Not a Fan of Artificial Divisions

I’m not a fan of the trend on social media to create artificial divisions to pit people against each other. A recent example is the condescending remark “OK boomer.”

This phrase is commonly used against anyone assumed to be a “baby boomer,” or who simply isn’t as “progressive” and “enlightened” as those weaned on “social justice” might prefer.

If someone points out problems with socialism, with basing legislation on sexual identity issues, with climate change prescriptions to be imposed on society through the “New Green Deal,” or with other topics that have been politicized, they are likely to be dismissed with this comment.

As if they are cute for being too old and backward to be taken seriously.

Why encourage this type of division? There are endless ways to categorize and divide people: generations, races, sexes, Democrat and Republican. Those who crave more control will back whichever side begs for more legislation. They will encourage them to fight and ridicule anyone who opposes handing government more control.

It’s why government loved “Baby Boomers” as long as they were useful — begging for more government programs and spending — but was happy to throw them under the bus when a new generation began to beg for “social justice” legislation the older generation saw as going too far.

“Social justice” was too good an excuse for more government control; it couldn’t be ignored.

Climate change seems to be an equally popular excuse.

Government supremacists seek to divide and conquer with whatever divisions can be imagined, created, magnified, or exaggerated.

The truth is, it’s not “Republican versus Democrat,” Baby Boomer against Generation Z, “black” against “white,” male versus female versus whatever else you imagine exists. It has always come down to those who want people to be herded, numbered, controlled, governed, and enslaved against those who recognize the equal and identical rights of all humanity and the liberty that comes from this truth.

It has always been the rulers against the people.

Increased government power depends on hiding truth from you. It depends on giving you imaginary enemies to keep you too flustered to realize who your real enemy is.

Instead of dividing, I try to support anyone I think is right, even if I am hard on them when they are wrong. I don’t fault people for who they are; only for what they do when what they do violates the liberty of others.

I’d much rather explain my reasons in either case than to dismiss people with an intentionally condescending catchphrase.

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The Fatal Weakness of the God of Cynicism

We live in a culture of overpowering cynicism.

We assume the media is bending truth. We assume people won’t speak their full minds to our faces. We assume companies, organizations, and governments will try to pull one over on us. We assume love, friendship, and honor are hollow ideals.

As products of this overpowering cynicism, we tend to view sincerity as impractical. And so we hardly ever encounter it.

It would be reasonable to view the rarity of sincerity as evidence of its weakness. That would be a mistake. To a culture of overpowering cynicism, sincerity is now rare enough to have the strategic advantage of being a surprise.

To tell the truth at risk to your own reputation? To celebrate virtue? To say what you think to someone’s face? No one expects this behavior anymore, and so it is unsettling and difficult to counter.

If you set yourself against a cynical society, your sincerity can be a great advantage.

This relentlessly sincerity can’t be born of naivete. It has to look cynicism straight in the eye and know it. It has to be a sincerity “in spite of” – in spite of the cost of doubt, in spite of excuses, in spite of accusation, in spite of mockery, and in spite of the fact that cynicism is a “safer” and more “realistic” option.

No one will know what to do with a sincerity like that. A sincerity that can persist despite a culture of cynicism unsettles that culture of cynicism. It’s what might start to change things.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Trump versus Iran: Power Doesn’t Just Corrupt, it Deludes

On January 8, US president Donald Trump addressed the American public concerning a casualty-free Iranian missile attack on US bases in Iraq, where just last week Iranian general Qasem Soleimani was killed in a US drone strike.

If the speech was remarkable in any way, it was for the comparative restraint Trump displayed: Rather than pledging another round of tit-for-tat, he announced new sanctions on Iran, vowed that “as long as I’m president of the United States, Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon,” called on NATO to “become much more involved in the Middle East process,” and rambled aimlessly about the “Iran nuclear deal” that his administration abrogated in 2018.

What was unremarkable — and unfortunate — in the speech was the obvious assumption underlying it: That the United States enjoys, and SHOULD enjoy, absolute power in international relations.

Trump is hardly unique in publicly stating, or in operating on, that assumption. The claim of such absolute power has been the tacit US doctrine of foreign relations since at least as far back as the end of World War Two.

America emerged from that war as the world’s sole nuclear power and, unlike other combatant countries, with its wealth virtually unscathed and its industrial capacity increased rather than demolished. Its rulers saw themselves as able, and entitled, to dictate terms to almost everyone, on almost everything.

“Power tends to corrupt,” wrote Lord Acton, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Acton was referring to individuals (“great men are almost always bad men”), but his observation is just as true of institutions. And above and beyond corruption, absolute power creates delusion.

The post-war “consensus” on American power around the world began to fray almost immediately.

The Soviet Union acquired “the bomb” and settled in for half a century of dominating eastern Europe.

The US found itself fought to a draw in Korea and defeated in Vietnam when it tried to throw its newfound weight around.

Even after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the US learned that Michael Ledeen’s re-formulation of the doctrine — “every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business” — tends toward big price tags and negative returns.

Yet the delusion persists. It substitutes hubris for humility, sacrificing the blood and treasure of Americans and foreigners alike on the altar of a false god and in pursuit of an imaginary paradise.

The foreign policy recommended by Thomas Jefferson in his first inaugural address —  “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none” — was, and remains, the common-sense alternative to the nonsensical assumption of absolute American power.

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The Soleimani Assassination: Worse Than a Crime, a Mistake

In March of 1804, French dragoons secretly crossed the Rhine into the German Margraviate of Baden. Acting on orders from Napoleon himself, they kidnapped Louis Antoine de Bourbon, Duke of Enghien. After a hastily convened court-martial on charges of bearing arms against France, the duke was shot.

