committee hall, produced a cordless microphone and began to lecture envoys from developing nations about their weakening of a proposal to tighten management of the United Nations, his chief goal.
Gaveled to silence, he threw up his hands and said, "Well, so much for trying something different."
It was not merely rude, the ambassadors said. One recalled that moments later, his BlackBerry flashed a message from another envoy working on management change. "He just busted us apart," it read.
Hoge also notes that over thirty ambassadors with whom he spoke, "all of whom share the United States' goal of changing United Nations management practices," were critical of Bolton.
"My initial feeling was, let's see if we can work with him, and I have done some things to push for consensus on issues that were not easy for my country," said an ambassador with close ties to the Bush administration.
"But all he gives us in return is, 'It doesn't matter, whatever you do is insufficient,'" he said. "He's lost me as an ally now, and that's what many other ambassadors who consider themselves friends of the U.S. are saying."
Bolton is, of course, not the only one responsible, but he could certainly serve as the poster boy for what almost seems to be a deliberate effort to antagonize the United States' remaining allies. Let's hope Senate Democrats will make that point unequivocally in the upcoming nomination debate.
Thursday, July 20, 2006
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour today expressed grave concern over the continued killing and maiming of civilians in Lebanon, Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory and called for accountability for any breaches of international law.
The High Commissioner recalled that parties to a conflict have the obligation to exercise precaution and respect the principle of proportionality in all military operations so as to prevent unnecessary suffering among the civilian population. "Indiscriminate shelling of cities constitutes a foreseeable and unacceptable targeting of civilians", she said. "Similarly, the bombardment of sites with alleged military significance, but resulting invariably in the killing of innocent civilians, is unjustifiable".
"International humanitarian law is clear on the supreme obligation to protect civilians during hostilities", the High Commissioner said. "This obligation is also expressed in international criminal law, which defines war crimes and crimes against humanity".
"International law demands accountability. The scale of the killings in the region, and their predictability, could engage the personal criminal responsibility of those involved, particularly those in a position of command and control".
Everybody get a grip. Now listen to me carefully: Whenever you hear someone talking about wars (with emphasis on the plural) in the Middle East, global terrorism, plots uncovered in the United States and Canada, porous borders, WMD, crazy dictators, and other manifestations of a world gone mad, just take a deep breath and remember that there is an important election in the United States in just a little over 100 days. We're getting ready to play another round of "Fear Factor."
Just to be clear, there are some very bad things going on in the world. If I were a Republican running for Congress in 2006, I would not want to be judged on my party's handling of the war in Iraq or the war in Afghanistan, Arab-Israeli relations, nuclear weapons proliferation, the hunt for Bin Laden, Darfur, energy costs, or much of anything else that doesn't lie safely in the future. I'd be running instead on how much worse things might still get--and I'd be hoping fear might affect voters' memory of how we got to this point.
Newt Gingrich is not running for office, but that hasn't stopped him from sounding like a candidate this week while campaigning for others. He's been saying similar things in many different places this week, but here's the core of his message: "The civilized world stands balanced between victory and defeat." Really? Look, I'm no fan of George W. Bush's foreign policy, but even I don't think he's taken us to the brink of an epochal defeat in just five years.
What's the meaning of this "crisis of civilization" claptrap? Well, it's a call to the ramparts. It's saber rattling. It's a warning that war is just around the corner.
No, wait. We're already in a war--"fighting the terrorists over there so we don't have to fight them over here," if I remember correctly.
I'd say there's still a lot of politically motivated fear-mongering going on, but there also seems to be some insanity circulating. And it's getting increasingly difficult to tell the two apart.
A second case in point: Last summer, Senator George Voinovich of Ohio urged President Bush to withdraw his nomination of John Bolton as the U.S. representative to the UN. Now, trying to explain in today's Washington Post why he intends to support Bolton when President Bush re-nominates him (as he must, having made a recess appointment last summer), Voinovich says, "I cannot imagine a worse message to send to the terrorists . . . than to drag out a possible renomination process or even replace the person our president has entrusted to lead our nation at the United Nations." Come again? Replacing a divisive and incompetent UN representative would be good for "the terrorists" in what way?
