Good to Occasionally Consider “What If?”

Everyone would be smart to consider “what if?” — especially where their beliefs and assumptions are concerned.

While it’s not healthy to dwell on it until the thought paralyzes you, “what if I’m wrong?” is essential if you like being correct.

What if I’m wrong about everything I believe? There are those who believe I am. Are they right?

What if it really were possible to change an unethical act into an ethical one just by writing some words saying it’s now OK? What if you call those words “legislation” or “the law?”

What if a group has the right to gang up and violate the life, liberty, property of others as long as they follow rules they’ve made up? Can such a right be created with rules? What if they call the act of ganging up “voting” or “governing?”

What if it’s actually OK to use violence against people who aren’t harming others? What if you call this violence “enforcing the law” and say you don’t make the laws, you just enforce them; shifting the blame to others? Is it OK as long as you pretend the people themselves are to blame for the legislation being violently imposed against them?

What if it’s OK to take other people’s property without their explicit consent? You could call it “taxation,” “fines,” asset forfeiture, or eminent domain. What if you don’t completely steal the property, but only steal its value to the owner through acts you call “code enforcement” or “zoning?”

What if you really do have the right to control what others ingest? What if you call it a war on drugs instead of admitting it’s a war on sick people?

What if it’s ethical to prohibit or ration self-defense and the tools that are most effective for that purpose? What if you claim it’s about safety or crime?

What if working for government does give a person extra rights others can’t have? Would it change anything if they call it “authority” instead of a right?

What if it’s OK to be dishonest about what you do as long as you mean well? Never mind the real-world consequences, your intentions are what matter. Right?

Would this be a society you’d want to live in? It wouldn’t be for me. In fact, I wouldn’t call it a society except in the loosest sense.

I might be wrong. Any of us might be. When you’re willing to consider the possibility you could be wrong, real thinking begins.

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Don’t Scare Kids with Political Fears

I remember the panic I felt about tornado warnings as a child. It didn’t matter whether my family was in danger; I wasn’t informed enough to know whether we were. I didn’t understand that worry isn’t helpful, and I wasn’t able to change things. There was nothing meaningful I could do.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve heard of local children scared that World War III had begun. They’ve overheard adults talking about it and were worried. I did my best to explain things and calm the fears of one kid; hopeful that she’d calm her friends.

It would be great if adults would stop acting like scared children; overreacting about politics, science, and other things they don’t understand as well as they imagine they do.

This pattern repeats both locally and on a global scale.

In recent months an angry Swedish teen gained attention because she believes the planet is being destroyed by carbon dioxide. She’s scared … and she blames you.

All because she has been shown one side of a debate by people who don’t want dissent. Their political agenda — their power and position — depends on the narrative going a particular way. She is being used as their political pawn.

I’m not even claiming she’s necessarily wrong. Regardless of what you’ve been told, no one knows. Climate predictions about the long-term are not much better than a guess. But the way she has been frightened and used is wrong without question. Do you really want to ruin a young person’s life based on speculation?

Political events may even be worse. To pretend you know for certain that one politician having another politician killed is going to cause a world war — and scaring children with this kind of talk — is irresponsible. Or worse.

If you want to worry, go ahead. But to scare kids with this kind of thing isn’t right.

I’m not saying to keep them ignorant. You can discuss the facts without sharing scary doomsday conclusions.

It’s different to educate a kid on the dangers of getting into a stranger’s car. They have control over this. None of us can save or destroy the planet, and politicians are going to do what politicians do. In fact, you can’t be certain which path results in destruction and which one comes out better in the long run. You can guess. You can apply your beliefs. But you can’t know.

To scare children over things no one can know for certain is child abuse.

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Crazy People Work on the Most Interesting Stuff

Think of the most exciting possible inventions and discoveries you can imagine.

Deep space travel. Telepathy. Wireless electricity. Anti-gravity. Cold fusion. Terraforming. etc.

If you poke around YouTube or podcasts or badly designed websites, you’ll find people working on them. Devoting years to research and experimentation. You’ll notice their passion and conviction. But you’ll also notice something else: most of them are kinda crazy. Whether or not they are discovering anything true, you suspect they would be the last people on earth capable of bringing their idea to market or even credibly explaining it outside their niche circles.

