Rants and Raves

Opinion, commentary, reviews of books, movies, cultural trends, and raising kids in this day and age.

Monday, December 31, 2007

My Take on the Cold War

This article originally appeared in the January, 2002 issue of Liberty magazine http://libertyunbound.com/archive/2002_01/browne-cold_war.html, then edited by the late R.W. Bradford. I'm reprinting it here to give some context to my views on foreign policy. This version differs in minor respects from the original in points where I prefer my original wording to the published version, or where my writing just wasn't clear enough. (It was 15 years ago after all, I got better.)

New Perspectives on the Cold War

by Stephen Browne

The Soviet Union never intended to leave us alone; their goal was always to conquer us. Our intelligence capability, as misused as it sometimes was, was a major factor in keeping the peace.

I first came to Poland in 1991. Since then I have lived and worked in Bulgaria and Yugoslavia and have traveled frequently in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Belarus. On the whole I've been happy in Eastern Europe; I've bought an apartment in downtown Warsaw, married, and fathered a child here.

Ever since I came to Poland, I've been consumed with the question of what the Cold War was all about and how we came to win it. And gentlemen, win it we did. Whatever Europeans say about America and Americans, justified or not, people everywhere I've been want to be as rich as Americans, as free as Americans, and as ballsy as Americans.

Some, of course, believe that the way to do this is to become American by emigration. But nowadays others dare to hope that an American standard of living — and standard of law — might someday be theirs in their own homelands. Not anytime soon, to be sure, but the phenomenal changes in the last ten years have already made much of Eastern Europe quite a pleasant place to live.

So what was the Cold War all about and how did we come to win it? The place to find an answer to this question is to determine what we know for sure, what we can reasonably suppose from the available evidence, and what the most plausible speculations are based on the first two categories.

What we know to a fair degree of certainty is coming to light through such sources available in English as the Venona Transcripts, the Mitrokhin Archives, and the testimony of high-ranking defectors such as Col. Kuklinski of the Polish army General Staff. More are becoming available as new sources are declassified or translated from Eastern European sources and as former mid- to high-level personnel of the old Soviet hegemony publish their personal memoirs.

Let me be clear that I am not a "spook." But I have known some spooks, both American and European. I have met them in bars around Eastern Europe, I have worked with some, and, as it happens, I knew the intelligence officer of the American Embassy in Bulgaria through a family connection. (Interestingly enough, I worked there with a Russian boy, an English teacher, who was almost certainly the son of his opposing number in the KGB.)

I also know an Englishwoman who is the widow of a Russian defector who worked in the KGB bureau SMERSH, from the Russian for "Death to Spies." ("James Bond's old enemies!" I said. "Oh yes," she replied "those dreadful Bond books.") She still has family contacts within the command structure of NATO. And there is of course my father-in-law, a former Major of the Tajna Kancelaria (Secret Chancellery) of the Polish army.

Which questions from the last half-century can be said to be settled? To begin with, Alger Hiss was guilty, the Rosenbergs were guilty, and J. Robert Oppenheimer's innocence is extremely dubious.

There is not the remotest possibility that the Soviets could have developed the atomic bomb when they did without receiving extensive and detailed reports about the progress of the Manhattan Project. The former head of the Soviet atomic bomb project has freely admitted this (as revealed in the excellent documentary The Red Bomb http://www.amazon.com/The-Red-Bomb/dp/B0008IWFUW).

The Warsaw Pact countries were in fact captive nations, not allies of the Soviet Union. Can there be any doubt of this after the events of 1989? The buffer states of a mighty empire turned their guns around to face the Soviets, once the Solidarity movement in Poland proved that the Soviet Union no longer had the ability or the will to project power into its satellite states.

I had the opportunity to ask a student of mine, a retired geologist who was a veteran of the Warsaw Uprising, whether the period of communist control was an occupation. "Well, something like one and in other ways not." Large Russian forces were based in the country, but they were kept in out-of-the-way areas so as not to antagonize the population — and so that the Russians did not get to mix with the local population and take home accounts of how much better life was in Poland than in Russia. Most young people in Warsaw told me that they had never seen a Russian soldier. Ironically, Poles now have far more contact with Russians than they ever had during the Soviet occupation because Russians are flooding into Poland to sell whatever they have for hard currency (the zloty!) and find what casual work they can.

Russian forces were withdrawing from Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe when I came to Poland, and the boxcar loads of soldiers in a railroad siding remains one of the most pitiful sights I have ever seen. The poor sods ripped everything they could out of buildings to take home to sell or use, even concrete pillars. Often all they left behind were toxic slums.

I remember an account of two Russian soldiers who were killed as they tried to salvage a live electrical cable. And I remember the report of a Russian officer who sat in a car outside a playground near his Red army base in the east of Poland, with a bottle of vodka and a rifle. When he was drunk enough he pointed the rifle out of the car window and shot a 10-year-old boy through the head. The Polish government could do nothing but grit its teeth and ask the Russians to get the murderer out of the country as soon as possible.

There is a story that the prime minister almost had to be physically restrained when the commander of the Russian forces in Poland showed up in his office and demanded a huge sum of money for "all the good things the Red army has done for Poland."

The intentions of the Soviet Union were always hostile. They had always planned to invade and conquer Western Europe when the time was right — that is, when necessity forced them to loot the West in order to support their crumbling system. The date set was 1983, according to my English friend. A Polish friend close to the military hierarchy guesses that it was to be around 1981. In any case all the estimates I've heard agree on the early '80s.

(Note: for those still skeptical about this, over the past two years the Polish government has been publishing the Warsaw Pact battle plans for the projected invasion. One of the last acts of the Soviet Union was to compell the Pact countries to sign agreements not to do this. The Russians are furious with the Poles. The Poles could give a crap.)

We can reasonably suppose that the invasion plan involved the Red army driving the forces of their Eastern European satrapies before them to bear the brunt of the assault, in much the same way that hopelessly underarmed Russian soldiers were driven into the German invaders with guns and the gulag waiting behind them if they retreated. (My English friend's husband was sent against the German army with only a rifle and three cartridges.)

We can also reasonably suppose that in case the soldiers retreated, the Soviets would have mined Eastern Europe with nukes to destroy the pursuing NATO forces. The Soviets would have regarded the poor lands of Eastern Europe as far more expendable than the rich lands of the West with the loot the Soviets desperately needed.

Poland is the flattest land between the Fulda Gap and the Urals, and thus the natural invasion corridor between East and West. One has to see Poland to appreciate this. In 1991, shortly after I arrived in Poland, I took a trip from Warsaw to Gdansk. Afterwards a Polish friend asked me, "How did you like your first trip across the Polish countryside?" "Lovely," I replied, "but a nightmare to defend!" He nodded thoughtfully and said, "You're not the first American to tell me that."

In the north of Poland, near the sea, there are woods and gently rolling hills that would make jolly tank country. They are not high or steep enough to impede armor, but they are high enough to play hide-and-seek from direct line-of-sight observation and good for camouflage against aerial observation. In central Poland around Warsaw (north of the mountains on the southern border that protect Poland from the marauding Czechs), the terrain is so flat that the only real hiding places for serious concentrations of armor are in the towns and cities. A conventional war in this area would have been disastrous enough, a nuclear war would not have left enough of Poland to resurrect itself again, as it has in the past.

The realization that, if a European war went nuclear, the Soviets had written off Poland was evidently a primary reason for the defection of Col. Kuklinski, who passed highly classified information to the United States for ten years before being extracted.

In America, one of his sons was killed in a hit-and-run accident in which the driver and car were never found, and the other disappeared while on a diving vacation with friends. His daughter is now living in hiding. The KGB still has a long arm. My father-in-law and many of his colleagues in the Polish military think Col. Kuklinski was a hero who did what they would have had they been in a position to do so.

My English colleague says that the Russian military was convinced that the West had been weakened by conscious agents, fellow travelers, and "useful idiots" from within, and that when the time came the Western powers would lack the will to resist the Soviets and the United States would be paralyzed by internal dissent.

What happened during the Vietnam war lends credence to this. The Russians could see that for a modest investment in small arms and ammunition, the Vietnamese could tie up U.S. forces far from a European theater and inflict huge expenses on the United States. All the presidential administrations during the war, both Democratic and Republican, played into the Soviets' hands by not only pursuing a war with murky goals, no exit strategy, and no practical justification, but by turning many of the United States' potential defenders against their country by conscripting them for such a war.

The leadership of the anti-war movement was hijacked very early by hard-line communists whose motivation was not a desire for peace, but hatred of America.

So how did the West win the Cold War? Of course, the whole Soviet bloc went broke in a big way and fell apart. But why didn't it invade Western Europe before it collapsed?

One source told me that, according to contacts in the highest circles of NATO, the Falkland Islands War was a crucial event in the West's victory; after the quick British victory over Argentina, the Soviet chief of staff stormed into a meeting of the Politburo and shouted something to the effect of, "You lied to us! You said the West was weak and unwilling to resist, and now one single nation has mounted an operation that I could not with all the forces at my command."

The result was that the Russians put off indefinitely their intended invasion of Western Europe while the Soviet system collapsed of its own inability to provide even the bare necessities of an industrial civilization.