(Time out. No one who makes an argument that references "the terrorists" without specifying which terrorists should be taken seriously. Terrorism is a tactic, not an ideology. Those who use terrorist tactics have many different, and often incompatible, interests. Some terrorists might celebrate if John Bolton were replaced, especially if his successor were someone who believed that what we need in the world is more violent jihad, but the vast majority of terrorists in the world really don't care who represents the United States in the UN.)
Back to Senator Voinovich. If more evidence is needed that his views on this matter are not to be taken seriously, consider this statement from the opening paragraph of his essay: "Recently, despite our nation's best efforts, the world--and particularly the Middle East--has become a more dangerous and volatile place." Excuse me, Senator. Did you say "despite our nation's best efforts"? Which efforts are you thinking of? Perhaps an over-zealous staff member trying to protect your right flank changed your original "because of our nation's botched policies."
If my tone in this post sounds a little more exasperated than usual, there's a reason. One of the chief responsibilities of any government is to ensure the security of its citizens. Socialists and libertarians can agree on this point while disagreeing on every other possible function of government. Security is a state of mind--a sense of safety--that is affected both by the "facts on the ground" and by our perceptions of what is happening. Bombs falling around us create insecurity, but so does the belief that an attack may be imminent.
A government may fail in its duty to ensure the security of its citizens by creating (or failing to prevent) conditions that are objectively dangerous, but (and this is often overlooked) it can also fail by generating unwarranted fears. When Newt Gingrich, out campaigning for Republican congressional candidates, urges President Bush to start talking about World War III; when President Bush himself uses that language (perhaps Newt wasn't listening); and when a prominent Republican senator says that we'll be doing "the terrorists" a favor if the Senate doesn't confirm John Bolton, fear is being manufactured. National security policy is being overturned in favor of politically expedient insecurity.
Wednesday, July 19, 2006
In a quiet village in upstate New York on this date in 1848, a revolution was born. Three hundred women and men gathered in Seneca Falls' Wesleyan Chapel for a two-day Women's Rights Convention, the first such meeting in history. Those present included Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the principal organizers of the event and the author of the Declaration of Sentiments, Frederick Douglass, Lucretia Mott and her husband James Mott, who presided over the meeting because none of the women present felt capable of doing so.
The Declaration of Sentiments adopted at the Convention (also known as the Seneca Falls Declaration) was modeled after the Declaration of Independence. A number of specific complaints were leveled against mankind, echoing the complaints made in 1776 against King George III:
The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.
He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise.
He has compelled her to submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice.
He has withheld from her rights which are given to the most ignorant and degraded men--both natives and foreigners.
Having deprived her of this first right of a citizen, the elective franchise, thereby leaving her without representation in the halls of legislation, he has oppressed her on all sides.
He has made her, if married, in the eye of the law, civilly dead.
He has taken from her all right in property, even to the wages she earns.
(For the remainder of the document, go here.)
By the time the Nineteenth Amendment guaranteeing women's suffrage was adopted in 1920, only one of the women who had signed the Seneca Falls Declaration was still alive. Nonetheless, the revolution begun on July 19-20, 1848, was instrumental in moving the United States and the world from a concern for the rights of man only to a concern for human rights.
The United States is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), but do the legal obligations imposed by the Covenant on the government of the United States extend beyond its borders? In particular, does Article 7, which states that "no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment," apply to Guantanamo, Bagram, Abu Ghraib, or other detention centers under United States control but outside the territory of the United States?
The United States argued before the United Nations Human Rights Committee on Monday that its obligations under the ICCPR do not apply extraterritorially. For an interesting discussion of this stance (and the Human Rights Committee's contrary position), see this post at Opinio Juris. (Be sure to read the comments.)
Tuesday, July 18, 2006
- How many treaties have been defeated by the Senate?
- How many treaties have been defeated by the Senate since World War II?
- What was the last treaty to be defeated by the Senate?
(Treaties that remain on the calendar of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee do not count.)
Answers are posted in the comments.
And, by the way, Holt's book is available online at Questia.
This post by Peter Howard--perhaps too lucid for publication in the op-ed pages of a major newspaper--provides some very useful historical perspective on the current conflict in Lebanon. Howard writes, "The situation today has many echoes of the past. This is Israel's fifth major military incursion into Lebanon--1978, 1982, 1993, 1996, and now 2006--to stop a non-state terrorist organization resident in Lebanon from launching attacks against Israel." But, Howard notes, there are some significant differences between the current conflict and its historical antecedents. Read the commentary to learn more.