“C’est pire qu’un crime, c’est une faute,” a French official (supposedly, but probably not, Talleyrand) said of the duke’s execution: “It is worse than a crime, it is a mistake.”

That terse evaluation came immediately to mind when news broke of a January 3 US drone strike at Baghdad International Airport.  Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ “Quds Force,” and nine others, died in the attack. US president Donald Trump claimed responsibility for ordering the strike and has subsequently defended that decision.

The duke’s execution outraged Europe’s aristocrats, and in particular brought Russia’s Alexander I to the conclusion that Napoleon’s power must be checked. The international reverberations created by Soleimani’s assassination are already shaping up in similar fashion.

Yes, Iran’s government is outraged and vows revenge, but that’s not surprising. It would be hard for US-Iran relations to get much worse short of all-out war.

Five of those killed in the strike were Iraqi military personnel from the country’s Popular Mobilization Forces, including their deputy commander, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

Iraq’s outgoing prime minister denounced the strike as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty and  of the US/Iraq Status of Forces Agreement. The speaker of the country’s parliament vowed to “put an end to US presence” in Iraq. Powerful Shiite religious and political figure Muqtada al-Sadr, whose militia forces bedeviled the US occupation after the 2003 invasion, is re-mobilizing those forces to “defend Iraq.”

NATO, the Secretary General of the United Nations, and several leaders of regimes putatively allied with the United States have likewise responded negatively to Soleimani’s assassination.

Trump’s order wasn’t even remotely legal, according to Hoyle, under US law or the 400-year international order since the Peace of Westphalia.

The attack occurred without congressional approval or even notification, let alone the declaration of war that the ever-deteriorating US Constitution requires. Unfortunately, while Congress perpetually rumbles discontent over such things, it’s likely to continue enabling, rather than punish and rein in, such abuses of presidential power.

The attack occurred on the supposedly sovereign soil of a putative ally, killing that ally’s officials and invited guests. While it’s merely an escalation, not a new phenomenon — the previous president, Barack Obama, also claimed and exercised a “right” to murder on foreign soil at will — it’s a significant escalation by a president with fewer and less loyal friends on the global stage.

Whether Trump is “wagging the dog” in an attempt to distract from impeachment, or playing “6D chess” in an attempt to get the US out of Iraq at the demand of the Iraqis themselves (I’ve heard both claims), he’s turning friends against him and currying renewed European sympathy for Iran.

The prospects for peace on Earth have receded significantly since Christmas Day.

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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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The Social Conservatism of Hollywood

[warning: spoilers]

The new Uncut Gems is further evidence for a thesis I’ve long maintained: Contrary to popular opinion, Hollywood makes a lot of socially conservative movies.  When you strip away the glamorous actors and cool music, the message is clear: Live a responsible bourgeois life or you will soon be severely punished.

This is most obvious for hard-boiled crime films.  The lead characters in such stories engage in an array of impulsive, brutal, and parasitical behaviors.  Before the movie ends, almost all of the characters have been shot, stabbed, beaten, imprisoned, or ostracized.   Many are dead, often in grotesquely inventive ways.  Howard Ratner, the lead character in Uncut Gems, repeatedly commits fraud and adultery.  He spins a web of lies and makes high-stakes gambles.  In each scene, he acts on his worst impulses.  For every success his duplicity brings, two failures spring.  When he thinks he’s won, another criminal murders him.  Even if Ratner had survived, though, his dishonesty and lechery would have cost him his family.

The same goes for The Godfather saga, Goodfellas (or any Scorsese crime movie), Pulp Fiction (or any Tarantino crime movie), Fargo (or any Coen brothers crime movie), Snatch (or any Cockney crime movie), as well as Scarface, New Jack City, and Boyz n the Hood.  In crime movies, people who engage in criminal behavior suffer, usually at the hands of their fellow criminals.  If they don’t get you, the cops will.

While crime movies focus on men, their female characters also catch hell.  Women who sleep with criminals – usually against their family’s advice – end up pregnant and abandoned, if not beaten or murdered.  Don Corleone treats his wife with old-world gentility, but she still lives to see her eldest son full of lead.  (Michael, her youngest son, has the filial piety to delay the murder of his elder brother until after her death).

The message of all this cinema: Follow the path of bourgeois virtue.  Work hard, keep the peace, abstain from alcohol, have very few sexual partners, and keep your whole family far away from anyone who lives otherwise.  Think about how many fictional characters would have lived longer if they never set foot in a bar.

Is this the message the writers intend to send?  Unlikely.  Instead, they try to create engrossing stories – and end up weaving morality tales.

True, Hollywood could make movies where criminals are “victims of their toxic social environment.”  It could make movies where the people who face retribution are the self-righteous bourgeoisie who “created toxic social environment in the first place.”  (This is arguably the plot of Natural Born Killers, though that’s giving it too much credit).  Such stories, however, would be sorely lacking in emotional truth.  You can’t credibly depict the life of a criminal without showing his choices; and when you see his choices, you see all the ways he could have done otherwise, “toxic social environment” notwithstanding.

Similarly, you could make crime movies that end before the criminals get their comeuppance.  Yet such stories would be dramatically inert.  If a bank robber gets killed on his eighth heist, audiences want to see heists number 1, 2, and 8.  If the bad guy gets it in the end, who cares about his intermediate successes?  Let’s fast forward to the Day of Reckoning.

Does this mean that Hollywood movies actually crime?  I doubt it.  The viewers most in need of lessons in bourgeois virtue are probably too impulsive to reflect on the moral of the story.  They’re captivated instead by the gunplay and machismo.  Yet if you’re paying attention, the moral of these stories remains: Unless your parents are criminals, listen to your parents.

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