I cannot vouch for this from direct sources, but I have from time to time asked the opinion of former American military officers, including one who maintains an active interest in the history of military logistics and materiel. Each seems to have his own favorite point at which the hinge of history turned, but the common agreement seems to be that, while American arms failed to secure decisive victories in protracted guerrilla wars, in the proxy wars fought in the Middle East, in which forces that the United States armed and trained met forces armed and trained by the Soviets, the U.S.-backed forces always won with minimal casualties.

The superiority of Western arms and technology quite obviously would have more than offset superior Soviet numbers along the European frontier.

I grew up on and around U.S. Navy bases. When I first came to Eastern Europe, I saw the military bases here and was shocked. When I saw the Polish army base in Modlin and was struck by how filthy the buildings were (even the bakery!) and how overgrown with rank grass and weeds the grounds were, breeding a loathsome concentration of mosquitoes. On a trip to Tallinn, Estonia, in the early '90s I passed a huge Russian army base surrounded by a high wall of badly laid brick and my first thought was, "How did such a small country come to have such a large prison?"

What I thought was that if U.S. military intelligence could have seen this, heads would have rolled, and if the U.S. taxpayers could have seen it, they could never have been talked into paying taxes for such a large military budget — no one would have believed that the Russian army was a serious threat.

Nevertheless, I am no longer the isolationist I once was. The Soviet threat was real and the Western world owes a debt of gratitude to the United States and the NATO allies who guarded the West until the threat subsided. The French deserve contempt for their refusal to participate in NATO even while they hid behind its lines. It is also my impression that the United States carried a bit more of the load than was its fair share, but maybe that's just me.

(Note: in retrospect, the West Europeans, and South Koreans for that matter, definitely got a free ride. And in giving it to them, we took their manhood from them, or rather they yielded it willingly - and they hate us for it.)

Funds for Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America was money well spent. Many Eastern Europeans have told me they got uncensored news and even learned English from them, though a Slovakian colleague wondered why they had not been a little more aggressive in their advocacy of liberty and done more in their efforts to educate people on the principles of a free society.

The seemingly senseless proxy wars supported by the United States seem to have had a beneficial effect, something I find disturbing. I am still convinced that Vietnam was the wrong war at the wrong time and in the wrong place. Military strategists from Sun Tsu to the present have all agreed that it is a capital mistake to allow the enemy to choose the time and place of battle.

But without a trial of arms in conventional wars the Soviets might never have had convincing proof of the inferiority of their arms and been tempted into a disastrous full-scale war in Europe.
I may not like these conclusions, but I cannot ignore them simply because they don't fit my personal likes and dislikes. I most definitely don't like America's ham-handed interventions in the affairs of countries of no real importance to our national interest.

The operative phrase is "important to our national interest." There is a kind of simple-minded isolationism floating around libertarian circles that favors having no military presence at all outside our borders and even abolishing the FBI and CIA.

This kind of isolationism assumes that if we left the Soviets alone they would leave us alone.

This we now know to be false. We know that the Soviet Union never intended to leave us alone; their goal was always to conquer us. Our intelligence capability, as misused as it sometimes was, was a major factor in keeping the peace — as was theirs. We were able to find out enough about their capabilities to counter them.

Yes, the government may have exaggerated the Soviet's capabilities for self-serving reasons. But would you rather they had underestimated them? And the Soviets were able to find out through their own intelligence enough about us to be reassured that we did not intend to annihilate them with a sneak attack.

I am still convinced that the struggle with communism was ultimately a battle of ideas and that the thing that won it was a superior idea. But we have to remind ourselves of what the enemies of freedom have never forgotten: An idea cannot be killed, but ideas reside in people's heads and people can be killed.

Free men need not only superior ideas, but the courage and force of arms to protect them.

Note: I had an interesting exchange with Bradford prior to publishing this. I asked, why was it necessary at all to go over this in a libertarian venue? This stuff is not new or original.

He answered with two words: Murray Rothbard.

Sunday, December 30, 2007


*Now THAT"S an Answer!

Go here http://www.breitbart.tv/?p=611 for Fred Thompson's answer to Michael Moore's challenge to debate health care.

Class act!

*I'm finishing a fascinating book, 'Hollywood Party' by Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley. I may review it - but it'll be difficult because it's so chock full of stuff that'll grab any old movie fan.

It's about "How Communism Seduced the American Film Industry in the 1930s and 1940s." The cast of characters that you're familiar with and movies that you've seen makes it gripping.

Among the sordid lot of commited communists, fellow travellers and gullible dupes (which some of whom, like Humphrey Bogart, had the brains and guts to realize and admit) two stand out for sheer heroism.

One is a now-unknown labor leader Roy Brewer, a New Deal Democrat with socialist leanings.

The other is Ronald Reagan. (Who by the way, remains the only union leader America has ever elected President.)

A few salient facts that deserve to be remembered stand out:

1) the Communist Party USA was not a native American expression of communism, but a wholly owned - and funded, branch of the Comintern that followed it's directives to the letter, even when the American party could have told them that their directives were counter-productive.

2) The House Committee on Un-American Activities, amidst all the publicity-seeking foofraw was actually asking some legitimate questions. Among them; in a conflict with the Soviet Union, which side would you be on?

3) Nobody's life was "ruined" by the House investigations. Those writers who were blacklisted (by the studios - not the government by the way) never missed a paycheck. Many went abroad and wrote for Hollywood under different names - and paid little or no taxes on their earnings due to then-current regulations about working abroad.

Some actors fared worse, but it really seems like a question of not-overly-talented people who weren't worth the trouble they caused the studios. Many of them went back to the stage and returned to Hollywood when the heat died down.

4) The CPUSA was dangerous. As in ruin-your-career and bust-your-head dangerous.

I'm reading it with my computer on the Internet Movie Database (imdb.com).

*George Will has an article on Shelby Steele on Barack Obama well worth reading, here:

"America's foremost black intellectual has published a slender book about the most interesting presidential candidacy since 1980. Shelby Steele's characteristically subtle argument is ultimately unconvincing because he fundamentally misreads Barack Obama. Nevertheless, so fecund is Steele's mind, he illuminates the racial landscape that Obama might transform."

Interesting stuff - and yet I'm troubled. For one thing, I think Thomas Sowell is the foremost intellectual in America today, and he's black.

Secondly, why did he have to say, "America's foremost black intellectual "?

Yes, yes, I know he's making a point about race in America and citing Shelby Steele because he might know a thing or two about it. Obviously I'm making a point here. (And do read the article, it's interesting.)

My point is, every time we use a qualifier of race or sex ( I hate that term "gender") we are implicitly implying an inferior category.

Think of "female athlete."

No women compete with men in any major sport. They couldn't, so they have their own category.

Some may remember when a man who'd had a sex-change operation, Dr. Rene Richards, wanted to compete in a women's tennis tournament. Women players howled in protest. And quite rightly so. Dr. Richards still had the musculature of a man, in spite of all the cutting, chopping and rebuilding of his plumbing.

Point being, putting "female" before "athlete" clearly means, "can't compete on an equal footing with men."

So what does "black intellectual" mean? And what does the term say about the people who use it? (And no, I don't mean George Will in this case.)

Notice that you rarely hear "black athlete." If you do, it probably refers to historical time when sports were still segregated.

*In a similar vein, how do you describe a female friend?

Well you wouldn't generally, but what if (like with George Will) you want to refer to the opinion of a friend on a subject where her sex is relevant to the opinion, i.e. that it's a woman's opinion on a subject where it matters?

Woman friend? Awkward. Girlfriend? That implies a romantic relationship if you're male. Lady friend? Ambiguous. Female friend? Sounds too clinical.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

New Blog Feature: Uncomfortable Thoughts

In my post 'Can You Think?' http://rantsand.blogspot.com/2006/10/can-you-think.html

I asked the question:

How often have you, after examining the evidence reached a conclusion that was uncomfortable, unsettling or profoundly disturbing to you, i.e. reached a conclusion that you did not like?

We all have them, thoughts or speculations, that we'd rather not own up to in public. For the reason that we don't care to get labeled as holding an opinion that is only an expression of our darkest fears, not a firm conclusion. And perhaps because the idea is not yet fully fleshed-out in our minds. Or maybe because it's just a "What if...?" that we find disturbing.

Thomas Sowell went through this recently when he said in one of his Random Thoughts columns that he sometimes feared that our political processes had become so corrupt that the only thing that would save our country might be a military coup.

Of course, immediately bloggers who didn't like him said, "Thomas Sowell wants a military coup!"

We all know that there are things you can't say in America these days. And you all know what they are too. The career-wrecking things, the things that get you fired - or sued, if you say them at work. (Consider the recent furor over James Watson.)

And folks, every time I've made that observation in front of an audience I get heads nodding all around the room.

Yes, there are people who say them. Some have tenure, some may have "f^&* you" money (NOT a high salary, I mean the kind of money, free and liquid, that allows you to say "F^&* you" to the world) and some may have the right complexion or ethnicity to say certain things.

(Then there's Fred Reed who speaks his mind and damn the consequences - from Mexico. http://www.fredoneverything.net/)

So I'm introducing this new blog feature, Uncomfortable Thoughts wherein I'm going to indulge some speculations about notions that I only wonder if they may be true, partly true, or even not very likely but give me cold sweats when I think they might be true.