Meanwhile, Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert has explicitly blamed Iran for the timing of the incident--the capture of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah--that prompted Israel's attack on Lebanon. And British prime minister Tony Blair has accused Iran of supplying the same weapons to insurgents in Iraq that it has supplied to Hezbollah for its war with Israel.
Thank goodness that Howard reminds us that each of the prior Israeli interventions in Lebanon "had deep connections to wider regional issues and brought fears of regional escalation." But wait. He goes on to note that "only US-led international intervention prevented that nightmare."
There is definitely a chance of regional escalation at present. It may be time for some decision-makers to go back and read the late Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August, as President Kennedy did during the Cuban missile crisis. Ambassador Chester Bowles, who urged Soviet ambassador Anatoliy Dobrynin to read Tuchman's book, summarized its message in a memorandum to President Kennedy dated October 13, 1962: "In July 1914, men of intelligence in Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary, France and England, all quite conscious of the forces which were feeding the approaching holocaust, found themselves enmeshed in internal pressures, commitments and precedents which left them powerless to avoid the inevitable." He added, "It would be the greatest folly in history if we were to repeat this insane process in the nuclear age."
Monday, July 17, 2006
Lebanon is bearing the brunt of the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah. Here are just a few notes regarding the situation in Lebanon:
- Kofi Annan and Tony Blair have recommended that an international force be deployed along the border of Israel and Lebanon; the Israelis have rejected the suggestion.
- The UN is warning of a humanitarian crisis in Lebanon as refugees trying to escape areas of Israeli bombardment find escape routes blocked by destroyed roads and bridges.
- Many Americans are getting frustrated with the apparent inability of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut to provide assistance. According to a notice posted on the embassy web site today, the embassy is still "finalizing details" for the evacuation of Americans from Lebanon--four days after Beirut International Airport and the Port of Beirut were closed.
- The Canadian government is also being criticized in the aftermath of the deaths of six Canadians in southern Lebanon.
- Meanwhile, the British government has dispatched six warships to Lebanon to undertake "the biggest evacuation since Dunkirk."
- The American University of Beirut has suspended classes "until further notice."
[Update--7/18/06: The United States is beginning to pull it evacuation operation together.]
Saturday, July 15, 2006
Since we're dealing with world sports tonight--not the Israeli-Hezbollah war, the Iraq war, the G8 meeting, Guantanamo, NSA spying, military tribunals after Hamdan, genocide in Darfur, climate change, rising oil prices, etc., etc.--please allow me to return briefly to l'affaire Zidane.
Over at this British site, we learn that "the Materazzi-felling incident was provoked not by references to Zidane's mother and his Algerian ancestry, but rather the suggestion that Italian wine may be of equal, or superior, quality to its French equivalent." More importantly, we learn that the incident looked very different to viewers of different nationalities. (Be sure to scroll down far enough see how Zidane may have actually save Materazzi's life.)
[Via FP Passport.]
Soccer is not the only sport that excites millions of people around the world while leaving many Americans baffled. Some day I'd like to be able to read and understand stories in the British press like this one.
For those who choose not to click through, here's a brief sample of what I'm talking about:
Yesterday, [Pakistan's Mohammad Yousuf] was not fluent throughout but showed patience waiting for the muse to strike. In the morning, when Liam Plunkett, in particular, and Steve Harmison were straying to leg, Yousuf contented himself by clipping and nudging rather than reaching for the rapier.
Never the less, he put 15 deliveries to the boundary in the 208 minutes it took him to reach his century, none more pleasing than the cover drive with which he despatched a rare off-side ball from Plunkett.
Friday, July 14, 2006
E. J. Dionne Jr. argues in today's Washington Post that the real reason for the invasion of Iraq was what he calls the Big Bang Theory. The United States ousted Saddam Hussein to shake things up in the Middle East.
Things have certainly been shaken up, but without the results that the Bush administration hoped to achieve. Dionne writes:
The case for reducing our commitment to Iraq in the interest of other and larger foreign policy purposes--has anyone noticed the growing mess in Afghanistan?--is built on a compelling proposition: that the administration made a huge bet on Iraq and it lost. American voters can decide to keep the gamble going, to risk more lives and money, and hope that something turns up. Or they can decide that this gamble will never deliver the winnings that those who took it on our behalf promised.
