Saturday, January 27, 2007


Does John Burns have a deeper insight on the "surge"?

I have finally spent an hour watching Charlie Rose interviewing John Burns. The one element Burns adds, really, to what has been said specifically about Iraq is his version of the domino theory, which has been much emphasized by Bush supporters. The evidence is simply far from compelling, that the war would widen much more than it already has, specifically, that Abdullah of Jordan would be significantly undermined (after all, he and his father used to have to placate Saddam, and did so) and all the rest follows from that. Saudi Arabia can send money, but if the US withdraws we can certainly send money where we will as well. (The US military has been unwilling to give most Iraqi troops effective weapons because they could turn around and use them against Americans, and have; with Americans out, that danger does not lurk.)

Nothing was said about the complex influence of Turkey. Little or nothing about the overall regional balance between Shi'ites and Sunnis would change if the US withdraws. Burns mentioned the Shi'ite majority in Bahrain, but it is already exercising increasing electoral power. He did not mention the Shi'ite minority in the oil-rich provinces of Saudi Arabia, which will limit the Sunni government's willingness to take on Shi'ite Arabs elsewhere.

Most importantly, Burns did not say that the surge would work. He repeatedly said said just the opposite, that it probalby won't. How long do you continue with unfavorabble odds? He failed to discuss how American presence allows irresponsible actions by the Shi'ite militias, who would have to be far more careful if the US leaves. He touched on, but underempahsized the obvious point that the US is not planning to and cannot send enough troops to police the whole country simultaneously, and that the insurgents and militias have many oportunites to slip out of Baghdad and focus their efforts in other communities, while still managing to be able to sabotage as much as they please supplies such as electricity , water and even food headed towards Baghdad . Thus, the surge will only shake up where the fighting takes place and who is most affected by it. Meanwhile, American troops would sustain much higher casualties — certainly higher than a volunteer army can well accept. The end is sure to come — better sooner, rather than later.

The real question is whether there is any leverage against the Bush surge now. I think what will play out is that he will get the surge, with reluctant Democrats on board to the very minimal extent possible. The surge will clearly have failed after a few months. Then what? I think the momentum for a rapid but somehwat strategic withdrawal, with some effort to have talks — more or less behind Bush's back — with Iran and Syria will have to go forward. The Kurds deserve protection and so does the general independence of Shi'ites in the south. That can be handled with no-fly zones for a period.

More on Iraq

It is far too late to avoid a bloodbath in Baghdad, with or without American troops, unless we send hundreds of thousands, and they know Arabic and the local culture. That number of troops does not exist, nor are they anywhere near likely to have the proper knowledge.

Recall that opponents of pulling out of Vietnam prophesied a bloodbath if the US withdrew; there certainly was one, especially in Cambodia. There will be one in Iraq too, just as there was when Britain pulled out of the Indian sub-continent after 250 years, as there has been in Algeria after the French pulled out, as there has been in Sudan almost ever since the British left, and on and on. We can try to mitigate the effects after we pull out; we can offer refugeee status, we can offer aid, we can offer various kinds of carrots for good behavior, but we do not know how to keep the bloodbath from happening. Should we have stayed forever in Vietnam and Cambodia? Wouldn't our staying have been predicated on a continuing bloodbath?

Isn't the lesson that has to be brought home very insistently that we should both get out now and make very sure that we cease to believe we can impose our values and will by force on the rest of the planet? That will not end world violence, but it might well lessen it. To me, killing more in the hopes that others will not kill more would be a tragic mistake.

Friday, January 26, 2007


Why I strongly oppose the "surge" in Iraq

I am writing this in response to a friend’s wondering whether the veteran Iraq reporter for the NY Times, John Burns, might possibly be right in backing President Bush’s plans for a small escalation of the conflict by adding more American troops — his so-called “surge.”

So far, the longer US troops have stayed, the worse the civil strife. There is no reason to think that a small increment of US troops with a slightly different set of rules would do anything other than make things still worse. What the US did by invading was unleash ethnic tensions that had been building, possibly for centuries (exactly as many, myself included, predicted). As long as the US stays, the actual Iraqi government, being dependent on the US, will hardly be able to be strong enough or seem genuinely representative enough to forge any real end to the violence.

One could say the invasion freed up Iraqis to kill each other, and our presence just exacerbates such desires. Despite that, they — various Iraqis and groups of them are making the choice to kill and to support killing; it is in their power to make other choices. So why American troops— who after all volunteered to defend the US, not to pacify the world — should be sacrificed to step in between them I just don't see. Nor is there any real likelihood that the surge will do more than be the prelude for a bigger surge, etc., etc., etc., until we finally pull out, leaving Iraq a still bigger graveyard. We have no reason to suppose that pulling out will instantly create calm or anything approaching it. Still, only after an American pullout can the conditions for eventual healing — perhaps far in the future — begin to emerge.

