Some Men Just Want to Watch Mexico Burn

In the introduction to La Vida, famed anthropologist Oscar Lewis unfavorably compares Puerto Rico to Mexico:

But perhaps the crucial difference in the history of the two countries was the development of a great revolutionary tradition in Mexico and its absence in Puerto Rico.  Puerto Ricans sought greater autonomy from Spain during the nineteenth century, but they were never able to organize a revolutionary struggle for their freedom, and the single attempt along this line, at Lares, was short-lived and never received mass support.  By contrast the Mexicans fought for their independence from Spain between 1810 and 1821, drove out the French in 1866 and later produced the great revolution of 1910-20 with its glorious ideals of social justice.  In the course of these struggles great heroes emerged, men who have become symbols of the Mexican spirit of revolution and independence.

La Vida was published in 1965, just 45 years after the end of the Mexican Revolution.  Lewis personally knew many Mexicans who lived through it.  But what actually happened during this “great revolution” with its “glorious ideals of social justice”?  The best paper I could find on the topic is Robert McCaa’s 2003 paper “Missing Millions: The Demographic Costs of the Mexican Revolution” (Mexican Studies 19, pp.367-400).  After a detailed review of earlier estimates, McCaa deploys new techniques to reach a grim conclusion:

The human cost of the Revolution was paid mainly in blood. Of a total demographic cost of 2.1 million, excess deaths accounted for two-thirds,  lost births one-fourth, and emigration considerably less than one-tenth of the total… The best two-sex inverse projection to 1930, taking into account the age and sex distribution of the population in that year,  points to some 3 million missing as of 1921. Census error in the 1921 enumeration reduces this figure by 1 million. Two-thirds of the remainder was due to one factor: excess mortality (1.4 million deaths), with 350,000 more male deaths than female. Lost births were substantially less at 550 thousand. Smaller still, at less than 10 percent of the total loss, was emigration to the United States, with the persisting number of male “refugees,” generously defined, slightly more than 100,000, and females about three-fourths of this figure.

The basic history of the Mexican Revolution, moreover, was hardly “heroic”:

[O]nly six months passed between Francisco I. Madero’s pronouncement of revolution (November 20, 1910) and the overthrow of the old dictator Porfirio Díaz. The resignation of Díaz came in late spring 1911 and was accomplished with little violence or destruction. The fighting scarcely began until 1911… Victory at Ciudad Juárez came to the revolutionaries on May 10, 1911, after a siege lasting only a couple of days… Although the fall of Díaz was achieved due to uprisings throughout the republic, the cost of the Revolution, to this point, was probably only a few thousand deaths.

The real fighting began as the revolutionaries trained their weapons on one another over the course of the following six years… Zapata, having waited four months to rebel against the hated Díaz, did not allow four weeks to pass before rebelling against the enormously popular Madero. In late November 1911, Zapata, “tired of waiting” for Madero to carry through an agrarian revolution, according to the conventional view, denounced Mexico’s first democratically elected president by proclaiming the Plan of Ayala. Yet, until 1912, Zapatistas did not pose a serious threat to the Madero government. Elsewhere regional bands (and bandits), some with plans, others without, escalated the plundering of the countryside, hamlets, and towns. As is well known, within two years of Díaz’s resignation the nation slid into chaos…

With the assassination of Madero on February 21, 1913 –- probably on the order of the Madero-appointed commander in chief of the federal army, Victoriano Huerta—civil war erupted. The usurper proved incapable of suppressing the many revolts… [A]fter the failure of the Convention of Aguascalientes to resolve the differences of regional warlords, an even bloodier phase of the Revolution began, as, once again, the victors turned on one another.The year 1915 was the year of hunger. Marauding bands destroyed the few crops that were sown, many before they could be harvested. Destruction continued into 1916, although with the defeat of the northern chieftain Pancho Villa at the Battle of Celaya in April 1915, the violence began to wane, however slowly. Devastation was made worse by the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918/19, to be examined in detail below.

McCaa thoughtfully concludes:

Given the magnitude of the human losses caused by the Mexican Revolution, the silence of some scholars and disbelief by others is surprising…

For the Americas, both North and South, the Mexican Revolution was the greatest demographic catastrophe of the twentieth century. From a millennial perspective,the human cost of the Mexican Revolution was exceeded only by the devastation of Christian conquest, colonization, and accompanying epidemics, nearly four centuries earlier.