Am I going to give free reign to my thoughts and speculations?

In a word - no man, I got a family.

Yes I'm going to be cautious. I am aiming at an academic career after all.

What I'm going to do is to issue this disclaimer:

These are not firm opinions or ideology, these are speculations. I believe it is sometimes necessary to consider the unthinkable because if we don't consider them now, certain things may become inevitable.

The good news is that perhaps if we do consider the worst that can happen, they may turn out to be what David Brin calls "self-preventing prophecies."

Some things I have in mind for future posts:

What if establishing a real American Empire is our only realistic choice?

What if "democracy" really doesn't work and aristocracy or benign dictatorship is the only thing that will be stable and safe in the future?

What if the most likely consequence of industrial civilization is to destroy itself?

White guys, what if there really is a "superior" race - and it ain't us?

What if genetic engineering can produce a truly superior race, in fact a true "master race"?

What if we've reached the limits of (at least easy) scientific and technological progress and the future holds a downward-sloping asymptotic curve of progress?

Atheists, what if it turns out that though a few of us can function with teleological ethics, the vast majority of the human race really needs religious myth to function as moral actors?

And yes, Dr. Sowell, what if there really does come a time when a military coup is the only thing that will save America?

Thursday, December 27, 2007

From CHDR: Who Killed Ms Bhutto?

My friend Ali Alyami sent this email which I thought ought to have a wider circulation.

From: The Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia Washington, DC

The Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia calls on the Bush Administration and US Congress to initiate a prompt and unbiased international investigative tribunal to find out who was behind the barbaric assassination of former Pakistan Prime Minister, Benizar Bhutto, on Dec. 27, 2007. Ms. Bhutto was among the very few popular non-sectarian Muslim women who call for democratic reforms, for the eradication of the root causes of religious extremism as well as for the transformation of archaic intolerant Muslim institutions that teach hate against women, religious minorities and non-Muslims. The international community, especially democratic societies, must stand up and prevent victory for tyrannical Arab and Muslim regimes who opposed democratic reforms and liberation for women. Investigating the assassination of Bhutto could lead to findings that may prove embarrassing for Western democracies; but not to do so will only increase the power and threats of dangerous groups and the absolutist ruling elites who are determined to rule the world with the sword.

Ali H. Alyami, Ph. D.

Executive Director, The Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia

1050 17 St. NW Suite 1000Washington, DC 20036

Tel: (202) 558-5552; (202) 413-0084; Fax: (202) 536-5210

email: ali at cdhr.info cdhr.info


WINO part 2: I Read Atlas Shrugged

I guess some of you know that Atlas Shrugged is 50 now. Several magazines have noted the fact, with commentary on its cultural effect. Reviews in general have been at least guardedly favorable.

Atlas is the story of a near-future dystopia where the "men of the mind" go on strike and "stop the motor of the world."

Among libertarians of Objectivist leaning, including a lot of my friends and colleagues, there is an ongoing project to translate Atlas into as many languages as possible, thus ushering in the libertarian millenium. And now that there's a movie project in the works (again), with Brangelina interested in the main roles, they are wildly enthusiastic about what's going to happen once it's released.

Well, though I've occasionally lent a helping hand in arranging such things I'm less enthusiastic about the project than many of my friends.

To begin with, Atlas has sold more than 20 million copies in the US alone, and more than a hundred thousand each year. With recycled copies and pass around readership - that's a lot of readers.

However, anyone notice that there aren't 20 million-plus libertarians in the US?

To me this seems like an example of what I call the "World-changing Book" fallacy. People point to books such as Paine's Common Sense or Uncle Tom's Cabin as books that had enormous and sudden effects on society. ("So you're the little lady that wrote the book that started this great war" Lincoln famously remarked to Harriet Beecher Stowe.) But when you look closer at the history of the times, you find that the issues in question had been discussed for a long time before in a great many books and pamphlets before crystalizing around one significant work.

Atlas obviously has a profound effect on quite a few people. Some polls have it in second to the Bible in books that have had the most influence on readers' lives - but being bowled over by Atlas evidently doesn't automatically make one into a libertarian or objectivist.

I had a conversation with an English libertarian once, where I told him that I'd introduced Eric Hoffer's The True Believer to a Polish academic who wanted to translate it.

He replied that Atlas Shrugged was far more important because, "Hoffer defines the problem but Atlas Shrugged tells what to do about it."

What's that? Atlas is a fantasy about every single creative individual in the country going off to a remote valley (except for one who becomes a pirate) and.. what? Being free together? Is there a single realistic, concrete proposal in the book?

Well yes, one. In Galt's Gulch a famous jurist is rewriting the Constitution in a rather cavalier fashion, inserting a new amendment into the Bill of Rights, "Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of production and trade" thus sweeping aside any consideration of serious moral and legal issues such as: trading with the enemy during wartime, trading for goods produced by slave labor, transferring crucial technology to a hostile power etc.

I could go into lots more depth, but let me summarize the remarks I made to some university classes in Minsk.

I've got a bud Jarolslav Romanchuk, who's the vice-president of the major opposition party in Belarus, a member of a few free-market think tanks and partner in our Language of Liberty project in Eastern Europe. He's also a staunch Objectivist and was involved in the translation of Atlas into Russian.

On a trip to Minsk (for among other reasons, to convey some cash donated for the relief of familes of imprisoned dissidents) my bud told me he'd arranged for me to speak on the subject of Ayn Rand at the European Humanities University. (Now alas, shut down by the Lukashenka regime and relocated to Vilnius, Lithuania.)

I said, "I haven't read Rand in years."

He said, "Say something about Rand."

To my surprise, I did have something to say about Rand. (Fortunately I have a gift for extemporaneous speaking. Those of us of Irish origin have a name for it. Sounds like 'baloney'.)

Also to my surprise, I was invited back to repeat the substance of my remarks to two other classes.

I began by asking the classes if they'd like to 1) go to America, and 2) be a writer. All agreed they'd like to go to America. Many agreed they'd like to be writers - somewhat hesitantly as is often the case. Many more dream of writing than ever attempt it.

Then I asked them how they'd like to try becoming a writer in a language not their own.

That's a daunting idea that very few are even willing to consider. Joseph Conrad (born Józef Korzeniowski) did, but how many others can you name?

(My wife, also a native Polish speaker, speaks English fluently enough to work as an English copy editor correcting the manuscripts of native speakers (!!!) but still has to have her own English composition carefully checked.)

This is an incredible accomplishment. Recently I opened Atlas again and read the first page. Rand's mastery of English and power of description reached out grabbed me all over again.

However, taken literally the central premise of Atlas just doesn't work for me.

As anybody who's seen the marvelous series Connections by James Burke (http://www.k-web.org/) could tell, the progress of civilization is not the work of a few lonely and persecuted geniuses draging humanity kicking and screaming into the future - though it flatters the vanity of intellectuals to think so.

Progress is the result of the cumulative effort of a great many people, most of them obscure.

But Atlas works very well for me as allegory.

For people to innovate, they must be free to think for themselves. What happens when repression makes men afraid to speak their minds? We can of course all be free in the privacy of our own thoughts, die gedanken sind frei.

But what happens when men become afraid of the thought crossing their faces? When they dare not even think certain things because they cannot keep them from showing in their faces or slipping off their tongues?

Could it be that the mind shuts down? That in effect, the mind goes on strike?

Could it be that something like this is going on in our universities in the social sciences and humanities?

Over the past 50 years Atlas has obviously had a profound impact on our culture. It was really the first to articulate a moral, as opposed to utilitarian defense of the free market. It came along at a very conformist time and told people they had a right to live for themselves.

But... the effect has not been an unmixed blessing. And that is the subject for another post.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas!

Random thoughts on Christmas:

*Opening presents with the kids, at an hour we'd rather be still in bed, after playing Santa Claus till late. Is there any feeling, any mood, quite like this? I've been the kid of course, and I've seen other families do it. But when it's your kids it's... the same but different.

*I remember a long period when I pretty actively didn't like Christmas. I used to say it was the commercialization, and that's no doubt partly true, but in retrospect I think it was that I didn't have a family of my own that it felt good with.

I really started to enjoy Christmas again when I went to Poland and lived with a Polish family: mother, daughter and granddaughter. (Only the daughter spoke any English at all, so I started to pick up Polish right off.)

The first years after the fall of communism, there were consumer goods available but money was still awfully tight so people would give each other a Christmas-wrapped can of beer or shaving foam.

It was so touching and so unaffected that it made Christmas a happy time for me again.

*Years ago I got the impression that quite a few people in this country really don't like Chirstmas. Once in an Anthropology class when we were discussing holidays, I barked "Quick! Everyone who doesn't like Christmas raise your hand."

Fully half the hands in class went up.

I think it's the pressure of "Who do I buy a gift for and who do I send cards to and oh my God what if they do and I don't?"

My advice - relax. Enjoy.

*We've had the annual attack of the Christmas grinches of course. You know, the nativity-scenes-are-unconstitutional crowd. Seems not to have been so prominent this year though, perhaps it has finally gotten through to them that they are really pissing people off.

Of course, that was their intent all along, to be noticed. But people who try to get noticed by irritating other people eventually have that experience when it dawns on them that they've really pissed everybody off at them...