But if you poke around places full of high achieving people with sharp minds, big vision, and lots of ability, you won’t hear them say stuff like, “I’m working on faster than light travel. I think the current model of physics is all wrong, and I suspect it’s possible so I want to prove it.”

Most of the best, most respected minds seem to be employed on the more mundane stuff. Sure, they’re doing cool valuable stuff (except when they go into politics), but how often does it question the most fundemental assumptions?

We know so very little about reality. We don’t even know what we don’t know, or whether what we know is actually true. And the most fundamental stuff – the nature and origin of the universe, our planet, our species, the basic rules of the physical strata, consciousness, death and beyond – is the stuff most of us spend the least time on.

Except the crazy people. They live there.

Part of the crazy label comes because they are working on this stuff. To examine widely accepted beliefs is often considered crazy. Part of the label is because most of the time these people are crazy. So it feeds itself. People who don’t know how to be normal are more likely to go into crazy stuff because they have less to lose. The more they do, the more the belief that “only crazy people study that” is re-enforced and better minds are repelled.

I’m not trying to place blame or cast judgement. I’m trying to understand this phenomenon. It’s the same thing that causes most conversations with neighbors and acquaintances to be so boring. Most of us – myself included – are not willing to dive into crazy stuff most of the time. If your reputation is shot, say, because you’re crazy, it’s easier.

Conformity is a powerful force. I try to do a little something every day to combat it. A world of crazy questions is much more interesting than a world of probably wrong answers no one wants to talk about.

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Iraq: America’s Other “Longest War”

As the calendar prepares to flip from 2019 to 2020, protesters stormed the US embassy in Baghdad.  As I write this, the action — a response to US airstrikes in Iraq and Syria which killed at least 25 and wounded more than 50 — hasn’t yet become a reprise of the Iran hostage crisis of 40 years ago, but it’s eerily reminiscent.

Although few Americans seem to notice, Iraq is arguably the second-longest war in US history.

Mainstream media often refer to the 18-year US occupation of Afghanistan as “America’s longest war.” That claim is wrong on its face.

Setting aside a century of “Indian wars” and two decades of involvement in Vietnam prior to the 1965 escalation, the Korean War handily takes the “longest war” prize:  It began in 1950 and has merely been in ceasefire status, with occasional flare-ups and no final settlement, since 1953. If wars were people, the Korean War would be collecting Social Security.

The US war in Iraq is approaching its 28th birthday, also with no end in sight.

It began in January of 1991 with Operation Desert Storm (“the liberation of Kuwait” from Iraqi occupation). The 12 years between that “mother of all battles” and the 2003 US invasion were punctuated by US bombings to facilitate a Kurdish secession movement in the north,  protect persecuted Shiites in the south, and provide convenient distractions from assorted Clinton administration peccadilloes.

Following the short, sharp conventional fighting phase of the invasion, the war remained a very hot conflict — a combination of civil war and anti-occupation insurgency — for years following US president George W. Bush’s “mission accomplished” announcement in May of 2003.

A brief cooling period accompanied Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, but by 2014 American troops (and “civilian contractors,” i.e mercenaries) were once again arriving to intervene in the new regime’s fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The airstrikes which sparked the current protests were carried out in response to a rocket attack on a regime military base in which one of the aforementioned American mercenaries was killed.

The bigger picture:

The US government is using Iraq as a staging area for its ongoing actions in Syria and against Iran (which it blames for this specific rocket attack and for its backing of militias in Iraq in general).

US president Donald Trump talks a good “let’s get out of all these stupid wars” game. But in actuality he has increased, and continues to increase, the size of US military deployments to, and the tempo of US military operations in, the Middle East and Central Asia.

Several thousand US troops remain in Iraq and the war looks likely to stretch into a fourth decade.

There is, of course, an alternative: Trump could put his money where his mouth is and begin withdrawing US troops from the region instead of continuing to pour American blood and treasure into a series of conflicts which should never have happened in the first place.