By late November of this year, the United States will have been at war in Iraq for as long as we were involved in World War II. Under those circumstances, the burden of proof should not be on those who argue for changing what we're doing. It should be on those who set a failed policy in motion and keep promising, despite the evidence, that it will somehow pay off if only we "stay the course."
Thursday, July 13, 2006
So much for the restoration of American integrity.
When is a bilateral treaty that only one party has ratified binding? Apparently whenever it involves the the U.S.-U.K. "special relationship." In reality, it's not that simple, but Tony Blair's critics are justifiably angry over what appear to be some unilateral obligations that have been imposed by a post-9/11 bilateral extradition treaty with the United States.
The current controversy involves the NatWest Three--three British bankers who were put on a plane this morning to Houston, Texas to face charges related to the collapse of Enron. Extradition of the three is occurring pursuant to a U.S.-U.K. extradition treaty negotiated in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Although the treaty's terms are very favorable to American interests (allowing, for example, different evidentiary standards for the United States and the United Kingdom to gain extradition), the United States has not yet ratified the agreement.
Why did the British feel compelled to extradite suspects to the United States in the absence of American ratification of the extradition treaty? I welcome amendments or corrections from readers who know more about this situation than I do, but it appears that the British government is acting under a statutory (i.e., domestic law) obligation adopted in anticipation of the treaty's entry into force. Unlike the United States, the United Kingdom treats all international agreements as non-self-executing. In other words, implementing legislation must always be enacted in order to give effect to treaties within the British legal system. (In the United States, whether a treaty is self-executing--and therefore a direct source of justiciable rights and obligations--or non-self-executing depends on the wording of the treaty itself.)
Ordinarily, the required implementing legislation would be enacted by the British government pursuant to (or perhaps subject to) the entry into force of the treaty. In this case, perhaps due to Blair's interest in ingratiating himself with President Bush, the House of Commons adopted implementing legislation without waiting for U.S. Senate action on the treaty. Now, as a consequence, the U.K. bears all of the obligations of the treaty while the United States bears none of them.
Needless to say, this situation has made many Britons unhappy with both the British and the American governments. The Guardian reports that "the government is sending Baroness Scotland, the Home Office Minister in the House of Lords, to Washington to deliver the message that Senate ratification of the treaty is now essential." Somehow I rather doubt that the United States Senate will feel the same sense of urgency regarding this matter that the Blair government feels.
Wednesday, July 12, 2006
Good non-fiction books generally offer a succession of interesting details in the course of developing an argument that stretches from beginning to end. Facts, anecdotes, and descriptions presented in the space of no more than a few lines sustain the reader as he or she pursues a thesis that requires tens of thousands of words to articulate and defend.
James Carroll is, in my view, a wonderful writer in part because he attends to details. One such detail in House of War, which I find interesting because it links a favorite Los Angeles summertime venue with the subject of Carroll’s book, is this: The lead architect of the Pentagon, G. Edwin Bergstrom, also designed the Hollywood Bowl. (For an early architectural drawing of the Pentagon, go here.)
Incidentally, Carroll makes much of convergences in House of War. He notes, for example, that ground was broken for the Pentagon on September 11, 1941, sixty years--almost to the minute--before American Airlines flight 77 crashed into the west side of the building.
The century is a common unit of measure when thinking historically, although it had never really occurred to me to ask why until I read this passage recently in Diarmaid McCulloch’s The Reformation: A History (p. 474):
The centenary of Martin Luther’s first declaration of rebellion in Wittenberg approached in 1617. Lutheran historians greatly encouraged the idea that such patterns of years were important. Indeed, the scholars nicknamed the Centuriators of Magdeburg, led by that ultimate Gnesio-Lutheran Flacius Illyricus [Matthias Vlacich], had more or less invented the century as a significant unit of historical measurement. The celebrations of the anniversary mounted as the outlook for Protestantism seemed ever more uncertain.
(Incidentally, I can clear up a couple of points from the passage above: The Gnesio-Lutherans were so-called because they considered themselves absolutely faithful to Luther’s teachings--gnesio is Greek for "the real thing"--unlike the "Philippists," or followers of Philipp Melanchthon. The Centuriators of Magdeburg were the authors of a multi-volume history of the Christian church; their account was broken down by centuries.)