*Something called the Philadelphia Freethinkers Society has promoted a "tree of knowledge", a Christmas tree decorated with books.

It's awfully silly, but a lot nicer than raining on everyone else's parade - and I always loved books for Christmas.

*I've said before, what strikes me about militant atheists such as Hitchens et. al. is not that they don't believe in God, it's that they do believe, but they're mad at Him.

Central to this attitude is the complaint that God made Man, and condemned him to suffering. Some people take this personally.

I have some cool speculations about the universe and Man's place in it, which I'll share with you later, if you promise not to take them too seriously.

But since it's Christmas I will share this.

"God made Man in his own image, male and female created he him."

The only way this makes sense to me, the idea that we are in the image of God, is that we are self-aware beings. We can look at the universe and wonder. We can say "I exist!" No animal does this. Only we - like God.

Of course, the next realization is, "Someday I won't exist." That's the part we don't share with God.

That is the basic suffering that we can't avoid. We may not be born with congenital defects. We may escape violent death, maiming, war, pestilence etc - though that has only been likely in this corner of the world in this century. But we cannot escape this. All that we love will be taken from us eventually.

How could a compassionate creator do this to us? This is the charge hurled at God since we began to think in terms of a creator.

The obvious answer is - we are God's children, but like a good parent, he wants us to grow up. No one can reach maturity without experiencing reality with the freedom to make mistakes - and suffer the consequences.

Still, how could a just God condemn us to a suffering that he can have no personal experience of? Is this justice?

The answer in the Christian myth is, the incarnation. God put a piece of Himself in his creation to experience everything that happens in it - the joy, the pain, the exaltation, the horror.

So that when we shout our pain to God, He can say, "I know how you feel, but this too will pass."
Merry Christmas to all, and a Happy New Year.

*And please note that I am using "myth" in the ancient sense, not the modern usage of "not true."

Monday, December 24, 2007

A Drive in the Country - through a Blizzard

We just got back from a trip to North Dakota - through a blizzard.

We'd gone up because I got a job offer from a small town newspaper. It actually sounded pretty good. Not the best paid mind you, but congenial with good hours and a chance to sign on to a project of rebuilding a paper that had... perhaps seen better days. New editor, new policy, new attitude.

Well, this actually sounded like the most interesting offer I've had since I got invited to help start a new college in Poland. And I liked the attitude at the place. I check my email and found a reply to an application I'd submitted close to home - with a "yeah, get in line if you want to" kind of attitude that made me really appreciate the offer in the Valley.

I took the family up to see if my wife would like the place. We fell in love with it. It's a river valley on the great north plains. Travelling cross-country you probably wouldn't see it until you were right on top of it. Then you'd see the whole valley laid out below you. In the snow it's just beautiful.

So... during the interview a fellow stuck his head in the office and asked, "Did someone say they were looking for a house?"

House turned out to be a lovely cottage just blocks away, with a fenced yard, garage and basement big enough for a spare bedroom/playroom/martial arts class.

A few blocks in the other direction is a small state university whose director said, "Sure we need adjunct faculty!"

Rents are quite cheap, even by our present university housing standards, and prices for homes are - you wouldn't believe me. But I do know that the editor of the paper found one she liked and cut a check on the spot.

You read me right, she owned the house free and clear from day one.

We started back in kind of a hurry because the forecast said snow. First day we made good time even through a heavy fog. We got as far as Auburn, Nebraska and spent the night.

Next day we took off early, just as the snowflakes were beginning to fall. By 10 am we were in a serious snowstorm. We took it slow, passing lots of cars that had slid off the road into the drifts.

You wouldn't think that an ancient Honda Accord would do so well, but... it has front-wheel drive so the drive wheels are right under the engine.

We made it to Wichita by 4 pm and decided to check into a motel. Alas, there was no room at the inn. We decided to press on.

However, there was evidently a wreck on the Kansas Turnpike ahead of us, so instead we waited in a traffic jam for two-and-a-half hours.

During that time I wondered exactly how long should it take to shove a goddam wreck to one side? I was thinking of going up the line and asking for volunteers. Enough of us could have shoved even a semi off the road.

So after they let us off the turnpike we stopped for dinner. Waiting in line with all the other people who had the same idea, I talked to a fellow who'd just come from Oklahoma. He said that south of Wichita the roads were reasonably clear with patches of snow. So onward we pressed.

The rest of the trip went quicker, though between Braman and Ponca City (where my grandparents lived long ago) we saw one big hummer of a mobile home on its side, still attached to the pickup that was pulling it.

My family it turned out, had been frantic with worry. No need said I. We always travel with blankets, food and water. Plus candles, entrenching tool, winter clothes and boots and anything necessary to spend the night in the car. (One candle will keep the interior of the car at survivable temperature. See http://rantsand.blogspot.com/2006/12/man-and-nature-what-weve-forgotten.html)

So after all this I asked my wife, "You still want to live up here?"

"Sure, what's the problem?"

We like a place with lively weather.

PS We also found out that when you are out of your dialing area, cell phone batteries run down about twice as fast because they are constantly on roaming. You should take this into account as well when travelling in bad weather.

There is such a thing as a hand-cranked cell phone recharger, but they are said to be destructive of batteries.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Why I'm Not an Objectivist, part 1

Recently someone evidently mistook me for an Objectivist. A natural mistake, I do publish in Objectivist forums on occasion, respect the classcal tradition of Aristotle and the Greeks and hold that, yes Virginia, there is a reality out there that exists independently of the pictures of it inside our heads.

In my youth, I did indeed read Rand and was captivated by her vivid prose - and the permission she gave high school geeks like me to be different.

More to the point, she gave the OK to bright young guys and girls to live for themselves, when everyone else seemed to have plans for us that we were not consulted about.

But... identifying myself with her "movement" and adopting the label? No thanks.

Couple of reasons: first, the notion that you have to accept the philosophy as a whole - or not at all.


As in, Rand never made a mistake in her life? Never had an opinion that was open to disagreement? Never had tastes or preferences that were just tastes and preferences - rather than deep insights into the eternal nature of reality that all "rational" men must obviously hold?

And then there was that pronouncement in the official Objectivist rag about "Never call yourself an Objectivist (without official sanction of course). Call yourself a "student of Objectivism.""

The reaction of anyone with an ounce of spunk to that one might be phrased, "Take a hike bitch!"*

But, there wasn't a reaction of that sort among her followers. Because by that time it was becoming evident that this was less of a movement and more of a cult. With the breakup of the Rand circle over the Brandon affair, it was obvious.

So, does that invalidate the genuine insights Rand developed? Not necessarily. Alfred Korzybski was a bit of a nutty cultist with his notions of "General Semantics" saving the world - but GS went mainstream in universities and became the respectable study of Semantics.

Objectivism seems to have likewise been taken seriously by some actual philosophers who are developing it into a respectible school of thought in academic philosophy.

In the end, the best thing Rand did for her philosophy was to die and get out of its way.

So... vis a vis that bit about accepting the philosophy as a whole or not at all, this seemed as good an excuse as any to dust off this letter I wrote to an Objectivist who asked me to define what I did and didn't agree with about Objectivism:

Dear J,

Your question about what I disagree with about Ayn Rand’s philosophy and views deserves a far longer treatment than this brief letter, and to be fair I’d want to go into more detail about what I like about her as well. Your question really set me thinking and perhaps I’ll deal with it in greater detail when I have more time to think about it. In the meantime, here are some of my thoughts on the subject.

The best and fairest critique of Rand’s philosophy and fiction I’ve ever read was by astrophysicist and writer David Brin in the September 2000 issue of Liberty. I’ll quote one of the most important passages:

“…Objectivism, which begins by proposing that reality exists independent of its perception. This contrasts refreshingly against the subjective-relativism offered by today’s fashionable neo-leftist philosophers, who claim (in total ignorance of science) that “truth” can always be textually redefined by any observer – a truly pitiable, easily disproved, and essentially impotent way of looking at the world.

"So far, so good. Unfortunately, any fledgling alliance between Rand’s doctrine and actual science breaks down soon after that. For she further holds that objective reality is readily accessible by solitary individuals using words and logic alone. This proposition – rejected by nearly all modern scientists – is essentially a restatement of the Platonic worldview, a fundamental axiom of which is that the universe is made up of ideal essences or “values” (the term Rand preferred) that can be discovered, dispassionately examined, and objectively analyzed by those few bold minds who are able to finally free themselves from hoary assumptions of the past. Once freed, any truly rational individual must, by simply applying verbal reasoning, independently reach the same set of fundamental conclusions about life, justice and the universe. (Naturally, any mind that fails to do so must, by definition, not yet be free.)”

Well, already this is starting to get too deep for me, I’m not a philosopher. I have studied formal Logic and liked it very much (that and classical Rhetoric – if only there was a way to make a living at it!) but it’s not my field of expertise.

The way I see it from my limited knowledge, is that Rand seems to hold that it is possible to construct a single model that basically accounts for everything (as in the passage above). To me this seems to involve the old contradiction of the “class of all classes that includes itself”.