Peace on Earth? Maybe not. But the US going home and minding its own business would be a good start.

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Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies

I’ve easily read a hundred books on the evils of socialism.  I was quite surprised, then, by how much I learned from Kristian Niemietz’s Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies, available for free download.  Yes, I already knew that socialist regimes go through a popularity sequence, starting at “This socialist regime is a model for the world” and ending with “That’s not real socialism.”  Niemietz, however, describes this sequence with great precision and eloquence:

1. The honeymoon period

The first stage is a honeymoon period, during which the experiment has, or at least seems to have, some initial success in some areas. During this period, its international standing is relatively high. Even anti-socialists concede, grudgingly, that the country in question has something to show for it.

During the honeymoon period, very few dispute the experiment’s socialist character; almost nobody claims that the country is not ‘really’ socialist. On the contrary: during the honeymoon period, large numbers of Western intellectuals enthusiastically embrace the experiment. Self-declared socialists claim ownership of it, and parade it as an example of their ideas in action.

2. The excuses-and-whataboutery period

But the honeymoon period never lasts forever. The country’s luck either comes to an end, or its already existing failures become more widely known in the West. As a result, its international standing deteriorates. It ceases to be an example that socialists hold against their opponents, and becomes an example that their opponents hold against them.

During this period, Western intellectuals still support the experiment, but their tone becomes angry and defensive. The focus changes from the experiment’s supposed achievements to the supposed ulterior motives of its critics. There is a frantic search for excuses, with the blame usually placed on imaginary ‘saboteurs’ and unspecified attempts to ‘undermine’ it. There is plenty of whataboutery.

3. The not-real-socialism stage

Eventually, there always comes a point when the experiment has been widely discredited, and is seen as a failure by most of the general public. The experiment becomes a liability for the socialist cause, and an embarrassment for Western socialists.

This is the stage when intellectuals begin to dispute the experiment’s socialist credentials, and, crucially, they do so with retroactive effect. They argue that the country was never socialist in the first place, and that its leaders never even tried to implement socialism. This is the deeper meaning behind the old adage that ‘real’ socialism has never been tried: socialism gets retroactively redefined as ‘unreal’ whenever it fails. So it has never been tried, in the same way in which, in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, the government of Oceania has always been at war with East Asia.

This is not a conscious process, let alone a purposefully orchestrated one. There is no equivalent of an industrial standards body, which awards a ‘real socialism’ certificate of authenticity, and then withdraws it again with retroactive effect. Socialists do not hold clandestine conferences in secret hideouts; they do not deliberately cover up their former support for the regime in question. They simply fall silent on the issue, and move on to the next cause.

At some point, the claim that the country in question was never ‘really’ socialist becomes the conventional wisdom. Since it is only the opponents of socialism who still refer to that example, while socialists themselves no longer do, it is easy to gain the impression that it must be a straw man argument. This book will show that these alleged ‘straw men’ were all once very much alive. They are not straw men at all. They are the failed utopias of yesteryear.

In short:

The not-real-socialism defence is only ever invoked retrospectively, namely, when a socialist experiment has already been widely discredited. As long as a socialist experiment is in its prime, almost nobody disputes its socialist credentials. On the contrary: practically all socialist regimes have gone through honeymoon periods, during which they were enthusiastically praised and held up as role models by plenty of prominent Western intellectuals. It is only after the event (i.e. once they have become an embarrassment for the socialist cause) that their version of socialism is retroactively redefined as ‘unreal’.

Niemietz then provides long list of case studies of self-labelled socialist regimes.  The two biggest examples – Soviet Union and Maoist China – fit his sequence to a tee.  So do North Korea, Cambodia, Albania, and Venezuela.  The chapter on the latter was especially eye-opening for me.  Choice passages:

Chávez defined his version of socialism explicitly in opposition to previous models. This was not empty rhetoric. Under Chavismo, there were genuine attempts to create alternative models of collective ownership
and democratic participation in economic life. In particular, the formation of worker cooperatives and various forms of social enterprises was heavily promoted. Exact figures are hard to come by, but, according to Piñeiro Harnecker (2009: 309), the number of worker-run cooperatives increased from fewer than 1,000 when Chávez was first elected to well over 30,000 in less than a decade. By the end of Chávez’s second term, cooperatives accounted for about 8 per cent of Venezuela’s GDP and 14 per cent of its workforce (ibid.).