Be that as it may, I’ve learned from reading Karen Armstrong’s The Battle for God that 2006 is a religiously significant centennial. (Had I been reading the Los Angeles Times more carefully back in April I could have picked up this bit of information somewhat earlier.) Pentecostalism was born in 1906 in Los Angeles when a group led by William Joseph Seymour had an experience of the Holy Spirit similar to that experienced by Christ’s apostles on Pentecost. Word (or perhaps I should say "ecstatic utterance") spread quickly and people flocked to Seymour’s services so that the congregation was forced to move from the home where it had been meeting to an abandoned building on Azusa Street in downtown Los Angeles (about three blocks from the present-day City Hall). Within four years, there were Pentecostal churches all over the United States and in fifty other countries.
Reporting on the "Azusa Street Revival" in April 1906, the Los Angeles Daily Times stated:
Breathing strange utterances and mouthing a creed which it would seem no sane mortal could understand, the newest religious sect has started in Los Angeles. Meetings are held in a tumble-down shack on Azusa Street near San Pedro [Street], and devotees of the weird doctrine practice the most fanatical rites, preach the wildest theories, and work themselves into a state of mad excitement in their peculiar zeal. Colored people and a sprinkling of whites compose the congregation, and night is made hideous in the neighborhood by the howlings of the worshippers who spend hours swaying back and forth in nerve-racking attitude of prayer and supplication. They claim to have the gift of tongues and to be able to comprehend the babble. Such a startling claim has never yet been made by any company of fanatics even in Los Angeles, the home of almost numberless creeds.
Armstrong fits this development into her general perspective on the rise of fundamentalisms in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. She writes (p. 181):
Pentecostalism took hold at a time when people were beginning to have doubts about science, and when religious people were becoming uncomfortably aware that a reliance upon reason alone had worrying implications for faith, which had traditionally depended on the more intuitive, imaginative, and aesthetic mental disciplines. While fundamentalists were trying to make their Bible-based religion entirely reasonable and scientific, Pentecostalists were returning to the core of religiousness, defined by [Harvey] Cox as "that largely unprocessed nucleus of the psyche in which the unending struggle for a sense of purpose and significance goes on." Where fundamentalists, by identifying faith with rationally proven dogma, were confining the religious experience to the outermost cerebral rim of the mind, Pentecostalists were delving back into the unconscious source of mythology and religiousness. While fundamentalists stressed the importance of the Word and the literal, Pentecostalists bypassed conventional speech and tried to access the primal spirituality that lies beneath the credal formulations of a tradition. Where the modern ethos insisted that men and women focus pragmatically only upon this world, Pentecostalists demonstrated the human yearning for ecstasy and transcendence. The meteoric explosion of this form of faith showed that by no means everybody was enthralled by the scientific rationalism of modernity. This instinctive recoil from many of the shibboleths of modernity showed that many people felt that something was missing from the brave new world of the West.
But what does Pentecostalism have to do with international politics? First, Pentacostalism is a rapidly growing segment of Christianity, especially in the developing world. There may be as many as 500 million–yes, half a billion–Pentecostals in the world. To put it differently, up to a quarter of all the Christians in the world today are Pentecostals. Pentecostalism is a religious forced to be reckoned with.
Second, while Pentecostals have historically been focused on individual salvation and not social transformation, some are becoming more political, especially in the developing world. (Former attorney general John Ashcroft is one of the few Pentecostals to rise very high in the ranks of American politics.) Increasingly, Pentecostals are establishing non-governmental institutions to address health and social welfare concerns in their states. Although they are generally conservative with regard to personal morality and family issues, Pentecostals can be very progressive where social welfare issues are involved. In fact, Hugo Chavez has had significant support from Pentecostals in Venezuela (notwithstanding Pat Robertson's comments about him).
As a coda to the passage quoted above, Armstrong states, "We shall often find in our story that the religious behavior of people who have not been major beneficiaries of modernity articulates a strongly felt need for the spiritual, which is so often either excluded or marginalized in a secularist society." Those of us who have been "major beneficiaries of modernity" (witness the computer sitting in front of us at this very moment) invariably seem to have tremendous difficulty understanding those who haven't. It's not necessary--or even prudent--for us to accept the religious beliefs or the political ideologies or the military tactics of those who feel the modern world has passed them by, but we would do well to try to understand them if for no other reason than that they outnumber us.