It is conceivable that eventually, once some peace agreement between the various sides begins to emerge, that an international peace-keeping force might be of some help. Whether any country will be willing to supply its troops to such an effort should depend on the degree to which the warring parties are really willing to settle their differences peacefully. That in turn depends on the emergence of a common set of underlying understandings that peace is a better solution than war. The international community can certainly help play a role in helping make that clear, but we know that this is a very long-term, difficult process. We know because of such examples as the India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir; the long set of wars between the more-or-less secular, more-or-less progressive side in Afghanistan vs. reactionary Sunni fundamentalism there; the Sinhalese–Tamil dispute in Sri Lanka; the long war between northern and southern Sudan, continuing conflicts in Congo and Uganda, the Tutsi-Hutu rivalries in Rwanda and Burundi; lengthy conflicts in Mexico between indigenous groups and the governing parties; similar conflicts in various central and south American countries; as well as the very long history of violence between various sides in Europe.

The effort to promote internatinal peace and understanding should not only go on. It should intensify. But “peace through war,” is as absurd a notion as George Orwell thought when he first articulated it.

Sunday, July 09, 2006


yet another blog by me

This is to announce that I have a new blog, which will focus primarily on the Attention Economy. It is at
From now on, this blog will focus on other topics, including politics.

Sunday, February 13, 2005


Reflections on Values without Religion

Religious people may argue over what values are important, but they can argue there is authority in the scriptures that go with their religion for whatever values they do take seriously. Typically, it is taken to be true that these scriptures were dictated by god or at least by the founder of the religion, a semi-divine personage lost in the mists of time. Since these scriptures also form the basis of regular services and rituals, they have a built-in status that texts that are clearly not taken as divine do not possess.

Thus those of us who are not religious, though we may adhere as strongly to values, have a less direct means to assert the truth of these values or to “derive” them for those who don’t necessarily yet agree with them. It doesn’t matter if, say, some philosopher has worked out a moral system, because there is seemingly no imperative for anyone who disagrees with the system to take the philosopher to be correct. (Of course, it is also true that religious people don’t agree on moral matters; some self-styled Christians are hung up on certain prohibitions found in the Old Testament, whereas others like the New Testament’s Sermon on the Mount much more. Still it seems many people find their position strengthened if they can somehow locate it in Scriptures of ancient lineage, rather than in modern secular works.)

Some non-believers still look to religious traditions to justify the values they hold, on the basis, apparently, that these values have stood the test of time. But this must be a highly selective process. After all values commonly accepted today, such as the evil of slavery or women’s rights, are quite new compared to the lifetimes of most religious traditions. Other traditions of great lineage, such as burning heretics at the stake, are equally rejected by most people today.

What these simple reflections force me to conclude is that religion by itself is not the source of currently held values, even for religious people. If we could ascertain the real source or sources, why could we not derive our values from them directly?

Religious people sometimes take the view that a scientific approach, including evolutionary theory, leaves us with the notion that life simply emerged accidentally and therefore is without meaning. That ignores the fact that human actions are normally meaningful. How did meaning arrive in a random sort of world? Quite simply, humans or proto-humans invented meaning, just as we invented gods.

We didn’t invent meaning all in one fell swoop; rather, as social forms change, new kinds of meaning can be invented. Thus, in a hierarchical pre-market economy, it was possible to accept inequality. But because a money-based market economy is fundamentally associated with a notion of equality in the marketplace, the equal status of all humans seems to arise as a clear corollary, at least for some people. Later on the notion of equality itself became a powerful corrective to the market economy that perhaps gave rise to this ideal. Hence such notions as opposition to slavery, feminism, rights for the propertyless, and even socialism may have emerged from the very nature of capitalist markets.

But that story is probably incomplete. Equality as a notion takes more than the existence of markets. One has to recognize that humans are all basically alike. Where does that come from? I think it derives from the experience that different people can understand one another, in other words from the experience of empathy resulting from the ability to translate between different languages, as well as between different conditions in the same culture. The notion of consumer sovereignty that capitalism potentially implies works with the emergence of widespread travel, bi-lingual dictionaries, print, and also notions of biological connection, as well as experiences of empathy between members of close-knit communities to create a broader empathic sense. From that greater empathy, values that previously were confined to narrow communities, such as prohibitions against killing, can now be applied more broadly.

Having started with the assertion that religious people have an easier time asserting values than non-religious ones because they can seemingly derive those values from readings of scripture, I now must assert something in stark contradiction. Values that supposedly arise from scripture actually come from social, technological and scientific developments. Scriptures are red herrings that cannot actually teach values from scratch, because by themselves they could teach absolutely anything.