How then could as knowledgeable a scholar as Lewis credulously praise the sordid bloodbath that was the Mexican Revolution?  As a Marxist, he was obviously predisposed to positivity.  His gushing, however, would probably resonate with many non-Marxists, too.

What possesses anyone to so gush?  One could say, “You can’t make huevos rancheros without breaking eggs.  The war was tragic, but the results were great.”  Since we’re talking about Mexico, though, this seems absurd.  Sure, it’s a middle-income country, but violence remains a grave problem to this day.  And given its proximity to the U.S., gravity alone should have turned it into a peaceful, First World country by now.  The legacy of the Mexican Revolution is one of the better explanations for why this transformation has yet to happen.

In any case, people who admire revolutions rarely bother with counterfactual history.  What excites them is revolution itself.  Revolution is romantic.  The vision of tearing down the wickedness of the world, serving wrong-doers their just deserts, charging barricades with our brave leaders, and building a better world on top of the ashes is a thrilling story.  Counting corpses and asking, “What was it all for?,” in contrast, is a real downer.

If you share this romantic vision, you might even welcome my analysis: “Yes, I’m inspired by revolutionary idealism.  At least they tried.”  Yet calmly considered, this romantic vision is inexcusable.  Launching a bloody war without even asking, “How likely is this war to improve the world?” is as “romantic” as drunk driving at a playground.  Giving revolutionaries credit for “trying” is ridiculous.  If you combine brutality with wishful thinking about the consequences, your real goal isn’t to make those consequences a reality.  Your real goal is just to exercise brutality.

So why did Lewis gush over the Mexican Revolution?  Batman’s butler got it right: “Well, because he thought it was good sport. Because some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”  I’ve learned a lot from Lewis, but the less real-world influence people like him have, the better.

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The Peace of Mind in Probabilistic Thinking

I’m a big believer in agnosticism. (See what I did there?)

There are so many things that don’t require a strong opinion or position, and don’t warrant dying.

It’s very stressful to be confronted with questions and claims about culture, physics, politics, psychology, health, economics, history, ethics, aesthetics, and philosophy and feel the need to have a clear answer. Especially when answers immediately get interpreted as sides and you’ll get lumped in with some tribal collective blob and be associated with whatever bundle of biases they may have, real or imagined. It’s like behind every possibility lurks a mob shouting, “Are you with us or against us?!”

This is bad for curiosity, learning, and fun.

Besides having fewer opinions and focusing on individuals instead of collectives, another way I’ve found relief from relentless pressure to pick is to think in probabilities instead of binaries.

“Do you think eating gluten is bad for you?” is the kind of question that makes you feel a bit uneasy. You know about the weird tribes in this debate and don’t want to be in them. Still, maybe you’re interested in the topic for yourself or as a general curiosity. If you’re not content with, “I don’t know”, try assigning probability.

“I think there’s a high probability that too much gluten is one cause of my digestive problems” is way more relaxing. You don’t have to give up the examination. You don’t have to stay out of the conversation entirely. But you distance yourself from binary conclusions and tribes, individualize your opinion, and leave open the possibility that your sliding scale of probability can change with more information.

You can’t fake it though. If deep down you’re a hard-liner (which is not all bad in every situation, just very, very dangerous), pretending to be probabilistic to seem sophisticated will only make you more stressed. If you can begin to unwind the reactive need to pick a yes/no and assign probabilities, you will find a release of tension and an expansion of curiosity. You may even be able to read Twitter debates with a smile instead of rage!

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Chelsea Manning: No Good Deed Goes Unpunished Again

One of the 21st century’s greatest heroines is behind bars again, held in contempt by federal judge Claude M. Hilton for refusing to help prosecutors trump up charges against the journalists who published information she paid dearly for giving them.

Chelsea Manning spent more than six years in prison —  854 days of it in pretrial confinement, violating the military’s “speedy trial” maximum of 120 days — for the fake “crime” of showing the American people evidence of actual crimes committed in our name by the US government.

President Barack Obama commuted her sentence three days before he left the White House. That, however, turned out not to be the end of her mistreatment at official hands.