What a philosophical model is, is exactly that a model, i.e. an abstraction of reality containing the most important features necessary for the pragmatic task at hand. And like a kid’s model airplane it doesn’t contain every detail – one that did would be an airplane. A complete model of reality would have to be contained in a mind bigger than the universe, the mind of God in fact.

It would seem from this that in life we need to use not one, but a number of different models, each appropriate to the task we face at any given moment.

Interestingly, I met Barbara Branden in Athens years ago and liked her very much. However when making the above point, she didn’t see it. I don’t mean she disagreed, it’s that she didn’t see what I was talking about at all. I pointed to the Acropolis and said that we cannot know everything about it, past the geological structure of the hill and down to the quantum level. She maintained (actually, she interrupted) that someday we could. No, not according to modern physics.

An example I like to use (because I’m an Anthropologist): we know from gravesites that Neanderthal man had some kind of religious sentiment. They often buried their dead in a fetal position covered with red ocher. The symbolism seems obvious; the Earth is or mother and we return to Her when we die.

Obviously, in a scientific-literalist model this is patently false. Doris Browne is my mother and when I die I’m going to rot. We are not however dealing here with truth-functional statements but metaphors, perhaps even pre-scientific intuitions of something that is real and valid for human beings.

Is it a model that is likely to produce a scientific method and an industrial civilization? Probably not. Will it comfort individuals faced with the certain knowledge of their own extinction (and in the case of the Neanderthals, the extinction of their species!)? Likely so.

Furthermore, vis a vis Rand’s insistence that you took her philosophy whole or not at all; within a single model there is room for a lot of disagreement about specific points. This is true for every scientific model that I know of and I don’t see why a philosophical model should be any different. Nathaniel Branden pointed out once that her contention implies that she had never made an error in her thinking.

For a couple of specific examples on where I disagree with her; in The Virtue of Selfishness (I don’t have a copy to hand and can’t give a page reference, and I’m quoting from memory) she tossed off a remark about “…rational, (i.e. logical) thinking…”.

If I understand correctly, I have to disagree. Equating reason with logic is like saying “carpentry” is “hammer”. A hammer is a tool of carpentry (and other skills as well) as logic is a tool of reason. But logic is not the whole of reason nor is the strict application of formal logic always rational.

In Athens I was invited to give an example of this by a couple of our South American friends. I pointed out that to impugn the honesty of one’s opponent in an argument, rather than dealing solely with the argument, is an example of one of the oldest known of the informal fallacies of logic, the argumentum ad hominem (a favorite tactic of the Left, by the way). However, if you are making an important decision based on the urging of another individual, you’d be well advised to consider whether this person is known to be a liar or not!

Another is about a saying that Objectivists like to repeat (though I can’t recall if it is actually attributable to Rand) is, “Compassion for the guilty is treason to the innocent.” (Actually, this is a restatement of one attributed to Edmund Burke, “Kindness to the guilty is cruelty to the innocent,” a far more defensible proposition.)

This is both contemptible and cowardly. I see nothing impossible about dealing stern justice to the guilty while at the same time having an appreciation for the appalling circumstances of their lives that twisted their humanity into something scarcely recognizable as such. (Consider the horrible childhood of that moral monster Saddam Hussein.)

One can acknowledge that pity tears at you with claws even as you have to pull the trigger, it’s just horribly painful. (Furthermore, it can slow your reflexes in a critical moment.)

My favorite philosopher, Eric Hoffer remarked that all virtues can be corrupted to evil ends, except compassion.

Another issue is that of what we call duty. Objectivists I know reject this idea entirely. For me it’s perhaps a matter of definition more than actual disagreement though. Robert Heinlein said, “Never confuse duty with something you owe somebody else. Duty is something you owe yourself alone.”

What I define duty as is, the price you have to pay in order to think of yourself as the kind of person you wish to think of yourself (based on values you have freely chosen – at least ideally.)

I.e. if you want to think of yourself as a courageous person, you must act on your view of the right at times when it is “inconvenient, unpopular or dangerous to do so”**. In extremis, perhaps even at the cost of your life, if life is not worth living knowing you failed in your duty.

Oh gosh, I could go on but perhaps your eyes are glazing over right now.

I’ve attached an article I wrote inspired by another conversation I had with Barbara about non-rational (NOT irrational) values***, and I thought you’d like a picture I took in Budapest while I was in transit on a rescue mission to Belgrade. It’s the Imre Nagy monument near the parliament building. I came across it unexpectedly and given the circumstances I was moved to tears. I wanted to stand next to him on the bridge and ask him if I was worthy to call him comrade.


Anyone want to guess how the Objectivist replied?

Those of you who know some might guess. It was, "Read Atlas Shrugged."

Stay tuned for Part 2: I Read Atlas Shrugged.

* From an old Objectivist porn comic. The heroes reject women who profess their love because of the opinions of others with that phrase. Couldn't resist.

** Walter Lippmann's definition of honor, "A man has Honor when he adheres to a code of conduct when it is inconvenient, unprofitable or dangerous to do so."

*** See http://rantsand.blogspot.com/2006/12/meditations-on-graves.html

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Famous Last Words

Last night I stayed up entirely too late, absorbed in Paul Johnson's book 'Heroes', of which I will write more anon.

The book was worth the price of admission if only for reminding me of the reply Lord Lovat gave to a heckler while being conveyed to his execution.

Lord Lovat was a Scots noble who came out for the Bonnie Prince in The '45. (That is, he sided with the Stuart pretender Charles Edward Stuart when he attempted to wrest the throne of England and Scotland from the House of Hanover in 1745.) Lord Lovat became the last noble to be executed in the Tower of London shortly thereafter.

While on his way to the execution ground, an old woman shouted from the crowd, "They're going to hang you, ye old Scotch dog!"

He replied, "I believe they are, you old English bitch."

One of my hobbies is collecting historical examples of snappy comebacks and famous last words.

Everyone knows Winston Churchill's great comeback to, "Winston Churchill, you are horribly drunk."

"Madam, you are horribly ugly. But in the morning I shall be sober."

But only real aficionados of the comeback know the one from a conversation between a Roman matron and a woman of then-Celtic Gaul around the first or second century AD.

The Roman matron charged that Celtic women were, well - sluts.

The Celtic woman replied, "Our customs are more in accordance with the laws of nature than yours. For we consort openly with the best of men, while you debauch yourselves in secret with the vilest."

Lord Lovat's utterance falls in both categories, snappy comebacks and famous last words.

Another example might be Ethan Allen on his deathbed. Allen was a militant atheist, and when a doctor tried to comfort him thus, "General, I fear the angels are waiting for you."

He replied, "Waiting are they? Waiting are they? Well damn them let 'em wait!"

We love last words that show courage and class and inspire us to believe that we too might die well, no matter what the circumstances.

Who could forget the Viking warrior who, when struck near the heart with an arrow, pulled it out, looked at it and said, "My king has been good to me, there is much fat around my heart roots."

And some can move you to tears. The sweet and unaffected goodness of Marie Antoinette for example. As she mounted the scaffold to the guillotine, she accidentally stepped on the foot of the executioner and said, "Pardonnez-moi, monsieur."

Equally touching is the story of John Jacob Astor, at the time the richest man in the world.

After an apparently messy divorce, Astor 46, married an 18-year-old woman named Madeline. Because this was a public scandal they took a two-year holiday abroad to let things cool down a little. But when Madeline became pregnant they decided to return to New York.

Unfortunately they booked passage aboard the Titanic.

After the Titanic hit the iceberg, the Astors were about to board one of the last remaining lifeboats when John Jacob saw a woman approaching.

He turned to his wife and said, "The ladies have to go first. . . . Get in the lifeboat, to please me. . . . Good-bye, dearie. I'll see you later."

Courage and class indeed!


After Paul Johnson reminded me of Lord Lovat's bon mot, I googled "famous last words" and found this treasure of a site, 'Last Words': http://www.sanftleben.com/Last%20Words/lastwords.html

It is divided into: fictional last words, real last words, epitaphs, farewells, and last stands.

Check it out.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Keeping Fit at a Certain Age

I am 56 years old, and have two small children and a sedentary lifestyle. This is not the perfect formula for fitness.

In my youth I had one of those metabolisms that never stored fat. I was the same weight (about 140 pounds at 6 feet tall) from high school into my thirties. I really wanted to gain a few pounds and finally got up to a bit over 150 by going to the Rocky Mountains and living out of a tent for a while, eating heartily and exercising.

Then I moved to Bulgaria...

In Bulgaria at the time, there was a 10% inflation per day. There was little bread to be found (the wheat crop had been sold by the government for foreign currency), food was expensive - and I was living on a local salary. It came to about $40 per month, and they wanted $25 American for the room I rented.

Of course, I lived on my savings until they ran out, and in the meantime I lost a lot of weight. A Polish girl who came to visit me exclaimed, "You look like you just got out of Oswieciem!" (Auschwitz in Polish.)

I moved to Serbia after that and started eating better. While doing yoga spinal twists, I noticed that a spare tire was starting to develop around my middle.

Then I moved back to the States and stayed with my parents while waiting for the paperwork to go through for a job in Saudi Arabia. Eating my mother's cooking, I... perhaps "ballooned" is the word I'm looking for.