The New York Times reports:
The White House conceded on Tuesday for the first time that terror suspects held by the United States had a right under international law to basic human and legal protections under the Geneva Conventions.
The statement reverses a position the White House had held since shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, and it represents a victory for those within the administration who argued that the United States’ refusal to extend Geneva protections to Qaeda prisoners was harming the country’s standing abroad.
It said the White House would withdraw a part of an executive order issued by President Bush in 2002 saying that terror suspects were not covered by the Geneva Conventions.
The White House said the change was in keeping with the Supreme Court decision two weeks ago that struck down the military tribunals Mr. Bush established. A Defense Department memorandum made public earlier Tuesday concluded that the court decision also meant that terror suspects in military custody had legal rights under the Geneva Convention.
This is good news that represents a necessary step toward the restoration of American integrity. Recent history provided no reason to believe the Bush administration would reverse itself on this issue without a protracted struggle.
Monday, July 10, 2006
After what I said about soccer a couple of weeks ago, I probably need to explain this post. This is the back story concerning Il Mondiale (as the Italians call the World Cup). It's a story that brings politics and soccer together. But mainly it's an excuse for me to use the little bit of Italian I know.
Those who watched the Italy-France match yesterday will know that (1) Italy won the World Cup on penalty kicks and (2) France's star forward (and tournament MVP), Zinedine Zidane, was red-carded in the 110th minute for delivering a head-butt to the chest of Italian defender Marco Materazzi. The question circulating in the soccer world is, of course, what did Materazzi say to cause Zidane to lose his composure? Italy's La Repubblica is all over the story.
There are two leading (and not necessarily exclusive) theories: (1) Materazzi called Zidane, who was born in France but whose parents are from Algeria, a terrorist and/or (2) Materazzi called Zidane's sister a prostitute. Zidane has said that he will eventually reveal what Materazzi said. According to La Repubblica, Materazzi said, "Quello che ha fatto Zidane lo ha visto il mondo intero. Gli avrei detto terrorista? Ma dai, io sono ignorante." ("The whole world saw what Zidane did. Would I have called him a terrorist? You tell me. I don't know.") That doesn't sound much like a denial.
On a happier note, La Repubblica reports that Italian defender Marco Cannavaro slept with the Cup last night.
I suppose it's on to South Africa in 2010.
Friday, July 07, 2006
Thursday, July 06, 2006
Very early in my teaching career, I was asked to teach a two-semester survey of political theory. I was woefully unprepared for the task, which is probably why Clint Milner's frequently repeated question--What is justice?--invariably seemed to stymie rather than stimulate discussion. After a while, I came to believe that Clint might be using the question to side-track discussions when he hadn't done the assigned reading. And after a much longer while, I came to believe that if I had known what I was doing, I would have structured the entire class around that question. We all would have learned something important about politics and ethics--and Clint would have had to develop different diversionary tactics.
Thanks in part to Enlightenment egalitarianism and its influence on the founding principles of the United States, most people in the world today seem to believe that justice must be defined the same way for all. Some means of addressing inequality, in other words, is an essential component of justice. Few people are willing any more to argue the justice of slavery, monarchy, imperialism, or any other system that institutionalizes extreme inequality.
But what if God prefers one particular group of people over all others? Can those of us who believe in God simultaneously believe that "all men and women are created equal"? (Here I quote from the Seneca Falls Declaration of 1848, which in some important respects improved on Jefferson’s wording in the Declaration of Independence.) Can we believe in universal human rights? Can we believe that international law of every sort applies equally to weak states and superpowers, to Christians and Muslims, to secular governments and theocratic regimes? Or must we accept that the rules for those who enjoy God's favor differ from the rules for those who don't?
I happen to believe that God does not prefer one group of people over another. In fact, I believe that a god of partiality would be a deity with serious limitations, not the God Almighty I was taught to believe in. The most ancient Christian creeds assert the existence of an all-powerful God--Credo in unum Deum, Patrem omnipotentem--and that, it seems to me, argues strongly against believing that God might take sides with one part of Creation against another.
But Scripture is unequivocal in asserting a special relationship between God and the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Jews, in fact, are identified in Scripture as God's "Chosen People."