Manning, who testified about  her interactions with WikiLeaks during her illegal 2013 court-martial, refuses to do so again before a grand jury targeting WikiLeaks and its founder/leader, Julian Assange, for their work in bringing hidden truth to light. Under Hilton’s order, she may be held for up to 18 months, or until the grand jury’s term ends, or until she gives in. Her history says she won’t do that.

Grand juries usually function in harness to the wishes of prosecutors. A defense lawyer famously told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle in 1979 that “the district attorney could get the grand jury to indict a ham sandwich if he wanted to.”

But in actuality, grand juries enjoy sweeping powers to look beyond what prosecutors show them. Should that ham sandwich — or that prosecutor — happen to attract their negative notice, they can indict the sandwich, or the prosecutor, whether the prosecutor likes it or not.

Federal prosecutors and judges are weaponizing the grand jury system to attack freedom of the press and freedom of information in support of a fortunately dying ethic of government secrecy. This particular grand jury should punish that behavior instead of rewarding it.

The grand jury should indict federal prosecutors Tracy Doherty-McCormick (who represented the government at the contempt hearing) and Gordon D. Kromberg (who requested the Manning subpoena) as well as their bosses for, among other crimes, conspiracy against rights (US Code 18, Section 241) and deprivation of rights under color of law (US Code 19, Section 242).

In the meantime, those who value truth, justice, and the American way owe Chelsea Manning a massive debt. One way to partially repay that debt is to contribute to her legal fund at https://actionnetwork.org/fundraising/chelsea-manning-needs-legal-funds-to-resist-a-grand-jury-subpoena. I hope you’ll join me in doing so.

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Don’t Panic: The Retail Apocalypse Isn’t Disaster, It’s Progress

In the first week of March, big retail chains announced more than 1,100 planned store closings. That, writes Hayley Peterson at Insider, brings the number of planned US store closings for 2019 to more than 5,300.

The Retail Apocalypse is here, and it has consequences.  Including, reports Krystal Hu for Yahoo! Finance, 41,000 retail jobs cut in January and February.

Yet the US economy recorded a net gain of 20,000 total jobs each in January and February, its 101st straight month of job gains.

The economy is slowing down a bit, and we don’t know yet what consumer spending looked like for January (the Commerce Department was delayed in issuing that report by the federal “shutdown”), but people haven’t stopped and won’t stop buying food, clothing, electronics, etc. Many Americans are tightening their belts for various reasons, but that on its own doesn’t explain the Retail Apocalypse.

What does explain it? Progress.

Nearly 30 years after it became widely publicly accessible, the Internet is in the final stages of killing off physical retail as we once knew it. But it’s not killing the economy.

How much stuff do you buy from Amazon or other online retailers (some of them formerly entirely brick and mortar establishments) that you used to have to hunt down in a physical store?

If your family is anything like mine, the answer is “a lot.” And your needs are met, more conveniently and often at lower prices, by a few humans packing boxes in warehouses instead many humans stocking helves, assisting customers, dragging items over price scanners, and bagging them.

Even if you pick your purchases up at a physical store, there’s a fair chance you ordered them online and had them waiting for you when you arrived.  More convenient for you, less labor required at the seller’s end. I’ve done that twice in the last 24 hours.

At some point in the early 20th century, if the reporting mechanisms we have today had existed, we’d have read panicked  accounts of the Horse and Buggy Apocalypse. The automobile caught on.  Purchases of  surreys with the fringe on top plummeted. People in old industries had to find new jobs. But everyone benefited as it got faster, easier, and cheaper to move people and things around.

In the last few decades we’ve experienced Fax Machine Apocalypses (thanks, email), Album on Vinyl and Cassette Apocalypses (thanks, CDs, MP3s, and streaming media), and a thousand other changes of direction in what we buy and how we buy it.

The world didn’t end.

The current “apocalypse” won’t end it either.

Yes, this next model of commerce will mean difficult transitions for some workers and companies, along with other social dislocations we haven’t noticed or even thought of yet.

But if past performance is indicative of future results, it will also mean we get more of the stuff we need, more new stuff we didn’t even know we wanted, cheaper and faster, along with new opportunities.

Change is scary. But it’s also inevitable. And usually for the better.

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Wish List Politics: Green No Deal

The word of the month for the Democratic Party’s would-be 2020 presidential nominees is “aspirational.”