I was mortified. Getting fat had been the Fourth Dimension to me - something I knew about theoretically, but really couldn't imagine. Obviously my apostat, which had been in equilibrium all my life, was knocked out of whack. I think I hit 250 at one time.

Living in Saudi actually helped. Middle Eastern food is healthy and delicious, and the climate encourages one to eat light. And since there was very little to divert the attention, forcing oneself to exercise was easy. (It probably didn't hurt that the bootleg beer was godawful either.)

After that I returned to Poland and kept the weight down with exercise and eating well. I never diet, in the sense of counting calories. Eating healthy and staying active is all I've ever had to do - so far.

Now my weight has stabilized at 200. That's not bad for an active guy of six feet, but counts as a tad overweight, and I've got a beer gut I don't like at all.

I want to be around to see my kids grow up, and hale enough to enjoy any grandchildren that I might have, so I must do what everyone should do. (Though if junior is as retarded as his old man in that respect, I'll be 100 when I see my first.)

I take inspiration from the fact that Grand Tuhon Leo Gaje (see Pekiti Tirsia) is in his 60s, Chuck Norris is pushing 70, and Danny Inosanto is already past it.

However, those guys are professional martial artists, they do it every day. I don't, I do it in my spare time. And sometimes there isn't a lot of that. In addition, there isn't a lot of spare room in the house and during winter I can't go outside to exercise. Going to a gym? Fuhgeddaboudit! Two small kids remember?

So, given that I need to do exercises that don't require a lot of space or equipment, I've evolved a routine that meets my needs during the winter.

For equipment I use: Indian clubs, two fist-sized lengths of bar stock, one 15-pound dumbell, an 8-pound sledgehammer, a 12-pound medicine ball and a 35 pound (one pood) Russian kettlebell.

I start with simple Chinese Chi-gung exercises to warm up and get me in the mood if I'm feeling sluggish: a face rub, arm swinging, head tapping, and light beating on the lower back and long muscles of the leg while bent over in a wide stance.

Next, punching with the bar stock fist loads: classical chambered Kung Fu punches in a low horse stance, straight punching from a medium horse, Wing Chun chain punches from a high horse, hooks, uppercuts etc.

Procede to medicine ball lifts, side stretches, leg lifts etc. Follow with a set of dumbell curls and graduate to kettlebell lifts. Kettlebell lifts are OK if the kids are in the room, but if I want to do a set of swings I have to shoo them out, so all I'll destroy is the TV if I lose control and it flies.

I do an exercise with the sledgehammer I found on an old documentary about Sir Edmund Hillary's trip by motorboat up the Ganges. It's from the traditional Indian physical culture. You grip the sledge with two hands, much like a samurai sword, with the lower hand near the corresponding hip, shaft slanted across the body and the head above the opposite shoulder. Swing around the back to the other side until the hand positions are reversed.

I include Indian club swinging - carefully, because the ceiling is rather low, and about a hundred-plus knuckle pushups interspersed in sets of ten between the other exercises. Follow with situps. I combine the situps with punching with the fist loads or medicine ball thrusts.

All this time I drink LOTS of water. End with yoga stretching (I'm hoping to regain some of the flexibility I used to have.) I try to do this at least three times a week. A session takes a little over an hour, or I can do an abbreviated one in 45 minutes.

Classical forms? The three Wing Chun forms can be done in a confined space - but unlike the Northern Shaolin Long Fist forms, they aren't very strenuous. If the weather is good I go outside and do a 5-minute Tai Chi form for warmers. (Some Tai Chi people say you shouldn't mix it with strenuous exercise. Sorry.) Some of the short Pentjak Silat jurus can be mixed in when you don't have much space.

During the summer I can do all this outside and get a bit adventurous with the kettlebell and Indian club swinging. I can also add suburito, classical Japanese sword cutting exercise done with a long heavyweight wooden sword, and Filipino Kali exercise with a heavier than normal stick.

And whatever the weather, long walks are just the thing. If it's cold - dress for it.

I've made an Indian club video (look for it yourself, I don't get any money for it) and I'm going to get around to doing a longer, more comprehensive one someday. Sometimes I think about doing a fitness camp for people in my situation.

Hey, I'm not an exercise guru - but then neither are you.

Final tip: don't let your kids distract you. Remember, you're setting a good example. And don't be afraid to say, "I can't now, I'll be finished in a half-hour."

PS Yes, I take vitamin supplements. With the proviso that I am utterly unqualified to speak to the question of whether, and how much good it does, I've noticed that medical opinion has shifted in my lifetime from "absolutely unnecessary" to "take a multivitamin and mineral a day."

I take that, plus a combo of L-acetyl carnatine/alpha lipoic acid, fish oil, vitamin E and reservatrol. Some of that may be useless but heart disease runs in my family so I'm covering the bases.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Tiger and the Turtle

Mercer's reply to my remark:

“…on the subject of the war against civilization …Mercer gets it (she just wants us to fight it Marquis of Queensbury rules with our foot in a bucket.)”

Can be found here: http://blog.ilanamercer.com/?p=590

A few of her points:

"Wait for this: Accolades for offering a strident defense of the West go to the prototypical open-borders Objectivist, whose positions are generally indistinguishable from those of the neoconservatives.

"Philosophical incoherence at its best."

Now please review the post in question: "tinny ideologues", "They hate freedom, plain and simple" "mollycoddled milksops", "pussies, and worse,"

Coherence? This is rage.

What I said was, wherever you side on the issue this is not an argument, it's a polemic.

And by the way, for a lady to insult a gentleman with vulgarity is definitely not Marquis of Queensbury. No man ever comes off looking good if he responds in kind. Unfair.

"But it’s predictable. In my commentary over the years—cultural and political—I’ve mounted a systematic defense of Western values as I see them. This includes—gasp!—defending the distinctly Western character of the US (and the West), something the neocons and the Objectivists who ape them daren’t do."

Yes she has, and done a fine job of it too.

As have I. For example here http://rantsand.blogspot.com/2007/05/amnesia-issue-part-1.html

here http://rantsand.blogspot.com/2006/11/demand-for-perfection.html

and here http://rantsand.blogspot.com/2006/10/western-civilization-and-its_21.htm among others.

On the border issue we are in complete agreement.

"So what is my apparently constricting prescription? First, bring the armed forces home, so they can protect this country, not Kosovo, Korea, and Kurdistan."

Kosovo can go hang for all of me. Korea is relying on the US entirely too much for my taste and Kurdistan... dunno. What's in it for us?

Next, scale back mass immigration, legal and illegal.

Illegal? Amen! (See http://rantsand.blogspot.com/2007/07/dear-mexico.html)

Legal? We may differ here. Actually I'd like to invite Ilana's relatives to America. And perhaps the entire White and Colored population of South Africa if it looks like a genocide is brewing.

Similarly, it may in time be necessary to evacuate the Jewish population of Israel to the US if their strategic situation becomes untenable (say, if nukes proliferate throughout the region.) And I'd certainly consider widening the eligibility of a great many pro-American, assimilation-minded Eastern Europeans to immigrate, if the trend toward demographic decline and the attendant Islamicization of Europe continues.

Got a problem with that? Or is it, "Pull up the ladder, I'm on board."

Since the West Europeans have created this problem for themselves, my inclination is to tell them to get in the back of the line like everyone else.

Defending negative liberties at home is more effective and less violative than waging aimless, unwinnable, rights-sundering wars."

Here we are getting to the actual area of disagreement. (Maybe, it depends on what you have in mind by aimless, unwinnable, and rights-sundering.)

We can argue about the specifics of grand strategy but please, let's argue rather than sling insults. And to do that, let's find out where it is we do disagree.

In terms of pragmatism what I see are two views of strategy that someone once called "tiger" and "turtle." The turtle creates a fortress for itself, the tiger defines and roams over a territory. (The analogy however, rapidly breaks down when it comes to the subject of allies - tigers are solitary.)

My view, which I will elaborate on in future posts, is that a nation such as ours must maintain the ability and the will to project power, and maintain alliances with countries which share essential parts of our Western heritage. (You know; free speech, free press, not eating each other...)

And most importantly, I believe that those who think we are going to get through this current civilizational conflict without ever having to resort to military action are indulging in wishful thinking.

This is not new stuff:

"When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle."

Edmund Burke

As a great libertarian (Robert Heinlein) said, "No "Department of Defense" ever won a war."

We know that various non-state actors, covertly backed by certain states (some our purported "allies") are seeking nuclear weapons with the intention of using them on You Know Who* and us.

Citing John Bolton at the media breakfast I attended (http://rantsand.blogspot.com/2007/11/john-bolton-and-no-name-nukes.html), preemption is the only realistic defense. Once the nukes are loose and in the hands of those sufficiently determined to use them, there is no way to keep them out of our territory.

Bolton also pointed out that time is running out. I'd like to point out as well that as the situation worsens, moral choices become less available.

Winston Churchill said that no other war was ever more avoidable than the the Second World War, that there was a time when it could have been prevented with a diplomatic note. Once it was underway the allies were faced with the necessity of using tactics that killed untold numbers of innocent bystanders and making a devils bargain with the Soviet Union.

"Nation building and assorted mindless meddling have also found a place within this “philosophy.” "

Nation building? Post-war Germany, Japan (and Israel for that matter) seem to be doing OK. But then the first was a Western nation relapsed into barbarism and the second was an ancient civilization willing to accept a Western way of governance, once we'd beaten the tar out of them.