Perhaps this reveals a contradiction in my religious beliefs, but I don't think so. There are ways to understand what it meant for the Jews to be "chosen" by God while also believing what the apostle Peter preached, that "God is no respecter of persons." But because my point is more political than theological, I will skip the Bible lesson and cut straight to the take-home message: The claim that some Americans have made throughout our history and continue to make today that the United States is a "chosen nation" is a dangerous delusion.
My colleague Richard Hughes, in an outstanding book called Myths America Lives By, writes (p. 19), "Among the most powerful and persistent of all the myths that Americans invoke about themselves is the myth that America is a chosen nation and that its citizens constitute a chosen people." It's a myth, as Hughes points out, that was brought over on the Mayflower. Indeed, during the colonial period of our history, the belief was particularly strong among the religious refugees who settled New England. (Think of the biblical place names like Salem, New Canaan, and Providence that are scattered across New England.) Today the belief is strongest in the South, according to Kevin Phillips, but as many political scientists, historians, and sociologists have noted, the belief is widespread.
Why is it a dangerous delusion? For one thing, it ignores the history of other nations that have believed themselves to be divinely blessed. Phillips reminds us of a couple of these in American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century. He writes (p. 125):
For centuries Americans have believed themselves special, a people and a nation chosen by God to play a unique and even redemptive role in the world. Elected leaders tend to proselytize and promote this exceptionalism--presidential inaugural addresses are a frequent venue--without appending the necessary historical cautions. Previous nations whose leaders and people believed much the same thing wound up deeply disillusioned, as when Spanish armadas were destroyed while flying holy banners at their mastheads, and when World War I German belt buckles proclaiming "Gott Mit Uns" became objects of derision in the Kaiser's defeated army.
My more immediate concern with the religious version of American exceptionalism is that it commonly leads to the belief that the rules don't apply to us. As Elwood said to Jake in The Blues Brothers, "They're not gonna catch us. We're on a mission from God." Only in the present circumstances, it's not a matter of evading arrest so much as it is trying to establish an a priori case that we have a right to operate beyond the reach of the law. Perhaps a line from John Adams would more plainly articulate the problem than a line of movie dialogue uttered by Dan Aykroyd.
In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, Adams wrote,
Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God's service when it is violating all His laws. Our passions, ambitions, avarice, love and resentment, etc., possess so much metaphysical subtlety and so much overpowering eloquence that they insinuate themselves into the understanding and the conscience and convert both to their party.
What, you may well ask, brought on this unusually long post about religion and politics? It was an item in the New York Times yesterday. A mega-church in Memphis, Tennessee unveiled a statue on its property. Of course, non-denominational mega-churches like this one--the World Overcomers Outreach Ministries Church--tend to be evangelical and evangelicals don't generally erect statues of saints. Nor do they tend to have icons of any sort. So what might their statue depict?
It's the Statue of Liberty with Lady Liberty holding the Ten Commandments and, in her right hand, a cross where the torch would ordinarily be. The converted Lady Liberty stands seventy-two feet tall and is called the Statue of Liberation Through Christ. As for its meaning, the Apostle Alton R. Williams (no relation) summed it up in the title of a pamphlet he published: "The Meaning of the Statue of Liberation Through Christ: Reconnecting Patriotism With Christianity."
I don't think we really want to reconnect patriotism with Christianity. It's far too easy to give our leaders a pass if we believe that somehow they're doing God's work. We need instead to recall that even the rulers of ancient Israel, the state that embodied the original "Chosen People," were constantly chastised by the prophets. Prophetic witness that points out injustice wherever it exists--that is what we should expect from churches that want to "reconnect" with the state.
* * *
"We're on a mission from God."
It was funny when Elwood said it to Jake in The Blues Brothers. It's not so funny when people think it's true of their own country.
Wednesday, July 05, 2006
I don't often get e-mail from Stalin's hometown--in fact, it had never happened before yesterday--but I'm hoping it will happen from time to time over the course of the next year now that recent grad Heidi Laki has written to report that she's enjoying wonderful Georgian hospitality as she begins her Peace Corps assignment in Gori.
Meanwhile, Georgia's president, Mikhail Saakashvili, met with President Bush today in Washington. It was the third time the two have met in the last two years. Why is George Bush singing "Georgia on My Mind" these days? It probably has something to do with oil pipelines and the upcoming G-8 meeting in Russia.
It's interesting to see (thanks to a post here) that E. J. Dionne Jr. , writing in yesterday's Washington Post, was also thinking about the connection between July the Fourth and Vaclav Havel's February 1990 speech before a joint session of Congress.