Venezuelan socialism would later show many of the negative features associated with earlier forms of socialism, but it was never government policy to replicate any of those earlier models. When Western Chavistas insisted that the Venezuelan government was trying to create a different model of socialism, they were not deluding themselves.

At that point, the tone among Western Chavistas changed noticeably. Pro-Venezuela articles, which had so far tended to be hopeful and optimistic, became angry and defensive. The emphasis shifted from the supposed achievements of Chavismo to whataboutery, and to questioning the motives of Chavismo’s critics both in Venezuela and internationally.

In 2014, Owen Jones wrote an article for the Independent entitled ‘Socialism’s critics look at Venezuela and say, “We told you so”. But they are wrong’. Jones acknowledges the existence of ‘recent economic troubles’, but the emphasis of the article is on the problems of the pre-Chávez era (‘let’s have some context’), and on the violence committed by parts of the opposition. It culminated in the claim that ‘[t]hose who relish using Venezuela’s troubles for political point-scoring have no interest in the truth’.

Since this is a high-quality book, Niemietz searches for counter-examples to his own thesis, and identifies two.  Cuba doesn’t fit because after decades of tyranny, many socialists still admire it.  East Germany doesn’t fit because it never had much of a honeymoon period.  Overall, though, these are minor deviations.  The socialist big picture is at once bizarre and horrifying, especially as so many young people negligently convert to this once-dying creed.

P.S. This spring I’ll once again be debating “Capitalism vs. Socialism,” this time at the University of Wisconsin versus Brian Leiter of the University of Chicago.

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Afghanistan: Oh, When Will We Ever Learn?

“U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign,” the Washington Post‘s Craig Whitlock reports, “making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.”

Whitlock bases that claim on a collection of candid, confidential interviews with more than 400 military and political “insiders” conducted by Congress’s Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

Not that we really needed “The Afghanistan Papers” to tell us the war was unwinnable.  That was clear from the beginning.  Any mission beyond quick strikes on al Qaeda’s facilities and operators in Afghanistan was doomed to failure.

The idea of taking over the country and making it into a “western democracy” was transparent foolishness. More than one empire has foundered on the rock that is Afghanistan, and the American military adventure there was never going to be the exception.

Nor do “The Afghanistan Papers” tell us anything else we shouldn’t have already known. They merely confirm a lesson we should have learned nearly 50 ago.

In 1971, the New York Times published  the Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force, better known as “The Pentagon Papers.”

That report, leaked to the press by American hero Daniel Ellsberg, revealed (in the words of the Times‘s R.W. Apple) “that the Johnson Administration had systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress,” about the progress and prospects of the US war in Vietnam.

Sound familiar?

War is always ugly. Optional and prolonged wars with nebulous objectives are always built on lies — lies stacked sky-high atop one another for no other purpose than to keep the ugliness going for as long as possible.

Why?

The prettiest answer, and it’s not pretty, is that generals and politicians hate to admit defeat. They can always be relied upon to convince themselves — and try to convince us — that “a corner has been turned” and that “there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” at least until they’ve managed to bequeath the losses to, and blame the losses on, their successors.

The uglier answer is that war is profitable all around for politicians who want to be re-elected, officers who want to be promoted, and “defense” contractors who want to sell more guns, more bombs, more planes, more everything.

It’s not so good for the rest of us, though.

At a conservative estimate, the US government has burned through more than a trillion dollars dragging out the fiasco in Afghanistan. You’re on the hook for that bar tab.

And you’re getting off easy. More than 3,500 “coalition” troops, most of them Americans, and somewhere between 100,000 and half a million Afghans (depending on whose figures you believe) have paid with their lives.

Next time the politicians want to drum up or continue an optional war, they’ll tell us the same lies they told us this time, and last time, and the time before that.

We’ve got to stop believing those lies.

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