My take? Jury's still out on that one. John Derbyshire thinks Germany and Japan will vomit up democracy after they've had enough of it.

If it turns out that "building democracy" is a fools errand as I think very possible, then the alternative may very well be empire - and I don't much like that one at all. Sometimes there are no good alternatives.

(Derb's actually more optimistic than I am on that one. He says let them go hang and slap them around when they get out of line.)

Meddling? Several really great histories lately (which I'll be reviewing and recommending presently) have detailed a long record of other countries meddling in our internal affairs this past century. The Soviet Union had an entire cabinet-level department devoted to just that, China has been caught at it more than once and the story of Saudi Arabia seeking to buy our government whole is a scandal waiting to break. (See 'Interview with Ali Alyami' below.)

My take? If we don't "meddle" back ourselves some we're sticking our foot in that bucket. I'm definitely against "mindless" though.

"...too dumb and evil for words."

Dumb? I sometimes think so. Stepping into the middle of a personal vendetta was one of the scariest things I've done since I got pulled off a train at a Serbian border crossing one dark night...

Evil? Well, each man must make his own judgment on that. I usually reserve the term for mass murderers, child molesters and people who don't turn their cell phones off in theaters.

* An allusion to a song by the great Tom Lehrer, 'Who's Next?'

Egypt's going to get one too
Just to use on You Know Who

So Israel's getting tense, want's one in self-defense
The Lord's our Shepherd, says the psalm
But just in case - we're gonna get a bomb!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


*We've been out and about in Oklahoma taking pictures of tree debris.

Two days ago we had a night of freezing rain. Though not a particularly heavy rain for this wet year, it froze on the trees and the accumulation of ice brought limbs down and even split many trees right down the middle.

The aftermath looks like a tornado - only worse.

About 600,000 people in the state are without power, a number greater than the population of Oklahoma City.

When I was out buying more film for the camera I met a friend buying candles for his home.

He said he was going to teach his kid to play solitare - with real cards!

*In a review of Pat Buchannan's new book 'Day of Reckoning' http://www.townhall.com/Columnists/TonyBlankley/2007/12/12/day_of_reckoning_a_review_of_pat_buchanans_latest_book
columnist Tony Blankley quotes the following:

"Ideology has one foot grounded in reality, but the other is ever on quicksand. For no one can know the future. Yet the True Believer has moral certitude, for his ideology foretells a future certain to come if the sacrifices are sufficient and the anointed leaders are faithfully followed."

Notice that "True Believer" is capitalized and preceded by the definite article.

The reason for this of course, is that the phrase, if not literally invented by, was made popular and given its present significance by Eric Hoffer in his book of the same name, published in the year of my birth.

Hoffer, America's "longshoreman philosopher" is having somewhat of a revival these days. Thomas Sowell, perhaps America's wisest public intellectual, cites him fairly frequently, and (ahem) I myself can claim to be responsible for introducing him to the academic establishment of two countries (Poland and Belarus).

I'm going to write more about this remarkable man in the future, but let me whet your apetite with an anecdote that tells something about his personality - and why after an initial period of popularity he was dropped by the academic establishment.

A story told by an eyewitness has it that he was once invited to a Jewish function in (I believe) New Orleans. After a number of politicians had come up to the podium and delivered their encomiums to the Jewish people, Hoffer came up and said, "They all lie. They would sell you out in a minute. Support Israel, it's your only hope" and walked off.

*And speaking of allusions, I thought I detected another in a column by Jacob Sullum, 'And Everybody Hates the Atheists.' http://www.townhall.com/Columnists/JacobSullum/2007/12/12/and_everybody_hates_the_atheists

I suspect that this is an allusion to a song by the parody writer Tom Lehrer, 'National Brotherhood Week.'

Tom Lehrer is still alive, though no longer writing songs, which I regret sincerely. I've written about the Dogma of Otherness and how it has been transmitted via the medium of MAD magazine and Rocky and Bullwinkle.



Perhaps I'll have to write at length about Lehrer as well, but at any rate, I think the allusions is to the verse in the song that goes:

Oh the Catholics hate the Protestants
And the Protestants hate the Catholics
And the Hindus hate all the Moslems
And everybody hates the Jews!

But this is National Brotherhood Week
National Brotherhood Week
National do-good-to-one-and-otherhood-week
Step up and shake the hand, of someone you can't stand
You can tolerate 'em if you try

*Dinesh D'Souza has gone and made an observation in print that I've made privately for a while. Yet another cautionary tale against writer's procrastination.

What he points out is that of the prominent public atheists, most don't give the impression that they don't believe in God. Quite the contrary, the impression they give is that they do believe - they're just mad at Him.

*We're contemplating a move to North Dakota and will probably be taking a trip up thataway before Christmas to have a look around. Stay tuned.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Free Speech and Other American Eccentricities

Before I get back to that Ron Paul thing (I promise, there's a point to this) I'd like to clear up some points on policy and housekeeping. The previously announced policy, posted here: http://rantsand.blogspot.com/2007/02/policy-and-housekeeping.html has been modified. (Satire alert.)

Henceforward, any comment posted here or on your sites that I don't like will be answered with a lawsuit. If I'm really insulted, I'll hunt you down and kill you. I can say anything I like about you concerning what I think about your manners, morals, habits, religious beliefs and those of your slut wife and worthless children.

Any attempt to block me from posting on your web sites, or failure to invite me into your homes to pontificate on what unworthy scumbags you are will be considered racism ("Steveophobia") and I'll have you prosecuted for it.

Now I'd like you all to have a look at these:

Mark Steyn: Dead man writing http://www.blogger.com/=

List of lawsuits for "Islamophobia": http://www.blogger.com/

Stanley Kurtz on Steyn http://corner.nationalreview.com/post/?q=NTFmYmI4ZDM1Zjg3YmJhMGNhZTVmMzgyODExZTJjNDE

Steyn update:A Free Dominion http://www.blogger.com/

From the first cited:

Dead man writing [Mark Steyn]

"One of the critical differences between America and the rest of the west is that America has a First Amendment and the rest don't. And a lot of them are far too comfortable with the notion that in free societies it is right and proper for the state to regulate speech. The response of the EU Commissioner for Justice, Freedom and Security to the Danish cartoons was to propose a press charter that would oblige newspapers to exercise "prudence" on, ah, certain controversial subjects. The response of Tony Blair's ministry to the problems of "Londonistan" was to propose a sweeping law dramatically constraining free discussion of religion. At the end of her life, Oriana Fallaci was being sued in France, Italy, Switzerland and sundry other jurisdictions by groups who believed her opinions were not merely disagreeable but criminal. In France, Michel Houellebecq was sued by Muslim and other "anti-racist" groups who believed opinions held by a fictional character in one of his novels were not merely disagreeable but criminal.

"Up north, the Canadian Islamic Congress announced the other day that at least two of Canada’s “Human Rights Commissions” – one federal, one provincial – had agreed to hear their
complaints that their “human rights” had been breached by this “flagrantly Islamophobic” excerpt from my book, as published in the country’s bestselling news magazine, Maclean’s. Several readers and various Canadian media outlets have enquired what my defense to the charges is. Here’s my answer:

"I can defend myself if I have to. But I shouldn’t have to."

I've reviewed the book that the article in Maclean's was taken from here: http://rantsand.blogspot.com/2006/12/review-america-alone.html

Now look at that italicized section above again. Satire, right?

Really? To be satire the behavior you are mocking has to be exaggerated. Where in any of those statements is any exaggeration of the words and behavior of Muslim jihadists living in North America and Europe?

"But this isn't typical of Muslim immigrants!" I hear you say indignantly.

If by by "typical", you mean "a majority of" - so what? How many people behaving like that do you need? If such behavior is tolerated and not come down on hard by the host society, how long do you think it'll be before it is indeed typical? People do what they can get away with.

Now back to that Ron Paul thing.

The arguments in the posts cited below:
http://rantsand.blogspot.com/2007/11/ron-paul-debate-have-look.html and


revolve around the now-cliche observation that "there are 9-10 people and 9-12 people."

Now go here: http://www.ontheissues.org/Ron_Paul.htm

This is a great one-stop-shopping website for information on all major candidates: voting records, public pronouncements, flip-flops etc.

Paul is fantastic by any libertarians' and most conservatives' standards. If we had more like him in congress we'd be in a whole lot better shape as a nation.

But on the subject of the war against civilization HE JUST DOESN'T GET IT.

Bidinotto gets it. Mercer gets it (she just wants us to fight it Marquis of Queensbury rules with our foot in a bucket.) Paul doesn't get it.

D'abord il faut durer - "Firstly, it is necessary to survive."

Let Paul have a long and productive career in the House of Representatives where he can do real good (along with Senators such as Oklahoma's own Tom Coburn.) I believe that he will learn better, because he'll have to (see http://rantsand.blogspot.com/2007/02/in-long-run-it-doesnt-matter.html) - but until then we've got to have someone who understands that we're in a long weird war and have to plan a Grand Strategy around that fact.

Trouble is, I don't know as there is anybody running with a snowballs chance in hell who does...