“The Green New Deal? I see it as aspirational,” US Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) told Fox News on February 12. She would vote for the resolution introduced by US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and US Senator Ed Markey (D-MA), but ” if it got down to the nitty-gritty of an actual legislation, as opposed to, ‘Oh, here’s some goals we have’ — uh, that would be different for me.”

Washington governor Jay Inslee echoed Klobuchar on March 1 as he announced his own candidacy, calling the Green New Deal an “aspirational document” and promising his own proposals on climate change.

“Aspirational” is another of saying that the Green New Deal isn’t a real legislative proposal. It’s just a feel-good wish list of things its proponents think Americans want and want us to believe they want too. It’s not legislation aimed at actually making those things happen.

The resolution asserts “a sense of” Congress, “[r]ecognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal.” If the resolution passed, it wouldn’t create any “deal.” It would just assure Americans that those who passed it really, really want to do so.

It’s full of stuff most people would probably like to see: Prosperity and economic security for all people, clean air and water, healthy food, justice and equity, high-quality health care, adequate housing, just about everything good and desirable except for free ice cream and ponies (perhaps Ocasio-Cortez should have called in Vermin Supreme to consult).

But that’s only half of a “deal” (per Oxford Dictionaries, “an agreement entered into by two or more parties for their mutual benefit, especially in a business or political context”).

If we get all that good stuff, what do we give up for it?

The resolution calls, fuzzily,  for “a new national, social, industrial, and economic mobilization on a scale not seen since World War II and the New Deal,” but it doesn’t advertise that as a cost. It calls such a “mobilization” an “opportunity” and claims that its named predecessors “created the greatest middle class that the United States has ever seen.”

In reality, FDR’s “New Deal” stretched the Great Depression out for years (as of 1940, the unemployment rate was still nearly twice that of 1930), and World War Two diverted  more than 16 million Americans away from productive employment to “employment” which killed nearly half a million of them.

What produced “the greatest middle class that the United States has ever seen” was luck of location: At the end of the war, the US was the only world power with its industrial plant still largely intact, its factories being located beyond enemy bomber range. The economic impact of the “mobilizations” themselves was to keep people poor, dependent on government, and willing to be ordered around by the likes of FDR.

The “mobilization”  the  resolution calls for would likely turn out the same way. Lots of sacrifice, little benefit.

Sorry, Alexandria and Ed: No “deal.”

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Death is Not the Ultimate Sacrifice

Reputation is.

TK Coleman told me about a Catholic Saint who faced martyrdom if she did not publicly deface a crucifix.

(I should mention, a few minutes on Google and I couldn’t find the specifics of the story. It’s possible it’s different than what I remember from TK, but for purposes of this post, that’s irrelevant. The way TK told it stuck with me and illustrates something powerful.)

Being a saint, wholly devoted to Christ and focused on a heavenly kingdom, she was ready and willing to be a martyr for her beliefs.

But that was too easy.

At the moment she faced the decision of death or defacement, she heard the voice of God tell her step on the face of the crucified Christ. She, a devoted Christian, was asked by God there, in front of everyone, to disrespect the cross. She was asked to make the ultimate sacrifice.

She claimed an unwavering devotion to God come what may. Death may not have been enough to make her turn away, but would the protection of her reputation?

This story presents an uncomfortable set of questions.

It’s easy to deceive ourselves into believing we have unwavering devotion to something. We’d suffer poverty, pain, even death. But part of the reason we feel ready for them is because they are viewed as heroic by others.

The real test of commitment to a person, plan, or ideal is what the Saint faced. Would she do the thing she knew was right despite the fact that every single other person would view it as vile? Would she choose holiness even if it meant everyone else for all of history would see her as unholy?

You are willing to die, but are you willing to be misunderstood?

You can imagine versions of this today. Pick the thing you are willing to sacrifice anything for. A belief. Your family. A goal. It’s not too hard to imagine suffering or dying for it. In fact, imagining it can make you feel proud.

Now imagine doing something for it that you know with every fiber of your being is right and true, but no one else can or ever will. In fact, everyone else will forever misinterpret your actions as the worst possible kind. History will make you one of its villains.

Would you do what you know is right even if it meant you were forever thought by everyone to be a loser, a liar, a coward, a scoundrel, or the most perverted and disgusting criminal imaginable?

Scary stuff.

This thought exercise is one of the best I know of to discover the gaps between who we are, who we say we are, and who we want others to think we are.

I die a little ego death just thinking through it.

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