For what it may be worth, my own remembered story may be an example of this. As a small child, I was read the Ten Commandments. One of them struck me with especial force: “Thou shalt not kill.” Because I liked that one so much, I felt an allegiance to all the rest. But the commandments themselves don’t explain why I liked that particular one so much. Opposition to killing already resonated deeply for me. I would have to say this was partly a result of having been born during WWII and hearing very early about the Holocaust, but also out of some very basic sense of empathy. Anyway, this Commandment always seemed much more important to me than any of the others; it led me to pacifism and opposition to capital punishment, values that have endured far longer than any general allegiance to the other commandments.

If empathy remains the basis of worthwhile values, then what is important is instilling empathy, not instilling religion per se. Bible stories told to small children might help do that under the right circumstances, but other stories and other media are potentially still more potent. Even news stories such as those of the Indian Ocean tsunami can have a very powerful effect.

Empathy is not everything. Religion is very often called upon for providing strength for dealing with major turning points in life, especially with the most final one — dying. The fundamental horror of death is, I think, the sense of an abrupt end. Many religions attempt to ease that fear by suggesting that there is no end, that life somehow endures in some other plane. But a similar sense of continuity can be gained by reflecting on the fact that we live in a world of shared meanings and empathy, which implies that our minds interpenetrate; to some degree we each continue to live in the minds of others. That awareness can be a balm as much as the notion of an afterlife lived in some weird other world, or even in weird reincarnation in this one.

For now, I will end these reflections. They are highly incomplete, but still I think they point to the possibility of a renewed and strong pride in a non-religious source of values.

Saturday, January 29, 2005



This is my web site, with a number of texts plus other links.

Acheulean Hand Axes Ought to Tell Us Something, But What?

An ultimate issue for understanding ourselves is explaining sources of cultural change and how culture is transmitted and organized between people. This makes what archeologists of pre-history say about the so-called Acheulean hand axes so interesting. (I re-developed this interest recently through reading Matt Ridley’s provocative and fascinating Nature via Nurture.) These chipped stone tools apparently were made by proto-humans for well over a million years; then more complex tool sets appeared, and the hand axe was soon no more.

A look at representative hand axes suggest that they may have been altered a bit over this tremendously long time period. But two things seem remarkable. In evolutionary time, a million years is extremely long; most species don’t last so long, and one would imagine culture by its nature (so to speak) to be more variable than biology. In fact, it does seem that quite different proto-human species continued the hand-axe culture. So the sheer survival value apparently imparted by the possession of this one simple tool must have been enormous.

And yet, if this one invention was so valuable, why were creatures who were able to develop it not able fairly soon to go further, to invent more specialized versions?
Some possible explanations:

1. The hand-axe users were not capable of the level of social cooperation that would have made more specialized tools work better.

2. The hand-axe users were very limited in their ability to learn new skills, so that in effect, to develop new tools would require giving up old ones. This seems unlikely since hand-axe users in fact seemed to flourish in a variety of different environments which would have required some specialized learning, though perhaps of a different kind than tool-making.

3. The hand-axe users had a very limited capability of passing on skills. This could have been partly due to cultural limitations, and partly due to genetic limitations. Thus a cultural limitation would simply mean that better modes of cultural transmission, while biologically feasible, simply hadn’t been invented yet. One such limitation might have been that fathers, though nearby during the raising of their offspring, had not yet gotten involved in teaching anything to them, or in effect being directly responsible at all for raising them, except possibly by offering protection and perhaps some nourishment, perhaps indirectly. (Sorry for all the qualifications, which wouldn’t be here if I had more recently in mind what our apish relatives do and what the fossil records might show. Evidently, orangutan males play little role at all in raising the young; male gorillas, from my own zoo observations, do little also, and from what I remember of Jane Goodall’s work, male chimps also do little. On the other hand, also from my own zoo observation, male siamangs seem to play a role equal to that of females in raising their young. Thus it is certainly not beyond the general ape pattern for human males to be involved in raising their young, and in so doing, to pass on culture if any, but it seems very possible that until quite late among proto-humans, this didn’t happen.

4. It is also possible that while the proto-humans in question could have invented more techniques – that is that their brains were complex enough to handle this easily — a kind of conservatism about preserving existing behaviors and not diluting them with new ones prevailed. We know that a strong degree of conservatism prevails among most humans today, and is particularly marked among children of about four(?), at least in certain matters, such as rules of games, gender roles, or eating patterns. And then again among many old people. It could be that the intermediate period of exploration and adventuresomeness was a later development for proto-humans. That would raise the question of how the hand-axe revolution happened in the first place, but one can imagine scenarios in which, for a small group, conservatism broke down, the revolution in tool-making took place, and then through contact or interbreeding with a larger group, the prevailing conservatism was re-established, but now with the hand axe as an exception.

5. But perhaps most likely is that once the hand axe was in use, further innovation would have required a denser population, to permit the necessary division of labor, on the one hand, and on the other to allow enough innovation to occur and be passed on successfully to enough “early adopters.”

I shall return in future to the question this raises about why population might have stayed below the innovation limit for so long.

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