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Happy Birthday Toto

I just dropped my family off at a birthday party for a little girl who just turned two. Her family is from Kenya and they call her by the nickname "Toto", meaning "Little Girl" in Swahili.

Toto's older brother is my son's best friend, and not quite a year older.

I was thinking about them because of a couple of recent observations on parenting I've made.

One was brought up by the kids' mother when theirs and ours were playing together. My boy was doing something that I thought might get him hurt, but not dangerously so, so I warned him.


I warned him again. Same result - or lack thereof.

So I said, "OK son, if you've got to find out for yourself, go ahead."

His friend's mother laughed and said, "Steve, you're really like an African father."

Second observation. My son and his best friend have their occasional falling-outs and sometimes the results are six-year-old high drama, i.e they shout, hit and have been known to throw things at each other.

I've noticed that more and more, the reaction of American parents is often something like, "Oh my God we've got to do an intervention!" (Think that's an exaggeration? Think again, if it is it's only a slight one.)

His friend's father just shrugs and says, "Boys fight."

Of course boys fight. The way we handle it is to ground the kids for a while. Fifteen minutes later they're crying, "I miss my friend!"

I have encountered pacifist parents who tell their kids that when another kid hits them, they should walk away. This, as you might expect, tends to make the kids into targets.

But I've noticed that it also makes them into bullies.

If kids are told to "turn the other cheek" they grow up expecting that when they are the aggressors, their victims should not fight back. And when they do, the little tykes get indignant.

A wise parent once observed that boys who grow up without a model of real manhood do not become wimps - they become thugs.

Well perhaps they become both wimps and thugs, the two are not incompatible. Wimps when alone, thugs when with a gang.

I'm going to have a lot more to say about this in future posts. In particular I'm going to develop three threads:

1) "As below, so above" (to invert the ancient hermetic saying.) The behavior of thug nations is accurately modeled by the behavior of thug individuals and gangs - as is the way of dealing with them.

2) There are two views of taming human nature at war in our culture, the traditional Judeo-Christian; and the modern Marxist/environmentalist. The former stresses teaching self-control over an inherited and unchanging human nature, the latter the idea of changing what they regard as an infinitely plastic human nature by manipulating the formative environment.

3) The essence of true manhood has never been better expressed in English than by Raymond Chandler. In Phillip Marlow's last adventure, a woman asks him, "How can a man who is so tough, be so gentle?"

He replies, "If I weren't tough, I wouldn't be alive. If I couldn't be gentle, I wouldn't deserve to be alive."

Happy birthday Toto, and I hope you'll always have guys like your big brother and big buddy around.

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Monday, December 03, 2007

The Ron Paul "debate" examined

First of all, let me refer you to a previous post of mine, "Can you think?" http://rantsand.blogspot.com/2006/10/can-you-think.html

In it I asked, "How often have you realized while listening to someone speak for a position you agreed with, that it was nonetheless being supported by a weak or invalid argument?"

Now let me ask how many of you took freshman logic? It's usually an elective course, one of a choice of two or three I believe.

If you did take it, you may have noticed that there were always a number of students who simply could not comprehend that when given examples of arguments they were supposed to decide whether the argument was valid or not - not whether they agreed with it or not. I.e. they were supposed to address the form, not the content of the argument.

Now I suspect very strongly that some readers are going to write in to argue with me on the basis that I'm wrong about Ron Paul - don't. Save it for the future post, My Take, wherein I will chip in with my two cents.

But some undoubtedly will...

So, in my previous post The Ron Paul "debate" - have a look I urged readers to look at two blogs with contrary opinions on Ron Paul:

"Ron Paul's "noninterventionism" fraud" http://bidinotto.journalspace.com/?entryid=637

"On Idiot Ideologues Who Pan Paul" http://blog.ilanamercer.com/?p=581

Please glance at them again.

(I will remind readers that I don't know exactly which libertarians Mercer had in mind. I am using the example of Bidinotto to show that her claim is a false generalization. In fact, I'm quite sure she is right in a number of cases - but not all.)

OK now, notice how they opened. Bidinotto began with several quotes by Ron Paul, lengthy enough to give a fair amount of confidence that they're not taken out of context. And, the nature of the quotes is such that it would be difficult to take them out of context to deliberately give a misleading impression.

Mercer begins with insult, "A word about the tinny ideologues who pan Paul because he isn’t perfect: They hate freedom, plain and simple. They don’t know what it is to live without it. They are mollycoddled milksops."

First sentence, very clever alliteration. It also contains an assumption - that some commenters swallowed whole - that if libertarians don't like RP, it's because of because of ideological "purity" issues.

This might be an easy assumption, because lord knows libertarians have had their share of ideological purists. But unless one says which libertarians one is referring to, it remains an unsupported assumption.

"They hate freedom, plain and simple. "

An assumption of motive - and motive is the one thing that cannot be known for sure since, 1) it resides in peoples heads, 2) is very often mixed, 3) is what people most often lie about - especially to themselves.

And, as I am fond of saying, disagree is what free men do.

"They don’t know what it is to live without it."

Same objection, which libertarians? I know a number of libertarians who live (as I have) or who grew up in tyrannies, whose big problem with American libertarians is their tendency towards isolationism. Do you think the Romanians, Lithuanians, Hungarians etc want America to "mind its own business" and defend only its own borders in the event of a resurgent Russian empire or Isalmic caliphate?

"They are mollycoddled milksops."

This, together with "idiots encased in an armor of worthless ideology," "pussies, and worse, slaves to abstractions" are examples of a technique that the Institute of Propaganda Analysis called by the highly technical term "name calling." http://www.propagandacritic.com/articles/ct.wg.name.html

Now look down through the Bidinotto piece. He goes on at some length showing plainly that it is not an issue of ideological "purity" that causes him to reject Paul as a candidate, it is that there is one issue of supreme importance that is the deal breaker: that Paul's concept of the nature and origins of the assault on Western civilization in general, and America in particular, are so flawed that they would constitute a serious danger to America and the freedoms we do still have.

Bidinotto objects to this view:

"The only "moral" alternative they imply, therefore, is a de facto, hunkered-down pacifism: a steady retreat by the U.S. from any interactions in the world -- lest we diss some backwater bully, cross his arbitrarily declared boundary lines, offend him for his subjective notions of religious or cultural blasphemy, or thwart his laughable claims of "national sovereignty."

"Part of the sloppy thinking at the root of "noninterventionist" lunacy is the tacit equation of individual rights with "national sovereignty" -- and also the equation of "economic interventionism" (against peaceful individuals) with "political interventionism" (against despotic regimes). Philosophically, these twin equations are completely bogus. Only individuals have rights or "sovereignty"; and only those governments that recognize the individual rights of their own people have any legitimate claims to exist. Dictatorships thus have no "rights" or "sovereignty."

Bidinotto therein also indulges in some name-calling, but also gives a cogent, well-supported argument.

Mercer does better (and concedes some of the point) when she cites a previous post of her own:

"Paul was wrong to imply, reductively, that Islamic terrorism in general and September 11 in particular are the sole consequences of American foreign policy. Libertarians cannot persist in such unidirectional formulations. As I’ve said previously, our adventurous foreign policy is a necessary precondition for Muslim aggression but it is far from a sufficient one, given that Muslims today are at the center of practically every conflict across the world. The received leftist wisdom that the Arabs were (and remain) hapless and helpless victims of the West is false and patronizing. As scholars such as Efraim and Inari Karsh have shown, ‘Middle Eastern history is essentially the culmination of long-standing indigenous trends, passions and patterns of behavior rather than an externally imposed dictate.’ Ultimately, a rational suspicion of power, upon which libertarians pride themselves, must be predicated on distrusting all power, not only American power."

I have underlined the relevant remarks, 1) where the disagreement lies, and 2) where they are in fact in agreement.

Mercer next cites her experience in leaving the collapsing society of South Africa. This is moving, and I have often said myself that experience generally trumps ideology. However, see above. Same caveat, lots of people with similar experience have differing opinions - and afterwards the post veers off into irrelevance and further name-calling.

Mercer has done lots better than this, see the above quote which is good example of a strong argument - agree or disagree* (and in fact, I do not agree with the first underlined sentence.)

However, this is not an argument, it is a polemic. That's why "debate" is in quotes - because it isn't. Bidinotto is arguing, Mercer is polemicizing.

Polemics have their place of course. When addressing a mass audience in a narrow time frame, carefully reasoned (but dry) arguments are seldom the most persuasive. That's the difference between logic, and rhetoric.

So is it a good polemic (i.e. effective)?

That can only be determined by the effect it has on people. Will it sway the undecided and cause those of contrary opinion to change?

I think not but I could be wrong. It is difficult to get someone to consider changing his/her opinion by insulting them. And face it, no matter how reasonable no man enjoys being insulted by a beautiful woman.

However, what scares me is that I am by no means certain that reasoned argument backed with relevant examples does any better. I'd have to say that a lot evidence is against it...


This is intended as part of an ongoing series on the subject of logic, rhetoric and propaganda.

* For another, visit her post on the movie "Redacted" here http://blog.ilanamercer.com/?p=582 and then have a look at some of the hostile comments for examples of really poor arguments.

Note: Next I'll give my take on Ron Paul - then you can call me names too.