Tuesday, July 04, 2006
Perhaps yesterday’s idealist post should be balanced by a bit of realism. After all, American independence could not have been secured without a healthy respect for the role of power in promoting Jefferson’s aspirations. A few people back in England might have been moved by the soaring rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence, but most probably shared the view of Samuel Johnson, who in 1775 had written, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?”
At the same time the Second Continental Congress commissioned Jefferson and four colleagues to draft a declaration of independence, it set about the practical work of seeking an alliance that would make it possible to achieve independence. Fortunately, French and American interests coincided–not because the French monarchy was interested in promoting liberté, fraternité, and egalité but because France and England were, of course, bitter rivals.
The following excerpts from a memorandum of the French Foreign Ministry clearly articulate France’s interest in the American struggle for independence. The memorandum is dated January 13, 1778. Approximately three weeks later, France signed a treaty of alliance with the United States.
The advantages which will result [from American independence] are innumerable; we shall humiliate our natural enemy, a perfidious enemy who never knows how to respect either treaties or the right of nations; we shall divert to our profit one of the principal sources of her opulence; we shall shake her power, and reduce her to her real value; we shall extend our commerce, our shipping, our fisheries; we shall ensure the possession of our islands, and finally, we shall re-establish our reputation, and shall resume amongst the Powers of Europe the place which belongs to us. There would be no end if we wished to detail all these points; it is sufficient to indicate them in order to make their importance felt.
. . .
The independence of the Colonies is so important a matter for France, that no other should weaken it, and France must do her utmost to establish it, even if it should cost her some sacrifices; I mean that France must undertake the war for the maintenance of American independence, even if that war should be in other respect disadvantageous. In order to be convinced of this truth, it is only necessary to picture to ourselves what England will be, when she no longer has America.
[Source: Norman A. Graebner, ed., Ideas and Diplomacy: Readings in the Intellectual Tradition of American Foreign Policy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), 27-30.]
Monday, July 03, 2006
Those of us who worry when the United States fails to live up to its own ideals--by torturing or "disappearing" detainees, by failing to control the corrupting influence of money in politics, by denying many of its own citizens equality of opportunity, by turning a blind eye to genocide, and so on--should consider the possibility that Thomas Jefferson is the ultimate source of our dissatisfaction. Jefferson, after all, penned the words that established the ideals that provide the standard against which we judge our country's behavior.
Jefferson might have written a declaration that established as the justification for American independence the insufferability of George III and his colonial administration. He might have, in other words, listed the problems Americans had with British rule (as, in fact, he did) and left it at that. Or he might have made a realist case for independence--one based on the incompatibility of British and American interests and on the prospects for achieving American aims via power politics. He might have found a formula that would have convinced his colleagues to pledge their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to the cause of independence without making grandiose promises concerning the new republic's commitment to such lofty ideals as equality and the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
But Jefferson and his co-revolutionaries based their claim to autonomy on a set of high ideals, ones that they believed would have universal appeal by virtue of their foundation in immutable truths. Those of us who celebrate the Fourth of July have bought into Jefferson's idealism. If not, we have misunderstood what the Declaration of Independence is all about.
The Declaration of Independence accomplished the very practical matter of establishing the stakes of war with Great Britain. (As Benjamin Franklin said after the document had been signed, "Now we must all hang together or assuredly we shall all hang separately.") But more than that, it placed a marker with respect to liberty and equality so far beyond the reality of 1776 that we still haven't reached it. Indeed, Vaclav Havel, while addressing a joint session of Congress, reminded Americans that we, like many newer republics, are only approaching democracy.
As James Carroll notes in an excellent column concerning Independence Day, "to be an American traditionalist . . . is to affirm the revolution." I would add that to affirm the revolution is also to recognize that we still have much to do in our effort to live up to the ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.
Sunday, July 02, 2006
Saturday, July 01, 2006
It was a long way to go for Japan's prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, to make a political point, but there he was and he nailed it.
At Graceland yesterday, Koizumi, who shares Elvis's January 8 birthday and is a huge fan of the King, broke into song. President Bush was no doubt expecting as much. What he probably wasn't expecting was one of the lyrics Koizumi chose to sing: "Wise men say, 'Only fools rush in.'"